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

Monday, January 23, 2017

Women Making History

Well, it's not the first time a women's protest has been about sex. In 411 BC, Aristophanes's play Lysistrata involved the women of Athens and surrounding city-states going on sex strike until their long-suffering husbands signed a peace treaty and ended war. And certainly throughout history women have been demanding their sexual rights. Lysistrata complains that while the men are off waging war, young women are languishing at home, only getting older. It's not fair, because while old men can still marry and have children, women have a definite window of opportunity. The men at war are depriving the women of their right to marriage and children.

There's a rich Biblical tradition of sexual protest as well: Genesis 19 recounts how Lot's daughters, cut off from civilization, get their father drunk and have sex with him so that they may bear children by hook or by crook. Genesis 38 tells the story of Tamar, whose first two husbands refuse to give her children through primitive forms of birth control. And since her father-in-law Judah (the ancestor of Jesus) won't marry her to his third son and give her the right of having children, she disguises herself as a prostitute, has sex with Judah himself, and conceives that way. Ruth demands her right of marriage (and children) from Boaz by making herself attractive and laying down near him as he sleeps, and then making her request when he startles awake. (Ruth is praised for her initiative by the elders of the city, who compare her to Tamar in her audacity.)

So, two thousand years later, women are still protesting and demanding their sexual rights, wearing pink pussy hats in lieu of rich robes and perfumes of Araby, and those rights are still centered around children. In this particular culture, however, women aren't demanding that men stop withholding children from them. The explicit demand, the entire official purpose of this modern protest is the right to kill the child. Sex is not connected with the stability and the relative immortality of bearing children to perpetuate a name and a family, but with immediate gratification, with expressing oneself, with reducing the richness of womanhood to nothing more than a vagina.

Two thousand years from now, who will be making history? What will sexual protest be about in 4017? Probably something as inconceivable to modern women as abortion on demand would have been to the ancients. We're constantly lectured by bumper stickers that "Well Behaved Women Don't Make History" -- because only women who make noise, who make love, who dare to wear pussy hats have any chance of carpe diem-ing, while the meek inherit the housework. And yet, what woman has had a more outsized impact on history than the Blessed Virgin Mary? Her sexual protest involved questioning even an angel itself: "How can this be, since I do not know man?" She stands -- alone, not amidst a supportive mob of you-go girls -- and asserts her virginity against God Himself offering her the gift of being the mother of the Messiah. And God honors her courage, granting her both the child and the virginity.

Throughout her life, Mary stands not amidst, but against the crowd. She stands at the foot of Jesus's cross, quiet against the howling of the mob. (Every mob demanding its own will ends, in effect, by shouting, "Crucify him!" -- a good reason why the assembly at Mass faces the image of the crucified Christ, to remind them that they come to serve his will, not their own.) Her protest is silent and internal, unless she is addressing God Himself. There she is not shy about making demands: "Son, why have you done this to us? Don't you know your father and I have been looking for you?" "They have no wine." She makes no waves. She makes no splashy headlines. She makes no strategic alliances with evil. And yet she has changed the lot of more women for the better, has garnered more sexual respect and rights for women, than any other woman in history. Perhaps the key is in the only recorded bit of advice she utters: "Do whatever he tells you." In that is contained the key to sexual freedom, and every freedom.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Lo, a Baby


Behold, Fatty Norman at 15 weeks!

(All in-utero babies here are Fatty Norman -- Fatty for Fatty Lumpkin, the pony in The Fellowship of the Ring, and Norman for Spiny Norman, the giant hedgehog from Monty Python. This particular baby is also Septimus.)

Can't tell you yet whether the youngster is a boy or a girl, but it's certainly a wriggles. I saw lots of good elbow and footsie action, and a few barrel rolls. Hands, feet, head, heart, tummy -- everything seems to be where it ought to be.

...On an unrelated note, heaven forbid I should post a shot revealing too much of my exterior, but look, here's the inside of my uterus, for pete's sake.

In what looks like the world's worse Freudian slip, when asked on the form to indicate my sexuality, I started to circle "Homosexual". There's nothing more exciting in that than that I've never been asked that on a form before, and as I wasn't paying great attention to all the stuff I was checking, I went for an answer starting with an "H" before I realized what that answer was. The doctor didn't ask about it.

I still haven't fully made my up mind what to do about birth, but I liked the doctor (especially when he said that he didn't like to put people on bedrest). I liked the nurse. I liked the lady who drew my blood, even. I suppose I should go on a hospital tour and look at the L&D wing like a newbie. I think I can skip the Lamaze class, though.

But the doctor thinks that I can make it through to the end and only gain as much weight as I did last time, which is great considering I started this pregnancy 40 lbs. heavier than I was the last time around. (Bed rest was a big contributing factor to that weight gain. Hey, you try laying stationary for a month and see where it gets you, even without being pregnant. Then try taking the damn weight off.) He recommended exercise -- not just walking around the block, but real exercise. And you know what? I can exercise. I can do this thing.

All right, gang! Let's get out there and have ourselves a baby!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Seven Quick Takes

1. Today I sat my third-grader down in front of Khan Academy for a refresher on how borrowing in subtraction works (good news: he remembered quickly, so I guess we'll retry that math test), and spent all my school time utzing the first-grader through her lessons. I pulled a page of sentences from the reading program she's taken against because I needed to test some sight words (good news: she recognizes "you" and "the", finally). She stamped and pouted through the first half, and ended up sitting on the floor.

"Look," I said. "We can spend all day in this room at this table trying to get through this page. Do you want to do that?"

Stamp.

"Or, you can work with me and look at the page while you're reading, and we can be done very soon."

Stamp.

"I'm going to count to three."

Bottom in the chair.

"All right. Let's get this done fast. It's 12:58. I'm writing it down. Then we'll write down the time you finish and see how fast it goes. Are you looking at the page?"

She started reluctantly, but read faster as we reached the end, and finished the six sentences by 1:02. Success

2. Then it was math: writing number sentences based on word problems.  Stamp, stamp.

"Let's check this out. 'Matt has 8 pens. He gives 3 away to Sal. How many pens does he have left?'"

"Zero."

"It says he gives three away, and then asks how many he has left. Are those addition words or subtraction words?"

She sulkily drew a minus sign in the bubble.

"Okay, how many does he start with? And then how many do we take away? Let's try it with fingers."

And so on. She was figuring it out but not loving it. Each successive problem drew fresh moans. Eventually I took to having her dictate the answers while I wrote. So on to the last problem.

"Jan has 7 cats. She gives 2 cats to Nick..."

"Five."

"Did you count that up?"

"I know it in my head."

I raged. I yelled. I crumpled up the finished paper and threw across the room as she collapsed into proud giggles. Then she ran off, and I sighed and collected the phonics book for the next round. Fortunately, she likes phonics.

3. The first-grader wants to learn cursive, so we have a notebook in which each day I write a letter and have her copy it and practice joining it. If she wants to write cursive, we'll do cursive.

4. Obviously, sometimes something you're doing with your children is simply not working, and you need to pivot. And children all learn in different styles, so that needs to be taken into account. But in general, I've found over the years, with my own children, that when they balk and fuss at schoolwork, it's simply that they'd rather not be doing schoolwork. A sentiment many people share, I'm sure, but it's not going to fly when you need to learn to multiply or read. I don't think that education needs to be tedious all the time, but sometimes learning is work and just needs to be done. And sometimes the discipline of keeping your bottom in your chair until you finish your work is acquired by your mother repeatedly placing the bottom in the chair until the work is complete.

5. And later on, this can translate into older children having the discipline to supervise their own work and schedule, while their mother instills discipline into the younger ones.

6. Speaking of older kids and their work, I say again that although the lesson plans from Catholic Heritage Curriculum have worked out well for the big girls, the actual materials are so frustrating that we certainly will be doing something else next school year. It's so Catholicky. Everything in every subject must be explicitly tied to the Church. This is one path for children raised in fervently religious homes to fall away when they're independent. No truth is allowed to stand on its own merits. It must become a pious bludgeon for Catholicism. And eventually the children learn to associate the truth of Catholicism with the bludgeon and not the piety.

Not in my house.

7. To be honest, a lot of our time lately has been spent watching Studio C sketches on Youtube. This is a group out of Brigham Young University, and they do clean SNL-style sketches that are consistently hilarious.

