Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Free at Last!

Ever since I was old enough to vote, I've voted Republican. Not because I have any deep love for Republicans, but because the Democrats are so wedded to abortion as a platform necessity that my conscience doesn't allow me to vote for them. When I've said, in the past, "I vote Republican," I meant, "I vote pro-life."

But thanks to Trump virtually clinching the nomination by winning Indiana, I'm freed from the tyranny of the party. I don't have to identify as a Republican anymore. When someone asks me if I'm a Democrat or a Republican, I can say neither! And for the first time, I can vote for someone I like for president. Who gets my write-in vote? Which person do I actually think would be best suited to run the country? It's almost overwhelming.

Free, free, I'm free at last.


Monday, May 02, 2016

You Will Stretch Out Your Hands

"Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”  John 21:18

I am not master of my own destiny, but I have a lot of agency, at this time in my life. I make decisions for many people, including myself. I tell this one go, and she goes, etc. I am wealthy in many ways: health, family, friends, secure housing, and actual money.

And we all know how hard it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of heaven. I get to act in a lot of ways that preserve my external, worldly dignity. I can drive myself around, I can speak for myself, I can eat what I will, when I will. Sure, I depend on other people, but not in ways that damage my image or my dignity.

But the path to salvation lays in stretching out my hands and being led where I do not want to go. Many people experience that overtly, here on earth, in tangible and uncomfortable ways. Some people do not have any control over their housing. Some have no control over their mobility. Some have no choice in what they eat or wear. And sometimes I am the one making these choices for other people: for my children, for my family, for friends who depend on me. And it's incumbent on me to remember that one day I'll likely be in the same position, being led where I do not want to go, and my experience of being treated with dignity may lie with other people.

But it's not a matter of tit for tat. Even if I dropped dead tomorrow, and so never suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, my role on earth is to treat others with dignity, whether I'm leading or being led. Often, leading others is itself a form of being led where you do not want to go, when the leading is difficult or involves sacrifice.

And in the end, we're all being led where we don't want to go by Jesus Himself, because he's leading us to holiness, and if it were easy to get there ourselves, we'd already be holy.

The Sacramental Life

As MrsDarwin mentioned, the last few weeks have been packed with events in the Darwin household, and several of those events have been sacramental. Eleanor, our eldest, had her confirmation the weekend before last, and Jack, received his first communion... well, it's a bit of a story.

Originally the Confirmation was set to be the week before the First Communion, meaning that my family (traveling out from the West Coast) could only make one. They'd decided to come for Jack's First Communion, since my brother is Jack's godfather. But we got mixed up in communicating the already confusing scheduling and had the family schedule to fly out for the Confirmation weekend rather than the First Communion weekend.

A brief panic ensued when we realized this, since everyone had already bought plane tickets. Then we went and secured permission from out pastor to allow Jack to quietly receive his first communion a week early, thus allowing family to be present for both events (but resulting in a packed, whirlwind weekend with lots of events and a house full of good company, not just my family but also old friends who were visiting for Eleanor's confirmation as the husband was her confirmation sponsor.) The mass at which Eleanor and the other eighth graders were confirmed by the bishop was at 1:30 on Saturday. Then we went home briefly, collected those for whom there had not been room at the packed confirmation mass, and returned for the 4:30 vigil mass for Jack to make his first communion.

It was as I was sitting in the pew before that vigil mass, trying to put aside the worries related to getting eighteen people to the mass in creditable condition and feeding nearly thirty refreshments back at the house afterwards and to focus instead on the sacrifice of the mass in which we were about to participate, that I wondered if we were somehow shortchanging both children. Often a first communion is built up into an royalty-for-a-day kind of event, with the boys in their suits and the girls in their white dresses and veils. Family heirlooms are bestowed on the children. Presents are given. Parties are thrown. The importance of the sacrament itself is underlined by all the trappings of Big Event which are arrayed around it.

The fact that we were focused on housing and feeding and transporting so many people had made it impossible to provide the kind of overwhelming "this is your day" focus which sometimes comes with parish celebrations of first communions or confirmations. Jack was sitting next to me, solemn in his suit, but earlier in the day he'd been just one of the kids tearing around while we got Eleanor ready for confirmation. And Eleanor -- changed out of her pretty confirmation dress into a blouse, slacks and cowboy boots ensemble of the sort that she prefers -- was it fair that as soon as her confirmation was over we were rushing to get ready for the next event, or would she feel that her confirmation had been forgotten in the bustle? In a sense it was a relief to be able to bring Jack up for his reception of the Holy Eucharist without that pageantry of several dozen children dressed up for their big day, but was it a bit shabby that this was happening so quietly that Jack would be receiving his first communion from someone who didn't even know it was his first time?

But then, perhaps it's the trappings of Big Event which sometimes obscure the nature of the sacrament. What, after all, is First Communion other than receiving communion for the first time. The suits and white dresses, the procession, the children lectoring and bringing up the gifts -- none of these are actually what is being celebrated. Rather, these are intended to underscore the importance of what is happening: these boys and girls are receiving the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist for the first time.

It's good that we surround that first reception with such pomp. It's an important thing. Too often, these days, receiving communion is treated as just something everyone does when they go to mass, not something which requires serious thought or preparation.

Both approaches have their rationales, their advantages, but in this case, after all the hurry and the fuss, the mass and the reception of the sacrament itself would be exactly as it would be the next Sunday, and the one after, and the one after that. Sacraments and the graces they bestow are not found only in the big events which serve as milestones in our lives, but in the quiet participation every week, or every day, in the life of the Church.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Trump Is No Champion of Western Civilization

An argument is haunting American conservatism, the argument that Donald Trump is the defender of Western Civilization.

This is an attempt to draw conservatives initially turned off by Trump's bullying, his dishonesty, his crassness into the Trump-supporter camp. Western Civilization and Christianity is under attack, goes the argument, by the forces of leftism and political correctness. Only Trump is willing to fight those people, and thus even if he's unsavory in some sense those who support Christianity and Western Culture must rally behind him.

One example of this argument may be found in this Mercatornet piece which asks "Is Trump the New Constantine?":
Christians are unable to speak freely. Religious freedom is under attack. Society is materialistic and immoral. Western civilisation is facing huge threats, from within and without. And apparently the one powerful emerging leader is no saint.

You’re thinking America 2016? No. Rome 312.

The leader is Constantine, who is vying to become the Roman Emperor. Constantine had many defects: he had multiple wives and even put one of them to death, was extremely ambitious, and was a ruthless general and politician. But the legend remains that he had a “Road to Damascus” moment, saw a vision, converted to Christianity, triumphed over his opponents, and became a great emperor of Rome.

Constantine would go on to not only save the Roman Empire, but also liberate Christianity. He signed the Edict of Milan in 313, giving Christians the right to practice their faith and speak freely. This was enough to allow Christians to engage in the public sphere with freedom, thereby enabling them to spread the Christian message to the ends of the empire and Christianise a pagan culture.

Constantine himself was no pillar of virtue, but he created the environment which gave Christians the freedom to influence society. The early Christians were perfectly capable of influencing society themselves; all they needed from the emperor was the freedom to do so.

Fast forward to 2016, and we can see many obvious similarities. Western society has many problems. Conservative Christians have the solutions to many of those problems, but cannot articulate them freely in the public square due to endemic political correctness and cultural Marxism.

Conservatives do not lack will, good arguments, or articulate defenders; what they lack is the freedom to speak bluntly about social issues without being shouted down by the vindictive hordes of secular progressivism for “offending” particular groups of people. Donald Trump is the only person who can give us that freedom.

But first, consider the following:

  • Stating that children should ideally have a mother and father because on average they will do best in that environment (as supported overwhelmingly by the relevant social science) renders you “homophobic” (even though the statement has nothing to do homosexuality) and a “hater of single mothers”;
  • Explaining that there is actually a biological and societal reason that marriage has been promoted and protected as between a man and a woman for millennia (hint: it's about children) makes you “bigoted”;
  • Arguing that the high divorce rate hurts children, and that no-fault divorce is responsible for many social problems, makes you “living in the 1950s” and a “dinosaur” (even though the social data on the effects of divorce is indisputable and President Obama himself has said as much);
  • Affirming the biological fact that men and women are inherently different makes you “transphobic” (something that no one knew existed just a few years ago);
  • Pointing out that babies do not simply magically appear out of nothing after nine months, and may in fact have a right to life and dignity before birth, makes you an extremist (just because) and a sexist (even though this statement says nothing about women).

There are many more examples. The point is that making perfectly reasonable statements causes so much outrage that conservatives either give up or end up losing credibility and becoming impotent in influencing public opinion. Arguments are not considered on their merits but rather assessed based on the extent to which they offend particular groups of people. This makes the conservative Christian cause in the public sphere ultimately hopeless.

