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

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Information and Metaphysical Conclusions

I was struck by Kyle's post on Friday "Abortion, Rational Decision-Making, and Informed Consent", but it took me a while thinking it over to come to an explanation of exactly what I find wrong about it. Kyle is addressing the issue of "informed consent" laws which require a woman seeking an abortion to view an ultrasound of her baby or read an explanation of fetal development at the stage of pregnancy her child is at. He is concerned, however, that such laws miss the real moral point:
Catarina Dutilh Novaes explains her worry about some new laws requiring physicians to show a woman an ultrasound of the fetus and describe its status, organs and present activity before performing an abortion. She writes: “It does not take a lot of brain power to realize that what is construed here as ‘informed decision’ is in fact yet another maneuver to prevent abortions from taking place by ‘anthropomorphizing’ the fetus” and “it is of striking cruelty to submit a woman to this additional layer of emotional charge at such a difficult moment.” She’s right, I suspect, about the underlying motivation behind the laws and the suffering their practice would impose. If the legislators and activists pushing these laws recognize the suffering they may inflict, they clearly see it as justified, weighing, as they do, the vital status of the nascent life as greater than the emotional status of the expectant mother.
There’s something to this. The information the physician is legally required to communicate by these new laws informs in a very limited way: it doesn’t provide evidence of personhood or a right to life or any such metaphysical or moral reality. The sight and description of the fetus may give the appearance of a human life worthy of respect, but, as pro-lifers note, appearance is not indicative of moral worth. An embryo doesn’t look like a human being, but that appearance doesn’t signify anything moral or metaphysical about it.

The woman, for having this information, is not in any better position to make a rational, ethical decision. It may cause her to “see” the nascent life as human, but it doesn’t offer her a rational basis for such a perception. Her consent is no more informed after seeing and hearing the physical status of the life within her, and so these new “informed consent” laws don’t achieve what they are supposedly designed to do.

There are places conducive to informing people about the nascent life’s stages of development and about what exactly, scientifically speaking, abortion does to that life. A high school health class, for example. There, the scientific information about the unborn life and abortion can be more thoroughly considered, and once fully understood, serve in other settings as a reference point for metaphysical and moral considerations. Consent to abortion should be informed, but the information these new laws require to be communicated does not on its own result in informed consent or provide an additional basis for a rational, ethical decision. Why? Because, by itself, appearance is not ethically relevant and can also be misleading.
Now on the basic point, I agree with Kyle: appearance is not moral worth. A person is not worthy of human dignity simply because someone looks at him or her and sees similarity. To say that would be to suggest the converse: that when someone looks at another and sees simply "other" he is justified in not treating that person with human dignity. For instance, one could imagine (though I think it is the far less likely option) a situation in which a woman is leaning against abortion because she thinks that the child inside her will look "just like a baby", she sees a fuzzy ultrasound of something that still looks like a tadpole on an umbilical cord, and she thinks, "Oh, that's all? It must not be a baby yet. I'll abort."  Clearly, in this case, the information would have led to the wrong conclusion.  An appearance of similarity or dissimilarity does not a person make.

At the same time, the suggestion that informed consent laws are a bad idea just rubs me the wrong way, not just from a pragmatic point of view but from a moral one, and when I have this kind of conflict between instinct and reason, I tend to poke at the issue until I come up with a reason why it is that the apparently reasonable explanation seems wrong to me.

Having gone through this poking exercise, I realized that the issue is that Kyle's argument seems to imply that there are two sets of information -- information which relates to personhood, and information which relates to other qualities (appearance, sound, texture, etc.) -- and that informed consent laws are problematic because they require that people be provided with the latter type of information (information about appearance) when the relevant question is one of personhood, and thus only information relating to whether the being in question is a person would be applicable to the decision being made.

This seems reasonable for a moment until you try to think what information is actually in the first set, the set of information which relates to personhood. And here lies the paradox: there is none.

As beings who are both physical and rational, we understand the metaphysical concept of "person", but the inputs which we can receive from the outside world (things which we might be informed of as "facts" via "informed consent") are all sensory inputs. We reach the conclusion metaphysical, "This other being is a person, just as I am a person," based on sensory information, not metaphysical information.

Famously, in the movie Juno the main character is persuaded not to have an abortion when her pro-life classmate tells her that her baby has fingernails. This detail is what humanizes the baby in Juno's mind and causes her to decide not to abort the baby. Responding to this example, Kyle says:
The scene in Juno shows the effectiveness of giving a description of the fetus in order to humanize it, and it’s good that she chose to keep the baby, but she didn’t exactly make an informed ethical decision. Whether or not her baby had fingernails is irrelevant to the morality of abortion. It doesn’t follow that because the baby had fingernails that it was a human being with a right to life that the law should protect, but acting as though this information about fingernails led to “informed consent” implies that it does.
At the literal level, of course, the attribute "having fingernails" is not something that makes a being a person. We would not say, "Man is an animal with fingernails." Nor, if a human being through some genetic deformity was born without fingernails would be conclude that that member of our species was not a "person" because he lacked fingernails.

And yet, it is invariably through these surface level details that information comes into our minds and allows us, eventually, to form enough of an understanding of something that we are able to form metaphysical conclusions about it.

Picture, if you will, that at this moment I were to head down to the local coffee shop, and there I found Kyle sitting at a table with a banana.

"Darwin," Kyle informs me. "This banana is actually a person. It's an intelligent space alien."

My first reaction, after ordering a triple espresso, would doubtless to be respond, "It doesn't look like an alien. It looks like a banana."

My statement would have been about appearance, and yet, it would be completely normal for me to form the metaphysical conclusion that the banana was not a person based on this appearance combined with my experience of other similarly looking fruits. If a moment later, the thing-that-looked-like-a-banana were to rise in the air and trace in glowing letters a refutation of Derrida's claim that apartheid in South Africa was a consequence of phonetic writing which, "by isolating and hypostasizing being, ... corrupts it into a quasi-ontological segregation" -- I would rapidly revise my conclusions since this would be behavior far more in keeping with my experience of persons than with my experience of bananas.

The fact is that we will invariably reach the metaphysical conclusion "this is a person" based on a grouping of non-metaphysical sensory inputs. A materialist approach would to be say that this means that metaphysical conclusions never follow from "the data" and thus should be abandoned. Since there is no specific, observable characteristic which I can say "this is what makes something a person", this approach would reject personhood as a useful concept.

I would argue, instead, that it is precisely because we are beings able to perceive metaphysical realities through our sense of reason that we are able to take in a number of pieces of sensory "information" about something outside of ourselves and use those pieces of information to reach a metaphysical conclusion. In the case of deciding whether the unborn child is a "person" in the moral sense, pieces of information which might be key would be: member of our species (human), has unique DNA different from mother than father, heart is beating, eyes have formed, moves spontaneously, etc. None of these pieces of information is metaphysical in import, and yet, from the combination of them all, many people would form the conclusion that the creature in question is "a human being".

