Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Nuclear Peace

There was an ad and editorial over at a liberal site advocating that the Senate pass the new arms-limitation treaty. I don't know a thing about it. Apparently lots of important people, including military people, say it's just fine. I'm all for not paying for weapons we don't need, and getting rid of ones that are useless.

What struck me, however, was the organisation's unquestioned assumption that such treaties are significant forces for world peace. It's pretty easy to see how one could come to that conclusion at first look - we can all imagine missiles flying through the air and wiping out huge swaths of civilian populations in terrible ways.

But I think the record shows the opposite. Since 1945, there have been enormous swaths of killing by armies, but none of it has been nuclear. More significantly, very little of it has been one nation invading another - the overwhelming totals have been racked up by governments against their own citizens. And those are not going to be nuclear wars, because the government wants for itself the land and resources of the people they are killing. Wars with the US in them, which loom large in the exceptions to my rule, have tended to be America allying with one side of an internal conflict. The special cases of our current wars are an interesting discussion along these lines, but let us even grant for the moment that these are strictly one nation invading another. Even so, they are small potatoes compared to the widespread intertribal exterminations of the globe. They loom large to us because they involve us. But in quantity of death, they barely register on the graph.

Such reasoning seems insane to the nuclear freeze crowd, I know. I also grew up with political cartoons of a globe with missles bristling from two sides, one with Uncle Sam standing next to them, the other a bear. Movies were made about wars involving these weapons narrowly averted; people marched in the streets; the acronyms MAD and SALT were on everyone's lips for forty years; statistics were quoted that there were enough nukes to wipe us all out a gazillion times over.

But it just hasn't turned out as feared. The weapons are still there and if fired off, would destroy millions. But it may be that their mere existence has changed the game. Nations don't invade anymore - they kill their own instead. I can't say that's an improvement, but it is certainly not the predicted end.

And yet there remain organizations who believe that if we could only dismantle some percentage of them, we would be making the world a significantly safer place. I don't think so. The dangers for all of us lie elsewhere.


In resonse to the many cries for pictures - okay, one cry - of my folk-playing days, I uncovered this.

It was actually not a band that played more than one performance, just an ad hoc collection of folkies that rehearsed once. Ted Kontos, Jack Schwartz, Larry Younger, and I. In the designation of the time, then, Kontos, Schwartz, Wyman, and Younger. It doesn't have much of a ring to it that way, so KSW&Y works better.

We were singing "Southern Man" here, a subject high school boys from NH were deeply knowledgeable about then. I hope I was already suspicious that Neil Young's lyrics were a little nuts. Two years later Carroll County rejected doing the song because as my roommate said "Frankly, we haven't heard a lot of bullwhips cracking here at William and Mary." To which Virginian Sam Jones replied "And also, we'll get the crap beat out of us." But I had a great unexpected, underneath harmony to this on the chorus.

If you can't tell which is I, this photo from the same era might help.

I look at that guy and wonder who he is.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Only On The Map - Squantum

I found later, as I was doing my research, that both Delorme and googlemaps get this wrong. Those both place Squantum at the top of Contoocook Lake in Jaffrey, and there is nothing defineable as a village center here. Just a rather nice beach for town residents, as above. All other maps of Jaffrey, from early to late, place Squantum at the top of Black Reservoir, half a mile east. That area shows settlement, even clustered settlement, back 150 years.

I drove right through the part that really is Squantum without taking a picture. Because I was following the Delorme Gazeteer. So you'll have to make do with this. I wondered if this were another of those situations where the railroad had a depot or loading station there, as in Bowkerville and Rockwood, but the Jaffrey - Peterborough spur never went near this.

Squantum as a name raises interesting questions. Because the settlement pattern for this part of NH involved gradual Puritan expansion along upper Massachusetts with forays north, as well as new Scots-Irish immigrants settling anywhere that looked unused (I exaggerate), the most likely suggestion is that this was named for the Squantum section of Quincy, MA. That in turn was named for the fascinating Tisquantum, or Squanto, interpreter, guide, and general rescuer of the Mayflower settlers.

But the matter isn't settled. "Tisquantum" was the name of a local native deity - rather an evil one, in fact. We may as well say "Prince of Darkness." Squanto took that name as a sign of power, signalling to all who got the read that he was not someone to mess with. "Hell's Angel" might be a good equivalent. As he had survived the white man's diseases that had wiped out 90% of the areas Indians just before the Pilgrims arrived, and was skilled at playing all sides off against each other throughout his life, maybe he had a point.

Our denomination's children's camp is called "Squanto," but I don't rub that in anywhere. It's the myth of the helpful, giving person, combined with the tendency of all summer camps to name themselves after some Indian or butchered Indian language phrase, that is being commemorated here.

Back to Tisquantum. There were still Native Americans in the area when the village was settled, albeit few. The settlement may actually have been on an area previously inhabited by the Pennacooks. Arguing against this theory is the current belief that the Abenaki/Pennacook/Missiquoi group of Indians didn't have much to do with that particular deity.

Intentional Culture - Kaleidoscope

This is a softer side of a previous post.

Human beings do not just happen to pass on the cultural values they find important, they are driven to do so. We pass on much of which we are barely aware, including some values we might prefer not to were we really thinking about it. Bidden or unbidden, the drive to pass on culture is present.

There is pain that comes from children who will not accept your culture, and a different pain when they can not adopt it. Stepparents go through this, especially when they raise children from a young age. Grandparents, I think, observe precious mind-heirlooms not passed on. Parents who have children with disabilities that interfere with a particular activity see it as well. They gradually find that important items, such as love of reading or music, simply have no answer in the child. Dads who are devoted to fishing find themselves with children who find it not the least interesting. Or conversely, dads who find nothing remotely interesting about fishing find themselves with children who are fascinated by it. A decade of creative attempts to find some way of adapting or repackaging camping, or participant sports, or working on cars comes up empty.

We expect a certain amount of this, even with biological children. A single departure from what parents prefer is absorbable. Part of the fascination of watching children develop, in fact, is the kaleidoscope effect of seeing them do something entirely different with the bits of colored glass and pebbles we have bequeathed to them. Mom contributes some bits, Dad contributes some, circumstances some, and we try to yank out the unattractive parts before turning the tube and mirrors of the world over to the child for good. Unidentified bits, if they are not too many, add to the fascination.

But what if when you look in the tube you see little that you recognise? (Or perhaps, in the case of divorced parents, items all-too-reminiscent of the other.) Let me assure you, as one who has three times now embraced as son a child whose colored bits are almost completely unfamiliar, that the dislocation and distance strike to the heart. Not only are there damaged bits that must be fixed or removed, there are perfectly good bits we simply don’t find attractive. I wanted to pass on my culture. I am passing on someone else’s culture, and that’s my job. My culture has these lovely blue-green oblongs, my wife’s a magenta triangle that go together quite nicely. We chose a watery blue disc to lessen the dark feel. These things in the kaleidoscope of culture just look right. Lots of our friends have similar blue discs. I think the oblongs may have been in the family for years.

We tried to install them in the adopted children, but some wouldn’t stick, while other bits of glass wouldn’t leave.

I write this in metaphoric, non-human terms to get distance from the sadness of it. One can be separated from family members by anger or history, but with teenage adoption the chasm is merely difference. They want to do things that are beyond variations of the themes of what you offered them, but entirely different music, on different instruments.

