Friday, February 28, 2014

Fairy Tales

(There's going to be some HBD stuff below.)

My wife had this edition of the Junior Classics, and there was a slightly later one in my childhood home as well.  Someone did some brilliant marketing on this, because from 1912 onward a lot of homes had these, enough so that even the original set isn't worth all that much. (Your old family Bible is unlikely to fetch much of a price outside the family, either. Too many of 'em.)

I glanced at them from time to time, but had never read them.  I made an effort this month, mostly from guilt, and made it through the first two volumes. I doubt I will go further. We are sending them on to son #2 some day. In addition to the guilt, similar topics have emerged repeatedly over the last weeks, and my mind has been taken up with the whole rich stew of ancient tales and how they affect us.  First, my granddaughters' obsession with "Frozen*," the new Disney animation roughly based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen;" a discussion of Bruno Bettelheim's pariah status in the autism community, which reminded me of The Uses of Enchantment, the one good thing he ever did; a post about Lightsabers and Cinder-maids by expecting mom Julia over at her blog The Whole Sky; a rereading of Lewis's and Tolkien's  thoughts on the subject two months ago; pondering St Dymphna earlier this month; a Bible study on Daniel (and dreams); and, and, and...

Heck, I don't know where these running topics come from.  I have mild OCD, stuff comes in and won't go away.

I doubt I have anything that is absolutely new.  But I have some things that may be worth bringing up again.

The folktales of Northern Europe are different. They just are. Girls and women are more interesting and more prominent. Please note: all characters in myths and fairy tales are two-dimensional at most. Usually they are only one-dimensional: the handsome prince, the beautiful princess, the wicked enchantress, the sad king. Complaining that some female character of a northern tale is only two-dimensional is a modern fascination that shows a complete misunderstanding of the genre.  Two is the maximum. Let this sink in.  Yes, sometimes the unpromising third son, by cleverness, is rewarded with the beautiful princess and half the kingdom, and that is infuriating to modern sensibilities. Yet sometimes it is the young woman who is the central figure, who is rewarded in the end with a one-dimensional Handsome Prince. Don't complain.  She gets two dimensions and he gets only one, and this doesn't occur very often outside the Hajnal Line. (See also, Barbie and Ken.  Complain about her figure, and shallowness, her clothing, and bad influence all you want, but don't forget: Ken is an accessory. That doesn't happen in other parts of the world.)

Robert Bly, a Jungian poet wrote at length (though not depth) about men, but noted important details about the women-stories in what he regarded as universal myths.  But being essentially a Norwegian  DFL-party liberal from Minnesota (Cf: Garrison Keillor), his idea of "universal"meant "we can find occasional examples among Southern Europeans, fewer still in the Middle-East, and obscure references everywhere else, but mostly, Scandinavians, Teutons, and maybekindasorta Celts." He notes in passing the mother who passes on to her daughter a white linen cloth with three drops of blood pricked from her finger before she dies and the importance of this in her rising to womanhood. Whoa-ho! Observe the deep-rooted gender-role issues, there, eh? Menstruation! Sacrifice! Childbirth! My stars, what ignoramuses those largely-male storytellers must have been, eh?

Except that outside of northern Europe, girl and women issues don't even get that. They get one dimension. Related: one tribe stands out among the Semitic groups as even noticing that women are not, essentially, one rank above cattle. Guess. (Hint: they wrote they whole Bible.) The Christians grow out of this exceptional group, exceptional themselves for the heresy of more status for women even by that standard. When they finally penetrate to the lands which inexplicably already have some idea of female intelligence and worth, in contrast to oh, everyone else in the world, women are taught to read, allowed to own property, and rule in limited spheres.  Centuries later, it is this group that supplies feminists with new troops every generation.   Those who have followed all the discussions at hbd chick  about forbidding cousin marriage will not be surprised to  Jewish women, now at the forefront of Western feminism, could ironically only express it in the lands of the NW European gentiles.They were part of Step 1 of feminist development, millennia ago; they had some part in a few other steps. But they essentially came back into the picture mostly in America.

Yes, yes, I'm wandering all over the map here.  There's no good structure to this. Take-away point: in this set of folk tales, the princesses are often clever; the protagonist might be a female who has to go out into the world to make her fortune; women own property and give orders.  Not always, but sometimes.

