Saturday, September 30, 2017

Pictures and Conversations

I keep forgetting.

Historical Perspective

CS Lewis advised that we should read three old books for every new one in his introduction to Athanasius' On The Incarnation. Different eras have different perspectives and make different assumptions. They have blind spots that we see immediately, and presumably, they could see ours as well, so reading them provides an indirect route to seeing past our own blind spots.

I am often surprised at how quickly this happens.  Lewis was speaking of reading books much older -  Plato, Milton, Boethius - though I imagine he would have allowed that Dickens and Austen were from an era different from his own.  (Though not so different as from Lewis's to ours, though the years are fewer.) I am reading a mixed popular/academic history of Mid-Victorian Britain written by an Englishman who had taught at Cambridge, Harvard, Oxford, and Sussex, written in 1971. I pickup it up for twenty-five cents, and a companion about Early Victorian Britain by the same author, for another twenty-five. Presumably he wrote a history of Late Victorian Britain as well, though I don't know as I shall read it.

The assumption that central planning, especially by government, solves a great deal is very strong. He may be correct in each individual instance, that Boards of Sanitation, Boards of Housing, and Boards of Health were an improvement over previous ad-hoc regulation, and that Whitehall setting and enforcing standards on each of those was better still.  His picture is of industries and recalcitrant Municipal Corporations resisting these improvements, until they were made to do better from above.  Curiously, he records many places that made improvements without this more intense governmental structure, but uses them only as proofs that the changes could be made, not as evidence that towns and cities might figure these things out on their own, given time.

He may be right, as I said. Some places may have gone on allowing dangerous housing or unsanitary water forever, and needed to be taken in hand. But the historian looks at what England did do to solve these problems, which is regulation from farther up the governmental ladder, assumes that this was the only way to get from Point A to Point B, and faults those places that came in later for not getting with the program. He does not set out to prove this in any way, because he does not see it as needing proof. It is clear that he believes that all knowledgeable people know this, and he is merely recording the timeline and incidents of how Englishmen of the previous century figured this out.

There are many people today who would believe this as well.  But in 2017 they would be aware that there had been some spectacular failures of central planning, even if they thought these were avoidable.  Also, historians today would know that there were voices that disagreed, which needed to be answered. (Or would they? Perhaps they still go on as before, and only in libertarian or conservative circles is there any debate.)

There is a second piece he simply misses about wealth and employment in the era.  He notes that the wealth of the nation doubled between 1851 and 1881 and tries to discover if the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.  He gives a tentative yes to this because he compares the wages in various types of employment and sees that their yearly income did not increase, and so concludes the money must have gone to the upper classes. Yet the chart on his very next page records that the number of agricultural workers, the very lowest-paid group, was halved over that period. Mining and manufacturing, poorly paid but better than hiring out yearly at farm labor, anyway, showed slight increase. Other better-paying employment grew even more  building, transport, shopkeeping, and professional grew by 25% - there were in fact huge increases in number of people making their living some fields: fourfold in clerking and banking; doubled in education, doubled in trade, doubled in art and amusement. The numbers making their living in literature and science was too small to show up in national percentages, but there was an increase from 2,000 to 9,000 so employed in that span.

It is true that the 10% who were still making their living in agriculture were not any better off thirty years later, and as this is a generation, those sons and daughters were no better off than their parents. But half the sons and daughters had gone on to do something else, something still miserable by our standards but something better in their own eyes.  It may be more than half of the English sons and daughters who moved on, because there was still an influx from Ireland and Scotland moving into some of those agricultural jobs, though they moved more toward manufacturing and dock-work.

We do still see this reasoning now occasionally, when numbers are published that the average wages of such-and-such workers have stagnated, or even gone down, from 1970-present, after allowing for inflation. Aside from ignoring that this includes (overall) expensive health care that can actually treat some things (and more vacation, safer conditions, better unemployment) it also ignores that a smaller percentage of people do those jobs now. Still, I think - it is merely my impression and I welcome yours - these claims are put forth by advocacy groups, not by more serious students of history and economics.  Relatedly, people who might make political use of such wage numbers also like to take credit for those less-visible improvements I listed above, and don't want them discounted as worth nothing.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

No Other Gods - Side Dish

This isn't part of my Ten Commandments series (not yet), but it is related. BTW, Boxty recommended Prager University's series on the Ten Commandments and it's quite good.  It is very basic, but I learned at least one new thing from each so far.  It is clear that Prager knows much more than he shares.


Nationalism, the flag, or now, the anthem, can be a false god, certainly.  We see that clearly when it's some other guy's nationalism.

Conservative Christians often hesitate to go there and warn about it for a few reasons. First, most warnings against this particular idolatry are insincere. They come from liberal Christians who have their own idol they would prefer us to worship, internationalism. I don't know how clearly they see that there is danger and possible idolatry in this belief, far more than in nationalism, but my observation is that they do not see this at all. Internationalism is about co-operation, and respecting other people, and being open-minded, and all those other nice things that Jesus clearly would rather have us do than dumb old nationalism, with its Nazis, and unfashionable flags. If they do get it, I never hear them mention it or warn each other about it. I have to conclude that in their hearts they really believe that internationalism is much closer to God's plan for mankind. They speak and act as if it is holier, more Christian, than patriotism of most sorts. I would assert that it is far more spiritually dangerous.* I think many conservative Christians would agree, and thus dig in against anything that would bring us closer to that heresy, to the point of tolerating a little idolatry of our own.

If it is not any more dangerous, it is at least no better. It is like those advisors who tell us it would be better for our health if we ate less beef. Perhaps so, but I see behind you a fishmonger's cart. Thus, I suspect you are telling me this for your own advantage, not mine.

