Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Power Of Babel - Review

The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Languages by John McWhorter
In earliest French, there was only one negative marker, ne: Il ne marche “He is not walking.” However, you could reinforce the negation with various expressions conveying the meaning “not one bit,” such as:
“drop” Il ne boit goutte “He doesn’t drink a drop.”

Mie “crumb” Il ne mange mie “He doesn’t eat a crumb”

Along these lines, for walking, you would use pas, the word for “step”:

Pas “step” il ne marche pas He doesn’t walk a step.” (not un pas because indefinite articles had not yet become obligatory).

As time passed, these expression began to lose their snap,…and most of these double-stuff negations fell out of use…With pas no longer contributing any force to the negation, the original sense of pas “step” no longer had any connection with the meaning of such sentences. For this reason, speakers gradually ceased processing pas in these sentences as connoting any concrete concept at all, instead reinterpreting it as just something one must use when negating a sentence involving movement…

People think of linguists in two stereotypes: people who speak a lot of languages, or people who are grammarians. Linguists are much more concerned with how languages change, and how language, brain, and thinking interact. McWhorter focuses on the former. How did Latin turn into French, Spanish, and Italian? Could it have gone differently? Where’s the boundary between a dialect and a language, or between a creole and a pidgin? Where do languages get all those exceptions and extra junk that make them impossible to learn? I learned French in school and can read Proust – what the heck is it that they speak in Paris?

McWhorter’s plan is to illustrate language growth and development with concepts from biological evolution, because we are more familiar with those. It’s not a perfect match, but you can go a long way into unfamiliar territory with the analogies. There are languages we can show are related that look as different as mice and giraffes. There are languages as extinct as a wooly mammoth, which we know only from reconstructed specimens in museums. Hunks of words get worn away, so languages go and borrows hunks of other stuff to put in: tones, conjugations, tenses.

Why do other languages allow double negatives, but English doesn’t?

What is the “nick” in “nickname,” anyway? Who’s “Nick?

There are over six thousand languages – more, if you are a splitter rather than a lumper. Few are written languages, and 96% of humanity speaks one of the 20 largest languages. A hundred years from now, most current languages will likely be extinct or spoken only in stripped-down versions as home languages or preserved regional languages. To McWhorter, this is a great tragedy, as it is to all linguists. The marvelous and fascinating diversity of expression deserves to be preserved for its own sake, they think. As interesting as it all is, I don’t see why. People abandon languages, even ones they speak fluently, because so few people speak it, and those few don’t provide jobs or TV shows. A language you speak only with your parents and their friends, which your spouse speaks less well or not at all, is not one you will pass on to your children very well. And that’s your choice. However much the ancestral language may seem a treasure, place after place, generation after generation, people decide that being able to speak a language that gets you even a crummy job is worth more.

Ignore Chapter Five (of seven). Just because I forced my way through on the hopes there would be something interesting doesn’t mean you have to. If it’s more linguistics than I want, I’m sure it’s more than you want. Also, bail on Chapter Six after a few pages if you don’t like that sort of thing. Don’t skip the Epilogue, however.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

That Tribal Name Again

I had thought the term chattering classes was older. A Dorothy Parker term or something of that era. According to the revised OED entry, however, it dates from 1980.

Most definitions I can dredge up consider the word to be weighted heavily to journalists and other media figures. I don't object to that particularly, but the OED examples from the link above suggest something much more like my Arts & Humanities Tribe/Humanist Class. Maybe this group has had a better name all along.

Fun link, BTW. Don't pass it up.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Change In Iraq

Omar over at Iraq the Model reported over a week ago that Sunni militants were leaving Baghdad rapidly. Last Friday, he reported that after an especially threatening and acrimonious debate in parliament, Baghdad was quiet…too quiet. Over the weekend there has been intense, but very one-sided fighting in several Iraqi cities.

What’s different? A new general bringing a slight modification of approach, and the restatement by the president of a determination to win despite political opposition. Is that it, then?

And the Surge hasn’t even started.

A Different Hillary Problem: Probably Worse

I wrote this a year ago. It may be more true now.

I recall G Gordon Liddy in 1995 or 96 speculating that if Bill Clinton got re-elected, he would move so far to the left that it would make your head spin. That sounded plausible to me at the time, but it didn't turn out that way. Clinton could not stop running for office. He had to keep his poll numbers up, not for any practical reason, but because that's who he was (is). His second term was spent casting about somewhat randomly for a legacy issue, putting out scandals, and not doing anything unpopular.

I forgot, and so did Liddy, that people don't suddenly develop strength of character that late in the day. Bill Clinton did not want to be president in order to accomplish something; he wanted to be president. We already see that in Senator Clinton's attempt to move to the center. It is not that she is too calculating that is the problem. It's that she is only calculating.

A Hillary Clinton presidency would go bad in the same way. Once elected, she would immediately do a few favorite things, then start on something bigger. While she would likely aim lower than nationalized health care, she would nonetheless pick something that would spend most of her political capital. But the specter of re-election would immediately begin to haunt her. She would want a second term more than she would want anything else.

After an initial leftward lurch, a Hillary presidency would be characterized by the same narcissism and drift as her husband's. I think that would be worse than an attempt at focussed liberalism.

Firefly Blinks

We have used the analogy of firefly blinks at our house for many years now…

Fireflies blink in simple patterns to identify to each other who is of the “same kind” for mating. This figures prominently in one of the Madeline L’Engle books, I think Arm of the Starfish, when one (human) character tries to trick another into believing she is of the same kind as him. His sister uses the firefly image to warn him that the girl is not as she seems. Because we have made choice-of-wife a large topic in our family since the boys were small, the question of whether a girl has the right number of firefly blinks has been confined to romantic caution. I think the analogy applies more generally for the tribes, however. People get a sense of how many blinks you have.

The best story we have of this is (of course) Benjamin’s. Years ago he was quite taken with a girl at youth group, and to understand each other better, they agreed to read what had been the other’s favorite book as a child. This must have been Benjamin’s idea, as subsequent discussion revealed that she was not a girl who would ordinarily give, uh, testimony about herself via literary means. Ben chose Watership Down, which he had not so much read as repeatedly absorbed into his personality as a child. (Tangent: now that he is a filmmaker, if they ever remake the movie, Ben’s is the only opinion you will ever need whether you should see it.)

Ben may have suspected something was up, which is why he arranged this game to begin with. The girl asked him to read A Dog Named Kitty. This is not only from the hackneyed genre of noble-canine-croaks, it is a stunningly bad example. The dog does not die in the penultimate chapter, when he successfully fights off a wild something to save a defenseless something. The dog dies pointlessly by accident in the last chapter when a piece of pipeline falls off a truck on him. (Those darn oil companies!).

Cute as she was, the girl clearly did not have the right number of firefly blinks, which Ben reluctantly accepted. John-Adrian observed her lose her temper and hold a grudge over something small a few years later and was grateful the relationship with his brother had gone no deeper. She was not only the wrong subspecies, but a difficult person to boot.

I think the younger boys, who came here from Romania as teenagers, give off very mixed firefly blinks. Good thing they’re handsome, with very sexy accents.

Rosenstock-Huessy and Tribes

Peter Leithart over at has been making frequent reference to Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a German social philosopher who moved to America in 1932, teaching first at Harvard, then many years at Dartmouth. I had never heard of this man in any context that I remember, but he does seem to have been quite brilliant, and quite fascinating.

What little I have read of him to date – all excerpts quoted by others – impresses me as original thinkers often do. I read one comment with approbation and widened eyes; the next furrows my brow and I think “that doesn’t sound quite right;” the third seems tangential to the first two, but plausible; the fourth seems stunning and deep. I am clearly over my head, though I may catch up in time.