Learning some history:


Watching some TV:


Discussing the cinema:


Spoiling a BBC series:


What Harry and the gang really want:

Conservatism Even In Service of Radicalism

I've been reading this piece on What Every American Should Know and this section struck me particularly in terms of how cultural conservatism (not in the sense of "culture war" but in fluency in the history of our culture) is necessary even for radicalism to be effective:
Hirsch was taken by some critics to be a political conservative because he argued that cultural literacy is inherently a culturally conservative enterprise. It looks backwards. It tries to preserve the past. Not surprisingly, Hirsch later became a fan of the Common Core standards, which, whatever their cross-partisan political toxicity today, were intended in earnest to lay down basic categories of knowledge that every American student should learn.

But those who demonized Hirsch as a right-winger missed the point. Just because an endeavor requires fluency in the past does not make it worshipful of tradition or hostile to change. Indeed, in a notable example of the application of cultural literacy, Hirsch quoted in his book from the 1972 platform of the Black Panther Party:

10. WE WANT LAND, BREAD, HOUSING, EDUCATION, CLOTHING, JUSTICE, PEACE AND PEOPLE’S CONTROL OF MODERN TECHNOLOGY.

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
He cited another passage, from the Black Panther newspaper:

In this land of “milk and honey,” the “almighty dollar” rules supreme and is being upheld by the faithful troops who move without question in the name of “law and order.” Only in this garden of hypocrisy and inequality can a murderer not be considered a murderer—only here can innocent people be charged with a crime and be taken to court with the confessed criminal testifying against them. Incredible?
These samples demonstrated for Hirsch two important points: First, that the Black Panthers, however anti-establishment, were confidently in command of American history and idiom, comfortable quoting the Declaration of Independence verbatim to make their point, happy to juxtapose language from the Bible with the catch phrases of the Nixon campaign, wholly correct in grammatical and rhetorical usage.

And second, that radicalism is made more powerful when garbed in traditionalism. As Hirsch put it: “To be conservative in the means of communication is the road to effectiveness in modern life, in whatever direction one wishes to be effective.”

Hence, he argued, an education that in the name of progressivism disdains past forms, schema, concepts, figures, and symbols is an education that is in fact anti-progressive and “helps preserve the political and economic status quo.” This is true. And it is made more urgently true by the changes in American demography since Hirsch gave us his list in 1987.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Government vs The President

I ran into a somewhat interesting piece on the Trump/CIA strife the other day, from an author I don't normally read, Glenn Greenwald:

IN JANUARY, 1961, Dwight Eisenhower delivered his farewell address after serving two terms as U.S. president; the five-star general chose to warn Americans of this specific threat to democracy: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” That warning was issued prior to the decadelong escalation of the Vietnam War, three more decades of Cold War mania, and the post-9/11 era, all of which radically expanded that unelected faction’s power even further.

This is the faction that is now engaged in open warfare against the duly elected and already widely disliked president-elect, Donald Trump. They are using classic Cold War dirty tactics and the defining ingredients of what has until recently been denounced as “Fake News.”

Their most valuable instrument is the U.S. media, much of which reflexively reveres, serves, believes, and sides with hidden intelligence officials. And Democrats, still reeling from their unexpected and traumatic election loss as well as a systemic collapse of their party, seemingly divorced further and further from reason with each passing day, are willing — eager — to embrace any claim, cheer any tactic, align with any villain, regardless of how unsupported, tawdry and damaging those behaviors might be.

There's a fair amount in this piece that I don't agree with. I'm far more in line with the foreign policy establishment take on Russia, the Middle East, etc. than Greenwald is, but nonetheless I think it's worth pausing a moment to think about the dynamic he points out here, precisely because I'm inclined to prefer the polices of some of the non-elected experts who are at odds with the incoming president.

The background here, the storm of the moment, for those not following the daily news cycle, is that during the election a person with a background in intelligence, who was working first for anti-Trump candidates in the GOP primary and later for Hillary, assembled a "dossier" of anonymously sourced accusations about supposed Trump perfidies which allegedly put him under the power of Putin and showed him up as a bad person generally. This dossier was known to the Hillary campaign and was sent to various news outlets, but no one published its claims because no one could verify its claims. However, as part of the escalating strife between the incoming administration, people at the CIA successfully made the dossier news by first briefing both Obama and Trump as to the contents of the dossier, and then leaking to the press the "news" that the two had been briefed on it. Although the claims remain unverified, the fact of the briefing itself was considered news, and so the whole tawdry list of claims was finally published and discussed in various news outlets, starting with Buzzfeed.

Various people have sagely nodded that "this is why a president should never pick a fight with an intelligence agency". It's true that a president should not pick a fight with one of his intelligence agencies (or any other essential part of the government -- house divided against itself and all that) but if one means that statement in the sense of "if a president doesn't get along with the consensus in the CIA, the CIA will use it's perceived authority to try to destroy him" that actually represents a rather problematic situation in a democracy.

I'm not much of a populist. I think that experts are very often just that, experts in their fields. Yes, they can have agendas which sometimes blind them to the facts (see the school of Sovietologists who thought that the USSR was healthy and likely to be around for decades to come -- right up to the point where it collapsed.) But while not every opinion advanced by an expert will be good, on topics which require a lot of detailed knowledge about, say, what foreign governments are up to, you need a fair amount of expertise before forming an opinion is even worthwhile. So, for instance, it may well be that the experts at the CIA have bad ideas as to what to do about the civil war in Syria, but at least knowing what groups are engaged on which sides and why (as they experts do) is a prerequisite to having an opinion worth listening to on the topic.

I'm sympathetic to the plight of people who have spent their entire careers understanding complicated problems so they can advise the president, who know find themselves faced with someone in that office who likes to brag that he already knows more about such topics than the experts, despite the fact he's known to source his knowledge from places like the National Enquirer. And spending my life in offices, which have their own sort of internal politics, I also understand the reasons why people will say things like "Don't diss the admins. You can't succeed without having them on your side."

And yet, foolish though the recently elected president may be, the precedent of having unelected officials within the government try to destroy or route around a chief executive they don't like is terrible. No matter how incompetent or misguided our president may be, it's deeply worrying to move towards a system in which the government's powerful bureaucracies take on and try to get rid of elected officials they don't like. We as voters have no way to either replace those bureaucracies nor to redirect them. Our system of government relies upon them following the orders of the executive and the legislature. If they begin to see themselves as above that, we risk a tyranny of 'the experts' which would probably do none of us (in the long term, not even the experts) any good.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Back to Life

It's second trimester here -- the website tells me that at 14 weeks, baby is 3.5 inches, from head to toe the size of an 8oz filet mignon -- and I'm alive again. Alive! My nausea has mostly vanished, and my energy has mostly returned. Yesterday I had moments where I could even forget that I was pregnant, if it weren't that clothes fit oddly. I'm in that brief sweet spot between morning sickness and when The Vein starts acting up. This means walking, leaving the house, stretching, as much exercise as I can manage -- any physical activity to counteract the two months I've just spent as a sedentary lump, atrophying and packing on the avoirdupois.

So far I am holding that avoirdupois barely below the Number of Dread. My goal, though this may be ambitious, is to try to stave off tipping the scale until the third trimester. This doesn't involve some dangerous diet plan. I'm trying to avoid sugar and other empty calories, sure, but my main goal is to Move. Even the the most basic quantity of exercise does measureable amounts of good. Anyway, I have a motivating factor -- to avoid bed rest as long as possible. The month I spent in bed with William was good for my blood pressure, I guess, but it had effects that lingered even three years later. God preserve me from round two.

I haven't felt kicks or flutters, but being a grand multipara, I know the feeling of barely shifting gravity and pressure in the midsection which means a tiny thing is swimming. Although most of my pretty obvious stomach is fat and the strange displacement of internal organs, there is a legitimate bulge of baby there. So I'm the good days of feeling okay and not just looking fat, and I'm trying not to waste my time.


Saturday, January 07, 2017

Towards a Conservative Christian Writer's Manifesto

It's 2017, and one of my plans for the new year is to sit down four nights a week to bang out words on The Great War, Volume Two. I expect to begin posting installments some time this month.

As I've been researching and outlining, I've also been giving a certain amount of thought to the broader question of what it means to be a writer who is a conservative Christian, and why it is that we conservative Christians seem to be pretty thin on the ground in the arts. The following is a brief attempt to sketch out that thinking into a manifesto of sorts on how and why Christians should approach art, necessarily in the context of writing since that is the only area I can claim to have knowledge of.

The foremost purpose of fiction is to tell the truth. Not, obviously, in the sense of only describing things that have actually happened, since fiction, even when describing real events, involves making up details, but rather in the sense of describing people, experiences, choices, and consequences in a manner which reflects the true nature of the human condition.

