Friday, July 03, 2020

Responsibility and The System

In the full embodiment of the idea of collective and historical responsibility, you bear some responsibility for slavery and oppression even if you and your ancestors had no direct connection to the purchase and ownership of any slave, because you are part of the system and have benefited from that system.

By that reasoning, if you peacefully protest against racial injustice, but other protestors on the other side of the crowd - or even on the other side of the country - engage in looting and violence, aren't you guilty as well, as part of the system? That second idea would sound strange and impossible to people, but I am not seeing a distinction.

Our church has taken up a study on racial justice, using a new book which I shall not name, but will mention that I loathe. There are plenty of difficulties right off the bat with trying to integrate Critical Race Theory, or any of the philosophical frameworks of the last two centuries which focus on group identities and  viewing human activities as systems with Christianity.

If systems were that important, we might expect that Jesus would have mentioned them more. The Roman Empire was an interlocking system that had good things and bad about it.  Neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor James, John, Peter, or Luke pay it much mind as a system per se. There is no advocacy that Christians should spend a moment of their time trying to change the system. We might ask ourselves why this is so. Just out of curiosity.

That systems were changed as a result of Christian belief is not at all the same thing as regarding attempts to "change the system" as Christian goals.  To bring things closer to the present day, William Wilberforce did not attempt to "change the system." His goal was to eliminate slavery in the British Commonwealth, which he saw as a great evil. That "the system" would change as a result was not something he wasted any ink or a single speech on. The downstream effects of our actions are always unknown, and often include unforeseen problems.  We are to estimate those as best we can and take them into consideration, certainly.

There is something about focus on the system to removes our focus from our own actions.  This happens on the credit as well as the debt side of the ledger as well.  When we take credit and think ourselves special and virtuous because of things our ancestors, countrymen, or coreligionists have done that is equally missing the point.  I have a couple of ancestors who fought for the Union to free slaves.  I don't believe I am owed any thanks for that.

If you are participating in an act, even in only a supportive or indirect role, I think that act does attach to you. At the end of Durrenmatt's The Visit it is clear that the entire town has participated in the killing and the actions of a single individual do not stand out. Writing in Switzerland after WWII, it is clear that his intent was to tell Germans they all bore responsibility.  I would agree.  But were all Germans equally guilty?  Does a telephone operator or a bartender carry the same weight of guilt as a guard who executed Jews and pried gold fillings from their teeth?  Did a Jew or Gypsy who beat his wife become innocent on the day Hitler came to power?

People who focus on changing, disrupting, or overthrowing one system lose the ability to see the faults of their own system. The system is a snare for the Christian. Well, I suppose for anyone.

400 Years of Oppression

No one is 400 years old.

Zoom Wedding

Our niece Meg scheduled her wedding a year ago for this May.  In the last few months she postponed it to July in hopes she could have it then. But she is a nurse in Massachusetts, and has no intention of putting friends and family in  danger.  We will be attending the wedding in about an hour, via Zoom.

"The important thing is to get married and start having a family" she said.  Good attitude.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

The Bible Project: Jonah

It's a great series.  A couple of family members tell me this is their favorite.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Advance Australia Fair

It seems like it would be a good thing to be an Australian.  I'm not in the market for switching, but I think they'd be my second choice.

Yes, ahead of the Canadians, even though my grandfather was Nova Scotian. Everyone likes Australians.

Another Academic Firing

I corresponded with Dr. Hsu twice when he was still at Oregon teaching physics, because he was associated with research through BGI where I was a participant. He is about as intelligent a person as you could hope to encounter.  But Michigan State has fired him for quoting research on IQ and ethnicity. He was defended by some big names, but in the end President Samuel Stanley used the same cowardly line they are all using these days
I believe this is what is best for our university to continue our progress forward...
Very little intellectual justification was even offered.  Here's the problem: reality itself, in the form of human biology, is racist and sexist by current definitions. It puts researchers in a bind, doesn't it? Thus it puts universities in a bind, because they dare not allow reality to be spoken, yet their job is to teach young people to think, and do accurate research.