Further, there is simply a visceral reaction to seeing someone. Recall the New York Times piece on "twin reduction" that was going around a few weeks ago:
One of Stone’s patients, a New York woman, was certain that she wanted to reduce from twins to a singleton. Her husband yielded because she would be the one carrying the pregnancy and would stay at home to raise them. They came up with a compromise. “I asked not to see any of the ultrasounds,” he said. “I didn’t want to have that image, the image of two. I didn’t want to torture myself. And I didn’t go in for the procedure either, because less is more for me.” His wife was relieved that her husband remained in the waiting room; she, too, didn’t want to deal with his feelings.
Kyle's is right in saying that appearance itself is not evidence of personhood, but he is wrong in saying that this means that an ultrasound would not form a piece of "information" which would lead to a more "informed consent" in regards to abortion. In the end, no piece of information is in and of itself evidence of personhood. And yet, it is through these incomplete clues, these pieces of information which do not themselves indicate personhood, that we know that anyone at all is a person -- indeed, that anyone at all exists.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Loyalty Was Not the Coin of the Realm

This weekend's WSJ describes a fascinating piece of history: The Ides of March Denarius
The coin features two daggers and bears in Latin the date of Caesar's stabbing, "Eid Mar" or March 15, featuring on its flip side a profile of Brutus, honoring him as a lead conspirator in the assassination.
The "Ides of March" coin was struck by Brutus around 42 B.C., created by his army in the field under rough conditions. Two daggers on one side symbolize the knives carried by Brutus and Cassius, assassins of Caesar, says William E. Metcalf, a Yale University classics professor. Historians have inferred that Caesar shocked Romans by putting himself on a coin—a spot normally reserved for a god or hero—and Brutus would have betrayed his own lofty ideals by doing the same, Mr. Metcalf says.
With only 65 known to still be in existence, possessing such pieces of history is, it seems, the domain of very rich history aficionados. Still, it's fascinating simply to know that these are out there.

Friday, August 26, 2011

All About Pricing: Price Discrimination

I thought it might be interesting to do an occasional series on how pricing works -- since it's what I do all day and I (clearly a biased source) find it interesting. I flatter myself this might also be educational in that many people don't think much about how pricing works in making a business successful.

One of the important-but-illusive concepts that I deal with a fair amount as a pricer is price discrimination. This is a term which different people use in different ways, and on its own it sounds a bit scary (we don't normally think of "discrimination" as something we want a business to be doing) so I'll define it roughly here at the beginning and then discuss some examples: Price discrimination consists of selling similar or identical products or services to different customers for different amounts of money.

Why would you want to do that?

To be successful, a business needs to meet both its fixed costs and the cost of the goods it sells. Take a restaurant. The fixed costs include rent, the kitchen and wait staff, utilities, advertising, etc. The costs of the goods it sells are the costs of the food ingredients used to make meals for its customers.

If the restaurant gets really, really busy, it might need more staff, but most of the time the cost of keeping the restaurant open for business are the same whether 100 people or 150 people come in for lunch.

So, you're running Egan's Irish Pub and right now your business is just breaking even. It's worth it to you to offer lower prices to new customers if that would increase your traffic, because your fixed costs are already met. But you don't necessarily want to discount all the business that you already have, because then you might find yourself no better off. What do you do?

Well, you could offer a coupon. If you get the coupon mostly to people who aren't already your customers, you increase your sales and the lower price those additional customers are paying is okay because you only have to meet your cost of goods on those sales: your fixed costs are already covered.

You could also offer time dependent discounts. The "happy hour" is a classic example of price discrimination. You pick of a time of day when not many people normally come to your business and offer people who come at that time a special discount. People who really care about getting a good deal will come at that time, while customers who care more about convenience will come at their usual times.

While not a classic example of price discrimination, certain types of product differentiation can be motivated by price discrimination-type thinking. The idea here is to offer one version of your product for value conscious customers, at a lower price, in order to win their business, while steering other customers to a very similar, higher priced product.

In addition to helping businesses make money, there's an odd sort of social justice angle to price discrimination as well. While the purpose of the strategy is to help companies make more money, the result can end up being that those who are truly short of money (and willing to make certain trade-offs as a result) get to pay less for virtually the same product, while those with more money pay more.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Two Quotes for Your Evening

I apologize if things have been low on substantive posts and high on links and quotes around here of late. Perhaps it's the late summer atmosphere getting into the brain, or maybe I'm just dry at the moment.

I "read" this just the other day (heard it on my morning commute) and it struck me as an example of when telling rather than showing is actually far more evocative. I'm a sucker for the truly well written generalization, though as Austen pastiches quickly teach one, there is nothing worse than one done badly.
Certainly the tense nerves of men of action -- less notorious than those of imaginative men -- are not to be minimized. This was true of my father, who, like many persons who believe primarily in the will -- although his own will was in no way remarkable -- his in his heart a hatred of constituted authority. He did his best to conceal this antipathy, because the one thing he hated, more than constituted authority itself, was to hear constituted authority questioned by another but himself. This is perhaps an endemic trait in all who love power, and my father had an absolute passion for power, although he was never in a position to wield it on a notable scale. In his own house, only he himself was allowed to criticize -- to use a favorite phrase of his -- 'the powers that be'. In private, he would, for example, curse the Army Council (then only recently come into existence); in the presence of others, even those 'in the Service' with whom he was on the best of terms, he would defend to the last ditch official policy of which in his heart he disapproved.
Anthony Powell, The Kindly Ones

They loyalties we hold are complex things. Often we're willing to criticize ourselves that which hearing the same criticism from nearly anyone else will cause us to defend. And then the description itself is simply so delightful. In one paragraph one feels one knows Nick's father rather well. Perhaps he is someone in your family, or at work. No scene has been played out, nothing has been shown, and yet this description is both specific and general enough to flesh out a character to a degree that a great deal of less deft dialogue and descriptive narration would have still failed to do.

This other was brought to my mind by a line of argument I came across lately. It is an example of why I like No Exit so much, and find so much truth in it, despite the fact that my own view of the world is so nearly opposite to that of Sartre.
Garcin: Listen! Each man has an aim in life, a leading motive; that's so, isn't it? Well, I didn't give a damn for wealth, or for love. I aimed at being a real man. A tough, as they say. I staked everything on the same horse.... Can one possibly be a coward when one's deliberately courted danger at every turn? And can one judge a life by a single action?

Inez: Why not? For thirty years you dreamt you were a hero, and condoned a thousand petty lapses -- because a hero, of course, can do no wrong. An easy method, obviously. Then a day came when you were up against it, the red light of real danger -- and you took the train to Mexico.

Garcin: I "dreamt," you say. It was no dream. When I chose the hardest path, I made my choice deliberately. A man is what he will himself to be.

Inez: Prove it. Prove it was no dream. It's what one does, and nothing else, that shows the stuff one's made of.

Garcin: I died too soon. I wasn't allowed time to -- to do my deeds.

Inez: One always dies too soon -- or too late. And yet one's whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn neatly under it, ready for the summing up. You are -- your life, and nothing else.

Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit
This planning of great virtues while excusing small virtues is so typical of how we justify each individual sin -- all the sins of the "good person". The description is so incisive I find myself feeling as if Screwtape must have said the same thing at some point.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sources vs. Critiques

I was struck by a section from this post by Jana Bennett at Catholic Moral Theology on the "theological generation gap":

The “older guys” in my department all went through seminary training, even if they are not priests – and they learned a particular kind of Thomism and a broad and deep swath of theology that I, even six years out from earning a PhD do not know. They read a lot. My doktorvater, Stanley Hauerwas, writes extensively of all the books he read as an undergraduate, and while in seminary and doctoral work at Yale University (in his book, Hannah’s Child).

If I were to come up with such a list it would not be quite so extensive, and I think with this current generation of students I teach, it would be even less so. I don’t remember most of what I read (which is probably telling – though I was a biochemistry major for much of my college career and the books were 50 pound tomes that would now be out of date). I do remember that I read Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, not just once, but four times. And I find it interesting that as a medieval history major, I read a lot of saints’ lives and Jacques LeGoff’s work on purgatory but never once cracked open Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, nor knew it was there. I credit my great advisor with the fact that I read Augustine’s Confessions, a book that my students now say is too hard – and trully, they don’t have the skills to read it in the way I think even my own generation could do.