Perhaps this sounds rather sober and heavy duty. Can't fiction just be fun? Can't it show us fantastic worlds far from where we live now? Of course it can. The realism which I'm encouraging here is not necessary a pedestrian realism (though I think that the small scale dramas of everyday life deserve more attention than they get) but rather the realism of showing people, whether in a Cleveland suburb or in a galaxy far, far away, reacting to experiences and making choices in a way which seems real. This basic realism which allows us to recognize and identify with the characters is part of what allows the story to seem enjoyable to us. If we cannot recognize the characters to some basic degree as seeming like real people, we don't get to participate in the story and enjoy their unfamiliar settings or adventures.

Many Christian writers seem to suffer from a temptation to focus heavily on Conveying The Big Truths. This often comes out in the form either of showing a very neat sort of conversion story, in which exposure to Christians and their arguments leads to conversion which in turn leads inevitably to happiness, or in massive (sometimes literally apocalyptic) clashes between good and evil in which at last good wins out completely, resulting in the birth of a better world.

Do these sort of stories, however, really reflect truth? Perhaps in some sort of very basic, words-on-the-page sense. That five-page theological argument that the earnest young heroine has with her bad-boy love interest, resulting in his total conversion, may accurately describe in written phrases the theological concepts in question. But how true to life is it that one or two theological arguments result in a conversion? How true to life is it that a conversion, however attained, results in someone's life and relationships immediately coming together into complete happiness? How often does a conflict, however bad the enemy, result in a new era of peace and blessedness?

Arguments often do not lead to conversion. Changes in life are often difficult and come with reverses as much as obvious improvements. Titanic conflicts leave many lingering wounds and successor conflicts, both internal and external.

If as Christians we are committed to the truth, including the truth about lived human experience, our fiction should reflect these less neat realities. If we develop and resolve the stories we write with a sort of pat wishfulness, we create a distance between our writing and any reader who does not share our ideas of wish fulfillment. Readers who don't fully share the author's view will think, "Oh, that's a Christian story. It doesn't reflect my experience," while even readers who do share the author's ideas will simply have their illusions and desires reinforced rather than having to face the full reality of the world.

Not only does wish fulfillment do poor service to our Christian duty to truth, but in our own beliefs we actually have a much more compelling source for potential dramatic material. If we take Christian ideas of virtue and vice seriously, then everyday actions, far from being uninteresting or trivial, can have eternal consequences. The way we treat each other, the small acts of selfishness or generosity, the chance encounters with strangers and the casual kindness (or cruelty) with which we treat those we see everyday -- all of these gradually form us into someone with a habit to the good, or a habit to the bad. This is one of the things that I've come to find very compelling about Tolstoy's writing in War & Peace. While the books is packed with huge, world-shaping events (and occasional whole chapters of historical philosophy which I wish had just been cut) the characters' development arcs are shaped not by these big historical events but by seemingly trivial actions: the way in which old Prince Bolkonsky can turn something as seemingly innocent as his woodworking hobby into a means of psychological warfare against his daughter; the way in which Prince Andre's aloofness and unwillingness to forgive even the smallest transgressions, such as the 'silliness' of his socialite wife, gradually builds into a cancer on his relationships with all his loved ones; the way that Pierre's kindness and lack of decision interact to define all the events, big and small, in his life.

A Christian understanding of sin and virtue naturally lends itself to this kind of moral realism in fiction, and this same moral realism, in which every decision a character makes forms that character for good or ill, creating their character development throughout the story, makes for interesting drama because drama is based on change.

This is what I believe Christian fiction writers should commit themselves to: to realistically portraying the decisions and experiences that people have, and to showing the way in which all of these seemingly small choices shape character in eventually big ways. This is the kind of writing which can quietly convey a Christian understanding of how the world works, and can do so in a way that is interesting to readers whether or not they share the author's beliefs, because stories about character choices and change, realistically portrayed, are inherently interesting to us as humans.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

The Immediate Book Meme





photo by Evan Laurence Bench


There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let's focus on something more revealing: the books you're actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let's call it The Immediate Book Meme.

1. What book are you reading now?
I'm in between many books right now, so the actual current reading is light.

Emma, by Jane Austen.
When I asked what we should do for our next readaloud, the older girls requested Emma. 

The Gospel of John

2. What book did you just finish?

The Intellectual Life, by A.G. Sertillanges, O.P.
First book of 2017. An excellent book about living the vocation of the intellectual life, full of encouragement and practical advice for those who wish to glorify God with their intellect. As it's an older book, the passing mentions of women are rather patronizing. The sort of reader who find themselves triggered by such things would lose much of value by rejecting the book on that account. I thought it excellent nonetheless, and intend to recommend it to my daughter in a year or two.

The Force Awakens novelization.
My girls had it out from the library, and it was sitting around, so I read it. It doesn't really fill the plot holes, and the author seems at a disadvantage, not being able to fully develop the interior life of the characters for lack of information that won't be revealed until later movies.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
Our most recent readaloud, finished (most fittingly) on Christmas Day.

Victorian Cakes, by Caroline B. King
A memoir about the author's childhood in a large household in Chicago in the 1880s, centered around the various cakes her mother, many sisters, and German hired girl made. The recipes are fascinating but hard to translate into modern measurements and oven temps. That's okay, because the reading itself is delectable enough. 

A Civil Contract, by Georgette Heyer
One of Brandon's fortnightly books. My favorite Heyer novel, about a penniless Viscount obliged to marry the daughter of a wealthy upstart trader to save his family's estate. Not your standard romance.

3. What do you plan to read next?

The Case Against Sugar, by Gary Taubes
WSJ review here.

The Mind of the Maker, by Dorothy Sayers
A book I love, which has come up in numerous conversations lately. Sayers examines human creativity in light of the doctrine of the Trinity and the creative power characterized by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Sayers emphasizes that this is not a work of apologetics, or even an affirmation of the doctrine of the Trinity, but I find it provides much food for meditation anyway.

They All Laughed..., by Ira Flatow
A Christmas present from my brother-in-law, about the invention of various modern (up to 1993, anyway) technologies. "It's about how things like the Xerox machine were invented," I told my 14-year-old.
"What's a Xerox machine?" she asked.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Nothing at the moment. I finally gave up on John Adams and returned it, and my bedside table is clear of everything except...

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar by Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass
My friend lent it to me, and then I got pregnant, and then... I should just buy my own copy to reproach me each evening.

6. What is your current reading trend?
Not exactly a trend, but I want to work through all the books I received for Christmas, once I assemble them in one place.


Monday, January 02, 2017

The Thesis

We've been having some college-oriented discussions here lately. Someone asked about the liberal arts tonight, and this morphed into an examination of how Hogwarts doesn't prepare its students well for the multiplicity of jobs within the wizarding world. Is accounting in the Ministry of Magic contracted out to secret societies of Muggles? Who runs the financial end of Fred and George's joke shop? Why isn't math a part of potions? Why is there no great Wizard literature?



One of the topics we discussed was The Thesis: what it is, how you write a paper of 20! pages, how you pick a subject to write about. Darwin and I were revisiting our theses, an interesting trip down memory lane. Why were these topics so important that we chose to spend half a year researching and writing and revising and dealing with the crappy printers in the computer labs?

My thesis was a compare/contrast of the Rhapsodic Theater of Karol Wojtyła (better known as Pope John Paul II) and the Poor Theater of Jerzy Grotowski, another Polish theater artist who flourished after WWII. 

Darwin's thesis was a translation of The Phoenix by Lactantius, an early Christian poet, along with a brief analysis of the text. 

What did you write about?

