Friday, July 31, 2015

Please Exercise Caution

A reader asked about my pronouncements on the Second Commandment.  It started with the discussion of the numbering, because different traditions do divide them differently, and I use the Lutheran numbering just from habit. I think my children use the numbering common to the Reformed churches.

He wondered about my sources for the ideas, as it has some bearing on a related discussion he is involved in.  That set me back.  I can usually identify where I first encountered such ideas, but could not think of anything. It seemed to have been part of the furniture for a long time. Here is the more difficult part of this: therefore, I don’t know who else teaches this.

I still assert it. I consider the main idea behind the command not to take the Lord’s name in vain to be a warning against false teaching, claiming that God said something that he actually didn’t.  “Don’t put God’s signature under your ideas,” is my favorite metaphor for that. However,  I think the common interpretation has some value. Most cultures, and certainly Hebrew culture, placed a lot of importance on words as words, and even more on names as names.  To treat God’s name(s) with reverence is consonant with the whole style of taking off your shoes on holy ground, or not touching the Ark of the Covenant. I think that is also a meaning.  The set of ideas around vows and swearing by what is on the altar is referenced by Jesus and is also part of the commandment, though it doesn’t seem to have much utility in our culture now. I see this teaching as related to idolatry and graven images, of confusing in our minds (or misleading others) who God actually is and the importance of his voice as opposed to his appearance.

I can’t imagine I’m the first person to come up with this idea.  If I am, then I would have to declare it wrong. It is beyond credibility that God would leave an important main idea lying around for a few thousand years without poking someone to pick up the threads. We can safely assume that the collective wisdom of the church exceeds the wisdom of an assistant village idiot. I have thought of this as a neglected interpretation, which people have avoided because it is uncomfortable to the point of being frightening. But if it’s new, then it’s invalid.

I have certainly thought it for many years. My associations with the idea are from Genesis and Exodus, from the first chapters of the prophet Isaiah, from the Revelation to John, and from the words of Jesus. Those are also the areas I would point to as evidence for the idea that the commandment focuses on not misrepresenting God. The idea shows up at the beginning of Scripture and the founding of Israel - it is prominent right out of the gate; neither adding nor subtracting from the scripture is also one of the last things said in the Bible; when Jesus comes on the scene we would expect him to focus on main points, and he does devote a lot of energy to criticising scribes and Pharisees not so much for their personal behavior (though that is there), but for misleading others about what God is telling them to do. Blind guides, weightier matters of the law, millstones around the neck and all that. As for Isaiah, I think I take that as a synecdoche of all those discussions in the prophets of “Thus saith The Lord.”

So be cautious. I think it’s valid, but it’s not common, and people aren’t going to recognize it when you bring it up at Bible study.

Two For Ben

I finally finished and sent along books for my second son.
The daily strip has its home over at Radio Free Babylon. This is a collection of the first year or so.

The Amazon reviews are almost uniformly five-star.  I'm only going to four. The old Sunday-School art works wonderfully in the context, and I did laugh out loud every few pages. Wilkie does a wonderful send-up of dumb things Christians say, and keep saying. They occasionally sting, as they should.  My only objection is that one can tell after a while who is not going to be teased/accused.  The cartoonist makes an effort to poke fun at everyone in some strips, but it rings a little false.  He knows he should be evenhanded, but really, he has his favorite targets. There is some tendency to go after the easy targets as well - in a daily strip, that seems usual. Sometimes he hits it spot on - funny, critical, and not unkind.

Bayard is clearly sending up literary culture with this, but it is underplayed enough that you find yourself thinking "Wait, maybe he's serious about this after all." He is a professor of French Literature, and thus is breezily at home talking about "texts," and "words failing to communicate meaning and all that." However, he seems to have had about enough of it when taken to extremes, and it is his own field he is satirising.

Each chapter starts off reasonably, asking if we can count a book as "read" if we have forgotten it, or how much of a book we must read before commenting on it knowledgeably. There are ways of not reading a book, and they are not all the same.   He identifies prominent critics who clearly have not read the works they are commenting on, with no apparent damage to their wisdom or reputation. If a book is terrible, must we read it all to know this? Is it not enough to know its place in the network of writing and ideas? As all texts are experienced differently by the reader, is it perhaps enough to have merely heard of a book?  Might reading actually bog one down in unnecessary details?

I loved it. It actually is thought-provoking on how far we might let out the kite strings of modern criticism and still know there is a kite at the other end.  But it tackles the serious questions only to leap past to the more important task of reducing them to comic absurdity.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Derbyshire, Putnam, Murray

I have neglected John Derbyshire since he got himself in trouble with his too-gleeful observations of recorded African-American pathology.  He still writes well and has important things to say.
Here’s a suggestion to sociologists writing books for the general-interest public: Drop the last chapter. You know, the chapter where, after 200 pages of describing some social problem or other, you offer solutions to the problem. the opening paragraph to his essay The Prescriptive Poverty of the Social Sciences, which reviews Robert Putnam's new Our Kids, with significant reference to Charles Murray's Coming Apart. Derb doesn't dislike either book, but finds serious flaws in both.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Malware Warning?

