Sunday, February 28, 2010

Powerless in My Return

We are safely back from the 'Burg, but the power is out.

Still reading Chesterton, in the heart of WWI now, commenting on the long history of German belief from Frederick the Great until hisw time. A great deal of the philosophy of Nazism which we regard as having sprung surprisingly on the world in the 30's, with faint support in its history, Chesterton anticipates in his discussion of German attitudes up until 1916. Much to think about.

Friday, February 26, 2010


Admiring the fine and ancient trees in Colonial Williamsburg - still called CW, I was pleased to note - it occurred to me that they would not have had these fine old trees when it was new. So in that way, the restoration is not at all authentic. Williamsburg didn't look like that in 1760. They could not possibly have had 200-year old trees lining the street in an exact row. They would have done what they could, of course to preserve large healthy trees where they could, and some of those would now be growing and spreading in the open instead of close in the forest. But it wouldn't have looked like this.

OTOH, a few of them do actually go back to that time, and so provide a real continuity through the current day, even if they were small trees then and a re big trees now.

I was surprised that I could not find a listing or article about the trees of CW. I found scraps on different sites, but no place where it's all collected together. I would have expected someone to have done that work long before now. But in fact, they just proposed a commission to collect tree data two weeks ago.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Movie Stuff

Weird being near TV's. In the hotel lobby in Carolina, the clerk was watching this sitcom about some kids in Hawaii. Sitcom overacting is just boggling to watch when you catch it out of context like that. It's like watching giant Muppets, but with less personality.

In this particular episode, some evil businessman was trying to buy up property to build a hotel, and was complaining that his opponents were standing in the way of progress. But the kids look like they're going to be the conscience of this show and save the pristine Hawaiian environment from rapacious developers. However long it takes to get a cup of coffee - maybe a minute - and already you can tell it's going to be one of those "I would have succeeded if it hadn't been for those darn kids!" But the moral lines being drawn - it's "Avatar," except for no cool special effects. The big movie of the year is a sitcom made serious. I asked the clerk what the show was: "Saved By The Bell." So that will be the sequel. Avatar:Saved By The Bell.

Kyle was watching "Son of The Mask" (I think that's what he said). There was something compelling about it, even though you are thinking at every moment "this is amazingly stupid. Are the actors dragging down a mediocre script, or are they pulling an abysmal script up to mere badness?" No matter. What struck me was how one scene fits in with my recent Wyrd and Providence series. At one point Loki, who has lost his powers somehow, is trying to summon a god through some rituals, writing, incantation - and you just know instantly "This isn't Norse. They didn't do things like this." A spectral Odin appears, and it's just wrong. Those rules don't work here.

By the way, I kept seeing TV and print ads about ghosts and hauntings when I was in NC and VA - more than I am used to seeing in New England. My theory is that supposed ghosts don't start appearing in Puritan New England until quite late, and they are more of a Southern phenomenon - possibly Mid-Atlantic as well. Half an hour with a search engine seems to confirm this theory. New England ghost stories don't show up until the 19th C, though I'll bet some 18th C ones could be found. Sometimes the purported ghost is from the 17th C, but the story about it doesn't appear until later. I suspect that particular belief was not common among the Puritans, for reasons the reader may guess if you have been following my recent series.

Counter-evidence welcome.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Two Humblings

I am having the same experience reading the Chesterton essays that I had long ago reading Lewis for the first time. I had barely started - in fact is was the second paragraph of the Foreward - yet had already encountered something definitely true which I had not been doing. Chesterton wrote on war and peace with an eye to both the reader of the past and of the future. Fair enough, I do that myself, though not so intensely. But GKC intentionally downplayed the day-to-day events of the Boer War and WWI in order to more clearly focus on general principles. I felt accused, and rightly accused. We should not fit eternal principles to our daily events, but the other way 'round. I hope to do better on this.

Chesterton opposed the Boer War, which was highly popular in England, especially among the academic class; he supported WWI, which was largely disdained by the academic class. His application of principles has left me wondering what he would have made of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Several comments have caused me to think to myself well, he wouldn't have been supportive of going into Iraq, then; others cause me to suspect that he would. Much to think about.

The other humbling was in the college bookstore at William and Mary. The nice shopgirl came up and asked if she could help.

AVI: Well, I'm looking, but I didn't buy any of this stuff while I was here, so it seems a little...affected to buy them now.

SG: Oh, are you an alum?

AVI: Yes, a million years ago. I might buy something for my granddaughter, though.

SG: Oh, does she go here now?

AVI: (wincing) No, she's two.

Kyle, who is having trouble finding things to fascinate him here, thinks the college looks like Hogwarts. Which would indeed be much more interesting.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Chesterton, Conrad, and HG Wells

It may be all Chesterton, all the time, for a bit. Everything I am reading from Chesterton on War and Peace is setting me back on my heels.
They are compassionate to it [humanity} doubtless, as one may be compassionate to the most revolting animal. But their dislike of it appears to be general and fundamental. Chesterton "Humanitarian Hate," 1908
Chesterton had this argument with Wells many times over the years, and it is perhaps testament to his obvious goodwill that Wells did not cut off the friendship. Joseph Conrad, perhaps because he was blunter, did not fare so well.
Perhaps in a last effort to sustain their friendship, Conrad dedicated his 1907 The Secret Agent to Wells...In early 1918 Conrad would explain to Hugh Walpole that his final quarrel with Wells had centered on their differing views of humanity, and that he had told Wells: "The difference between us, Wells, is fundamental. You don't care for humanity but think they are to be improved. I love humanity but know they are not."
Thus liberalism from its beginnings, though the meaning of the word has gradually changed.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Freethinking Seldom Is

See, even when posting on my own site in my own home that natural skepticism just emerges. A much grabbier title would have been Freethinking Isn't, or Freethinking Ain't. Good bumper-sticker stuff. But I look at the pithier versions and think "Well, sometimes it is. Seen it myself. And there might be some freethinker out there who really tries hard and deserves better..." So I hedge.

