Thursday, November 15, 2012

The State of the GOP Part II: 'Economic Conservatives' are the Problem

There is a trope in educated, white-collar circles that the trouble with the GOP is the fundies -- that the GOP is too tied to white evangelicals and conservative catholics, and that this is what makes the GOP so crazy.  We're going to hear more of this after the recent election, after Akin and Mourdock happened to frame pro-life orthodoxy in a truthful but unflattering way, and lost their senate races in the process.  After episodes like this, we are bound to hear that the GOP's problem is inflexible social conservatism and too much religion.  And those things are not good, probably not for the GOP and certainly not for our nation.  But this narrative of the perfidious fundy highjacking the high-minded conservative movement is untrue on a number of levels, starting with simple chronology.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The State of the GOP part I: We Already Know What a Hispanic - Friendly GOP Looks Like

After being trounced in the 2012 election*, the commentators and GOP politicians and operatives immediately began talking about how they can avoid a route like this in the future.  Their conversation has centered around winning back Hispanics, who decisively supported Obama over Romney, and have moved in a decisively more Democratic direction over the past two elections, while at the same time making up a bigger portion of the electorate, according to the Pew Hispanic center:

The most commonly cited issue is comprehensive immigration reform; Republicans of various stripes now seem to think that this is a very important issue, and their change in tone is understandable.  But the fact of the matter is that the Republican partiy already has a very good blueprint for appealing to Hispanics:  George W. Bush.  They are also unlkely to follow this blueprint.

Friday, November 2, 2012

A Presidential Endorsement of Little Consequence

The editors of this blog hereby endorse Barack H. Obama for reelection to the presidency.  We think he's played his hand very well after being given the worst deal since (at least) Jimmy Carter.  He has passed a landmark health care law, strengthened environmental regulation in some key regards (if not nearly enough) and has successfully extricated the US from Iraq.  Oh, and SEAL Team 6 killed Bin Laden on his orders.

Less substantially, we like the cut of his jib.  He seems to approach the world with a genuine curiosity, which is exactly what our nation needs after the epistemic closure of the Bush years.  Personally, I like having a guy in the Oval Office who wrote his college girlfriends embarrassingly pretensious analyses of TS Eliot (it's nice to know I wasn't the only one) -- it's the liberal art's majors equivalent of being a President you can have a beer with.

But stepping aside from the formalities that's not what most interests me.  The question is, when I live in a safe state for Obama, why vote for him and not a protest candidate, if only to apply pressure on the president on issues like the Environment, Civil Liberties and Drone Strikes?

The fact of the matter is that I disagree more with Gary Johnson and Jill Stein than with Obama.  Unlike Johnson, I don't think that we should eliminate a vast laundry list of cabinet departments and shrink the budget to pre-depression levels.   Unlike Johnson, I don't think that 2 or 3 percent inflation is to be feared, or that hyperinflation is just around the corner, so unlike Johnson, I don't favor a restrictive monetary policy that would risk deflation and strangle our country's fragile recovery.  Unlike Stein, I don't think that we should implement a command economy that would guarantee full employment, or government banks.  So it just doesn't make sense to me to vote for someone with home I have -less- common ground, who isn't even going to win anyway.

For me, and for someone of my beliefs (in short, a free market and government strong enough to offset or check its excesses) Obama is not the lesser evil.  He's pretty damn good.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Luck of Captain Wentworth: Naval Notes on Jane Austen's Persuasion

I'm re-reading Persuasion by Jane Austen.  I suppose I don't count as a true Austen fan, having read only two of her novels (Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice) but I loved Persuasion the first time I read it and I'm liking it even more this time around.

In a later post I will address the novel's themes and characters and compare them to those in Pride and Prejudice.  For the time being I will use the historical record to evaluate Lady Russell's near-fatal judgment of Captain Wentworth's career prospects, which occurred six years before the novel begins.

As a preface, Jane Austen was well acquainted with the Navy and its officers.  Two of her brothers were post captains who rose to become admiral after her death, and the description of naval occurrences, though not in the foreground, is done carefully by someone who knows what she's talking about.

Captain Wentworth was not born at a lucky time or at least, he didn't advance in his career at a lucky time.  The best years for navy men were the early years of the revolutionary wars, the 1790's, when British dominance on the sea was less secure and there were ample prospects for distinguishing oneself in action and gaining a fortune in prize money (Austen's older brother Francis was made lieutenant in 1792, just as war was declared, and rose to become Admiral of the Fleet).  Captain Wentworth was not a Captain in those 'lucky' years before Trafalgar, and was probably not a lieutenant for most of them.  In 1806 he was a Master and Commander, an officer qualified to command small 'unrated' naval vessels such as sloops of war.  He was promoted due to his role in the British Victory off Santo Domingo earlier that year.  This victory was the last time British ships of the line met French ships of the line in a fleet action in open water.  After Santo Domingo, the bulk of the French navy remained bottled up in Brest, Toulon and other ports, blockaded by British squadrons.  While this was good for Britain it was bad for the careers of her sailors, who now had extremely limited opportunities to distinguish themselves.