A reader got a malware warning when going to one of the posts in my archive.  My guess is that my wife has been right all along and I should have deleted all those cheap diablo gold comments and the like.

Please tell me if you have the least problem.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Social Media Signalling

I happened upon this article from the British magazine The New Statesman, The Echo Chamber of Social Media, etc. It's good right the way down, well written, and several of the other articles there were good as well. One of the early quotes is not far from things we have discussed here.
A lot of what happens on Facebook, as with Twitter, is “virtue signalling” – showing off to your friends about how right on you are.
When purity leftists do actions and organising, their interest is not in reducing oppression as much as it is in reducing their own participation in it. Above all else, they want to be able to say that they are not oppressing, not that oppression has ended.
I mentioned this long ago in terms of Not In Our Name, and also suggested that Jonathan Haidt overlooks those places where liberals are just as purity vs. disgust* concerned as conservatives. (See also environmentalism, vegetarianism, NASCAR and a host of other disgust issues, including, I think wealth - though that is more ambiguous in both camps.

The site is useful because it discusses many political issues that are similar in the UK to US discussions but have a completely different cast of characters, and slightly different alignments.

*And authority driven, another trait supposedly more common among conservatives.  The imprimatur of Roberth Reich or Paul Krugman is enough in economics; climate change catastrophe is based on choice of authorities.

Saturday, July 25, 2015


I have been reading conservatives who insist that the left is eating its own, the conflicts among the coalition parts is just too enormous to continue, the center cannot hold...

I think I have been hearing this for a long time.  the closest thing to it actually happening was Ralph Nader in 2000 likely costing Al Gore the election by drawing 2% of the vote. Republicans think this level of hostility must signal imminent breakup, because among them, it would.  This much accusation, and someone's going third party. Maybe 2016 will be the year it happens to Democrats again, but I'm suspicious. They do this all the time.

On the other side, Democrats assume that whenever Republicans oppose redistribution, it can only be because of greed and selfishness.  After all, if Democrats opposed any such program it would be for that reason, so that must be true for others.  That we might not be getting a lot of bang for or buck, or that there were unfortunate unintended consequences does not occur to them, therefore, it cannot be occurring to their opponents.

Church Music II

Texan99's comment reminds me: participation in worship by th3e congregation is worth pursuing.  I heartily disliked screens with song lyrics projected when they first came on the scene.  As a book person, and a music-reading person, I liked having my Gestalt verses and my bass lines in focus as I sang.  Leading worship in a painfully small congregation I learned a different lesson:  people looking down and singing into a book do not build that sense of soaring elevation with their neighbors which leads to community worship; people looking up at screens do. It's just the physics of sound waves.

In an earlier era, when people had a limited repertoire - 100 hymns out of a hymnal of 250 - which did not change much over their lifetimes, they could sing up and out, using the hymnal only as an aid. Those days are gone.  If you want people to sing together, they either have to all know it ( a very small number these days), learn it on the spot (call-and-response or extremely simple), or put it up on the screen so they raise their heads.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Church Music

So again, another evangelical writes with dismay about the superficiality of praise songs, with the usual complaints about "happy-clappy" and limited theology.  Heck, I've done it myself years ago. But I am minded that better Christians than I sometimes think differently, and remember Retriever's comments years ago.

Yes, of course.  Trained musicians are going to find it too simple, and word-people are going to want something more substantial. So what?  Do you not realise that you are putting outsize importance on the music portion of worship? Sing the songs. It's not all of worship. The old style of five verses of complicated imagery carried its own death in its obscure references.  "Here I build my ebenezer..." always made me think of Mr. Magoo.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Flexibility of Morality

Going about our daily affairs and being exposed to the depressing news of the evils that people gradually learn to put up with, we comfort ourselves with the thought that there is a limit. There are things up with which we will not put, to paraphrase a great man.

I am not so sure.  There are things we would not put up with today, that we would riot in the streets against. I have seen people who I hadn't thought had much moral backbone at all suddenly rise up and say "No.  You shall not pass." But ten years later, twenty years later, I don't know.

Some of us are entirely influenced by the current fashions in morality, though we don't perceive that. We would take to the streets for certain causes, without realising that those causes are the ones on their way in, the ones where any inconvenience would be quite temporary, and the payback in self-righteousness great. There is a vast pool of folks for whom the popular morality is the only real morality, though we don't see that.

Beyond that, there is a greater pool who are partly influenced by the trends of the day.  I am certainly one.  I have reflexive suspicion of This Tuesday's Great Cause; yet I also have a reflexive suspicion of those who still cling to causes from the immediate preceding era that are no longer much noticed.  Dead-enders, we call them. Why die on that hill? Why beat a dead horse?