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Prize

MrsDarwin

Here, free of charge, a premise for the next big dystopian YA novel:
In a country deeply divided, love for The Show is the chief unifying force, a work of genuine artistic merit bringing together people from every ideological walk and every side political, social, and religious spectrum. Most will never get to see The Show in person, as tickets are prohibitively expensive for all but elites, and it plays only in a few coastal venues. However, most people have heard the soundtrack and know at least a bit about its charismatic creator, Mr. Charisma, one of the few celebrities who seems genuinely nice and accessible.  
One day a promotion is offered. The prize: a chance to see The Show, not once, not twice, but three different times, as a guest of Mr. Charisma himself. The cost of entry: a mere $10 donation. For that price, you might as well buy 2, 5, 10 chances -- it's less than you'd spend on the cost of a single ticket, if one were ever available. The donation money goes to support the foundation of which Mr. Charisma's nice mother is a board member. This foundation stresses the social work it does on behalf of women, with special emphasis on women in poverty who have few chances. Its mission is to prevent suffering. What reasonable person could object? 
Some people don't like the foundation. Its core business, underneath the glossy exterior of women's health care, is a highly controversial Procedure -- the dismemberment of inconvenient children. Unwanted children, of course. Defective children. Children who might not survive anyway. There are people who hate what the foundation does, who work tirelessly in opposition to it, but some of them are weird and seem extreme, whereas the supporters of the foundation seem so nice and reasonable. People like Mr. Charisma and his nice mom. You've seen videos of them, and they seem so pleasant. How could people like that support something that's bad? 
And you want so badly to see The Show. This promotion buys you hope, the hope that despite the odds you might get to be a part of this beloved cultural phenomenon. Mr. Charisma is everywhere, on TV, in your social media feeds, pushing the promotion, touting the good The Foundation does. You feel a little conflicted about The Procedure, but lots of nice normal people like Mother Charisma support it. And what harm can donating $10 do? 
Not so fictional, of course. In an essay in Vogue, Dr. Luz Towns-Miranda, mother of Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda and member of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund National Board (the political advocacy arm of PP), breathlessly announces The Prize:
With the increased threat to women’s reproductive rights and access to health care for all under the incoming administration, my family and I are not standing idle. Lin-Manuel, my genius son and supporter, partnered with Prizeo, a celebrity digital fundraising platform, to run a spectacular sweepstakes that will allow a lucky winner to attend Hamilton in each location it is running—NYC, Chicago, and San Francisco—in 2017. (My husband, Luis Miranda, was instrumental in helping to shape the prize, recognizing the appeal of the trifecta!) The funds raised will be donated to Planned Parenthood in an effort to keep its health care clinics open, particularly in rural and underserved areas—where this is a life-or-death issue, to be sure. The winner will have fun, but the many who are participating should be forever proud that their support helped Planned Parenthood continue to thrive.
***

Many celebrities trade on their popular appeal to promote pet causes. The Gary Sinise Foundation provides support for wounded vets. Tom Hanks serves on the Board of Governors for the National Space Society. Angelina Jolie is affiliated with The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and her foundation has made large donations to Doctors Without Borders. Each of these popular stars has used their celebrity platform to advocate for these causes which are not only directly reflected in the movie projects they've chosen, but are also extremely unlikely to needlessly alienate the portions of their base that don't share the actors' political convictions. Of course, aligning your brand explicitly with the nation's largest abortion provider is not unheard of. Lena Dunham, vocal PP advocate, recently said that she hadn't had an abortion, but she wished she'd had so she could reduce the stigma around the issue. Dunham, however, trades in pushing the envelope, and chooses her projects with that in mind. Miranda's most famous work is about Alexander Hamilton, born to an unwed mother, a man who had eight children, and who destroyed his political career and damaged his personal life with his reckless sexual behavior. There is nothing in the work itself that advances the agenda of Planned Parenthood. There is no link between the themes of Hamilton and abortion, except for Miranda trading on his personal appeal to push fans to the next step of thinking that PP is cool because a cool guy supports it.

We needn't quibble over whether Miranda thinks his cause is righteous. It's clear that he believes that Planned Parenthood is a powerful force for good in the fight for women's health and empowerment. But the man is no cultural naïf. His father is a longtime Democratic politico in NYC. Someone raised in this atmosphere may firmly believe that abortion is a human right and a tool for good. But it's no secret, no matter how liberal your bubble, that half of Americans see the core business of PP as abhorrent. Miranda is well aware that his work has spanned a great cultural divide, on the other side of which are those people who consider abortion murder. His calculation here seems to be that the people who are alienated by this promotion are worth offending. And those people are taking notice. A frustrated friend said, "I am so angry about this ongoing promotion. The very idea that he would take the goodwill created by the most bipartisan and cross-cultural phenomenon in twenty years and squander it to shill for Planned Parenthood. It's just perverse."

***

The lottery is called a "tax on stupidity", and yet statistically, nearly half of Americans bought a lottery ticket within the past year. These people are buying hope, the hope of the only chance they'll ever have of seeing the exalted sums of money promised by the Powerball jackpot. The cost of a ticket is negligible, especially considered next to the potential reward, and the money is supposed to be going to good causes like education. Do most people buying tickets think about where their two bucks will end up? Or it is a case of eyes on the prize, two bucks gets you a shot at $63 million? If you win, you've got $63 million. If you lose, you're out two bucks. The cause it supports is irrelevant, because the stakes are so low and the prize so desirable.

This Prizeo promotion is more insidious than the state lottery. Hamilton is rightly celebrated as a modern artistic triumph. Darwin and I were fortunate enough to be able to afford tickets, and I don't regret that. Besides purchasing an enjoyable evening of theater for ourselves, the money we shelled out went to supporting the theater, the actors, the musicians, and the creative team that made Hamilton possible. It's more than possible that any of the people who received some share of our ticket price contributed to causes I find repulsive, just as it's possible that your Rogue One ticket money, parceled out among theater owners, theater employees, the movie studio, the actors, directors, producers, etc., went to causes that were personally significant to the individuals getting a cut. That doesn't imply your endorsement of anything but Rogue One. In this case the $10 donation, insignificant as it may seem for such an outsized potential reward, goes directly to Planned Parenthood.  People who otherwise would never have considered donating to Planned Parenthood will figure that $10 doesn't matter because of the potential benefits of winning, and anyway, doesn't Planned Parenthood do other stuff besides abortions? Only $10, and Miranda will hand you that tempting prize apple off Planned Parenthood's tree. That's selling your soul cheap.



Darwin

MrsDarwin and I were both deeply frustrated to find constant spam showing up in our Facebook feeds: You like Lin-Manuel Miranda, here's his video about a contest where you can win a chance to watch all three Hamilton productions (NY, Chicago, and San Francisco) personally with Lin-Manuel just for donating to Planned Parenthood. It wasn't till we were discussing it in more detail today that we realized that we had somewhat different reasons for finding the situation so offensive.

I think MrsDarwin lays out the general situation well above, and I don't disagree with any of her points. Several, however, did not occur to me because of my particular viewpoint, and other points, as I'll outline briefly, impressed themselves on me more strongly.

I didn't recognize the temptation aspect, and this is because of the particular way that I react to drawings and lotteries of all kinds. Being someone who trade in probabilities, I gave very little thought to the idea that people who would not otherwise donate to Planned Parenthood -- as in, people who were actually ambivalent or somewhat opposed to it -- would be tempted to donate to get into the drawing. If anything, I often find myself reluctant to buy raffle tickets even for causes that I believe in because I consider buying a raffle ticket to be such a bad deal. (A bad deal how? Say you had the $500-$800 that it would take to buy a Hamilton ticket from a scalper. Would you stand a better chance of seeing Hamilton if you just bought the ticket or if you invested in 50-80 chances in LMM's Planned Parenthood raffle? I'd need to know the number of entires made, but you're probably at least several thousand times better off investing in a ticket than you are investing in his raffle. It's almost an offensively bad deal, less than cents of the dollar in terms of value.) Thus, when there's a raffle at our parish, an institution to which I give thousands of dollars a year, my very strong instinct is to refuse to buy even a one dollar ticket. Ask me to donate a hundred dollars and I'll do it, but ask me to buy a ten-dollar raffle ticket and I start making rational calculations.

This isn't to say that I didn't think the fundraiser would net Planned Parenthood money. I figured that it was a promotion like the ones that I analyze at work. My thought was, if you're the sort of person who might be open to donating to Planned Parenthood anyway (and I've seen plenty of left-leaning friends announcing in their social media feeds lately that they're donating in order to stave off the repression they imagine is ahead), then this type of offer would likely get you to go ahead and make a donation. Many people have un-actualized intentions of making donations or purchases for long periods without acting on them, and once they've made a purchase it often makes them more likely (not less likely) to repeat the purchase later. So a promotion which activated a lot of tepid Planned Parenthood supporters would doubtless bring them money, but it didn't really occur to me that someone who didn't already like Planned Parenthood would be tempted to donate because of this offer, because it seemed obvious that your chances of actually scoring a Hamilton ticket as a result were near to zero.

What did upset me a great deal, however, was the way that the ad was being thrust upon Hamilton fans of all descriptions, not based on any affinity for Planned Parenthood, but simply as a result of having liked one of the social media feed relating to the show. Not only was I constantly seeing the Planned Parenthood fundraising adds featuring Lin-Manuel, but I know that due to Facebook's marketing algorithms it was showing my friends these same adds with the unwilling recommendations "Your Friend [Darwin] Likes Lin-Manuel Miranda" or "Your Friend [Darwin] Follows Hamilton".