In seminary, there was more engagement with primary texts: I read scripture, Calvin, Barth, Wesley. But those were far outweighed by reading critiques – feminist, post-modern and otherwise. In doctoral work, I did far more reading of “the tradition” but by then, I had already been formed by my Foucauldian upbringing to be suspicious and critical, not to read broadly and widely.

This is not to criticize the amazing and brilliant people I studied with, but is rather to point out that my education was almost the reverse of what other previous generations, including Fr. Weinandy, did: I began with the critiques, in an academic system that was peopled by those who had critiques – and added in the works people were critiquing only later. I didn’t see that this was what was happening till I was in doctoral work myself, and now I’m trying to catch up, as fast as I can. So when Weinandy discusses that theologians are not grounded in church teaching – I’d wonder if what it really is, is this loss of Catholic intellectual life that supported church teaching in ways that intellectual life no longer does.

I've taken all of two college level theology classes in my life, so I'm not in any position to say how well this describes that discipline, but it does ring true with my experiences in the humanities. However incisive critiques may be, it strikes me that an education based primarily on critiques and not on the works that are being critiqued will often become very narrow, and also so specialized as drift away from any contact with the wider intellectual life.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Over There

When I was 12 or so, my father picked up a newly released album of World War One music entitled, after the most famous American song of the war, Over There. It is now long out of print (though still occasionally available used). As is sometimes the case with highly singable songs one heard as a youth, several of these songs had been on my mind lately, and so when the breakdown of the dishwasher the other night set everyone to washing and drying dishes, I put it on and we sang along to the oddly cheerful songs inspired by one of the world's darker interludes.

"Over There", written in 1917 by George M. Cohan (I didn't like the historical versions I found on YouTube as much, so I made my own with the Feinstein rendition of the song.)

The original lyrics are as follows:

Verse 1

Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun.
Take it on the run, on the run, on the run.
Hear them calling you and me,
Every Son of Liberty.
Hurry right away, no delay, go today.
Make your Daddy glad to have had such a lad.
Tell your sweetheart not to pine,
To be proud her boy's in line.

Verse 2

Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun,
Johnny, show the "Hun" you're a son-of-a-gun.
Hoist the flag and let her fly.
Yankee Doodle do or die.
Pack your little kit, show your grit, do your bit.
Yankee to the ranks from the towns and the tanks.
Make your Mother proud of you
And the old red-white-and-blue


Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming everywhere.
So prepare, say a prayer,
Send the word, send the word to beware -
We'll be over, we're coming over,
And we won't come back till it's over, over there.

Which of these books is not like the others?

Just cleared some of the excess books off my nightstand.
Oxford Book of English Verse
Between the Woods and the Water, Patrick Leigh Fermor
A Time to Keep Silence, Patrick Leigh Fermor
Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton
The Lighthouse, P.D. James

The Lighthouse was one of the books left in our library by the Dunns, and in a compulsive reading fit I pulled it out of one of the reject boxes. I was wrong. Let me regale you with a few quotes from the cover:
"One of the most compelling books of her remarkable career... A magisterial and subtle exploration of all-too-human emotions." -- The Seattle Times

"James is at the height of her writing powers." -- The Baltimore Sun
Doubtless reviewers of books are confronted with a great deal of dreck, in comparison to which even a well-written phone book has its compensations, but I think that the good critics of the Times and the Sun are stretching it a leetle. If this is the height of James' powers, I'm mightily glad I've never read any of her lesser works. Here, a snippet:
It was only minutes before they were passing over the crinkled blue of the Bristol Channel, and almost at once Combe Island lay beneath them, as unexpectedly as if it had risen from the waves, multicoloured and as sharply defined as a coloured photograph."

This kind of book is why I'm glad I don't read any kind of series in which your recurring characters have to layer their own petty personal drama over the story. James, who always opts for the "telling" side of the "Show, don't tell" proscription, lobs her character and story developments with all the precision of a water balloon thrown by my three-year-old, and with as messy results. Every carefully detailed back story is as multicoloured and as sharply defined as a coloured photograph.

Those who can do, write; those who can't, write genre fiction.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Oh, Mr. Rochester...

Darwin knows the way to my heart: he rented Jane Eyre.

When I saw it in the theater with Betty Duffy, we turned to each other at the end and sighed, "Perfect."

Only quibble: Jane does not use the word "automaton". I miss it. But the rest is sumptuous enough that I excuse the screenwriters.

Universal Salvation and Probability

Every so often, another Catholic encourages me to "dare to hope that all are saved". After all, it is not a matter of doctrine that any specific person is damned. We know that God's mercy is great, and given God's mercy and our beliefs about the bliss of heaven and the torment which is hell, it seems reasonable that any soul would choose to embrace God over separating himself permanently from Him.

For me, this idea seems to fall down, however, when applied to the whole of humanity. In a sense, it's a lot like the issue of the probability of sinlessness which I wrote about briefly a while ago: Given that we have free will, it would seem that in any given situation we could choose to do the right thing -- though obviously we in many cases feel a strong urge not to or don't even have a clear understanding of what the right thing is. However paradoxically, while in every individual choice it would seem that we could choose not to sin, it seems like an impossibility that any one person would in fact make the right choice in every single circumstance, thus living a life entirely without sin (except for original sin.)

Similarly, it seems to me that while there's clearly a chance that any given person, no matter how sinful, will repent before death, embrace God's forgiveness, and be saved, I simply can't imagine it as possible that every single person in the history of humanity would do so. We see people so very frequently, in ordinary life, actively choose to do thing which they know will make them unhappy out of anger, pride or even just habit -- I just don't find it persuasive that no one would ever have chosen to utterly refuse union with God and insist that he would "rather rule in hell and serve in heaven."

So I do not hope that all will be saved -- I stick to hoping that each person will be saved.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

History in our library

The previous owner of our house was the former dean of the local Methodist seminary, a man who was active in the civil rights movement and rode with the Freedom Riders. Tonight, going through some of the books that had been left in the house, I saw a folded paper peeking out of a tome entitled Pillar of Fire : America in the King Years 1963-65 and opened it to find a facsimile of a letter.
Delaware, OH
September 20, 1963


We the students and faculty of the the Methodist Theological School in Ohio are among your many brothers in Christ who were deeply shocked and appalled by the brutal bombing of your church and killing of your children this past Sunday.

Our shock has been mixed with guilt, for we are part of a large body of professing Christians who have been slow to rise to the call of our faith and cry out against injustice, inhumanity, and oppression. We know ourselves to be among the many whose silence has led to your suffering. We therefore ask your forgiveness as we pray for God's.

Knowing of some of your immediate needs we have collected gifts of money which we are sending to the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, whom we were privileged to have among us for a short time a few months ago and to whom we confidently entrust the employing of these funds where he sees the need as greatest.

We would not, however, salve our consciences by sending such gifts. While we were already active in the struggle for freedom and justice for all, we have, since last Sunday's tragedy, rededicated ourselves to this task and redoubled our efforts to break through every wall of silence and separation, of fear and hatred, of apathy and unconcern. For we are determined -- praying that God may hold us to and guide us in our resolve -- that your children shall not have died in vain.