I have near-certainty that God takes his measure of real goodness entirely separately from either consideration, and I can't find strongholds in myself to dig in with Him. He may take such extenuating circumstances into account in judging us, but I doubt they are even a feather's weight in his scales of what is good and what is evil. When I wake in the middle of the night and cannot get back to sleep, and worry that I have lost moral determination rather than gained it over the decades, it is very disquieting.

***  ***

My wife's prayer at church this week reminds me:  we blithely talk about "God's Promises," often quoting partial verses that are general wise observations (Wisdom Literature) or promises to the Nation of Israel alone, without certain individual application. Yet God absolutely promises in several places that if we pray for wisdom, that he will give. Pray for wisdom.

Improving The Criminal Justice System

Volokh Conspiracy is publishing an interesting series by Judge Alex Kosinski on improving the criminal justice system. It exploded a few of my myths pretty rapidly. Much of the basic message is A lot of what we "know," we have no evidence for. The actual evidence about prosecutions, criminals, and trials points in a different direction.

When I served on jury duty, I felt we had eventually reached the right conclusion, but it was a near thing. Three things needed to be proven, and I believed the prosecution had established two of them clearly, but not the third.  The rest of the jury believed that none of the three items had been proven, though I can't imagine how.  Their reasons were worrisome, including one woman who said "even the prosecuting attorney admitted the boy might not have been there at the time," when it was in fact the defense attorney who had said that. There was no need to make a stand, because I also thought Point #3 was insufficiently supported, so the boy was getting off anyway.  At the time, I rationalised that maybe this was how the system did indeed "usually get the right answer."  I am now not so convinced, especially after reading Kosinski.

It was personally valuable to me to read it as well.  I was quite depressed about uncovering a significant betrayal by a friend at work, only now revealed a few years later, after he has moved on to a job elsewhere in the system. Reading about the false incarcerations reminded me that my problems are small potatoes.  Pray for those who are innocent but behind bars.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Poll-Driven Understanding

Wuthnow has an interesting article over at First Things how polling about religion has changed the way Christians understand themselves. It is an angle that never crossed my mind before. It includes an overview of the history of religious polling, pointing out that we don't know what we think we know.

Chilling of the Evening

I heard this over at Panera Bread (figures) tonight.  Hadn't heard it in 45 years. I used to sing it at coffeehouses. I now recognize it's not a very good song.

I'm sorry, that was redundant, wasn't it?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Quora - Being Rich

Joe Snapper's post about being rich was interesting. If you can't find it easily, try here.

Second Commandment - Repost

I have neglected my duty.  There are really very few things I provide here that you couldn't get a hundred other places. But the reminder that the Second Commandment, not taking the Lord's name in vain, has nothing to do with bad language and swearing oaths, is one of the things you won't find elsewhere.  The intent is to prevent people from putting God's signature under their ideas.  That is what taking the Lord's name in vain means.  If you recall your OT, the Revelation, and Jesus's harshest words for blind guides and false teachers, you will see that this is what torques Him off. And so, Reflections on the Second Commandment, from 2011 and 2006. I should be on this more often, as it is a lesson that is sorely needed on FB.

This comes up because I have had several recent incidents of liberal nonbelievers making political comments with the implied backing of Jesus.  These usually take the form of "those evil hypocritical conservatives are always shoving Jesus at us, but they don't follow his most basic teachings, which are Not to Judge (homosexuals and transexuals), Heal the Sick (via gov't health insurance), and Feed the Poor (again, gov't as preferred method.)  I had neglected in my previous writing how commonly nonChristians will do this.

So today it's liberals, but conservatives are very frequently guilty of this as well - just not on my current feed. That seems to occur more from politicians, and with indirect language. We all should be paranoid about claiming that God endorses our POV. It's apparently one of the worst sins we can commit.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Old Homestead, Swanzey, NH

Imagine Garrison Keillor talking about a stage production from his childhood, a Lake Wobegon tradition, now long since defunct. Now imagine the first awakening of that Sehnsucht for Keillor, a nostalgist from his childhood, describing for young Gary a stage play from their own town that toured the country in 1900, and was a big deal then (though no one remembers it now). Theater hanging by a thread on the prairie, because people wanted to have it for a dozen reasons of their own.

*** ***

Dropping by before the production, a guy who seemed to be one of the head techs points out to me the 11 instruments that light the show, and informs me "Five of them came from an old battleship.  It's hard to get bulbs for them now."  I'll bet. I look at the stained burlap main curtain and the few bare benches on the grassy hillside.  My first thought was I have to tell my brother Jonathan about this.  And he thought Sudbury Savoyards and Plymouth State College was primitive lighting.

Thus I am surprised the next night when the four sets are elaborate and quite good. One in particular is a marvelous backdrop.