There’s a plus side and special joy to it all, of course. You get to remove ugliness, or try your hand at repairing bits you have no experience with. You can even, if you are lucky, install parts of your culture in places it would never have otherwise come. Combinations unknown in human history appear before you. All intriguing, fascinating, and quite an honor. Yet the dislocation keeps popping up at odd moments.

When you have children – biological, adopted, borrowed – you come to some understanding of what can be changed and what can’t. Even in the intense, intentional culture of two parents and two children, you come up against bits of colored glass with no identifiable origin, and other bits that just don’t install. More commonly and excitingly, familiar bits fall into new patterns as your child turns the tube.

Much of the culture war in America owes more to this rejection of mere difference than either side is willing to admit. We look into the kaleidoscope and think that’s just wrong. Look, none of us likes self-examination all that much, to see if our approvals and disapprovals in that war are based on a mere preference for blue over green. But it’s simply necessary. My experience in reading and conversation is that (still-)married people do this a little better. Those with a child at least half-grown better still, and those who have raised more than two children beyond the age of eight much, much better, having come up against the wall of children being unexplainably different. (Terri, though technically not qualifying here, provides a nice illustration by referring to her children as the Intuitive and the Rationalist.) I don’t have enough contacts with others who have adopted to venture a guess whether that provides one step further. But my own experience is that I am quite different after the experience.

One more argument that only people who have raised (as in continuously) two children beyond the age of eight should be allowed to vote.


SON : JOB :: DAD :


Monday, September 27, 2010

My People

My People are New England WASPs. I observe that there are similar groups in the North Central states and Pacific Northwest. My identification with them is less than it was, and I certainly have always had personal characteristics that separated me from them. Nonetheless, whether by genes or training, some of their values are mine to the bone. Even in excoriating them/us, I find I say that with some pride.
Lord have mercy.
Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.

We dislike ostentatious wealth. We say in church or in politics that we dislike materialism, but our examples are nearly always those of people flaunting money or bragging about it, not Volvos, prep schools, or summer "cottages" worth more than most houses. Even if we ourselves are poor clerks in bookstores, we don't resent them nearly so much. We turn our checks face down when we pay or put them in the plate. We may have an estimate how much our friends or neighbors might make, or how much they paid for things, but we don't ask and don't tell. Money should talk softly, especially if it carries a big stick.

Though the entire region no longer goes to church, we don't mind religion, and even like some of the trappings of it on our town greens and Christmas cards. But we do believe it should be quiet and modest. Even atheism should be quiet and modest. Agnosticism is much nicer, really. Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Unitarians - those are all nice. Quakers ceased being confrontative over a century ago, so those are good. Presbyterians and Methodists arrived a bit noisy, but we settled them right down. Lutherans were a pleasant surprise, arriving already quite subdued. Baptists, even in their quieter ABCUSA version, remain suspect, and Catholics, even though they still have lots of Latin, are right out. Perhaps the academic side of religion would suit you better, dear. Please don't take up any religious activities that would cause the scholars in other disciplines to cluck their tongues. And we admit, it's nice to have at least one theologian in the family we can all point to to show that we understand. People of color, including Greeks and Italians, though we speak of them and their religious practice with the warmest admiration, can have as much display and noise as they like because they...well, they are wonderful people in their own way, but...

We don't disapprove of patriotism per se, but we believe it should be quiet and modest. Or invisible. Entertainments should be quiet and modest, without noisy engines or blaring speakers. We like libraries, reading at home, that sort of thing. Crowds, especially noisy ones, make us uncomfortable. There are crowds at some sporting events, and even some noisy drunks. But those tend to be, well, ethnic people. It's not drunks that we disapprove of, but noisy or coarse ones. Our sports are quiet: tennis, hiking, skiing, golf, crew, sailing. Kayaking, though modern, is much like canoeing and thus fine. Waterskiing would seem to be too noisy and showy, Muffin, but somehow it makes the list, but never competitively. Soccer, lacrosse, or even hockey, though they can be violent, are approved of so long as the crowds are restricted to family members and classmates. But there is no objection to someone having too much to drink there, so long as it is unobtrusive. And the school colors should be subdued. We call this crimson, and this is Dartmouth's green. And Brown University, of course, has a school color that would not be saleable anywhere else in the country.

We also make allowances for young people to be noisy and/or drunk, if they are at school events and not bothering the neighbors.

One may hunt if one absolutely must, but only birds. Mammals are for the lower classes, though moose were still acceptable targets up until grandfather's day. In the matter of deer, only up until his boyhood. Shooting rabbits or squirrels is beneath contempt. If grandfather ever hunted those, no one talks about it now.

Art, even if it is transgressive and significant, should not be garish. Statues should be all one color. They can be nude - a certain percentage of them should be, in fact, because that is very classical Greek or Renaissance European - but the Italians did go a bit over the line, even with the fig leaves. The French - well, they're French, after all, and you should experience them in their own country.

If one must join the military, then the Navy is best, or perhaps the Air Force, but not in any of those jobs where one shoots at people, or is around any noise at all, actually. The Army, or heaven forfend, the Marines, are not quite...nice. Best to give the military a complete pass, dear, though it is still nice to have a few in the family tree.

Are we seeing a pattern here?

Let me assure you that we have not the slightest insight into how thoroughly this drives our religious practice and political opinions. Our objections to the Tea Party, and country music, and those trailers they call Winnebagos, and Pentecostals, and Wal-mart are based on solid logical premises. As intellectuals, we are entirely certain that our opinions are the result of rational processes and careful consideration. And trust me, we can go on at length to prove this is so, citing many famous writers.

Perfect Stereotype

The speaker at a conference on diversity, sent to our department today for possible CEU's.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Tea Party Foreign Policy

PJ O'Rourke mentioned at the NH Taxpayer Barbeque I attended that he was going to write about the event, and I've been waiting for it. It is now up. He focuses on his discovery that the Tea Party - or this one, at least - doesn't seem to have a coherent foreign policy. He has a solid point here. The Tea Party is focusing on reducing spending and getting corrupt politicians out. A PJ notes, foreign policy ideas are described in vague, rather cliched terms: defending America's interests, respect for the military, that sort of thing.

I'm not certain that's entirely a problem. A group that focuses broadly on fiscal restraint and government transparency, giving guest but not mainstage attention to other postliberal issues, isn't necessarily a bad thing. A small observation from history.

Nations with rising economies don't tend to get attacked. They get attacked when they are declining. While this is hardly universal, there's a lot of evidence for it. One would expect that an attacking nation would measure opponents in more absolute terms - that a country with 10x wealth would be a harder target than one with 5x wealth, regardless of whether the 10x is currently ebbing or flowing. But in fact that doesn't seem to be the majority case. Groups or nations on the rise convince themselves that their strategic advantages, however few, will overwhelm a stronger opponent. This has certainly been the attitude of jihadists toward America, of Bolsheviks toward Czarist might, of WWII Germany toward Europe and Russia or Japan toward China and the US. These Davids feel they can defeat Goliath - and sometimes they do. 9/11 was hatched while the US was in recession and carried out just as recession started to recede. Gulf War I, stemming from Saddam's bet that he could get away with attacking Kuwait unmolested, occurred during the previous recession. Argentina took the Falklands in defiance of a much more powerful UK because it calculated that the British wouldn't have the stomach to fight back. The North Vietnamese launched a suicidal Tet offensive and lost, and yet apparently calculated correctly that the Americans would find even the victory would be too expensive.