I take it as a given that celebrities don't agree with my morals, and thus that they use the millions they make when I and others watch their movies, buy their books, or listen to their music and they donate some of that money to causes I find abhorrent. I am not surprised when artists I otherwise like show up at fundraisers for groups I oppose. This, however, seemed different. Here was Miranda using his control of the Hamilton brand to force endorsements for a cause I hate into my feed, and with a claimed endorsement by me into the feeds of my friends. He wasn't just using my liking of his musical to force ads for his controversial opinions into my social media feed, he was without my permission using my name to force it into the feeds of my friends. (I actually had one friend post a complaint back to me as seeing these false endorsements, which is what prompted me to finally remove myself from all Hamilton related pages and lists.)

This behavior seemed to violate the basic social principles for getting along in a divided world which have ruled -- perhaps as I think about the strength of my anger, ruled too much -- both my professional life (wholly) and my online life (partially). One of these basic principles is that before sounding off, one should take into account the feelings of the people likely to read one. Want to riff on gay marriage? As you decide whether to do so, or how to do so, think first about the people you know who are gay or feel strongly about gay issues. You don't have to lie to them about your feelings, but don't say anything about the topic you're not prepared for them to see. Want to talk about the cool new rifle you just bought? Consider that the nation was just convulsed that week with news of a mass shooting, and consider whether people who feel differently than you do about guns will see your post as threatening or upsetting.

I'm sure there are still plenty of people who find my posting on various topics upsetting, but even in the online world I actually hedge away from talking about a lot of things, or modify the way that I talk about them, out of consideration for the way that my small readership would likely react to my comments.  Indeed, at times I think that one of the reasons that the blog history in our sidebar shows fewer posts with each passing year is that as I get to now more people more deeply, there are fewer and fewer topics on which I feel comfortable sounding off quickly.  And that's the online world, in which I give myself relatively free reign. At work, I obey a nearly absolute policy of never discussing politics or religion unless directly asked, and sometimes not even then. (I also make it a point not to be connected with anyone from work on Facebook.) Not that this means there's no friction. You don't get to have six kids (I haven't even told coworkers about the one on the way yet) without becoming a walking punchline. But there's only so much one can cover up in order to remain marginally acceptable in a hostile world.

Why is it that we curtail what we talk about in certain settings and the ways we talk about hot topics when we do discuss them? We do so out of consideration for the feelings of others. We do so out of politeness. We do so because we don't want to hurt or offend people unnecessarily even when we disagree with them.

Except that apparently Lin-Manuel Miranda does not believe that such strictures apply when it comes to fundraising for Planned Parenthood using the Hamilton brand. No, if you're on "the right side of history" you can take one of the country's most divisive topics and shove it into all your fans' social media feeds. You can even use their names to advertise your views to your fans' friends. I can't imagine that someone whose mother works for Planned Parenthood's political action arm is unaware that there are plenty of people in the country who don't like Planned Parenthood. It seems a stretch to imagine he thinks no one among his fans falls into that group. No, the clear message here seems to be: Who cares about any Hamilton fans who find Planned Parenthood offensive? I'll rub it in their faces and use their own fandom to promote my views to their friends without so much as a by your leave. If we show respect for the feelings of others by not shoving things which may offend them into  their faces in neutral places (at the dinner table, at the office, etc.) then this shows the opposite of such: that those who disagree with Planned Parenthood are either so distasteful as not to be worth consideration, or so beneath regard that it never even occurred to Miranda to consider what those who might disagree with him might think.

The fundraiser thus becomes not only a venue to raise money for evil, it's also a sign of raw power: He has the cultural power to ignore politeness and decorum and stamp the boot good and hard in the faces of those he disagrees with. Those of us who spend our lives keeping our heads down in order to hold a job and get along in a hostile society are reminded of the tenuous condition in which we live.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Linkage, and Chats With Three

Leia Organa: A Critical Obituary. The style is exquisitely on point.
Leia Organa, the politician and revolutionary who led the defeat of the Galactic Empire, died after a short illness. She was 60 years old. Hers was a life laced with controversy concerning everything from her tactics to her very ancestry, but her intelligence, commitment to the Republican cause, and place at the heart of the Rebellion, and later the Resistance against Neo-Imperialism, remains the indisputable core of her legacy. 
...The Organa Doctrine identified the path to victory, but the woman herself remained on the front line, rarely pausing for conferences with Alliance intelligence droids. This may have contributed to the ambiguous reception she received in the post-Imperial era, as she didn’t emerge with the political influence accorded leaders like Mon Mothma . While they directed large scale operations (often per Organa’s theories and recommendations) she led covert operations on numerous worlds. She worked under deep cover as the bounty hunter Boussh, and during Galactic Concordance negotiations at the end of the war, admitted that during this period, she personally assassinated Hutt leader Jabba Desilijic Tiure. 
She was also revealed to be Darth Vader’s daughter, contributing to further marginalization not because of her ancestry per se, but in the context of an operation where she authorized Luke Skywalker (her collaborator in the killing of Jabba) to infiltrate DS-2, turn Vader into an Alliance asset, and kill the Emperor. Representatives raised questions about her objectivity, her use of political killing as a tool of warfare, the possibility that she might have granted Vader immunity from war crimes prosecution, and her indifference to risk, given that she was willing to sacrifice the last known Jedi in multiple operations. Organa was unrepentant. 
...If Organa must bear some responsibility for her son’s defection, it might ultimately stem from the operation that sent Luke Skywalker to DS-2, where he allegedly attempted to recruit Darth Vader. By suggesting Vader might be redeemed not through formal justice but by reawakening a familial bond, she might have recast him as a romantic, tragic figure, and not the mass murderer attested to by countless sources. Indeed, she allowed Skywalker to give Vader an ad hoc Jedi funeral. Of course, this was Skywalker’s choice, and he subsequently trained Ben Solo, so the “last Jedi” may bear greater blame than either his mother or oft-absent father.

***

I don't have a lot of truck with idolizing the great black-and-white moral lessons of the original Star Wars movies, so I appreciated Tom Harmon's disagreement with Steven Greydanus's fear that Rogue One is diluting the Star Wars brand.

Up to a point, Greydanus and Overstreet are right. They have identified Star Wars’ beating heart. And it is true that Rogue One is a less ambitious movie than the others. It is true that self-surrender is the key to the victory of good in the Star Wars universe; but it is also true that the way was paved for those triumphant moments of self-surrender by a lot of rebels with blasters in hand—or in X-Wings—shooting down bad guys. Rogue One is their story, it’s a Star Wars story, and it’s a pretty good one. 
Rogue One’s descent into darkness and grittiness is really at the service of what Greydanus and Overstreet admire about the original trilogy. Rogue One allows us to glimpse the Rebellion without Skywalkers. The most unambiguously good characters in the original films are Luke and Leia; the other characters (insofar as they are real characters and not just supporting props, like Chewbacca or Admiral Ackbar) are mostly painted in shades of grey. Lando Calrissian and Han Solo are both drawn from their seedy, listless lives by contact with Luke and Leia, who inspire them to nobility, virtue, and dedication to a good cause greater than themselves. Rogue One contributes to the overall Star Wars story by showing a Rebellion strongly tempted to become a terrorist organization—a temptation that can be resisted because of the leadership and example of Leia and eventually Luke.
***

Anne Kennedy on Private Grief in a Public Age.

But really, I think grief* is like prayer. That is to say, personal–only fathomed to a small degree by those outside oneself. It, therefore, doesn’t help for me to come in and tell you that you are wrong. Similarly, the things that you pray about, that trouble you, are yours to bring before God. You can ask me to pray for something or someone, and I will try, but I am not you and I can’t fully understand your burden. That doesn’t make my prayers on your behalf inefficacious, not at all. It just means that you, burdened with anxiety and grief, are going to pray Desperately, which is very different from my hasty, half forgotten arrow prayer. God hears both, but your prayer of desperation is deeper, more profound, more important. (As an aside, of course, as I am trying to remember to pray for you, the Holy Spirit might often confer some of the grief and burden to me, and I might find myself entering into to some of your grief in a way that I hadn’t if I had never begun to pray. In this way God unites us to one another in his own body, through prayer.) 
What I’m trying to say is, it’s fine if people are grieving and sorrowing about the deaths of a daughter and mother and maybe not so grieved about the deaths of people they have never heard of. The people who died in Chicago over the weekend are not publicly known in the same way, and so I can’t feel much for them, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t mourned in their own sphere, that God doesn’t know, that their deaths don’t mean anything. Really, we have so cheapened private grief by making it public that now, if every terrible thing isn’t widely known, it’s as if if doesn’t matter or didn’t happen, which is just Not True. Death has become like Instagramming your dinner–only delicious with a Valencia filter.
***

Shakespearean New Year's Resolutions.

