Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Kevin Garnett

Okay, I'm paying attention again. I was not so excited about getting Ray Allen, and I hate to lose Al Jefferson; but Garnett, Pierce, Allen, this season, in the weak Eastern Conference? I like it.

Suspicions Confirmed

Just when I think that I've gone too far accusing the Democrats of seeing only the American political consequences of Iraq and neglecting the consequences for uh, the republic, one of them comes along and confirms for me that I don't know the half of it, more bluntly than I would dare accuse.

Gamil Gharbi

The featured article at Wikipedia today is about the Ecole Polytechnique Massacre in Montreal. The events almost 20 years ago became symbolic for two Canadian groups which have referred to the massacre as a turning point event: feminists highlighting this as emblematic of male violence against women, and gun-control advocates who successfully lobbied for more gun-restrictive laws after the event.

Nowhere in that article will you read that Marc Lepine, the perpetrator of the massacre, was born Gamil Gharbi, son of an Algerian Muslim immigrant who believed women were inferior and repeatedly abused his wife in front of his son. Huh. Wonder why.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Nerds Are...Hyperwhite?

The New York Times has a serious, thought-provoking article about nerds,
their history, their characteristics, their ways. The article is serious because these are my people, and they deserve attention. It is thought-provoking because the author, a linguist from UC-Santa Barbara, has spent 11 years on this and has missed all the most obvious points in favor of some highly debatable ones. Dr. Mary Bucholz's idea is that because nerds don't use black slang (and don't dance well?) they are hyperwhite, using superstandard English as a cultural marker.

She completely misses that lots of nerds aren't white. A fair number are from India, China, Japan - and even (who would have thought it, doctor?) black, hispanic, native American. She also leaves out the fact that they can actually do math, in contrast to many others educated in, oh, linguistics*, for example. My A&H Tribe, again brought low by placing so much emphasis on coolness as a measure of adjustment, and soiling their knickers with profound racism.

There are some very nice takedowns of the study at American Thinker and Just One Minute. I will only add that journalists and political junkies ache to claim nerd status, attempting to create the neologism "wonk" as a geek/nerd synonym. They delude themselves. There are nerds and geeks inside the beltway, but they got there by trying very hard to get the answers right on the wide variety of issues decided there: fisheries, student loans, vaccinations, and whatever. It's not the same thing as wanting to "make a difference," or "make government responsive to people."

*I love some branches of linguistics, but have to note that the currently fashionable studies have a lot of air pumped into them.

Obligatory Harry Potter Post

At last I found something I can send along for my Potter fans, who are numerous.

Barry Rubin has written Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Political Correctness. Cute.
...the tale that began with a headline in the Daily Prophet newspaper: “Minister Fudge Urges Engagement; Accuses Harry Potter of Voldemortphobia”

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Barnes & Noble

Browsing through this fine establishment this evening, I first thumbed through a travel book on the Orkney at Shetland Islands, glanced over the "now desperately on sale for a few bucks" rack, and moved on to the New Arrivals stand. A potential birthday gift for my son was there, and turns out to be even more engagingly written than I expected. I had better order it and read it soon - that is accepted practice on all book-gifts in our family.

Right next to it was Mike Jones's I Had To Say Something, about how he brought Ted Haggard down. "I had to say something..." Perhaps yes, but did you have to write a book? It immediately calls your motives into question, motives which I had been heretofore neutral about. I mean nescient about.

Also on the table is Drew Westen's The Political Brain, the book that explains how Democrats have been losing elections because they have been appealing to people's thinking, while Republicans have been winning by appealing to their hearts. Westen's solution is that Democrats much specifically craft their message to have emotional appeal, using the best recent scientific discoveries of emotional manipulation. Gee, that'll be a change.

The Democrats primary campaign tactic for the last 20 years has been appeal to various prejudices. Not that Republicans stand nobly above it all on that score, but such tactics have been far less prominent. I should specify that I am talking about national politics here. I don't have any sense of who's worse at the local level. Even this book trades on the same stereotype "we think; you're mind-numbed robots."

So that's irritating, but no worse than 100 other things I see every week. The plan to intentionally slough off intellectual appeals in order to manipulate voters emotionally, though - that troubles me. I confess I don't know where to draw clear lines on this. Westen is proposing to calculate what politicians and their advisors have always done intuitively. The science of moving public opinion has real research behind it, and I imagine there are Republicans, Greens, and Libertarians all doing something similar. Yet there is some line that has been crossed here, some sort of moral downshift. Troubling.

Your God Is Too Small

There has been discussion over at Dr. Sanity’s and Stephen Bainbridge’s sites about stories of good and evil, sacrifice, and courage. This was sparked off by the latest Harry Potter book, of course, but the conversations ranged more freely than that.

I have long been a fan of tales of good and evil, and one of the attractions is that they often highlight the need for courage and for sacrifice, which strikes me as more realistic than much else that is out there. But something in my current reading brought me up short, and I wonder if there is something else missing in much narrative art, whether in books or on screen.

I am rereading J.B.Phillips Your God Is Too Small, with an eye to using the first half of it as a possible adult Sunday School class. Most cultures have stories which seek to uplift and inspire their hearers. They give instruction how to deal with hardship: be wary, be brave, be clever, be loyal, and you will succeed. You will succeed. We don't like stories where people do the right thing and it doesn't work out. We accept that there may be setbacks and sacrifices, but we expect that good actions will eventually bring good to their doers.

I wonder if this creates American Christians who are more easily discouraged. Few of us expect God to fix things immediately, like a genie on call, but we fully expect that if we do the right things it will all work out eventually. We expect it to work in foreign policy as well. The conservative version is if we rescue people, they will like us; liberals prefer if we give people things they will like us. Maybe not.

Having children provides good counterweight to this myth. Perhaps as we have fewer children, we will believe the myth more strongly as our society develops.


I have had two occasions in the past month to read or hear men say that they were looking for a woman to pamper. It has always seemed a little regressive to me, but, I thought, there are lots of different types of folks in the world.

In both these cases the men turned out to be abusive. Because they occurred back-to-back, the word "pampered" stuck out. At first I thought their use of that particular word to women was false-coloring, or wish-fulfillment on the part of the men. I now think it has a deeper meaning in code. In both recent cases, the woman had trouble leaving because she had few resources. She was dependent on the male in a very immediate way. People who can plan ahead are often amazed (and distressed) at those who habitually take the short-term fix at the expense of their long-term good. A good advance planner finding herself in a bad situation with few resources would figure out a more complete solution. If it meant staying in another bad situation temporarily, in a shelter or with an unliked relative, that would simply be a cost to pay on the way to the next step.