Even on an individual level, fighters will tell you that there is always one person who really wants to fight and one who doesn't in any combat, and the former will prevail. In sport fighting this is less true because anything with rules favors the superior athlete, but even there one can see insane determination overwhelming a better opponent - which is why in all sports the coaching aspect that provides motivation is crucial. The more controlled and genteel the sport, the more the motivation is applied to the preparation phase...

Wait, I'm getting distracted here. Respect for the military follows similar lines. The psychological aspect, in and of itself, seems to provide a warning to would-be attackers. In less-visible ways, a country's support for its businesses, schools, churches, or any other institution is a part of its effectiveness.

It's not all attitude, of course. Eventually nations or institutions are called on to back up their claims, and you'd better have something more than a "by golly, we can lick 'em" attitude. But it bears mentioning that economic recovery and respect for the military have their own deterrent effect, especially on primitive attackers. Fewer attacks, whether military or economic, means fewer foreigh policy problems to solve.


Colbert was not the real news today. This was the real news.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dead Horse

Ichiro just tied Pete Rose for most 200-hit seasons. Which is one more excuse for sports radio to start talking about how great Pete Rose was.

I no longer care about the Hall of Fame issue. I was against him going in, but steroids strike me as so much worse that I'm not exercised about Rose anymore. He was a great player, solid HOF credentials - I'm not going to argue that he wasn't any good. But he is simply not "one of the greatest players who ever lived." He's not in the top 30. Baseball illusions - the entertainment value of players rather than their contributions to runs scored and runs prevented - make him overrated.

First, and most important, leadoff hitters are not as important as #3 and #4 hitters. They are probably ahead of #2 and #5 hitters in importance, but closer to them than the 3 and 4. Evidence: The greatest hitters of all time (a few modern players should move up the list since 2004). How many leadoff hitters there? And a few of those, Biggio and Boggs, for example, were not always leadoff. Leading off - getting on base and high-percentage base-stealing - is a wonderful skill but not the highest.

Second, even at that narrowed skill set, Rose was not the best. Rickey Henderson was certainly superior - Boggs, or reaching back to Billy Hamilton were better; maybe even Raines and Biggio. Rose gets extra credit for lots of doubles, but he didn't draw that many walks, and was not a good base-stealer. The lack of walks is part of his second-most famous accomplishment, his hit streak. Guys who control the strike zone and thus draw walks have fewer AB per game, and do not figure as prominently in hit streaks. Ted Williams actually hit for a better average, scored more runs and drove in more runs than Joe DiMaggio during the latter's 56-game streak.

Nor did Rose play one of the top three defensive positions (C, SS, CF), for all his versatility. Being able to play 2B, 3B, and some outfield is nice. Playing decent SS or CF would be better.

We get sucked in by the baseball myth of the Leadoff Hitter to a myth even further from reality: that all this Charlie Hustle stuff was all that meaningful. Sure, it's better to have a guy who runs out a walk, is always clapping his hands, or always looking for a takeout slide than to have a guy who mopes around and causes teammates to lose focus. But it doesn't actually put many runs on the board. It's show. It's the kind of thing that warms the heart of coaches and old baseball guys, and they talk themselves into thinking it's Very Necessary. Rubbish.

Give me either of two other guys on his team, Joe Morgan or Johnny Bench. Give me contemporaries Frank Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, Mike Schmidt; or certainly the big names who started a little before him: Mays, Mantle, Aaron, Mathews, Snider - even Berra or McCovey

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


My highschool band was "Lavender" The Riley sisters with me providing low harmonies and guitar at first, eventually gaining equal footing. Much gentler than my later band or my solo act. Less depressing, too. A lot of Ian and Silvia, PP&M, and this:

And one of my all-time favorites, the only tune done by every band I ever played in. We got up to 5-part harmony on the chorus in one incarnation, the final outrageous falsetto top part took us weeks to get right.

I noticed that Hootie and the Blowfish did a very creditable version of this, BTW.

Deconstruction Revisited

This is a subsection of "Best of March/April 2007."

Deconstructionism is Dungeons and Dragons for the self-deceived, a jargon-ridden exercise in internal references that has nothing whatsoever to do with any real world. It's a remote island for initiates, but they don't know it. They labor under the delusion that this fantasy role-playing game has some importance. Like D&D, it attracts bright people - but the orc-slayers know it's a game, and treat it with proper irony.

I had a fair bit to say about in in 2007.

Modernism Vs. Postmodernism: Which Philosophical Fashion Is Right For Me? Whenever anyone says anything in favor of postmodernism, opponents will claim they are not talking about real postmodernism and are hiding what they really mean to make it look innocuous.
Whenever anyone says anything against postmodernism, pomos will claim that their opponents are not talking about real postmodernism and are confusing it with something else to make it look evil.
AVI observations: So, whatever you say about postmodernism, you’re wrong. How convenient for everyone. But what an advantage for me! If whatever I say, I’m going to be wrong, that’s my natural habitat...

Deconstruction: A related discussion

Deconstruction Followup Conference, in which I start to have fun with this.

Blogging Against Sexism, which in turn led to a fascinating discussion about male and female humor, despite the PC title.

Followed by a more serious take not really about lacrosse
The Gang of 88 are not ignoring the facts because they are inconvenient, as most folks encountering uncomfortable realities would be. They are ignoring them because they consider them unimportant. This is a type of unreality most of us are not familiar with...

Push Poll

The newspapers on sale in the lobby had something about the GOP complaining about a push poll. I followed up the article online. They are talking about something more clearly over the line than my own experience. However, as I received two more calls last night, similar to the first, I wondered if I should be reporting them to the media, even if the AG's office might be a stretch.

Then it hit me. I am the media. So I'm reporting it. One of the polls was clearly designed, after a lot of "Very Favorable - Very Unfavorable" questions, to work in some plugs for Carol Shea-Porter. The other, much more tedious and extreme in its statements, was...well, I don't know what the hell they were trying to do. There'd be a one-sided rant against Shea-Prter, then they asked me if I agreed with that, yes or no. Then there was a one-sided rant against Guinta, and they asked if I agreed with that. Then they told me a long list of nice things about Shea-Porter, then a somewhat shorter list about Guinta. They had worked the libertarian candidate into the preliminary questions, so maybe there was some connection there. It seemed to be a psychology experiment to see how long I would listen to people from out-of-state (they stumbled over the names and place names) rant about NH candidates. Answer: much too long, but I eventually cut it off telling them it was a push poll.

I'm Just Sayin'

"That's just the way I am" is not an acceptable excuse.


Retriever is something of a regular over at Vanderleun's new Rightnetwork. I'd like to help out building her audience, but jeez, she's waxing eloquent on a $255 rice cooker, for crying out loud. Warning: she's sorta persuasive on the topic.

More along our lines is something from her own site, about parenting an autistic child, Refrigerator Moms Again. (The reference may be elusive unless you are already familiar with the subject - or read the article.)


"I have in my hand a list of 206 known racists in the Tea Party."

Actually, the modern version is worse. State Department employees are paid by the taxpayers to represent us to foreign powers - Tea Partiers are just citizen protestors, not beholden to anyone. Secondly, since the fall of the Iron Curtain and examination of their records, we know that McCarthy's number, however cheesily or imaginatively obtained, was quite low.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Everything I Needed To Know...