The Battle of Santo Domingo by the great sailor/artist Nicholas Pocock.  In the foreground the British Northumberland (74, right) engages the French Imperial (120!, left).  The Imperial was driven aground and later burned.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Civil Society and the Rule of Law in Libya

Some online friends and I were having a discussion on civil society and violence in Libya and elsewhere, in relation to the recent violence in the Middle East (most prominently the murdered Americans) over the "Innocence of Muslims" movie.  It got me thinking, and this is my attempt to lay my thoughts out more clearly.

We all agreed that the recent violence is not caused by Islam per se.  That is, Muslims may be offended because they are Muslims, but they are not more likely to react violently because they are Muslims.  Rather, the explanation lies in the specific situations of the countries where the violence occurred.  Good evidence for this is the lack of violent protests in America over the movie -- American Muslims may be (rightly) offended, but they aren't killing people or demanding that a movie be banned.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Stating the Obvious

I have nothing to say about Romney's assertion that 47% of the country are moochers living tax-free.  Others have dealt with the salient points better and earlier -- that it is untrue (the majority of Americans who do not pay income tax pay payroll taxes, and most of the rest are retired, and the rest are mostly the very poor or students, making less than $20,000 a year*), that is is rather rich for a man who pays 13% in taxes to call people paying 18% in (payroll) taxes freeloaders, that this is perhaps one of the dumbest things Romeny has done yet.

So I'm going to reach back a news cycle (to an event that's ongoing, if forgotten) and state the obvious: we are not at war with Islam.

This is not because Islam is  a 'religion of peace,' since it is no more peaceful than Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism or Buddhism.**  Indeed, few religions are 'religions of peace' in any meaningful way -- off the top of my head I can think of Quakerism, various Anabaptist sects (Mennonites, the Amish), Jehovah's Witnesses and Jains.  That is  to say, these religions a) have no religious conflicts fought in their name and b) are actually pacifistic.

Nor are we not at we not at war with Islam because there are muslims that like us or at least don't hate us.  As moving as the protests held in Benghazi against the murders were, they are beside my point.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Right to Be an Asshole and Liberal Democracy

The people who attacked and killed the American ambassador in Benghazi are murderers.  Our president said that we are working with the Libyan government to bring those responsible* to justice, and I hope that we do so, and quickly.  'Pastor' Terry Jones and others like him, on the other hand, are assholes (trying deliberately provoke a religious war is, among other things, a dick move).  And unlike the murderous militias with RPGs, they have every right to be assholes, even though their assholery is of a rather purposeful nature (Jones seemed rather thankful that Americans died in order to show the world what muslims were 'really like').

The right to be an asshole -- of the hateful, offensive, or simply noxious varieties (Nazis, Fred Phelps, NAMBLA**) is a critical right that we Americans enjoy.  It is the most radical outgrowth of free speech.  But people are not born respecting free speech anymore than they are born respecting the integrity of the political process.  Free speech is something that requires a civil society truly dedicated to it, and laws and institutions that defend it.  It is rather recently that Americans could safely say things that offended others -- 200 years ago, Americans didn't recognize the right of papers to say nasty things about Adams and Hamilton. 150 years ago people rioted in similar ways when a newspaper badmouthed slavery. 80 years ago people beat up those who spoke out for labor. 50 years ago people were killing people who spoke out against segregation, and, and these examples only cover speech that has merit, not some idiot's offensive ramblings.  It has taken years of hard work, a more tolerant and less violent civil society and some people giving up their very lives in order for Fred Phelps to have the right to say the things he does.

And so it is no surprise that people in Egypt and Libya do not recognize the right to be an asshole.  Having elections is relatively easy, but it will take years of building for those nations (so recently under despots) to have the kind of civil society that can tolerate offensive speech.  Hopefully free speech will still be fashionable when that building is complete.

*who do not seem to have been an angry mob, but instead a well armed terrorist militia of some kind.

**provided that they just talk, not act out whatever vile or perverse beliefs they have

Friday, August 31, 2012

Expanding the Canon - Aldo Leopold

As a preface, this is the first of an irregular series of 'Expanding the Canon' posts, which will highlight a work I (or my co-writers) think is worth being placed within the canon of Great Books, or works of art, or whatever.  It's a bit different than 'The Greatness of X' because it doesn't argue simply that a work is great on its own merits, but that it adds something to the sum of human thought that is unique and inarguably worthwhile.  These are works I think are worth putting up there with Aristotle, Kant and Kiekegaard, works that shape the way we think.

The first thinker in this series is Aldo Leopold and his works, A Sand County Almanac and Round River .