Giving in to the mob is not their only choice, not by a long shot.  But they don't have that many students in these subjects, so if they have to let someone be fed to the sharks, it's not going to be Education, is it?

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Things We Have Gotten Better Since March

It's important to look at what we have been learning as we have been going.


I had seen sections of Taibbi's excellent takedown of White Fragility, but only read the whole essay today. Robin DiAngelo's only solution offered to white people is that they become less white.  I think she, and others, are pointing to a different consensus as to what must be done. You must denounce other white people, individually and collectively, in order to be saved. Notice that this doesn't cost you a cent. Redemption without sacrifice.


Reading my previous posts that touch on the subject, I once made the point that "fragility" is not the potential sin I would associate with white people, but it's opposite.  What seems to be happening is the formulation "See?  You are defending yourself, therefore you must feel defensive.  People feel defensive when they are actually weak, not strong.  Therefore you prove my accusation that you are fragile.  UH! UH! See?  There you are, doing it again!"

Rather convenient.

However, I think there is a place where this is subtly true.  They are attempting to motivate some white people to join in by using this tactic.  For those people, it might be true.  For the others, I don't see how they can have it both ways.

For myself, I long ago decided that black spokespeople have little or nothing to do with the black people I actually encounter in my life.  The people I encounter are human beings, and some are darker, some are lighter.  I am now told this is an impossible formulation that denies the reality of oppression.  However, I am told this by precisely those people who have an interest in maintaining division, because their jobs, their self-esteem, or their excuses why they ain't rich depend upon it. The black people I actually know are worried about their golf handicap, whether they have enough money to retire, whether their children are going to get a good education, whether they are going to keep this new job, whether their church will weather this CoVid storm, whether the young Christians they are teaching will actually learn the life lessons they need, whether their daughter's teacher will be willing to be strict with her...very much the same things my white and Asian acquaintances have.  They're just darker people saying these things.

The world has gone mad, and I'm just trying not to get dragged in its trail.

Redefining Words

I have mentioned many times that if you have to redefine common terms - patriot, racist, supremacist - in order to prove your point it is an admission you can't win on the merits. Cults do this with words like atonement, and especially love. I had thought of a humorous example about a year ago, but couldn't remember it this morning after waking too early, and eventually just got up. I finally brought it back to mind after two hours.  It's not as funny as I remembered, but it's not a bad example.  And even if it's terrible, I'm posting it anyway, in honor of this morning's frustration.

"So when I tell my patient she has outstanding charges, she should be happy about that?"

Monday, June 29, 2020

American Genetic Clusters

You have likely seen the upper map in the last couple of years.  It is based on all those genetic samples that people send in.  The full paper was published in Nature in 2017. They looked for clusters, and what they found corresponds greatly to what we know from American history.  Especially if you have read and remember David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed. I haven't mentioned it in a while, but let me note again that it is the one essential book of American history. Enormous amounts of American settlement and regional culture will just click, and it will provide you with a framework for understanding it.

I draw your attention to the second map, which you may not have seen.  It shows smaller sample clusters they identified, and is also fascinating.  Mormons show up as part of the Northeast cluster because their founding population was largely from New York and New England, and their first areas of foreign missions were the British Isles and Scandinavia. Founding populations have an outsize genetic influence, which you can also see in how their effect dissipates East to West in the above maps.

There are other maps and much discussion at the link.  You could lose a whole morning there.  It is interesting that they were able to discern two Appalachian groups, which we usually just combine as Scots-Irish/English Borderers. There is also an interesting map of which states are genetically most eastern, western, northern, southern.  It's not shocking that New Hampshire's deeper genetics (3-9 generations) is the most northern, but it is surprising that Louisiana is the most eastern - until you remember the Arcadians getting kicked out of Nova Scotia and becoming Cajuns. Fun stuff.