Leithart writes at length on Rosenstock-Huessy’s thoughts on tribalism, not in the half-mocking sense I have been using the concept of tribes here, but in the more traditional meaning of a method of social organization. R-H regards tribes as a developmental stage of organization, followed in complexity by the temple, then poetry. The family is the central unit of socialization and preservation to Rosenstock-Huessy, and he comments on the effect of tribal organization on the family.

This occurs only as a man and woman stay with one another through and after a birth: "In nature, animals mate and their young forget who their parents were." Human reproduction occurs when the parents remain past the birth. Marriage thus, Rosenstock-Huessy says, creates a "body of time." This requires that the couple be married in the name of ancestors and that their marriage be public. This is a great act of power on the part of the couple. Two people marrying for love, he says, are unimpressive; it's impressive, though, that "they have forced the community to say that these people are married."

He points out that this has weakened significantly today, where private weddings before JPs are common; they cannot "force upon the community the esteem, the dignity, and the distinction which two people need to have a house of their own, to bring up their children as their own, to bestow upon their children their own name, and to have the authority, for example, to make the religion of their children their own decision." With marriage comes the right of the parents to influence their children, including their children's deepest beliefs. And the erosion of marriage means the erosion of this authority: What gives the parents the right to impose their religion on poor, unsuspecting kids? Parents have lost the power to "consecrate" their children, to give them a direction.

Consecration is a tribal right, and usually a rite. Tribal parents consecrate their children. Christianity does the same, but to the tribal consecration adds a universal note. A baptized child is not merely a member of the tribe, following the path set by the parents, but shares a faith and a path with many outside his own tribe. Strikingly, Rosenstock-Huessy says that European use of biblical names was a brake on tribal nationalism, and that soon after this customary naming ceased Europe fell into massive World Wars.

This leads us to interesting speculations about our modern tribes. What “tatoos” and uniforms are worn by the various tribes to identify themselves to each other? The A&H males used to favor suitcoats with leather elbow patches, accessorized by a pipe and a big dog, but that era is waning. S&T males carried briefcases at an early age, had a slide rule and many pens in a pocket protector, but that has also faded. The military has very specific uniforms, but even off-duty they have identifiers. I once observed two men introduced who each immediately deduced (accurately) that the other was retired career military by his shoes. D.E. Cloutier observed in an earlier post that businessmen use clothing as a marker not just of status, but of membership.

I imagine I will recognise what the tribal markers are for females - at least from my own generation and the one before - once someone points them out to me, but I’m drawing a blank at the moment.

We have used the analogy of firefly blinks at our house for many years now…

Holyoke: The Belle Skinner Legacy, by Jack Dunn -- A Study In Bush Derangement Syndrome

Reprinted entire from last January. Got a lot of comments last time.

I was born in Holyoke, and my brother who lives in Western MA gave me this for Christmas. Just out last month. Autographed. We usually read what we give each other beforehand, but I suspect he didn't read this. He is considerably more liberal than I, and not averse to exposing me to ideas more congenial to him than to me, but he's not flipping nuts. (Update 2019: Though I still don't think my brother is nuts, I now know that he really does have this level of hatred and unreason about those he disagrees with. He is quite sure he knows their motives.)

Holyoke is an historical novel which flicks back and forth between Maggie, a female Kerry worker despondent about the 2004 election, and Belle Skinner, an early feminist and philanthropist from Holyoke. Before getting under weigh, the book has a Dedication, About the Author, Acknowlegements, Author's Note, Prologue, Introduction, and Preface. Not a good sign. But at least he gets right into it in Chapter One: Maggie O'Reilly's brain is home to every treasured, paranoiac, myth about George Bush and the Republicans; so unhinged that I kept expecting a punchline, or a good laugh at herself. Or something.

I quote exactly - this is not a parody. This is not written by a highschooler.
How could Bush have been "re-elected?" Had the elections been rigged or did voters actually want him to be president? Would the world survive another four years of him?

...The excitement she had felt, expecting a new beginning in America, had ended abruptly with the Republican machinery defeating the Democrats. How they had managed it, she still didn't know...In fact, she didn't even believe the elections were valid. Reinforcing her position, she remembered that Kerry had been the clear winner in the exit polls. Again, she wondered why the Democrats had not contested the election. There were some serious questions about the legitimacy of the last two presidential elections, when Bush had been "elected" and then "re-elected." Whether or not the elections had been fixed or the number of votes fabricated, the Republicans had squeaked to victory in key states. They had used computer hardware and software of dubious reliability; and relied on talk-radio and television to increase the level of voter fear and hate, mostly of outsiders and homosexuals. To Maggie, it didn't seem that gay rights should be a main issue for voters.

Those in John Kerry's camp who had anticipated that the Republicans would be this organized and devious, lost out to others who could not see the mind control that Bush's people were employing to get people to believe they were in imminent danger from terrorists and others...They had used God: to get elected, to get their mandate to kill, to gain more power and control and to accumulate more personal wealth. Maggie was still wondering when God had become so heavily involved in this election, and why the Bush people thought they were his chosen representatives on earth, when they were murdering innocent people for oil.

...Most of those working on the Kerry campaign needed to get the system fixed. They needed to stop the new moneymen from stealing from them and diverting their money to the ultra-wealthy, and to war. They had children to feed. With the spiral of effects, from companies cutting jobs and prices soaring, they had no savings left.

It turns out that Maggie attends Mass three times a week - yeah, those folks voted for Kerry in droves, huh? - and is handed a pamphlet by an African-American nun (of course). The nun had been crying over the dead Iraqi children, and of course the pamphlet shows how George Bush broke all the requirements for a Just War.

Knowing that George Bush and his administrators had never, and would never in the future, consider adhering to any of these conditions, Maggie nearly burst into tears too. She suspected that Bush and company did not have the ability to understand complex matters.

Today's question: What would be the evidence that one could reason with either the character Maggie, or the author Jack Dunn?

Discussing The War

Sir James Barrie was master of two types of moment in the theater. He excelled at expressing the poignant, as in Wendy’s goodbye in Peter Pan, and Mr. Dearth speaking to his daughter Margaret for a single night in Dear Brutus. His other great skill was to catch self-important people making fools of themselves, as in The Admirable Crichton, and The Twelve-Pound Look.

Barrie provides both in The Old Lady Shows Her Medals. Mrs. Dowey, a Scots charwoman in London, pretends to her friends to have a son fighting in France in WWI. There is no son, but she carries the charade further, writing to a soldier she has picked at random at the front. He comes angrily to look for her while on leave, and the moment they meet is quite touching.

But first, we watch Mrs. Dowey and the other charwomen making fools of themselves over tea. They are discussing the war and its conduct as if they were knowledgeable in such matters. It would be merely silly if it were not so reminiscent of the comments sections that I encounter online today. Oh yeah, and also the journalists asking questions of politicians; and talking heads doing political commentary. Whenever we make pronouncements about the war, most of us would do well to remember this scene:

Mrs. Twymley is sulking. Evidently some one has contradicted her. Probably the Haggerty Woman.

MRS. TWYMLEY. 'I say it is so.'

THE HAGGERTY WOMAN. 'I say it may be so.'

MRS. TWYMLEY. 'I suppose I ought to know: me that has a son a prisoner in Germany.' She has so obviously scored that all good feeling seems to call upon her to end here. But she continues rather shabbily, 'Being the only lady present that has that proud misfortune.' The others are stung.

MRS. DOWEY. 'My son is fighting in France.'

MRS. MICKLEHAM. 'Mine is wounded in two places.'

THE HAGGERTY WOMAN. 'Mine is at Salonaiky.'

The absurd pronunciation of this uneducated person moves the others to mirth.

MRS. DOWEY. 'You'll excuse us, Mrs. Haggerty, but the correct pronunciation is Salonikky.'

THE HAGGERTY WOMAN, to cover her confusion. 'I don't think.' She feels that even this does not prove her case. 'And I speak as one that has War Savings Certificates.'