This past week I was on vacation to the beautiful, savage Northern Appalachians of New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont.  Being surrounded by the natural world tends to get me more impassioned about the politics of the environment, and makes me think more about them.  The forests seem solid, and in general seem healthier than those further south, but they're incredibly fragile, and seeing healthy hemlocks was bittersweet, since I don't know if they'll be there in 10 or 20 years, and I didn't see a single healthy beech -- bark disease had reduced most of them to pockmarked, oozing husks*.

Somewhere during the week my thoughts drifted onto Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, one of the greatest works of nature writing and probably one of the most famous.  I've thought about it every now and again, on and off for the past few years, and the more I think about it the more I'm struck by its greatness.

The central idea in Leopold's work is the Land, and its moral value.  He explores the land scientifically  in his accounts of ecological succession, lyrically in his vivid depictions of the seasons and the landscape (descriptions which remain scientific) and philosophically  in his argument in favor of a land ethic.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Two Virginia Icons and the Limits of Faith and Reason

If you read this blog at all, you'll know I'm from Virginia.  Fairfax county, sure, but born to a father from Richmond and raised with the myths of my native state.  The glorious past of the mother of presidents and all that.  Probably the most captivating part of those myths were the heroes -- Washington, Madison, Patrick Henry, JEB Stuart, Lighthorse Harry Lee, Jefferson, Robert E. Lee.  A whole host of dead patricians (or men of patrician pretensions) related through distant cousins and marriages of convenience.  But the ones that I liked best were Jefferson and Robert E Lee, for reason's I couldn't say.  Perhaps the idealized portrait of Jefferson the intellectual spoke to my own pretensions as a precocious 11 year old, or Lee's idealized, fatherly image image (filtered third hand from people who had read Douglass Southall Freedman) reminded me of my own father.

Now I no longer adhere to those myths*, though in many ways I'm glad I was raised with them -- myths can become touchstones even when they are abandoned or actively renounced.  Jefferson's hypocrisy about liberty and slavery, his refusal to free his slaves even when his revolutionary friends did their utmost to push him to do so, all of these have replaced the icon of my youth with something much more complicated.  With Lee, it seems as though the saintly figure portrayed by the myth had little relation to the deeply flawed man who broke his oath to his country and went to war to defend a nation built on slavery and built for its perpetuation.

Cognitive Bias and the Supposed Appeal of 'Bad Boys'

The estimable Coates has a post up about Caitlinn Flannagan's piece about Kennedy from a while back.  It was a piece that I never finished because a) Caitlin Flannagan and b) Boomer Kennedy nostalgia -- neither of which are things I'm a fan of.

The text quoted in Coates's post is vintage Flannagan - a ludicrous attempt to universalize her own tastes and experience to all women, the sort of thing that offends me because I resent the implication that my wife, my best friend and all the other women I like and respect are actually pertpetually adolescent daddy's girls who want a man who will mistreat them.  But that's less what concerns me.

Flannagan makes a particular claim that 'a significant number of women' are drawn to Kennedy because he treated women horribly*.  More generally, that a 'significant number' of women are attracted to men who treat women badly, because they treat them badly.  Coates goes on in comments to argue that this statement is truer if universalized -- that there's a decent number of people, male and female, who are attracted to people who mistreat them, or who are bad for them.

Intuitively, I wanted to agree with that.  I've known women with abominable taste in men and men with abominable taste in women (and women with abominable taste in women and men with abominable test in men).  But I suspect that in both cases I may mistake where the attraction lies due to my own biases.  That is to say, just because someone (person A) is attracted to a person (person B) who cheats on and belittles their romantic partners doesn't mean that cheating and belitting is the reason for the attraction.  But to an outside observer, cheating and belittling are the salient characteristics of person B, particularly when we see them treat our friend like crap.    Because we define person B in terms of cheating and belittling, we may be blind to what's actually appealing about them to person A.  Person B could be attractively assertive or flirtatious, person A could just be desperate etc.  Just because we mentally define people in certain ways doesn't mean that others do as well.

A fictional example of the bias at work is the common misreading of Pride and Prejudice that sees Lizzie Bennet being attracted to Darcy's seeming callousness and general jerkassitude.  In fact, the sequence of events in the book is 1) Lizzie is attracted to Darcy 2) he's a bit of a jerk 3) she gives up on him 4) he's a real jerk 5) he apologizes 6) she accepts 7) happily ever after.  But because we, as readers remember the hostility between them in steps 2-4, this becomes what's salient in their relationship.  Since the mutual hostility is, for us, Lizzie and Darcy's defining feature, his jerkish attitude is 'what she sees in him' -- not that he's wealthy, handsome, kind to his servants and loyal to his friends.  Because most of the action of the novel revolves around his pride and her prejudice, readers naturally asssume that the key to the underlying attraction is said pride and prejudice, not the fact that Lizzie and Darcy are both pretty attractive (if prickly) people.

*(I don't mean the adultery thing, I mean the just-about-raping 19 year old white house staff and then having them fellate his friends thing).