"Pampered" means "controlled." At some deep level, many of these women know that.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


My very liberal uncle for whom I am named and who I am actually fond of still, sends me just about every paranoid leftie thing that crosses his path. Long rants about the Bush administration and fascism, highly slanted economic news, etc. He just sent this one. Notice especially the two links he adds as vouching for this story: huffpo and tinyurl.
Hi David
A pronouncement from your favorite leader
I look forward to your stout defense of Bush's utterance
(This one will test ya )
Dave...grinning evilly

During a question-and-answer session with reporters in the
White House Rose Garden, President Bush suggested
Tuesday that the war in Iraq has not been successful
the nation's armed forces are "just not very good."
"When the decision was made to liberate Iraq, I was going
on what my advisers were telling me and what everyone has
said for nearly a century葉hat the U.S. military is the best in
the world," Bush said. "But if that were the case, and we did

have the most powerful army, navy, marines, and air force
on the globe, we would be winning, right?"
The president admitted that he'd been toying with the idea
that a thorough lack of quality in personnel, from the top U.S.
commander to the lowest-ranked private, is the only way to
account for the colossal failure in Iraq, given that everything
on the administrative side of the war has been carried
out with the utmost care and precision.
"I know the folks on our end didn't drop the ball," Bush said.
"The civilian oversight of this war and the plan of attack has
been brilliant. There's no doubt about that in my mind. Hate
to say it, but maybe our men and women in uniform just
aren't what they're cracked up to be."


The piece in question is not a real quote, however. It's a satire piece from The Onion.

My uncle is in many ways a clever guy. But the American left can no longer tell satire from reality. Okay, unfair generalization. Much of the American left can no longer tell satire from reality.

I Wonder About These Things

It went by in conversation that Etienne is French for Stephen. I never knew that, but it clicked in immediately that this was a pattern. Ecole = School, etranger = stranger, etat = state. There also seem to be a lot of English words where both versions have come down, presumably the earlier version from the Germanic languages, plus a newer version from Norman French. State, estate; scapegoat, escape; stay (stand, stable), establish.

This is where search engines become my favorite thing. Until just a few years ago, that is as far as my thought would have gone. I would have to either go to a library and thumb through a dozen linguistics books, or wait until I met someone who was a trained linguist or was familiar with French word etymology or Old French. Now I just search. Amazing.

The adding on of the /e/ to the Latin forms that had only the /s/ beginning happened in both Old French and Old Spanish (states, estados). This is called prothesis. So Old French for "state" would have been estat. The dropped /s/ is called a syncope. My guesses about Germanic roots and Norman French acquisitions was correct.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Sergei Prokudin-Gorky

Volunteering at the New England Seafarer's Mission I ran across the magazine Russian Life. On the inside cover was an ad for their 2007 calendar, featuring pictures by photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorky taken 1909-1915. P-G's technique was to take three identical photos with different color filters, then overlap them to create a color photo. He took 3500 photos throughout the 11 regions of a Russia that was about to disappear to the October Revolution.

On the other hand, the Russian peasantry and countryside don't look so different today. You may draw what lesson from that you like, but I lean to the view that "communism was a tremendous vehicle for making and keeping people impoverished."

The photos are quite remarkable and are preserved at the Library of Congress. You can find 1900 of them online at a site about Prokudin-Gorsky. The calendar is sold out, unfortunately.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

CIA Accusations

There have been numerous accusations* that the CIA - or more properly, a well-placed group within it - have been intentionally undermining selected presidents, including the Bush Administration. Rowan Scarborough's new book, Sabotage:America's Enemies Within The CIA is the latest in this line.

It's a hard thing to believe, even for one such as I who was a CIA-paranoid leftie in the 70's. Camp Peary, a CIA training ground, was a few miles from my college. There were any number of paranoid urban legends about what had gone on there. I spread a few myself, knowing they were unlikely, but because it would be so cool - so ironic and beautiful and perfect - if they were true.

If the CIA says that Bush's ideas are bad and foolish, well, perhaps the CIA is right. They're supposed to be the experts, with bright people of unusual talents laboring in obscurity their whole lives, devoting themselves to specialised areas of knowledge. Certainly, there are enough folks who currently believe that the Bush/neocon plans were terrible, and to think that the CIA - the "real experts" - agree with them must give some satisfaction.

But that is not how the system is supposed to work. Secret intelligence agencies are not supposed to make their own policy, no matter how sure they are that they are right. Those on the left currently cheering the CIA should recognise that taking that side gives up any ground for criticising Oliver North, or the adventures in South and Central America in the 1950's-70's. You can't have it both ways. We elect governments for very good reasons.

There is also the entirely plausible motive ready to hand about why the CIA might do such a thing. They have been spectacularly wrong repeatedly over the last 20 years at least. Group motives are hard to assess, because they are necessarily mixed and even fluid. But the same accusation has not only been made, but evidenced, in the books noted above. Today's statement by the CIA about Scarborough's book is very disquieting.
CIA Director of Public Affairs Mark Mansfield issued the following statement today:

We generally don't comment on books, but we have departed from that on occasion, and have decided to do so in connection with Rowan Scarborough's new book, "Sabotage: America's Enemies Within the CIA."

CIA employees work very hard to protect their fellow citizens and to help keep America safe. They take great pride -- and take great risks -- in serving our country. They know that the intelligence they collect, analyze and deliver to policymakers, diplomats, law enforcement officers, and military commanders makes a difference, each and every day.

The premise of Mr. Scarborough's book -- that CIA employees are working to undermine our government -- is both ridiculous and offensive.

You will notice that they do not answer the accusation that they have specifically tried to undermine the Bush Administration. They answer a different accusation; one that was not made.

* Books: I make no recommendations here, simply record. This is a subject I have no particular expertise on. I just notice the controversy and the irony of the left suddenly believing the CIA. Such is the power of BDS.
Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA
Laurie Mylroie's Bush Vs The Beltway: The Inside Battle Over The War In Iraq
Joseph Trento's The Secret History of the CIA
Richard Russell's Sharpening Strategic Intelligence: Why the CIA Gets It Wrong and What Needs to Be Done to Get It Right

Template Changes

I have added three new sites to my blogroll at right, deleting one. I have also added a new category to put my extended discussion of the American Cultural Tribes and the Emerging Church up for ready access.

I'm sure I'm forgetting something...

Monday, July 23, 2007

Adam & Eve & Lewis & Collins

I am continuing here the discussion with Terri in the comments of The Great Stumbling Block, because many folks don't follow threads once they've read the entry once, and the subject deserves its references. I confess that this is not recently researched by me, just writing off the top of my head (Hmm... off the top of one's head. I'll have to look up where that phrase comes from).

Never worry about "taking over" a thread here, so long as you're on topic.

Lewis's most apposite comments are in The Problem of Pain. I warn you in advance that though that particular book is short, it can be tough sledding. While Lewis did not consider himself a professional in philosophy, he clearly had much more training than most of us. Lewis's short books on topics - Miracles, The Four Loves, The Abolition of Man, Mere Christianity are each an education on the topics in themselves. I would type the key paragraphs here, but I'm too lazy. There is a nice summary of Lewis's view of scripture and revelation by Duncan Sprague in the Mars Hill Review, reprinted here. However, I like the way Lewis put it himself better.

Collins's view is less detailed, but similar. His comments on the topic begin on page 206 of The Language of God, if you are thumbing through it in your local Christian bookstore.

As to Augustine, I imagine starting with the Wikipedia article is as good as anywhere else to start. That will connect you on to more detailed info. Two points I bring up on my own. Origen, one of the most important church fathers (2nd Century), thought it was heretical to take a literal view of Genesis, because focusing on historical details would destroy the understanding of the real truth. Exactly what was going to be understood as orthodox and what was to be heretical was still being wrestled out in the church in his time (this was before any of the familiar creeds), so Origen's ideas must be carried lightly. Not all of what he thought became church teaching, but he was the first expositor of much that we consider second nature today.