Walter R. Dickhaut, Jr., President
Student Association

Van Bogard Dunn, Dean
The Methodist Theological School in Ohio
On a hunch, I flipped to the index of the book, and as I suspected, there was an entry for Dunn, Van Bogart, on page 271.
On March 29 (1964), seven white theology professors and two Mississippi Negroes approached Capitol Street Methodist Church of Jackson for the Ester morning service. "That's far enough -- no end runs," announced the spokesman for a line of ushers interposed on the front steps. A standoff ensued. "I guess you'll have to arrest us," concluded Rev. Van Bogard Dunn, dean of Methodist Theological School in Ohio. While being led away toward a sentence of six months' jail and a $500 fine, Dunn got the commanding officer to say that police would have taken no action without the explicit request of the church ushers. The reply was legal grist for Jack Pratt of the National Council of Churches, who planned to argue on appeal from paragraph 2026 of the Methodist Church Discipline that no Methodist church could ban interracial worship on legitimate religious grounds.
Many of the books left here (and there were many left) contain notes tucked inside or a review of the work clipped from the newspaper, or cards marking the book as a gift. The Dunns were great readers and inscribers, and many of the books were dated on their receipt. I had been gathering up a number of volumes that were of no personal interest to Darwins, but now I see I'm going to have to flip through each book, which means I'll be sucked into reading most of them, and the library shelves aren't going to get lighter any time soon.

(You may remember one of our previous finds from the library, which involved a minie ball of ill repute.)

A Fate Worse than Death

To undertake to narrate their barbarous treatment would only add to my present distress, for it is with feelings of the deepest mortification that I think of it, much less to speak or write of it.

Rachel Parker Plummer, Rachael Plummer's Narrative of Twenty One Months Servitude as a Prisoner Among the Commanchee Indians

Previously we were inhabiting the sunnier world of children's literature, as evidenced by Darwin's post on re-reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, but now his leisure non-fiction reading has been increasingly grim, which is to say he's reading history. Atrocities in the Ukraine, mayhem in the trenches, malfeasance during the Spanish Civil War: these are the pleasantries that make for charming conversation here. Every time I see his current read, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, sitting on a table, I give it a wide berth because I don't want it to grab me and forcibly imprint the horrors of collectivization and famine and the killing fields of Europe on my brain. I am squeamish, and I make no apologies for it. History is a catalog of man's inhumanity to man, and were I not Catholic, I believe it would drive me to despair.

It makes one long for the simpler days of the Laura Ingalls' prairie, except that the book Darwin is listening to give us new insight into the hatred of Ma for the Indians which, in these tolerant and less turbulent times, seems like a throwback to an earlier age of prejudice. Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History is about the last chief of the Comanches and the drive in the 1870s to defeat that nation and make the frontier safe for white settlement. The havoc wreaked by the Comanches and the Texas Rangers in turn would have been current events to the Wilders, though they were dealing with less martial Osage tribe in Kansas. However, it's possible that what settled in Ma's psyche was not Quanah Parker's present warfare, but his family history.

Quanah Parker was a half-breed, the son of a Comanche chief and a white woman, Cynthia Ann Parker. Cynthia Ann had been captured in 1836 at the age of nine, in the Fort Parker massacre, along with her brother; her 17 year-old cousin Rachel Parker Plummer and her one-year-old son James Pratt Plummer; and her aunt Elizabeth Duty Kellogg, in her thirties. Although the others were ransomed at various times, Cynthia Ann refused to leave the Comanches. Adopted into the tribe and now called Nautdah, she was by all accounts happily married to Peta Nocona, an influential chief and one of the leaders of the Fort Parker massacre, and bore him three children. In the attack in which Peta Nocona was killed, Nautdah and her daughter Topsannah were recaptured and returned to the Parker family. This was no idyllic reunion: the 34-year-old woman remembered little of her life before the Indians and longed to return to her tribe, but her escape attempts were all foiled. After the death of little Topsannah from pneumonia, Nautdah seemed to lose the will to live. Six years later, she starved herself to death.

A melancholy narrative, but one which finds its counterpoint in a book written by Cynthia Ann's aunt, Rachel Plummer. Rachael Plummer's Narrative of Twenty One Months Servitude as a Prisoner Among the Commanchee Indians, one of the first published accounts of Indian captivity, was written in 1838, shortly after she was ransomed. At home and abroad, readers were agog at her detailed descriptions of Comanche life, psychology, and, of course, savagery.

The aftermath of the Parker raid was horrific: the captives were dragged naked, beaten savagely, and the two adult women were gang-raped in view of the children. Elizabeth Kellogg was sold to another tribe and ransomed after three months, but Rachel Plummer endured 21 months among the Comanche. Her son was taken from her after her captors realized that he'd been weaned, and she never saw him again. Rachel was pregnant when captured, and when her baby was six weeks old, the braves decided that he was slowing her down too much. They threw him repeatedly in the air and let him dash on the ground, only letting his mother go to him when it seemed he was dead. When she was able to revive him a bit, they tied him to a horse and dragged him through the cactus until his tiny body was torn to pieces. After months of brutal slavery, Rachel snapped and nearly beat to death one of the women tormenting her. To her surprise, this act of vengence won her the respect of her captors, and her lot improved as she began to return blow for blow.

Rachel Plummer was finally ransomed, but her return to her family was bittersweet. Her once beautiful red hair had turned gray; she was emaciated and scarred. Her wrists bore the marks of the leather thongs which had bound her in the first days of her captivity. She was tortured by thoughts of her sons, especially whether her baby might have been spared if she had lashed out earlier. She died a year later, exhausted from her sufferings and another childbirth, mourning to the end the loss of her little James Plummer, who would not be ransomed for two more years. She was 20 years old.

Rachel Plummer's ordeal was not unique, and stories of Indian captivity must have been vivid in the minds of pioneers such as Charles and Caroline Ingalls as they must have wondered whether each day could lead to a fate worse than death for themselves and their children.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Quotable: Anthony Powell

In my non-fiction reading I've been moving through the darker periods of history: Ernst Junger's Storm of Steel (about live in the trenches of the Great War) and Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands (about the mass killing campaigns of Hitler and Stalin and the area between Russia and Germany where they both performed their greatest crimes). However, my fiction reading has consisted of the delightfully elliptical prose of English novelist Anthony Powell as I work my way through A Dance to the Music of Time for the second time round. Two recent bits that particularly caught my eye, the first for sheer enjoyment of the author's voice:
If so tortuous a comparison of mediocre talent ever be resolved, St John Clarke was probably to be judged a 'better' writer than Isbister was a painter. However, when St John Clarke died in the early spring, he was less well served than his contemporary in respect of obituaries. Only a few years before, Isbister had managed to capture, perhaps helped finally to expend, what was left of an older, more sententious tradition of newspaper panegyric. There were more reasons for this than the inevitably changing taste in mediocrity. The world was moving into a harassed era.
The other section that struck me was perhaps in part because it reminded me of the Orwell that I'd been reading recently. Here the narrator is talking to an acquaintance (a committed communist writer) about the narrator's brother-in-law (Alfred Lord Warminster also known by his secondary title: Erridge) who is just coming back from fighting with the Republicans in Spain:
'Alfred is too simple a man to embroil himself in practical affairs like fighting an ideological war,' said Quiggin severely. 'A typical aristocratic idealist, I'm afraid. Perhaps it is just as well his health has broken down. He has never been strong, of course. He is the first to admit it. In fact he is too fond of talking about his health. As I have said before, Alf is rather like Prince Myshkin in The Idiot.'

I was surprised at Quiggin's attitude towards Erridge's illness. I tried to work out who Quiggin himself would be in Dostoevsky's novel if Erridge was Prince Myshkin and Mona -- presumably -- Nastasya Filippovna. It was all too complicated. I could not remember the story with sufficient clarity. Quiggin spoke again.