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Non-Review in the Age of Youtube

The Onion AV Club, an outfit that I generally respect, has a pretty bad review up about the latest Old Crow Medicine Show album.  I don't say it's bad because it's a 'C-' and I like the band in question (though I wouldn't have noticed or cared if it was, say, Lana Del Ray).  I don't say it's bad because it gets the album's name wrong.  I don't say its bad because I necessarily disagree with the rating.  I haven't heard the album, and so I don't know if it's any good.  But here's the thing -- reading the review, I still have no idea of whether the album is any good -- and that's the purpose of a review - "I haven't heard this, should I check it out?"  The reviewer is clear that they don't like the album, but since their tastes aren't mine, I need information beyond their simple opinion -- that's why I'm reading a review and not just browsing letter grades. 

There's about 2 sentences describing the actual music (and they're vague and uninformative) and a lot of tangential comments about the hokiness and authenticity (or not) of Old Crow Medicine Show's lyrics.  In truth, the review takes 2 paragraphs to say 'More of the same from OCMS."  As a sentiment, that can be a valid part of a review, but it is not, in itself, a review.  There's no substantial comment on how individual tracks compare to their previous work and only a vague idea of how the album sounds as a whole (I'd guess its more like OCMS's middle period and less like Tennesse Pusher, but I don't know for sure because the reviewer doesn't actually tell me.

I wonder if this kind of music non-review is becoming more common these days, when Youtube makes the old role of reviewers that I just described somewhat obsolete.  After all, if I wanted to I can hop onto Youtube, fire up some tracks off the album and form my own opinion.  This being the case, its understandable if reviewers treat their reviews as a blog post to share their opinion and whatever else they want to talk about.  But this new model misses something -- at its heart, good reviews are a formalized way of recommending a work to someone (or not).  When I recommend my friend a record, I don't say 'I like it, you should check it out' or even just why -you- like it, but you try to convey the contents.  I might say to a friend 'I like The Gault because it reminds me of a mash-up of Joy Division and black metal.  The production is reverby and stripped down, the vocals are emotive and the guitar riffs are repetetive but really compelling.  Oh, and the female vocalist is an alto, and I like the deeper range.'  And a good music review echoes that tone.  Artificiality has its place in writing, but I do think writing is most effective when it echoes the way we talk to each other (albeit in a more formal form).  If we abandon that, we really lose something.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Book Review: A Frenchman in Lincoln's America

My interolocutor RMB bought me books for Christmas, because RMB is the best.  The Library of America Collected Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and a two-volume work I'd never heard of before, Huit Mois en Amerique by Ernest Duvergier de Hauranne, published in English as A Frenchman in Lincoln's America. At the simplest level, it is a Frenchman's travellogue of America in 1864 and 1865.  More ambitiously, it was an attempt by its 22-year-old author to update Tocqueville's Democracy in America by showing America 30 years later and in the middle of its civil war.

To cut to the chase, A Frenchman in Lincoln's America is a very good book.  Not an all-time great like Democracy in America, but a well-written and well-thought-out portrait of America during the war.  In general, it is more of a travellogue than Democracy in America; it is organized like a journal, and follows the author day to day across the US and Canada.  This organization makes it less overtly philosophical/sociological and yet more vivid than Democracy in America -- de Hauranne has plenty of broad-brush mini-essays about the American character, but they are interspersed with detailed observations of what New York or Cincinatti or Boston or the mountains of Vermont or the oil fields of Pennsylvania are like.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Wonders of Optimism

My interlocutor, myself and our housemates have been watching a lot of Stark Trek: The Next Generation: over the past month or so.  We're skipping the bad episodes and sticking to the good to great ones, us the Onion AV Club's excellent episode guide.  The result is extremely impressive (no doubt in part because the show was of variable quality, and we are skipping the bad parts).

The good things about the show have been talked about a lot -- as everyone probably knows, Patrick Stewart carried most of the show on his shoulders through most of its run; his incredible acting skills and sense of dignity give everything Picard does a kind of gravitas.  His line delivery is incredible, and yet his acting is overall so good that it is worthwhile just to watch his face, even when he's saying nothing.  I could say more, but Stewart's awesomeness is not what interests me here.