***

The origins of O Holy Night.

***

Jennifer Fitz on why you should put aside your annual viewing of A Christmas Carol and actually read the book. We read it aloud the week before Christmas, ending up with the last stave on Christmas Day, as is right and fitting.

***

Rob Alspaugh with some fine analysis on one of the less picture-booky episodes in Genesis: The Battle of Ten Kings.

***

Last but not least, Mr. Christmas Day just turned three.


Three is three. Two is the age where a boy (in this case) realizes all the things he might be doing, but he's not capable of doing. Three is the age where he thinks of the things, and he is now also capable of executing them, but is constantly being thwarted by older people because he has no judgment. For example, a boy might want to bring his tricycle upstairs, but his mother keeps stopping him when she catches him on the fourth stair up. Accordingly, the rage of three is greater than the rage of two, and the judgment of three is less than the judgment of four, and a parent is very weary.

Fortunately, the conversation of three outstrips the conversation of two, and the logic improves a bit too. I took the man for a walk the other day, and had to constantly stop him from chewing on his coat collar.

"Stop that!" I finally said. "You can't chew up your collar and get your coat all wet."

"But I like to lick my collar," he said.

I couldn't argue with that on the surface -- undeniably, he does like to lick his collar.  "We don't lick collars," I said.

"But I like to lick it." And just when I was at my wits' end pulling his coat out of his mouth in near-freezing weather, he found a big stick and proceeded to thump the sidewalk all the way home, collar licking forgotten.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Reading, Fast and Slow

A couple weeks ago, spurred on by my wife's recommendation and by Brandon's fortnightly read I read A Civil Contract, a Georgette Heyer novel about a marriage of convenience which gradually develops into something deeper. It was a fun, fast read which I devoured in a couple of days, sitting up late reading while early pregnancy was sending MrsDarwin to bed early.

One of the things that struck me in this regard was the contrast to much of my other reading. I don't read many books these days that are simply fun, fast reads. Much of my reading time is taken up with books which are at least tangentially novel research: books about World War One, about European history in the periods just before and after, and fiction either about the war or providing a window on the cultures which clashed in it. Right now, for instance, my audiobook is Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann's novel covering several generations of a German merchantile family, and Verdun, a 1937 novel by French author Jules Romains about the battle of the same name. I'm enjoying both (Buddenbrooks is a better novel, but Verdun is quite well done) but neither is the sort of thing which I could read in bed for a couple hours at night without falling asleep, as I did with Civil Contract. It's not as if I find my other books boring. I want to read them and I'm finding them interesting. I suppose some dedicated readers can stay up late reading virtually anything that interests them, but (perhaps due to too many spells when I get only six hours of sleep or have some small person climbing in to thrash about the bed throughout the night) I find it hard to stay awake reading in bed for more than five to ten pages unless the book is both easy to read (as in fairly light) and fairly fast moving. Not necessarily in terms of suspense, but a certain type of prose construction which keeps the pages flipping easily.

I'm not necessarily talking strictly of frothy books or "popcorn reads"; I've read some fairly dark and grim novels which certainly have the fast-read quality. I'm having trouble nailing down exactly what it is that puts a book in this category for me. Most of them are comparatively modern. Although there's a lot that has fascinated me out of the WW1-and-before era books that I've been reading, most hundred year old books translated into English don't seem to fall in this category for me. Because with non-fast reading it can take me a month or so to finish a book, I tend to fend off a lot of reading for fear of not getting to all the books I need to get to. And yet, a book that does have this fast-reading quality is finished within a couple days and thus doesn't actually put me back much in getting to my other reading priorities.

Whatever it is, the refreshment that I felt after reading a quick page turner for the first time in three months or so was palpable, and it got me thinking that I should make sure to read more books which have that fun quality. It's not as if I'm in danger of falling away from reading, but it probably isn't good to be reading only denser reads. I am, after all, trying to write, and I don't want to fall into the habit of writing pages that don't turn easily. And also, activity creates habit. And I want to retain the pure enjoyment of moving through a book quickly to discover what happens next.

A Dysfunctional Relationship With God

One of the basic lessons of good writing is that readers are held by drama, and drama is created by conflict. There's something a bit pat about Tolstoy's, "All happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," however it's true that happy or unhappy, is it the struggles and changes in life which are interesting to read about. Quiet bliss makes for good living but dull reading.

This dynamic can make for some odd dynamics, however, when we think about conversion and relationship with God in terms of stories. Someone who has a tempestuous relationship with God makes for a more exciting story. You know the sort of thing: There were so many times he turned away from God. Hated God. Fell back into [insert spectacular sin here] and yet each time he returned with the fervor of a drowning man seizing upon a life raft. No matter how many times he turned away, at his heart he knew he needed God.

These sorts of stories are dramatic to read, and in a story sense it seems as if someone who loves God despite so many obstacles, who turns to God so many times, must love God more than the more boring sort of believer. But such a relationship takes on a rather different flavor if we imagine it between two of us ordinary people. Take for instance: There are so many times he left his wife, cheated on her, beat her, stole from her, berated her. But deep in his heart he loved her so much that he always came back.

Sound like a lovely marriage? Like a marriage full of deeper love than a quietly, undramatically loving one? No. We'd think of someone like that as a terrible husband.

Of course, a key difference is that we can't damage God. To be sure, we can hurt Him. Every time we look at the crucifix we see the way in which our sins can pierce God. But God is infinitely greater than us, and so even while He is perfectly sensitive the to pain of our transgressions, He is also undamaged by them. When some other person hurts us too often and too badly, we're sometimes forced to turn ourselves away in self protection. It becomes difficult to rejoice in the latest contrition when we know it will be followed only too soon by another blow falling upon the bruise. God does not need to protect Himself in this way, and so God remains eager to welcome back the sinner at every repentance, however inevitable the next major transgression may seem.

And yet, this does not mean that God is some sort of divine punching bag whom we can pummel simply because He can take it. The fact that we cannot truly damage God does not mean that we cannot hurt Him. A betrayal is no less an injury because it cannot be fatal.

The fact we cannot truly injure God is important in thinking about repentance. In human relationships, it is sometimes true that someone is "better off if we leave them alone" at least for a time. This is never true with God. No matter how many times we have offended Him, He is always ready and eager for us to return to him.

And yet, aside from the drama of spectacular falls and returns, presuming upon the fact that we can't injure God can become a way to excuse our own bad behavior. After all, breaking out attachment to sin often hurts, like breaking a badly healed bone so that it can re-heal straight. "God can take it," can become the mantra of inaction, the excuse to not break away from the sins to which we return so often. If changing will hurt us, and our offenses do not really hurt God, then why not string along a bit? After all, God is always ready to forgive one more time.

But the implicit comparison of "will it hurt me more to change or God more to keep sinning?" misses what really occurs when we conform ourselves to God's will. Whatever the pain of breaking out old habits and attachments, to conform ourselves to God is to become our best selves, to attain to the highest good. Any pain that is involved in breaking free from out attachments to sin and conforming to God's will is the pain of the refining furnace.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Kingdom Not of This World

Last Advent I started a program for reading through the entire Bible in a year. I was a bit delayed by circumstances, and so instead of finishing up at the end of the liturgical year, I ended just before Christmas. The structure calls for reading:

  • Isaiah during Advent, 
  • Psalms during the Christmas season, 
  • the Wisdom books between Christmas and Lent, 
  • the major and minor prophets during Lent, 
  • the whole New Testament during the Easter season (starting with Acts during the octave of Easter,
  • and the Pentateuch and historical books during Ordinary Time.
In some Catholic versions of the Bible, 1 and 2 Maccabees are included before the book of Job, but the little Bible on my bedside table is the Revised Standard Edition which places those books in their chronological order at the very end of the Old Testament. It seems odd not to have the Old Testament end with the traditional last verses: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse" (Mal. 4: 5-6). Why would anyone tamper with such a clear segue into the New Testament?

But the historical books of Maccabees offers another segue into the New Testament, in the struggle of the Jews against their Hellenistic overlords.