Next, American nationalism (some other nations deserve mention here as well) considers itself something of an ally of the Christian church and has learned to regard Judaism as a co-ally as well.  Many folks tie these two together quite tightly.  This was even more true in earlier times, though the alliance was more specifically Protestant Christian.  This has broadened (mostly), and as a consequence become less automatic.  Still, it remains powerful.  Those who are the most loyal supporters of one are often the most loyal supporters of the other. Even Christians with a touch of fanaticism hesitate to kick their friends unless they think they really deserve it.

Relatedly, American freedoms are a protection for the church, and it would seem ungrateful to bite the hand that feeds us.  It is true that it is a great blessing to be able to worship without fear, and people fought and died that we might have that gift.  Yet it would be more accurate to say that American religious freedom is the current method by which God protects his people.  He has accomplished this in other ways at other times.  As the freedom may be rescinded without warning, we should not think God is unable to adapt to some changing political circumstance of ours.

Christian groups which have separated themselves most thoroughly from Americanism or other nationalisms - Armstrongites, Jehovah's Witnesses, even some of the peace churches - have been held to be somewhat outside the faith. (Though note, the pacifism of the Early Church was often of this kind, regarding no nation or government as worthy of that degree of loyalty, as contrasted with an opposition to the use of the sword in all circumstances.)

Lastly, I think that conservative Christians often do not see the conflict, just as liberal internationalists don't see any contradiction. We are not the only nation to have an explicit phrase "For God and Country" - it is even the title of the Scout award for studying your religion - but being more powerful and having religions that are shared in other countries, at least in name, it gets a lot of attention. I know people for whom both pieces, plus some cultural things from their region or ethnic group, is regarded as being traditional or conservative, without clear boundaries as to what is God's, what is Country's, and what is Culture's. They are more muddled than rebellious, yet it is ripe ground for idolatry.

With all that said, I believe the danger of patriotism or nationalism being an idol is real, and much more so for conservatives. As a young Christian I looked askance at the notion of "pledging allegiance" to anything but God, and still think the common understanding of that goes too far down the road to muddled loyalty. Pledge is a less strong word than vow, more strong than loyalty; it still carries a lot of weight. One rescinds a pledge only in extreme circumstances. Allegiance does not come from "ally" but from "liege." (They are related farther back.)  A word's origin does not dictate its meaning now, but it often explains a shading. Pledging allegiance is a declaration of loyalty and subordination, that we will put the country's need above our own. Such intermediate loyalties - to family, to tribe, to master - have always been allowed in the Christian church, but they have been long regarded as possible competitors. Jesus gives his mother and favorite disciple to each other as family, honoring that loyalty; Paul declares that people should support their families.  Yet Jesus also declares that when pushed to the end, one must leave the dead to bury the dead; the new tribe that is the Church are the real mothers and brothers. Other loyalties are allowed, but they are limited.

There may come a day when America is notAmerica, and the flag is used as a manipulation to bind those who have been raised to revere it to an entity that no longer deserves it. There are always those who say that time has already come. We may be assured that this will eventually come to pass, as all human things do eventually fall away.  Pray that those who live in those times have wisdom and courage.

*I should probably post on why that is rather than merely assert it. For the moment, the fact that it is harder for those believers to even see the distinctions is part of the answer.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

And LED Free!

Sent by a regular reader

I also like the part where right after is says "Kiss Proof, Smudge Proof"  it says "Not Tested On Animals."

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

As The Positions Harden

It's quickly become a Toxoplasma of Rage issue, hasn't it?  If you aren't for the protests, you're a racist who doesn't understand what it means to be black in America.  If you are for the protests then you aren't a real American and don't respect our military.  Now everyone is trying to capture the "unity" stronghold. Everyone agrees that unity is a good thing, but they disagree on exactly what they should be unified about.  Team?  Friends? Blackness?  Support of blackness? America? Right to protest? There doesn't seem to be much space for people to  have qualified support or mixed feelings.

I was irritated at the behavior of W&M guy Mike Tomlin.

Let me be the first to say that at the moment I don't think unity is a thing to be pursued, as everyone seems to have co-opted it into code for "agree with us or you are evil."

I Am The Lord Your God

That is how the first commandment is expressed in the Jewish tradition.  Just that. The part about other gods is put into commandment #2, along with the graven images. There is something very sensible about this. It puts the emphasis immediately on who God is and on his initiative, rather than starting the list of what his people should and shouldn't do.


I will be teaching a class on the Ten Commandments for adult studies at church this coming winter or spring.  I have been scratching down ideas, and thought it would be best to develop the series here. I confess that you may be the real audience that I am talking to in my head about this, and I need to get things down in clear black-and-white so I can edit that part out to bring it to my real class.

I have stopped taking news about two weeks ago, in order to get to a more separate place when reading the Scriptures and other readings. Though, as CS Lewis noted, the news tends to come find us, as people cannot refrain from telling it to you. It's simple enough to turn off the news feed at the bottom of Bing and change your FB trending to science or sports, though I felt like Bilbo being unable to give up the ring. I kept meaning to do those simple things, yet always kept putting it off somehow. When I announce the class at worship (if they let me) I am going to ask those who will be coming to do the same, and stay off the news throughout the class. The tyranny of the urgent interferes with seeing and hearing clearly, I think.