A very fine psychiatrist I have worked with for several years is leaving tomorrow to work at Concord Hospital instead. It is a great loss for our hospital. He gave me a parting gift, Doubt: A History, inscribed "To my favorite skeptic." This may seem odd coming from a Unitarian to an Evangelical, and he laughed at that himself. But he is correct. It is my natural cast of mind to look at what "everyone knows" and challenge it.

That has its own dangers, of course. If someone makes a really bad argument in favor of something I tend to counterreact and think well, that must be untrue then, if knuckleheaded arguments are the best they can muster. That is equally foolish, for even true things have defenders who make no sense. Progressives, freethinkers, 60's liberals, granolas, and alternative medicine adherents think they agree with me on this skeptical approach, seeing themselves as the ones willing to challenge received wisdom. (There is overlap among those groups, but folks usually tend to specialise in one skepticism.)

In fact, the opposite is true. The members of those groups - in general, mind you, not universally - tend very much to question their own beliefs very little. They see the conventional wisdom as being what their parents believed, or their childhood church, or their fifth-grade history book, and they are very proud of not believing that, proving how fearless they are. To be sure, there are many people who still do believe those older conventional wisdoms who deserve to have their ideas challenged. They live and move among us.

But the milk-and-water skeptics who reject those things have a new set of conventional wisdoms they adhere to. Not very new, either, just newer than the 1950's. They reveal themselves at the spot where they are challenged. They cannot conceive of anyone disagreeing except as a representative of the Old School. They argue with you as if you must be defending the POV they abandoned upon leaving their parents' home. You must be an ignorant person who just hasn't read up on where ideas have gone since then. That you might have considered their ideas seriously - in my case have believed them for many years - and moved on simply does not compute for them.

I do have hopes for this particular book. I read the blurbs - Howard Zinn, Garrison Keillor - and scanned the table of contents. I know already a lot of what will be in this book. Voltaire, Freud, Hume; a collection of Jewish writers, tending strongly to the mystical and the reformed; Buddhists and related Chinese writers; a few Marxists and Existentialists; as the author is female there will be a collection of feminist writers. Physics will be dragged in inappropriately, showing that in the 20th C we learned that everything is relative, because hey, even Science admits of uncertainty now. Chesterton, Lewis, Wright, Flew, will be studiously avoided. Jesus is mentioned as an example of a doubter. We know where that's going.

I left the book at work so I can't check if I'm correct. But you know I am.

There were some chapter titles and references which were new to me, however. Huzzah! There may be something new here after all. I certainly hope so. I'm really hoping there will be something that knocks me back.

There's Therapy and Then There's Therapy

Frequent commenter Retriever has a post at her site about therapy for the severely mentally ill versus therapy for the worried well. She also touches on how blithely folks can talk about male unemployment in a related context. I greatly agree. Most especially, I agree with her general observation that psychiatrists have served her family better than other uh, helping professionals. I have known some terrible, damaging, and scary psychiatrists, but most of them are good. Plus, the percentages of pathological people are even higher in the other disciplines. And as for the un-disciplines, the people who think they have the bestest advice for your problems, beware.

There's a swift kick at Dr. Phil, too, for those of you who like that sort of thing.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


We will be heading to NC (Camp Lejeune) and VA (William & Mary) starting this weekend. I don't know how much I'll keep up with this. Maybe Jonathan will write something.

We are taking the train from Boston to Richmond and back. We'll see if we like traveling like that. Our last train trip was from Bucharest to Oradea to pick up two sons in 2001.

Screwtape and Politics

In commenting online on political matters today I noticed - not for the first time - that I was quoting Lewis on a spiritual matter which had direct effect on political discussion. The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce are particularly apt on such matters. Yet there is little I can think of about politics in either work, nor is there much politics in Lewis's writing in general. I have been reading Screwtape again, and will read it with political eyes for the first time.

This is dangerous. The book is intended to advise the reader on matters of personal spiritual growth, not Man In Society. There is some attention to getting along with others and the barriers we create with our fellow humans, but this is all on a micro level. I would not counsel anyone to overlook that main goal in their effort to find a few quotes to score political points.

But I realised in reflecting on the book that it had a powerful effect in changing my politics. It offered nothing to try and convince me of conservative ideals, yet over the course of a decade it completely undermined all my reasons for liberalism. I took the book's message very much to heart, and was quite serious about examining my motives for what I believed. I found that I had adopted many of my political beliefs not because they did ny society or its citizens any good, but because certain attitudes made me look like a fine and generous person, or allowed me to tell myself what a good boy am I.

It's been pretty easy to hear that in the words of other people since - not that their views themselves are wrong, but that they reveal with embarrassing clarity what their motives are. That's not true of all liberals. But it is true of an enormous number of people who are completely oblivious to what their own words say about them. Sometimes they are generally nice people and I am embarrassed for them. Not to worry. Other progressives seem not to notice, seem unable to enact the simple exercise of asking themselves "how would this sound in my opponent's mouth if he said it about me?"