Martin Luther was a great admirer of Augustine, and believed that most Reformation theology could be found in his works - which is part of why Luther considered that it was the Roman Catholic Church that was leaving him, and not the other way around. At times in the early arguments before the split he "longed" to quote Augustine to the church authorities to prove his points, but wanted to maintain the principle that scripture alone should be enough for all doctrinal understanding.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

No One Is Smart When They Don't Think - Part II

When I wrote the post No One Is Smart When They Don't Think a few days ago, I didn't realize how it would come back to slap me like a dead fish. As I wrote it, our passports were sitting in the safe deposit box at the bank. We seldom look at them.

It is very hard to get to Europe in July when your passport has expired in March, eh? I didn't discover the expiration until we were just getting in the car to head to Logan. We rode down and sent Chris and John-Adrian on ahead - their passports were fine. They decided to skip Munich altogether and go straight to Romania. They had to be quite resourceful to accomplish this, as they had paid no attention to the arrangements for the trip until that minute. With Tracy crying in the back seat, John-Adrian displayed the blithe overconfidence that allows him to get through life. "Don't worry. I know Europe like the back of my hand." Well, no he doesn't but they did get to Oradea safely tonight and we're still here in NH, so I'm not in much position to criticise, am I?

Yes, we could have gone to the Boston office the next day and gotten the passports renewed, then purchased new airline tickets and caught up with the boys. We still could, if it comes to that. But hovering by the phone and the email making sure your sons aren't stranded somewhere in Dublin, Frankfurt, Vienna, or Budapest - or Lord only knows where else - does not fit well with waiting in a government office in Boston.

So we're here, and this little mistake cost us $2-3K. Ouch, ouch.

Y'all might take this as a reminder to check your passport expirations, remembering that it takes 10-12 weeks to renew, and many countries won't take you in if it expires within 6 months. You're Welcome.

No One Is Smart When They Don't Think.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Great Stumbling Block

I am just about finished with Francis Collins’s The Language of God, and am quite pleased. Collins was the director of the Human Genome Project and has described its work and value for a general audience. That would be a commendable exercise in itself, but he takes on a greater task of integrating faith and science. Many writers attempt that, but Collins brings a rare honesty and intellectual rigor to the discussion.

You wouldn’t think I would judge any writer as having used CS Lewis too much, but the first few chapter of this book may actually fit that category. I usually have the opposite impression, that people who purport to have thought and studied deeply on a subject have tied themselves in useless knots by neglecting to look up the deft, clear words of Lewis on the topic. Yet even I was worried at first that Dr. Collins had gone too far. Not to worry. He weaves in many writers and thinkers in his recounting of his own faith-journey and his professional career in medicine and biochemistry. Augustine assumes especial prominence in some sections.

The book speaks with admiration for the scientific work of both believers and non-believers Collins has encountered, whether personally or in reading. There is no tearing down of anything but ideas; he gives credit for goodwill and sincerity to all parties. Because he finds most popular description of the most common points of view inadequate, he coins his own term BioLogos, for his particular intersection of creation and evolution.

In pointing out the weaknesses of Young Earth Creationism on both theological and scientific grounds he is quite kind. He gives considerable credit to the thinking behind Intelligent Design, though he ultimately finds it unsatisfying and rapidly eroding in value. Collins believes quite forcefully in evolution by random selection, and explains why in direct terms. Those of you who know Christians who have married their theology to Young Earth Creationism might want to leave this book lying around where they can find it.

There are various polls which suggest that 30-45% of Americans believe in Young Earth Creationism. That would indeed be appalling, but I think these numbers mislead. People believe contradictory things all the time because they really don’t think about them much. Most people believe in the Ice Age, the distance of the stars, the age of the earth, cavemen, the erosion of the Grand Canyon and a dozen other things incompatible with YEC. But when official persons asking questions corner them, they don’t want to be caught not being on God’s “side.” They think that a secular society is taking God out of circulation altogether too much, and they want to put in their vote that think He’s in charge. When you press people, it turns out that they would rather not risk heresy, and so give what they think is the spiritually safe answer. To do otherwise would seem disloyal and faithless to them.

I sent my sons to Christian schools which taught YEC, though they were often taught at least the rudiments of evolutionary theory as well. It was a bit of a balancing act to undermine that particular teaching without undermining the school, and keeping things age-appropriate for sons four years apart added to the difficulty. But we managed, and I always thought “better that problem than its opposite.” With the two younger boys, rescued by fundamentalist Romanian Baptists from the mouth of hell, it was always harder for them to move away from biblical literalism. And frankly, they don’t think about it much and it doesn’t matter. One is going to be an auto tech, the other an accountant.

Fundamentalists like to talk about “stumbling blocks” for others, and they use this doctrine to forbid things the Bible does not forbid, like drinking, rock music, smoking, movies, and dancing. But Young Earth Creationism is a much greater stumbling block for unbelievers and new believers. Jesus railed against Pharisees making up new rules for the people to live by if they wanted to be right with God. YEC fits this exactly. As far back as Augustine and Jerome biblical scholars were puzzled by the different style of Genesis chapters 1-14, especially 1-3, and seeing deeply symbolic lessons rather than recounted history there. These views of Genesis did not come in response to pressure from the sciences that seemed to call the facts into question, for there was no such pressure from science then. The scholars came to these views on the basis of the texts alone.

YEC has gotten into bizarre territory as time as gone on. Some are trying to sell the idea that God put these bones in the ground, and these moving stars, and these eroded canyons in place that just look like they are old. They say, God can do anything, He could do that. Okay, sure, but why would He want to? What’s your idea of God that He would think deceiving humanity would be a good idea? It is stuff like this that drives our young people out of the church. It’s not that they “just want to fit in with the world.” That’s our rationalization. It’s the intellectual cowardice that loses them.

Earnest young Christian musicians and popular preachers will tell you that people reject the church because we don’t show enough love, or generosity, or godliness. They will try to inspire the flock by declaring that people would believe if we really acted like the Good Samaritan, or lived by the Beatitudes, or forgave 70 times 7. That’s partly true. That would certainly help. But while many nonbelievers may say that what bothers them is the hypocrisy or the unforgiveness, I don’t believe them. Much of that is just an excuse by nonbelievers – I say that because I have seen too many people who were recipients of generosity and forgiveness who nonetheless rejected the faith.

Certainly many have believed false history of the church and attribute many ills to us unfairly, and it would be good to correct the record. But if you want to identify the #1 long-term stumbling block for those outside the faith, or those considering leaving it, look no further than Young Earth Creationism. Equating loyalty to God with loyalty to a particular way of reading the Scriptures is placing a Pharisaic, man-made burden on the people.

Now, all those objections to my view that some of you are sure I have never heard or haven’t considered, all that really compelling data from the Institute for Creation Research – take a breath and consider that maybe I have seen it and find it not very convincing. More importantly, Dr. Collins, whose credentials are far better than mine, has seen it and has ready answers.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Casting Out Nines

Some sites are worth checking out for their name alone.

As one can tell from my support for the names on the right-hand column, plus No Oil For Pacifists, which I have to get around to including, I am a sucker for a great blog name. Vox Rodentae hasn't put up anything new in months, but I just can't cut her from the list.


We are off to Munich for a week, then to Romania, for a wedding in Marghita.

I am duly empowering my son Jonathan to post as he likes. If you're looking for material, Jonno, you can always reprise things from last July, which I haven't gotten around to yet.