'I have been hearing something of Alf's difficulties from one of our own agents just back from Barcelona,' he said. 'Alf seems to have shown a good deal of political obtuseness -- perhaps I should say childlike innocence. He appears to have treated POUM, FAI, CNT and UGT, as if they were all the same left-wing extension of the Labour Party. I was not surprised to hear that he was going to be arrested at the time he decided to leave Spain. If you can't tell the difference between a Trotskyite-Communist, an Anarcho-Syndicalist, and a properly paid-up Party Member, you had better keep away from the barricades.'

'You had indeed.'

'It is not fair on the workers.'
There is is. Any of you thinking of approaching the barricades have been warned.

[Both of those selections are from Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, the second of the three novels in A Dance to the Music of Time: Second Movement.]

The Benefits of Extremism

Sunday, August 14, 2011


Here's the only surviving remnant of last night's late night jam session: my sister Anna and I, with a gin-spired improvisation on Habanera from Carmen. She didn't remember the words, and I didn't know the notes, and we didn't know Darwin was recording.

Alright, it's pretty rocky. But nothing else from the recording session was saved, so this is our bequest to posterity.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Shallow Pretensions of Evil

The New York Times reports on the phenomenon of women who've conceived via IVF "reducing" their twins to singletons. The quotes speak for themselves.
“Things would have been different if we were 15 years younger or if we hadn’t had children already or if we were more financially secure,” she said later. “If I had conceived these twins naturally, I wouldn’t have reduced this pregnancy, because you feel like if there’s a natural order, then you don’t want to disturb it. But we created this child in such an artificial manner — in a test tube, choosing an egg donor, having the embryo placed in me — and somehow, making a decision about how many to carry seemed to be just another choice. The pregnancy was all so consumerish to begin with, and this became yet another thing we could control.”
One of Stone’s patients, a New York woman, was certain that she wanted to reduce from twins to a singleton. Her husband yielded because she would be the one carrying the pregnancy and would stay at home to raise them. They came up with a compromise. “I asked not to see any of the ultrasounds,” he said. “I didn’t want to have that image, the image of two. I didn’t want to torture myself. And I didn’t go in for the procedure either, because less is more for me.” His wife was relieved that her husband remained in the waiting room; she, too, didn’t want to deal with his feelings.

A. and her partner were sick, physically and emotionally. Because A. had already miscarried once, her doctor worried she might not carry two to term; if she reduced, the doctor said, she had a better chance of taking a baby home. The women were tempted to reduce both pregnancies, so each woman would carry one, in part to ensure that even if one miscarried, they would have at least one baby. “But we discovered that the reality of having two pregnant moms when you have a 14-month-old is insane. We’ve both been very ill from the pregnancies, and it’s been hard to give him what he needs. At 14 months, they’re inquisitive and energetic, and it was becoming harder and harder to chase him and get him up and down the slide. There were days I’d be in the bathroom throwing up, she’d be on all fours with him, and then we’d switch. We all think we can conquer the world, but then reality hits you, and you realize you have limitations.”

For the sake of the boy they already had, they decided to reduce A.’s pregnancy to one, and right after that A.’s partner lost her whole pregnancy. “I don’t wish this on anyone,” A. says. “I’m very grateful that we had this option at our disposal, that it can be done safely and in a legal way, but it was very difficult for both of us. I still wonder, Did we choose the right one? — even though I wasn’t the one who chose. That idea, that one’s gone and one’s here, it’s almost like playing God. I mean, who are we to choose? Even as it was happening, I wondered what the future would have been if the doctor had put the needle into the other one.”

I mean, who are we to choose?

I really do believe that the people uttering these chilling words believe that they are brave, that they are enlightened, for being so honest about their motivations. But it makes one more culpable, not less, to put a name to the venal motivations for committing an evil act. And to kill a child because he or she can be equated with unwanted merchandise is evil.

In a Facebook discussion about this article, a wise friend who specializes in the bitter history of Eastern Europe, especially the region brutalized "between Hitler and Stalin", said to me:
I wonder if we are missing something when we speak of understanding? Perhaps here it is the problem that evil itself is elusive - that we cannot understand it in the same way we understand goodness because the thing itself is actually opposed to meaning? Real mysteries, holy things contain hidden depths - but it could very well be in the nature of evil to appear to be deep and complex but to be as simple?

...I wonder if we face the kind of difficulties that made it so hard for people to face the atrocities they were committing decades ago? That dehumanization which is the precursor to personal violence actually requires us to shut down the connections between what at some level we know to be true and what is being done. For example - if we were aware that a few blocks from us there was a place where people were bringing in toddlers to be butchered, what really would deter us from gathering a posse of our friends and going there immediately to at a minimum protect any children near it - and if possible to destroy such a place? Yet we are compelled by all sorts of deeply powerful social forces and institutions to live by such institutions day in and day out, knowing that the difference between my hypothetical toddler butchery center and an abortion clinic is not that great. Yet we really are powerless and any effort to change by force our own society's violence would rebound on us and harm the unborn.

But to take it a step further - those who are murdering are successful in forcing their concepts upon us and upon the state - we face a language in which some people literally feel it is a matter of life and death to keep as muddy as the SS men and Nazi administrators worked to convince themselves and those around them that Jews really were subhuman. Again, the differences are real, but the similarities are also quite compelling when you think about it - the sustained effort to subvert, contain or delegitimize the protests of those who had a radically different way of seeing requires a great deal of commitment on the part of those who are "pro-choice."
I think some of it is that in my neck of the historiographical woods people tie themselves up in knots about how we can't understand the Holocaust or other deep evils. In the back of my mind there is the description in C.S. Lewis of the demon in Perelandra which "employs reason the way a soldier learns to use the bayonet" but also rather despises reason and on its free time just likes to torture animals for "fun". I also think there is that Augustinian tendency in me to think that we have gone far too far in our fascination with evil, and we forget that we are not Manichaeans - that evil is not simply the opposite of good, Satan is not God's kid brother - that evil is the movement toward non-being/nothing.

It could be there is a steep fall-off from any and all meaning when we get to the kinds of things about which you write are incomprehensible - that there really is NO meaning or content in such things - that a person "feeling two children inside of you, seeing them, and saying "kill this one, love that one." - is someone who has lost something key - and all that is there is fear and even perhaps the demonic - a force that delights in murder for the sake of murder, and is able to enter the empty place where should beat the heart of a mother and takes possession to pursue its own agendas (and needless to say, as N. points out that emptiness is enabled by the missing love of the man who should be there to both comfort the soon-to-be-mother and protect his child).

A Polish colleague is doing some good work on the demonic that proposes a good deal of our practical atheism comes not from the effort to deny God but from our denial of the devil (no, they are not equal, but in denying the possibility of radical evil I think we miss key facts about the world that blind us to other, more primary and important realities - it is the people who have never felt deeply the sting of their own sin and betrayals who I think tend to natter on and on the most about the brutality of the crucifixion - i.e. they cannot contemplate how little and great evils form links in a chain).