Stanley Kurtz, who is my age, was a PhD in Social Anthropology at Harvard, and taught both there and the University of Chicago.
Yet the most important lesson of my trip (to the USSR in 1979) was that everything I learned about communism in sixth grade was right.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Old Guys

Guys used to have tool benches with rows of jars hanging over them. The jar lids would be fastened to the underside of a shelf, each jar containing a different type of screw, nut, or nail. These were often labeled, and it had a certain appeal: here was a guy who was serious, organised about doing work around the house. The jars usually signed that everything else would be similarly well-organised. Saws of various sizes and teeth per inch hung from rafters. Dowels, lengths of wood (divided into pine and hardwood), screwdrivers, drill bits, sandpaper - each had their own area and placed in descending order even within that area. You could count on these guys to have a table saw, probably a drill press and a router, too. Most of the tools, even the power tools, were old - heavy, basic, hand-adjusted items they somehow had had the foresight (and money, even in hard times) to acquire 40 years ago when they first moved into the house.

I suppose if you know you're going to live in a house for fifty years, bringing in oak worktables with two dozen drawers, or a hundred-pound band saw, didn't seem inconvenient. Certainly if you thought you were going to move every ten years you'd hesitate.

They never seemed to buy tools. They had tools. If they went to the hardware store, it was to buy a replacement wooden handle for something. Maybe they inherited them from fathers, grandfathers, uncles. Or from old guys next door who died, and the widow didn't want the stuff around anymore.

My stepfather was one of those guys. I remember digging around old tree roots with an ancient mattock that may have come over with The Conqueror. Does anyone still use a mattock anymore? Or a folding rule, or a two-man saw? Ken was a financial analyst, but his father had been fine-tool maker for Winchester firearms in New Haven. Or maybe it was his grandfather.

My father-in-law was less like this, though he built scientific labs and might be expected to have more of that stuff. Unless he had everything he needed at his company, and could just bring it home if needed.

My biological father, who sold tools (though automotive), for pity's sake, less still. He had the back half of the garage - a separate room in that 30-ft building - that had the heavy benches and table saw, but they were covered with dust and other stuff acquired later, such as boxes with old yearbooks and magazines. The rows of jars were up, but a third of them were missing, and another third empty or nearly so. Of course, he never built things for fun or repaired them unless he had to. He had grown up on a farm and was glad to escape it. Sort of like my Romanian sons having no interest in vegetable gardening, even though they complain that store vegetables have less flavor. I don't think either of them will grow so much as a carrot after their early peasant lives in Derna. Might slaughter an animal given the chance, though.

This wasn't what I was going to write about. I am not one of those guys, my tools and stray bits of construction debris are scattered throughout the basement, the garage, and even a few nooks outdoors. I figure this winter would be a good time to throw away a lot of stuff that I saved but haven't used ten years later, and wondered if anyone had advice. I'm not sure I want advice from someone who is basically one of these old guys who have survived into the 21st C, though. I pretty much know what they're going to say and pretty sure I'm not ever going to do it.

Fun With the Hot Story of the Week

Robert Stacy McCain has already noted that the big complaint against Christine O'Donnell is that "She Turned Me Into A Newt," but I don't think enough has been made of the timeline on this witchcraft-dabbling. At the time, First Lady Hillary Clinton was holding seances and trying to channel Eleanor Roosevelt. O'Donnell should just say she took Hillary as a role-model and figured it was all right.

OTOH, any 19 y/o who was trying to contact the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt would be too weird for words, so maybe she should not put too much weight on that angle.

It bears remembering that for all the sneers - and who knows, the woman may be a flake, I haven't looked into it - she has as much scientific training as any Democrat in the Senate. Which is college introductory level. The Republicans have three physicians and a veterinarian, so they're ahead of her there.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Carroll County

"Carroll County" was the band I played in in college. Country rock, three-and-four part parallel harmonies - still very sweet to me to hear that sound. But not when it's background. Only when it's quiet around and I can listen closely. The bands in the California Country Rock Family Tree comprise about a third of what we sang, and more than half of what we listened to. CSNY, Buffalo Springfield, Byrds, Eagles, and all their various ancestors and descendants. There's no one representative song of that genre, but you may like this.

If you want to hear Johnny Cash's cover of their Desperado, it's a whole different song when sung by that ravaged man. Lightened by June Carter Cash's more complicated harmony.

Richie Furay is now the pastor of a church in Colorado. Until YouTube became big, most of his congregation had no idea who he was.

Another third of our music was original, in much the same style. No videos of that, of course.

The last third was more eclectic, with true folk, do-wop, whatever we found hanging around. We liked heartbreakers. If you had just lost the girl (or guy), and were crying in your beer, we were the band to hear.

This was my big end-the-night number. Almost this good. Really.

Tired Of Magic Bullets

There are people who believe if we can only secure property rights fin troubled countries, all will eventually come 'round. We have certainly seen that since the evaporation of the Iron Curtain, the rule of law, at minimum, must be added to property rights. I wonder if there is much guarantee that we won't find some third thing that needs to be put in place.

There are people who believe that if America can just "get back" to God, then all will eventually come 'round. Perhaps so, because this getting back seems rather vague, or at least, varies from person to person. They all believe the scriptures guarantee this, but I am unpersuaded by their proofs. Further, I have already seen a frightfully sincere and humble church slowly sink under the waves. If the entire American citizenry has to exceed that standard to guarantee God's earthly blessing on the nation, we may as well say that the thing will never occur.

If we can take over/back the cultural institutions...if we can elect the right people...if we weren't so obsessed with stuff...if we all ate more Scottish black bread...

We gravitate to simple, linear solutions because it gives us the sense that we can do something, that events are not completely out of our control.
"It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule." J.R.R. Tolkien

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Sudanese Evangelical Covenant Church

The denomination has a new church today, and we went to the block party in Manchester. The program was partly in English, partly in Dinka. The Sudanese are at the front edge of the problem every immigrant church has faced in America: the older people never quite master English, and they want worship in their own language. And, after lives of suffering, who wouldn't want to give it to them? But the children are already more fluent in English than Dinka, and in 10-20 years, they won't stay if the worship is in a language they don't use. So for now, it is two weeks Dinka, two weeks English.

They had Sudanese songs and dances. My stereotype was that these would be pretty energetic, but I missed an important point. Things started so half-heartedly, even boringly, that I wondered whether they only half-knew them now, having been in the refugee camps and then isolated in small groups here. But it built slowly, and was uh, vigorous soon enough. I then remembered that refugee camps everywhere have people working hard to preserve important elements of culture. There is not much else to do, and people don't want to lose who they are.

They joined The Covenant because our denomination was very active in missionary work in the camps. They feel comfortable with us. They got a kick out of the stories of the Swedish immigrants who wanted worship and songs and food that were familiar - especially that they wanted dried fish instead of the fresh fish that Americans ate. It was also humorous to watch the teeneage girls already hanging back from the intensely ethnic side of things - it's not cool, y'know? Perfect. But it is a harbinger of things to come. The cute 6-10 y/o girls who did the traditional dances are going to be hard to drag out there in ten years. It will be that stuff that old people do. They'll keep a few who have a strong sense of tradition and duty, but getting their daughters to put on the costumes and march around is going to be a struggle.

They don't know that yet. Watching them start down the path that other immigrant churches have trod is the closest we can see to what our grandparents had. The language, food, and appearance are completely different. But the dynamics are the same - some of the men sitting silently, not joining in, talking to only a few of their friends; other men treating the dances like a game or competition, with much teasing of each other and camaraderie; older women who are clearly accorded some deference for reasons unclear to outsiders, younger women aggressively organising groups into their proper places; youngest children bewildered and shy.