Sunday, June 28, 2020


We had an envelope Fedexed to us Friday, to arrive Monday.  It went out from Lynn, MA, leaving the Peabody office in the evening. That is about 60 miles from here.  It went next to Memphis, TN, about 1300 miles from here, and then came back the 1300 miles, to Londonderry, about 20 miles from here.  So it has come about two-thirds of the way here so far, with a 2600-mile detour.

Presumably, it is all about the airport.  Peabody is 15 miles from Logan in Boston, and everything that is not supposed to get delivered from their office presumably just goes on a plane to Memphis, where it gets sorted and put on other planes. It's hard to accept that this is the most efficient way of doing things.

Tallis Canon

We become especial fans after reading the Madeline L'Engle books.


It's not my imagination.

With all the fun things weather sites can do, I have had a new source of frustration over the past few years: watching the radar tell me that rain is coming in 30-90 minutes, only to have it somehow pass us by.  This is IMPOSSIBLE! How can it rain in Bedford and rain in Dunbarton, but the clouds scatter and drop nothing on us AGAIN? Because I work in Concord, and note that it sometimes misses there as well, going above and below, I have suspected, and grudgingly conceded, that they might have it almost as bad.

The clouds generally come from W or WSW, so what is happening in Keene is often a moderately good indicator of what will be happening in Goffstown in an hour.  Albany, NY is about two hours ahead. (Funny how it is much more than twice as far as Keene culturally, with two state borders in between.) We are currently in a drought, so I am watching the weather anxiously and a bit obsessively the last few days.  We had 20 minutes of light rain yesterday, but the "heavy thunderstorms" that have been expected have consistently parted about fifty miles to the west and gone to the north of us and south of us. AGAIN!  Just like every year, it seems.

In the more rational parts of my brain I recognise that this is just my impression.  It can't really be the case that Nashua and Laconia get significantly more rain than Manchester and Concord.  It's just my bitter cynicism, aided by the confirmation bias of remembering those times when we had no rain, forgetting the downpours that drenched us and missed our neighbors.  Yet in my frustration, today I went looking for average precipitation of places in NH.

I was right.  Goffstown is in a narrow band of diminished precipitation. Twenty miles south and twenty miles north both get significantly more precipitation.  Also, because of the increased rainfall near the coast, that dry band I live in gradually moistens starting about 20 miles east as well. There is an even drier band Above The Notch (Usually Franconia, but also Pinkham) extending up into Quebec, but from Mount Washington to Nashua, there is a 30-mile swath of lower moisture, and I both live and work in it. Mount Washington has twice the precipitation everywhere else, but starting from the north, this is the yearly precipitation

Plymouth 44.68 in
Laconia 44.15 in
Concord 40.61 in
                  Goffstown is between the two, more on the Manchester side
Manchester 42.05in
Nashua 47.97 in
Just across the border in Mass, it's similar to Nashua - which is pretty much part of Massachusetts these days anyway. Worcester 47, Lowell 48.

As I was writing this, another storm dissipated around us, not a drop, and the projected storm for the evening has already disappeared. AGAIN.

Additional note:  Different sites give different numbers for annual rainfall - I don't know why, just different methods, I suppose - but all of them track comparably.

Reporting II

Such a takedown of the Atlantic's reporting should be devastating to its reputation.  But not these days, not anymore. To be devastating it would have to be widespread, and these things are just buried.


I was interested in how things were playing out with the Swedish Somali community, which is less than 1% of the population but had 5% of the coronavirus cases as of May.  The reports I read then indicated that Somalis paid much less attention to quarantining, even after showing symptoms. They would go out and visit among each other and be out in public areas as well.  This seemed partly due to false beliefs about the virus, especially that Muslims could not get it, but also because many just seemed not to care very much.  If they wanted to go out, they went out.