Lewis has rather a specialty in how evil can disguise itself as good*. I don't think that is inherently a condemnation of any political view, as that door can swing both ways. But in the current milieu, it's X-Ray vision when used on progressive arguments. Terribly sad, and I don't know how to combat it.

*Quite different from Tolkien who picks up the moral questions after most of the disguises are off, and the evil has revealed itself. There are LOTR characters who still seem good to many, though they have decayed terribly - Saruman, Denethor; there are characters whose decay from nobility is part of the plot - Boromir; and there are characters whose evil is near-complete but illustrate the possibility of redemption up to the end - Gollum, Lobelia. But the longest-lived characters are solidly in their places among the forces of evil if they have long rationalised their sin, and the good characters, however flawed, retain a self-honesty.

Helping The Enemy

Eugene Volokh has a post about those who Inadvertently Help The Enemy.
“To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty,” Attorney General Ashcroft famously said not long after September 11, “my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies ....” That’s McCarthyism, some replied.

Here’s another quote, this one from the president: “Our nation has felt the lash of terrorism.... We can’t let [a certain group] turn America into a safehouse for terrorists. Congress should get back on track and send me tough legislation that cracks down on terrorism. It should listen to the cries of the victims and the hopes of our children, not the back-alley whispers of the [group].” The president was Bill Clinton, and the group that he was condemning was the “gun lobby,” which opposed some gun-control proposals that Clinton favored.

There was a good deal of noise during the first few years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that Americans not showing a united front was an encouragement to the enemy to continue, believing we would grow weary - and a discouragement to possible allies in those countries, who might be less willing to take risks for freedom if they thought we would leave soon.

Two points: There was never any move to "silence" any critics. No one was denied the airways or the right to publish, nor was there even any hints from the WH to media that they should deny anyone access. Certainly there were no prosecutions or legislation introduced. Nor were any of the war's supporters - even the nutcases - ever found to be advocating any such suppression. The fevered claims of the critics that the administration was trying to silence opposition and was engaging in some fascist censorship turns out to have been absolutely untrue. As was noted repeatedly on non-leftist sites at the time. The comments were purely advisory, that people should think about the impact and consequences of their words. Which we all should do anyway. Interpreting the verbal caution as a harbinger of stalinist censorship that was just about to ramp up is now clearly revealed to have been entirely in the critics' imagination.

Next, sometimes the right thing to do does turn out badly, and people die from it. Stopping the townsmen from raiding the jail and stringing up the James Gang without a trial is the right thing to do. However, when the sheriff or the judge turn out to be crooked and the gang gets away to kill again, the person who did the right thing might feel some guilt anyway. Any of us might wonder if the right thing was really the wrong thing. But pointing out that actions have consequences and asking everyone to act accordingly is not censorship.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Olympic Sports

Lots of complaining that too many of the Winter Olympic sports aren't real sports. That curling has a competitor who is pregnant seems to torque people off. Of course, curling in general seems to bother them. They have a point. My ultra-athletic younger brother, All-American in lacrosse, picked up curling for one season and went to the HS North American championship as an alternate.

It's a skill sport, and the Winter Games are top-heavy with skill and technique sports: figure skating, ski-jumping.

But so are the Summer Games. Fencing, archery, synchronised swimming. These take athletic ability, especially at top levels, but they epitomise skill sports.

The winter games don't have people banging into each other, for one, except for hockey. No boxing, no Greco-Roman wrestling. Judo. Field hockey. OTOH, the Summer Olympics has stuff with horses. Dressage. That has to count against them. And rhythmic gymnastics. Diving, freestyle skiing, gymnastics - pretty similar. Distance running, distance swimming, cross-country - about even up. And the Winter Olympics has got a big advantage in fear sports: Downhill, luge, ski jumping. And biathlon, a really insane combined sport, where you have to hold your hands still and shoot things while you're shaky tired from cross-country skiing.

I call it a wash. Except for ice dancing.


Social workers like to talk about changing whole systems, changing the system, systemic change, putting the client in the context of the whole system.

I have become increasingly suspicious over the years exactly what they mean by that. Today at department meeting there was discussion about further state budget cuts, and why didn't the state bring back that idea about furlough days instead of laying people off? I mean, it was rejected before, but why can't they bring it back?

Because it was the union that scotched that idea, you bufflehead! The governor can't bring it back. That can only come in the contract negotiations. Then there was a discussion of why we didn't have a sales tax, and complaining that the only reason politicians wouldn't do it is because they wouldn't get re-elected. "I mean, it just makes so much sense, that everyone just give 2%." How this particular system, the economic system, actually works is beyond them. They believe in uncomplicated solutions there. All these complicated systems that they love talking about? They don't mean that. The motto of social workers on the job is "I understood there would be no math involved."

They are despondent (or furious) that budget cuts might mean personnel cuts. I understand that - everyone feels that way when layoffs come close to them - but they are quite certain that it is state workers who will be bailing the whole state out by taking it on the chin. They believe this, even though there have been few cuts, and nothing near like what the private sector is hit with. I have heard SEA members going into apoplexy because of possibly having to pay for part of health insurance. "I'm going to vote against that! We need a union that stands up for us! We have the power to shut the state down if we want to." These people really believe they are already giving more than their share by taking jobs that don't pay as well as the people they read about in the paper. You know, all those rich people who make oodles working at useless jobs that don't contribute to society.

They don't understand systems, only their own self-interest. That's a respectable POV, but then you don't get to talk about how noble the Helping Professions are, and how you earn your living by understanding systems.