And this is where Trump comes in.

American doesn’t need a president to make arguments for us. America just needs a president to give us the freedom to make our arguments without fear of being shouted down by the politically correct brigade.
Of course, this gets the history of Christianity's relationship with Constantine backwards.  Christianity did not settle upon Constantine as a strongman likely to help its cause in the Roman Empire and then push him forward in hopes that despite his not being Christian or particularly virtuous he would manage to help Christianity out. Rather, appreciation for Constantine was backward-looking. Once he became emperor, ended the persecution of Christianity, and began to promote the Christian cause within the empire, Christians warmed to him. But set that aside for the moment.

Another variation on this argument comes in a self-indulgently wandering piece in The Federalist by Mytheos Holt setting out "The Intellectual Case for Trump", where he argues that white nationalist support for Trump should not be seen as a turn off, because white nationalists actually have a point about Trump protecting the Western tradition from attack.
This brings me to the first and, arguably, the most important lesson that Sylvia taught me about what drives people into the arms of white nationalism: that urge comes not from economic dispossession, nor spiritual dispossession, but cultural dispossession.
...
That heritage, as white nationalists in America see it, is the heritage of Western civilization. If you wonder what that means (which is reasonable), let me spell it out: It means historically Western European cultural norms. Specifically, norms like respect for agents of the law, aspirational pride in work, willingness to accept the consequences of one’s actions, disdain for laziness and welfarism, and reproductive responsibility (i.e., not having children you can’t afford to keep).
...
Moreover, and this cannot be stated enough: these people genuinely believe that to be proud of the history of Western European accomplishment, and one’s own descent from the people responsible, is taboo in modern America. If you look at what cultural studies departments, much of modern media, left-wing college students, and the crazy wing of the Democratic Party says, this is probably at least partially accurate. Unfortunately, however, it’s not just leftists who are responsible for the rise of white nationalism in communities like Sylvia’s. We conservatives bear some blame too, though in this case, largely because of misunderstandings of how our own behavior is perceived.

Moreover, and this cannot be stated enough: these people genuinely believe that to be proud of the history of Western European accomplishment, and one’s own descent from the people responsible, is taboo in modern America. If you look at what cultural studies departments, much of modern media, left-wing college students, and the crazy wing of the Democratic Party says, this is probably at least partially accurate. Unfortunately, however, it’s not just leftists who are responsible for the rise of white nationalism in communities like Sylvia’s. We conservatives bear some blame too, though in this case, largely because of misunderstandings of how our own behavior is perceived.

The biggest problem we have is that many conservatives are, understandably, reluctant to engage with the sort of leftist, victim-culture-spouting loons who regard Western civilization as unrepentantly evil. This is not because we have no good arguments against them; we do. But to argue with them, we think, makes them look more serious and relevant than they are. If you live in the rarefied world of Washington policy debates, this approach probably makes sense and even seems obvious.

But if you’re a blue-collar worker in Appalachia being screamed at by leftist protesters that you have “white privilege” and all you hear from the official Right is stony silence, you come to a wildly different conclusion: you assume conservatives are either ashamed to express our disagreement, or don’t disagree.

Add to this the fact that so much of the official Right’s response to left-wing attacks about diversity involves not denying their premise, but instead pointing to how many token members of each ethnic group are Republicans, or the fact that we’ll throw accusations like “racist” around over issues like immigration, and it gets harder and harder for otherwise conservative people to deny the idea that “conservatism” doesn’t want to conserve them, or the Western values and norms that made conservatism and constitutionalism possible, at all. The only people who do seem to want to man those barricades, from their perspective, are white nationalists.

This is not ground we should be ceding to extremists. Yet, so far, only one candidate has refused to do such a thing: Donald Trump.

Trump, whatever else he might be, is unabashedly pro-Western. What’s more, he understands the essentially cultural and even spiritual nature of the vacuum white nationalism fills. Unlike so many so-called “reformocons,” who wax poetic about the need to empathize with blue-collar workers’ economic concerns, yet are only willing to throw “family-friendly” tax credits at them like table scraps to starving dogs, Trump understands that however besieged people like Sylvia feel by economic woes, they feel even more besieged by attacks on their pride and dignity.

Unlike the white nationalists, Trump has defended that pride and dignity without once mentioning race, but instead with reference to the historical reality and promise of uniquely American greatness. His pitch is nationalist, yes, but it is not racist, and so immediately understandable that you can even put it on a baseball cap.

In fact, Trump, and Trump alone, has been willing to say what should have been obvious from the start: that the universalism and Whig historical pretensions of Kemp-and-W-style “bleeding heart conservatism” are dangerous distractions if they leave the American people as wounded prey for anti-American, extremist bottom feeders.

His image of a man fighting for America and its allies, and only them is a long-overdue return to form for a GOP long since captured by delusions of immanentizing the eschaton at the point of a gun. Those delusions have to stop, and Trump has to be allowed to punch through them.
There are several problems with this line of thinking, and I think it's important to be clear on them.

Perhaps the most basic error is to simplify a multi-front cultural conflict into a simplistic struggle between two sides. In this vision, if various forces associated with the left (the LGBT agenda, radical feminism, secularism, the sexual revolution, moral and cultural relativism, and the "political correctness" which is used to enforce all of these) are against some Christian beliefs and elements of the Western cultural heritage, and if those same forces of the left are also offended by the antics of someone like Trump, that he must therefore be a defender of Christianity and the West. However, it's necessary to ask not merely what Trump is against, but what he is for.

What is Trump for? A concept of ruling which ignores questions of right to focus solely on strength:
What were your other impressions of the Soviet Union?
I was very unimpressed. Their system is a disaster. What you will see there soon is a revolution; the signs are all there with the demonstrations and picketing. Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That's my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.

You mean firm hand as in China?
When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak ... as being spit on by the rest of the world--

...

The bomb Harry Truman dropped on Hiroshima was a toy next to today's. We have thousands of weapons pointed at us and nobody even knows if they're going to go in the right direction. They've never really been tested. These jerks in charge don't know how to paint a wall, and we’re relying on them to shoot nuclear missiles to Moscow. What happens if they don't go there? What happens if our computer systems aren't working? Nobody knows if this equipment works, and I've seen numerous reports lately stating that the probability is they don't work. It's a total mess.

And how would President Trump handle it?
He would believe very strongly in extreme military strength. He wouldn’t trust anyone. He wouldn't trust the Russians; he wouldn't trust our allies; he’d have a huge military arsenal, perfect it, understand it. Part of the problem is that we're defending some of the wealthiest countries in the world for nothing. . . . We're being laughed at around the world, defending Japan--

Trump is for an utter crassness in culture. (Link not safe for work.) His morals may be no worse than the Borgias, but his taste is almost infinitely so.

And in religion... Well, this is the guy who, when pressed, said that his favorite passage from the bible was "an eye for an eye". How does Trump think about religious leaders? Here's a key example from the same interview in which he praised the Chinese government for massacring the protesters in Tiananmen Square:
How large a role does pure ego play in your deal making and enjoyment of publicity?
Every successful person has a very large ego.

Every successful person? Mother Teresa? Jesus Christ?
Far greater egos than you will ever understand.

And the Pope? [that would have been Pope John Paul II]
Absolutely. Nothing wrong with ego. People need ego, whole nations need ego. I think our country needs more ego, because it is being ripped off so badly by our so-called allies; i.e., Japan, West Germany, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, etc. They have literally outegotized this country, because they rule the greatest money machine ever assembled and it's sitting on our backs.

Trump cannot be a protector or champion of Christianity or Western Civilization because he is one of the people degrading and neglecting Christianity and Western Civilization. Electing him might annoy feminists, but feminism is not wrong to object to men calling women they don't like "ugly" or "pigs". Not is feminism wrong to object to ideas of beauty and sexuality which lead to a photo shoot of one's wife lying naked on a fur while handcuffed to a suitcase full of jewelry. Feminism is wrong when it asserts that abortion is necessary for women's equality and liberation or when it asserts that marriage and childbearing represent sources of cultural repression rather than being some of the key purposes of human culture. But Trump is not going after these errors of feminism, nor will he, because it's unclear that he even disagrees with feminism on these points.

It's claimed that Trump will protect American institutions and culture by stemming a flood of immigrants. But does Trump have any understanding of what it is in American culture and government that is worth protecting, other than the relative whiteness of its current inhabitants compared to those coming from Mexico and South America? His rhetoric and policies would be far more at home in Peron's Argentina or Chavez's Venezuela than in our own republic. Trump offers the doubly depressing prospect of excluding Latin America's people while importing some of its worst tendencies of government.