For the same reason, I am planning on going light on the commandments about killing, adultery, and stealing. People reflexively go to cultural hot points there, wanting to get in their ideas about gay marriage, or the 1%, or whether we should have gone to war in Iraq. Just for starters. I imagine people will find topics to bring up that will suck even more oxygen out of the room.  I will save those commandments for the end, when we have built up the habit of not spending our time making accusations about what other people do and gotten used to hearing the commandments as being addressed to us, as individuals, as families, and as a congregation. How the nation should be responding is largely a fruitless discussion. Now that I think of it, I am going to stress that part about the commandments being given to us as a community, not as a checklist for us individually.

My comfort zone is giving a twenty-minute lecture of things People Should Know, and then dominating a discussion afterward.  That is not a good education model, so I am forcing myself out of that as much as I can. Less than half the class will do homework, so I can't rely on that so much, either. Most worksheet Q & A's for Christian studies make me cringe. Nonetheless, people learn better by doing and discussing rather than listening to assistant village idiots, so I will have to come up with something. For the first week, I think the exercise will be to re-memorise the Ten Commandments, starting in class (quietly, please) and continuing through the week.  Most of the class would have learned to recite them as children, usually in simplified form.  We don't tend to keep them in the front of our consciousness much after that, just pushing them back against the wall so they aren't in the way when the kids want to get up and dance.

I don't have much idea what I am going to do for the following exercises.

There will be readings, but I don't want them to be at tedious length in the class, and as I noted, I can't put much out there for homework. Perhaps I will email the reading to everyone early in the week, to get around the tendency to put things off by putting it right out in front of them. I will certainly get Lewis's "The Dangers of National Repentance" in there early, to highlight that we should not be confessing other people's sins. I also want to tie this in with God making a covenant with us, and studying a bit about that, but I wonder if that's not biting off too much?

Division of the Ten Commandments by religion/denomination
Jewish (Talmudic)*
Anglican, Reformed, and other Christian
Orthodox Christian
Catholic, Lutheran**
I am the Lord your God
You shall have no other gods before me
You shall not make for yourself an idol
Do not take the name of the Lord in vain
Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy
Honor your father and mother
You shall not kill/murder†
You shall not commit adultery
You shall not steal††
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor
You shall not covet‡ your neighbor's wife
You shall not covet‡ anything that belongs to your neighbor

Sunday, September 24, 2017


I heard this in the 1970's, supposedly about Brother Lawrence. That is plausible, yet I suspect this did not actually happen. Consider it a parable.

An elderly monk had a reputation for wisdom, and locals requested of the abbot that they be allowed to ask his advice, which was often granted. The monk would invite them to join in whatever work he was doing at the time as they poured out their stories. His fame spread slowly and quietly, but widely.

In time a cardinal came by, traveling to see all his charges, and asked - or demanded - of the abbot to speak with the monk with the wide reputation. The abbot agreed, but rather than accompany the cardinal he merely told him the man he sought was working in the kitchen and pointed the way.

The cardinal thus came in behind the monk, who was scrubbing the floor with a brush,  and said "I have heard you are a person of great wisdom and piety.  Could you tell me what wisdom you have?"

"Certainly," said the monk, not looking up but holding a brush out behind him and upwards. "Come join me."

"I don't think that would be proper," said the cardinal with a hint of a smile.

"If you can't come down I can't explain it to you."

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Because No One Asked

1. I get irritated when presidents get themselves involved in things that are none of their business.  I didn't like it when Obama kept involving himself in local and criminal matters because of the race issue - a Beer Summit? Really? - and I don't like it when Trump tells football owners what to do.  I don't mind them occasionally getting involved in trivial events - it's a hard calling to have to be presidential 24-7 (though some have managed it).  But involving yourself in the argument is unnecessary and should be avoided.

2. People have a right to protest at public events, but when they are at work, not so much. Fans can take a knee at NFL games and no one can say them nay.  The referees, vendors, and players are in a different position. We forget this distinction because the work of an entertainer is public, so we slide over into thinking that they have the same rights as a person on their own time.  They don't.  Their employer owns that time. If you are a comedian or a writer or a musician working your own gig, you can do what you want.  But when you are in a stage comedy or playing bassoon for the Boston Pops, you don't automatically get to put up a banner for your own cause. If your employer is okay with that, fine, but you have no free speech right to it.

3. I admit that I very likely carry some extra irritation because the protestors are not fully correct in their complaint, and perhaps less than half-right. That shouldn't matter, but I want to raise my hand here because people want to talk about what I consider to be derivative issues, such as whether this is the best way of achieving your goals.They are complaining about the police, who are not the main culprits in whatever injustice African-Americans experience in the justice system. The Stanford study of Oakland PD that claimed to show that the police are twice as likely to be disrespectful to blacks actually shows they aren't that disrespectful to anyone at all. The injustice is more on the side of being given worse attorneys, harsher sentences, and less-generous parole. Plus, crime against blacks, especially murder, is not solved and consequated as well as crimes against other races. The lower arrest rates compared to the committing of crime means more black families get no answer and no justice. The focus on the police suggests something else is in play, something more personal.

Had Enough Therapy?

I don't often link to Stuart Schneiderman's blog Had Enough Therapy? Bird Dog has linked to him a couple of times recently, so I figured I should remind you I am also a fan.  Reading the comments, I know that a few of you go there already. The blog is about 50% skewering of the pop psychology and bad advice that so many of us consume.  The other 50% is varied, but usually comments on aspects of modern culture that people haven't quite thought through.

Schneiderman's history is interesting.  I met him on the Manhattan Urban Hike organised by Maggie's Farm over a year ago and we walked together a fair way.  He was trained as a psychoanalyst, but has moved over time to a type of therapy that is much more like life coaching.  It sounds like a jovial but confrontive approach, which seems about right to me.