Most of you can sense where this is going. What they mean by changing systems is "becoming more socialist." What they mean by complex systems is "politically difficult."

Monday, February 15, 2010

How Can Monogamy Still be Considered a Viable Long-term Arrangement?

From Daniel Jones' Q&A about Modern Love over at the NYT.

Some people think we live too long to commit to one person for life. Monogamy may have made sense a few centuries ago, they argue, when we tended to die in our 40s (after raising a dozen children). But being with the same person well into our 70s and 80s? That simply can’t be natural.

This is a question, by the way, asked almost exclusively by people in their 40s (or younger). People in their 70s and 80s do not ask this question. They are, by and large, very happy to have shared a lifetime with the same person.

HT: Tigerhawk

Paul Is Dead

Kyle, our eight-grader, has recently become a Beatles fan, especially the Sgt Pepper album. I was trying to explain to him the Paul Is Dead urban legend, figuring that the obvious silliness would be entertaining. Looking for a link about the episode, I discovered an amazing and disquieting thing. A whole new generation of fans believe it.

Oh by the way, Barack Obama's birth certificate has a walrus on it. And if you listen to the end of George Bush's first speech after 9/11 you can hear him saying "I buried Giuliani."

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Anti-fur activists are threatening a US figure-skater for wearing some.

Enhanced rights for animals will eventually mean diminished rights for (some) human beings. There is just no other way that can play out. Fantasies of kindness (as opposed to acts of kindness), are actually disguised fantasies of cruelty.


That friend who is writing the dissertation at Notre Dame on the Book of Nature - I sent him an obscure article I had run across along with some comments about this series. He informs me that historian Alexandra Walsham wrote a book about this topic in 1999. It is highly gratifying to have an expert back me up on this Wyrd and Providence thing.

Book goes to wish list, of course.

$55. Ouch. Maybe not.

Wyrd And Providence - Part V

The story of Micah Rood (recently a movie, I just learned) is of an apple tree which bore fruit that had red globules in it – the belief was that the tree had changed from bearing normal white-fleshed fruit to blood-tainted as an announcement that Micah had murdered a peddlar and buried him there around 1700. Nature herself would accuse. Nature herself would demonstrate. The story is not from Appalachia, or Virginia, but Franklin, CT.

Hawthorne, even while trying to distance himself from his Puritan roots, expresses his dark romanticism in terms of nature’s own judgment on the evils of men.

But why a book of Nature? Why not a drama, a song, or recipe of Nature?

First, the Bible was far and away the most widely circulated book, more than we can easily imagine now. The Puritan framing was that man had been held in ignorance, but now had the book and could know God. Not a book, but the book. That alone would suggest to him that if God were communicating, a book would be His most natural form. Nature did not speak, nature printed. The Protestants in general, but Puritans in particular, had rejected God speaking through tradition, through visual art, through drama or spectacle. They had quite officially in the Westminster Catechism rejected dreams and visions as reliable. Sacrament and liturgy could no longer be considered as efficacious, as they were the province of C of E or even (gasp) Rome. (This break was never complete, but compare Puritan writings to Anglican and you will find far less reference to sacrament.) They smashed idols, they eliminated many festivals, they forbade drama.

Their view of music was more mixed. The English Puritans were skilled, boisterous and lusty in song, but without instruments and training this soon evaporated in the new world. For well over a century, New England worship music was a tedious lining out of the psalms, punctuated by a few good tunes left over from earlier days.

We might speculate that devotion to Scripture, and to the one remaining avenue of observing the natural world for signs and seals gave these especial intensity, like pressured water forced through smaller opening, but this is projecting our 20th C view somewhat – a bit of mindreading. It may be true, but we had best go cautiously.

Of course for my purposes I would love to tell you why – that it is cultural descent from Germanic and Nordic origins – but this is even less certain. We first know that this dual intensity was, only more speculatively why.

Two short bits, both admittedly a reach but perhaps evidence, before I move on to the more solid points: The N-Town cycle of mystery plays, the only version available in East Anglia for centuries, was more strictly biblical than the York, Chester, and Wakefield cycles, which included such extra-biblical expansions as The Harrowing of Hell, and the Acts of Pilate. Even that didn’t save the N-Town cycle in the end. The Puritans forbade that also.

In the ages of trial by ordeal, the ordeals chosen in Eastern England and NW Europe were the most “natural:” water itself, not water boiling or water frigid; fire itself, and not heated iron. The idea that nature itself would express God’s judgment automatically, rather than the idea that God would use an artificial test to express His judgment, was stronger in those places.

On to more solid stuff. CS Lewis (of course) in his 1954 English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama notes a change of character in magic as practiced in the Middle Ages as opposed to the Renaissance:
Only an obstinate prejudice about this period could blind us to a certain change which comes over the merely literary texts as we pass from the Middle Ages to the sixteenth century. In medieval story there is, in one sense, plenty of “magic”. Merlin does this or that “by his subtilty”, Bercilak resumes his severed head. But all these passages have unmistakably the note of “faerie” about them. But in Spenser, Marlowe, Chapman, and Shakespeare the subject is treated quite differently. “He to his studie goes”; books are opened, terrible words pronounced, souls imperilled. The medieval author seems to write for a public to whom magic, like knight-errantry, is part of the furniture of romance: the Elizabethan, for a public who feel that it might be going on in the next street. [...] Neglect of this point has produced strange readings of The Tempest which is in reality [...] Shakespeare’s play on magia as Macbeth is his play on goeteia

The Puritan did not look to Nature for prophecy but for a report card. There was no reading of entrails, no divinations or omens of the future, but an attempt to understand God’s present judgment. The other magics, which came out of the south of Europe and beyond, especially after the Crusades, were not adopted by the common folk, but the elites.* The Puritans hated their books of Grimoire, their hermeticism, their necromancies and astrologies. Yet they tolerated easily the presence of cunning folk and Anglo-Saxon leechbooks with spells of natural medicine. Scrying, despite its sound, does not seem to be an Anglo-Saxon word but a late borrowing used by occultists to sound like uh, Auld Wysdom, or some other such fancy. It was condemned by English Puritans at first notice. Scrutiny was natural and encouraged, as it looked after the powers God had put in play in the world; scrying was a ceremonial, ritual magic and forbidden.