Another difference, related and dear to the hearts of students of cultural (and genetic) history, is the recurring theme of being kind to strangers. Repeatedly, the hero or heroine succeeds in the northern tales because s/he shared a meal with a fox, or carried an old man across a stream, or did some other service to a woman who turned out to be some magical creature.  This seldom happens in the stories outside those realms.  One can see the cultural value growing, of loyalty not only to one's kin, but to nearby others. Not only that, but the evil blood-relative, whose claims must sometimes be denied, also turns up mostly in this region. hbd chick posted on it today, actually.

*My son and DIL are marveling how even Disney underestimated how popular this was going to be. I have seen only the musical numbers, and those with the the lyrics obscured by girls 6 and almost 3 leaping about and shouting them 2 beats behind the video. But it's good, and powerful, and it will rapidly obscure Brave, Tangled, The Princess and the Frog, etc. For girls (esp. with sisters) of the rising generation, this will be among the top few influential and shared cultural experiences. You can watch 2040 - worldwide - being built right now.

The Deep State

An interesting over at Chicago Boyz entitled The Deep State. The worries of Bill Moyers, though still frozen in liberal amber, are a significant part of the discussion.

The privacy and surveillance concerns have been topics for the conspiracy theorists.  Yet that is hardly necessary.  The number of people in federal government, plus the enormous number of hangers-on as lobbyists and contractors, now constitutes a group so large that they are a class interest unto themselves.  They don't have to have any ill motives or secret agendas to be dangerous.  They just have to be regular folks who have jobs and want to keep them, who have some understanding what is good for their "industry," and some power to protect themselves.  That in itself makes them a threat to other Americans.  That this much power attracts the super-ambitious and under-conscienced only makes it worse.

The right gets distracted by the similarity of such behavior to the State under dictatorships, which is true but unnecessary to notice.  Yet the left is worse, continuing to believe that the Real Problem is super-ambitious and under-conscienced people in business, a place those can actually do little harm.  It comes from deriving one's political beliefs from stories rather than knowledge.  We can easily envision rich businessmen doing evil things and not caring much about others - heck, the scriptwriters for the Muppets have been doing it for years. It is harder to write a simple morality tale about government empire-builders in shadowy places. We make up hero-stories about fighting baddies, and it is easier to write one script than the other in our feeble imaginations, so dependent on inherited themes.

It is a continuing belief of mine that this reliance on narrative explains most of our politics. Once one is an ideologue, intelligence is only used to play chess against oneself.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Bacon Hat

The Lehigh Valley Ironpigs, a Pittsburgh Pirates AAA affiliate, has a new logo on some of its merchandise: bacon.  I predict they will be selling a lot of hats this year. The T-shirt bacon strip is scratch-and-sniff. The piping down the side of the pants?  Bacon.

This is also a team that has all-black uniforms and Urinal Game Controllers at the ballpark. (Hands free!) Someone in the marketing department needs to get scooped up and brought to bigger things.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Appalachian Trail In Winter

Well, that has a rugged, outdoorsy, courageous sound to it, doesn't it? Especially in NH, though I'm sure Clingman's Dome is pretty brisk in February as well.

The reality, not so much. This was a wuss version of AT-NH.  I was curious what the AT looked like as it entered NH and went through Hanover, and what the first few miles out of town  were like. The Dartmouth Outing Club maintains the trail there, and historically only the Harvard Mountaineering Club rivals it for young men named Cameron or Bradford or Sumner who take to the strenuous life at every opportunity.  These days, young women named Alexis or Eun Hee may outnumber them, but still, I expected the AT to be treated with honor there. Yet there were no markers through town and across campus.

To confirm the fantasy, the map shows that the Appalachian Trail leaves town right next to the Food Co-Op and next meets a road 3+ miles later at the Montessori School. How Perfect.  I wondered if it were more parkland through this section - a commonly used cross-country trail, used not only by students but families. Perhaps there would be a little shelter where people gathered in the cold with a bit of fire and hot cocoa on weekends. The surrounding towns refer to this as Hanover! after all, and it is the AT. What could be more natural than students in North Face or other polartec, or professors with young sprouts and a yellow lab dashing about. I wondered whether a snowmobile, that noisy middle-american machine that nonetheless grooms trails marvelously, would be allowed.

This is the actual entrance to the trail, in the parking lot of the Co-Op. It took me a while to find it.