Does Trump support (or even understand) the principles of American constitutional republicanism? Of limited government? Does he support the cultural and moral ideas that make Western Culture something worth maintaining? No. At best he represents a crass "up with us, down with them" approach to attacking perceived enemies, without and within, while promising to funnel jobs and money to "real Americans". He cannot make America great again because he does not even know what made and makes America great.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Darwiniana

Forgive us the radio silence here. This past weekend saw a houseful of visitors and two sacramental celebrations: Confirmation for Eleanor, and First Communion for Jack. These two grand events were not originally scheduled for the same weekend. Jack's religion class is making first communion this weekend, and we'll have a party just for him on Saturday. But there's no better explication of my character than the fact that when my mother-in-law wanted to fly out to attend the first communion ceremony, I accidentally gave her the date for the confirmation, because they were on two successive Saturdays at the same time and I wrote them down wrong on the calendar. But Jack made his first communion a week early, and Grandma was able to attend both sacraments, and it worked itself out fine.

***

I do not know the solution for the problem that it seems obligatory for capstone events to be wedged into the end of the school year. Everything for which people have been preparing happens within a space of four weeks: sacraments, dance recital, piano recital, school play. I found myself calculating whether we could get away with just ending the school year now, only to remember that it's just mid-April.

***

We're doing testing this year. This is the first time -- not because I'm opposed to testing, but because we just haven't. In early June the four oldest will be taking the Woodcock-Johnson tests. These are supposed to test a variety of cognitive abilities, not mastery of particular subject material, so the best way to prepare is what I guess we're already doing -- working on math skills and cognition, analyzing literature and building vocabulary, etc. One reason I've been leery of testing is the very reason we probably ought to have been doing it all this time -- I fear that I'll learn that I haven't taught them anything, in the final analysis. I guess we'll find out! The kids don't seem to care one way or the other, so I'm glad we don't have any anxiety issues here.

***

Trying to read more lately, despite all the craziness. Interlibrary loan has been my friend, delivering to me three volumes this past week.

Without Prejudice, by Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt. An autobiography written two years after the 1934 custody battle that riveted the nation, in which Vanderbilt and her sister-in-law, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, fought for custody of 10-year-old Gloria Vanderbilt (later to found her own fashion line and become the mother of Anderson Cooper, the CNN anchor). One isn't entirely sure how far to take Mrs. Vanderbilt's assessment of her life experiences, but the book is written in a lush and fascinating style that sets it above most recent autobiographies.

Ghosts Along the Mississippi, by Clarence John Laughlin. Chockful of gorgeous black-and-white photos of great plantation houses in Louisiana, most of them in the final, irreparable stages of decay. The prose is as purple as the buildings. Included are some fascinating full-sized photos of Belle Grove, the house that served as my model for Stillwater.

Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain. I can't get to Europe right now, but Twain is taking me along on his own trip. Occasionally I wish he would turn off the acerbity, but in general he's a valuable tour guide.

***

But never let it be said that I don't school my kids in the classics. Today's adventure in culture:

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Sanders is Rich, but Not a Tax Hypocrite

Bernie Sanders, who has been doing just well enough in the Democratic Party primary contest to keep up the hopes of young progressives, but not well enough to actually have much of any chance of winning the nomination, just bowed to pressure and released his 2014 tax return for public scrutiny. Sanders and his wife turn out to have made a combined $205,617 in gross income in 2014 (a combination of his pay as a senator and their social security payments as retirement-age Americans) which puts them within the top 5% in the US by income. However, it also makes Sanders a lot lower income than his fellow president contenders. Hillary Clinton made $28,336,212 in 2014. Ted Cruz made $1,210,382. Donald Trump claims that he can't release this tax returns because he's audited every year by the IRS due to his deep Christian faith, but he'd like us nonetheless to believe that his income is yuuuuge.

Nonetheless, Sanders has caught a certain amount of criticism for his tax return, in part because on those $205,617 in gross earnings he paid a total of $27,653 in taxes, an effective tax rate of 13%. I've seen a number of people on social media claiming that this makes Sanders a hypocrite, since he advocates an increase in the tax rate table which would put the top marginal rate (for those making over $10 million) at 52%. If Sanders thinks that it's obligatory to pay a higher tax rate than the current one, so the argument goes, why doesn't he pay one now?

I think this is actually a pretty poor argument for two reasons.

First, it fails to account for Sanders' actual proposal. He would keep tax rates the same as they are now for those making less than $250,000 per year (a group which includes him) but increase rates on those making more. Now, there's a lot to criticize about this proposal as well: That he only wants to increase taxes on those making more than himself, that the increase is not in fact nearly enough to pay for the additional programs he promises, that the increased rates would not actually be good for our economy. But one thing that can't be claimed is that he's paying less now than he would under the rates in his proposal.

However, even setting this aside, I think that argument is a bad one. The reason why people propose tax increases is not generally that they believe it is immoral in and of itself to pay less than a given tax rate. Rather, the argument that it's morally necessary to have higher taxes is generally something like this: There is a strong moral reason for the government to provide the following program. Providing this program would require more tax revenues than are currently collected. This means that we must support raising taxes in order to provide this program.

The IRS does not really make any kind of provision for people paying higher taxes than the rates would indicate, but even were Sanders to pull this off somehow, if his object is that new government programs be provided for, paying higher taxes voluntarily would not actually achieve his objective.

This is not to say that Sanders' taxes leave him above reproach. I think they do point to certain contradictions in his behavior, but failure to voluntarily pay extra taxes is not one of them.

What does strike me about Sanders taxes is that they are very ordinary for an upper middle class couple. The Sanders made $205,617 in 2014. They took $56,377 in itemized deductions and the standard exemption for a couple with no children at home ($7,900.) That $56,377 in deductions breaks down in the following fashion:

$22,946 in mortgage interest deduction
$9,666 in state/local income taxes
$14,843 in real estate taxes
$8,350 in charitable donations
$4,473 in unreimbursed business expenses
$204 in tax preparation fees

A couple things jump out to me here.

The Sanders' charitable donations constitute a fairly low percentage of their gross income at about 4%. This may be typical of many Americans (rich and otherwise) but from someone who is supposed to have such a deep concern about the poor and such a suspicion of wealth, you might expect to see more giving to those in need from someone who is, while not as rich as his opponents, still within the top 5% of Americans in terms of income.

Their mortgage interest deduction is also pretty large. For comparison, our mortgage interest deduction was just over $10,000, and that's on a house costing just under $300,000 which we bought only five years ago with only about 10% down payment. (In other words, with a thirty year mortgage, interest is still a large percentage of our payment each month.) That Sanders' mortgage interest deduction is over twice that suggest that he has a fairly expensive house, especially since he is in his 70s and probably didn't buy his house as recently or with as small a down payment. If I had to guess, he must have real estate totally a good $750k to a million in value.

Both of these things would be very normal in an upper middle class striver, the sort of person one might envision being a loyal Republican. However, the combination of expensive houses and comparatively little charitable giving seems an odd profile so someone whose life is supposedly focused around seeking justice for the poor while decrying the lifestyles of the rich. Sanders may not be a rich as a hedge fund trader, but he's definitely rich compared to the average American. Median household income in the US is about $52,000 or about one fourth the income of Bernie Sanders. In general, people consider those who make four times what they do to be rich.

One might reasonably expect someone of Sanders' convictions to have lived more simply and donated much more of his money to those in need. That, I think, is a reasonable area of critique, whereas his failure to pay extra taxes is not.

Friday, April 15, 2016

A Price and Demand Problem: .22 Ammo

I'd promised our oldest son (seven years old and eager for the manly arts) that I'd take him to the shooting range this weekend and teach him to shoot my .22 pistol and my dad's old .22 rifle. To make this possible, I stopped at a sporting goods store on the way home from work to pick up some .22 ammunition and found myself in for a surprise. Half the slots on the shelf which should have been full of .22 ammunition were empty, and the stuff that was there was mostly unfamiliar European brands at fairly high prices.

I did pick some up, some British-made rounds priced at $11.99 per box of 50, because I wasn't going to let the boy (or myself) down on the promise of range time this weekend. But it did have me wondering, since this is about 5x the price that I used to pay. Other types of ammunition were not nearly so expensive. There were big endcap displays at the same store of 9mm pistol ammunition for the same price of $11.99 per 50rd box, and boxes of .223 rifle ammunition were only a dollar or two more for similar amounts. This is distinctly odd, because it takes a lot more of the materials which make ammunition expensive (the brass of the casing and the lead and copper of the bullet) to make these larger rounds than it does to make the diminutive .22LR. Indeed, it's precisely because the .22 has traditionally been a very cheap type of ammunition that .22 rimfire guns are so popular as practice weapons. The advice which new shooters are always given, the advice I myself have given people, is: If you want to do a lot of shooting and get good, think about getting a .22 first. You don't want to be paying centerfire prices while you learn to shoot.