MRS. TWYMLEY. 'We all have them.'

The Haggerty Woman whimpers, and the other guests regard her with unfeeling disdain.

MRS. DOWEY, to restore cheerfulness, 'Oh, it's a terrible war.'

ALL, brightening, 'It is. You may say so.'

MRS. DOWEY, encouraged, 'What I say is, the men is splendid, but I'm none so easy about the staff. That's your weak point, Mrs. Mickleham.'

MRS. MICKLEHAM, on the defence, but determined to reveal nothing that might be of use to the enemy, 'You may take it from me, the staff's all right.'

MRS. DOWEY. 'And very relieved I am to hear you say it.'

It is here that the Haggerty Woman has the remaining winkle.

MRS. MICKLEHAM. 'You don't understand properly about trench warfare. If I had a map----'

MRS. DOWEY, wetting her finger to draw lines on the table. 'That's the river Sommy. Now, if we had barrages here----'

MRS. TWYMLEY. 'Very soon you would be enfilided. Where's your supports, my lady?' Mrs. Dowey is damped.

MRS. MICKLEHAM. 'What none of you grasps is that this is a artillery war----'

THE HAGGERTY WOMAN, strengthened by the winkle, 'I say that the word is Salonaiky.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Conspiracies and Blue Hats

The friend who recommended I comment on the tax protestor case in NH was remarkably prescient. After commenting cold on the subject, the real-world situation fell into my lap almost immediately after. (Socially, not professionally, for those who leaped to the wrong conclusion). The son of one of the oft-quoted protestors, who is one of the few trusted friends in contact with the principal who has barricaded himself in his home, is a friend of my sons and I think, a friend of mine as well despite our difference in age. He has been nurtured on the tax-protestor rhetoric, and passed along a DVD for me to watch “with an open mind.”

Well, that lasted about 3 minutes, but there were already enough logical fallacies to send me to the escape key. More fascinating to me is the commonalities of conspiracy theories. They follow patterns – one pattern especially. There are always only a few individuals – sometimes very few – who control and manipulate forces to their own benefit. Sometimes it is the Bavarian Illuminati, sometimes bankers or plutocrats (and Jewish names seem to pop up among the suspects frequently), or the Pope. These individuals work through some larger, though still statistically insignificant, group which in itself manipulates the world – the EU bureaucracy, Freemasons, the Vatican, the New World Order, or often, some combination of these. The few individuals exert enormous control over the small group. The small group exerts enormous control over a larger group. The larger group appears to be in charge of the governments, armies, and markets of the world, but this is all a sham.

There is a fascination with details and small technicalities they think that others have missed, but if known, would blow the whole conspiracy open. The evil forces try to obscure these details or distract us from them, but for those In The Know, the truth is there to see. How these master manipulators are supposed to be able to control everything but overlook just enough details for the alert to save themselves is not explained.

These technicalities also work in reverse. They think if they just send a letter to the government announcing what they’re going to do, if the government doesn’t stop them, it means the government has tacitly agreed. Or they won’t apply for a Social Security card or a driver’s license, because that way they technically haven’t entered into any agreements with the government, and they’re scot free.

Example: a foundational point of the tax protestors is that the Sixteenth Amendment was passed illegally. They base this on slight variations in the texts of the ratification documents of the various states. I mean really small: commas instead of semicolons, different words capitalized such as “States” or “states.” Because the documents were not absolutely identical, then the whole deal is supposed to be legally off. It is as if the tax protestors made up the rule that all laws must mention a blue hat, or they are not real laws. This law does not mention a blue hat, therefore it is not a real law. Well, Who made up that rule? It is the same with the punctuation differences. Who made up the rule that this invalidates the whole deal? There is an additional technicality by which they maintain that Ohio was not “really” a state until 1953 because they didn’t wear blue hats – I’m sorry, because they didn’t send a letter to Congress in 1803 telling them exactly what date they became a state. Not that Congress required states to do that, but the tax protestors made up a rule that without that, Ohio didn’t count as a state in 1913 when the 16th Amendment passed.

No, really. They teach this. The fact that the Sixteenth Amendment was clearly the will of 37 states means nothing. They didn’t wear blue hats, and the whole thing’s illegal. The various court decisions that rule to the contrary don’t count, because the courts are corruptly trying to preserve…something. Somehow having an income tax is a great benefit to judges and lawyers, who were apparently not paid before that. Evil bankers intervened in 1913 to make sure that the amendment looked like it was passed. Because they also benefited somehow. The tax protestors have a little trouble describing the mechanism by which the bankers benefit, but it must be true, right? I mean, there are rich people now, who got rich in ways that they don’t understand and so much be corrupt. It all adds up if you’re willing to face the truth.

It would have looked more like a conspiracy if someone had intervened the opposite way, preventing via a technicality the occurrence of what was clearly the will of the American states.

I am familiar with this from my early Jesus-Freak days. Hal Lindsey was the most often read, but Salem Kirban had to be the most whacked out. The “Left Behind” series, if I can guess from reading back covers, owes much to these 70’s prophecy-mongers. In the Armageddon conspiracies, the number of evil manipulators is reduced to one (or two in tandem), owing to the assumption that the Antichrist of the Revelation to John must be a single individual. But the groups behind groups, the forces which control world events, are common to this genre as well. The EU was big for awhile, because of the horns of the Beast matching the number of EU countries at the time, but that’s long gone. There are still a selection of Pope-As-Antichrist groups, but these are diminishing. The passing of 40 years since Israel’s refounding, and the collapse of the Iron Curtain shortly after, knocked out the whole Gog and Magog on horseback trope.

I still have contact with some folks who are big into the endtimes scenarios. Hey, it has to happen sometime, and one group of Predicters will be right by accident.

There’s a second commonality, or two similar ones smushed together. They congratulate themselves on how brave they are to be even saying these things. This always sounds to me like the guy in highschool telling you how many times he gets laid. Okay, maybe it’s true, but…? They also seem to think the whole issue revolves around them. “The Devil has really been coming against me because I preach this to you.” With the tax protestors, it’s along the lines of “Well, why don’t they just send someone out to show me the law, then? What would be so hard about that? Just show me the law.” Okay, sure. There are thousands of you guys every year, and you want the IRS to hire people just to drive around and show you documents that you’re going to insist aren’t valid. Why would anyone think they were so important that the government has to grind to a halt to deal with them? This is why these guys – it is usually males – like to escalate the situation. They want to show that the government really did care about them all along and they were too being brave. C’mon, try and close down my school. Step on my property, I dare ya. I double dare ya. We’ll chain ourselves to the fence to prove that we’re persecuted. You’re afraid of what we have to say, you fascist bastards. We’re brave.

Friday, January 26, 2007


The temp just hit zero for the first time this winter. It's also windy. Wind-chill 22 below.

It keeps the riffraff out, though.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Mixed Metaphor

Sen. James Webb, who gave the Democratic response to President Bush's SOTU address last night, said that the middle class is the backbone of the country, which is losing its place at the table. What would a backbone sit in at the table? Or maybe it's on the table? Maybe we used to be serving the middle-class as an entree, but they're off the menu now?

Fire that speechwriter, Webb.

Update: Webb was his own speechwriter. Glad I didn't send my kids to Georgetown.

How Shall The Country Be Run?

Update added below:

Sorry to put you through a long post, but some of the more dramatic ideas come at the end.

Questions which look much the same at first glance conceal enormous differences in perspective.

What shall we do to defeat terrorists?

What shall we do to defeat terrorism?

The answers to those questions might end up in the same place, but the discussion will certain start off in different directions. Ask yourself each question in turn and see how quickly they diverge. This is why the power to frame the debate is so desired in political argument.

We can use this knowledge to work the equation backward, and see a little deeper into discussions. When disputants not only give different answers, but different types of answers, it is likely they are answering different questions. If they not only give different evidence, but different types of evidence, we can use this to discover what are the questions behind the questions that the various parties are asking.