The Food Co-Op itself was as expected. The local foods section is all healthy bakery stuff this time of year, including a deceitful and tasteless oatmeal-raisin scone. Expensive coffees from impoverished countries. A dad admonished his son not to whine in a very standard, non-elite way, but added "Devon, use your words." Ah, yes. After clambering over the plow-pile, there was a meager track with bootprints, paw-prints, and unaccountably, skate-tracks. (I recalled no ponds on the map. A swamp, maybe?) It quickly led to a more recognisable trailhead.

Still, I was disappointed. It was clear that very few people came out here. No crosscountry, no snowmachine - how hard would it be to show a little respect to this important bit of history right under your noses, people?

A quarter-mile later, I came to the first green glass waterfall. Ski-doos can do remarkable things, but this would be a feat. There was no getting up the trail directly, but hands-and-knees, a little to the side, banging away at the crust and grasping branches, I got up over. I did feel a bit queasy about coming back this way. In my expectation of parkland and winter vacation family merriment on the trail, I had had hopes of hiking through and cadging a ride back, but that was dashed in the parking lot. I thought going in a mile or so and retracing, then driving around and seeing a bit of the Montessori side might be a better plan.

The second green glass waterfall was enough discouragement.Back I went. The scone was already sitting pretty heavy.

I had trouble find the trail on the other side as well. The Montessori School may have closed. I reluctantly determined that this was the entrance to the second leg.

It seems rather unwelcoming, doesn't it? Though this also, once I climbed over, had recognisable trail marking. The trick seems to be We won't show you the trail. But we'll let you know if you've found it pretty quickly. I only count my steps while hiking about 30% of the time now. Yet I must do it without even knowing. I walked in a ways, up a little rise and down into a valley. At the bottom, I calculated how far I thought I had gone and considered whether I should go back. I pondered. 1100 steps, maybe 1300, I thought. Though a number kept occurring to me: 1657. I counted on the way back, and the number of steps was 1670. I count without knowing. I also figured out the ice-skates, which were on this side of the trail as well. They were crampon tracks, which makes much more sense.

Back at the car, I came upon a hiker coming the other way. A woman about 30; blonde, slender, healthy, polartec, ski poles - and a yellow lab frisking about. So the stereotype is not dead yet.

I have learned to my chagrin in the last two years that my navigation is not as good as I imagined.  If they are going to make it hard on me to boot, I will have to limit myself to finding old highways. (Post on that coming.) Those who want to hear more AT adventures can go over to Dubbahdee's at Necat Draco, as he hiked the whole thing.  But he's a pastor now, and can't lie - okay, not as much - so the stories may not be as interesting as they would have been a year ago.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Voted Best Ever

This was voted the best religious joke ever over at Ship of Fools, I site I used to comment on but got tired of.

Christian Contemporary Worship

The introduction to special music this morning reminded me of nothing so much as the Troggs.

An earlier selection had the two female vocalists clapping in just that sort of way that put me in mind of The Archies*

Bet you don't have the Troggs and the Archies at your worship.  At first I thought that in 1968, no one would have called music from 1922 "contemporary," but the more I considered it, churches would indeed have called that contemporary.  Many churches would have called music from 1868 contemporary.

* Yes, I know that there were no Archies.  But they had a cartoon, and those girls clapped, though they preferred the tambourine.

Friday, February 21, 2014


From Maggie's an interesting article at Smithsonian about which vitamins actually have some positive effect. Vitamin D for most of us. Probiotics, but only when you are taking antibiotics.  Zinc, but only for a cold.  Niacin if you have heart disease, and maybe for some other things if you take it at prescription strength. Garlic for high blood pressure. 

Lots of things are absent here.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Barbara Allen

The last song put me in mind of this one.  I almost went with the Art Garfunkel version, but this one grew on me.

Tobacco's But An Indian Weed

The song comes down to us, apparently, from Thomas Jefferson's two-volume set of drinking songs. (Lyrics at link)

Almost three years for me now.  Only rarely do I miss it.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Copernican Theory

There has been a flurry of commentary on the odd discovery that 25% of Americans believe the sun goes around the earth.  It is a Rorschach for prejudices, I think with some (I think HuffPo should be singled out here) leaping to the conclusion that it is Young Earth Creationists who constitute this group.  Others are speculating that it must be minorities, or attributing the whole matter to the poor quality of the public schools, or people goofing on telephone interviewers.  My own initial impulse would have been the giggling young women that used to get asked questions by Leno when he did his Jay Walking segments. I think there is an overlap with pink hats.