I am not easily finding updates.  The reporting in Europe, when it mentions this at all, frames it that the increased rate of illness is a product of economic inequality and segregation, rather than risky behavior on the part of the Somalis.  There were a couple of articles that mentioned only "immigrant populations," so I have to wonder if there are other groups which are less cautious as well.  Even if so, likely not as bad, or it would have been mentioned by someone, somewhere.

I have to wonder what is going on in the newsrooms.  Do they slant things this way because they don't want to "hurt" the Somalis and the cause of immigration in general by encouraging others to think bad things about them? Do they really think such things are the result of poverty and segregation rather than stemming from similar causes? Are the few deaths regarded as unimportant because it provides an opportunity to "talk about larger issues," as if there were an abundance of issues that are larger than death?  I have to wonder if it goes so far as to mean "It would be better if this were true, so this is what shall go in the official record. We will force it to be true by erasing the counterevidence."

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Missing People

As far as I can tell, two people were found and there was information about two more. What they got was a lot of was people wanting to join them.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Khazar Hypothesis: Full Post

I'll get you the long version tomorrow, but it occurred to me driving home from work today that I could make it all very simple.

If the Khazar Hypothesis is true, we should see Central Asian genetic material in Ashkenazi Jews on the order of 25-50%; and among their Aaronic priestly class, we should see the Cohen Modal Haplotype at no higher than the base rate of 5-15% for the broad region of the Mediterranean, Arabian, and Caucasus regions.

If the Rhineland Hypothesis is true, we should see very little Central Asian genetic material in Ashkenazi Jews and there should be at least some elevation in the frequency of the Cohen Modal Haplotype, maybe even a lot.

What we actually see, now that we can measure it, is that the amount of Central Asian genetic material among Ashkenazis approaches zero, and the Aaronic priestly class is 50-70% Cohen Modal Haplotype.

The Khazar Hypothesis is therefore not true, and it's not close.

The Rhineland Hypothesis might still fall to some other explanation, but Khazar ain't it.


Enough of my audience has some contact with fundamentalists that they may encounter folks who believe the Khazar Hypothesis, that is, the belief that Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern and Central Europe are not genetically descended from the Middle Eastern Jews of the Bible, but from a North Caucasus group called the Khazars, a Turkic people who came out of Central Asia and conquered many peoples in the regions of what are now Georgia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Russia up as far as Volgograd, forming a Khaganate in the 7th-9th C AD.  They converted to Judaism, or at least the ruling elite did.
With the fundamentalists of this sort that I have known or have read, the conversation can quickly go to assertions that the Jews of Israel (and New York) are therefore not the ”real” Jews, not the Chosen People, and we are therefore free to believe that they are deeply involved in the conspiracies of world domination and no friend to Christians. Old-line Christian fundamentalism did not have the pro-Israel stance that Evangelicals have today, but had deep suspicion or even hatred of Jews. This was strong among southern Baptists, and can be seen in the early comments from Jimmy Carter, talking about how Israel only prospers when it has turned itself over to God and should not be attempting to defend itself outside that context. (As a side note, I think that anti-Semitism is different in different parts of the country.  I should probably think about that and write it up.)

I am only giving an overview here, because I am no expert.  I am only able to give you such information as will reassure you that this is nonsense.  If you get into a protracted discussion with such people, you will need to be better armed with more detailed information.  I can put you in touch with that information quickly, BTW. With graphs and pictures!