I think we'll be visiting this church once a month. And if we make a mistake and go on one of the weeks that it's in Dinka once in awhile, so much the better.

Heads Up, Ben

Those of you who go over to Maggie's have already seen them do The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Now try this.

Friday, September 17, 2010

On The Map

Sorry to cheat here. This is in Jaffrey, a larger town that was the southeast corner of the day's trip, and the best anchor for talking about the areas just beyond. Plus I liked the trompe l'oeil painting downtown. In contrast to Fitzwilliam, which I mentioned last time, Jaffrey, Rindge, and New Ipswich are becoming yuppified - or whatever it is they call yuppies nowadays. There is this nostalgic charm, but it tends toward faux nostalgia: road signs with horses on them and new houses in groupings ending in "Estates." The town center is less pricey but more authentic - it still has a shoe repair shop that you enter down a half-flight of stairs from the street, for example. Finns moved into this area a century ago and are still over 10% of the population. Very conservative Apostolic Lutheran Finns who had a dozen children per family and grew New Hampshire's dominant construction firm, Sepalla & Aho. I think that's split into smaller firms now, though you can still find those surnames all through the building trades in the area. They didn't live in town, but in the outskirts, generally.

Now one dark underside of these charming areas I have been writing about. Starting in the late 60's and gaining momentum in the 70's, the town thugs from Winchester to Jaffrey started hanging out together in Troy, terrorizing residents, shaking down businesses, with the usual B&E's and gratuitous assaults. They eventually graduated to murder, and a number of them were sent off to the state prison in Concord. (One is doing life and is still there.) They were known as the Troy Boys, a silly-sounding name but still dangerous. They became more notorious statewide after they went to prison. The Hell's Angels, up from Lowell and Lawrence, MA were trying to move into NH, and the Manchester based Die Hards had members sent to prison at the same time. (I knew a few of the Die Hards from my old neighborhood - one quite well. Glad he liked me. I apparently had done him some favor - or he thought I did - when were were in grade school.) All three gangs wanted to rule the prison population - the unlikeliest group, the rural Troy Boys eventually succeeded at this until some semblance of order was established in the 80's. The other two groups, along with Devil's Disciples and other gangs trying to establish a foothold, were notorious at Bike Week in Laconia, taking over whole sections where the police refused to go. But the Troy Boys never went the motorcycle route - just rural thugs who liked to beat the crap out of people and didn't much care how badly damaged they got in the process. You can read some current memories of them here. It's hard to find much information about them anymore.

Best of February 2007

It is likely better to comment here than at the original post.

I did an adult Sunday School series on Christian music through the centuries, and what the changes mean.
I have little doubt you are all fascinated by the history of lyrics of Christian hymnody. Sure you are, I can hear it in your silvery voices. Nothing would make you happier than Part One: Ancient Hymnody
Not-So-Ancient Hymnody
16th -18th C: Hymns Get Ridiculously Complicated
19th C: Jesus As Cosmic Pal
The People's Hymns: Spirituals, Camp Meetings, and Bluegrass.

God Plays Twenty Questions
I could have written this better, in particular, stressing that God’s answers are an invitation to think these things through over an extended period, not just a one-sentence response.

God starts by speaking to us but not revealing very much of Himself. We are unwilling to ask directly "tell us who You are," but we just have to keep testing and finding out. We want a simple, done-and-out answer.
Are you a local god? God answers Try that idea out and see where it brings you.
Are you an earthly king? Try that. I'll even help you, so it will be a fair trial.

Nuclear Waste. Does it hurt to point out that the "later generations" that will be around in 10,000 years are not our grandchildren and great grandchildren? This is posterity at a very far remove. Turn the telescope in the other direction: how much do you think your ancestors of 10,000 years ago were responsible to you, personally?

Hitchens And Daniels On Orwell
Christopher Hitchens and Anthony Daniels write about Orwell, and I comment on their insights.

Orwell is remembered for the brilliance of his late fiction, Animal Farm and 1984, and to a lesser extent his war essays on propaganda, simple virtue, and meaning. Perhaps his earlier work deserves more attention; Hitchens would certainly say so, though he didn’t convince me. What remained of Orwell’s socialism to the end is interesting, but not compelling and instructive any longer.

By happy chance Anthony Daniels has revisited Homage to Catalonia at The New Criterion this month. Daniels reminds us of some morally reprehensible sections of that work. Perhaps Eric Blair had not fully become George Orwell by 1938, and the incompleteness of his disillusionment should not be held against him as forcefully as Daniels does. Yet it remains that Orwell clumped Homage into the category of his later work, and did not change a word for its reprinting in the late 40’s.

Related: Throwing Darts At The Intelligentsia Reading Christopher Hitchens' Why Orwell Matters reminded me once again of the miserable record of the European intelligentsia in the 20th C. If one were to spread in a row the top three ideas shared by the elites in each decade and throw darts at it, I doubt you would hit a correct one all night.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


My daughter-in-law sends along this full-throated defense of vaccines. I still haven't done any followup research of my own.

And look, everyone trusts Heidi.

Jonathan Winters

I was told a story decades ago by a psychologist who had worked at one of those expensive private mental-health retreats where celebrities and the wealthy got whisked away out of sight when they started getting in trouble. I now believe the story is likely exaggerated, or sadly, even entirely apocryphal. Still, it is a good story, and I have hopes there may be some truth behind it. It is in fact true that the subject was in a private psych hospital in the 1950's and suffered from what we would now call Bipolar Affective Disorder. So maybe.

Jonathan Winters had left the retreat on pass one week in order to meet a contractual obligation at a Las Vegas hotel. Somewhere during the visit, he had gotten in trouble, reportedly being half-naked in a fountain and picked up. Upon return, his group psychologist, in true Northern California fashion, stroked his beard and asked "Well Jonathan, have learned anything from this experience?"

"Yes," replied Winters, "I learned that we should never land on this planet one at a time."

Push Poll

I received an early evening call requesting my participation in a survey. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't. It started out quite reasonably, asking what issues were important to me and my reactions to various political figures. Then we hit a red-flag point. "Would it change your opinion of _______ if I told you..." I interrupted immediately, telling him that I would go on only with suspicion. That tactic indicates a push poll, a deceitful attempt to move your opinion about a candidate under the guise of poll questions. The caller went on: "Would it change your opinion of Carol Shea-Porter if I told you that she is a military wife and the daughter of a military family who voted for billions in veteran's..." I cut him off entirely, telling him to pass on to his supervisor that this had been recognised as a push poll, I considered it dishonest, and would not answer further.

I imagine there may be more to come, and I will have the same response no matter what candidate does it. But for now, I just want to expose the candidate who did it today.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Poverty and Solutions

When we wish to help the poor, we should first hope to find something that will actually help them. It directly follows that we should be immediately suspicious of any solution which makes us feel better. If rationalization, secret contempt, or superficial solutions are to hide anywhere, they will hide at precisely the spots where we congratulate ourselves most.

This not to preach the opposite, that all real kindness must appear at first glance to be cruel, for self-deception can as easily find a niche there. But applying the name "justice" to what is really mercy or generosity leaves both the giver and the receiver untransformed. Justice is a good thing and mercy a better. But they are not the same thing.