John-Adrian is bringing his laptop and the Hotel Uhland has wireless, so I may be able to keep up with y'all.

Cultural Environmentalist

Bill McKibben is interested in preserving the subculture in which people like him are heroes, and wants to make it the dominant culture. But not by force, exactly…

If you look up Bill McKibben on the web, you will find almost nothing but praise. McKibben’s first book, The End of Nature, was the first popular work to warn about global warming and he remains a front-and-center environmental activist. The recent marches in various locations to protest government inaction on global warming, called Step It Up? (the photo is perfect) That was a McKibben-driven thing. He writes books and magazine articles, speaks at conferences, and Bill McKibben is sensitive. “Striking.” “Redeeming.” He is one of the heaviest hitters in environmental activism.

Sad truth: Bill McKibben doesn’t care about the environment that much. What he cares about is making everyone act like the cool sort of people that environmentalists are. He wouldn’t see it that way, of course, and you have to tread a long distance before you realize that he can mean nothing else. He is very earnest – that particular word is used to describe him often – about global warming, and he doesn’t use a rhetoric of force. I doubt you could uncover any statements where McKibben advocates that we should make people act right.

Of course not. You do it by first encouraging them to do the right thing, then by having the government reward them for doing it, then punishing them for not doing it, then making it illegal. You don’t target individuals so much as the places they work for, or their entertainments, or their purchases. But it’s not force. Not really.

I am at this point always suspicious of the individuals who make environmental advocacy their career. Advocates are in general not doers, but gatherers, getting all the faithful together in one place so that they can all…all be together. In one place. So that they can show people how much they care. I feel the same way about advocates for causes I like as well. Going to a conference is mostly just rallying the faithful, but at least there is usually a serious educational portion and some tolerance of controversy. When the primary goal turns out to be something like “show congress,” or “raise awareness,” or “let America know” then it’s just flock behavior.

I became suspicious of McKibben in particular watching the video debate I linked to earlier. He couldn’t stay focused on the environment, but had to keep bringing up the War in Iraq, the personalities of his opponents, and the dishonesty of corporation advocacy. He also would not even attempt Lomborg’s challenge that we should spend government money wisely, which to Lomborg meant not focusing on warming but on targeted fixes. The proper response to that if you “care about the planet” is to agree with the principle of using finite funds wisely, then show how working on warming gives the most bang for the buck. McKibben got there vaguely a few times, vaporizing about synergy.

It’s the booklist that really gives away the game on McKibben’s intentions.
The End of Nature, which highlights runaway population growth and global warming. That first part doesn’t get mentioned so much now, because it turned out to not be much of a problem. The premise is that we have almost eliminated nature because we look at it differently, regarding it as a thing. We are changing all of nature by our actions now, and that’s a bad thing. Apparently all the irrigation, livestock-domestication, cropland, dam-building, and intentionally burning vast areas that our ancestors did doesn’t count as real effect. “We have built a greenhouse, a human creation where once there bloomed a sweet and wild garden.” Bleah. A similarly revealing quote from the same book.
I am a reasonably orthodox Methodist, and I go to church on Sunday because fellowship matters. . . . But it is not in "God's house" that I feel his presence most—it is in his outdoors', on some sun-warmed slope of pine needles or by the surf.
Gee, what an original idea. No one’s ever thought of that before. But Lewis H. Lapham does the takedown much better: "The author, a young man of sensibility named Bill McKibben, strives for a sanctimonious effect that is earnest, doom-ridden, precious and tear-stained. In New York, a city not known for its farms or its morals, his essay was received as a work of rural piety". Ouchies.

Other books include The Age of Missing Information, which tells us that TV isn’t real, but McKibben countered that with a short camping trip in the Adirondacks, where he gained “deep knowledge.” Knowledge like
...Human beings--any one of us, and our species as a whole--are not all-important, not at the center of the world. That is the one essential piece of information, the one great secret, offered by any encounter with the woods or the mountains or the ocean or any wilderness or chunk of nature or patch of night sky.

Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. Bill tells us how to be human, and lets us know that money doesn’t buy happiness. He is quite sure, despite all the leisure activities and early retirements, that Americans are obsessed with money, and need to be reminded. Actually, I think Bill McKibben and environmentalists are the ones obsessed with money, sermonizing that no one should be any richer than them, as in his most recent book Deep Economy. Along with his similarly-themed Hope, Human and Wild, McKibben thinks that building local economies is the way to go. Smaller. Homier. With fewer Wal-Marts. Bill assures us “The formula of human well-being used to be simple: Make money, get happy.” I’m trying to remember when it was, exactly, that people believed that. Still, it must be so if a Harvard journalism major says so.

If I am being extra-snippy at this point it is because such ideas have real consequences. Poor nations remain poor. Children go hungry. So that Vermont can continue to have dairy farms, which are so cool, because they hearken back to an earlier era when… you get the picture.

Hundred-Dollar Holiday. Christmas has become too materialistic. Wow, another original idea. If you haven’t gotten the idea yet that the point is that more people should live like Bill McKibben, you’re not paying attention.

Maybe One: A Case For Smaller Families. There’s too much population! We use too much energy! We waste! And only children are smarter, too! Sure, and when you have only one child you can decide at age 37 to indulge in the mid-life fantasy of dropping everything to become a competitive cross-country skier, so that you can experience what a life focused on the body is like. Which in turn gives you an interesting perspective on your father’s brain cancer, as in Long Distance.

McKibben’s essays are easy enough to find on the net. He has a regular column for Grist, writes for Harper’s, used to write for the New Yorker. You can even catch some of his religious maunderings as well, as in The Christian Paradox: How a Faithful Nation Gets Jesus Wrong. in which he speaks highly of Jim Wallis – not the way to my good side – and pretty much tells us that Jesus was a Green and a Liberal. Not that he would state it that baldly, but it’s hard to miss.

Bill McKibben is interested in preserving the subculture in which people like him are heroes, and wants to make it the dominant culture. But not by force, exactly…

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

No One Is Smart When They Don't Think

This was a line I used with my sons, particularly the eldest, for some reason. "You're a very smart boy, Jonathan. But no one is smart when they don't think."

One of the smarter social workers in our department made a stupid comment that can only come from not thinking. This is a witty and urbane man, with whom I have had several pleasant conversations. We were being instructed in the proper way to write the address on a revised form: should we use the physical address, the mailing address, the guardian's address, or the place we are bringing the patient? Whenever a form serves more than one master questions like this rise to the surface.

As is usual, several of the social workers could not understand the explanation, and the attempts of the department head and others to find the magic words to make it clear weren't forthcoming. There are a few dim people, always the same ones, who cannot drop their previous idea and accept a new one. They always have to attempt some synthesis of the new idea and the old one. This can be disastrous.

The social worker who made the stupid statement was not one of the dim ones. He was one of the ones who got the new idea right away and was attempting to explain it to others. But in the frustration of the idea not getting across, he blurted out "I would just like to say that this is a good example of why we need a new health care system in this country." No, you bufflehead, this is precisely the sort of thing that will become worse. A description of a new regulation requiring that a form be given twice during a patient's stay, once at admission and once two days before discharge only solidified the obviousness of this. The idiots who made up the form and the regulation would now be in charge of more things, not fewer.