Discussions about the economy reveal that people are not only citing conflicting evidence, but different types of evidence in the discussion. There is certainly enough political posturing, spinning the same bits of evidence in different ways. As things are seldom uniformly good or uniformly bad in an economy, there is ample room to for parties to highlight unemployment one year, the deficit another year, and the stock market a third year for electoral purposes. But the different types of evidence suggest that different questions are being answered.

My sympathies are almost entirely with the free market people on the implied questions behind the evidence given. It is more important to me what the poor have, rather than what they have in comparison to the richest. It is more important to me that jobs are created faster than they are lost, tather than whether we can prevent specific jobs from being lost. Increase in income seems more important than whether people feel that their situation is better. But then, I’m an economic conservative. I would see things that way.

In the comments sections I plow through every day, there is a type of data that keeps surfacing that seems entirely beside the point to me. When someone asserts “We can win in Iraq,” or something similar, there is frequently the quick response “Most Americans don’t think so.” There are variations on this – “Most Iraqis don’t think so,” “Europeans don’t think so,” “General such-and-such doesn’t think so.” Well so what? Is my first thought. In May 2003, when most people did think so, it didn’t mean that we had won. It didn’t mean much of anything.

I can’t tell you how much this has torqued me off over the last decade, and especially the last few years. But in the run-up to the elections I began to not only deplore this, but puzzle over it as well. Different types of answers imply different questions. The answer to the question “Are we winning?” has little to do with who thinks so. What, then, is the question they are actually answering.

I will divert for a moment to note that an answer which describes who-thinks-we-are-winning will ultimately have enormous effect on whether we do win. This is much of what infuriates conservatives, who believe that expressing defeat aids the enemy – which it does, of course. But that is a separate issue for the moment. I would rather stay with the more basic concept: “65% of the American people believe we are not winning” is an answer to what question, exactly?

Questions shade into each other. In this case the difference is between

A: How shall the country be run? and

B: Who shall run the country?

These questions are deeply related, but they are not the same. The unifying theme is “What vision shall direct the nation?” or “How shall we be governed?” But question A shades into “What shall we attempt next?” The question B shades into “Who shall we elect?” The first question is about issues. The second question is about tribes.

In both the Clinton and Bush administrations, this conflict of questions as evidenced by the polls has played out. Many people disdained Clinton’s following the polls in governing, believing it showed he had not principles. Clearly, many people were not bothered by that at all, as he was re-elected. During impeachment, Clinton’s supporters focused on the polls that showed that most people preferred he not be impeached. (Note: by way of argument, I will point out that almost half of that 65% did not care deeply if he were impeached, but had only a mild preference that he not be. This shows a weakness of government by polling). Clinton opponents focused on whether what he had done deserved impeachment.

In contrast, the loudest criticism of Bush has been from people who state he “doesn’t listen to the people” and “is stubborn.” That he is not governed by polls is seen as a plus by Bush’s supporters. Very different perspectives.

The division is not neat between liberals and conservatives on this, which is part of what creates strains in coalitions. There are certainly liberals who hated Clinton’s waffling, and conservatives who think that Bush doesn’t listen. I willingly grant that there are plenty of idea-and principle people among the Democratic Coalition and many tribal people among the Republican Coalition. Yet as a very general rule, if we don’t try to cram too many people into categories they don’t deserve, it is true that Democrats have been more concerned with what sort of person a candidate is – what tribe he or she comes from, if you will – while Republicans have been more concerned with ideas and effects.

It is also not a complete division in any of us. We can all think Germany 1933. I don’t care what their program is. Don’t vote for Nazis. Or conversely Random election 1964. I don’t care who the guy is. For Civil Rights or against? As individuals we have tendencies to tribal choices or idea choices, but they are seldom the only factor.

The Religious Right may provide a notable exception to this, as Bush’s support among this group seems to have elements of them liking who he is and that he expresses his faith as much as the specific policy ideas he espouses.

As additional evidence for this, I would submit the type of criticism that Democrats and Republicans direct at each other. Republicans claim that the natural extension of liberal ideas leads to socialism, discord, or disloyalty and thus accuse liberals of those ills. But hearers who are judging such questions by the type of people they are find this absurd and merely insulting. Democrats, on the other hand, complain that conservatives don’t care, or are yahoos (or fascists, or whatever), and attribute their actions to bad motives of selfishness, or desire for control, or anger. Conservatives wonder what’s caring or motive got to do with it? I actually do care, but if I didn’t, so what? Is it good for the country or not? The accusation seems like nothing so much as an attempt to change the subject.

I just reprised my observation that one’s stance on abortion is often a proxy for a whole set of beliefs. Not that people do not care deeply about the issue on both sides, but that it stands in for a host of attitudes of how one feels about women’s issues, or religious issues. In short, it tells if you are “one of us.” I have concluded that for many of us, the Iraq war and the GWOT are also proxies for a deeper vision. The political issue in the US has become “What type of people shall we be?”

That’s a great question, worth having elections and debates about. Worth having the energy of schools, and magazines, and media spent on it for a generation, in every generation.

Unfortunately, it’s also a real war and people are trying to kill us. Treating OIF as a proxy of Who Shall We Be is ultimately dangerous, no matter who’s doing it. The war needs to be fought as a war. So everyone cut it out, right now. Do I have to pull this car over?

Update: I have decided I am unsatisfied with my own response to terri’s comment, below. I would like to make a different distinction.

The question “What sort of people shall we be?” in the current context, only marginally includes the moral questions of honesty, righteousness, kindness. I was thinking more of what ranking we give to our values. Will we be the sort of people who value entrepeneurs more than teachers? Will we value compassion over patriotism? Will we defer to reason, or to intuition?
Valuing honesty over dishonesty is of a different moral order. In that sense of “What sort of people shall we be?” terri is absolutely correct. Moral choices are not suspended, even in wartime. My use of the ambiguous term “sort” led to the muddled nature of the point. I was referring to what style of people shall we be; terri’s noting that what quality of people we should be remains a central question is apt. While quality and style run into each other and are not always separable, they are distinct concepts.

Can We Have A Do-Over?

I notice that gas prices haven't gone back up after the election. It's ten weeks later, and they're still low. Going lower. Because of factors other than oil companies manipulating the price to influence the elections. So now that the people I mentioned in Gas Prices Rant and Desperately Seeking a Clue have been revealed to be either a) stupid or b) lying, can we have a do-over on the elections? Especially as the people who made the accusations came out of those close states? (Missouri, New Jersey, Montana)

Well, why not?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

"I'd Rather Be Right Than President"

A newer nurse at work today made several offhand remarks on matters of fact: that Catholics "don't teach about Limbo anymore," and that the "white light after-death experience has been recorded universally." Brief subsequent conversation revealed that she thought Limbo and Purgatory were the same thing, and has a book which illustrates that the white light experience is known in every culture in the world.

Ahem. Whether she wants to believe Catholic teaching about Limbo, or whether she herself believes in the validity of after-death experiences is not something I get exercised over. I have my opinions, I'll tell you my basis for them if you like, but I'm not going to volunteer them at work. With a person who is a Christian believer, I might take a more proprietary interest and approach them afterwards if they seem to hold a view that I think is not optional in the faith. But even there, I might not bother unless it came up again in a more private context.

But these were about statements of fact, not opinion, and I know the right answers. These things make me crazy.

I consulted with a warm-hearted friend at work, outlining the lack of success I had had with following my instinct in these matters and telling people "that's not true." (I am usually more polite to the point of indirection in saying such things - I don't duel with unarmed men or women.) Among the several bits of advice she had was to laugh and tell me "We have a saying in AA: 'Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?'"

Silly rabbit. I want to be right.