Watching the show again, I've become completely charmed by its determined optimism.  Coming from my college and teen years, where I gobbled up 'dark' art and entertainment like grimdark candy, a show that wears its optimism on its sleeve is quite captivating.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Game of Throne's annoying, unbelievable Mama Bears

So I caught up to the past season of Game of Thrones through the battle of Blackwater.  As before, I'm liking it, with serious annoyances/reservations.  Speaking of which, one thing stood out in both episodes 8 and 9: the inability of the series' two matriarchs to deal intelligently or believably with their children.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Digression upon Church Politics

This is somewhat late because I didn't have a chance to blog about it when it came out.  Recently the Archbishop of York (Number 2 man in the Church of England) came out against gay marriage.  Juxtaposed with this, the Sunday prior in my own Parish (a theologlically moderate parish in the Northern VA suburbs) our seminarian gave a very well put-together sermon about Christians accepting those who, like the Gentiles in the early church, are cast out by notions of purity and propriety.  Our seminarian is an out lesbian; her partner was watching in the pews. And yet our church is a part of the same Anglican communion as the diocese of York.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

Today is Memorial day.  I used to say that it should be a day prone to more solemn weather.  It is an odd combination -- cookouts and pools opening and beach traffic on the one hand and solemn commemorations of the million or so people who died in our nation's wars (good, bad, stupid and essential) on the other.  Perhaps it is appropriate -- liberty and citizenship have their duties, but enjoying life with one's family is a great blessing in itself, and one that we have many people to thank for.*

Being a civil war buff, this memorial I'll call to mind the sacrifice of Americans in the Civil War, those who died to reunite our country and in so doing gave it 'A New Birth of Freedom,' even if that freedom was delayed for another 100 more years, and remains imperfect.

In particular I remember the African American soldiers and sailors of the US army and navy who served, all 180,000 them, and those who died.  For them serving in the army was not so much a patriotic duty as a revolutionary statement that they were Americans, that they were men.   They were winning freedom for themselves and their people and, in so doing, for the rest of us as well**; they did not preserve freedom, as many other did in other wars, they redefined it and extended it.

20 years after thousands of black men died keeping this country together, our nation pushed African Americans out of citizenship, sometimes out of their homes, and killed them more frequently than we can now comprehend.  After years of civil rights struggles and some genuine progress, the least we can do is remember them.


EDIT:  In this vein, my interlocutor came across this awesome song from 1864 while scouring the internet for old music:
The Marching Song of the First Arkansas

It's sung to the tune of "John Brown's Body," with the familiar 'Glory!  Glory! Hallelujah!" chorus.

Some choice verses:
Oh, we're the bully soldiers of the “First of Arkansas,”
We are fighting for the Union, we are fighting for the law,
We can hit a Rebel further than a white man ever saw,
As we go marching on. (Chorus)
2. See, there above the center, where the flag is waving bright,
We are going out of slavery; we're bound for freedom's light;
We mean to show Jeff Davis how the Africans can fight,
As we go marching on! (Chorus)

*D-Day didn't happen so that we could surrender to the grammar Nazis, either.  Hence the preposition at the end of the sentence.  Damn Latinate snobbery.

**As Grant said of the poor whites of the south "they too needed emancipation."

Monday, May 21, 2012

One year and Six

A year ago my spouse and I got married.  5 years before that, almost to the day, we started dating. I always liked the conincidence of the anniversaries -- having them together like that serves, in my mind,to make them seem more contiguous, as though getting married was another step in the relationship we already had, not something new.

I  felt that way before the wedding and looking back on it, a year later, I was right.  I suspect its the typical experience of people my age, but moving in together was a bigger change than marriage was, in and of itself (partially because we moved in together with an intention of marrying soon if things worked out).  I still count from when we started dating -- not when we got married, so for me the clock stands at 6 years, not 1; to do otherwise seems to disrespect what went before.  Maybe in 10 years I'll only mark our years of marriage.  For now, I'll have two anniversaries, one day apart.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Violence and the Divided American Left

A handful of rather dim anarchists apparently tried to blow up a bridge near Cleaveland.  Thankfully they failed, not that they were likely to succeed.

This headline makes me think of something I've been thinking about for some time -- the huge divide in the American left between Anarchist radicals (like those accused in this case) and everyone else.  It is a divide that encompasses the difference between violent rioting (or even terrorism) and non-violence, but it goes much deeper, into the fundamentals of the ideology.

Put simply, there is no 'American Left' but a mish-mashed collection of the 'Progressives' (those to the left of Obama, lets say) and the 'Revolutionaries', who are mostly anarchists of some stripe.  The 'Progressives' believe what most liberal  democrats do, just more so.  They want single-payer healthcare, strong environmental protections, more equality for women and minorities (via non-discrimination enforcement and other means) and that sort of thing.  If you were to turn the Democratic party's platform up to 10, you'd get at what they believe.  The Revolutionaries, on the other hand, want to dismantle capitalism and the American system of government.  They don't want single-payer healthcare or other governmental programs, but either a collection of anarcho-syndicalist collectives or primitive tribes.  Not surprisingly, the progressives generally prefer  the electoral process and peaceful protest and the revolutionaries are more willing to embrace violence.  The violent ones seem to be a fairly small minority of the Revolutionary Left in America, but in the end the only difference between a nonviolent anarchist and a violent one is which one is holding the molotov cocktail (this is, needless to say, a big difference); theirs is only a disagreement about tactics.  Progressives, on the other hand, disagree with revolutionaries about just about everything.