Every intervention solves some problems and creates others, though it is always possible for a bureaucracy to create problems and solve nothing. If we go to a Canadian/British system of health care it will solve some problems and create others. If we go to a French or German model we will solve different things and create different problems. If we change nothing we will continue to have the problems we are having, but we will avoid getting new ones. In all discussions about complicated and enormous problems with competing needs, we will get some benefit and some loss. Anyone speaking as if there will be all gain and no loss is not thinking. We do have problems. Solving them would be good. The question then becomes, does this plan solve more things or worsen more things?

Such evaluation is not beyond this particular social worker. The evidence is right in front of him. But he is convinced for political reasons that we need to change health care by guarranteeing more of it via government, and so whatever problem comes up, that's the automatic, reflexive solution.

No one is smart when they don't think.

The Worrying Begins

One marker that I am not yet convinced I am really about to travel is that I have not worried about dying until today. Whenever I go on a long trip, the likelihood of a crazed gunman, or more likely a crazed driver, taking me and/or the whole family off the planet seems high.

When I actually do die, if I have a moment to realize it beforehand I will likely be struck but poignancy of having forseen it. This will be a lie, because I have been forseeing my death for over 40 years now. I have not surpassed my mother-in-law's record, however. She was sure she would die before 35, and even picked out a second wife for her husband so she would know her children were being brought up by someone good. I think she turns 85 this year. Or 86. I've got a long way to go to catch her, anyway.

I like poignancy. It has a literary, narrative feel to it. I suspect that Christians, or theists of any stripe, are particularly prone to believing they will be given some premonition, like Caedmon being told beforehand of his death so he could make sure all his forgiveness accounts (both giving and receiving) were topped up. But these ironies seldom play out in real life. Something goes wrong and then your dead, so others impose extra meaning on your last few acts, reading the entrails of that goat.

Don't work too hard on this. I have four sons. That's my epitaph.

Aren't you glad you stopped by for a grouchy old guy to cheer you up?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Bias at the BBC? Say It Ain't So!

Antony Jay, writer for the BBC, is yet another defector who acknowledges that the august institution is not only slanted, but deceitful. An excellent editorial from the London Telegraph. A lovely and revealing quote
we were anti-industry, anti-capitalism, anti-advertising, anti-selling, anti-profit, anti-patriotism, anti-monarchy, anti-Empire, anti-police, anti-armed forces, anti-bomb, anti-authority. Almost anything that made the world a freer, safer and more prosperous place, you name it, we were anti it.

HT: Maggie's Farm

Sand Sculpting

The annual New England Sand Sculpting Festival took place at Revere Beach this past weekend. I didn't go, but I always like looking at the pictures.

Selling Out

Daniel Brook's new book The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America looks like a real hoot. Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit excerpts this section
After graduating Yale in 2003 with a double major in film studies and gender studies, Tara moved to San Francisco to pursue queer documentary filmmaking. She settled in the Castro district, the historic epicenter of American gay culture, and quickly discovered plenty of enticing projects. "There were lots of opportunities to do film and to help people with their films, but no one had any money to pay me so I did a lot of volunteering and part-time work," she told me in a Castro coffee shop.
Is that perfect or what?

I'm from an Ivy League school and I'll tell you what films are supposed to be made, dammit.

Reynolds notes that the comments at Amazon are entertaining in themselves, and oh, they are. I was only a Junior Associate member of the Ivies - my highschool friends went to Wellesley, Harvard, and Williams, but I went to Ivy-wannabee William & Mary. Still, I believe I understand the attitude pretty well, as the Theatre (yes, we spelled it that way) and English majors sounded a lot like this in my day as well.

I am going to file this with my Arts & Humanities Tribe posts. It is an exceptionally good illustration of the real reason for A&H support for redistributive economic policies. It has nothing to do with concern for the downtrodden and everything to do with resentment that market societies reward (eww!) lesser people than their exalted selves. It would be an unfair insult to progressives to even suggest this, did they not provide so many examples of this pathology.

It provides a good lead-in to the Bill McKibben post I have finally slapped into coherent shape (McKibben was Journalism - Harvard, BTW. Same tribe), and will post before going on vacation Wednesday. Environmentalist activists are not so concerned with pollution and the physical environment as they are with deterioration of the cultural environment they want to be ascendant. They want the sort of person who doesn't have (time for) children, who has time for causes, and has disdain for most other Americans, to be the dominant class. They are trying to increase the status of their group by reducing the status of the other American tribes - Business, Science & Technology, God & Country.

Once you know how pervasive the tribal-victory motive is in this group, it starts to jump out at you from book titles. Deer Hunting With Jesus and What's Wrong With Kansas aren't about understanding these groups but in undermining them. The environmentalist diatribes against corporate America aren't about the destruction of the world, but of their world. Thus also the fear books about Big Pharma, Big Oil, and multinational corporations. Not that these are above criticism or don't deserve to be roundly kicked from time-to-time, same as all of us, but the actual motive for the criticsm leaks out over every page once you've become attuned to it.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Why The ChiComs Are Still In Power

My son Benjamin has had remarkable, uh, luck with fortune cookies, as detailed here. Last night I received one worthy of him.

It explains a lot, doesn't it?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Post 900 - Assumptions

When commenting on other blogs, I make unwarranted assumptions about the commenters. Some screen names give hints about a person’s sex or ethnicity, but many are entirely ambiguous. In those cases I tend to assume that the commenters are about the same age as the host, and am somewhat likely to think of them as the same gender as the host absent any other cues.

Yet often the age and even the gender of the host is not available, and in those cases I tend to assume that all commenters are white males of about my age. I don’t have any consistent assumptions as to marital status or occupation. And fortunately for you all, I don’t seem to assume that you are also short, bald, and fat.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Too Good. Just Too Good

The following quote from Diane Sawyer:
You know, I wanted to sit on a jury once and I was taken off the jury. And the judge said to me, 'Can, you know, can you tell the truth and be fair?' And I said, 'That's what journalists do.' And everybody in the courtroom laughed. It was the most hurtful moment I think I've ever had.

Video at Newsbusters

Fair's Fair

I feel obliged to point out that the massive hypocrisy, energy waste, and enormous carbon footprint of the Live Earth concerts do not invalidate their claim. History is replete with people advocating for causes while not living up to their ideals. Most young environmentalists are hypocrites; so what? Most everythings are hypocrites. I sometimes find it remarkable that we rise out of selfishness long enough to do any good at all.

Yes the sanctimony is irritating, but it is irrelevant to the truth. The same is true for all the kicking of Al Gore about his personal exploitation of the environment and John Edward's exploitation of the poor. The hypocrisy might be a valid consideration as to whether we elect them but it does not in itself invalidate their causes, any more than randy preachers invalidate Christianity.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

New Imperialism, New Nationalism

The News Junkie over at Maggie's Farm passes on this article about EU officials letting it slip that they think of themselves as a new empire. When you add in all the European rhetoric about the EU being important as a counterweight to American power, the truth emerges as to why they fear us as imperialist, ultranationalist hegemons.

It's because they are imperialist, ultranationalist hegemons, and they can't conceive of people using power any differently. They just tweaked the idea of nationalism a bit to describe a panEuropean nation, to hide the truth from themselves.


I've always wondered about this, and finally got around to looking it up. Yes, there can be thunderstorms in winter. They are rare, more common around large lakes, and the snow absorbs much of the thunderous sound.