It is fair to note that while most people who believe that those Jewish converts are the actual ancestors of modern Western Jews are anti-Semites and cranks, not all of them are.  The idea has a long, complicated history that has been embraced by some Jews and those sympathetic to their protection, and a few of the strongest voices in favor of the idea are legitimate scientists.  Now that the discussion has moved to genetic/genomic evidence rather than the hodge-podge of historical, linguistic, and speculative sources that kept the idea alive for centuries, however, the main researcher with any credentials and credibility who believes in the Khazar Hypothesis is Dr. Eran Elhaik of Johns Hopkins and those associated with him. Even he has modified his view to a more Turkic-Anatolian Hypothesis, though still related to the Khazars. In history, the Khazar Hypothesis has attracted some interesting thinkers.  But today, it is Elhaik and the linguist Wexler* versus everyone else in science.
The prevailing theory is the Rhineland Hypothesis, that Jewish traders in the Western Mediterranean intermarried with Southern European women, perhaps as specifically as Lombards in Northern Italy, and moved to the Rhineland in the 9-10th C to expand trading there.  There may have been some who came even earlier.  An initial population of about 500 eventually expanded to the millions in Eastern and Central Europe in the 20th C, concentrating at first in Lithuania and Poland. They did not tend to intermarry with any of the local populations; those who did left Judaism and joined the surrounding culture.  The Jews who later came to Western Europe and the Americas were drawn almost entirely from this group.

We now have the numbers, and subject to some variation, modern Ashkenazi are about 55% Middle Eastern, 35% Southern European, 10% Northern European, especially Slavic.  That is just about exactly what we would expect to support the Rhineland Hypothesis.  It gets more interesting.  The Y-chromosome haplotype groups are strongly Middle Eastern, while the female uniparental lines have strong elements of Southern European mtDNA.  Those also have lines common to Middle Eastern and Slavic lines.  This is not a picture of some Jewish guys who set out from the Levant, pick up some wives in Lombardy and head across the Alps.  Jewish traders had been in the Western Mediterranean for centuries, and might not have thought of themselves as “belonging to” a physical Israel that no longer existed.  But their DNA would still have been from Palestine.

It gets stranger still.  The priestly line of Cohens (Kahn, Cohn, Cohane) is inherited father to son, as is the Levitical line. (Levy, Levine). These lines are preserved not only through the last thousand years, but 2-3 times that long, as the priestly classes in Jews in Persia, Yemen, and Southern Africa have a strong concentration of the same Y-chromosomes - an R1a1 variant for the Levites, and a J1 variant that is even called the Cohen Modal Haplotype. Among the people who call themselves Cohens or Levites today, 50-70% have those lines.  Very few paternal irregularities there, even over thousands of years.  Pretty impressive. They did protect the role tightly. The R1a1 is relatively common over a wide area, but the J1-538 is not.  No Khazars.

There are other lines common among the Ashkenazi, such as E1b1b1, which are spread among many peoples. You might find some Khazars there, but there’s no specific indication of it. When they founded their kingdom in the North Caucasus they ruled over, and probably absorbed, Georgians, Armenians, Circassians, and other groups. Not all R1a1 lines are Levites, either, not by a long shot, and those lines today could come from any of a number of places in the region. Also, the Khazars must have gone somewhere, so why not Eastern Europe and Russia?  It’s an easier trip in many ways.  That has always been plausible, even though there is no record of it.  But now we have the data, and they do not seem to have done this.

Genetics and genomics are better for disproving hypotheses than for proving them.

Remembering our history that the Sephardic Jews came from those who were expelled from Spain and Portugal 500 years later, who mostly went to Morocco and the rest of Northern Africa, we would expect them to be genetically similar to Jews from the Western Mediterranean who married local women. In fact, they are. The Ashkenazi and Sephardi are more strongly related to the Druze and Palestinian lineages of today, less strongly to Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, and not at all to Central Asia. No one has ever suggested the Sephardis are connected to the Khazars. 
A note on Eran Elhaik’s choices in his research, which most others think is where he started to go wrong.  We can test the DNA of modern groups, but not historical ones.  Jews were settled all over the Roman Empire (and more), and those numbers increased after the fall of the Second Temple, but we don’t have their DNA. Nor do we know what the DNA of the Khazars was.  In both cases we have to use proxies, of populations now living who show some continuity back to those areas.  In the case of the Khazars, Dr Elhaik chose Armenians and Azerbaijanis as his proxies, largely because they are from that area.  As he also included the Jews from those areas as part of his typicals, that would artificially tilt the sample toward the Palestinian Jewish lines, but calling them Khazars to buttress the similarity with modern Ashkenazis. Yet we have already seen that even though the Khaganate was in the North Caucasus, the Khazars themselves were from Central Asia. Not a good match.  To try and match for Palestinian Jews of 2000 years ago he chose Bedouins and Hashemites, which are not terrible choices, but leave out others such as the Druze. 