Monday, April 23, 2012

For the Record, My Game of Thrones Reactions

Because everyone else is doing it, here are my Game of Thrones reactions.  Needless to say, spoilers.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What the Hell is Balin Greyjoy Wearing? -- Costuming, Characterization and World-Building

Like many people I've been watching Game of Thrones on HBO.  Unlike many, I don't love it and A Song of Ice and Fire is nowhere near replacing LoTR and the Earthsea books at the pinacle of my fantasy pantheon.  But I like it, I really do.  Except for the costuming.  I've remained silent for this long, but I must ask:  what the hell is Balin Greyjoy wearing?
Yes, I can see that it is a blueish-gray...thing.  
That doesn't answer my question.

Balin Greyjoy is the Lord of the Iron Islands -- not much of a domain compared to the rest of Westeros, but a significant realm, and according to him he is not just its lord, but its king.  And yet there he is, wearing rough-spun cloth (of an indeterminate identity) dyed a dismal color.  He does not look kingly.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The NRA -- another arm of the Republican Party

The Daily Dish has a post* about the NRA's dedicated campaign against the democratic party, out of all proportion to Democrat's actual views on gun control (mostly, they don't care anymore -- gun control seems  less important than it did during the murder explosion of 1984-1994).  I have little to add, other than to say that it is  true in my experience as well.  Moreover, I feel like the NRA has gotten more partisan after Heston handed off the reigns to Wayne LaPierre -- rather than being a single-issue lobby it seems like another arm of the republican party, dedicated to marshalling gun owners to support Republican causes.  And, of course, enrich the NRA's own coffers.

*This is another good article.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


So over the weekend John Derbyshire, a rather vile racist whom American conservatives thought was erudite and charming partly because he was British, wrote something over-top-viley racist.  I won't link it, just google "Derbyshire Talk" and you'll get it.

Honestly I don't think there's much worthwhile to be gleaned from this whole affair, except that it confirms the fact that the mainstream American right will tolerate the presence of a lot of bigotry* as long as it isn't too overt.  I suppose I could speculate as to why publications like the National Review are so tolerant of racists in their midst -- probably some combination of white populist rabble-rousing and a natural consequence of the right-wing belief that racism in America is restricted to semi-literate crossburners in Mississippi and Nazi fanatics in northern Idaho (so of course that eccentric Englishman can't be a racist).  But that's not my primary reaction to this kind of thing.

Whenever I read something by a white person like Derbyshire who fears 'the blacks' I am filled with a visceral contempt; it reeks of a cowardice I find repulsive.  This reaction doubles when I read much of the commentary defending Derbyshire, which generally centers around a plot against 'European-Americans.'  My reaction to men who think that feminism will emasculate them is similar -- 'what are you afraid of, you big baby?'  As a white man what do I have to fear from minorities?  From women? 

I've never suffered, in my life, from being white or being male, so I cannot help but think that white men who feel that 'the blacks' and 'the feminists' are victimizing them are either looking to feel sorry for themselves or seeking to justify their prejudices.  Probably both.  Or maybe they're afraid of losing their former privilege to rule over their wives as though they were children and to always consider themselves to the superior of black men.  In that case we see someone who is so dependent and so weak on their own that they need unearned privileges to make themselves secure.  To hate or condemn such sentiments is almost taking them too seriously.  They only deserve derision.

*(Derbyshire was employed in the conservative press for years, and he's a milder example than some)

Confessions of a Teenaged Pro-Lifer

Preface:  I have been sitting on this for some weeks because, as a guy, I don't want to be That Guy who walks into a conversation about topics important to women and act as though everyone should listen to me; sometimes its better to listen than speak (difficult though that is for someone with my temperament).  That said, I wrote it, so I might as well post it.


Like a lot of people I've been following the case of Trayvon Martin's killing pretty closely.  Unlike many of them, I  have nothing intelligent to add.

So I'm going to dredge up a topic of discussion from two news cycles ago and talk about women's health and reproductive rights issues, which I started thinking about more during the whole birth control 'debate' and in that long-ago time when Santorum was actually winning primaries.

I'll start off by saying that I don't have a uterus and thus don't have as much to add  to any discussion about abortion or birth control  as a woman would -- my opinion on this subject has as much moral force as my opinions  on pet grooming.  But my opinion has changed a lot over time, and reflecting on my former opinions I think I understand the premises of the pro-life movement better than I might otherwise.

I've noticed that advocates for women's right to have a legal abortions will (justly) focus on the intrinsic sexism of forcing women to use their bodies as incubators for 9 months.  Metaphors often conceal more than they reveal, but forcing women to bear all conceived children to term would be a form of indentured servitude inflicted on women, and women only.  Thus, it is misogynistic, and those who would enforce this upon women are misogynists.

I have also sometimes heard pro-choice arguments that go on to say that this forced pregnancy is a form of punishing women for having sex, and that pro-lifers believe that women should be punished for 'unchastity.'