High Holy Days

Maggie's Farm, Powerline, and City Journal have all had articles deploring the practice in many synagogues of using Rosh Hashanah to condemn others under the mask of personal repentance. Therefore, I think it's a hot topic this year and will note that I have written on this before, linking to CS Lewis's essay "The Dangers of National Repentance." The closest thing to a the full essay can be found here. Summary quote:
The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the more congenial one of bewailing–but first, of denouncing–the conduct of others. If it were clear to the young that this is what he is doing, no doubt he would remember the law of charity. Unfortunately, the very terms in which national repentance is recommended to him conceal its true nature. By a dangerous figure of speech, he calls the Government not ‘they’ but ‘we’. And since, as penitents, we are not encouraged to be charitable to our own sins, nor to give ourselves the benefit of any doubt, a Government which is called ‘we’ is ipso facto placed beyond the sphere of charity or even of justice. You can say anything you please about it. You can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practicing contrition. A group of such young penitents will say, ‘Let us repent our national sins’; what they mean is, ‘Let us attribute to our neighbour (even our Christian neighbour) in the Cabinet, whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.’

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Far Side

Update below.

I am in a FB group "The Best of 'The Far Side.'" I always loved the comic but didn't have all the books so about 20% are ones I have never seen before.  I may unfollow it soon, as it does produce half-a-dozen posts a day and it's getting a little repetitive. It's been a good two months.

Injecting political or social commentary is punished swiftly: instant banishment from further commenting, no second-chances. It's there to be funny. But people just seem unable to contain themselves.  They have to find hidden sermons in Gary Larsen's work, or relate the cartoon immediately to how stupid some group of people is. They insist to us what his philosophy, his politics, and even his theology must be, as revealed in the panel. It's bad enough when they do this jumping off from the main point, but sometimes it is dug out from unimportant details. People project their own opinions on to the cartoonist. I think opinion X is good.  I like Larsen. Therefore he must also think opinion X is good.  Aha! See there is evidence right here. 

It is nearly always liberals who do this, especially environmentalists.  I would have thought there was a slight tendency in that direction, but this is not slight. I traced back the last month and it's over 90% of those banned. And note, there are some God-portrayals that religious people might not like, plus some consistent rooting for the animals over the hunters that could be taken amiss by gun-rights people. I think he was just going for the irony. I'm not offended.

There may be a sample bias.  The group might be 90+% liberal, so the more frequent banning isn't significant.  But I doubt it.

Upon further review:  I was interested in more precision on the environmentalist vs general liberal question, and decided it gives a different impression that way. Reflexive environmentalists are not entirely contained in the liberal circle if you did it as a Venn Diagram. I was assuming they were liberals and were counting them that way, but that's not entirely defensible.  The more exact numbers are 3 liberals, 1 conservative, 7 environmentalists.  With that 3-1 being a very small sample size, so a single addition or subtraction - or a single misinterpretation on my part - changing the impression drastically, it would be more accurate to conclude this is more of an environmentalist than general liberal issue.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Have You Forgotten? Bush v. Gore 2000

I am not going to try and sell you the idea that everything Bush and the Republicans did was noble and aboveboard while Gore and the Democrats were motivated entirely by cheap partisanship. It's all very complicated, and mixed motives are the norm, not the exception in such circumstances.  However there is a continuing narrative that still gets put forth as obvious, with repercussions down to the present day.  Attorneys reading should feel free to chime in to correct or expand, but my intent is not to give a legal summary but to challenge the received narrative.

Bush v. Gore  Please note there is an error in the Wikipedia article, which claims in paragraph 4 that while Bush would have won anyway under the type of recount Gore was advocating, Gore would have won under a full-state recount. This is not known to be true. If you read the whole thing it is difficult to see where this is anything but speculation based on "Well, what if we counted the overvotes?" Counting spoiled ballots which nonetheless showed the clear intent of the voter might indeed have resulted in more votes for Gore.  I'll refer back to this at the end.

The narrative I have read and been told many times is that five SCOTUS justices appointed by Republicans voted down four objective and honorable justices on the basis of nothing but partisanship, awarding the presidency to Bush undeservedly. It remains a shameful episode in the history of the court, and undermined the public's confidence in that institution. That Jeb Bush was governor is also mentioned darkly, that he was in on the fix, too, though exactly what he did isn't identified. Just the usual Darth Vader music in the background.

It's hard to prove a negative, so yes, perhaps, if we had a Motive-o-Meter and scanned each of the justices as they were deliberating, we would see dark stains on the souls of Rehnquist, Thomas, O'Connor, Scalia, and Kennedy contrasting with crystal hearts of Souter, Breyer, Stevens, and Ginsburg.

There are some facts which are usually left out of the discussion, however, which suggest that at minimum, there is another side to this which is not easily dismissed. First, the justices ruled 7-2, not 5-4 on the question of whether there had been an Equal Protection Clause violation, as Bush claimed. Five of those justices said the deadline is the deadline, we're done. Two justices joined that decision, Souter and Breyer, agreeing that there was a violation, but thought it should go back to the Florida Supreme Court to decide what to do. I don't think that's crazy, by the way.  Yes, it is possible to impute partisan motives to them, because the Florida Court had all been appointed by Democrats and had tipped its hand what it might do. Yet without mind-reading we are back at the same finger-pointing with no evidence. I am nowhere near informed enough in the law to tell you whether that is the best, or even a defensible position, but on the surface it seems reasonable the SCOTUS tell Florida to sort out its own mess, after noting there had been a finding there was a violation, contrary to that court's earlier ruling.

Let me hit that key point again:  7-2 on Equal Protection, which to me looks like the central issue.  Not 5-4.  5-4 was for "What remedy?"