Shacking Up With Jesus

Interesting conversation - and phrasing - with an occasional commenter here who goes to my church. We were discussing worship music; we were both on worship committee and I did an adult Sunday School class on hymn lyrics a few years ago. He mentioned that a lot of modern praise music is "I want to go to bed with you Jesus" lyrics, which he later also called "Shacking up with Jesus" lyrics, as above. I'm glad he was that, er, vivid in his phrasing. He reports the choice of words is not original to him.

I am a great deplorer of things, so it is fair that I give you the other side of this argument as best I can, rather than just leaving you with my personal sneer on the issue.

There is a solid Christian tradition of such things, both OT and NT and in the centuries following. Song of Solomon is understood to include among its several meanings an earthly expression of the mystical romance that God has for us. Jesus uses the image of bridegroom for himself, and bride for us; this is echoed throughout the rest of the NT, particularly in the Revelation to John. Christian mystics throughout the centuries have used romantic, sometimes embarrassingly romantic language for their experience of God. It is an intended secondary theme in The Dark Night of the Soul." Bonaventure, John of the Cross, and Bernard of Clairvaux embrace it willingly. Such examples should not be lightly disparaged, much less thrown away.

It is also fair to point out that it is not for one such as I to judge too harshly on this. I have little temptation in this area, and reproof comes better from those who can identify. I am far more likely to err in the opposite direction, of intellectual assent without passion. As commenter "civil truth" recently quoted from CS Lewis under my The Big Bad Three post:
The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere "understanding". Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritansm; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.

But the greatest triumph of all is to elevate his horror of the Same Old Thing into a philosophy so that nonsense in the intellect may reinforce corruption in the will... (Screwtape Letters)

This romantic Jesus is not generally common in any era. It shows up in Wesley's "Jesus Lover of My Soul" and Miles' "I Come To The Garden Alone," both still used today; it is not unknown to the Desert Fathers; but it is found most commonly in the medieval cloister. And in that era one can also find the greatest warnings of how this Christ-mysticism can be abused. They were not naive, and were familiar with troubadours who openly - and laughingly - interchanged romantic words to their lady with lyrics intended for Mary, and nuns who descended into frankly erotic fantasy in their mysticism. The expectation was that such mysticism would begin at purification and proceed through illumination before attempting union with Christ. Many important figures would have none of it, claiming that it led inevitably to disguised paganism and pantheism. That, I can't vouch for. I don't think I see that yet. But I see danger. In many worship concerts (is that an oxymoron?) this edgy mystical union is the norm.

Anders Nygren, in Agape and Eros cautions
in the midst of the struggle for unselfish love, mysticism proves to be the most refined form, the acme of egocentric piety.
My son tells me that the writers of South Park have also picked up on this, in an episode where a character becomes a popular Christian singer by just throwing the word "Jesus" into the love songs he has previously written.

Those interested in the topic can find it further explored in Jaroslav Pelikan's Jesus Through The Centuries, Chapter Ten.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Preaching, Teaching, and Cooking

A distinction is often made between preaching and teaching from the pulpit. Some would go as far as to say that people are one or the other and go wrong when they try to move into the other function. I don’t find that gifts and talents in the Body of Christ are that rigid – that seems more our idea to want to make the various abilities squeeze into neat categories. But I have known some who excel at one and are less effective when drifting over into the others. Pastor Harter’s wife used to sigh deeply and say “I keep telling him: Hal, teach, don’t preach.” He seemed to like preaching better, or feel it was more of what he was supposed to do. With Lutherans, who seem to need to be jump-started every Sunday, one could see why he would fall into that.

The distinction I am drawing is between exhortation and instruction. Preachers get you fired up. Get you to gird up your loins, enter the fray, return to life’s challenges with renewed vigor. They are much more fun and interesting to listen to. Some churches, I fear, get no more than this, a weekly rallying of the troops, a pat on the hand or a kick in the butt, depending.

Teachers aren’t always so interesting, and require more from the hearers. The scriptures show an obvious preference for the work of teachers.

Saint Paul makes a similar distinction between taking milk or meat for sustenance (Bethany and any other vegans reading, just make the necessary adjustment in your head about protein from beans and nuts, okay?). I think we can combine those concepts without doing violence to the meaning of either. Milk you can get straight from the cow or goat (or the mom). No preparation, no work; quick energy, can keep you going for quite some time if you absolutely have to. Meat requires preparation, and lots of it. You don’t just go out into the field to break off a leg of mutton and eat it. Whether fish, fowl, or beast of the field, you have to take the skin off the meat, which is invariably a messy and unpleasant task. It’s like learning Greek or Hebrew verb-tenses, which is another messy and unpleasant task.

Meat has to be butchered, preserved, stored, and prepared for the table. Those being served don’t always like to be bothered about the work that went into it. There are cooks who are chefs and artists, able to prepare food in exciting and tasty ways; there are teachers able to to the same, able to take the simple elements of the scriptures and arrange them in attractive ways, as if the hearers were eating out at a restaurant.

You can extend the analogy where you will: fast food, with adequate nourishment but too much fat – there are teachers like that; elegant restaurants with small portions exquisitely prepared versus all-you-can-eat buffets – there are teachers like both of those as well. Foreign foods, comfort foods, desserts – they’re all in there in the teaching metaphor. I would like to zoom in on two entensions of the analogy in particular. We become spoiled and expect to dine out all the time, but pastors who provide plain, sustaining food week in, week out perform the greater service. Just because our jaded tongues desire heavy spices and novelty doesn’t mean that’s what we need.

Secondly, people usually learn to cook a little for themselves, don't they? Even if it's just reheating someone else's preparation or making something instant, you should be doing some of this for yourself.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Greg Easterbrook's The Progress Paradox

How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.

For the first 80 pages, Easterbrook hammers home how much better life keeps getting. Each cynic wants to deny it, searching for exceptions in education or international relations, but the list is impressive, and its supporting evidence powerful.

From 1900 to now, life expectancy almost double; percentage in upper-middle class or above went from 1% to 23%. Almost half of all men worked in primary labor – forestry, farming, and half of all wage-earning women worked as domestic servants – not even what we would call blue collar these days -- but now over 50% of each is white-collar.

Since 1950, houses twice as big for families half the size, and 70% own their dwelling. Life expectancy up 35%. Percentage of folks in war zones, down 80% worldwide.

Crime is down, disease is down, IQ’s are up (yeah, really) and education is better (yeah really). Divorce is down, teenage pregnancy down, drug use down. For those who find this impossible to believe there is a short answer: retrospective memory is inaccurate.

Continue reading here

The Big Bad Three - Reprise

When editorialists and online commenters want to illustrate for you how bad Christianity is, and how much it has contributed to the misery of man, there are three examples that are trotted out: the Salem Witch Trials, the Inquisition, and the Crusades. Keep in mind...

Witch trials were more common -- ten thousand times more common -- in Europe, and increasingly common the farther east you went. As the colonies were still part of Europe, being the most western (that is, least witch-burning) portion fits the pattern nicely. Not only was there no correlation to strongly religious areas in European witch trials, there was a negative correlation. Execution of witches was most common in areas that still had strong pagan and folk superstitions. Salem was not even known as a particularly religious city in the New England Colonies. Following Hawthorne's self-hatred and Miller's anti-McCarthyite agenda, the idea that Christian extremism leads to witch-burning is firmly implanted in our mythology, but is false.

Continue reading here

Science & Technology Tribe in Humor

All those MIT and Caltech jokes over the years - the third guy on the guillotine who looks up at it and says "Hey, I see why that thing doesn't work," for example, illustrate the S&T culture. This group often has the enormous social confidence of themselves writing most of the humor making fun of them. Which is good, because they usually don't get the jokes that other tribes tell.

Scott Adams and the Dilbert cartoons are the best recent capture of this tribe. Adams, in fact described them in tribal ways several times. "Engineers In The Mist," or Dilbert's testing the prospective hire by asking him engineer stereotype questions "You have a shirt pocket stuffed with pens. How many of them will you need to complete a project?" (All of them). Gadget competition with Techno-Bill.