But I didn't think of them.  I have been rereading the Sherlock Holmes stories and thought of Watson's amazement at the detective's nescience in the matter.
My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized being in the nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth traveled around the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

"You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."

"To forget it!"

"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty laying his hands on it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of those he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

"But the Solar System!" I protested.

"What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently; "you say that we go around the sun. If we went around the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or my work."(A Study In Scarlet)
In that bit of dialogue Arthur Conan Doyle touches on the continuing points of the discussion. First, educated people are just supposed to know this. Notice he doesn't mention how they are supposed to know this, nor does anyone getting worked up over the 25% of Americans when it comes up these days. The truth is, there are very few people who can demonstrate it by observation. The math and the record-keeping alone eliminates most people. (In a cloudy area like Seattle, people might never find it.) The sun continues to look as if it goes around the earth, and we continue to say that the sun rises and sets. A lot of us could illustrate it - heck, my second son did something similar for his 2nd-grade science fair when he put up a refrigerator box and invited people inside to show how the phases of the moon worked. Flashlight and tennis ball, I think. (It was cool.) A few could put forth a convincing argument that the retrograde movement of some planets, which has been known for many centuries,  suggests that while they do orbit, they are not orbiting the earth, suggesting that they at least orbit the sun, and so too us. But that's not a proof, and the idea of retrograde movement of Mars is also something that 99% of us know only because we read it somewhere.

So educated people have this told to them, usually pretty early on and repeated in a variety of contexts, so it really should be embedded by the time you get out of highschool even if you aren't studying much science. Thus it is true that we should be as surprised as Watson when someone doesn't know it. But it is largely a measure of believing your teachers and the people one reads, not any personal scientific merit on our own part.  Because of the partly-correct story about Galileo, there is also some association that if people don't believe it, it must be because some nefarious religious people have suppressed the idea. In the absence of any known Christian school or home-school curriculum that actually teaches a Ptolemaic universe, it's not very, uh, scientific for people to come to that conclusion.  But it fits the prejudices, as above, so the data matters* little.

A more likely conclusion is that 25% of the population wasn't paying very close attention in school and doesn't read much, and are thus unreliable sources for many types of information, not just astronomy.

Secondly, Doyle recognises through Holmes that the information doesn't directly change life for most of us.  I don't use the information in either work or hobby.  Farmers, foragers, and fishermen knew enough about the seasons to keep the rest of us alive without having a heliocentric theory of the universe.  We are affected indirectly by the technology developed by people who did need to know it, but even that is not so thoroughgoing as one would think. Even most of the sciences don't rely much on knowledge of the solar system.

The long hard struggle of learning to reason uses math and science as one of its key classrooms.  Thus we rather automatically assume that people who don't know much science must not be able to reason very well.  You will find that to be true in your everyday experience, of course, because we try to educate children with some general knowledge of many things.  If they don't know basic science, then basic history and geography may also have passed them by.  But science and math aren't the only classrooms, and reasoning can be taught without very much of those.  Nearly all of the science of Aristotle or Plato has been overturned, but their reputations for reasoning remains solid.

*Yes, I know that many of you think that should be "data matter" instead, and until a very few years ago I would have agreed with you and gone back and changed it after typing it.  I am on the other side of that divide now.  I have a reasonably good command of my native language.  What sounds correct to me is by definition, correct. Were I writing or speaking in some formal setting I might change it so as not to be a distraction to the audience.  But the change might be even more of a distraction.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Like Grandma Used To Make

A common theme in our day, especially among conservatives, is how we should get back to the way our grandparents did things.  The cliche is pulled out for education, for neighborhoods, for just about anything, really.  One can almost hear the sighing.  If only...

It is nearly always completely wrongheaded, by the way. 

I have heard it a lot over the years about food.  Those wonderful, healthy, natural foods that our grandparents used to eat were much better for us than all those unexplained chemicals we eat today.  Sure, they were higher in fat, but they worked much harder, burning more calories, so that was an offset. Good, wholesome, real food.

Like lard, for example.  Let's have more lard.  And organ meats.  We need more liver, tongue, and tripe in our diets.  Blood sausage.  Don't forget the coagulated cream before refrigeration was much good.  Cweam Dwied Beef was my mother's favorite as a little girl, and you can still get those salt strips which reportedly have a bovine provenance at the supermarket.  Maybe I should have that on toast again soon. Soup stock made from the even more unattractive parts of animals - fishheads, pig's feet.  Even the better cuts of meat were often heavily smoked and salted. Let's rekindle our desire for five or six versions of herring at a shot - that is the center of the romantic and elegant sounding Swedish Smörgåsbord. (Though jellied veal was also big.)