My friend Roger has daughters 11 and 4 years old. The older one, the tomboy, is away at church camp this week. He left early from work today to be with the younger one, the princess, while Mom went to an appointment.

Young Katie goes in for the dramatic and eccentric in clothing. A pair of pink cowgirl boots are current faves, and she is also fond of her bright red Chinese silk dress. Sometimes both together. When Roger got home today in his banker's suit she wanted him to play, so he took off his shoes and loosened his tie. Soon she had the idea that they should play kings and queens in her room. Katie's room has A/C and a rocking chair, and it wasn't long before Roger announced "All right then, the King is going to close his eyes."

He was awakened an indeterminate amount of time later by the younger daughter pulling on him and the sound of the doorbell ringing and the dog, Bruschi, barking. "Daddy, you'd better get the door." Roger hurried to the front door for the Fedex delivery of some medication.

The Fedex guy looked up. "Nice tiara."

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Curves is the Heart of Goffstown

This is the Assistant Village Idiot's wife. He asked me to post on this topic. I've been going to the local Curves for 4 1/2 years. It's the only exercise program I've stuck with - even through surgery and various injuries. I like the fact that you don't get bored because you are constantly moving from machine to machine. I like the fact that it's quick and I can do it on the way home from school. But I know I've stuck with it because of the women who run it and the women who go. We play silly games and have a lot of fun. Our Bible study group did a Willow Creek study on evangelism called "Walk across the room". Kathy and I kept talking about the women we met at Curves so much that Sue decided to join. I come home with all kinds of local tidbits to tell my husband. I had recently commented to him that the local hamburger stand was now serving souvlaki and we ought to go. Well, today I met AT CURVES the sister of the man who used to own Magoo's. She informed me that her brother had sold the business and moved down to Florida with their mother. He had sold the business to a Greek. All made perfect sense. So I told David, "See, Curves is really the heart of Goffstown."

Desperate Measures

I read recently a proposal that every voter should get two votes, one in his own state and one to vote against someone in any other state of his choosing. The immediate problem with this is that an organised campaign in a populous state could pick off five or six senators at a time from less-populous states. Big problem.

The two-vote idea does open up another possibility, though. Members of each party would get to cast a second vote against the elected official of their own party in the country. Some unobjectionable Democrat, such as a Bill Bradley or a Bob Kerrey, would be put forward as the automatic replacement for whichever Democrat the other Democrats wanted to get rid of.

I worry that such a thing might give too much power to party extremists - the Democrats would likely have banded together to take out Lieberman last time. However, the opportunity to have a say in kicking Trent Lott out of the halls of power has great appeal for me. Sure, a lot of Republicans would think at first that they wanted to go after McCain. But given a moment to think about it, with Trent Lott and Ted Stevens up there as choices for the remainder bin, I think folks would get the idea that this could be used to do the country a favor.

Granted, it probably won't work, as there are likely unintended consequences once people learn how to manipulate the system. But the idea of getting to slap Senator Earmark from Alaska is a sweet fantasy.

Watership Down

I went looking for a remembered quote from Watership Down for one of my posts and quickly enough became immersed in rereading it. I never used the quote (by Fiver, speaking of Silverweed) but it was time spent profitably anyway. Few books have ever gone to the heart for me as this one did and still does. Lord of the Rings, and in an entirely different way The Screwtape Letters.

We visited the place ten years ago. When planning our trip to London and Oxford, we discovered that Watership Down is a real place and resolved to go there. Adams does note that the place is real on the copyright page, but we had never noticed. We did not tramp over the entire area, but did walk off the road near Kingsclere and see the pylons. If I try again I will bring more detailed maps. You can have more info here , and pictures here. You can pick out Watership Down on Google Earth with some difficulty - the wiki marker is not quite where Adams puts it on the map - and Efrafa is quite easy. We stayed at Freefolk, near Efrafra, while we were there.

People claim to reread books for the beauty of their language, but I am sure that is not the case here. The continual identification of plants is still tedious to me, as I have no picture in my mind what groundsel or campion look like. It is the story I am after, and the chance to listen to old friends again. It is a puzzling thing how the plot could pull one along so when every coming event is already known.

I hope the book retains some popularity and survives yet one more generation. It is inspiring because so much of it is true. Societies that trade safety for freedom still end up like Cowslip's warren or like Efrafra. Risks must be taken, and the danger of loss is real. The honesty of knowing the real abilities of yourself and those around you is still the core foundation for camaraderie; you find yourself through hardship, not ease; sacrifice for others is noble; courage and generosity are rewarded only sometimes, but still should be the first instinct.

Beast-fable, Lewis claimed, allows the author to illustrate things about human nature that are otherwise unavailable. The characters are both children and adults, with no jobs to go to, but great freedom of action.


Why haven't I heard this before? Why isn't this news? Someone makes an antiwar statement by shooting an airman, who is now in critical condition, on July 4th?

Now, if an airman had shot an antiwar protester, I think that would be news.

Are Relativists Mostly Just Closet Absolutists?

The most politically radical person I know is also one of the brightest and cleverest. He is a locally notorious forensic psychiatrist who always finds the people he examines for the court Not Competent to stand trial. (Note: this is not the same as Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity, see below). He is very familiar with both the mental health and corrections systems, and believes people will be better treated in every way by mental health. He knows how poor the psychiatric care is at the jails and doesn’t want people treated there. There is a certain sense to this, particularly in marginal cases. One can at least see the moral idea behind it, even if one does not agree.

He recently found a person of such obvious competence Not Competent as to arouse controversy. Competency is by law a pretty low standard. It means that you know what an attorney does, and what a judge does, what a jury is for, etc. It is a simple declaration that you understand enough of the process to assist your attorney in defending you. People are found Competent, yet later also found Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity all the time. Forensic psychiatrists and psychologists appointed by the court are usually given a lot of interpretive leeway, especially over time. This case, however, is ridiculous. However understandable the underlying principle behind the doctor’s decision is, the fact remains that this decision is in complete opposition to the intent of a law duly passed by a constituting authority. He has overruled the legistlature, and thus the society, in accordance with his own views.

I had a running argument with this same psychiatrist about abortion years ago. In discussing the tougher questions of inheritable conditions, hope for a decent life, and sentience, I made the point that these questions did not change much after birth, and relying too heavily on them as reasons to abort opened considerable space for justifying infanticide. He surprised me by agreeing, noting that some already-born infants were so compromised and so unable to ever have meaningful life that infanticide is justified. He also thought that parents were not well-placed to make that decision, which should be made by doctors instead. He felt perfectly confident in his ability to make those decisions wisely.

Again, it is not impossible to understand some motive of kindness or compassion lying behind this. This is not the reasonong of an amoral person, but of one whose moral imperative of reducing suffering of a certain type leads him to ignore many other moral considerations.

Here’s the kicker: this psychiatrist positively seethes and sputters over George Bush and the neocons, who he openly calls fascist, for…unconstitutional spying on American citizens, lying to get us into a war for oil, illegally detaining people, raping the environment – the whole usual litany. The fact that nearly every word he utters with such assurance is a matter of some debate he rejects with disdain. Constitutional… so what if some courts hold that it is allowable? Those judges were appointed by conservatives! Spying…lying… war for oil…he feels quite confident that what he uses as definitions of these things are the real ones, because the smart people that agree with him about this, well, agree with him.