The legal arguments at this point revolved around whether there should be a deadline extension for recounts, whether Kathryn Harris had the authority to shut the thing down, whether started recounts that had been shown to be not-quite-right should be resumed, abandoned, or restarted. The popular arguments were much simpler: "You're cheating!" "No, you are!" As usual, everyone was suddenly an expert on Florida election law, the intent of the Florida legislature, Article II of the US Constitution, and the Fourteenth Amendment. Who says the schools aren't doing their job in civics?  Why, we can produce millions of experts overnight, with no additional training.

Let me jump back just a moment to the Florida Supreme Court. It's not in the Wiki article, but they had ruled 7-0 that there should be statewide manual recount, according to their interpretation of the law and the intent of the legislature.  Gore had only asked for four Democratic counties to be recounted, but they thought it was better to recount everything.  Bush appealed, and the SCOTUS sent that back quickly saying "What was your reasoning there? Show your work."  At the time, I was told this was a major slap in the face, but I don't know if that's true.  However that was, when asked to produce the reasoning, three of the seven changed their mind. The court ruled 4-3 for the statewide manual recount, and Bush appealed that, claiming that the rules for what was a legal vote varied from county to county. The Gore team countered "So what?  It's the intent of the voters that matters, not whether the technical definition of a legal vote is the same."

Back to the SCOTUS just for a moment, and then we're nearly done. In the 5-4 decision of "What remedy should there be for this violation of the Equal Protection," three justices (Scalia, Rehnquist, Thomas) really wanted to sock it to the Florida Supreme Court that they had acted contrary to the will of the legislature, while two (Kennedy, O'Connor) said, "No, we wouldn't go that far" and didn't sign on.  The four dissenting justices (Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer) said the opposite, that the Florida Supremes had jolly well not acted contrary to the legislature, they had gotten it right the first time. I can see some sense in all the sides here. The rulings of the justices sort of break down 3-2-2-2, depending on what question is being asked. Rather like arguing the Crusades, which popular imagination pictures as having two sides, when really there were at least four.

The irony piece.  Had the Gore team dared to take a long-term political risk, they likely would have won.  Spoiled ballots are three times more common in black districts. They could have tried to sell that idea as black voters being undercounted (there's that thing about overvotes, which I don't believe are counted anywhere) thereby, and had they won that, broadening the standard for what constituted a legal vote, Gore would very likely have gotten more votes. But to bring that up would be insulting to black voters, which might have cost them in the long run.  I don't think it would have, myself, but I am notoriously bad at this sort of horse-race analysis in politics.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

American Inventors

There is sudden irritation, perhaps even outrage at Google because the search term "American Inventors*" shows mostly black inventors, which people are interpreting as propaganda on the part of that search engine. I think that is unlikely.

First, I think Google is capable of skewing the results of things, but they are more clever than that.  They aren't going to do obvious stuff.

Secondly, Bing and Duckduckgo return similar results, perhaps not so bad. It is therefore unlikely that any of them are intentionally skewing the results. What is likely happening is that people do not often search for "American Inventors" as a category, they search for an individual inventor. But people do search for "Black American Inventors," as they are looking for these lists for school papers, self-esteem based programs, whatever. Except for George Washington Carver, those names are not going to come to mind very quickly, unlike Thomas Edison, or Alexander Graham Bell. Those search results will be included the general pile of "American inventors" because the algorithm will see them as a near relative. It's not a put-up job by Google or the others, it is a natural result from a data base where there actually aren't that many black inventors, but people want to find some.

Caveat: As the job of the Assistant Village Idiot is to notice the obvious when everyone else is making things too complicated, I am treading into territory that is not my assigned task.  Adjust your estimate of my credibility on this accordingly. 

*There's something about screwy results for "white couple" and some similar things, but I haven't checked that out and didn't do any of those searches. I'm guessing something similar is occurring.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Coins of Worth - Again

I discussed the various attributes that were valued by earlier cultures, and which are valued now, in The Gold Coin of Worth. It later occurred to me that the ability to keep a clear head under stress, or even in an emergency is also highly valued in our culture. I imagine it has been valued at least somewhat in all cultures, yet I think it has elevated higher in ours, because of our fast pace and time-awareness. That would place its ascent from one of the many virtues to one of the top virtues at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, say 1700. It was certainly recognised in Kipling's time
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

It is a quality that is mentioned often among people who are actually doing a particular job, but I don't think it is much in the national conversation of what we should teach children or "what skills employers are looking for."  It is as if we forget about it when discussing abilities in theory, but have face-palm moments when we suddenly need it in practice. We very much admire it in others.

I have heard that it is a military saying that "You will not rise to the occasion; you will revert to the level of your training."  That is very much true in dealing with acute psychiatric crises. While it is true that some people seemed to be better wired for calm and others for panic, training, rehearsal, and forethought are not optional.

As our pace increases, I expect the importance of this quality will likewise grow.

Sunday, September 17, 2017


As children, we have heroes.  As young adults, we learn they have flaws. They all have flaws. Sometimes we then reject them, sometimes we keep them in more complicated fashion. Over the years they drift one way or the other in our minds.  We decide that their flaws are too great to ignore and move them to the rejection pile (though we might continue to admire a particular aspect), or we decide that their flaws are not that important in the long run and we continue our admiration. We also acquire people to admire who we never thought we would. This can only occur when we have had to face the disillusionment of our childhood heroes. From those wounded figures we learn to look beyond to core character, in a real context.  This is a cultural cliche in how we later look at teachers or parents, gaining a respect for them that we did not believe they deserved when we were young.