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Less You Know

I want going to type this up as a comment on the previous post, but after reading it aloud to MrsDarwin she says it deserves its own post. Mr. Loewen again in Lies My Teacher Told Me runs out a series of wrong and poorly source tropes which show how ignorance, political correctness and good old fashioned WASP-ish anti-Catholic thinking of the sort one would find in a public school textbook from around 1960 can come together. From page 16:
Columbus's voyages caused almost as much change in Europe as in the Americas. Crops, animals, ideas and diseases began to cross the oceans regularly. Perhaps the most far-reaching impact of Columbus's findings was on European Christianity. In 1492 all of Europe was in the grip of the Catholic Church. As the Encyclopedia Larousse puts it, before America, "Europe was virtually incapable of self-criticism." After America, Europe's religious uniformity was ruptured. For how were these new peoples to be explained? They were not mentioned in the Bible. American Indians simply did not fit within orthodox Christianity's explanation of the moral universe. Moreover, unlike the Muslims, who might be written off as "damned infidels," American Indians had not rejected Christianity, they had just never encountered it. Were they doomed to hell? Even the animals of America posed a religious challenge. According to the Bible, at the dawn of creation all animals lived in the Garden of Eden. Later, two of each species entered Noah's ark and ended up on Mt. Ararat. Since Eden and Mt. Ararat were both in the Middle East, where could these new American species have come from? Such questions shook orthodox Catholicism and contributed to the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517.

Does someone who can produce that paragraph have any freaking business writing a book on the errors and stereotypes in other books?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Where You Get Your History

From Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen (revised edition, page 45):
Standard history textbooks and courses discriminate against students who have been educated by rap songs or by Van Sertima.
Um... Yeah. Let me see if I've worked up any indignation over that. Nope. Doesn't look like it.

Loewen is upset that not enough emphasis is put on Phoenician maritime accomplishments, which predated those of early Portuguese and Spanish navigators by some 2000 years. However, the reason he's upset about this is that he feels it minimizes the accomplishments of black people (he likes calling he Phoenicians "Afro-Phoenicians.) It's true that the Phoenicians settled North Africa (their city of Carthage famously squared off against the Roman Republic) but they originated in the Middle East. Indeed, they were a Semitic people and are among those referred to in the Bible as Canaanites. Like the Egyptians (another group whose accomplishments are often mined by "Afrocentric" accounts) they would not have looked much like the modern African-American students that those like Loewen are eager to inspire with their accomplishments. This is nothing against either the Phoenicians or modern African-Americans. But if one is for some odd reason convinced that in order to be interested in history one must hear about the exploits of people who look like you, then the Phoenicians are not much help to "Black History".

And either way the Jungle Brothers (whose song "Acknowledge Your Own History" Loewen diligently footnotes) are simply not among the scholarly sources we need to take seriously in the school room.

UPDATE: More generally on Lies My Teacher Told Me, it's certainly a book which is opinionated enough to be a page turner, and Loewen does successfully criticize some tired old mythologies about US history, which I can believe do occasionally show up in text books. However, there's something one can criticize in analysis, error or omission on nearly every single page -- something which is particularly hard to overlook given that he's put himself in charge of criticizing other people's analysis, errors and omissions in detail and with vigor. And particularly trying is that after criticizing mainstream textbooks (which it is certainly not controversial to assert are often dull and based on very old research mixed with unsubstantiated tropes) Loewen often trots out his own tropes (footnoting some secondary or more often tertiary source) which are just as trite and inaccurate, and only have the virtue of aligning more with his ideological stance. He does make some useful complaints (some of which, like the minimization of the Spanish element in American history, would even be of particular interest to Catholic educators) but it's mixed in with a lot of very frustrating stuff.

I'll probably be posting more on it later.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Side of Civilization

In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell writes, when describing his feelings when he heard that fighting had broken out between the anarchist workers and the (communist dominated) government forces:
Once I had heard how things stood, I felt easier in my mind. The issue was clear enough. On the one side the C.N.T. [anarchists], on the other side the police. I have no particular love for the idealize 'worker' as he appears in the bourgeois Communist's mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.
I had a similar feeling fo clarity today when I read this today:
As officers lost control of the streets locals were forced to take the law into their own hands, arming themselves with sticks and chasing looters away from their properties.

In Dalston and Hackney, north-east London, Turkish shopkeepers and their families fought back against looting youths, before spending the night standing shoulder-to-shoulder in an attempt to deter further attacks.

One man said: 'This is Turkish Kurdish area. They come to our shops and we fight them with sticks.'
On Shacklewell Lane, the Turkish community was hailed across Twitter as being the force which saved the area from wanton destruction.

After a single-deck bus was burned out, stick-wielding shopkeepers chased away a gang of youngsters before standing defiant in the face of further violence.

One, who would not give his name, said: 'We beat up four of them quite badly and they ran off.' Another said: 'This is not justice, coming here and trying to attack us.'
London's community of Turkish Kurds takes to the streets to protect their neighborhoods
This, at the most basic level, is what civilization is. When a mob bent on destruction comes to burn down your house or destroy your livelihood, if you believe in civilization, you stand shoulder to shoulder to stop them. Orwell may have felt that way about "the worker", but I feel that way about those who stand up to defend civilization.

I'm reminded too of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. I lived in the San Fernando Valley, where looting was far less severe than in South Central -- but I definitely remember how the city shut down for two days, the smoke from burning buildings could be seen on the horizon, and National Guard troops in full battle dress, carrying M-16s patrolled the streets. But the heroes of that sorry set of events were clearly, to me, the Korean shopkeepers and others from the neighborhoods who gathered to do what the police would not do: keep their livelihoods from being looted and burned down.

Korean shopkeepers defend their livelihoods curing the 1992 Los Angeles riots

Some go on about understanding tensions, benefit cuts, etc. Those may all be debatable, but one topic that is not debatable is whether looting and burning down other people's livelihoods is an acceptable means of expressing one's feelings. In that dispute, the civilized ones are those who stand shoulder to shoulder and say, "They come to our shops and we fight them with sticks."

Monday, August 08, 2011

Hello AR-15

With thanks to my sister (whose link alerted to me to the existence of this), I present: The Hello Kitty AR-15

No, it's not a photoshop job, it's a real gun (though only one exists -- it was custom made not made for sale).

The author explains the rationale:
So called "Assault Weapons Bans" such as the now expired 1994 Clinton ban and the one still in place in states such as California seek to ban rifles that our misguided legislators feel have no purpose in civilian hands. They identify "evil features" they can use to generically classify these "military style" weapons in sweeping terms. Of course these features, such as plastic pistol grips, barrel shrouds, and bayonet lugs have absolutely nothing to do with the firearms potential lethality in the real world and are merely cosmetic features. After all, it really doesn't matter what color the firearm is if it fires the same ammunition right? Well, in the "spirit" of the California Assault Weapon Ban I decided to do my best to alleviate the fears of my fellow citizens and gun-banning legislators when I put together a new AR-15 for my wife. Below is the result of my painstaking work to transform an Evil Black Rifle (EBR) into a Cute Pink RIfle (CPR). Introducing the Hello Kitty AR-15!

This rifle is 100% legal in California because it is based on an "off-list" lower receiver made by Stag Arms and has no evil features at all, instead featuring a fixed stock instead of the evil collapsible stock, a muzzle brake in place of the vile flash-hider, and a MonsterMan Grip instead of the heinous and malicious plastic pistol grip. The C Products magazine looks like a 30 round magazine body but is permanently modified to only allow 10 rounds.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Neither a borrower nor a lender be

From a Japanese bookplate, ca. 1470:
To steal this book closes the gates of heaven,
And to destroy it opens the gates of hell.
Anyone who takes this book without permission
Will be punished by all the gods of Japan.
Found in a book I took from my mother's house.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Knowledge, Faith and Will

Kyle writes about the concern which his stance against the possibility of having certain religious knowledge has caused in some quarters:
If I’m less than certain in my religious faith, is my faith then weak or in question? In forsaking any certainty, do I risk forsaking my faith?

At the risk of sounding coy, I must confess the answer to these questions is possibly. Anyhow, I have two reasons for why I have no religious certainty and why I don’t think such certainty is really possible.