This is as clearly an absolutist as one could draw. He doesn’t think moral issues are relative – he wants to decide them in consultation with those he thinks best, and resents that other people, lesser people should be part of the decision. He sees himself as quite the flexible relativist in some ways, but this is because he considers some questions, such as who people sleep with, morally unimportant. And he also wants to decide which questions are important.

Okay, that’s just one person, albeit one with some power and influence in the world. But it is one I know well, and have some understanding of his motives. I now believe that such folk are more common than I once thought. And I worry that they are growing more numerous and/or more powerful.

I have enjoyed the irony of noting how often postmodernists, relativists, and all those who believe in flexible realities slip up and make absolutist statements. I went into this at some length in my posts on the tribal nature of the Ats& Humanities, as the inconsistencies are rife in that crew, e.g. children should be taught safe sex practices because they are going to do have sex anyway, but this principle doesn’t apply to gun safety, drunk driving (no one says “at least we got them to wear their seat belts”), or environmental infractions, because those are things they should just be taught not to do at all.

For some reason I have pretty much taken them at their word that they are not absolutists, but relativists. I have regarded the inconsistencies as exceptions to their general pattern, a refusal to acknowledge that there is some absolutist in all of us. I have changed my mind on that. I now think that something in the relativist/progressive/postmodernist approach to life is primarily absolutist, just disguised. They are more categorical than most of us, not less.

I am grateful for this post at Dr. Sanity’s which put me on to this quote by Stephen Hicks from his Explaining Postmodernism
The pattern therefore raises the question of which side of the contradiction is deepest for postmodernism. Is it that psotmodernists really are committed to relativism, but occasionally lapse into absolutism? Or are the absolutist commitments deepest and the relativism a rhetorical cover?
It has clarified a concept I was apprehending only dimly. Dr. Sanity’s quick assessment: “If the modern leftist truly embraced relativism, then you would not see the uniformity of their politics or their reactions to events in the world.”

There are those who truly attempt consistency and resolution, of course. While this often leads them into radical positions, such as allowing FGM in the name of multiculturalism, or renouncing multiculturalism in the name of feminism, one has to admire at least the attempt to put one’s principles into practice. I have a different quarrel with such as these, and far less quarrel than with standard news-attracting (and news-writing) progressives. Some issues are difficult, borderline, or ambiguous.

I believe morality is soft at the edges but adamantine at the core. There is a history among conservatives, especially religious fundamentalists, of regarding the outer shell of morality as so inflexible as to be brittle. All musics, chemicals, or entertainments which carry the least whiff of suspicion must be regarded as forbidden. I have certainly known such, and have the impression that they were formerly more common. I find such people much more often on the left these days, reflexively absolutist.

These are very quick to use extremist terms: fascist, plutocracy, corporatocracy, inquisitor. They are quite certain the Right is absolutist. Not from where I sit. I submit the opposite is true – the progressives are themselves so absolutist that they resent any check on their power.

Spoke Too Soon

I posted on Cindy Sheehan's exit about 5-6 weeks ago. In trying to be openminded, perhaps I was too generous. She is back in the saddle, attempting to return to prominence

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Not For The Squeamish

From the amazing Michael Yon, one of the few journalists who is actually among the troops and the Iraqi people, rather than getting his news from his bellhop, comes this grim story from Baqubah. For those of you who get your news from the usual sources like TV and the major dailies, you may not have heard much about Baqubah. An Iraqi official who asks to be kept anonymous speaks through the American translator Lt. David Wallach.

At first, he said, they would only target Shia, but over time the new al Qaeda directed attacks against Sunni, and then anyone who thought differently. The official reported that on a couple of occasions in Baqubah, al Qaeda invited to lunch families they wanted to convert to their way of thinking. In each instance, the family had a boy, he said, who was about 11 years old. As LT David Wallach interpreted the man’s words, I saw Wallach go blank and silent. He stopped interpreting for a moment. I asked Wallach, “What did he say?” Wallach said that at these luncheons, the families were sat down to eat. And then their boy was brought in with his mouth stuffed. The boy had been baked. Al Qaeda served the boy to his family.

I have four sons. Tell me again why we want to reason with these people and believe their complaints against us?

(HT: kat at Cathousechat.com)

Disappointing Vaudeville

I linked to a vaudeville site below, which in turn links to many other vaudeville sites. I thought the Edison cylinders of old routines to be a particular find, and clicked on all of them in turn, waiting for some classic bit of hilarity to unfold in front of me.

Not one of them was that funny. One representative short film was a miller, carrying a bag of flour, bumping into a chimney sweep carrying a bag of soot. They got angry and threw black and white powder at each other. That’s it. I can construct in my mind how gifted physical comedians could make even that funny, with fakes, delays, false truces, agile ducks and leaps, and the like, but even at its best it wouldn’t be promising. And, this was not the best. They just threw powder.

A second routine involved a banjo playing country boy making fun of a city slicker looking for directions. Lame jokes. Poor timing. Camp skits as I remember them from the 1960’s were funnier. Even though those sucked.

Vaudeville carries a mystique that even the evidence before me would not dispel. Vaudeville is where Hope and Durante perfected their comic timing. Bert Lahr. Jack Benny. Thus I decided, in the way that we preserve our myths, that this was early vaudeville. Later vaudeville was much funnier. Discussing this with a friend at work, he remembered how excited he was to rent a couple of Marx Brothers movies to watch with his son, and how flat they had fallen. I recalled a similar incident of showing some 3 Stooges episodes to my own sons. There were moments of humor, but mostly, it just wasn’t that funny.

But I had loved those as a kid. Most guys of my generation did.

Okay, so maybe it was humor especially geared to children…except vaudeville was for adults. This was painful for me to absorb, for personal reasons. My father was a gifted actor and physical comedian. My mother had divorced him when I was 6. I sought him out when I was 18 and had a good relationship with him for the rest of his life – he would have been 80 next month. He told stories of old vaudeville routines he had learned and done regionally. He had particularly admired Ben Blue doing the classic silent routine of a man trying to light a cigarette and hold a cup and saucer at the same time. Well into his 60’s Al Wyman would emcee local shows and do his Flo The Flea routine.

I could never decide whether it was an inspiration or a discouragement when I saw him play Mortimer the Indian in The Fantastiks. His death scene was magnificent, and gave me an echo of what vaudeville must have been. I knew I could never be that good. I was better for having seen it – my acting improved immediately – but I wandered out of acting soon after, tried directing and was only moderately good at it. I left the theater and have done little since. What talent I have is residual.

We did carry on the family tradition. I did a minstrel show with my Dad in blackface in 1959. It’s a rather dubious honor to be one of the last people to do that. My son Ben learned “Who’s on first” and performed it with his friend Tim when they were in 5th grade. He’ll be one of the last. I could still do “Sawing a Man in Half” and “Cleaning and Dyeing” without rehearsal. I’m not sure they would be funny, though. They would have an amusing nostalgic air about them, but not be gut-busting. I have scripts from old burlesque routines. Most of them don’t draw a smile.