The .22LR is much smaller than the 9mm pistol (left) or .223 (5.56 NATO) rifle rounds and thus uses fewer materials.

So if .22 cartridges ought to be cheaper to make, why is it that they're selling for the same price as these larger calibers?

I did a little research once I got home and found an interesting story of unit cost versus capital investment. A piece in American Rifleman explains the quandary of ammunition manufacturers which has apparently resulted in a multi-year shortage of .22 ammunition (which I hadn't noticed because I don't go shooting often and had been working through a large box of .22 ammo which I bought years ago.)

Demand for .22 ammunition has been up in the US since 2008, as well as demand for all other types of ammunition and for guns themselves. Why? When President Obama was elected, there was a panic of sorts among gun enthusiasts that the new administration and the Democratic congress would institute tough new gun control. The result was a massive surge in gun buying and ammunition buying. In addition to people buying guns sooner than later (and going shooting more often during the first few years of owning a new gun) when people saw the price of ammunition skyrocketing due to increased demand, shooters responded by stocking up on ammunition, thus creating a self-feeding cycle in which heavy buying caused shortages, shortages caused high prices, and high prices and shortages caused people to buy more for fear that it would be even more expensive and hard to find later.

With larger centerfire calibers of ammunition, ammunition manufacturers responded to this increased demand by manufacturing more ammunition, and so after some initial bursts high pricing and shortages (and other disruptions when the government buys up large quantities of military and law enforcement calibers -- it was, for instance, really hard to get 7.62x39 ammo during the years the government was buying millions of rounds to supply to the new Iraqi army in 2003-2005.) However, .22 production is apparently maxed out, and it's much harder to add new lines.

For non-gun nuts, a little bit of firearms history is in order. The rimfire cartridge design is actually the older of the cartridge designs, dating back to the mid-1800s. Highly explosive primer, which will explode when struck, is placed inside the rim of a brass cartridge. The cartridge is then filled with gun powder and the bullet seated on top. When the firing pin of the rifle or pistol strides the rim of the cartridge, the impact ignites the primer, which in turn ignites the gun powder, and the expanding gases produced by the burning gun powder provide the pressure to propel the bullet down the barrel of the gun.

In a centerfire cartridge, the primer is instead in a self contained priming cap which is inserted into a hole in the base of the brass cartridge. See below:


Putting together a centerfire cartridge is pretty easy. In fact, many serious shooters hand assemble cartridges themselves from parts using home reloading equipment. However, it turns out the rimfire design is much more difficult and somewhat more dangerous to manufacture. From the American Rifleman post:
The reason why ammunition manufacturers can increase capacity on center-fire cartridges is because that machinery is fairly inexpensive (compared to rimfire machinery) in the big scheme of things. A guy with a couple of Dillons in his garage and some time on his hands can be a center-fire ammo maker if he can get components—especially primers. And, the big guys can make center-fire primers or buy them from other makers more easily than one can prime rimfire brass.

Expanding rimfire production, not so much. A rimfire ammunition plant requires a priming area that is something that has not been newly fabricated in the United States probably for 40 years. Of course, the big American ammunition makers have updated theirs, but they have not added any brand-new facilities at new locations (Winchester did move its rimfire plant from Illinois to Mississippi). It is the priming operation of rimfire ammunition manufacture that takes the large amount of production time.

Frankly, it's not easy and there are numerous safeguards in place because this is a fairly dangerous manufacturing operation trying to squeegee the wet priming compound into the case rims of rimfire cartridges. And the manufacture of priming compound, which is highly explosive, is not for the careless or squeamish. And I am also unsure what trying to obtain financing and insurance for the creation of a new rimfire plant would be like. And if billions of dollars were to be sunk into a new rimfire plant—if a location could be found and approved—would the demand stay high enough to justify it?
This puts the ammunition makers in a classic pricing quandary. Current margins per unit must be pretty high due to the high prices resulting from high demand and limited supply. However, the cost of bringing a new factory online is very high. To do that, they would need to know that prices would remain stable and/or that demand would remain high. Right now there's probably a bit of a trade-off going on: people are probably limiting their use of .22 ammo a bit since it's not even cheaper than other calibers. So a new plant would probably allow sales volumes to increase even more. However, without the shortages, prices would fall, making the profit per each lower (and thus making it take longer for the investment in a new plant to gain a return on investment.) To make all that even more uncertain, the ammunition makers are seeing higher overall demand due to an increase in shooting and buying which may be politically motivated and temporary, in which case they don't want to pay to increase capacity and then see that expensive capacity sitting idle when demand falls.

Of course, another element is the increase in ammunition demand may be that as semi-automatic pistols and particularly rifles become more popular, shooters are going through more rounds per visit to the range. In that case, the heightened demand might be more lasting. But clearly the manufacturers are hesitating to stake major capital investments on that theory. In the mean time, the pricing problem continues.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Tea Change

A few months ago, a friend of mine had kidney stones. It was a terrible thing, terrible, replete with agony and pain and suffering. I ran into him not long ago at the grocery store, where he was telling me about the lifestyle changes he was making so that this would never happen again. "And now I'm drinking coffee. I had to give up tea," he says.

"What? Tea? Why?" says I, horrified

Apparently tea isn't just conducive to the forming of kidney stones. It can actively precipitate them. "All kinds of tea," my friend tells me. "Black tea, green tea, you name it. I can still drink herbal tea, that's okay."

I feel about herbal tea much as Prof. Elemental does.


"When I say herbal, you say, 'No thanks.'"

I've thought of this exchange every day since, three or four times a day, as I pour myself a cup of Lady Gray or green tea. I still drink tea, you understand. I just drink it in fear and trembling.

That's been the story of my homeschooling life for the past year. For the past several years, really. I keep doing the same thing, knowing that something is not working.

I wish to say up front that I don't think I'm screwing up my kids. They are happy, well-adjusted, funny, pleasant people with good understandings. Our family life is cheerful, aside from the bickering and the monthly firestorm that results when three girls of pubescent age have mood shifts in sync. Otherwise, they love each other, and their parents. Existentially, I don't feel like I'm doing a terrible job.

Am I failing them academically? I don't know. Probably. Maybe. Our structure is so slipshod, and my record keeping so inadequate, that I don't know what I'm giving them. At least they know more about the American Revolution than I did at their age, or twenty years above their age.

As I learn more about myself, however, I can tell you what it's taken me almost forty years to put into concrete form: I am not an organizer. I am not a systematizer. I like to do something once, and then it's done. I am good at improvising, but I need something to improvise from. And the current structure of our homeschooling, such as it is, is better suited to someone with stronger gifts of curriculum development and organization and implementation than I have.

So, maybe I'm not failing them. But I'm failing me.

We are not doing nothing. We have math every day, and the younger kids do phonics, and the big girls do whatever grammar assignment I find by thinking about what they're currently getting wrong, and finding the corresponding section in the textbook. That's great and immediate. It also means that we haven't covered things systematically. Our science is whatever they're getting from nature DVDs from the library or from Youtube experiments. Not terrible, but again, not systematic.

The one thing I feel confident about is our morning structure of readings. We say prayers. We read the daily Mass readings and talk about them and read a reflection. We have some quiet prayer time. We read (currently) Mythology by Edith Hamilton, and I have people recount what we've read so that I know they've heard and understood. We just finished The Prisoner of Zenda, a ripsnorter with conveniently brief chapters; our next novel will probably be Hobberdy Dick by Katharine Briggs. This structure means that I don't have to pick what we're reading from the Bible, but it does allow me to teach the way I like, reflecting aloud on what we're reading and how it ties into what we've read in the past, making connections on the fly, listening to the kids make connections, and pulling everything together, if we can. This is our religion class.

But note how that works: I don't have to do the work of picking the Bible readings. They're already laid out for me. Once I pick a novel, it's just a chapter a day. I don't have to think what to do, only how to do it.

All these years I've resisted using a boxed curriculum, for many good and valid reasons. I still think those reasons are good and valid. I remember doing a boxed curriculum as a youth. There was so much work per day, and I was always behind and frustrated. There was a lack of flexibility. But what I'm doing now is also imperfect, in different ways, and every day I feel keenly that I'm not providing enough structure or content. So whatever we end up doing next year, someone else is going to be planning it.

***

My oldest daughter, almost 14, is teaching herself guitar. She picked it the guitar that's been gathering dust in the corner for three years, and pulled out the book that's been tucked away in the piano bench since I bought it. She sits for a few hours each day, working out the scales, trying chords, checking to see how her calluses are developing. I remember my brothers at this age, doing the same thing. They spent entire days with the guitar, doing nothing but learning music. If it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert, they front-loaded those hours. And it worked: they are guitar gods now, playing what they please as easily as they please. 9th grade academics are lost in the mist of time; the guitar ability remains. And it makes the world a better place that my brothers play music.