Solutions which encourage self-reliance may be wrong not because they are stingy but because they are too optimistic. It may be that some are unable to rise, and survive, and gain self-respect and self-efficacy, even at direst need. These may simply need to be taken care of. Yet might we not hope for more? Might we not hope that most will someday escape bondage?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Insane Nations

After reading Kaplan I had described in a comment thread that starting from the northern and southern tips of Italy and Sicily and moving east, one encountered nothing but nations that were frequently, or even continuously insane in their hatreds and violence. I kept moving east and found I could go all the way to the Pacific. I was doing this in my head, however, so I took out a world map to see exactly what parallels these were, and if I should modify them upward or downward to get the highest concentration.

I had not forgotten that in the other direction, Italy and Spain had also been insane within the last century. But looking at the map, forcing the lines upward and downward (I have to include Ukraine...and Libya...and Syria...), I found there was no limit. It is not merely that every tribe on the globe has at one time or another exploded into widespread torture and genocide, but that so many tribes never stop. Only under tyranny do they cease, and they reemerge from the breakup of empires seemingly unchanged. Central European countries go on for decades in relative calm, then explode into ethnic cleansing. And that is far better than most other places do.

The American and Canadian genocides were mostly unintentional by disease, punctuated by the occasional insanity of wiping out whole tribes in warfare. Oppression, sometimes orderly, sometimes haphazard, interwoven with fits of righteous anger on behalf of the oppressed, has been more our style. It is a sorry record. And yet it is unmatched. The Scandinavians might claim a better grade, but with their homogeneous populations they aren't taking as rigorous a course-load as we are. The British colonies - Australia, New Zealand, a few islands - and GB itself are comparable to North America. Everyone else is insane. I should say more insane. Peaceful Belgium and France and Netherlands - say "Congo" and "Algeria" and "South Africa." Latin America, with its continuous but low-level violence is actually well-behaved by world standards.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Child-Driven Education

I really need to pass on more TED talks

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Evangelical Suspiciousness

Perhaps it is only a coincidence, that a young Christian I know turns out to be a 9/11 Truther, another has gone from being a mere tax protester to full-out Bilderberg/Trilateralist, and three young couples having babies have all joined the anti-vaccine movement. My first instinct was to question what the Christian schools many of them attended had been teaching, but I don't think that's it. The particular schools, in fact, would likely have provided counterweight to all those ideas. And these particular young people didn't attend Christian schools most of their years anyway.

But I wonder about the evangelical culture in general that they grew up in, if it does not encourage a sort of default suspicion of conventional wisdom. Or more likely, being in a very small minority as an evangelical in New Hampshire was in itself encouraging of that attitude, regardless of the specific attitudes taught. Or finally, is this a chicken-and-egg problem, where those who have an attitude of "things are not as they seem - there is special knowledge required" tend to be drawn to minority ideas in the culture.

Old Wisdom, New Wisdom

The mythology of the New England Patriots in the 2007 almost-perfect season is that fatigue, loss of intensity, injuries, bad luck, and a NYG team that peaked at the right time spoiled a perfect season with a miraculous throw and catch in the Superbowl. Otherwise, the 2007 Patriots would have best claim on the all-time greatest team.

But subsequent events and the passage of time allow us to see it all more clearly. With the acquisition of Randy Moss, the Pats changed its offense to a more wide-open style, and for the first half of the season, were indeed the greatest team ever to take the field. But other teams slowly adjusted, and the close games and narrower victories as the season progressed were not the result of the Patriots losing focus, but of other teams finding answers. By season's end New England was not the greatest team of all time, merely a very good team among other very good teams. And they played a style which does not meet all situations: devastating short-and-long passing with just enough running to keep the defense from coming full strength pass rush at you. This scores points. This builds leads. However, a team needs the ability to switch to run just a bit more than they did, to rest a defense and chew up time on the clock when needed.

They didn't quite have it then and they don't quite have it now. Leads slowly erode unless you can get about one-third of your yardage on the ground. The 2010 Patriots have 4 almost good enough runners - which may in fact be enough because it reduces tiredness and gives you insurance against injuries. But come playoff time, you encounter other teams that have escaped injuries just enough to overmatch your "almosts."

We'll see.

Update: in a game that was essentially tied as far as the offense was concerned - New England got touchdowns from an interception and a kick return - the Patriots had just enough running in close on their final drive to put the game away. I call that a mixed answer, but generally supporting my premise.

Home Repair

Whenever I am fixing things around the house - I am unskilled, but need drives me - I avoid feeling sorry for myself by thinking of my childhood friend Gary. He was an academic; went to Bucknell, became a lawyer; but his father ran the hardware store in Colebrook, and he married a girl whose father was in the plumbing supply business. It puts you in a position of never being able to even hint at what you are doing around the house, because any comment you make will draw unsolicited advice and explanations how you're doing it all wrong.

He's a state supreme court justice now, and hopefully can spend the money to have someone else do it - unless his daughters and wife file prior claims on it - so he may finally have peace.

Me, not so much. But I don't have people looking over my shoulder and second-guessing me, either. That likely means I do a lot of unnecessary work, figuring out the best way on my own. But I'll take it,

Friday, September 10, 2010

Stimulus Dollars

I have a patient Thomas, who is being evicted - for good reasons, BTW, even though most of his tenancy has been excellent. But along about January he went off his medications and gradually developed the idea that he was the rightful owner of the building he lived in, because he had paid so much in rent over the years. So he started canceling fuel deliveries until the people next door paid him, and went down to the town hall to demand a deed to the property, and other disruptive things.

He is a sweet man, really, and it is a sad thing that he has dug such a hole for himself. He lost his supermarket job, as well. He would have been eligible for medical leave, but he signed away his claim on this, insisting that he was not ill. The mentally ill do not deny their illness solely because it would be too difficult or embarrassing to face - though it seems that way when one talks with them, and such purely psychological rather than physical explanations are part of it - but because certain parts of their brains are impaired, and they are physically unable to reinterpret data once they have decompensated.

He's been accepting medications again, after some initial refusal, and is doing better, gaining insight. One of his problems which becomes my problem is finding new housing for him. He can't afford much. Section 8 housing has been a good solution to this over the years. You pay 30% of your income for rent, and the government picks up the rest. You don't get anything free, just at a discount, and you still have incentive to work and make more money. As government programs go, it's pretty good. But the waiting list to get on the program is about 3 years, which is a real difficulty for people who already have trouble handling their money.

In the recent stimulus package, money was put into a Bridge program, under which homeless people will get discounted rent as if they were on Section 8 right away. Thomas qualified on all counts (drug, assault, or sexual offender convictions disqualify you, for example), so he has a much wider range of apartments he can afford, and we can get him out of hospital (at $900/day) sooner, and get him into a safer neighborhood where this rather pathetic character has better hope of thriving.

And heck, it solves my problem, and I'm all for that.

On The Other Hand. Thomas should have put himself on the Section 8 list well more than three years ago, but he wouldn't, because even when well he has rather unrealistic expectations. Plus, he was well when he decided to go off his medication. So we are rewarding him for bad decisions. On the other, other hand, lack of insight is not entirely voluntary on his part, but a symptom of his illness. On the other, other, other hand, there are people just as sick or sicker who played by the rules, are toughing it out, and are still on the waiting list because they haven't been evicted.

Fighting Or Working

Katrina Swett running for the Democratic nomination, has signs promising to fight for the middle class. I remind you once again that Democrats promise to fight for you, Republicans to work for you, and this sums up rather neatly their differing attitudes on how the good things of the world come to people.