I read in the History of Bedford a sermon at the Presbyterian church by an old Scot-Irish minister who was invited back for some anniversary in the late 1800's.  He deplored how far the youth of his era had fallen in industriousness, piety, and learning.  He attributed it to the bread.  If only the mothers would make that black bread that he had grown up on as a lad, he was sure things would start to come around again. What the Swedish pastors might have recommended we eat worries me even more.

Don't forget the beer and the cheap hooch that was given even to many children.  At lunchrooms outside the mills here in Manchester before Prohibition you could get a millworker's lunch - nine beers and a hot dog - once you were old enough to have a mill job.  The beers were only six or eight ounces and only about 4% alcohol, but still - that's a fair bit of ETOH for midday.

Just for the record, one grandfather was an accountant, another the egg man. Neither of those were particularly aerobic, calorie-burning activities, though they worked a lot of hours.

Copernicus and Lard

My little memory trick is a keyword that suggests a whole conversation, or a post.  "Keyword: Breakfast" I might say to Tracy, which she can pull out for discussion over the next day if we are in the car or both hit a breakpoint in our routines.  I also use it as a mnemonic for posts I have planned.  If I have more than three, I start using the initial letters and putting them in pronounceable form.

Dubbahdee used to teach memory courses, and I imagine mine is a rough version of some more refined and efficient system for remembering strings of data.  It works for up to five elements pretty well.

My next two posts have the keywords Copernicus and lard.  We cover a lot of territory here.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Spanish Mozart

Juan Crisostomo Arriaga was called "The Spanish Mozart" because he was a composing prodigy and also died young.  When we discuss child prodigies in this era, we tend to focus on early mathematical ability, early reading, and fluency in multiple languages.  Those do seem amazing to me.  Yet I can see those mountains from my own hill. I cannot in any wild stretch of imagination fathom a twelve-year-old writing this.

Those we call musical prodigies today are performers like Sungha Jung (who I love - don't get me wrong). Not even an arranger.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Manchester, 1935

Journey Of The Magi

I am not an especial fan of poetry - haven't the taste or the soul for it or something.  But sometimes there is one that I find arresting.
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?
There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt.
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like
Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death. T.S. Eliot, 1927

A Nation Of Immigrants

I’m getting tired of this “we are a nation of immigrants” thing.  It’s not true.  A lot of my ancestors were colonists, or if you prefer, invaders.* You could technically call my Wyman grandfather an immigrant, as he came down from Nova Scotia in the 1920’s.  His people – all branches – had come up from Massachusetts in the late 18th C to the Yarmouth area, leaving their cousins behind.  That port was far more connected to Boston than Halifax, and his family shipped fresh blueberries in season to the markets there. So it's really stretching a point to call him an immigrant.  His wife’s family seems to have come to Massachusetts in the main colonization from1625-45, the same as the cousins mentioned above.  New England was a rather stable population from then until the Scots-Irish started coming in in the 18th C.  Some of those were mine, and I suppose you could call their arrival 250 years ago “immigration” as well.

Amnesty advocates ask how long a person has to live here before you can call them Americans, with the implication that a decade or two should be enough.  I would ask in response how long your descendants have to be here before politicians and activists stop calling them immigrants.  Was Geoffrey Chaucer an immigrant to England? Were the Iroquois immigrants into the St Lawrence River area but invaders of the Hudson River area?

Not everyone liked being thought of as an immigrant, remember? People consciously dropped the old ways in order to become melting-pot Americans.  The melting pot image is now unfashionable.  So what? A lot of people did melt in and become generic American. Just because the current fashion is to dig up what they buried doesn't make it eternal truth.  The fashion could change in a generation.

The other grandfather traces back to the original Massachusetts colonisation as well. So we are up to 75% of my ancestors who can be called immigrants only if you allow a convenient interpretation of why they came, and regard 250-400 years of occupancy as unimportant to the definition.  The latter would lead to difficulties on most of the inhabited areas of the earth.