I want that for my children: the space and the safety to develop a talent for the love of doing it. I want them to have the freedom to spend all day crocheting if they want, or reading Harry Potter, or painting, or playing the piano, or baking or reading about baking, or writing a Star Wars play, or planning a sister's confirmation party. These things enrich the world. But I want them to have the structure to realize that this free time is leisure, and that getting done assigned work quickly will grant them more leisure, to do what they love with a foundation of academic knowledge so that what they love is placed in the proper context.

***

We're also trying something else new next year. My oldest daughter is going into 9th grade, a time for making changes. I've registered her with the school district so that she can take chorus and drama at the local high school.

I can do a lot of things at home, but I can't whip a theater and sixty other kids out of thin air. The arts programming at Local High is very good. We've been impressed by the quality of the musicals (and the budget behind them). My oldest likes to sing, and she has a good ear for harmony, and she has a lot of dramatic talent. And she'll have friends. Most of her confirmation class will be freshman next there year.

Sometimes I wonder if I've been neglecting my kids' own desires by homeschooling. Maybe they yearn for that kind of social and educational experience. I asked the oldest one day, as we drove past our Catholic school and saw the eighth grade outside, her friends and peers, "Do you wish you'd gone to St. Mary's for eighth grade? Would you like to go to high school?"

"No," she said, in that way teens do when Mom says something unspeakably insane.

Good to know.

***

As always, we're getting started late this morning. No one wants to get started on their own work before I gather them for readings, in good part because no one has a list of what they need to work on. But first, another cup of tea. Gotta keep working on my kidney stones so that one day I can be the basis of someone else's inspirational anecdote. Keep drinking in fear and trembling, y'all.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

On Writing: The Stakes are High when the Stakes are Small

I have a guest post today over at M K Tod's "A Writer of History" blog, where I examine what makes a historical novel dramatically compelling:

Written in the 1860’s about the Napoleonic Wars sixty years before, War & Peace is one of the grand-daddies of historical fiction. In a novel whose size rivals the country it describes, Tolstoy takes the reader from St. Petersburg and Moscow to Austria and Poland. However, although we get to listen in on the councils of Tsar Alexander, Napoleon, and General Kutuzov and view such epic scenes as the Battle of Austerlitz and the burning of Moscow, it’s not actually these giant historical set pieces which keep us turning the novel’s 1200+ pages.

We read the novel to find out what happens to the characters. Will impulsive young Natalie at last find love and happiness? Will idealistic Pierre manage to act on his good intentions rather than being at the mercy of his impulses and his unscrupulous wife’s family? Will Princess Maria escape the domination of her manipulative father?

Even though the novel delivers on the epic proportions of its title, the most suspenseful and involving moments are small scale. I read far more urgently to discover whether Natalie would run off with the unscrupulous Dolohov, whether Nikolai would ruin himself at the gambling table, or whether Pierre would be executed by the French on suspicion of arson than I did to see the conclusion of any of the major battles portrayed.

This is just as true of popular modern examples of the Historical genre. When Bernard Cornwell brought his initial series of Richard Sharpe novels to a conclusion with Sharpe’s Waterloo, putting his up-from-the-ranks rifleman hero into one of the biggest and most pivotal battles that Europe had seen to date, the key drama does not come from the clash between Wellington’s and Napoleon’s armies on the battlefield, but rather from conflicts closer to the main character: Sharpe’s struggle against the incompetence of his commander, the Prince of Orange, and the deadly rivalry between Sharpe and Lord Rossendale, with whom Sharpe’s wife has run off.

In these examples we see one of the contradictory dynamics of historical fiction: For many readers, seeing historical periods and events come alive is a key attraction. And yet, even the most dramatic historical event is not, in and of itself, sufficient to create a gripping novel. Why?

Continue Reading

Bad Currency at the Sperm Bank

Modernity at times seems to hold that human sexuality and the family can be reinvented in any number of ways in order to suit our desires and then to be utterly shocked when things go wrong. It's hard to imagine a clearer case of this than a news story that wandered across my feed today about women who have conceived children via a sperm bank and now are upset to discover that that paternity that they bought is not quite what they expected.
Angie Collins opened her laptop one evening in June 2014 to a Facebook message she says “made her heart sink like a lead ball into my stomach.”

It was from a woman in the United States who had used the same sperm donor as she had to get pregnant. They knew each other from an online forum that connects donor-conceived families.

The woman wrote she had learned some unsettling information about their supposedly anonymous donor. He was not the healthy man advertised on his sperm-bank profile. She had discovered he has schizophrenia, a serious mental illness that, according to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, occurs in 10 per cent of people who have a parent with it.
...
Instead, Chris Aggeles, a now 39-year-old man from Georgia, has struggled with serious mental illness for much of his adult life. In addition to schizophrenia, court documents show he has had diagnoses of bipolar and narcissistic personality disorders, and has described himself as having schizoaffective disorder.

He has a history of run-ins with the law, has done time in jail, dropped out of college and struggled in the past to hold down jobs.

His sperm has been used to create 36 children: 19 boys and 17 girls from 26 families, according to a 2014 email to Collins from Georgia-based sperm bank Xytex Corp.
Several of these women who have conceived children by using the sperm of Aggeles are now suing the sperm bank they purchased the sperm from, both claiming fraud and seeking to force the sperm bank to actually verify the personal and medical histories that sperm donors put forward.

Xytex (which appears to sell sperm for $500-$700 per implantation, having obtained it from men who are paid somewhere between $30-$150 per batch of sperm) claims they have done nothing wrong because they do check their donors for a specific list of sexually transmitted diseases, and they warn customers via their fine print that all other claims on the website about the men whose sperm is for sale are unverified.

The reproductive fantasy land that these people have put themselves into is sad, but is also deeply appalling. The article says:
Collins always wanted to have children, but being in a same-sex relationship presented a challenge. In need of sperm, she and Hanson spent about four months in 2006 researching their options.

“I didn’t have a friend in mind and my doctor was actually discouraging of using a known donor,” she says.

A fertility specialist suggested using a sperm bank, explaining that finding a known donor could be difficult and raise custody issues.
So Collins wants to have children, however she is in a type of relationship (a woman with another woman) which is by its nature infertile. She talks to a doctor about getting pregnant, and the doctor strongly encourages her not to get pregnant with a man she actually knows. Why? Because then the man who was the father of her child might actually want to be treated as the father of her child; he might want to have a relationship with the child which his sperm was used to produce.

She wants to be a mother, but she doesn't want her child to have a father. She's at war with basic human realities, but never fear, for there is a fertility industry out there eager to sell her a fantasy:
In 2006, Collins pored over Xytex’s online catalogue in search of a donor. From hundreds of profiles, she zeroed in on “donor 9623” because he was “the male version of my partner,” she says. Like Hanson, the man in the ad was blue eyed, intelligent, academically accomplished and musically gifted.

The donor’s full profile, an archived copy of which can still be found on Xytex’s website, states he has an IQ of 160 (the same as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking), bachelor’s and master’s degrees in neuroscience and is pursuing a PhD.

He has received international acclaim for his talent as a drummer, it says.
...
For an extra fee, prospective families could download an audio interview of 9623, conducted by Xytex corporate donor counsellor Mary Hartley, who praises him as the “perfect donor.”

Obtained by the Star, the 2006 recording portrays an articulate and impressive-sounding young man who says he speaks five languages, is studying artificial intelligence and plans on becoming a professor of biomedical robotics at a medical school.

He says he reads four or five books a month (“non-fiction mostly”) and tells of once winning a pizza party at Pizza Hut because he read 300 books in a single month.

Commenting on his motivation to donate, 9623 says: “Sure, at first the money is definitely an attraction. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t, but what really has kept me coming is the fact that I know that I am helping … to give parents who are very eager to have a child one of the greatest gifts in the world, their child. I can’t deny the power of that.”
...
She admits there was one sentence that gave her pause: “The medical and social history was provided by the donor and cannot be verified for accuracy.”

Collins says she was concerned enough to call Xytex and alleges that her misgivings were allayed when a company representative told her: “We do all of our own internal testing to the degree that you will know more about your donor than your own partner.”
I realize that Collins has been taken advantage of here, but it's kind of shocking that someone would allow herself to be sold something which very nearly screams "too good to be true". An internationally known musician with the IQ of Einstein who allegedly once read 300 books in a month?

This reminded me of a story I read some years back about rich business men who were scammed by a call girl network alleging that all their call girls were Ivy League graduates from good families with no substance abuse problems and engaged in challenging professional or academic work. That's a fantasy for sale. How likely is a woman of that description going to be to want to sell her body to random strangers, even rich random strangers?

Here, instead, is a fantasy for sale to the want-to-be mother: A successful artist and scientific genius is eager to provide you with the child of your dreams, and he's going to put himself through the trouble of medical tests and masturbating into a bottle for fifty bucks a pop just to allow you to affordably buy a child with a background far more elite than anyone who's actually lining up to sire a child on you.