It is also interesting that it is the middle-class, not the downtrodden, who Ms. Swett is focusing her energy on.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Only On The Map - Rockwood and Bowkerville

Beyond Fitzwilliam, on the way to Troy, Bowkerville Road turns into Rockwood Pond Road - both villages marked right at the top of the lake. You see this in NH a lot - a village right at the far tip. This was often a train depot or loading platform, picking up those products that were easier to move by barge than road. On the bigger lakes, those grew into Alton or Newbury. More usually, when the trains stopped coming, there was no reason to have a town anymore, and it just withered away.

Looking in both directions, you can see that's what happened to Rockwood. A straighter line indicating trains once came through, but nothing else.

Bowkerville, only a mile away, fared just a bit better. They got a fire station in there before everything went kaput, and that was just enough to keep a presence. It's now the county fire training center, including practice tower.

It's called the Monadnock County Fire Training Center, from which the unwary might conclude that New Hampshire has a Monadnock County. It doesn't. Mount Monadnock is in Cheshire County, but it dominates the area. It's not so very tall, but it rises up in isolation. The word monadnock is now the American name for any isolated mountain that rises out of a lower area. Only a bit over 3000 ft, but it's a fun little climb. It is in fact the most frequently climbed mountain in North America with 100,000 hikers a year.

So everything is named Monadnock around here.

On the back of the spare, cement-block fire training center is the legion hall and the local food pantry. Behind the attached open wooden carport - or truckport, I guess - is this little beauty.
Many places in the country, this one would be in a museum. Seems to be in use in Cheshire County.

There are also a few houses within throwing distance, and Rockwood Pond Road continues to get traffic because it's the back way into Rhododendron State Park, with its acres of wild rhododendrons.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010


I heard on some radio ad the last few lines of a song, dramatic and inspiring by a girl who sang that no wizard was going to bring her down. And I thought Gad, is that "new" Oz-thingy just some self-esteem tripe? So I read the all lyrics and looked up the synopsis of "Wicked."

This is appalling. At least with Schwarz we don't get quite so much innuendo of you're-a-big-girl-now-that-you've-discovered-sex. (See "Into The Woods," for example.)

And tangentially, I always found those to be rather creepy lyrics for older men to be writing, but girls and women are their main audience and lap this stuff up, so they must be onto something.

But must we, once again, have the A&H crowd tell us that the bad guys are really just victims, misunderstood by the peasants and other Tea Partiers, good at heart but made out to be bad in a really noble, poignant way? As if this were some significant new theme in literature that will uplift us all, rather than a rather transparent rationalization of their own attitudes? John Gardner did it best and it still sucked.


New Visual

Glenn Reynolds linker to an American Thinker article about lefties and language. I am not interested in commentary on the article in general at present. I had some things I liked about it, some things I didn't.

But there is an interesting concept here, which the the author states he has long held, yet I am taken with as if it is new: that there is not really a left-to-right political continuum in American politics. The libertarians have a nifty little few-question test which people have taken a billion times, which sets out the political landscape along two dimensions, left-right and statist-individualist. I don't link it here because I have thought it only a mild improvement. That may be what Walker is hinting at here - certain sections of his essay betray a sympathy to that construction - but he is more concerned with the idea of current liberals as statists, with no particular ideology modifying that.

Let's take that idea one step further, or perhaps sideways. Let's pretend there are no axes at all. Let's consider liberalism a separate force all it's own embedded in the body politic, or if you prefer, a distinct group. I am undecided whether to picture that as a colored circle, as in a Venn diagram, or a pole of attraction, like magnetism or a city-state. For the moment, no matter. Think of society just going along with its competing interests between groups, and into this mix something new and quite separate is added.

This can be either positive or negative - I am not making a value judgment in this part of the essay. In the time of the Roman Empire there were factions who wanted to pull the general culture one way or the other, and into this mix was added Christianity, a new idea that did not fit previous categories. Or more recently, Adam Smith brought forth his idea of free markets into a western Europe that was divided along a continuum of mercantilists to physiocracists. Marxism, or the idea of an Ubermensch/superior race, were also new things brought in to an existing system. It can go both ways.

Walker states the the whole idea of a left-right continuum was brought in by men of the left, who have succeeded in imposing that framing on all discussions in the last century. That sounds plausible, but I don't know it to be true. Perhaps the idea was not imposed on us by intellectuals of a certain political stripe, but was readily accepted by all groups.

But once we have accepted the idea that liberalism is not a broad swath along a linear scale, but a set of ideas accepted by - according to Pew research - about 19% of us, our picture of the remaining 80% of us changes drastically. All the other ideas of imperialism vs. isolationism, regional interests, class interests, racial and ethnic rivalries (because they usually gravitate to different industries and economic sectors), urban vs. rural vs. suburban, settled vs. frontier - all come back into play. There would be another circle called conservatism, though this area would definitely have smudgy boundaries, but it would be one idea among many, not the lone opponent to liberalism.

In America, this liberal group gathers much of its energy from an aristocratic strain - ironic considering its marxist origins that it would invert thus. Rather than an hereditary aristocracy per se, it is part cultural view, part ethnic (progressives are disproportionally northwest European or Jewish), part quasi-meritocracy.

Well, play with that in your minds and tell me what you think.

Saturday, September 04, 2010


I had one particular speaker in mind on this, but the more I thought about it, the more I decided it applied to many people.

What kind of mind does it take to believe that you have been challenging the status quo all your adult life, but it is your opponents who are divisive? I'm not complaining about the sloppy PR or the superficiality of such a construction, though those are true as well. I am concerned because this is an enormous arrogance, a sense of entitlement, to even conceive of the world in this way. It implies that one's rightness, even righteousness, is so profound that to forcefully disagree is to offend against society.

Pay careful attention to who is throwing this word "divisive" around.

Discerning Coolness

When I was in junior high in 1965-67, there was actually a debate whether the Dave Clark Five were bigger than the Beatles - whether they were going to last longer, whether they were better, whether they were cooler. The controversy was likely kept alive by pop music magazines like Tiger Beat, which needed something to write about that allowed them to run many pictures of many bands wrapped around some mindless text. But there were DC5 trading cards, posters, and stickers for your guitar case.

It all seemed rather force, even then, though. They were emphatically not cooler, as you will see immediately.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Only On The Map - Beechwood Corners and Wyman Hill

At Richmond, I ducked down Rte 32 to get a look at Wyman Hill, just over the border in MA. A side road offered no vistas, so it was necessary to continue on into Mass, when the road passes right by it. The peak was so close to the road, in fact, that I was envisioning a steep, if small, pinnacle on my left as I crossed over. Both sides were forested as the road rose and twisted, so crane as I might, I couldn't see the top. I started descending into Royalston, a bit disappointed. Only as I reached a turnaround outside of town did it occur to me that Wyman Hill was not a knob just off the road - Wyman Hill was what I had just driven over. The peak-mark on the map identified the highest point of a fairly flat-topped hill. Crossing past on the way back, I saw this was clearly so. The ground to my right rose gently to a spot about 20 feet higher.

My connection to these Wymans would not be direct. However, the first settlers of the area were likely not far removed from the immigrant ancestors, John and Francis Wyman in 1634. Puritans came to America young, with children in tow, then had a bunch more once they got here. Settlers in 1740's were likely great-grandchildren of the first Wymans. I digress.