My Swedish grandmother wasn’t an immigrant, but her parents were. They came here more than 130 years ago. I don’t think there actually is an American tradition of how far back we count ancestry in our designation of “immigrants.”  Many of our parents and grandparents saw themselves as products of an immigrant culture and would have agreed readily to the statement “we are a nation of immigrants.” But they were born 100 years ago.  In many cases there is no scrap of language, no object from the old country, no identifiable custom of the ancestors.  My wife’s family could much more readily be called “immigrants,” from Holland, Ireland, and Yorkshire, with the original ancestors born in Europe before 1900 but often not much before. But they did not tend toward Dutch, Irish, or recently English friends. They didn’t think of themselves as immigrants.  I don’t know why my wife, children, and grandchildren should now revert to that designation.

I don’t have anything against immigrants.  Sons number three an four are immigrants, the latter a double immigrant, as he now lives and works in Norway.  Perhaps that gives me more clarity exactly what is and is not an immigrant.  I like clarity.

*The original landings were seldom opposed by the native peoples, and sometimes were in places where they were few, anyway.  The subsequent expansions were more along the lines of how invaders act.  Nor were the native peoples of one mind as to what should be done with the Europeans.  There was an enormous range, from the setting up of temporary trading areas in the Canadian Maritimes to the fully-armed landings and military campaigns in Mexico.  All of them brought disease and alcohol, however, against which the natives had little genetic defense.

Olympic Uniforms

I had thought the Ralph Lauren sweaters with their faux-retro appeal, rather ugly when I saw them individually.  But when you look at pictures of them on a team marching in the ceremonies, they are much more attractive.  I doubt that occurred to anyone who is planning on selling similar items to individuals, not massed ski clubs, but there it is.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Odd Excuses

I was in a few comment threads on the occasion of Pete Seeger’s death.  Those have dwindled into pointless repetition – some of it mine – so I am turning the page on that in specific.  However, a particular argument kept coming up that I had forgotten about.

Seeger, and Baez, and the whole Folk Song Army didn’t criticise the USSR and China because there would be no point in that.  They couldn’t affect that.  They focussed on the evils in America because that was where they could make a difference.

My soul screams “Liar!” but let me calm down and try to refute that more dispassionately.

I was in the Folk Song Army, singing at coffeehouses and small wannabee festivals, listening to the records and hanging out with the other folkies.  At no time did anyone say “Gosh darn it, I wish we could bring some of this protest and scorn to Czechoslovakia or North Vietnam and try and change their minds! But we’re stuck here trying to improve this pretty good place. I wouldn’t mind the danger or anything of leading a chorus of ‘We Shall Overcome” outside the Lubyanka, but what good would it do?  They wouldn’t listen.”  I know this is hard to believe, but it's true.  No one ever said that, or even hinted it, wink-wink.

No, the tone then was moral equivalence at best. Any criticism of Russia as a police state would be greeted with assurances that we did the same thing right here in America.  Any noting of military agression from the Soviet or PRC side would unleash a torrent of examples of how the US was arming right-wing strongmen in Countries A, B, & C.  And then, of course, the subject would have successfully been changed, so that the minuses of tolerating a Marcos or a Pinochet would occupy 100% of the field, and all discussion of whether Mao or Breshnev should be shipping AK-47’s to Allende or Ho would be conveniently off the table.  Because that’s equivalence.  I will note, not for the first time, that the American excuse for arming bad guys against rebels was that we were only responding to the Soviets assisting worse guys there.  The USSR said they were only there because we were.  In 1970, if you squinted really hard, you could call that mutual finger-pointing unresolvable, I suppose.  However, we have new data since then.  The Iron Curtain collapsed and stopped sending money to the Shining Paths of the world.  Since then, the US has not been particularly involved in the revolutions and counter-revolutions of those places, and they have had whatever good or bad governments they want. Plus, we have lots of inside KGB info that was unavailable before, which substantiates who the aggressors were all along.  The Russians certainly felt that they were only responding, and didn’t see themselves as the instigators, but we now know they were frigging paranoid.  So you can stop squinting – it was never equivalent after all.

There is a new, improved version of this which asks “Well, is that our standard, just to be better than Russia?  Can’t we aspire to be something more than that?”  Well of course.  Why didn’t you say so in the first place? Like, at Woodstock or something.