But like so many fantasies for sale, this turns out to be pure fraud:
An Oct. 2005 forensic report, obtained from the Cobb County Superior Court in Georgia, shows he was charged with burglary seven months earlier, when he was 28. He allegedly broke into a house and stole a large number of musical instruments.

The report was prepared by a psychologist who assessed him and determined he was competent to stand trial despite being mentally ill.

There was some disagreement over Aggeles’ diagnosis with hospital records showing an earlier diagnosis of cannabis-induced psychotic disorder had been changed to schizophrenia.

The report also states Aggeles had experienced “significant grandiose delusions” and been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder as well as bipolar disorder.

Aggeles told the psychologist he had a seven-year history of psychiatric problems and had been hospitalized “numerous” times.

The forensic report goes on to say that he had a history of arrests for trespassing, DUI and disorderly conduct. The Star was unable to confirm the outcome of those arrests.

The Star also obtained from the court a transcript from a Nov. 2005 hearing during which Aggeles pleaded guilty to the burglary charge. Aggeles is quoted as telling the court he has bipolar and schizoaffective disorders.

The transcript indicates he was not receiving proper medical treatment at the time of the break-in, but by his plea hearing, was on medication and regularly seeing a psychiatrist.

His stepfather testified that Aggeles had suffered a series of psychotic episodes since age 19. Prior to that, the young man was on a promising trajectory. Very bright, he graduated from high school as an honour student and began studying at the University of Georgia (UGA) on a full scholarship.

“High stress situations and lack of medication cause him to have psychotic episodes . . . With supervision with medication, I think he is a productive citizen,” the stepfather told the court.

Aggeles mother also testified her son committed the burglary because his medication had been changed “and he was not mentally sane as a result and decided to take affairs into his own crazy head.”

She explained he had a “very sporadic” work history and was not able to hold jobs for long. At the time, he had been working at the Outback Steakhouse for a month and prior to that at “a pizza place” for two months.

But things “finally” seemed to be turning around for Aggeles, his mother told the court, explaining that “for the first time in 10 years,” he was able to take care of his mental health, education and employment.

Facing a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail, Aggeles was sentenced instead as a first offender, a disposition that meant a felony conviction would not appear on his record so long as he obeyed numerous conditions, among them staying on medication and continuing medical treatment.

He was ordered incarcerated for eight months with the rest of a 10-year sentence to be served on probation, according to a copy of the disposition obtained by the Star.

Aggeles promised to return to Athens Technical College from where he had dropped out the previous year. He said he wanted to get his grade point average up, return to UGA and get his scholarship back.

“I’m very repentant and it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever done,” Aggeles told the court. “I will never, ever commit another crime.”

In delivering her sentence, Justice Adele Grubbs said: “Somehow he’s got to learn that he is personally responsible for his actions, not anybody else.”

Aggeles did manage to make it back to UGA, graduating just last year. Two decades after starting at the university, he graduated with a bachelor’s in cognitive science, minoring in computer science, according to the registrar’s office. He attended the university in 1995 and 1996, then again from 2012 to 2015.
...
In an open letter posted on the company’s website last April, president Kevin O’Brien indicated Xytex relies on the honour system when it comes to collecting medical and social histories of donors. Xytex has always been upfront about letting would-be parents know the company does not corroborate such information, he said.

“He (Aggeles) reported a good health history and stated in his application that he had no physical or medical impairments. This information was passed on to the couple, who were clearly informed the representations were reported by the donor and were not verified by Xytex,” O’Brien wrote, referring to Collins and Hanson.
Collins' closing reaction is instructive, though I'm not sure she realizes the way in which it is:
From all appearances, Collins’ son, now 8, is happy and healthy.

The sweet, blond boy does well in school and is musically gifted. Like his donor, he plays the drums.

But Collins can’t help but worry for him.

“The most important entity to me is potentially facing a very debilitating lifestyle,” she says.

She says she feels cheated: “I felt like I was duped by Xytex and I failed my son for having chosen Xytex. In hindsight, a hitchhiker on the side of the road would have been a far more responsible option for conceiving a child.”
She was duped so easily because she tried to turn a fundamentally human interaction into the purchase of a commodity. We're not meant to buy our children from a catalog. Children have the right to be born to a mother and a father, to people who will care for them and rear them. If she'd even picked up a stranger at a bar, she would have at least had a certain degree of human interaction with him, some hint of whether he seemed like the sort of person whom she would want as the father of her child.

But this should in turn point to the real truth of the matter. We're not meant to select the people we have children with from a catalog. We're meant to get to know them, to value them, to want to raise children with them. Even then, there will be those who feel themselves deceived, people who marry the smooth talker who turns out to be very different in the long run of marriage than they seemed during the heady days of courtship. But at least in such a circumstance people have tried to get to know the person they are conceiving children with.

When people try to purchase parenthood as a commodity, they very nearly ask for these kind of deceptions.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The blog is quiet because life is loud and busy, so please accept, with our compliments, some light reading: one of the best ghost stories ever.

Einstein and the Little Lord
by Robertson Davies

I know you will understand when I say it is a great source of satisfaction to me that this College is regularly and extensively haunted. Every part of our great University strives for distinction of one kind or another, but it is everywhere admitted that in the regularity and variety of our ghostly visitations Massey College stands alone. Year after year our ghosts never fail us, and they are shades of unquestionable intellectual distinction, the Cream of the Ectoplasm; in this College, so often accused of elitism, our ghosts at least may truly be called the elite of Who Was Who. It is hard not to fall prey to sinful pride when I think of them.
Early in January, every year, I begin wondering: Who will it be? Ghosts of world-wide renown think it worth their while to drop in on us for an hour or two, which, in the course of a busy afterlife, is uncommonly civil of them. As the custom has arisen of celebrating centenaries and anniversaries of all sorts, and lists of these events are published at the beginning of each year, I look down these columns with an interest that comes close to gloating, wondering who our next unearthly visitant will be. Last January there was one prize I coveted above all. This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Albert Einstein.
I see in your faces wonder, tempered with disdain. What does he think he would have to say to Einstein? That is the question I read in your eyes. Ah, but you see, my experience with ghosts has taught me that it is unnecessary to talk to them; their concern is to talk to you. They have no time for chit-chat. It is true I had some misgiving. If Einstein were to entrust me with post-mortem reflections on the Michelson-Morley experiments, or use me as a means of telling the world a few new things about the wavelength of light emitted by atoms, I should have to be careful not to make any mistakes in taking dictation. But on the whole I was confident. Only let Einstein come: I would find a way of coping with him.
But he didn’t come. I waited; I waited. By the beginning of December I began to grow anxious. Had ridiculous pride led me into absurd expectation? Had the other world decided to humble me, to condemn the College to a ghostless year? Of course, I thought, it is not to me, but to the College, that the mighty spectres come, and the College has in no way offended. So I waited as well as I could for one long December week, and just a week ago tonight my vigil was rewarded. Einstein came.
He came unexpectedly, as they always do. It was the night of our Christmas Dance, and as some of you know, that is an affair that not merely raises the roof but rouses the dead. I had stepped out into the quadrangle, to rest my ears; nevertheless the music was still very loud, and I was not surprised to hear a quiet, slightly foreign voice say from behind me, “Not quite my sort of thing.”
I turned and there he was, impossible to mistake. The stout, unremarkable figure, the lamentable clothes, and the large, splendid, melancholy head. He was smoking a pipe, slowly as a good pipe-smoker does, emitting tiny puffs of fragrance with audible poppings of the lips.
“You have come!” I said.
“Oh, I always meant to come,” said he, “but I left you till near the end of my centennial year, when I knew I should be tired. Because of your rules, you know.”
What rules, I wondered? But not for long. He meant our rules about College guests. Our unbreakable rule is that no guest may be asked for a favour, and that any informal opinions expressed by a guest must be regarded as confidential. Einstein had come to us to escape the publicity that pursues an eminent ghost.
He wanted a rest, and I knew what sort of rest he had in mind. Underneath his arm was a violin. He jerked his head toward the sound of music from the dance, and in a friendly fashion he said, “Come on; we can do better than that.”
Quite how I followed him I do not remember but in no time I was in the large room in the basement of my house, where the piano lives. I say it lives there, because I dare not say I keep it there. I am somewhat in awe of it. You see, I have played the piano all my life, without ever having gained any proficiency whatever. Untold gold was spent on my musical education, but I remain a hopeless fumbler; I am perhaps the only man in musical history to play the piano with a stammer. Nevertheless, I play. Almost every day I approach the piano in my basement and endure its Teutonic sneers as I tinkle out the kind of music I like, which I confess is chiefly piano arrangements of music meant for other instruments, and even for the human voice.
Einstein gestured me toward the piano, and began to tune his violin. It was obvious that his pitch was perfect. I was horrified.
“Do you mean you want me to accompany you?” I said, weak with fear.
“No, no, we play together,” he said, and tucked the fiddle under his chin.
My blood ran cold. In all the vast repertoire of music in which the violin and piano can mingle there is only one piece that I would dare attempt. It is a Humoresque by Dvorak—the Number 7 in G flat. You know it. Popular musical taste has accorded words to it, words selected from a well-known railway notice:
Passengers will please refrain
From flushing toilets when the train
Is standing in the station:
I love you.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