Years and years ago, shortly after I had children of my own, I read something about black actors in the movies and in vaudeville, who played stereotypical and demeaning roles and were now coming under criticism from younger African-Americans for their lack of standards.  The author - I think it was a book, though it may have just been a long magazine article - had become much more sympathetic and forgiving. As I recall it (which may be wildly divergent at this point from what was written) he quoted an older black actor who spoke with some heat "I had a family to feed.  None of you know what it was like." Working in a low-status, poorly-paid job at the time, with two young sons, I got it immediately.  Some heroes come in by the back door but they settle down to live in your house and become family.

By that point, we don't really need heroes to get on with our lives.

Yet we did need them once. I worry very much about the rage* to unmask heroes to children.  It seems to draw a lot of energy from those who are young enough to be disillusioned themselves but not old enough to have made their peace with an ambiguous world.  Sophomores teaching freshmen is dangerous.

*I just noticed in proofreading that there is a second meaning to rage, and it is likely not accidental.  "All the rage" is a positive, though a bit condescending.  Rage in its other meaning is not.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Novels and Statues

I went down a Wikipedia rabbit-trail - rather literally, come to think of it - about Watership Down. Amidst all the accolades reported, there were also criticisms, especially of the lack of interesting female characters, and the attitude of the male rabbits regarding the does almost entirely as breeding stock.  Only Hyzenthlay rises above that, and she, not much. At one level I get this.  When we belong to a group, even a fictional representation of "us" is taken seriously. We treat it differently depending on whether we feel the characterisation is intentional or unconscious, but we notice.  If all the pigs or rats belong to our group - Buddhists, professors, soldiers, musicians, husbands, we take offense.

The complaints are thus not entirely unfair, yet there are weaknesses. They can be taken too far, and not balanced, if your group is weasels while an opposite or complementary group is skunks, say. Or the fictional group representing you may be more ambiguous, like dwarves or action figures or toys.

But mostly I think "Then write your own story if you don't like it.  No one's stopping you.  If you don't like how females are being portrayed, your only real solution is to do better."  We covered this somewhat in my post Sexism in Narnia, reacting to JK Rowling's irritation at how she felt Susan had been portrayed. I thought Rowling misunderstood something important, rendering her complaint less valid. However, she responded in what I believe is the best possible way: she wrote her own books and she made the female characters behave as she thought best. Rowling's efforts certainly fits the culture of the last twenty years better.  Whether that will have staying power for a third generation remains to be seen. (She has some popularity into a second era of children, but I don't think a book can be called a classic until hit is loved by a third generation.  Parental nostalgia can carry a movie or book or musician unto the next generation, but usually not beyond.) Philip Pullman also responded to Lewis, by subcreating a world that was expressly non-Christian. He had first-pass success at this - we don't know whether that will endure - but that is also the proper response.  If you don't like it, write your own.

This is my eventual response to the desire to remove statues as well.  I get it that if you live in a town, a public statue in the town square represents you at some level, and you might find some things beyond the pale. Your church should be expressing things you agree with.  If you are part of a school, you are allowed some voice.*  Someone else's town, church, school, I think you have less authority. There's an historical marker to Hannah Duston up above Concord commemorating her scalping Indians after she was captured.  We regard that with more ambivalence these days, but I regard that as mostly Boscawen's problem.  It is a New Hampshire state marker, so I have some connection with it representing me, but I don't feel I have much ground to go complaining at the state house. Not that I would anyway.  Moral ambiguity isn't enough for me for something to be pulled down.  Once it's up, I think you need to go much farther to just evil before you can yank it. Chesterton's Fence may apply to art more than anything else.

But even more, my response to a statue you don't approve of is "So put up your own statue."  Or even more to the point "Go do something that is worthy of commemoration in that way. No one is stopping you, with your own mixed bag of moral history, from going and doing something heroic or laudable."

Hey, artists need the work.

*Though here we see how the sales job of a college calling itself a community in order to hit you up for money later (yes, okay, some good motives too) affects the entire culture going forward.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Secret People - GKC

(Notes at the end.)

Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget;
For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.
There is many a fat farmer that drinks less cheerfully,
There is many a free French peasant who is richer and sadder than we.
There are no folk in the whole world so helpless or so wise.
There is hunger in our bellies, there is laughter in our eyes;
You laugh at us and love us, both mugs and eyes are wet:
Only you do not know us. For we have not spoken yet.

The fine French kings came over in a flutter of flags and dames.
We liked their smiles and battles, but we never could say their names.
The blood ran red to Bosworth and the high French lords went down;
There was naught but a naked people under a naked crown.
And the eyes of the King’s Servants turned terribly every way,
And the gold of the King’s Servants rose higher every day.
They burnt the homes of the shaven men, that had been quaint and kind,
Till there was no bed in a monk’s house, nor food that man could find.
The inns of God where no man paid, that were the wall of the weak.
The King’s Servants ate them all. And still we did not speak.

And the face of the King’s Servants grew greater than the King:
He tricked them, and they trapped him, and stood round him in a ring.
The new grave lords closed round him, that had eaten the abbey’s fruits,
And the men of the new religion, with their bibles in their boots,
We saw their shoulders moving, to menace or discuss,
And some were pure and some were vile; but none took heed of us.
We saw the King as they killed him, and his face was proud and pale;
And a few men talked of freedom, while England talked of ale.