At the next level down, was it even true that no good could be done?  A gentleman on the board over at The Nation keeps repeating that until Gorbachev, the noble Mikhail, declined to invade breakaway countries from the USSR, no protest would have had the least effect.  (I had also forgotten how much leftists needed to give Gorbachev all the credit. Talk to some actual Eastern Europeans about that, please.) How this squares with the other progressive (Gandhian/MLK) Civil Disobedience strategy being adequate to all circumstances he doesn’t say.  I can help him out there.  Peaceful appeals to morality sometimes work on people who already have morals. But the folkie claim was never that the communist countries were immoral (except when they just had to because we had driven them to it) and thus beyond the appeal of reason, but that we in the West were; particularly the Anglosphere.  I mean, they went nuts when Reagan called the USSR the Evil Empire. The modern revision is that Reagan was unwise because such things dangerously escalated tensions.  Yes, that was said at the time; but far more energy was put into the complaint that this black-and-white  characterisation* of the struggle was stupid and a cause of the problem.Damn conservatives only made it worse.  No one, apparently, ever made it worse on the communist side, until Gorbachev finally made it better.

Yet outside of any left-right, Whig-Tory, orange-green divide, it can never be true that a nation is unaffectable in one moment and collapses in the next.  It may look that way in the moment, as we become surprised by the unexpected vulnerability of Orthanc.  Regimes can be hard but brittle. Notice, if a regime was brittle in 1482 it was most likely brittle in 1481, 1480, and quite far back.  The Soviet Union did not suddenly become vulnerable in 1989.  We just didn't know it was vulnerable.

Solzhenitsyn,  the Samizdata movement, the PlasticPeople, Vaclav Havel (see his The Power of the Powerless ) and thousands of others all believed that some good might come of their protests.  The very fact that protest and criticism were put down so quickly suggests that the secret police and other authorities shared their view.  Those seemed to live in perpetual fear that it could all go up in flames if a spark hit dry tinder at the right moment.  Of course.  That is in fact how those governments came to power.  They were proved right at the end as well, with the Ceaucescus of the world speaking before wildly cheering crowds one month and executed the next.

Pete Seeger went to Russia in 1968. He acknowledged in retrospect that he should have asked about the Gulag. One cheer for that.  Notice it does suggest that he himself thought such a question might have done some good – which some of his defenders don’t acknowledge even now. The difference is not how much effect one can have? but how safe is it, and how much fun is it?  I don’t fault him particularly for not speaking out if he had come back and said “Are you kidding?  I didn’t dare.” It would raise questions about why you bothered to go in the first place, but reasons for that could vary.  As to the fun, well it just is.  It’s a hoot to feel persecuted without having any actual danger

One level deeper still. Even if our protest is pointless, do we still have an obligation to protest, even at a cost?  That gets trickier, I think.  We do not know ever absolutely know that there is no chance of change.  There’s that.  Also we admire the courage of those who do speak out, if only to provide a record that someone objected, though they are themselves destroyed. May I point out that if one takes the view that declining a pointless protest is morally defensible, then that courtesy should be extended to those who didn’t speak out against the Holocaust, or against slavery or civil rights abuses when those presented? 

Still, a case could be made that we have no moral obligation to protest when there is no possible hope.  I grant that.  I just don’t think it applies here.

A case can also be made that we each have our assigned place and duties in the world, and an American might legitimately say “It is irrelevant to me what evils they do in other countries.  I live here, I have some responsibility for the place, and my energies will be devoted to improving my little corner.”  I think this is not only permissable, but wise and elevated.  I think this is the real moral principle that was (and still is) being used as a screen; a truth twisted ninety degrees. I believe I can fully enter into this line of thought.

Yet when I am in that line of thought, it seems distasteful and inappropriate to me to operate by sneer and by parody.  One doesn’t sing “Little Boxes” in such a mood, nor “Talkin’ Ben Tre.” Most of Seeger’s songs don’t fall into that category, but that was the genre.  In fact, it was a technique recommended by CPUSA, to take old hymns and folksongs, redo the words and repurpose them for revolutionary aims. It gives the listener a sense of comfort, softening him up for unfamiliar ideas.

*Reagan did believe they were evil, but not that we were all good.  He stressed that it was not so important that we claim God is on our side, but that we be on His.  He spoke often of where America had fallen short of her own ideals. That is an important humility.

Thursday, February 06, 2014


I don't know a thing about Lowry, and don't care about either of these teams.  But he was absolutely robbed on this play. One sports show was keeping score of how many former NBA players were calling it the worst call they had ever seen, and were over two dozen. Of course, it's three bad calls, so he does get some advantage. The offensive foul on him, the lack of call on the defender and the bogus technical.

So I wanted to give him a little credit here.