*Wexler believes that Yiddish has a foundation that is closer to some Caucasian languages than to Germanic ones, though the German later became dominant.  He bases this on some verb structures.  It is beyond my knowledge, but I read that those differences also exist in Slavic, which is already known to have influenced Yiddish.  So Wexler's idea remains possible - it is not disproven - but it is also not compelling.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Election Strategy

Every presidential election, people spend the last month grousing "Is there any way I can vote for 'None of the above?'"  This time around, Joe Biden seems to be attempting that.

Every presidential election it is also said that we get the government we deserve. That is one of those cynical, semi-satisfying things that gets us through the night, a way to either lick our wounds or apologise for our support of some jerk.  Yet I don't think it is true.  Most people are quite decent and want only to be left alone and notified when there is a problem to fix that requires collective effort.  We are happy to farm that out - or would be, if we thought the people we are assigning that to were as well-meaning as we are.

But they aren't.  the people who like organising all their neighbors into ranks and files aren't quite the same as thee rest of us, and the problem intensifies the higher up the mountain we go.  Even the ones we like are not worthy of us.

I don't have a corrective. I'm just discouraged.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020


Looking for that Edward Villella Sword Dance I got deep into the Brigadoon videos on YouTube.  That was a mistake.  I have had "Waiting for my Dearie" running through my head the last few days.  It's not a good song. I had forgotten it these many years, even though it was Glenn Close singing it when I was in the chorus. And yes, she could hit those notes crystal clear.  Fabulous voice. I am hoping to exorcise it by putting it here.  Most likely I will just ruin the next week for all of you instead.

Listening to the various songs, I was impressed with how little the tunes were much reminiscent of anything Scottish, nor did they even have much Celtic undertone.  The lyrics used a lot of Scots dialect vocabulary, but the music was straight 1940's popular.  Even the lyrics, I suppose, could be seen as "Scots English filtered through American Musical Theater in both theme and sentiment," but it's at least something.

They had bagpipes.  There's that.

The other fun thing is that we always did bawdy parodies of any show's songs for the cast party, and had some people who were quite good at writing them.  So I have had "Jeannie's Shacking Up, Jeannie's Putting Out" in my head as well, trying to recapture those lyrics, dim in memory.

New Hampshire and C19

For those who wonder how NH, with an intelligently-run response system, can be doing so much worse than VT and ME in C19 deaths. Part of the answer is that many of NH's southern communities have a strong element of being suburbs of Boston, or of the two beltways around Boston.

Also, lots of us are jerks.

If you've driven it, or want to go look up the road system, you can see the main highways from MA to NH:  3, 93, and 95. It has been a large part of our prosperity these last forty years, but it does come at a cost.

About Those Nooses

I don't think they are all a myth or a fake hate crime.  I think some of them are real.  I last saw one myself in 2006 on a social worker's car where I work. (Be careful Grim, she lives next to the French Broad River a few miles south of the airport in Hendersonville now.)

Have I Got this Right?

Most people don't get that bent out of shape because someone says something they don't like.  None of us are happy to hear infuriating things, but we don't tend to do anything about it except grouse.  We don't go downtown with signs, we don't get up petitions.  Actions, on the other hand, can bring forth actions from a lot more people.  A grim death at the hands of the police gets a lot more people moving.

Yet as soon as this starts happening, the word-people try to take it over, trying to gin up rage over words.  Because people are already angry at that point, they have a fair bit of success with this, and victims get intimidated or fired. There is a subset of us who live in the land of words, and even worse, in the land of social media words, and for them life and death really do reside there.  Reputations are made and lost on the slimmest of evidence: a belt that is a touch too wide, an author that is no longer on the approved list, a phrase that is sooo 2019. Very Screwtape, really. They will eventually be eaten, but until then they still hope to make food out of others.