Now I would agree with both of the above statements, but I think that both need further explanation, particularly when figuring out how 'pro lifers' view women.

Back in my own pro-life days* I was one of those mushy middle people that didn't think abortion was murder, but thought it should only be legal in certain circumstances.  Partly I thought this because finding such a 'middle ground' position made me feel clever,  but at a deep level I think that abortion disturbed my moral sentiments --it felt wrong, so I figured it should mostly be illegal.  And yet calling it murder would logically dictate that abortion never be legal, even in cases of rape or dangerous pregnancies, and that was also upsetting to said moral sentiments.  So I went with what felt right -- abortions for some people some of the time, only if they were pregnant for a certain reason or in a certain (dangerous) way.

It should have upset my moral sentiments that women would  be forced to act as incubators for nine months, but it didn't.  I reasoned that getting pregnant was a risk of having sex, and that sometimes women would just have to live with it.  I wouldn't have framed the above statement in terms of punishment, and I doubt most pro-lifers would, even to themselves, even though 'punishment' is an apt characterization.  What's most striking to me about viewing pregnancy as a 'consequence' of sex (other than the logical holes in it) is that I was so easily content with that argument.  I don't think I really thought much about what it meant for women.

And I think that's where my own misogyny is most visible.  It's not that women were bad or destined to serve  men or whatever -- it's  that they and their welfare just didn't matter to me.  And I suspect that's at the heart of a lot of pro-life feeling today -- women just don't matter.  That is what pro-life arguments are -- an attempt to either ignore women completely or minimize them and their experience, so that we can get back to the important business of saving fetuses.  It is sexism, whether or not it is attended by overt statements that women are meant for motherhood or that babies are God's punishment for sluttiness.  And to me the most convincing argument against such a line of reasoning is to simply point out what it omits -- women -- and to place the rights of women at the center of the question.

*I was teenaged, and had never dated anyone.  I was not sheltered by my parents, but the opposite sex was off the radar save in the most furtive way.  The idea that people had premarital sex kind of scared me -- not sure where I got this, as I didn't have a conservative upbringing or anything.  My prudery was very much my own.  Oddly enough, it evaporated over several years as I started dating.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Holy Week Pt 3 - A Painting and a Song for Good Friday

Today is Good Friday.  Rather than running my mouth off* I will let Van Der Weyden and Bach speak for themselves.

 Van Der Weyden's Crucifixion Diptych at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Made for a Carthusian Monastery, it is one of the starkest paintings of its type I've ever seen.  In person it actually takes your breath away.

The Opening Chorale to Bach's Matthew Passion.  I couldn't find a Youtube recording of "Ach Golgotha" that I liked.

*I was going to  write a longer post about how Bach's St Matthew Passion is a masterpiece of Baroque-era sampling (Bach re-appropriates tunes liberally, not just in the Chorales).  But it was a stretch, and has been said before.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Holy Week Pt 2 -- Religion, Adolescence and Adulthood

In the past few years I find myself in the unaccustomed position of being a believer, but not being very devout.  To explain why this feels strange for me it would probably help to explain where I'm coming from, religiously speaking.

I was at my most religious when I was in high school and early college, ages 14-20 or so.  My religious beliefs during that time tended toward the extreme -- not in a fundamentalist theological-political sense, but in an absolutist, give-up-everything for God sort of way.  I admired the urgency of Jesus' all-or-nothing message in the Gospels, particularly Matthew " "Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.".  If you'd asked my when I was 19 what was most important in life, I may well have answered "mystical communion with the divine."  Though I wasn't planning on selling my possessions and giving the proceeds to the poor, I felt vaguely bad about not doing so.  To me the best life was the most meaningful life, and the most meaningful life was the one tied to the highest things.

I suppose there are several reasons for my adolescent religiosity.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Holy Week pt 1. -- The Strangeness of Liturgy

I grew up in the liturgy of the Episcopal church.  I was baptized, confirmed, and married according to the Book of Common Prayer.  I've heard the Eucharist service more Sundays than not since I was born, and have witnessed 24 church years progress from Advent 1 to Christ the King Sunday*.  Going to church for so long, its rites are as familiar as my family's Christmas or Easter Dinner or the road to the diocesan retreat center in the mountains of Western Virginia.

Being familiar, the rites do not lose their beauty, but I suspect they lose some of their power.  The Eucharistic prayer is lovely every time I hear it, but the strangeness of Theophagia is easy to ignore when you've done it 1,000 times before.  Religion risks becoming something merely comfortable, which is not exactly appropriate if it is supposed to be an encounter with God.

So I'm glad when Lent and  Holy week roll around.  The great holidays of Lent -- Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday -- make me feel as though I'm in some 'exotic' religion from  the east, like I'm living out a picture of Divali or another Hindu feast that is outside of my modern, western experience. 