A war that we understood not came over the world and woke
Americans, Frenchmen, Irish; but we knew not the things they spoke.
They talked about rights and nature and peace and the people’s reign:
And the squires, our masters, bade us fight; and scorned us never again.
Weak if we be for ever, could none condemn us then;
Men called us serfs and drudges; men knew that we were men.
In foam and flame at Trafalgar, on Albuera plains,
We did and died like lions, to keep ourselves in chains,
We lay in living ruins; firing and fearing not
The strange fierce face of the Frenchmen who knew for what they fought,
And the man who seemed to be more than a man we strained against and broke;
And we broke our own rights with him. And still we never spoke.

Our patch of glory ended; we never heard guns again.
But the squire seemed struck in the saddle; he was foolish, as if in pain,
He leaned on a staggering lawyer, he clutched a cringing Jew,
He was stricken; it may be, after all, he was stricken at Waterloo.
Or perhaps the shades of the shaven men, whose spoil is in his house,
Come back in shining shapes at last to spoil his last carouse:
We only know the last sad squires rode slowly towards the sea,
And a new people takes the land: and still it is not we.

They have given us into the hand of new unhappy lords,
Lords without anger or honour, who dare not carry their swords.
They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes;
They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.
And the load of their loveless pity is worse than the ancient wrongs,
Their doors are shut in the evening; and they know no songs.

We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street.
It may be we shall rise the last as Frenchmen rose the first,
Our wrath come after Russia’s wrath and our wrath be the worst.
It may be we are meant to mark with our riot and our rest
God’s scorn for all men governing. It may be beer is best.
But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.

Chesterton made a few stereotypical and rather insulting comments about Jews  in his writings.  Very common prejudices of the era, but still rank. He was called on it, thought about it, wrote an apology, and never did so again.

It is telling that GKC thought the newest (1915) group of elites who ignored the common Englishman worse even than Cromwell and the Puritans, against whom he held an especial dislike. That may be dramatic, but I doubt it is true or fair. The poor of Chesterton's time, hard as their lives were, were much better-off than those of the early Victorian era and before. He captures something important about Albion and the spirit of England that does indeed extend far back in its history.  Yet he nonetheless is writing from a position of relative wealth.  He also does not quite understand the bulk of the poor, even as he takes up their defense.

All that said, it's a powerful piece.  GKC does not fit 21st C categories well, which is part of what makes him worth reading.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Real Alternatives

I don't listen to the people who believe they think for themselves much at all.  They usually are only choosing one of the major cultural sides or the other:  at work, liberal; at church conservative. They are above it all because they don't pay attention to NASCAR or the Kardashians or the mainstream media or hip-hop or whatever it is they think everyone else is aware of that they aren't.* The people who actually are different don't usually think about that, or are only dimly aware that others don't quite understand them, or note it with little interest.  They just think what they think.  They are usually wrong. But they are usually the only source for searing insights. That is, BTW, why I keep the Unz Review on my sidebar.  If you don't go over there, you may not be aware of how bigoted and crazy some of those people can be, while others are only 30 degrees off and reliably challenging.  Most columnists I routinely ignore, but force myself to read something of them once a month. In my discussion of experts and David L Hoggan I mentioned that South Asians did not regard his belief that Hitler was peace-loving as particularly crazy.  (Though it is crazy.) I learned that over at Unz Review, from one of the craziest anti-Semites there. I would not have learned it anywhere else. I browsed around to see if it were true, and it is emphatically so.  The analysts and historians from India thought the British were the most dangerous people in the world, and Hitler just a put-upon guy who had to go to war to keep from being destroyed by them.

John Maynard Keynes made the observation "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back." And of course, Keynes is himself a defunct economist who still influences us greatly, and might have taken a wry pleasure in the idea that he is an example of his own cynical prophecy. Looking up that quote, I found that many of Keynes' most famous sayings were absolutely brilliant, while only a few were troubling.  Yet those few troubling ones telegraphed all the mischief that has been done by his disciples.

That's as good a warning to us all as one could find.  To be stunningly brilliant most of the time but wrong in a few things can result in one having an overall detrimental effect on the happiness and prosperity of your fellow-creatures.

In the first "Men In Black" movie, Tommy Lee Jones instructs Will Smith that he scours the real alt-alt media, not just the slightly unusual stories, to follow necessary leads.  I don't go that far, but I get that point.  I read what I call hypernormal people, mostly conservative, for solid understanding, almost for relaxation. They have some sense of historical perspective and what has usually worked for human beings that informs their opinion of current events. I, unfortunately, can get distracted by some bit of unreason that is currently ruling the airwaves, but they do at least slightly better.  My sidebar is largely people in the same boat as me, with historical knowledge but still distracted by the Tyranny of the Now.

But I think one has to take bread with two other groups: the people closest to the ground, who have learned their lessons by trial-and-error if nothing else; and the fanatics, who can force a screw in most of the way even when it is cross-threaded, by dint of persistence alone.

*I understand the sweetness of this attitude, BTW.  But it's fleeting.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Have You Forgotten?

Legal Insurrection reminds us of the 2013 racial hoaxes at Oberlin College, and notes that they may be having enrollment problems in 2017 - though I think it is too early to tell.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Cart or Horse?

A journalist recently wrote that journalists are people who have to know things first, and this is why they are so easy to manipulate. They leap to conclusions, always in their narrative direction; they over-read rumors. Decades before our controversies about media bias, they talked in terms of getting the scoop, as if that were of some great importance.  Breaking news pushes everything out, and the whole industry will seem to grind to a halt, with talking heads outside the White House or an award ceremony, unable to bring anything real, talking endlessly with each other about what the news might be when it comes.  It's rather like Vladimir and Estragon, or Ionesco's "The Leader," absurdist characters with nothing to say speculating on what others will do.