I am seeking other rationalizations. Humor takes place in its own moment and era, and looks less funny in another period. My father loved the comic strip Pogo in college; I found it mildly amusing. I found Garfield uproarious when it was new, and find it irritating now. I loved The Far Side and would even imagine which panels people from other eras would find humorous. My father-in-law fails to see the humor. He loved Abbott and Costello, which come to think of it, also never seemed funny to me. It may be that the newness and immediacy of vaudeville gave it its life and was necessary for its humor. As nostalgia it just may not work, except as an evocation of an earlier era. The stylistic differences, especially the exaggeration of gesture and expression, may not translate to an audience trained to the subtlety of movie faces and underplayed humor.

I don’t know if I dare watch Dick Van Dyke’s “Why Slapstick Isn’t Funny” again. My stomach used to ache from laughing watching that – but humor may have improved so greatly that it wouldn’t seem so impressive anymore.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Moths and Butterflies

During the immigration bill debates, one of the weirdest comments I read in the postmortem was the mainstream journalism complaint that "Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity were more powerful than George Bush." It's distressing to think that the people whose job it is to report to us what's happening in the country don't know how the country works.

There is only a limited amount of political persuasion happening at any given time. Most people have their ideas already up and running when a debate starts, and are listening to hear whose ideas are closest to theirs, or is reasoning from the same values they are. The talk radio people had views on immigration that were much closer to what most Americans thought, and articulated them. They didn't make anyone think like them. Talk radio hosts have no power beyond some persuasion. A US president has some things he can make the country do even if no one agrees with him. While his power ultimately derives from popular support and is modified by that support throughout his term, he has actual authority, not just influence.

For political journalists not to be aware of this leaves us with few possibilities about their thinking, none of which are encouraging:

1. They believe that polls actually do govern America, which is why they spend so much time on them. And why they have such inflated views of themselves as opinion-makers.

2. They believe that a few people can influence polls with a wave of the hand. The conservative accusation is that liberals are too easily influenced by the opinions of others. For journalists to hand them evidence of this seems odd.

3. They don't really know how government works.

All have something going for them as explanations, but leave me with the uncomfortable feeling that they seem remarkably self-assured in their pronouncements for people who don't know anything. And this last thought leads me to the part about the moths and the butterflies.

There are some types of moth that have evolved to look less tasty by disguising themselves as butterflies. Journalists go through a similar process. They rise in their profession by giving the appearance of knowing something. By vocabulary, location, tone of voice, and dress they look like informed people. I am not trying to insult the American people by saying that the citizenry is too easily fooled by these plausible charlatans. These imitation wise people are the best of the best fakes, winnowed out from thousands of candidates over extended periods. Some of them actually are intelligent and informed, providing cover for the others.

But actual knowledge and intelligence are irrelevant - the seeming is what matters. They are moths disguised as butterflies

I Am Not Making This Up

This is the youtube clip the EU media center has put out to encourage people to watch European movies. No, this is not a vicious spoof by right-wing Americans making fun of European movies.

You would think it would have subtitles, though.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Indian Genocide

In the discussion of the purported genocide of Native Americans, here is a decent, brief summary. Fashions in history change, and the fashion in the 1960's and 70's was to ramp up the claim of European genocidal intent. That has changed, and the opinion of researchers now tends in the opposite direction, that disease was the overwhelming culprit. During both periods there have dissenters from the popular view.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Good Old Days

For those who like stories about people having history completely screwed up in their heads, Ben has a post about a woman who watches the History Channel.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Miss Hoosegow Honey

Iowahawk has his second annual Miss Hoosegow Honey contest up. Vote for the arrestee of your choice.

ABBA History

Not actually ABBA, but Bjorn Ulvaeus, member of the band. He was one of the "B's" in the middle, along with Benny Andersson. The "A's" were the girls, Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Clever, eh? A-B-B-A.

It is flipping amazing how fanatic folks are about ABBA. There are sites devoted to them everywhere, and few of them, very few, are focused on the skirt lengths of the girls. As this was the only redeeming quality I saw in the band, I find this surprising. Many people slightly younger than I must have regarded this band's songs as significant to their development. There's a chilling thought.

Back to Bjorn. He played earlier with other bands in Sweden - a skiffle band, the very popular Hep Singers, and a four man combo called The Hootenanny Singers. They are credited with bringing Hootenanny music to Sweden in 1963. But for foreign releases, this band had other names for purposes of recording only, and on this US release they were called The Northern Lights.

Yes, that's Bjorn there second from right in the blue turtleneck. Surely you recognise Hansi Schwartz on the left, Johan Karlberg in the back, and Tony Rooth on the right? The scary part: I own this album. This scan was done this very evening on my very own machine. I was given it for Christmas 1966, perhaps by my grandmother. As I only listened to the record for about a year, and didn't follow ABBA at all, I didn't know until some time in the 90's that this particular item included anyone from that more famous band. I remember the chorus to "Gabrielle" and the first line of "Jag Vanter Vid Min Mila" in phonetic Swedish - I have no idea what they mean.

I have learned that this turkey is actual slightly valuable. It is apparently very hard to find, possibly because the few Americans who owned it got rid of it. People who care about these things are willing to pay money for this album.

Make me an offer. It's in darn good shape.

Wars of Religion

In view of the mild controversy in the "Wars of Religion" post below, we have this interesting report of a Christian asking for his nation to be invaded.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Vaudeville Performance Online

Virtual Vaudeville is a site in development. You can currently watch a 3D version in a long-gone Keith theater of an actual vaudeville script from 1895. Very cool. There are numerous links to other information about vaudeville, where you can get lost for oh, (9:01 minus 7:49, borrow a six...) at least an hour and twelve minutes, anyway.

Actually, I do time calculations differently, but you really don't want to know.

No More Teenagers!

As of tomorrow, we will have no more teenagers in the family. It is Chris's 20th birthday, and I can now sum up the progeny census by saying "I have four sons in their 20's."

Jumping To Conclusions

Richard Shenkman and others have written some charming and informative books on the untruths that are believed about American history. I won't link to any of them, because they are a varied lot, and every one of them has a current political agenda pretty obviously protruding from its snout. Some attempt to show that America wasn't really a Christian nation, or that business has always screwed people, or that founding fathers X,Y, and Z were actually thieves and child molesters. The others attempt to show that America was too Christian (Was nahhht! Was tooooo!), or that business as brought us all our good things and attitudes, or that our founders were even more noble than we imagined.

It all gets rather tiring, as summations of individuals and events seldom falls into neat categories. Bill Clinton and George Bush don't fall into neat categories, why should Adams and Madison?

Historians, both amateur and professional, leap to conclusions and tend to see what they want or expected. Some are rigorous or honest enough to see clearly, but it isn't any easier for them than for the rest of humanity. In the popular myth-buster books, I often have enough background to notice a misinterpreted claim, and I pass one along for you here.

Shenkman claims that the religiosity of the early Puritans was not really much greater than ours, and he sites as evidence for this that only about 50% of the population of colonial New England had church membership. That would seem a plausible conclusion, until you know the difference between church membership then and now. Many, in some towns most, people were not accepted for membership on first application to their churches. Some applied three and four times before being accepted, and some who applied were never received. Membership was regarded as an honor, because the Calvinists wanted the Church Visible not to include anyone who wasn't clearly in the Church Invisible. Interestingly, the honor was granted to women more often than men.

In that atmosphere, a lot of folks wouldn't go through the humiliation of applying unless they thought they had some chance of acceptance.

Be careful of the mythbusters on any side. Their stories are charming, but often miss important points.