*** *** 

We have long been driving to church camp past the Potash Bowl, where they stage a community production of The Old Homestead every year. You can catch the history at the link, but the short version is this: It's a long-running community theater production in Swanzey NH. The playwright was a minor 19th C song-and-dance man who hit it big with this one script when he fell on hard times, playing the lead role 15,000 times and making a fortune. The town revived the playscript of their favorite son in 1939 as a fundraiser. It is now the third-longest-running outdoor play in the country. The Lost Colony in NC and Ramona in CA seem to be ahead of it. I can't find the definitive list, but my own search uncovers no others earlier. All of the similar productions seem to be largely professional, tourist-driven affairs about historic events, though with more modern scripts.

Whatever is fourth on the list is going to become third-longest in two years, as Swanzey is throwing in the towel after the 75th year July perfomances in 2016. (Arithmetic note: WWII. Blackouts.) I see their point, and I think they are making the right decision, but it's shame. This script and performance are historical in a different way, and I can't find anything else in the country like it. The play is not "about" the 19th C, it is from the 19th C, and produced in a fashion that would have been common then. Local musicians, local actors, local designers, directors, everything. Just the regular folks you meet in church, or the elementary school, or the aisles of stores, and the surprise is "Hey! Some of these people are really good!"

I should note that it is also historically accurate late-19th C American humor, which is less funny in a 21st C context. As in Oh, yeah, I get it now. Ha ha ha. Yeah. More on this later.

It's a midpoint between the feeling you have at every talent show, when Act#5 shows real talent* - you are pleasantly surprised - and "Britain's Got Talent" when some shy housewife shows jaw-dropping professional talent. This is between. These are the best talents of your neighbors, better than people-who-got-up-and-sang-a-duet-because-the-program-was-short, but not those magical talents that go viral on YouTube. You are so happy that they're good. You never knew. The eight guys in Act I who seemed to be pointlessly working together on someone else's farm before going home for the evening did a very decent barbershop rendition of "Massa's In The Cold, Cold Ground" and "The Old Oaken Bucket." The town band from the next community over was just fine. How do they pull such a group from so few people?

"The Old Homestead" is not a good script, though it made it to Broadway in 1903. The NYC shine and fame of Denman Thompson was the foundation for this community theater's origin, but it's the modern talent that's carrying it now.  This was before American Musical Theater. In 1900, transitions into musical numbers basically amounted to "Fellers, let's have a song." It's cornball, and the current actors get the irony lovingly. Yet back in the day, this was as good as entertainment got.  "Before you go, could you play my favorite song?" Thompson steers the script so that he can work in a pointless joke about the Centennial, and names a character Jack Hazzard so that the old coots can ask "Any relation to Hap Hazzard?" (knee slap.) The plot meanders into several of these, but the basic idea was dear to the hearts of the people of a moving, expanding, population where children went away - and we hope not astray. A country boy goes to New York and turns to drink. A NYC boy becomes a railroad tramp and turns to drink in the country. Through the kindness of strangers, they both repent, return to their homes, and are restored. Tying this together is country mouse/city mouse humor from each group encountering the other.  Plus Irish servants, old coots competing for the same woman, and a flirting girl.  Great stuff.

Before vaudeville. Not all vaudeville was great, you know. It was mostly crap, or at best, ephemeral.  The cream, the 1% that survived that, and the transition to radio and the talkies and even (gulp) TV, give us the false impression that the touring performances were just riotous, laugh-a-minute humor.  Nah. Plus, vaudeville (the earliest versions frankly suck, but you can see the potential if you squint real hard) drew on French Variety and English Music Hall entertainers, so even that was the top shelf of three cultures. And still wasn't usually all that funny, and they didn't sing or dance that well.

Even before that.

If I lived in Swanzey I would have been roped into this years ago, because I sing a little, act a little, all of that. I would bring up the average an five fronts, but not outshine the lot. My dad would have owned a succession of roles of this had it been Westford, MA. (My two younger brothers would probably have participated as teenagers and then wisely moved on.) For those inside, it's just a local thing, trying to drum up people to move scenery or work the concessions every year.  The play isn't that big in the history of theater, it's only important because (blush) well it's Swanzey, and it's all we've got. No one else came from here, and people in Keene laugh at us.

*"She also had a Minor in Voice at State U. You didn't know?"

*** ***

Next year, for the last performance, everything changes. This year, it is a Thornton Wilder universality drawn from the specific: dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions of towns and stagehands and nights. In 2016, The Old Homestead enters a W.P. Kinsella, Tom Stoppard, Ionesco, Borges world.  The cliche "it works on so many levels" becomes true. This is the last dinosaur - a small one, unnoticed, disappears into the forest.

The curtain rises at 7:30pm.  Cloth being cloth, and the sun setting in the west, the scene changers after the long first act are not visible through the burlap. The audience sits impatiently, wondering what could possibly take so long in an amateur production. The town band plays on, one old song and two from Disney movies, as if losing the battle of securing us to a receding past.  But as the sky darkens and the many backstage workers need light later, their overhead hardware-store floodlights behind the curtain start to illuminate their many movements after Act II, and are fully, though eerily visible after Act III. We sit and watch the ghosts of decades of stagehands move complicated scenery to set up another 19th C moment, defiantly staking the past into the stage.  Five minutes, almost ten of human shapes disassembling a Place and assembling another. Next year it will be even more pronounced, and they will set the scene One Last Time before it slips into the abyss. It will not be some magnificent Wagnerian set they preserve against the Götterdämmerung; it's just an old farmhouse behind a scrim. Oddly, it is revealed at the end they had another curtain they could have pulled between to disguise it all along. Accident.