"Now Judas [Maccabeus] heard of the fame of the Romans, that they were very strong and were well-disposed toward all who made an alliance with them, that they pledged friendship to those who came to them, and that they were very strong. Men told him of their wars and of the brave deeds which they were doing among the Gauls, how they had defeated them and forced them to pay tribute, and what they had done in the land of Spain to get control of the silver and gold mines there, and how they had gained control of the whole region by their planning and patience, even though the place was far distant from them. They also subdued the kings who came against them from the ends of the earth, until they crushed them and inflicted great disaster upon them; the rest paid them tribute every years. Philip, and Perseus kind of the Macedonians, and the others who rose up against them, they crushed in battle and conquered. ... The remaining kingdoms and islands, as many as ever opposed them, they destroyed and enslaved; but with their friends and those who rely on them they have kept friendship. They have subdued kings far and near, and as many as have heard of their fame have feared them. Those whom they wish to help and make kings, they make kings, and those whom they wish they depose; and they have been greatly exalted. Yet for all this not one of them has put on a crown or worn purple as a mark of pride, but they have built for themselves a senate chamber, and every day three hundred and twenty senators constantly deliberate concerning the people, to govern them well. They trust one man each year to rule over them and to control all their land; they all heed the one man, and there is no envy or jealousy among them" (1 Mac. 8:1-5, 11-16)

Judas sends a delegation to make a treaty of friendship with Rome, rather in the way that one might approach the Godfather for his protection, and the Romans are pleased to grant their friendship, if not their immediate military support.

Contrast, now, the beginning of infancy narrative in Luke:

"In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria" (Lk. 2:1-2).

Or, in the next chapter, the beginning of Jesus's ministry:

"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness..." (Lk. 3:1-2).

The Maccabees combined a zeal for the religion of their fathers with a zeal for regional power. An alliance with Rome seemed mutually beneficial and even noble. The description of the Romans in Maccabees (ca. 100 BC) makes them sound like the ideal men: ambitious for their country, but free and independent as citizens. Who wouldn't want to be allied with such a power? 

The kingdoms of the world crumble. The Hasmonean dynasty established by the Maccabees, rulers of an independent kingdom of Israel, devolves into a mess of infighting, and when Rome is appealed to, Pompey arrives in 63 AD. After some conflict, the kingdom of Israel is demoted to a client state of Rome, from which it never regains its independence. 

And the glorious ideal of Rome? 44 BC sees the assassination of Julius Caesar, kicking off a civil war that ended with Octavian assuming the title of Emperor in 31 BC. As Augustus Caesar, he put on a crown. He wore the purple as a mark of pride. The glorious Romans admired by the Maccabees eventually ordered a taxation census of their conquered territory under the governor Quirinius. (The date of the census was 6 AD, when Rome assumed direct control of Judea, although Luke places it about 10 years earlier, ca. 6 BC.) Opposition to this census resulted in the Zealot movement, responsible for many uprisings, and eventually to the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 AD.

In the midst of all this, a baby is born to a young Jewish girl, insignificant descendant of the once great Davidic dynasty, now only a memory. As Bishop Robert Barron points out, against the might and the armies of the emperor are arrayed the hosts of heaven who herald the baby. But they don't fight. Eventually that baby, now grown, stands bleeding and humiliated before the Roman governor and tells him, "My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from this world" (Jn. 18:36). The kingdoms of the world are passing away. The power of Rome is chronologically more distant from us than David was from Mary. But the kingdom not of this world endures, and we celebrate its advent today.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

What Will They Do When They Grow Up?

My latest piece of commuter reading is Thomas Mann's 1901 novel Buddenbrooks, which follows a German mercantile family through multiple generations in the 19th century. The Buddenbrook family are grain traders who (as of the novel's beginning) have reached the point of being a notable merchant family within their region. Much thought is given to the continuance of the family fortune and name. When young Antonie (Tony) Buddenbrook falls in love while on summer holiday with a university student studying to become a doctor (in that place and time a lower level of society than that of her family) her father writers her a letter in which he reminds her that they do not merely live for themselves. They are links in a chain. It's with this image in mind that Tony agrees to become engaged to the prosperous merchant her parents want her to marry rather than to her university student friend.

Such dynastic concerns are alien to our modern, individualistic society, and yet family culture and background continue to have a large influence on how people do economically. I've found myself thinking about these things as own our children start to near college age. I myself sometimes feel myself an interloper of sorts in the business world that I have made my way into. I don't come from a clear set of family career traditions. Go back four generations and you have my dad's side of the family on small farms in the midwest and my mom's side working in silver mines in New Mexico. One of my grandfather's did a full career as a non-commissioned officer in the Navy, then worked in manufacturing. My other grandfather never went to college but during WW2 found his way into working in aerospace. My dad was a planetarium lecturer, living in the odd space between teacher, academic and entertainer. I studied Classics in college and through my teens had fostered various ambitions: writing, going into the Air Force, doing something in the film industry. What I actually did was get an office job through a temp agency, keep looking for the next step up, and end up spending the last ten years doing pricing analytics at gradually increasing levels of responsibility.

The other night I was talking to the older kids and asked one of them what sort of career she might be interested in, and what she might want to study in college. Given what a driven kid she is, I was a bit surprised that the answer was so heavy on negatives: Don't want to be a teacher or a writer or do anything with math or science or history.

Well. That rules out a lot of options.

Of course, this is an off the cuff answer late at night after a long day, so it probably doesn't do to take it too seriously. I did find myself thinking about it an inordinate amount, however, wondering if there's more that I should to doing to convey the type of work which is necessary to maintain the family in the style to which its residents are accustomed.

As it is, I don't tent to talk about work a great deal when at home. I spend enough hours dealing with work problems and personalities when I'm at the office, and I'm usually more eager to talk to MrsDarwin about things we have in common: books I'm reading, writing projects, the latest news or blog controversy. Regaling her with the doings of people she never sees, dealing with the cycle of setting financial goals and making plans to meet them, is not high on my conversational priority list. Yet I suppose in some sense that leaves work, and the earnings it provides, a mysterious process. I'm not really sure how the families which seem to produce generation after generation of lawyers, doctors, engineers and bankers pass those expectations on. Do they talk about the links in the chain, Buddenbrook-style? Or does it just get into the air after a few generations?

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Is Plausibility a Straight White Male?


Apparently some people are worked up that although the main character in the new Star Wars movie is a woman, most of the other characters are men. I do not have an opinion one way or the other on this (and haven't yet seen the movie) but the links led me back into some posts on the balance between diversity and plausibility in writing fiction, which is a topic that I am interested in.

The first piece is a rather long and rambling one by SF/F author Kameron Hurley dealing with the question of whether women historically were soldiers. (Her answer is pretty clearly given away by the title "We Have Always Fought".) She begins with an extended analogy in which she imagines a world in which all llamas portrayed in fiction are violent semi-reptiles, and people think that portraying a llama as a grazing mammal is unrealistic. She thinks something similar has been done with women, that women have always been clearly present in war settings but that they've been systematically excluded from fictional representations of war with the result that people thing war stories including women as fighters are unrealistic.

When I sat down with one of my senior professors in Durban, South Africa to talk about my Master’s thesis, he asked me why I wanted to write about women resistance fighters.

“Because women made up twenty percent of the ANC’s militant wing!” I gushed. “Twenty percent! When I found that out I couldn’t believe it. And you know – women have never been part of fighting forces –”

He interrupted me. “Women have always fought,” he said.

“What?” I said.

“Women have always fought,” he said. “Shaka Zulu had an all-female force of fighters. Women have been part of every resistance movement. Women dressed as men and went to war, went to sea, and participated actively in combat for as long as there have been people.”
...
I spent two years in South Africa and another decade once I returned to the states finding out about all the women who fought. Women fought in every revolutionary army, I found, and those armies were often composed of fighting forces that were 20-30% women. But when we say “revolutionary army” what do we think of? What image does it conjure? Does the force in your mind include three women and seven men? Six women and fourteen men?

Women not only made bombs and guns in WWII – they picked up guns and drove tanks and flew airplanes. The civil war, the revolutionary war – point me to a war and I can point to an instance where a women picked up a hat and a gun and went off to join it. And yes, Shaka Zulu employed female fighters as well. But when we say “Shaka Zulu’s fighters” what image do we conjure in our minds? Do we think of these women? Or are they the ones we don’t see? The ones who, if we included them in our stories, people would say weren’t “realistic”?

She in turn links to a piece by another SF/F author which deals with diversity in history more generally.