The Work of the Biographer

I've been reading Robert Caro's multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson and enjoying it immensely. This is a bit of a surprise to me, as LBJ is not someone I would otherwise have had much of an interest in. I was eager to sink the time into reading William Manchester's similarly massive multi-volume biography of Churchill. But that, then that was Churchill. Prior to reading Caro's biography the three things that sprang most to my mind in relation to LBJ were:

1) His lifting a beagle by the ears and announcing to reporters that "they really like this"
2) The report that he'd never won an election honestly in his life (So far the Caro biography certainly backs that up) and
3) His propensity for using the toilet while meeting with staffers

However, I was drawn to the books by a blogger's detailed summaries as he was reading them and I've found them to be wonderful examples of the biographer's art. Caro has done a meticulous job of talking to every possible person connected with his subject, and the result is a narrative which is both well rounded in its treatment of the primary subject (we get a strong sense of Johnson's incredibly hard work, the forces that shaped him, and his complete lack of principles) and also in its development of a fascinating cast of side characters, people who were supporters or opponent of Johnson during his personal and political life.

In the second volume, which I just finished, nearly half the book is taken up with a portrayal of Johnson's 1948 campaign for the Democratic nomination to a US Senate seat. (This being 1940s Texas, the real contest was the Democratic primary, not the general election.) Johnson's opponent in that race was former Texas governor Coke Stevenson, and in this article defending that portrayal Caro talks about how his research led him to a whole new understanding of Stevenson.
No writer can be certain that he knows all the facts about private financial affairs dating back 50 years and more. But I tried to ascertain as many of those facts as possible, and after doing so I was convinced -- and am convinced -- that Coke Robert Stevenson was a public official of extraordinary personal integrity.

Stevenson has also recently been portrayed anew in a number of articles as merely a "typical" ("typical" was a word I heard a lot), totally unexceptional Texas right-winger, just another in the long line of the state's extremely conservative public officials -- unintelligent, narrow-minded, bigoted, a segregationist and an isolationist.

This, as it happened, was the impression of Stevenson I myself received when I began research on my book in 1975, and for some years thereafter I had no reason to doubt it. By 1975 Stevenson was a forgotten figure, a man all but lost to history. Two biographies -- one by an aide, the other by two of Stevenson's Kimble County neighbors -- were both so slight, not only in length but in research, as to provide little insight into the man or his career. The literature on Texas history during the era in which Stevenson served in the state government is, as one writer puts it, "notoriously spotty"; moreover, most of it is written from a point of view antithetical to his. In the few books on the era, he was generally given scanty treatment, and even that concentrated on his gubernatorial record, not on his pre-gubernatorial record in government or on the story of his life as a whole.

Apart from these sources, Coke Stevenson had been described -- briefly and harshly -- primarily in biographies of Lyndon Johnson. Interviews would normally be helpful in learning about a man, but Stevenson was 87 years old when he died. He was almost the last survivor of his generation in Texas politics; only a very few of his friends and political allies -- indeed, only a few handfuls of Texas politicians who knew him more than passingly well -- were still alive.

When, almost 30 years after the 1948 campaign, I began hearing about it in interviews, the description of Stevenson available to history was very largely a description furnished by a younger generation in Texas politics -- the Johnson generation, the bright young Johnson campaign aides who helped him defeat Stevenson in 1948 and thereby rose to power in Texas -- as well as by Johnson supporters and allies and by one-time Texas "Loyalists" (Democrats loyal to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the New Deal and the national party) and their spiritual descendants in the Texas political, academic, intellectual and journalistic community, a group to whom Stevenson had been a symbol of much of what they hated. It was they who, in interviews with me, in oral history interviews given to representatives of the Lyndon Johnson Library and in opinions repeated in Johnson biographies and other books, described Stevenson as typical, and it was during my interviews with them that I was told that like so many other Texas public officials, Stevenson was just another officeholder on the take (witness those "phony oil leases").

There was, in fact, nothing unusual or significant about the 1948 campaign as a whole, I was told; Johnson had simply made use of the "issues" in the race -- these were identified to me as Stevenson's isolationism, his racism, his alleged identification with the ultra-right Texas Regulars -- to persuade a majority of the voters to vote for him. That was the accepted image of Coke Stevenson and of his last campaign, and for a long time I had no reason to think the image incomplete or inaccurate.

I was planning to make the 1948 campaign only a single long chapter in "Means of Ascent" (as I did with Johnson's 1941 campaign in "The Path to Power"), and I wasn't doing extensive research on it or on Johnson's opponent in it. I was learning about Stevenson only incidentally, during the course of interviews about other aspects of Johnson's life. Moreover, since these interviews were almost entirely with people who ridiculed and despised Stevenson, they only reinforced the picture of the man that I had obtained from the history texts. (I never interviewed Stevenson. He died in June 1975, just about the time I was making my first trips to Texas; at the time I had no idea that he would be a figure of any particular significance in my work, and I had never tried to contact him.)

After a while, however, my circle of interviews about Johnson's life began expanding so that I was talking to political figures from the 1930's and 1940's who had been outside Johnson's orbit. At the time, I wasn't interviewing these people about Stevenson or the 1948 campaign; the necessity of learning about that campaign in detail had still not sunk in on me. But although my interviews were primarily concerned with other subjects, sometimes the person I was interviewing would bring up Stevenson's name -- and slowly (very slowly, I must admit) I was beginning to realize that from these new sources the picture I was being given was quite different from the picture I had been given before.
The whole NY Times Book Review piece linked to is fascinating reading, as Caro describes the plodding research into finances, the long interviews, and the reading of primary source documents which gradually led him to the fascinating portrayal of Stevenson in the book, a portrayal in which the reader becomes so invested (as did, clearly, Caro) that at the end of Means of Ascent Caro provides an epilogue chapter of sorts in which he describes Stevenson's latter life, after Johnson's clever use of the federal courts successfully stonewalled an investigation into Johnson's blatant vote stealing which turned Stevenson's victory in the primary into Johnson's and thus put LBJ on the path which would lead to the White House.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Narrative, by the 7th Grader

Write a story. The guidelines: needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end; the time, place, and characters need to be introduced at the beginning. 

Corrected for spelling and formatting.

My trips to Panera Bread are almost always normal... Almost. Last month on Friday my mom and I went to Panera Bread for breakfast. We walked in the door and got in line to order bagels. When we finally got through the line we ordered.

"Hi welcome to Panera. What can I get you?" the lady said uncomfortably.

"Hi, I'd like a triple hazelnut latte and a cheese bagel. Jane?"

"I'd like a normal bagel sliced and toasted with cream cheese," I said.

The lady looked nervous at our order. "Um, ok," she said and turned around and stared to fidget with two bagels that were clearly not normal and cheese. She pushed the bagels through a machine and... started to scream. She had accidentally shoved her hand in the slicing machine as well as the bagels. She managed to get her hand out of the machine but she had lost part of her pointer finger to the machine.

We took our bagels and left quickly. We didn't complain about the different-flavored bagels. I will never order bagels from Panera again. That is also a reason why they should also train workers before hiring them. I will never apply to work at Panera.

The End

Monday, April 04, 2016

Have Mercy

We were on spring break vacation last week (hence the light posting), and now we're back, and there is So Much To Do. I don't feel like doing any of it. I don't feel like doing anything, really. In fact, I kind of wish everything would go away. My first inclination was to assume that I was being my usual slacker self, unproductive while the rest of the world toils, but in keeping with the Year of Mercy, I tried to step out of my own head and take an objective view. Could it just be possible that my desire to sit around and not do anything has to do with the increasing thickness and ache in my throat?

I don't really have anywhere deep to go with this (not because I've lost the capacity for deep thought, but because my head is heavy), but listen: judge not, not even yourself. Be merciful on yourself as you would be with others. Even your own circumstances may be a mystery to you, not clearly understood except in hindsight. So, have mercy. And if you need to, go back to bed.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Rather the Sort of Person One Pours Sugar On

Ross Douthat's weekend column about the person who, through intelligence and relentless hard work, is perhaps the one legitimate alternative left to Trump for the Republican nomination, Senator Ted Cruz, would be good even if it were just that.
Basically, he spent years trying to make it in Washington on the insider’s track, and hit a wall because too many of the insiders didn’t like him — because his ambition was too naked, his climber’s zeal too palpable. So he deliberately switched factions, turning the establishment’s personal disdain into a political asset, and taking his Ivy League talents to the Tea Party instead.