First, the basis of my religious knowledge—my knowledge of revealed truths—is the say-so of self-defined religious authorities—authorities who claim, without proof or conclusive evidence, that they speak for God. I believe them to be divinely inspired, at times, but neither they nor I can prove this for certain.

Second, what I call my religious faith may be something other than religious faith, either in part or in total. ... I cannot dismiss the possibility that my faith isn’t something otherwise than a response to a revealing God. It’s possible that what I call my faith experiences are the result of digestion, bodily chemistry, neurosis, the fear of death, or the desire for meaning. Because I do not know myself with certainty, I cannot know my faith with certainty. I cannot say for sure what it is.
This strikes me as conflating faith and knowledge, when it seems to me that in fact they are rather different things.

Knowledge is subject of all the limitations of evidence which Kyle points out. After all, I am not entirely sure in my knowledge that Kyle exists. Sure, I remember a long-haired guy who walked around Steubenville at the same time I was there and wrote his thesis on Tolkien as literature -- but it could be that all this in my mind is merely the result of the pokings of Cartesian demon who is intent on spicing up my otherwise drab existence by inserting the illusion of a person like Kyle.

But at a certain point -- even knowing that I have less than absolute certainty about my evidence -- I make a choice to believe that Kyle exists. I don't have to do this. I could, I suppose, refuse to make a decision as to whether or not Kyle exists -- kind of like how I might refuse to make a decision as to whether there was a real being of some sort whom the ancient Greeks worshiped under the name of Apollo. Or I might hold that Kyle exists, but hold it rather hesitantly and refuse to take any actions or risks that would depend on Kyle definitely existing. (Like, say, lending him money.)

However, while the firmness with which I placed faith in Kyle's existence might depend on the extent to which I felt I had firm proof of his existence, the who aren't necessarily connected. I could refuse to believe that Kyle existed even in the face of overwhelming evidence (say, his whacking me about the head with a toy light saber) or I could insist on believing that he existed even if he refused to give me any evidence of his existence (say, if he never responded to my Facebook friend request).

Bringing the discussion back from Kyle to God, it seems to me that Kyle's friends need not necessarily fear that Kyle will "lose his faith" (i.e., decide not to believe in God) because Kyle finds that he does not have firm knowledge of God's existence -- because Kyle can choose to believe (firmly or not so much so) in God's existence irrespective of any doubts he may have of the firmness of his evidence for God.

Similarly, when someone asks Kyle if he is certain in his religious faith, it seems to me that the question is not, "do you have complete certainty of God's existence" (something which, it seems to me, is not possible in this life) but rather, "Are you likely to choose to stop believing in God." This is a question, thus, about Kyle's actions, not about his knowledge.

"F*** chickens!"

Here's my good friend Enbrethiliel at a party:
Last weekend, I was at a party with some people I hadn't seen in a while. As we brought each other up to date on the varied comedies of errors that are our individual lives, I finally got to tell them about having been trapped in an elevator at the start of July, with a man who breeds fighting roosters for a living and even has a weekly TV show that is a big hit among his fellow sabongeros all over the country.

One chicken story led to another--because, believe it or not, everyone has at least one--until someone raised his glass in a toast and said, "F*** chickens!"

It was funny rather than offensive; and everyone's laughter and clinking glasses were--now that I've thought about it--signs that the group felt done with the subject of chickens and wanted to move on.

But I'm a woefully literal lit nerd who was once a Lit major as well, and the word association just got the better of my booze addled mind. So I said: ...
For the record, I consider myself pretty socially adept, and I probably would have said the same thing, were I her.

Reading Opposing Opinions

The discussion yesterday about James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me got me thinking about the issue of reading things one disagrees with.

In recent years, I've found myself paring back the extent to which I read people I strongly disagree with. This sounds narrow-minded, and it's difficult for me to write. It doesn't fit well with the image I have of myself as someone who is open to engaging with those with whom I disagree.

Part of the issue was that I found myself spending far too much time arguing -- either actually doing so in the comment boxes of other sites or mentally doing so in the way that I can't help rehearsing in the back of my mind when I've run into an argument that strikes me as wrong or ill-informed. However, a lot of it was that I found that reading overly ignorant or angry people who disagreed with me (I'd stopped reading those type among those with whom I agreed long ago) simply tended to make me more partisan and more angry at those who disagreed with me.

In a sense, there's a dark satisfaction in reading those who disagree with you when they do so badly -- either with ignorance of the topic or just with hate. It allows you to think that everyone who disagrees with you is like that.

However, it's certainly not the case that I don't read anyone I disagree with -- some bloggers I routinely disagree with one some or even nearly all issues remain near the top of my reader, and one of the books I just finished reading (and very much enjoyed) was Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, a book written shortly after Orwell got back from fighting for the Republicans in Spain, in which one of his main complaints against the increasingly Stalinist-dominated Republicans is that they are not far enough left.

I'm having difficulty thinking exactly what it is that separates the opposing writers that I enjoy from the ones I don't bother with. One division I think is whether they are primarily writing invective -- reading about how pro-lifers want to force women to have babies or about how banksters want to create an economic order specifically designed to keep the ordinary people down is not only unilluminating but also tedious. On the other hand, I tend to enjoy people who thoughtfully write about their experiences or who attempt to lay out clearly the way they think things ought to work, with some seeming regard for reality.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

News From the Past

I've come across a curiously addictive source of lunch-break news reading: The Library of Congress offers a 100 Years Ago Today selection of fully scanned news papers.

So, for instance, on August 4th, 1911, the San Francisco Call offers these headlines include:

Great Britain and France Both Enter Agreements With United States


Step Is Hailed by Diplomats as Forerunner of the Abolition of War


Washington, Aug. 3 -- President Taft will send to the senate tomorrow the general arbitration treaties between the United States and Great Britain and the United States and France, signed for this government and for Great Britain here today and signed in Paris for the government of France.

The brief messages of transmittal to the senate were written and signed by the president today, and tomorrow it will lie with the United States to ratify what has been termed the greatest step toward the abolition of war that the world has thus far taken.
In local San Francisco News:
Man's Law Swept Aside for Higher One


Grand Jury Exonerates Young Wife Who Killed Husband Because of Taunts


Heart Touching Scene Enacted When She Is Reunited With Her Parents


On the same day, The Washington Times offered these among other headlines:

Revision of Schedule Now Assured -- No Adjournments Next Week

The Senate this afternoon by a vote of 38 to 26 ordered the cotton bill, which passed the House yesterday, to be referred to the Finance Committee, with instructions to report not later than August 10. This action was taken on motion of Senator Martin, the Democratic leader.


President and High Officials Arrange Elaborate Program For Visitor


Dinners, Receptions, and Sightseeing Planned For Japanese Who Humbled Russia.

East may be East, and West be West--
Tomorrow the twain shall meet,
When Togo from the Eastern lands,
And Taft, the Western, greet!
And there be neither East nor West,
Border nor breed nor birth
When Togo, the Samuari [sic] comes
For we know what a hero's worth!

Banzai! Togo, the Samurai, hero of the sea of Japan, wielder of the destinies of war, comes to Washington tonight.

The little admiral will reach this city to begin four days of state ceremonies as the honored guest of the nation, at 9:25 o'clock this evening.
The admiral being greeted with such excitement is Admiral Togo Heihachiro of the Imperial Japanese Navy who had been Commander-in-Chief of Japanese naval forces in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. In 1911 he was 63 -- when he died in 1934 he was honored by a Japanese state funeral and Great Britain, United States, Netherlands, France, Italy and China all sent ships to take part in a naval parade in his honor in Tokyo Bay.