Adams works in the conflict and cooperation with the Business Tribe as well. I don't think they make fun of themselves much. Rednecks, one of the many offshoots of the God & Country tribe, have been able to laugh at themselves. The older tribal divisions of regions and ethnic groups are in full swing now, suggesting that identification with them may be less personal. Folks have more distance from those. The newer divisions may cut to the bone more. I don't notice that the Government & Union Tribe has many members poking fun at themselves. They don't see anything humorous about membership.

Who does make fun of themselves? It's usually a marker of emotional balance.

Arts & Humanities Clans

Many people who are not, or are no longer, A&H members have positive memories and historical affection for this tribe. The surgeons who played the viola, the attorneys who were in highschool drama, and the many English or History majors who went on to be employed in other fields were often born into the tribe and retain association. These folks sometimes go to considerable lengths to retain good standing and become patrons of the arts or part-time participants. They are often talented and treated well, but in important attitudes are not regarded as in full membership.

These often have better descriptors in other popular culture names: Yuppies, DINKs, Bobos, and whatever else Time is telling us is trendy this year. I recognize these clans (when Newsweek announced yuppies in the mid-80’s, William and Mary had representatives on 5 of the 7 pages), but I’m still breaking things down differently.

I am increasingly convinced that I will change the naming from A&H to Humanist Tribe, or Humanist Class.

There are A&H subgroups, with varying degrees of adherence to the larger group’s values. Musicians are clearly eligible for membership in the arts community, but their social and political beliefs are more idiosyncratic than A&H in general. Because folksingers and boomer rockers are liberal to radical and classical musicians retain an affection for NPR, we tend to assume a general leftist slant for the whole clan. Think church choir directors. Think country musicians. Think barbershop, brass quartets, ethnic performers, piano teachers, and the whole evangelical music subculture. These are not hotbeds of liberalism.

Theater, especially academic and professional theater, is a liberal to radical core. Highschools in the very blue area of western Mass might do a production of The Vagina Monologues,or . There is no musical or film equivalent to this, even among highschool garage bands or cameraheads. Community theater groups don’t get this radical, because they depend on, uh, actually selling tickets, but the participants are reliably liberal in outlook. This may result from the snob hierarchy in theater, which grants pride of intellectual place to those who have participated in the avant-garde and transgressive. On the other hand, theater people have contributed one of the great acts of cultural preservation by continuing to perform Shakespeare despite the language difficulties. It is true that they have a fondness for reworking the Great Elizabethan into motorcycle leathers or banana republics, but this may be something of a plus. While the attempts are usually ridiculous, it remains true that live Shakespeare is almost impossible to understand in its original.

One would expect technical theater people to be different, and they usually are in personality. On social and political issues, however, I don’t see a gap.

Dancers, like musicians, are more eclectic, but tend to track like theater people on social issues.

Visual artists, the painters and sculptors, have something of the same snob hierarchy that one finds in theater, elevating the controversial and and inaccessible to prominence, and that sector is beyond liberal. The great majority of painters are more representational, capturing understandable things like light, mood, and contrast. Their social and political views are all over the map, though they have a disproportionate share of liberals.

Photographers and filmmakers I don’t think I have enough of a handle on to comment. What I have seen of famous work would suggest they run leftward, but that is true for the more prominent artists in other arts. Poets? I don’t know and I don’t care.

Teachers of the arts and humanities are clear tribe members, and it is among these that the continuity with the older iterations of A&H are preserved. This is hardly surprising, but it is worth mentioning, as they are also among the most aggressively political liberals, considering it their duty to “awaken” the consciousness of their charges to ideas they would not otherwise have encountered. There is some truth to this, of course, as there are many children who are exposed only to traditional, unadventurous, conservative ideas at home and in the cultures they move in. But there are also children that are only exposed to traditional, unadventurous, liberal ideas at home, and somehow it seems less important to teachers to rescue them from this. There is a some tendency in this clan to group all values which are not theirs as “conservative.” If their students are pop-culture, gadget-obsessed, and shallow, overly focused on romance and boy-girl relationships, this is seen as popular American materialist culture, and part of what they need to be rescued from with alternative ideas. That’s fine, but it’s a short jump from there to regarding all of it as somehow “conservative.” Cars, driving, and consumption are not environmentally focused and so can’t be liberal; they must be conservative. Pop-culture and boy-girl focus have too much cultural stereotype and so can’t be liberal; they must be conservative. Acquisition and materialism must be derived from evil free-market attitudes – there’s those conservatives again, mucking up a potentially beautiful world.

That’s not everyone, of course. I went through another crisis of thinking that I was unfairly generalizing about this group, when right on schedule in less than five minutes, I saw a minivan with four bumperstickers and a decal. (Multiple stickers used to always mean fundamentalists. It more often means liberals now.)

Decal: local highschool.


Feminism is the radical notion that women have rights

Peace through Music

It’s too bad that the people who know how to run the world are too busy teaching school

This is what a feminist looks like.

What I have described above applies more to teachers of highschool and college. Middle school and elementary school teachers shade away from this. Elementary school teachers have their own clan and clan-markers: clothing with familiar objects embroidered, appliqued, or woven onto them; jewelry in the shapes of animals, pins with cute sayings. For the men, there are silly ties. As this group is A&H trained (they were seldom science or math majors) and members of government unions, they are reliably Democrat in their voting. They are not, however, especially radical. They are not especially marxist or anti-military in their opinions, and they have a focus on deportment and the primacy of reading that conservatives get along with pretty well. Call them Liberal Lite, if you will, often caught up in the various rescuing, multi-culti, environmental, and self-esteem movements, but not bomb-throwers.

Librarians, my wife assures me, continue to be quite liberal. I see this as becoming more intense in the power areas of the clan, where the journals are published and the officers elected, but I don’t doubt it’s pretty widespread. In addition to their initial A&H tribal membership, they have several other factors which push them leftward. They have gotten themselves into a froth that even challenging a book’s presence or appropriateness for its location is censorship and a threat to freedom of speech everywhere. Though they encounter many conservatives during each day, they don’t especially perceive it unless a book or program is challenged. They attribute these challenges to conservatives, which is only partially true. Many of the challenges are of course silly, stemming from portions of works taken out of context or stretched to sound like something different. As librarians are more knowledgeable about a variety of topics than the average bear, the people challenging them are often less articulate, system-savvy, or socially adept. Thus, stupid, rigid, or dangerous, because one shouldn’t be challenging books anyway.

Secondly, an enormous percentage of librarians rely on governments for their salaries. It is a tendency of human nature, not just artists, teachers, and librarians, for those who are receiving support to regard those managing the purse as not quite understanding the situation. This is usually true. Even brilliant and supportive people, it they are at a distance, seldom know as much about your job as you think they should. So trustees, budget committees, and taxpayers can come to seem like opponents. Opponents who know less than you do. It is hardly surprising that people in these positions seldom become fans of tax revolts and drastic cutbacks in the system. To librarians, all these attacks come from people who can be labeled “conservative,” often because conservatives are prominent among the voices of challenge.

Saturday, January 20, 2007


I comment on about a dozen blogs a day, and read a dozen more to see if they've got anything new. I'll throw in comments there from time to time. I love the net.

The point is, you see, that people read my opinion. That's why I have my own blog in the first place, right? I have this unfortunate tendency to make every other comment in a conversation, regardless of how many other people are present. My family is pretty good at cutting in and limiting me to 1/4-1/3 of the statements if they are present. It's not that I'm not fascinated by what others say. You won't find anyone who will listen and remember as well as I will. Well, usually. But I must believe in my heart of hearts that once someone says something, the most cogent response in the room is the one I wish to make.