The job of the rest of us is to not be distracted by their sad, panicked existence.  Silence is not violence.  Silence is the glue that keeps society together in the face of minor irritations.  We should be slower to anger, reserving our force for those situations where it is truly required.

Everything Has Been Predicted

I listened to a podcast this morning in which a scientist - one who believes he is speaking within his field but actually isn't - predicts that a coronavirus second wave with be ramping up shortly, by the end of July, which will be 5-10 times worse than the first run, and will result in the deaths of up to 3 million Americans.  He claims that this is because we didn't shut down early enough in March, and that Trump and Fox News have systematically misled us, and Trump should be tried for crimes against humanity, Nurenberg style. He was still going, but I turned it off, so I don't know the rest of it. Maybe he eventually got around to mentioning China, but somehow I doubt it.

That could be, I suppose.  My reading of the numbers has been more encouraging. The deaths per day have continued to slowly decline.  The places that have sudden crises are spread apart, reducing the possibility of overload.  We do have more equipment.  We know more about what is very dangerous and not-very-dangerous. Yet I know nothing about epidemics and second waves, so it's best not to breathe a sigh of relief on the basis of my assessment. A second wave might be coming, and it might be terrible.

What occurred to me while shaking my head during the rest of my commute is that just about everything has been predicted at this point, so many people are going to be right just by accident even if they are jerks, and some good and well-meaning people will be wrong.  As always, really. There has been a lot of crowing about how the experts were wrong and good free Americans will never listen to them again, but of course the experts they are choosing to reject are as carefully selected as the other experts they choose to believe.  It has all been a very discouraging display of confirmation bias all around.

Slate Star Codex Is Gone

I first mentioned SSC for his article on how it is that in an online extremist world, reasonable people trying to promote their cause get overwhelmed by nutcases.  I have linked to him and referenced him many times.  I have called that essay "The Toxoplasma of Rage" the best essay of the 21st C.  Steve Sailer called him the greatest public intellectual to emerge in the 2010's. You can find my store of references to him here.

But now Slate Star Codex is dead, because the NYTimes is going to doxx him, to reveal his full name and how to find him, which is always a danger for a public psychiatrist. This includes not only the danger of people trying to get him shamed and fired in cancel culture, but actual physical violence.

Monday, June 22, 2020


When my oldest son was in his early teens, he used to help out when Tracy and I would take our turn in church nursery. He would tell stories off-the-cuff to the 3-4 year-olds, and I would notice over my shoulder how long he could hold them in rapt attention.  I mentioned once that he must have a real gift for extemporaneous storytelling and should start to hone the craft. He smiled and shook his head. "It's pretty simple really.  You just get a princess in there and a dragon, or maybe a sword, and a knight and a horse and you can go ten minutes without anything but some exciting action and some dramatic sayings and they just love it."

Something like this is at the heart of Tolkien's Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. A serious scholar and translator of the work himself, he was nonetheless frustrated with what other scholars focused on, examining the transition from paganism to Christianity, noticing the syntax and vocabulary, or speculating on the oral-formulaic structure of verses. He commented on all of those things himself in other places, but he took pains to stress what had made the poem popular to begin with, and what continued its popularity.  It has great monsters. With monsters, of course, go warriors and heroes. It's no good if the monsters aren't very terrible.  No one goes for a second listening if the heroes aren't amazingly heroic.

Relatedly, I remember being irritated and insulted when I learned that a maker of horror films was going to be directing Lord of the Rings. I felt something precious in literature was being tainted.  Note, this was long after I had read Tolkien's 1936 essay. I must not have absorbed the proper sentiment from it, not down to the bone, anyway. Monsters are the story in LOTR.  Very good monsters, too, of great variety and subtlety.