Then once installed as a leader of the counterestablishment, he walked a line that looks, again, far more calculated than most conviction politicians. While his fellow Tea Party senators, from Paul to Rubio to Utah’s Mike Lee, built detailed policy portfolios that fit their interests and inclinations, Cruz never seemed to take a step on any contentious issue without gaming it out 17 moves ahead.
But what turns it into brilliant and reminds me why Douthat is one of my favorite columnists is when he pivots and makes an extended analogy to one of my favorite novels, the long, obscure, delightful Dance to the Music of Time cycle by Anthony Powell.
Throughout this rise, Cruz has often seemed less like Goldwater than like American conservatism’s own Kenneth Widmerpool, the most memorable character in the English novelist Anthony Powell’s series, “A Dance to the Music of Time.”

A dogged, charmless, unembarrassed striver, Widmerpool begins Powell’s novels as a figure of mockery for his upper-class schoolmates. But over the course of the books he ascends past them — to power, influence, a peerage — through a mix of ruthless effort, ideological flexibility, and calculated kissing-up.

Enduring all manner of humiliations, bouncing back from every setback, tacking right and left with the times, he embodies the triumph of raw ambition over aristocratic rules of order. “Widmerpool,” the narrator realizes at last, sounding like a baffled, Cruz-hating Republican senator today, “once so derided by all of us, had in some mysterious manner become a person of authority.”
I'm not sure that the analogy is fully rounded. Widmerpool is a hero worshipper at the same time as being full of self regard. When we first see him, the cricket champion in the school throws a banana across the dining hall, meaning it for someone else, and Widmerpool accidentally steps in its path and is hit in the face. Rather than being angry or offended, however, he is honored to be hit by the school champion and insists repeatedly that it is no bother. Later the vivacious young Barbara, in a joke gone wrong, upends a sugar bowl onto Widmerpool's head at a party. Widmerpool calmly takes of his glasses and wipes the sugar from them before turning a look of slavish devotion back to Barbara. (After the Barbara incident, someone asks Nick who Widmerpool is, to which Nick responds, "Rather the sort of person one pours sugar on.")

It is this willingness to accept humiliation, as well as his nerdy inability, which makes Nick Jenkins and his set look down on Widmerpool so thoroughly. And it is, in turn, why they find it incomprehensible when Widmerpool's dogged work ethic and willingness to suck up to those in charge allows him to begin climbing into the circles of power, first in business, then through the bureaucracies of the military in World War II.

Reading Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson, the same willingness to work hard and suck up to those in authority seems to have been a key element in LBJ's climb to power. Cruz, however, seems to be a slightly different figure. Part of the reason for his unpopularity among other Republican leaders is his self serving regard, shown to those above as well as below. He lacks the self abnegation towards those above which characterized Widmerpool or LBJ, and ironically it may be the lack of that additional source of ridiculousness (more than merely being a "nerd") which may stand between his and achieving his ambitions.

Friday, March 25, 2016

"Death and conception in mankind is one"

The Incarnation has always struck me as the Church's liturgical affirmation that life does indeed begin at conception. Today, the feast of the Annunciation (celebration moved to Monday) and Good Friday are joined in the same day, March 25. Life has come full circle, as John Donne observes below.

John Donne was born in 1572 into a family of recusant Catholics. His mother was the great-niece of Thomas More, and was related to several martyrs. Donne's Catholicism was strong enough that he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy necessary to receive his degree at either Oxford or Cambridge (he studied at both), but after his brother Henry was arrested and racked for harboring a priest (the priest was found and drawn and quartered), Donne turned his back on the faith, writing anti-Catholic pamphlets and eventually becoming ordained into the Church of England as a way of providing for his rapidly increasing family.

Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day
1608

John Donne

Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came and went away;
She sees Him nothing twice at once, who’s all;
She sees a Cedar plant itself and fall,
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive yet dead;
She sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty and at scarce fifteen;
At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity,
At once receiver and the legacy;
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one
(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
Of the Angel’s Ave and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God’s court of faculties,
Deals in some times and seldom joining these!
As by the self-fixed Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where the other is and which we say
(Because it strays not far) doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to Him, we know
And stand firm, if we by her motion go;
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud, to one end both.
This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one:
Or ‘twas in Him the same humility
That He would be a man and leave to be:
Or as creation He had made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating Spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes: He shall come, He is gone:
Or as though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords;
This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Thursday at the Links

Haunting dioramas of the life of a 1930s Jewish family in Poland.

The O'Floinn has up a jaunty pre-history of the Crusades. This is kind of big-picture connect-the-dots synthesis that makes history come alive.

How E.B. White spun Charlotte's Web.

The Paris Review provides an invaluable service with Sleep Aid: "a series devoted to curing insomnia with the dullest, most soporific texts available in the public domain". Tonight's installment: “History of Sumach Tanning in England, Degradation of the Manufacture of Leather, and History of the Reform Movement,” the first chapter of Leather for Libraries, a 1905 book by E. Windham Hulme.

Combining the finest number-crunching with a finger on the pulse of pop culture, the Wall Street Journal surpasses itself with a report on the most bro-fessional schools in America.
There is no standard definition for what makes a person a “bro,” but you generally know one when you see one. They are mostly male students from the East Coast who join fraternities, gravitate to majors in finance and can tell you exactly how many beers they “crushed” last night. They like to wear bow ties in a sort of neo-Preppy way, but oddly, also tank tops. They’ve seen every episode of “Entourage” five times and like to address each other as bro, broski or brofessor. 
This year, many schools in the Sweet 16 have strong “brotastic” reputations. A stroll across their campuses might reveal, for instance, four shades of salmon-colored shorts, six styles of boat shoes and several impromptu lacrosse games. So with our brackets hopelessly busted, the Journal decided to focus on figuring out which of these schools is, in fact, the bro-iest. 
To do this, we turned to six advanced bro-metrics: the popularity of fraternity and sorority life on campus; how many graduates end up in finance and consulting; if the school is well-regarded for its parties; the success of its lacrosse team (a sport populated by a subspecies of “lax bros”); the number of bro-centric items sold in the campus store; and the proximity of a J. Crew.
Brandon just returned from Italy with a fine assortment of photos. Here's a post about his trip to Rome which made me sigh for the Eternal City. 

ADDED: Don't know how I could have possibly forgotten to include this, but here: Cabinet Battle #1 from Hamilton, unrapped, performed at the White House.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Restless

My soul rests in God alone,
from whom comes my salvation.
God alone is my rock and salvation,
my secure height; I will never fall.  
--Psalm 62:2-3
Today is one of those glorious spring days that makes the soul restless. I want... I don't know what what I want, except that it's something other than what I'm supposed to be doing. I want to be outside. I want to be traveling. I want my children to do their work peaceably without my having to guide them. And none of these desires are bad. They're simply not the work that God has prepared for me right now.

Every Friday in Lent we go to Stations of the Cross at church. This is another experience that leaves me yearning for something else. Our parish doesn't use the meditations by Alphonsus Ligouri that I grew up with:
My Jesus! loaded with contempt, nail my heart to Thy feet, that it may ever remain there, to love Thee, and never quit Thee again. I love Thee more than myself; I repent of having offended Thee. Never permit me to offend Thee again. Grant that I may love Thee always; and then do with me what Thou wilt.
Instead, we have a modern version that incorporates short monologues from various characters through the gospels. Every week these monologues grate on my dramatic soul, and instead of praying I find myself mentally rewriting them, again, and every week I go back, because this is how my parish chooses to pray together. And I wonder why there are three stations devoted to Jesus falling, and none devoted to Jesus getting up after he falls and starting again, putting one foot in front of another.

At his most restless, Jesus couldn't go anywhere. I feel nailed down, metaphorically, but he was literally nailed down as he cried out, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"

The kids and I have a little prayer time each morning. After our Bible readings and meditation, we spend fifteen or twenty seconds in silence, listening to and talking to God. I call this practice, because if you don't practice prayer as you practice everything else, how will you grow? My prayer this morning was that God would show me the work that he has prepared for me today. Most of it I already know. Two loads of dishes. Some laundry, now that the baskets are finally empty of the clean clothes. Sweep the floor. Again and again, make the children go back and finish their work. Finish my own work

It's a good life, and I like it. I don't really want it to be different than it is. And so, when I feel this restlessness in my soul, I know that the end of all desire is God. I don't need a temporal change. I need my blinders off, to realize that this day I am with Jesus in Paradise, right where I am.