Touch carefully.  If you go next year you might leave this time and not get back.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

What Is America?

And Englishman gave an interesting answer a century ago.  It is less true now, because there has been effort to make it untrue.

Girl Books

A time of joy, that nonetheless stabs me to the heart. Tracy is reading The Golden Name Day to our granddaughter Emily. This has powerful family significance (see link, and I am even more convinced of what I wrote then and like the comments more). I am struck by three things: 1) The poverty of Regular Folk - even allowing for the 100x inflation markup of Jennie's childhood a century ago, the things that were considered party luxuries are discarded by even poor children these days without a thought. We have fabulous wealth, and we do not understand them if we do not enter in to their carefulness with pennies. 2) The assumed presence of same-sex cousins (and the invisibility of opposite-sex cousins). That day is gone and every person in the 21st C should spend a day weeping over that. Italy, Japan, China, Finland have so few children from the 70's onward that "cousin" has no meaning. We are following them mindlessly. 3) The cultural universality of the girl-story. These are the most excruciatingly white girls in KidLit, yet I cannot imagine girls of other races, in those latency years before boys darken the horizon, not entering into this 1900 Swedish-American world without complete comfort and understanding. It's girl stuff. They get it. It's the boys who shake their heads in puzzlement.

The Golden Name Day, and the follow-up The Little Silver House and The Crystal Tree should be added to your Little House/Anne of Green Gables/Secret Garden stable of girl-books. They can be hard to purchase, but still show up in libraries.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Unprotected or Overprotected?

Much is made in the popular press, especially on conservative sites, of how much more risk children were allowed and even encouraged to assume even one generation ago. If one goes just two doors down, however, there is a mirror complaint that children are so much more vulnerable these days, growing up with one parent or with stepparents much more often.

Both look true. Step-relatives are much more likely to physically or sexually abuse children, so that risk seems higher. Yet a hundred safety features of our machinery and structures make the world less physically dangerous, all while children are discouraged from taking physical risks now. If it seems paradoxical, it nonetheless makes sense.  If we are living in a safer and safer world, in which our chances of living to 100 years or more is increasing, then risk-taking is more foolish, because you have more to lose. Keep those helmets on, get those chemicals out of the water - you may be around a long time and you want those years to be full-brained and full-health.

But if one lives in a physically dangerous world, timidity and lack of risk-taking might be more of a trade-off.  Avoiding four dangers with cautious attitude would be a plus, but an inability to leap, risk, or attack at need might be a net negative.  These are not either-or, as both strategies have long been present in our society. (Which is why we have contradictory maxims Look before you leap and He who hesitates is lost. The critics can blame you either way.) The balance may be shifting.  In cultures where many die early, the idea of achieving a good death even while young has value. If we can live to be 200, I expect us to shift even more to preservation mode.

As for sexual protection, perhaps it isn't coincidental that the angrier sort of feminist is declaring this a "rape culture" and looking to protect feelings of young women in what had heretofore been regarded as normal emotional risks and sexual temptations.  The anger may be directed unfairly but justified in a pulling-the-fire-alarm sense. If we actually do have (I make up a number) ten times as many traumatised young women in college, that's a different environment. The proposed solutions would seem to be blaming the wrong perpetrators and shutting the barn door after the horse has left. The early sexualisation of children may have increased their vulnerability and thrust them into emotionally damaging situations at younger ages.

I will speak about the girls, because that is the usual discussion. Expand that to boys if you wish. Consider the simpler cases: A girl who grows up in what we consider a stable, decent, 2-bio parent with regular arguments and conflicts but no abuse, as she moves out into the world of boys, dating, seduction, rejection, and all the rest, might be expected to pretty much take her own life in hand when she gets to college, unless violence is present. A girl from a more pathological upbringing, however, might believe at some much more basic level that the world of men really is a rape culture and the deck stacked against her, so that what Girl A regards as normal, and absorbable stress Girl B automatically regards as confirmation of her experience of universal danger in the presence of men.  Imagining this as a continuum, putting them all in together and adding in the excitability of youth and the general narcissism of others, and a witch hunt mentality might easily develop.

Speaking of youth.  It has not been that long in this world that we have put large numbers of young men and women together essentially unsupervised and expected this to work out fine, because...well, because sometimes it does, so therefore it always should, right? The usual argument that "children have to go out on their own and make their own decisions (though sexual decisions track somewhat more closely with driving cars), so don't be some troglodyte who forbids them behaving like normal teenagers" has one large flaw: who says 18 is the best age for that?  What if it's a great idea, but not until they are 20, but because of accidnts in our academic progression, we are pushing them together two years too early?