Therefore, a leak is like a drug to them - they will want to believe it. Like a schoolboy talking about entertainers, it's important to be the one who was onto it first. They have to be up-to-the-minute, and even when they get older and slow down a bit, smiling, they still have to demonstrate their chops that they "get it." They have "well-placed sources," who are often no more than professional PR flaks, who are doling out the drug according to a schedule and plan.

I have noted before that liberals seem to have much more interest in what is fashionable (see also, urban dwellers, who like to be at the center of the action), very now, very hip, very in the loop.  This is not universal, certainly - I know some conservatives and libertarians who put a lot of attention into remaining current.  There are liberals who claim to be uninterested in what is current. Yet I find that many of those very much want to keep up with knowing what opinions they should have about things.  They don't follow Kardashians, but they are up on the latest about Comey, or perhaps new technology. Still, I can think of none who are as removed as a CS Lewis, who took no newspaper, and little interest in current events. Not many conservatives there either, frankly.  We are all reading the news instead of books, and this year's books rather than last century's, never mind Church Fathers.*

If my observation is accurate, which is not proven but I think defensible, which causes which?  Do liberals go into journalism because they want to know things now, which prompts them to acquire the skills necessary to get that information, which they they make a living on, passing it along to others? Or does living in a now, now, now environment gradually turn you to fashion, and to liberalism?

Side note: I think it has been true for a very long time - I can detect it in early Victorian writers - that people who are very aware of current events think of themselves as something like well-read. Some of them, if you ask them, will recognise a distinction immediately and admit that they are not so - not conversant with great writers and philosophers. Yet the next day, they will be talking down about the intellect and culture of those who are not well-versed in the events of the day in just that tone.

*It is of course possible to read only books from centuries ago which will still reliably tell you exactly what you want to hear. Still, things sneak through in such circumstances.  You can't hide forever.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Nurse Ratched For President

Update:  Apparently I have gotten this pretty thoroughly wrong.  I would like people's impressions based on the movie, however.

I have never seen "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest."  I disliked the book.  I understand the movie is different, and anyone who has worked in my field for forty years is supposedly obligated to be familiar with it. It is a cultural tentpeg for my generation and my profession, so I have let the side down in two distinct ways.  Yeah, well, deal with it.

A senior psychiatrist I admired once observed that Nurse Ratched is universally regarded as an evil, officious person, but he regarded her as a hero.  With limited resources and no backup she created a safe environment for vulnerable people and would not be bullied by those who thought themselves better than her. She was willing to be hated in order that real victims could be safe from the pretend ones.

Well, I don't know if that's fair, or the conventional wisdom is fair.  I confess I have considerable sympathy with the idea, having spent a lifetime watching perps take advantage of desperately vulnerable people and insulting or assaulting very decent staff members who attempt to set fences around them.  But there is apparently a TV series coming out this fall about an imagined backstory of how she came to be. I imagine it will take the conventional wisdom as its starting point.  It may seek to humanise her and give people pause, or it may run with current political fashion by portraying her as raised by white-supremacist Republicans, so what do you expect?

I ask that if any of you catch the series, be alert there's another side to this.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Have You Forgotten?

Regular reader Christopher B, commenting over at Grim's reminded me of the shameful, nakedly partisan treatment of Miguel Estrada. Remember these things when people tell you it is the right that is divisive and abusing the political process.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

The Gold Coin of Worth

Dr. James Dobson, the much-admired and much-despised psychologist that evangelical Christians were so taken with in the 1970's-2000 (and beyond?) once discussed the whole self-esteem movement and its lack of grounding in God's valuing of the individual. He remarked that in (1980's) present culture, Intelligence was the Gold Coin of Worth, especially for males, while Beauty was second - the Silver Coin of Worth, and perhaps those reversed for females. He noted that this might be changing, and Intelligence would become the Gold Coin for both. Either way, he didn't like it.  He claimed it didn't used to be that way.

Perhaps he gave a more detailed explanation of this somewhere, but he left it vague in the show I overheard while my wife was doing the dishes that night.  I was left to puzzle out for myself what used to be the measures of worth that humans would cling to. I thought of the Puritans - I always think of the Puritans first, then the High Middle Ages - where was I? The Puritans wrote a lot about wisdom, and steadfastness, and piety, but intelligence was not what they pointed to first. To the medievals, having a Good Name summed up a great many other virtues, and they had codified the virtues into Seven: The three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity; the four cardinal virtues of temperance, prudence, justice, fortitude. Hard work was often praised when I was young. "That Rene, he's a hard worker. He could do it for you." In the Rust Belt that was even more pronounced.

Loyalty. Honesty. Kindness. Chastity, doubly so for females. Patience. Learning. It wasn't always better then - people admired you for your wealth, or rank, or connections, or clothes. Physical strength, or musical and artistic ability, have always worked in most societies. You will notice that intelligence doesn't show up on those lists. People didn't dislike it, but it was seen as morally neutral or a temptation. To be thought of as clever was a bit ambiguous, though ingenuity was well-regarded. The last two or three centuries have seen a steady rise in the admiration of intelligence, as we have lived in a Western society that has found such very useful. In strict point of fact, all human societies ever have rewarded intelligence, but never so thoroughly or obviously as what we have now.

 I wondered where we might be going next, and decided that adaptability is going to become increasingly important moving forward. I have been saying that for about twenty years, I think. I still believe it. But in a correspondence today Bethany of Graph Paper Diaries suggested that in a social media world, visibility, or credibility, or being seen as "with it" or "on top of things" might become such powerful elements of persuasion as to constitute power in themselves. I am much taken with idea, and am turning it around in my head.

BTW, I'm not thinking these are a good direction to go - but it may be the direction we are going, wisely or not.