But I digress to avoid actually coming to the next section. I have no photos of Beechwood Corners to show you. I went right by it without seeing it, even though I was looking. There was an intersection with Prospect Hill Rd that marks it, but I don't recall that. Checking up on mapquest later, I still can't find it. No houses or businesses, no historical markers, no anything. It is right on the boundary between Richmond and Fitzwilliam, but neither town mention it on their websites. So this one really is Only On The Map.

I trundled along right into Fitzwilliam, a town I don't recall ever being in. It fairly drips with New England charm. Drips in a good way. There is no false nostalgia here, no faux colonialism, as we will see in other towns nearby. Town green, churches a little down-at-the-heels but still in use, roads that go a bit inconveniently from one spot to the next, an old inn, an historical society and small museum hanging on. You could pass up some of these other towns and stay here and not be disappointed, though there are no obvious tourist draws.


The preceding essay needed more vivid analogies, didn’t it? More donkeys pulling carts, tennis balls soaked halfway in the swamp, or children crying in airports. I use analogies all the time in conversation about ideas, but tend not to put them in writing. Pity. I’m good at it, but analogies always threaten to lengthen essays horribly. In live discussion, I can see immediately if hearers find it promising and narrow the focus appropriately. In writing, it is hard to see what people might misinterpret, necessitating a fuller explanation to close the possible escapes.

Bluntness and Subtlety

Conservatives – to engage in wild generalisation – prefer bluntness. When this goes wrong, it becomes tactlessness. Progressives admire subtlety in phrasing. When this goes wrong, it becomes evasion.

People admire both. “Plain speech” is not only a Quaker virtue.
Yet it is also a compliment to say of a person”He can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you look forward to the journey.”

There are certainly personality characteristics to this split, and perhaps those who naturally prefer plain speech are drawn to conservatism while those who are subtle by nature lean liberal – one factor among many, and not an overwhelming one. More strongly, various subcultures stress one or the other, and this has political effect. For, a person who will not answer yea or nay, but must give you an on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand answer arouses suspicion in some on the right – he talks out both sides of his mouth - while bluntness is interpreted as dullness on the left – she is unable to understand complex material. And confirmation bias will keep that idea firmly embedded in your skull throughout your life, if you let it. In a wide world, one can always find stupid or dishonest people on the other side of the divide.

So. This hardly helps going forward in the national conversation, does it?

While we can all pretty readily identify the bad effect the two styles have on hearers. Regarding someone as stupid – as if he is unable to attain the lofty heights of cleverness of my good tribe – merely because he is blunt is, in itself, stupid. Jumping to the conclusion that someone is being dishonest – as if she is intentionally evading the question – merely because she wants to give due weight to all sides is, in itself, dishonest. There is also the unfortunate effect that indirect people can too easily find a home on the left even if they are dishonest, which direct people can to easily find a home even if they are dishonest.

I am more interested at present on the effect the two styles have on the speaker. We become what we pretend to be, but there are different ways that can happen. We might become gentle souls, mindful of the feelings of others and eager to persuade them only as much as they can absorb at the moment. We might also become arrogant souls, appearing in gentleness only for the added insult of condescension. And if the latter, we will hardly be the ones who see it. We can say “perhaps” because we are genuinely humble and curious, willing to be corrected or challenged; we can say “perhaps” because it is polite and we wish for others to contribute freely or at least save face; or we can say “perhaps” while meaning none of it, questioning none of our assumptions and enforcing our will on others whenever we have the power, while maintaining plausible deniability that we are in any way the divisive, confrontational ones. It’s those other people, the blunt ones, who are stirring the pot. All our friends know that.

To enjoy indirection with its constant qualifying and tempering, to spend one’s life with people who reward it as socially advanced, is to move from tact to avoidance, from avoidance to evasion, from evasion to dissembling, from dissembling to lying. This is not only a possible trail, it is the natural one unless we guard actively against it. Am I sounding like Screwtape? Perhaps. (“Perhaps” meaning I’m pretty damn sure but am willing to consider an alternative; and I’m not claiming to be quite as good at this as Lewis, but not miles behind either. So my “perhaps” is closer to sincere politeness than to real gentleness.) It is an especial danger on the religious left, but in my limited experience, they seem to encourage it there rather than warn against it. We all do tend to lean every further out one side of the boat, don’t we? Fundamentalist colleges and seminaries encourage their students to be more bold, after all, as it that were the problem.

There is a second possible consequence – usually related to the first but sometimes independent – of endlessly hedging one’s conversational bets by hedging: we may actually become fuzzy in our thoughts. Bright conversationalists know that forever supposing, positing, it-is-possibling, sounds bad, so they move instead into empty words. The ability to make important distinctions atrophies, as words like justice, peace, American, humane, fair, biblical, and now missional take the stage. All are ideas one could not possibly object to, now used to justify things far more suspect. This is not mere PR, though there are those who use such terms with intentional manipulation and deception in mind. But for most, the sweetness of the word biblical or justice, applied gradually to all our pet theories, is too much to resist. Even better, we get to apply their opposites to those who disagree with us. So we have an interest in not thinking too precisely.

Alert readers will notice that we have moved into territory as dangerous for conservatives as for liberals, as my choices of great gaseous words illustrates. The individual variants are myriad, but conservatives generally arrive at this fuzziness from a different direction: not because they have hedged and qualified too long, but because their bluntness is unsustainable.

If we make pronouncements because they have more dramatic effect, we run a separate danger. Because a single counterexample can undermine an inflexible claim, blunt people often use the categorical statement as a pre-emptive strike. It is a declaration so emphatic that the hearer is warned it will be uncomfortable to even enter a discussion. People who dislike confrontation (or dislike wasting their time) will simply decline to respond. They may make a parting shot as they walk away, challenging the idea of certainty more than the content, or reserve their complaint until later, with those who might listen. Yet the speaker, who for all his bluster may be eqully uncomfortable with heated discussion, has been rewarded for his declarative nature. He will be drawn to repeat the technique in other settings, spreading his definiteness over wider and further pieces of intellectual real estate. Biblical will come to mean “whatever I think, because no one’s stopping me.” Public speakers are especially prone to this – who, after all, is going to attend a political rally or evangelism crusade where the speakers shilly-shally? - but it is common in conversation as well. (Not so common with me around, but even I let a lot of stuff go face-to-face interaction. I don’t like contention, I don’t like picking on unarmed people.) As with the tact-to-lying progression, there are intermediate steps from plain speech to bluster.

Relatedly, refusing to qualify statements can make you gradually stupid. We come to believe that it is that simple, that there are no mitigating circumstances or exceptions, that our prism is culture-bound in any way. Smart people can make themselves stupid over time by prefering the tidy and narrow construction to the messy reality on grounds that are aestheic or convenient.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Irrational Venom

I know I shouldn't expect elevated comments at the Daily Beast, but when First Things linked to this article, about a woman who refused to grant her husband a divorce (NY was the last state to have no-fault divorce), I was amazed at the stupidity and venom of the comments.

People thought she shouldn't want him if he was unfaithful - wouldn't it be her choice what she wanted? They thought he should have his freedom - what about her freedom to make choices?

She may indeed be a selfish and pathological creature - I don't accept her word for it that she was the good one and he the evil, because I'm fairly automatic on not taking sides after hearing only one side of the story at this point. But there is nothing in the evidence presented that she actually is selfish or unbalanced. People just assume it.

The assumptions in the comments (I only read the first page of 'em) are quite remarkable. Looks like a lot of personal defensiveness spilling over onto the page.