This showed up dramatically in speaking Romanian. I put all my energy into expressing myself, and despite my lack of facility for languages, I could get something of my idea across to just about anyone. What they said back to me, I never understood. But why would that matter, exactly? I act like I've understood, slap them on the back, and try to answer them in some way. And if I actually have understood them somewhat, so much the better! What more could you want?

So you visitors from your own blogs, I do remember what you wrote. I remember what the other commenters said as well. And I'll think about it, and quote you, and tell everyone what a fine fellow you are. Or canny lass, as the case may be. They don't have a category for best commenter on the weblog awards every year, but if they did, I'd be nominated.

Just remember it's my turn to speak next.

Ten Things He Learned From Iraq

An interesting list over at Varifrank.

For example:
While I thought that Afghanistan would be very hard and would take at least 10 years to make even the most basic level of military progress, that it would never be invaded successfully and would resist to the last man, I thought Iraq would be the “easier” of the two.

Creative Cities?

Author Richard Florida has this really clever idea about creative cities. He predicts that the economic growth will go to those cities which are openly tolerant of gays, because all the young creative people will want to be in a rockin' environment like that.

According to the US Census bureau, guess not.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Pedantic Language Lesson

I am really tired of people saying that the exception proves the rule, meaning that the exception adds veracity to the original proposition somehow.

"Prove" in this instance means "to test." The exception tests the rule. Proof, like in 86 proof alcohol. Rated at 86 parts alcohol out of 200 (43%), by test. Proofread. Test-read. Proving ground. Testing ground.

Famous Caseload

For the first time - I think it's the first time - my entire caseload has been on the front page of the paper at some point in their lives. It's usually about half my group, but this week has been special.

Half of them have been to jail. The other half will be going. Every single one of them is in that borderland between illness and criminality. None of them is a clear case one way or the other.

Post 600: Permission to Not Understand Shakespeare

I would like to thank linguist John McWhorter for his permission to not understand Shakespeare, and will pass it on to you. McWhorter has far better credentials than mine, and he doesn't get it either.

The plays of Shakespeare, performed in their original Early Modern English, are not understandable on first hearing. Or second hearing. By anyone. If they weren’t also in iambic pentameter, which makes them even less conversational in tone, some few of us might have a shot at it. Even if one has read and studied a dozen of his works, it is likely that an unfamiliar work will throw you off. It is not that you will understand none of it – most of us can get some idea what is transpiring on stage. Okay, he seems to be wanting to trick the old guy. I think because he wants that girl over there in the green. She seems to be a princess or other nobility. Her maid seems to be making a lot of sexual jokes that they giggle about. Those other guys are his friends, and one of them never has any money. The old guy a jerk, but a smart jerk. But truth is, you can get a lot of that if you’re watching a play in a foreign language, too.

We understand some of what is said, or think we do, and try to figure out the whole scene from those sparse clues. And there are certainly phrases – whole sentences – that we understand.

“First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
(Henry VI, Part 2 – Do you have any way to keep those Henry plays straight?) That seems clear enough. But look what follows:

Nay, that I mean to do. Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled o'er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings: but I say, 'tis the bee's wax; for I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since.

We can make something of this. Laws or contracts or something written on parchment have enormous power over us. But with the lambs and the bees in there, it’s tough sledding. It’s worse when you’re hearing it rather than reading it, too.

It’s worse than a foreign language, because we don’t even understand what we think we do. It turns out we don’t even understand that “kill all the lawyers” line. It is often reported that this is actually a compliment to lawyers. The speech is uttered by a criminal, and this interpretation suggests that it is only lawyers that stand between comity and criminals taking over. But even that tortured explanation turns out to be wrong. One character says that when he’s ruler of all, everyone will have plenty of food and drink – it will be heaven. The criminal suggests that it will really be heaven if they can get rid of the lawyers. Sort of like Woody Guthrie telling the hoboes there will be no police in heaven.

Had enough? Of course you haven’t.

“O sweet my mother, cast me not away! Delay this marriage for a month, a week;”
(Romeo and Juliet)

Okay, that we understand. This Juliet doesn’t want to marry somebody her mother wants her to. But she clearly wants to marry this Romeo character we just saw a minute ago. I think I’m getting it. Not so fast. Read how she begins her next speech.

“My husband is on earth, my faith in heaven;
How shall that faith return again to earth,
Unless that husband send it me from heaven
By leaving earth?”

Ben points out that this nonsense starts right away in Romeo and Juliet:

Sampson: Gregory, o’ my word we’ll not carry coals.

Gregory: No, for then we should be colliers.

That was a joke. A big laugh line. Get it? Neither do I.

I was long embarrassed at my inability to understand The Bard. I was a theater major. I studied Old English, Middle English, and History of the English Language. I can still fight my way through Chaucer – even Beowulf in simpler sections. I can read the KJV. I can read pilgrim diaries and the Geneva Psalter. But I can’t get Shakespeare without notes and explanations. I did three scenes from King Lear in acting lab every evening for six weeks in rehearsal. At the end, I still had no idea what was going on except that Lear was losing his mind. Which I knew anyway. I really like Shakespeare when someone explains it to me. I should have suspected that something was up, because right after college I went to a production of Shakespeare and laughed at some jokes that no one else got. But I still couldn’t figure out the action onstage.

Thus, it was a great relief when McWhorter acknowledged he doesn’t get it either. I should be a purist, insisting that Shakespeare be preserved in its original for performance, because no one could possibly translate the text into Modern English with sufficient strength of poetry. Yeah, that’s true, no one could. And it does seem that every time someone tries to do a modern interpretation of Shakespeare, it just stinks. I recall the head of the theater department at W&M, an immensely talented but aging alcoholic queen pronouncing with dripping disdain “The Toronto Shakespeare Festival. Last year they did Hamlet in motorcycle leathers. The year before that Macbeth ended up with his head down a well or some such. Revolting.”

But the other choice is to not understand it at all. Maybe my idea of Macbeth done on schoolyard playground equipment wasn’t so bad after all.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Climate Change Debate - Avoided

Tigerhawk describes the debate in the Danish media that was supposed to take place between Al Gore and climate scientist Bjorn Lomborg.
The interview had been scheduled for months. Mr. Gore's agent yesterday thought Gore-meets-Lomborg would be great. Yet an hour later, he came back to tell us that Bjorn Lomborg should be excluded from the interview because he's been very critical of Mr. Gore's message about global warming and has questioned Mr. Gore's evenhandedness. According to the agent, Mr. Gore only wanted to have questions about his book and documentary, and only asked by a reporter. These conditions were immediately accepted by Jyllands-Posten. Yet an hour later we received an email from the agent saying that the interview was now cancelled.

Read it all here.

Teach Your Children Well

Reprinted in full from a year ago. Sorry to pick on my children again, but when we spent thousands to take you to the UK in 1997 and you wanted to spend the time watching British TV, I resolved that I was justified in taking revenge for years afterward.

I will save you some trouble in educating your children. Don't bring them to an historical place, hoping they will develop some interest and want to learn about it. That does happen, but it is so serendipitous as to be unreliable.

Have them learn first, and then go, painful as that is for you.

We take a family trip in honor of each boy's highschool graduation -- their choice. In 1997, Jonathan chose England and Scotland. Note that Braveheart came out in 1995. Jonathan was very taken with being descended from William Wallace, and all things Scots in general. Our first two sons had grown up in a family oriented toward the medieval. We had gone to SCA events in elaborate costume, had read them dozens of stories with knights and dragons, visited Hammond Castle and the armor museum in Worcester, and made padded swords for them to engage in mock combat. I thought that the second son, Benjamin, would pick up enough history on the trip to aid him in subsequent history classes.

Fast forward four years. "How did the history test go, Ben?" Not bad. I think I got almost everything, except there was a question about Hadrian's Wall (disdainful voice) which of course only Doug knew about. My eyebrows went up, my eyes widened, and I shook in anger, remembering the approximately $6K we'd spent on the trip. "You were ON IT! It's the border between Scotland and England and you and Jonathan played on it! Don't you remember?" Oh. Yeah. Sort of.