Then, of course, there are the funny pages (this from the New York Evening World)

and the ads:

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Strengths and Weaknesses

There is a sheet of writing here on the desk, at which I've been staring.
frist pasin
Ariabask Ariabask
tern with your tow on your naee
forth pasisan
Peaca Peaca
leep and land in frist posison
Plea frist posisan
What keeps this from being complete gibberish is that I know it is the handiwork of Julia, age 7, who is a notorious speller. And an accomplished dancer. Interpreted, it reads:
First position
Arabesque Arabesque
Turn with your toe on your knee
Fourth position
Passe Passe
Leap and land in first position
Plie first position
It never fails to amaze me when I watch Julia dance. All three big girls have taken dance lessons from time immemorial, simply because I have no interest in hauling kids to soccer or taekwondo. Eleanor likes tap better than ballet, and I grant that she taps vigorously and with a certain aplomb. But Julia has a lithe elegance and grace that transcends her heritage from either parent.

Watching one's child excel at something, particularly in some unique discipline, is a fearful and wonderful thing. I choke up watching my pretty girl whirl and extend and leap. I envy her careless ease in movement. I worry both that I push her too hard because I see so much potential in her, and that I don't provide her with enough opportunity to train that talent. Should I be driving her in to take classes at the BalletMet? Does it really matter at age 7, anyway?

These mental gyrations will remain only thought exercises because it so happens that we live within walking distance of the local arts center, which has a perfectly acceptable dance studio. For now, it seems my time and effort would be better spent in imparting to the young ballerina something that comes easily to me: the rudiments of spelling. Even a naturally talented dancer is going to have trouble leeping and landing in frist posison.

My graceful girl

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Homeschool Bleg

Some of you, and you know who you are, are organized. Some homeschoolers have had their lesson plans and their booklists all set out on their lace tablecloths while the freshly ironed curtains float in the breeze, gently rippling to the happy shouts of the children as they weed the vegetable garden.

Please. Here I am, a few weeks before school starts, pulling together this and that so we won't fall on our faces in the first four days. I'm trying to come to terms with the fact that crayons and pencils and glue sticks are consumables, not one-time purchases. I'm hoping the inkjet printer will hold out one more year if I hit it that special way. And I'm finally sitting down to write up some notes on curriculum.

This year is a fresh start (just like every other year). We're making a semblance of being settled in the new house, even though all the books on the shelves in the school room are still the random collection that were shoved here and there when we unpacked. Last year we faced the constant issue of never being able to find anything at the moment we needed it, which I hope will be resolved this year by better structure and beatings.

So, books. Bearing has recommended Joy Hakim's A History of US as a good history spine. I'm intrigued, but the entire set is rather expensive. Has anyone else used and enjoyed this? (Darwin spent a couple hours reading through what's visible on Amazon and says, "It seems to have a slightly liberal and secular point of view, but it seems scrupulously fair, which may actually be better than having an openly conservative or Christian book that isn't.")

The oldest two are heading into 3rd and 4th this year, and since it works well to have them do things in unison we're leaning towards putting them through two years of US history and kids literature (with enough Ohio specific side-lights to say that we met the state education requirements) and then circling back to World History for 2-3 years before launching into the high school Humanities Program (four years Western history and literature from origins to modern day.)

What Everyone Was Thinking of the Debt Debate?

A Pew/WaPo poll over the weekend asked people to give the one word they believed best described the then-still-ongoing debate in congress over the debt ceiling and budget cutting issue. The results are:
The disgust was shared by Democrats, Republicans and Independents, and people reported that their impressions of both Obama and the Republican congressional leadership had worsened (from their already low levels.)

That no one is impressed with the specter of a bunch grown men and women squabbling endlessly is probably unsurprising -- if we saw what congress was up to more often we'd probably have this reaction frequently. However, it seems to me that there are two things which make this go-round particularly bad.

First, Americans are not happy with the set of options put before them. They don't want to see the debt going higher and higher, they don't want to see their taxes increased, and the don't want to see programs they see as essential cut (though they do feel sure that there must be a lot that could be cut.) I wouldn't by any means say that we are in a no win situation. It would be possible to close tax loopholes and perhaps even make some very small increases in rates on certain income brackets without hurting the citizenry or the economy very much. Similarly, while just about any spending that is cut will inconvenience someone, there is a lot that could be cut without doing serious harm to the country. Both of these are probably going to eventually need to happen, but in the mean time people are simply reacting with dislike to all the options put before them.

Second, we seem to have an unusually bad crop of political leaders right now. Obama seems perfectly happy to sit on the sidelines criticizing the Republicans without providing any useful leadership -- and even his own partisans seem to finally be starting to notice. And among the GOP we seem to have a mixture of the unrealistic on the right and the hopelessly mealy-mouthed in the center. In some ways, Paul Ryan took a fairly statesman-like approach, putting together a budget with some vision after two years of the Democrats failing to produce any budget at all. However, in part due to the warring factions within the GOP and the naivete of some of the Tea Party members in regards to fiscal issues, no one on the right has been able to provide unified and sensible leadership during the debt ceiling fight.

It seems hard to imagine that the left has much useful to say in the months and years to come on this topic. Their preferred solution of taxing only the rich while spending like crazy simply won't work as our nation's demographics become incapable of supporting the kind of entitlement programs we already have, and even if they were to have the courage to tell the American people the truth (that their vision can only be supported in the long term by raising taxes on the middle class) the American people do not seem to like the idea.

Where we ought to be seeing some real understanding and leadership is from the GOP -- if only it could manage to put forward some leadership that has both principles and understanding at the same time. Right now most of our leaders (both in congress and among the potential presidential nominees) seem to have one but not the other when it comes to fiscal issues. The niche of speaking honestly, clearly and sensibly to the American people about budget issues, and helping them understand and support the kind of actions that will be necessary to get us back on the path to a reasonable deficit, is one that remains to be filled.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Reading and Memory

I've been experiencing a rather curious form of memory re-awakening during the last week, as I started reading aloud to the older girls The Winged Watchman by Hilda Van Stockum. It's a book I remember enjoying, but one that I never read myself (at least, not to my recollection.) I heard my mother read it aloud several times -- both when I was in the target age for the book (perhaps 7-10) and when I was older and she was reading the book to my younger siblings. Now I am reading it to our kids, and the experience is different from that of reading aloud a book one has read oneself. The book is set in occupied Holland, starting in the fall of 1944, and the Winged Watchman of the title is the windmill of which the main character's father is the millwright.

I find that I remember Watchman quite well, though unlike some books which I recall primarily as read-alouds, I don't necessarily hear it in a particular voice. By comparison, many of the James Thurber stories which I remember my father reading I find that I still read with his intonations and character voices -- even though I must have read The Night the Bed Fell dozens of times myself by now.

Then, there are the books which I have mostly forgotten, except for one or two images which are deeply embedded in my memory. The Mouse and His Child falls in this category. I know I heard it read aloud at least once (by my mother) as a child, but the outline of the story is shrouded in the mists of memory. I remember only that it is about the quest of a father and son wind-up mouse for self winding, and that one of the closing images is of the infinite regress to the Last Visible Dog on the label of a can of dog food.
And yet, the Last Visible Dog is something that I remember fairly frequently. I may need to read it to the kids simply in order to revive my own memories.

Speaking of memories, I had completely forgotten (if I had ever known it) that The Mouse and His Child was written by Russell Hoban, who while he was still married to Lillian Hoban co-wrote with her such family favorites as that instruction manual for young diplomatists, A Bargain for Frances.