The growth of Unitarianism, the seeming opposite of Calvinist Puritan devotion to the words of Scripture, seems a much shorter route if one traces from the other book, the Book of Nature. God expresses Himself through Nature to Nature is God’s Expression of Himself is not such a far stretch. In the congregational polity of New England, where no hierarchy dictated doctrine, the individual opinion had some real weight. One ultimately did not have to please the preachers and elders in the next county or even the next town. One only had to make good with one’s own congregation, one’s neighbors. The supposedly stultifying, iron social control of Puritanism, after a little self-sorting, turns out to provide enormous freedom.

The move from Nature is God’s Expression of Himself to Nature is God may be an enormous one theoretically, but in practice it can be little more than two sides of the same coin. A NewEnglander who had a habit of mind passed down from grandmothers and teachers to listen earnestly for the voice of God in Nature would soon need few words.

*This is nearly always the case in every place and time. The plain man wants to know enough about the world to get by; the educated want to know more than their fellows to gain advantage. It is the latter who bring in the occult, the strange knowledges from far places. They have different temptations.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Wyrd And Providence - Part IV-A

Comments have slowly collected in Part III and IV. In particular, Retriever has suggested that weather/climate/landscape may have influenced the dour East Anglian attitude as well.

One more blow to my theory. Popular historians have often linked geography with destiny. Michener was particularly fond of the notion. While they oversimplify, there is certainly something to that idea. Poland is a flat fertile area between Germany and Russia - that's it's history. Communication and trade on the Chesapeake was by boat, not by road - this shapes culture.

So, yeah - rain, fog, and swamps for a thousand years could influence one's outlook toward the grim. The cultural inheritance from the Saxons and the Danes is getting overlaid with other factors each time I look around. I still think the cultural idea has some juice, though, and I'll try to tie that up in Part V. Significantly, I'm not finding it easy to summarise into a post.

Tolkien Rant Exemption

I exempt from the previous post those rude comments of Tolkien's which were entirely just. His sputtering about the proposed screenplay for an animated version of LOTR in the 50's is highly enjoyable; the book is worth reading for that alone.

Yes, it was a private communication never intended for public consumption; yes, some descendant of the scriptwriter may still survive and be hurt by the insults hurled at Daddy or Grampa. But the criticisms were deserved, as it is clear that the writer missed the entire point (or perhaps merely skimmed) of Middle-Earth. Eagles swoop down and transport the party frequently, for example, suggesting that he thought the books popular merely for their marvels.

But the best is the meeting of the young hobbits at Isengard by Gimli, Aragorn, and Legolas. Upon discovery, Merry and Pippin are not relaxing with pipes, but with "ridiculously long sandwiches."

This is a scriptwriter who just doesn't get it. One can imagine the stereotypical Hollywood American: "Ron, Ronny, I love this with the hobbits here. But you know what would be even funnier? Sandwiches. You see how that works? Ridiculously long sandwiches. It'll be a laff riot."

Would I Have Liked Them?

The Letters of JRR Tolkien was fascinating but a little disturbing. Because letters to intimates are by definition the revealing of a less-public face, some observations of Tolkien’s seem harsh, even a little rude. There are observations about Lewis that would be rude if he had published them in the Times, certainly. Tolkien’s estimations of Americans and Protestants seem hasty and poorly founded (though doubtless shared by others close to him).

We may suppose there were other letters which were more damning. Criticisms of one relative or close friend made to another are likely left out for good reason. I am glad to be spared them, whatever morbid curiosity I might have. One’s conversation with intimates is much nearer to one’s own personal thoughts, and there are statements I might make to commenters akafred or Michael, or even more my two oldest sons, which I would never enter here. (And though what I write here is technically accessible by every sentient being in the universe, I am a bit more open here because as a practical matter, the audience is small. Were I a public figure or planning to be one, I would likely be even more guarded.) Tolkien would never have said those things about Lewis or Americans or Protestants to me directly. I only listen in.

Yet the nature of the criticisms is revealing of some real observations of Tolkien's and of some real inner attitudes of his. I had the growing sense as I read along that I might not like a conversation with Lewis or Tolkien so much as I imagine. These are my heroes, two of the first people I would invite to my dinner party of historical figures. That they might not like me I accepted as a matter of course. That I could sit at the Bird and Baby with them and fifteen minutes in, decide one or both was irritating, had never occurred to me. Congeniality of thought is not automatically congeniality of manner.

I draw that disquiet out further. What if I didn't like Jesus? What if, even knowing that He is God incarnate, I were to travel among the disciples and find that his personality grates? It would be painful, knowing that the disjoint must be my own and not his, but that might not prevent irritation from growing. What would we do trapped in such a situation, with suppressed comments occasionally escaping in frustration, or real resentment burning?