Two weeks later, having studied a little more European history: Y'know, I think I'd like to see Versailles when we go on my trip.

Spend your money on the movie first, the academic lesson second, and the trip third.

Tribe, Class, and Cold Pizza

In the comments sections of one of my Tribal posts, Cold Pizza linked to a long but excellent article on the Rand Corp site about tribalism and its effect on societal development. The article in turn references much research and commentary on the topic, which gives me new places to look for information. This is a more academic treatment, contrasting tribes and clans with networks and hierarchies with more precise definitions than I use in my offhand way here.

I was pleased to understand it well enough to have objections, which I will not share presently.

In my observation that one source of the A&H disdain for the Business and S&T tribes may be competitiveness, I had originally thought of this only in terms of money envy. I had followed the stereotype that the latter tribes made more money, but had less education than A&H. It turns out that they have as much education as the A&H tribe, suggesting that they are indeed beginning to supplant them as the public intellectuals. This is likely quite provoking to a group which has considered itself the natural leaders and advisors of the society.

This led me to the thought that the struggle I am observing, though it has folks acting tribally, may have more elements of a class struggle.

I am going to move away from the "types of thinking" interpretations. They are perhaps more valuable when considering the actions of an individual, but I am trying to get a handle on groups here.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Judd Gregg's Amendment

Senator Judd Gregg, R-NH, has an amendment to the Senate Ethics bill that is something of a watered down line-item veto. Harry Reid, D-NV is trying to prevent it from coming to a vote .

It's a great idea by Gregg, but the way it is playing out makes me wonder if he is getting snookered into withdrawing it.

Two From Last January

I am bringing forward two posts from January 2006, one on Bright, Spacey Children and one on the Proxy Value of views on abortion.

A&H Tribe - Plodding Onward

Pew’s identified group of Liberals (19% of the population) are outliers on many issues.

In every one of the identified groups there are people on both sides of the major political questions of the day – abortion, affirmative action, diplomacy vs. military intervention, health care, and a half-dozen others. But the percentages are wildly different among the liberals. Government health insurance: liberals 90%, more even than the other Democrats at 68% (Rest of the country 60%); lowering military spending – 65%, more than other Democrats at 35%. (All non-liberals 30%); posting the Ten Commandments in government buildings, 35%, rest of the country 80%; Gay marriage 80%, rest of the country 28%.

The most likely groups to join them at a pole are the Disadvantaged Democrats, especially on economic issues, or the Bystanders, the uninvolved, on social issues. The Enterprisers are the only other group which ever occupies a pole alone, on issues such as raising the minimum wage, Enterprisers 46%, rest of the country 90%; Tax cuts permanent 82%, rest of the country 35%. The Enterprisers and the liberals are usually opposites on economic and military issues. They are much less dissimilar on issues such as immigration and stem-cell research.

I’m not setting any of this forth as an argument whether they are right or wrong on those issues. I simply note that on cultural issues the Liberals are isolated and more extreme in their views than the rest of us, while the Enterprisers are less extreme, but noticeably different from other Americans on some economic issues.

This all began, for those of you just tuning in, when I began to speculate about the nature of what I called the Arts & Humanities tribe in America (and Europe). I noted that it was politically liberal and behaved very tribally. By this I meant that it protected its own at the expense of the whole - as all tribes do somewhat – that it had trust cues which created both identification and social pressure, and that it seemed to have changed over the years. I grew up in this tribe, and at least in my own generation and the one just prior, could recognize the verbal cues. I was intensely aware at one point of my life of the cultural enforcement the tribe uses to keep people from defecting. It now merely amuses and annoys to observe it.

If there were one identifiable tribe in America, why not more? I sketched out some other possibilities and tried to steer readers to reading I thought germane to the topic. I have sought comments and received some excellent ones.

I am not convinced that my proposed divisions will hold up well. They have some value, but they don’t break down into the neat categories I would like. If they did, I’d have a moderately popular $16.95 paperback on my hands. I am still convinced of the connection between my A&H Tribe and the Pew Liberal group, and of my Science & Technology and Business Tribes with The Pew Enterprisers and Upbeats. I am engaging in a temporary consolidation then, examining what I think I know from here. To keep the posts short enough for the occasional reader, I will divide the essays and launch them at intervals.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Troy Brown

Troy Brown's numbers will not get him into Canton, OH. He is the leading receiver in Patriot history, but well down the league all-time list. He had a few years of stardom, but not a career full.

But in the Patriot Hall of Fame, or perhaps the New England Sports Hall of Fame, there should be a separate, small room, like a side chapel off a great cathedral, where it is quiet and the lighting subdued. There, fathers will solemnly bring their sons - and perhaps daughters - and softly say "Troy Brown was one of the great players of the game. Whatever sport you play, if you could play with the same attitude as Troy Brown, I would be very proud." It will seem puzzling to those who come after, I expect. They will see that Brown was versatile, smart, and consistent, but not get the full impact.

It's true, though.

Plows, Plagues, & Petroleum

Great book.

Best of my Christmas books thus far. William Ruddiman, an environmental sciences professor at UVA, has a breakthrough concept book about man and the environment. He is very persuasive. He notes wryly that both sides of the climate change debate will pick out things from this book to buttress their claims, and that has already proved true. His side, he insists, is the science side, of hypothesis, research, challenge, test, reevaluate, and rework. As such, he is annoyed with both sides of the political debate, though recently he has become more annoyed with the climate change deniers (skeptics he’s still okay with).

He believes in anthropogenic climate change because he can demonstrate it has been happening. For 8,000 years. Most climate scientists have focused on the last 200 years of slight, but rapid, warming. Ruddiman shows that when we abandoned hunting and gathering and started farming, we started to slowly warm the environment. We have done this so effectively, in fact, that we should have already begun a glaciation, or Ice Age since then, but haven’t.

We were due for one because of cycles of tilt, orbital shape, and precession of the earth. According to those long, long overlapping cycles, we should be halfway into a major glaciation at this point. If we hadn’t warmed the environment, we’d be real cold just now.

Farming led to deforestation, which slightly increased CO2. Three thousand years later, irrigation and domestication of animals led to methane increases which further warmed the environment. Because of the long-term cooling trend, however, the warming has mostly succeeded in keeping average temperatures stable. The cooling cycles in this trend have been comparatively brief – two or three centuries – resulting from massive epidemics. What we inaccurately call the Little Ice Age (1600-1800) was likely caused by the massive epidemics in the Americas when Europeans arrived. 10-20% of the population of the entire earth died 1500-1700. Epidemic causes widespread abandonment of farmland, which rapidly reforests, cooling the environment.

On top of this warming that has been an enormous positive for mankind, we started burning fossil fuels in quantity 200 years ago. That has created a more dramatic spike in CO2 and some warming. The value of this for humans is more ambiguous.

Ruddiman’s view is that warming is fine per se, it’s the speed that is worrisome. Climate change has a long delay time, and the die is already cast for future warming. The CO2 that will change the climate is already “in the pipeline” as he says, and we will continue to warm whether we abandon fossil fuels or not. What we can do now is slow the rate of warming, giving the deep ocean time to do its thing absorbing CO2. This will decrease the final spike in warming, and make it last longer as well. When the fossil fuels are burned up, in 200-400 years, cooling will resume, though from a high level. Even that prediction he makes with hesitation, because human actions can change.

His conclusion is that anthropogenic climate change is real and demonstrable, that it has mixed benefits and risks, and the primary danger for the next century is for places that have large populations in low-lying areas. We can address this by slowing the amount of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. He considers this quick warming a problem, but not the primary environmental problem we face. Using up our topsoil and fresh water is of greater concern to him. I would add fish to that.