Judging And Forgiving

James noticed an interesting and telling detail in the story of the woman taken in adultery.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

History of Liberalism

Ace (via Maggie's) has an idea where liberalism comes from, and riffing of some comments by Jonah Goldberg, who wrote a book on the subject.

I ran across something different this week, which may be more interesting.  From the wiki article on the Liberal Party in the UK.
During the 19th century, the Liberal Party was broadly in favour of what would today be called classical liberalism: supporting laissez-faire economic policies such as free trade and minimal government interference in the economy (this doctrine was usually termed 'Gladstonian Liberalism' after the Victorian era Liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone). The Liberal Party favoured social reform, personal liberty, reducing the powers of the Crown and the Church of England (many of them were Nonconformists) and an extension of the electoral franchise. Sir William Harcourt, a prominent Liberal politician in the Victorian era, said this about liberalism in 1872:

"If there be any party which is more pledged than another to resist a policy of restrictive legislation, having for its object social coercion, that party is the Liberal party. (Cheers.) But liberty does not consist in making others do what you think right, (Hear, hear.) The difference between a free Government and a Government which is not free is principally this—that a Government which is not free interferes with everything it can, and a free Government interferes with nothing except what it must. A despotic Government tries to make everybody do what it wishes; a Liberal Government tries, as far as the safety of society will permit, to allow everybody to do as he wishes. It has been the tradition of the Liberal party consistently to maintain the doctrine of individual liberty. It is because they have done so that England is the place where people can do more what they please than in any other country in the world...It is this practice of allowing one set of people to dictate to another set of people what they shall do, what they shall think, what they shall drink, when they shall go to bed, what they shall buy, and where they shall buy it, what wages they shall get and how they shall spend them, against which the Liberal party have always protested."
Yet as little as fifteen years later, liberalism was increasingly known for increasing the power of the state (Parliament, not the monarchy), until it reached the pass Ace refers to above. In 1872, they were closer to libertarianism than to other current political persuasions.

Chick's Got A Sword

My father-in-law contributed to many charities over his lifetime, and many of these, as you know, generate further appeals. These often include little trinkets or presents, presumably to guilt you into gift reciprocation, a custom which stretches back into human history as far as we can see. Among the items that still come to him in the mail, still finding him even at assisted living in another town, was a request for support from a Franciscan group. They included some cards with this picture of Saint Dymphna on them.

Chick’s got a sword. That’s the kind of patron saint you want, baby. She is the patroness of the mentally ill and emotionally troubled, which I vaguely recall having heard years ago. I brought the cards into work, knowing some psychologists and social workers who would appreciate this. All are female, and made some comment about her appearance as well – that her shoes matched the cape, her outfit looked well put-together, etc. The bing images all show her as attractive. The story suggests why.

She carries a sword in most of the other representations of her as well. I’m thinking that my PTSD ladies might well relate to a patron saint who is carrying a sword. This is a saint who’s taking names, Jack. There’s a Princess Leia aspect to that one. I thought that even before I read her history. I am sympathetic to much Roman Catholic theology, but have never taken to the idea of patron saints. In many cases, it is hard to know if these people actually existed, let alone did the things attributed to them. Yet I think the stories tell us much.

 Calling something a myth is often to dismiss it, but that’s not my take. A story has to rise to a high level of symbolic power before it can be called myth in my book. Folk tales have power – they tell us things about the cultures they spring from. To grow beyond that, even unto the level of myth, cuts even deeper. It is often worth it to look at such stories for their mythic value before trying to track down their exact time and place in history.

 It’s rather disappointing at first that the sword turns out to be the article she was killed with because she refused an incestuous marriage to her father, a pagan king. Yet wait.  Let's stand back from this and squint a bit.

So, she’s a princess, and the spitting image of a beautiful but deceased mother. Lots of rich psychological material there. She chooses Christianity, in independence or perhaps even in defiance of her father. The king’s desire to marry her is not mere sociopathic disregard for her good, nor simple lust, but sick romance. He is not a cold, cruel figure but a twisted one.

Yeah, that’s an incest story, and you can still recognise it centuries later in modern psychiatry. The association with emotional distress is not accidental. The storytellers of 7th C Belgium are telling us something in code. Or, if it all actually happened, it is God himself telling us something in code. On those views, the sword is not accidental either. The official story may be that it was used in her martyrdom. But if the image is what was encountered most powerfully over the past 1300 years, then my initial impression of the sword as an avenging item may be the mythically correct one.

Chick’s got a sword.