There is something very similar in CS Lewis's address to scholars of Shakespeare when he discusses the popularity of Hamlet, year upon year, even though critics keep finding things wrong with it. He begins with a humility which I think is more than half-sincere, as he was always careful to note where his areas of expertise were and weren't.  Yet I think he is also having some fun at their expense.  He was, after all, the sole author of the Oxford History of English Literature volume English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama). He might be expected to have a little thought or two about Shakespeare. Just an off chance. He notes the state of criticism in 1942 seems agreed that Hamlet is very important, but when pressed to describe why it is important, the critics are are in entire disagreement, and each of them is at pains to show that whatever it was that Shakespeare did, he didn't do it very well.  It is important for character development, but then they say Hamlet doesn't much develop. They declare Will is at the height of his poetic strength but find fault with scene after scene.  Lewis, I think very much echoing Tolkien, offers a simpler explanation:  It's a whopping good story. It begins with the ghost of a man's father appearing to him and laying a heavy charge on him. Murder is planned, there is eavesdropping on royalty, a beautiful woman dies tragically.  It starts off with a friggin' ghost!  Why are people getting lost in the weeds of nuance? Princess! Swords! Monsters!

In parallel, I was at school in the era when all literature of a previous era had to be interpreted psychosexually.  Womb imagery, Oedipal desires, and phallic symbols were found in the most unlikely places. Swords were, predictably, one of the highest rated phallic symbols.  My younger brother, also studying literature at the time (he stayed with it, I did not) noted with a smirk and a shake of the head. "Yes, it could be a phallic symbol.  But I think they mostly used it because it was a pretty good weapon."

The Heir To The Throne

Just a summary reminder in reading European history. (It probably works for all history.) Something you likely knew, but bears repeating because it is a different understanding than in our own day.

Medieval succession was not as formalized as it is with European monarchs in more recent times. It was not enough to have the most direct claim on paper parchment of right to rule.  Anyone hoping to become king had to have some sort of claim.  But there were many complicating factors, and any vulnerability would activate others who also had a claim of some sort. In the imagination of moderns, there would be one rightful monarch according to the rules, and all others are perceived as cheating in some way, trying to cut in line.  The use of the word “pretender” illustrates this.  To us, it means a fake. In its time, it meant any claimant to an office who did not hold it.

If a respected king with a reign of some years died with a legitimate male heir who was of age, especially if he had shown some competence on his own, his claim would be difficult to dislodge, especially if he moved fast to either take over the treasury or get himself crowned.  Speed sometimes mattered, and potential monarchs who were away warring for other interests sometimes had to choose what mattered more. Much could go wrong, even with the strongest claims.  Legitimacy was less important in earlier centuries but was always a plus.  Female monarchs were rare.  Heirs who were still children might hold the throne under a regency, but in that instance an uncle, cousin, or brother-in-law might attempt to step in on his own.  If we think of this as underhanded and unfair, it is worth remembering that this was always in the context of manipulative or warlike neighbors who might be able to take over the whole country if it did not have competent leadership.  As that neighbor often had some claim of his own to part of the territory or the throne itself, the potential attacker might have ready allies within the kingdom already.

If you or one of your parents originally came from another kingdom, or even worse, spoke a different language, there might be enough popular sentiment against you that a younger half-bother, or another grandchild of a previous monarch would be preferred by many barons, dukes, and counts whose opinions mattered. 
It was a relief when there was an orderly succession, but there was also some comfort in miserable times in dreaming of the rightful heir who might come across the water or over the mountain to be restored to his throne and bring just rule.  The stories of various tasks and signs by which one might know the rightful king grow out of the misery of warfare when there was a problem of succession.

 The stories of a prince who had accomplished some great quest being granted the hand of the princess and half the kingdom were likewise deeply satisfying to all stations of life, as it meant they had some hope of peace and competent government in the coming years. To those who had seen otherwise, it would still the nighttime fears of both adult and child.