We'd be pretty much like the actual disciples, I suppose, or likely worse. The ignorant, arrogant, or irritated comments they made are in fact our own thoughts. It is likely that each of them at some time or another intensely disliked Jesus and resented what he said. As would we. In meditative prayer we fly to the Heavenly Bosom (A JB Phillips reference); in the flesh we might have fled elsewhere.

Godwin's Law is a Specific Example of a General Phenomenon

Godwin’s Law "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” (You have to know what a probability approaching 1 means, but it will be good to research that if you don’t know it.) There are related discussions, such as whether bringing up Hitler defaults or finishes the intellectual portion, which I am not here concerned with.

That this is not a stand-alone law, as is usually assumed, became clear to me today while reading a post and comment thread over at The Volokh Conspiracy. Eugene Volokh had asked an interesting question about the recent claim that President Obama’s manner is professorial – not in a good way.
I’m hardly a foe of professors, or a friend to casual disdain for the academy. Professors tend to be very smart people, and deeply knowledgeable in their areas of expertise…Moreover, whatever the weaknesses of professors, the notion that ordinary folks are inherently wiser than the highly educated strikes me as quite mistaken.

At the same time, I wonder whether the failures of the Obama Administration are connected to what one might think of as the professor mindset, or rather the mindset of the educated elites. Professors are used to being listened to because they are professors.
That last is, BTW, the most negative statement about Obama in the post. The comment threads of both this post and its immediate successor Professors As Politicians, however, quickly deteriorated into angry exchanges about tangential topics. I hypothesised that there is a variant of Godwin’s Law by which the mention of any shortcoming of Obama elicits a response about Sarah Palin, and the mention of any shortcoming of Sarah Palin elicits a response about Obama. As this phenomenon is observable even in the higher-class neighborhoods of the internet – here, for example, or Volokh, or Chicago Boys – this descent into emotional and symbolic arguments must be pretty powerful.

The descent is not immediate, of course. Someone questioned whether this characterization of academics is just – a legitimate question, but one bringing us more into the realm of stereotype and symbol. Someone else asked whether Obama is indeed a real academic – that’s also fair, but another step down. It wasn’t long at all before someone was presenting the false choice “you’re saying it would be better to be ruled by stupid and uneducated people, then.” The trend is toward the emotional and symbolic, however gradual.

Others have pointed out that the same might be said about Stalin and Communists, Catholics and the Inquisition, and other examples of the Association Fallacy. The probability might approach 1 there as well. Fair enough. Yet if this is true, then it follows that if a discussion goes on long enough, it will eventually be composed of nothing but hot-button, high emotion, high symbolism topics. There will be a natural tendency toward the emotional and symbolic and away from the intellectual, and it will take considerable energy to return a discussion to an intellectual plane. There is a natural entropy to debate. Intellect must take more effort or energy than emotion.

It makes for uncomfortable speculations about the nature of Hell, as the Miltonic, Sartrian, and Screwtape illustrations all point in that direction. When we no longer have the wit to wrest discussion back to a better level, we descend further into the emotional, associative, and symbolic, reacting helplessly to the jolts inflicted on us.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


I follow xkcd off-and-on. I like it because of the math geekiness, but it's got a strong generational flavor and appeals more to my sons. This comic, which Insty linked to, clearly applies more to my second son, whose GF is going to art school in Philly in six months. But that type of overthinking he gets from his parents. We have bequeathed different kinds of overthinking to him, so he carries a 75% version of both.

He seems to be managing.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


Checking my referral stats, it seems that not only ABBA pictures, but an older post about Don Featherstone plastic flamingos also drives a little traffic my way. I'm going to ride that wave from time to time as well. It all fits together, somehow.

The picture is from a site called Just Pink Flamingos, from which you can purchase a calendar of flamingo arrangements, or a flamingo nightlight. It has a sister site called Just Garden Gnomes. I'm wondering which Emily will get for Christmas next year.

Post 2200 - The Same Palin Post

Just repeating what I've been saying for 18 months. I am lukewarm about Palin, but the evidence her opponents bring up to show she's stupid only shows their own stupidity. The latest is this writing-on-the-hand thing.

I have "Don't take it personally" written on the top line of my to-do legal pad every day. Whatever else I may lack, I do have IQ candlepower. I don't write on my hand, but I do write on random scraps of paper to carry in my pocket and hold in my hand at times. Writing five words on your hand as telegram reminders of the main points to hit during a Q&A period is simply not evidence of any intellectual lack. The objection is entirely cultural, because People Like Us don't write on their hand, and have negative associations with it. To them, it is entirely more acceptable to read off two teleprompters when speaking to a 6th grade class, because that all very dignified looking.

It's just nuts. The Couric interview, even if it is conveniently edited as Palin claims, can be legitimately used as minor evidence that Sarah isn't that smart. But it's not that big a deal. Lots of people in Washington say much dumber stuff yet retain a reputation for intelligence for reasons of smoothness and culture. Lots of highly-placed people, in fact, including...oh never mind. You can generate the high-profile list yourself.

Here's a modest proposal. When making an argument for someone's qualifications of any sort - intelligence, courage, experience, common sense, fashion sense, or kindness to wombats - describe first your criteria, then rate the person. In this way you expose yourself to the very reasonable risk that 1) others might challenge your criteria, or 2) others may point out that your own favorites don't meet the criteria. If you are unwilling to take that risk, you shouldn't be opening your mouth.