***      ****

Speaking of good death, have I mentioned the attachment to narrative warps our evaluation of life?  In the books and movies, a person who has a sucky, rejected, lonely, and physically painful 80 years, but gets reunited with his children, vindicated in his career, and dies peacefully with loved ones around him at 81 is considered a satisfying story. A person who has a pretty good 80 years but dies alone with some ugly or painful disease while friends and family are too distant or turned away is seen as either justly punished or unfairly suffering because of that one last year. Tragic. Sad death.

Given my choice, I'd sign up for that 80 good years followed by one of impoverished suffering, thanks. I don't need the story to tie up neatly, because I've already got fifty stories that didn't tie up neatly, either.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Name of the Rose

I have never much liked novels in translation, nor long novels in general without some guarantee I would like them.  What I had read over the years about Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose seemed more off-putting than attractive, though random quotes by Eco have often seemed quite wise, and there were elements that seemed to fit my reading.

Now it appears I shall have to make an attempt at it.  Reading about the book in another context, the detective attempting to solve the murders comes in the end face-to-face with Jorge, a blind monk who is librarian of a labyrinthine library in the monastery - and the probable murderer.  I thought it merely an amusing accident at first, but in a moment's considering of the theme and the date of composition, wondered whether this monk was a tribute and reference to an actual person.  When I learned that the monk's full name was Jorge of Burges, I was then sure: Eco was paying tribute to Jorge Luis Borges, one of my favorite writers.

I looked it up just to make sure I wasn't imagining the connection, but it is well-established.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Do Not Cease To Be Fallacies...

From GK Chesteron's Collected Works, Vol 35. (Yeah that guy wrote a lot.) Key phrase
Here are a few of these fallacies, which do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.
There's a little fun before and after this page.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Bad Doctrine

CS Lewis noted that we do not have the option of having no doctrine or no dogma.  If we do not have good theology, we will not have none, we will have bad theology.

When I became a born-again evangelical Christian among the Jesus freaks in the late 70's, there was a dominant political idea that America had always been a Christian nation, however imperfectly, and chosen for some special task in the world. There was a wide variety of belief along these lines, but it was generally characterised by 1) noting the deep Christian faith of some of the colonists and founders, and their intentionality in applying Biblical principles to government, 2) application of God's promises to Israel as applicable to any modern nation which chose to embrace them, meaning basically America, and 3) the reflection of this, that God might cease to protect a nation which did not follow His laws.

Even without having studied this, I was suspicious, and grew to dislike it more as the years passed. I got pretty tired of hearing the verse "If my people, who are called according to my name..." Nonetheless, I learned a lot from it. Of the two competing America as Savior/America as Oppressor myths that continue to dominate our discussions, I had moved to the Oppressor Lite viewpoint as far back as 8th grade, which only intensified through highschool and college (though W&M was a fairly nonpolitical school then). Finding that American exceptionalism, even if some folks exaggerated it, had some powerful evidence behind it, and was not merely a lie told to elementary school students, was a wonderful counterweight to the tired cynicism of the humanities and college popular culture.* Compared to everyone else, America had indeed done some remarkable things, which the rest of the Anglosphere imitated shortly. 

Still, there was something deeply wrong general premise. I generally just let it slide with most folks, but among those I thought could hear it, I leaned in a bit.  It was a bit of a balancing act, because there was always plenty of clergy and reflexive liberals of the laity in the mainstream who had come under the Oppressor Lite spell and needed to be leaned against in the other direction.  Especially tough when you've got some of each in the audience. Yet in both cases, I always thought of it as an extra.  Politics was important in that it is the acting out of our faith on a societal level, but really, when you push it, Jesus didn't talk about it much, nor did Peter, Paul, John, Luke, or James. The expansion of Christian principles into ruling and governing principles came later - into towns and districts in the 3rd C, then nations and empires in the 4th.

It was not ever thus in America.  The idea of New Eden and special dispensation in the New World had been present since the beginning, but it was never universal, and it was quite uncommon among evangelicals and fundamentalists from 1900 until 1970 or so. America was considered a nice place with religious freedom, but ultimately just as much a part of the worldly world as the lands left behind. There are still denominations, especially heterodox ones, which teach that. Only recently - perhaps as a countermovement to the Protestant clergy deciding quietly in the 1920's and 30's, then noisily in the 1960's, that Jesus was really about socialism - did an evangelical American exceptionalist bloc develop.

I treated it as a small thing, but now it is bearing bitter fruit.  Good, decent people are insisting that God is calling them to take a stand to make America reflect Christian values, believing they must not take photographs or bake cakes for gay weddings, or refusing to issue marriage licenses for same. Their courage is greater than mine, and they believe they are protecting even those who vilify them by their actions.  I pray that their reward in heaven is great, even as God smiles and says "that was not where your energy should have gone." Even as I think them wrong, I see that I am not quite worthy to even mention it to them.