Time and again, we see fans and creators alike defending the primacy of homogeneous – which is to say, overwhelmingly white, straight and male – stories on the grounds that anything else would be intrinsically unrealistic.
...
But what happens when our perception of historical accuracy is entirely at odds with real historical accuracy? What happens when we mistake our own limited understanding of culture – or even our personal biases – for universal truths? What happens, in other words, when we’re jerked out of a story, not because the fantastic elements don’t make sense, but because the social/political elements strike us as being implausible on the grounds of unfamiliarity?
...
Because as Roberts rightly points out, there’s a significant difference between history as written and history as happened, with a further dissonance between both those states and history as it’s popularly perceived. For instance: female pirates – and, indeed, female pirates of colour – are very much an historical reality. The formidable Ching Shih, a former prostitute, commanded more than 1800 ships and 80,000 pirates, took on the British empire and was successful enough to eventually retire. There were female Muslim pirates and female Irish pirates – female pirates, in fact, from any number of places, times and backgrounds. But because their existence isn’t routinely taught or acknowledged, we assume them to be impossible.
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And then there’s the twin, misguided beliefs that Europe was both wholly white and just as racially prejudiced as modern society from antiquity through to the Middle Ages – practically right up until the present day. Never mind that no less than three Arthurian Knights of the Round Table – Sir Palamedes, Sir Safir and Sir Segwarides – are canonically stated to be Middle Eastern, or the fact that people of African descent have been present in Europe since classical times; and not just as slaves or soldiers, but as aristocrats. The network of trade routes known collectively as the Silk Road that linked Europe with parts Africa, the Middle East, India and Asia were established as early as 100 BC; later, black Africans had a visible, significant, complex presence in Europe during the Renaissance, while much classic Greek and Roman literature was only preserved thanks to the dedication of Arabic scholars during the Abbasid Caliphate, also known as the Islamic Golden Age, whose intellectuals were also responsible for many advances in medicine, science and mathematics subsequently appropriated and claimed as Western innovations.

How we take this has a lot to do with what, as a fiction writer or reader, we're trying to do. That something is historically uncommon does not mean that it never happened, as the examples presented above underline. Say, for example, someone wrote a novel about a woman who fought in the Tsarist army during WW1, became a non-commissioned officer, and successfully petitioned the Tsar to let her raise an all-woman infantry unit. Would it be correct for a critic to say, "That novel is inaccurate because women didn't fight in the Tsarist army"? No. Because that did happen. However, if you were writing a novel set in the Russian army in WW1, would you be leaving out the contribution of women if you didn't include women soldiers? No, not really. The number of women who fought in the Tsarist army was pretty small, a few thousand out of a total mobilized army size of twelve million. A Russian soldier could have gone through the whole war without ever seeing a woman soldier.

Hurley is not entirely wrong to say "The civil war, the revolutionary war – point me to a war and I can point to an instance where a women picked up a hat and a gun and went off to join it," but she's also only right within certain bounds. A few women successfully disguised themselves as men and fought in the Revolution and the Civil War, but in the modern armies of countries like the US and Britain the medical examinations and training regimes had developed to the point that a woman could no longer successfully pass for male and sign up as a soldier. When Dorothy Lawrence (a British reporter) wanted to go under cover as a soldier with the British army in WW1, she had to get serving male soldiers to smuggle her a spare uniform. Thus disguised she was able to move around the front line for ten days with the help of soldiers who knew she was really a woman, before she got sick and turned herself in to the military authorities. However, although there were women who served in designated female roles (transportation, medical, intelligence, etc.) under great hardship and danger, there were not women who successfully served in standard combat roles in the US or British army in WW1 or WW2. Other armies either officially allowed women to serve as combat soldiers (as did the Russian army in both world wars, though even in WW2 only 2-3% of Red Army personnel were women) or were loose enough in their training and recruiting that some women successfully served while disguised as men (this happened at least a couple times in the Serbian army, Polish Legion, and Austrian Army).

I'm not sure where Hurley gets her "Women fought in every revolutionary army, I found, and those armies were often composed of fighting forces that were 20-30% women." statistic. It is true that in the 20th Century women were more often found as actual fighters in semi-irregular forces such as the various partisan/resistance organizations in WW2, the Irgun in British Palestine, etc. than they were in the regular armies of 20th Century nation states. This isn't necessarily because resistance and revolutionary movements were more progressive than organized armies, though in some cases it was. Communist movements mostly endorsed some form of women's equality. More key, however, even in societies we'd otherwise recognize as very traditional is the fact that revolutionary and resistance movements were always starved for recruits. They couldn't afford to be choosy in recruiting the way that a national army could. And in a guerrilla wars which often involved brutal reprisals against the civilian population, the rational that keeping women out of the army would keep them safe did not apply in may revolutionary and resistance movements. Revolutionary movements tended to be egalitarian in the same sense that a natural disaster is: they sprang from circumstances that affected everyone. However, as revolutionary armies formalized into armies, they often returned to the all-male norm. For example, while Polish revolutionary movements fighting against the Tsar included women, and women served in auxiliary roles in the Polish Legions and other semi-formalized military forces during the period of the Polish fight for independence in 1914-1921, the formal Polish Army which the fledgling state formed was all male. Similarly, in the early stages of the French Revolution, women at some points played key roles in the revolutionary mobs which fought against royal control. But in the formal armies of the French Republic and French Empire, women did not play any formal role in fighting.

How, then, does all this relate to portraying history and women in particular in fiction?

Fiction deals in particulars. You don't have to write a novel about the most likely kind of character. You could write a novel about a Chinese man who went to Roman Britain. It's a one in several million chance, but if it can plausibly happen you can write about it without being considered inaccurate. However, that it could happen doesn't mean that it was normal. Indeed, the very thing which is interesting about some of these situations is that it was so very unusual. The story of a women who dressed as a man and fought in the American Revolution would be interesting to read, but it was hardly a normal experience for a woman in the Revolutionary War. It would be inaccurate if you wrote a novel about the Revolutionary War in which woman-soldiers were all over the place. Similarly, it wouldn't be inaccurate to portray an Arab or Black character in Medieval Europe -- but if you wrote as if such characters were all over the place, you would not be writing in a way that was faithful to history. It's entirely legitimate both to write stories focused on unusual characters and to write stories about typical characters.

This is one of the things I find frustrating about both activism and reaction centering around the portrayal of history in fiction. It's interesting to tell both the stories of people in unusual situations, such an African man traveling through Medieval Europe or a woman fighting in the Tsarist army, and to tell the stories of people in more typical situations. So long as they remain true to the history of their times, authors who take either of these paths should not be attacked for their choice of topics.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Books We Read

The fact is, none of my children are particularly keen on Tolkien.

Once upon a time writing such a sentence might have given me a good deal of pain, but the way that I think about books and their place in defining who we are had undergone some changes over the last twenty years.

My parents both came from families not greatly into reading, but they both fell so deeply under the spell of Tolkien, Lewis and the like that they became lifelong influences. I would not exist without their interest in those books, since they met through a group for reading and discussing the works of the Inklings. I was an apple that did not fall far form the tree. I read The Hobbit at seven and the Narnia books repeatedly in my middle school years. I didn't read Lord of the Rings till the summer I was thirteen, but when I devoured it, reading the three volumes through in as many days, then turning directly to The Silmarillion, then reading Lord of the Rings through again. Fantasy and Science Fiction were nearly all that I read for fun in my high school years.

These books were so important to me, and to most of those close to me, that by the time I went to college it was a basic assumption for me that the only really interesting people, the only people who were worth having in depth discussions with, were people who shared interest in these same books and these same genres.

Because the works of Tolkien and Lewis seemed to speak so deeply to the way I understood the world, it also seemed natural to me that people who really read and understood these books would share my own views about life, the world, and its creator. Sure, with the advent of the internet I began to run into people who shared my passion for Middle Earth and Narnia but did not share my other beliefs, but at some level I was sure this must be because they hadn't yet really arrived at a full understanding of these books. Once they went 'further up and further in' in Lewis's words, they would arrive at the same place as I.

If that sounds incredibly naive, it's because it was. It took me a while to realize that lack of interest in what had been my favorite books and genres did not necessarily make someone "a mundane", someone without interest in the deeper truths I saw in my favorite books. What's more, many who did like my favorite books liked them because they liked the spectacle and escapism of a magical or futuristic setting, not because they actually had interest in the what I most valued in these books.

There's still a particular frisson to discovering someone else likes a book that you like. MrsDarwin and I in part became attached through my chance dropping of a Lewis Carol quote when we met at a freshman mixer. There's a real closeness to sharing a book you love with someone and having them love it too. That's in part why book lovers are so eager to provide reading recommendations.

And there's still plenty of time for the kids to come around on some of my favorites. Sure, I loved Tolkien at 13-14, but many people come to it later. I don't think I'd do my favorite books any favors by pushing the aggressively on kids who aren't currently finding them interesting. But even if they never do come to love his books as I do, won't feel it as an apostasy that divides us in the way that I would have imagined I would twenty years ago.