Monday, February 08, 2010


Akafred also sent along a BBC article about languages going extinct, The Tragedy of Dying Languages. Anthropologists are very big on this topic, insisting that it would be a terrible thing if the endangered languages of the world - about half of the 6,000+ - disappeared. Linguist K David Harrison's sentiments are typical.
Though it belongs solely to them and has inestimable value to their people, they do not hoard it. In fact they are often eager to share it. What can we learn from these languages before they go extinct? And why should we lift a finger to help rescue them?

As the last speakers converse, they spin individual strands in a vast web of knowledge, a noosphere of possibilities. They tell how their ancestors calculated accurately the passing of seasons without clocks or calendars. How humans adapted to hostile environments, from the Arctic to Amazonia.
I am less certain.

As a person fascinated by languages and historical linguistics, you might expect me to be very strongly on the preservation side of this argument. And certainly, the loss of any human knowledge is a negative. But I don't find the arguments compelling that we should get all that worked up.

It is charming, and worthy of adventure plots in children's fiction to think of wise old grandmothers passing on tribal knowledge to willing descendants, including language and life lessons which figure prominently in the heroine's coming-of-age. But to learn a language fully one must grow up with it as a conversational language. When no young children are learning a language, it will die. Governments encouraging Gaelic or Welsh in school can slow the tide, or perhaps even bridge it over to a time when a native language revives, but this is quite rare. More importantly, the speakers themselves often do not regard the knowledge as that important. They grow up with two languages spoken, and increasingly discard the less common one as they get older. The Auld Tongue gets dragged out for special occasions and ethnic festivals, but lapses into disuse. I learned to say grace in Swedish as a child, and I passed that on to my two oldest sons. It's all quite charming, but I don't see that language fragments have provided any especial wisdom. In fact, the word gagn meaning "gain" is now archaic in Swedish, making the little I know even less useful. Do the fragments of Chemehuevi that still survive in Arizona make us all wealthier in knowledge? Does it even make the possessors of those fragments wealthier in knowledge?

Most of the knowledge of endangered languages is self-referential, circular, and bound not only to a particular culture but a time period two generations past and more. We can extract some knowledge of language relationships as an aid to guesses about history, perhaps, but our genetic knowledge already begins to exceed that and will soon overwhelm it. Then also, the tribes with endangered languages are often isolated and poor. Do we propose to keep their children isolated and poor so that we may study them like animals in a zoo? No thanks, pal. I'll learn one of the 10-20 most common languages and get a job, thanks.

Another ABBA Museum

This one's in London, and it's ABBAWORLD, more of an interactive experience than a museum. The karaoke, judging from these samples, is frightening.

HT: akafred

Sunday, February 07, 2010


I stood frozen in jaw-dropping horror in my son's living room. Daltrey and Townsend looked ridiculous. Their vocals were acceptable, and Townsend won me back a bit with his guitar work - plus I thought they arranged around the limitations of their vocal aging pretty well. But that coat. That scarf. How did the coolest guys of my generation (heh) ever think those choices weren't goofy? It was humiliating to watch them.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Wyrd And Providence - Part IV

The Book of Nature. If I get to it after clearing up some other stuff.
Ah well. This is where my claim falls to the ground.
Monty Python, Stake Your Claim
karrde's comment on part III, and my own response to it, sets me to thinking. I shouldn't put everyone through the back and forth of whether my original theory is now in ribbons - people read essays of folks who have worked that out before writing, not this will he/nill he of an internal debate. But perhaps it will entertain.

I connected Calvinist Providence to Germanic/Norse wyrd across 6 centuries on the basis of geographic restriction and cultural persistence, though admitting it might be a stretch. But there is an enormous intervening fact in those centuries that looks a more plausible explanation. The Black Death, which wiped out 1/3 of Europe in the 14th C, was particularly destructive in the areas I identified on the east coast of England, claiming upwards of 40% of the population. Each one buries one. For instilling a sense of doom and fatalism, it would be hard to top that as a cause. It doesn't rely on possible cultural transmission over 600 years, but awareness of catastrophe over 200. As abandoned villages would still be on the landscape, reminders to all who passed, a 200-year memory doesn't seem improbable. It's a more compact explanation to point to the Black Death's fury as a cause of Calvinist belief in destiny, providence, election.

Two lines remain which might give my theory some breathing room. A) Both could be true, with the events of 1348-9 powerfully reinforcing an already existing sense of doom. B) Other areas with heavy losses did not adopt this philosophy, suggesting that there was indeed something different in East Anglia and surrounding areas. It would be hard to argue that areas that lost "only" 25% of their population were significantly less traumatised.

I leave it there for now. On to the 17th & 18th C American Puritans and their reading from the Book of Nature. However the culture developed to get them to that habit of mind, we know that they did get to that habit of mind. Nature could be observed, decoded, interpreted, read, originally to understand God's judgments and messages, but over time, to understand God's nature. Natural history (itself a revealing phrase) and natural philosophy, what we would now call observational science grew explosively in the 18th C. Moreover, it was an enormously North American pursuit, the first disciplines where the mere colonists and upstarts became world leaders. Even now, the list of natural history museums shows an overwhelmingly greater frequency in the US and Canada, with the rest of the Anglosphere holding the next rank of concentration.

From understanding God's nature to understanding the nature of the universe may be a great change philosophically, but only a short step in practice. One performs the same acts with a different attitude or perspective.

This is all on one level unsurprising and unremarkable. Farmers and sea-traders watch the plants, the skies, and the waters anxiously. Understanding nature, with or without the God part, and then harnessing nature are a matter of economic survival. Plunk down colonists in unfamiliar territory and they are going to observe their surrounding feverishly, making many guesses as to what is up.