But the theology is wrong. There is not good scriptural evidence that God offers this Chosen People deal to any nation, perhaps not even Israel anymore.  The Church, the Christian community is the new tribe, and nations are merely a way that we organise things for ourselves.

*That album was actually a watershed event for me.  Just hearing the title caused me to suspect that I gotten to some ridiculous exaggerated point. The gradual rising of Tolkien, Lewis, and the Arthurian legends in my dual, non-integrated outlook seemed increasingly sensible.

Head Transplant

The core concept of the new movie Self/less is apparently not entirely improbable. An Italian laboratory plans to attempt the feat in the near future.

Readers of CS Lewis's That Hideous Strength may be reminded of the "character" of Alcasan, a head kept alive by technical means, awaiting new inhabitation. The effect was not pleasant.

Sidebar Change

Bad Data, Bad! is out. Graph Paper Diaries is in. They are both bs king, and the titles would suggest they are much the same. Only sorta. More drawing on the new one. It's been up over a week now.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Peter Singer and Effective Altruism

I used to read the site Overcoming Bias a lot, and I still like to go over from time to time. Today he has an interesting post on the complaints against Peter Singer and his idea of Effective Altruism. I had objections to some of the complainers, but these were handled nicely in the comments. So if you can endure comments about comments, I think you will find this interesting.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Southern Strategy

Alright, Sons of the Confederacy, listen up.  If you play your cards right, you are going to be able to place the Confederate Battle Flag - the authentic Navy Jack, the Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia - just about anywhere you want.  I'm thinking that you start with MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art. That's in New York City, and that's the sort of information you're going to need to know without looking it up.
Heck, I can see at least a dozen places right off where it would fit. In fact, better to use 'em all.

Practice saying "transgressive," or "I wanted to start a conversation about..." The former means "whatever pisses people off the most," and the latter, in normal American speech means "exchange of monologues." I'm thinking you have those parts down already.  Frontman choice #1 would be a black friend who can look serious no matter how ridiculous things get.  Choice #2 is someone nearby who can do a passable French accent. Otherwise you're going to have to do a double reverse of doing a really bad Southern Accent, and pretending you are a frog who is refusing to admit he hasn't got it right, pretending to be from Dixie.  Could be fun, if you've got someone whose quick on his feet and can keep talking with complete confidence no matter how bad it gets. Practice saying VairSIGH and VerSALES interchangeably.  Ditto PAYriss and PahREE, MarSAY and MarSEELS.

A black person with an obviously fake accent would be best of all.

You'll be tempted to next do something with the Mall in DC, but hold back.  You are saving Washington for your Transgressive White House Installation, With Horseshoe Pit. Apparently getting past security over the fence is no issue.  Don't bother with LA, because no one will notice. Vermont has no sense of humor or irony.  Maine?  I don't know.  They did just have a guy off himself accidentally by launching fireworks from his head.  Unpredictable and dangerous, I'd say.  I recommend San Francisco and Ann Arbor. Work on costuming of yourself and the boys as you go. What you think is the obvious authentic stereotype of yourselves through the eyes of French artists may not fly.  In particular, I'd be careful about going all ironic with berets that you slapped some outdated USArmy patches on. You will wow the locals, but eventually you will accidentally run across some Special Forces vet who doesn't get the joke and wants to beat the crap out of you.

If that happens, treat it as part of the installation.

With any luck, apartments all over Greenwich Village and living rooms as far as Darien will be proudly flying your flag.  You won't be able to fly it anywhere south of Maryland for a generation, but this time "The South Will Rise Again" won't be just a vain prophecy by drunks.  It will just happen in the North.

Two Unrelated Things

There is Betteridge's Law of Headlines. It includes some discussion of its origin. I read the concept in a GK Chesterton essay from a century ago.

A regular was going to leave a link to the site Everything's a Problem in the comments of a recent post, but refrained, for reasons unnecessary to reveal. It's a great site for rooting out microaggressions wherever they occur.


Saturday, July 04, 2015

What Am I Missing Here?

Conservatives rail that Social Justice Warriors are perpetually unsatisfied and unhappy, no matter what victories they win, because the act of kicking powerful others in the balls is what they are actually after. I doubt that.

Yet we are about to see, aren't we?  Will they be happier or more angry on your FB feed?  The next items up on the SJW list all cost somebody some money, involve kicking little people, or are merely symbolic. Beyond that, it's just coming up with creative insults for people they oppose. So we'll see what they are really made of now.  My prediction is that a few will shine bright as day, most will be revealed as poseurs. The SCOTUS decision on gay marriage didn't change the facts on the ground all that much, but its symbolic value was enormous.  Ditto the Confederate flag. What of substance is left?  A move to $15/hr minimum wage hastens the arrival of robots - but maybe that truth can be obscured a while still. Corruption and the effects of foreign policy decisions might be stalled beyond the elections - but might not.

So now what? We all have predictions but none of us knows.  Let us see what the data shows over the next 16 months.

Tangent, and I know this might draw the most attention:  Without dwelling on the easy examples of Obama and Hillary in specific, it is simply a matter of record that the Democratic elite shifted its ground enormously in less than a decade, so that the responsible, measured position on gay marriage in 2006 became the evil bigoted position by 2015, without any new arguments being introduced or any evidence that they had actually thought deeply about the issue emerging. (I can back that up if necessary.) I can't read minds, so I don't know if they were simply avoiding the attacks and following the votes, or became convinced that they had always pretty much, generally, bravely, progressively, in-their-heart-of-hearts supported the idea, believing that we have always been at war with Eastasia.  Are they cynical or do they believe their own lies?

I submit that the former idea is politically more tolerable to me - cynical manipulators are probably pretty good governors - but the latter is more spiritually innocent.  If you are stupid enough to believe your own deceptions you are merely pitiable in terms of fitness for heaven and much can be done with you.

However, that is exactly the sort of broad spiritual question on which reasonable women might differ.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Facebook Record

I have a new record for length of time between FB friend acceptance and unfollowing  them: about 30 minutes, which is way quicker than the previous record of a little over a week.  And that one was quicker than third place, which was about a month.  This one is a conservative who posted 6 knuckleheaded things in less than 30 minutes, four of them I knew to be inaccurate.

Thank you for playing.

It's pretty much my sons, a very few other relatives, and less than half-a dozen from churches (some are same family and they comment here, so there's the giveaway) and our longstanding Bible study (an already circumscribed number of families) that are still followed. Plus 3 from work who I have limited by discouraging parts of their stuff. Less than 20 in the regular feed, but I pretend I'm tolerant because I give you "a chance" before cutting you off and putting you in the background. My wife has five times that amount she still follows.

There may be a larger lesson here, because my informal estimate says that of the ten I have cut off quickest, eight are liberal - but the two conservatives hold down the top spots by a mile.

Is This Racism Crazier?

I can't remember how Ben phrased the question, but he had read Dylann Roof's writings, which struck him as pretty much the same scattered paranoia as all these other mass shooters. He wondered if mental illness pretty much had to be part of such a person these days.  I had not thought about it in quite that way, but it only took a little while to decide that that yes, it must. Context matters.

In 1915 Dylann Roof could have found at least a few other people willing to shoot up a black church.  Even then, it would have taken some context of recent incidents that were getting the local populace worked up - but you likely could get some people worked up pretty quickly over small or untrue things. Going further, in a time of open black-white conflict, as happened several times in Caribbean nations, he could likely have found a lot of people to shoot up a church.  It would be less crazy to do that.  It might be just as evil; some of the participants might be ill; but insanity would not be required. There would be an element of some cultural support in the 1915 case, and a fair bit in the Caribbean case.

These days you pretty much have to be ill to be a mass shooter in America.  You can't be a mere "hothead" or "loner."

One doesn't have to get lost in a relativity maze where no idea can be considered crazy outside its context, as an excuse to indict "society," for its refusal to recognise creativity or genius. That rubber band can be stretched too far. (Science fiction writers used to have a lot of fun with this.) But context does matter, because being that far off from your surroundings suggests that other things are broken. We are social beings, and take our explanatory and moral cues largely from our surroundings.  Perhaps too largely. If you are going to believe something different from your peer group, you seek a new peer group.  If you can't find one, that should tell you something. If it doesn't tell you something, your problems are deeper. It is possible to go back over the turf and legitimately decide "no, they are all mostly wrong, and I've got it right," but the sane person who reaches that conclusion knows she has a hard road ahead and will have to provide significant evidence to convince others.

This leads me to a surprising place. The one fact that was considered obvious about the Charleston shooting was that it was racist.  His writings and statements could hardly be more clear that he believed his motives were racial. Yet on reflection I think that is much less true. This was not some standard racist person who was a little stranger than most, this was a mentally ill person whose illness expressed itself in racism. The difference is significant because it switches which is the dominant characteristic. (Yes, this is entirely quixotic of me, because the national narrative is in place now and unlikely to move much.)

I mean, Rhodesia? We all thought that was weird, but it should have hit us even harder than that.  This was not a rubber band stretched too far, but an elastic that had snapped long ago. Remember, he was frustrated that he couldn't find people nearby who understood the problem and were willing to do something about it.  He could only find them on obscure internet sites.

I don't want to flip this entirely.  Dylann Roof did not conclude that emanations from Io or poisons in the asparagus were creating the problems of the world. He picked a set of ideas that actually is present in some small percentage of society around him, to run with and become his Universal Explanation for Why My Life Is Bad. Yet I don't think racism is the right emphasis.

So, good riddance to the Confederate Battle Flag, though it had come to symbolise yahooness more than oppression. Yet I wish it had come down for better reasons, rather than as an innocent bystander seized and blamed for being present and unpopular near a tragedy. The focus on the flag allowed us to miss the point.