Yet why a book of nature? Why that image, that analogy that embedded itself in New England culture, giving eventual rise to deism, Unitarianism, and the modern save-the-whales church in general? Given what we now know about colonists behavior toward the natives - originally quite different in New England than in other regions, though it ended much the same - how did the Puritan admiration/contempt attitude toward Indians get accommodated into this book?

Well, I think the printing press is going to be involved, and the germ theory of disease, and what we would now call cultural confidence. But I don't think they ever did find a place for the natives in their understanding, neither the Puritans, the Unitarians, nor the transcendentalists. Theories developed in Europe, but fell apart in the reality of the colonies. Stay tuned.

Crossing Guard

The lady at the crosswalk in the morning? She's got to learn not to wave to her friends with the hand with the big orange glove on it.

Slamming on the brakes does wake you up of a morning, though.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Wyrd And Providence - Part III

I started the discussion of Norse paganism with the sentence
There are two intensities of North European paganism that set it apart from other beliefs: a multiplicity of creatures, and a belief in doom, destiny, or fate that is powerful but not absolute.(Wyrd and Providence - Part II)
and ended with
New England was a peculiarly fertile ground for a peculiar and intense version of Calvinism.
The creatures I dealt with in the earlier post.

The belief in fate or doom is found throughout the world, but was especially strong in Northern Europe, both in pagan times and extending into the Christian era. We see it in Beowulf, in the Siegfried legend, the Eddic sagas, and the Battle of Maldon. (It is less prominent in the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, suggesting that the theme and philosophy may be more Germanic than Uralic). Most commonly in our era, we see it in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Gandalf suggests that Bilbo and then Frodo were chosen or appointed for their tasks, and senses that Gollum has some part to play before the end. In other parts of the world, the idea of luck, a more temporary situation of auspiciousness, or a cycle of fortune, or a blessing/curse changing a destiny is more dominant.

Norse Fate or wyrd is powerful, and treated in retrospect as if it were inexorable, but for those actually in the events, effort, choice, and wisdom seem to matter greatly. One's path is chosen, yet one can refuse it or mishandle it.

The Germanic settlement of England came in waves, sometimes by invitation and sometimes by invasion. For obvious geographic reasons, they settled most densely in the eastern and southern coastal regions. Essex and Sussex bear Saxon names, East Anglia named for the Angles, the Jutes to Kent, and the later Danes overlaying large sections of those territories. It was not merely that invaders came to rule and built some temples - the Romans did that but had little longterm influence on English religion. (They did, at the end, include some Christians, whose continuity was more impressive than their initial influence.) The Germanic tribes - throw in a fair number of Frisians and a few Geats as well - came in greater numbers and stayed.

The creatures, I have noted, did not seem to cross water well. But cast of mind certainly accompanies those who move. Here's the first leap: Puritanism in England was strongest in England in the areas where Germanic/Norse settlement was greatest. The Danes may have arrived in the 10th C and Puritanism taken hold in the early 16th, but there could be continuity. The intensity of belief in predetermination among the Puritans, even more than among other Calvinists, may have been due to a congeniality of temperament. The Puritans searched the skies, their ledger books, their crops and herds for signs that they were among the elect. They were in fact obsessed with the topic, for themselves, their neighbors, and their kin. In our sexualised age we think Puritans were obsessed with sexuality. They were far more obsessed with death.

I don't want to oversell this. Farmers and sailors everywhere watch the weather intensely, seeking to understand its portents. Almanacks were known in ancient times, but no one produced almanacks in similar number and variety to the English and later, the Americans. Distant second, third, and fourth place went to Germany, Holland, and Belgium, tending to support my supposition that this reading of the natural world has a Germanic tinge to it. In other parts of the world signs in nature were used to read the future: prophecy and divination. Among the Puritans they were used to read the present, or the recent past.

It is a fair challenge to my theory that one would expect the more thorough descendants of the Norse and Germans in current-day Scandinavia and Germany to be even more fatalistic than the English. I think that holds only for fatalism in the negative sense. I think those groups moved more toward the dualism of Norse religion. The war of the gods and giants is what the universe is really about, and human actions only a secondary phenomenon. We are on the side of the gods because they are noble, but they are going to eventually lose to the giants. Lutheranism is rivaled only by Orthodoxy in its dualism among the Christian sects. Garrison Keillor speaks humorously but accurately about the Light Lutherans and the Dark Lutherans.

The Puritans of East Anglia then, had a core temperament of doom (in the neutral sense) distilled by Calvinism. Those who moved to a harsh and dangerous new land in New England, especially the Bay Colony because of their piety were thus double-distilled. They strained to read all events as indicators of God's favor or disfavor - a redeemed version of reading events for clues to the friendliness or unfriendliness of nature and the universe, perhaps. They believed that striving did not affect salvation, yet they strove more than any other peoples because they considered striving evidence of salvation. Only the saved would care so much. This doesn't strike me as all that different from The Battle of Maldon:
Hige sceal þē heardra, heorte þē cēnre,
mōd sceal þē māre, þē ūre mægen lytlað.

Thought shall be harder, heart the keener,
Mood the more, as our might lessens*

You will note that I used the verb read for the observance of nature. That was not accidental. Part IV on the Book of Nature.

* If one notes that sc is pronounced sh while the c in cenre is hard (and lytlad is littleth), you can get some sense of both the nearness and remoteness of English of a thousand years ago.