Ash Wednesday will never cease to be strange--getting ashes put on your forehead as a priest says "remember thou art but dust, and to dust you shall return" is not something to get used to.  And the strangeness continues.  Palm Sunday starts with the congregation waiving palm branches and shouting 'Hosanna' and ends with us playing the part of the mob shouting for the blood of our own God*, whose death we give thanks for every Sunday.  Maundy Thursday sees us reminded of the weird origins of our weekly Eucharist (and  sometimes watching one another's feet) and Good Friday is stark, silent and grim.  In Easter the mood does a 180 again, and in some ways it is a Sunday like the rest -- once again a celebration of resurection.  Yet it means more because of the preceding week and 40 days before, which serve as a reminder of just how strange our Sunday rituals are.

*Advent is the season before Christmas, and the start of the church year.  Christ the King Sunday is the last Sunday before advent.

**I really like this part -- Like the arias of Bach's Matthew Passion, it shows that the sin of all human beings is responsible for the death of Christ, and thus gives the lie to the toxic notion that 'the Jews' killed Jesus.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Our Wedding: Part IV: Shower and Pre-Marital Dance Party

I'm not a fan of sex segregation, so the prospect of a shower, a hen party, and waiting in the back of the church with crying female relatives were things I wanted to avoid in the process of getting married. As it was, it all worked out great, and I probably could've been less of a jerk about some things, but the end result was indeed that I never ended up alone in a room full of women.

I really didn't want to have a bridal shower - for one thing my lady of honor lived in NYC and I didn't expect her to do anything but show up the day before the wedding, for another I didn't want to spend an afternoon being given stuff labeled "Bride" and getting less-than-stellar advice from female relatives (I think my mother-in-law is as allergic to girly-girls as I am so we get along pretty well in that regard), and finally this wedding involved two people and I didn't want to have a wedding-related party without Will. However, my mom insisted, and Will told me that I needed to grow up, stop being a dick, accept her generosity, and have a shower, so I did.

It was actually a really awesome afternoon, and my mom did a great job (she also did everything, which I feel guilty about looking back). We invited relatives, inlaws, and friends of both genders, and used the afternoon as a way for everyone to get to know each other before the wedding weekend. It felt like a family party with a short bout of gift-giving, and my mom got to show off her taste in interior decorating and cooking. People talked and ate, there was nothing labeled bride or groom, and there were no baby pictures or lingerie.

Will asked for glassware, which we got in abundance, and we also got a new toaster oven and a camping lantern. I had specifically asked for tools for shower gifts, so my dad got me a cordless drill. KICKASS.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Enemy is Us

Over the past 10 years, the NYPD has shot a number of unarmed (black) men, beat up protestors just for the heck of it, blacked out the media from lower Manhattan, prevented protests from even occurring at the 2004 Republican convention, stopped and frisked untold thousands of people of color without probable cause, gotten their buddies off of parking tickets and then protested when they were censured for it, and now has  spied on muslims across state lines for no reason aside form their religion.

And the end result? The NYPD is pretty popular.

To me this illustrates the greatest threat to Liberty -- that the American people will simply hand it over to 'trusted' institutions like the police and the military, partly out of fear for our safety and partly because sentimental regard for those who 'put themselves in harm's way for us' makes criticizing them seem gauche.  And why should we not?  Most Americans will never have a particularly adverse encounter with a police officer, and the vast majority have nothing to fear from Guantanamo or wire taps.  Those who suffer under the heel of these infractions are minorities people neither like nor trust, so in the end the mass of the American people (the white mass) lose nothing personally when the security forces trample the rights of some brown people.

This is all old hat.  Tocqueville predicted as much with his memorable coinage 'the tyranny of the majority.'  It has been with us in some form since before Andrew Jackson made it an integral part of American politics with his white man's Democracy.

And yet, frustratingly, our cultural discourse doesn't have an expression for this threat.  It is all around us and yet movies and films do not warn of the People, but of select cabals that control things behind the scenes.  Pop culture is stuck in the anti-establishment politics of the 70's, despite the fact that American politics has moved on.  The bad guys in some of the great sci-fi TV of our time - "Firefly," "The X-Files" are behind-the-scenes conspiracies, not the indifferent populace.

Perhaps as my generation comes of age we will see pop culture that reflects the crises of our time and not those of the watergate era.  I can only hope.  We need a new narrative for new concerns, not one left over from our parents'.

PS: If anyone can think of some great anti-populist media, I'm all ears

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Contraception and Catholicism, Continued - The Anti-Americanism of the Catholic Hierarchy

Catholicism has, over the course of American History, become a vital part of the American landscape.  From the Catholic founding father Charles Carroll and his cousin Bishop John Carroll (an early supporter of a vernacular Mass) to President Kennedy, Catholicism made a claim to be a faith compatible with American ideals, and over a century and more it proved itself to be so.

A separation between Church and state came to be welcomed as it allowed Catholics to send their children to Catholic schools, rather than the de-facto protestant state-run schools found in places like Massachusetts.  American Catholics embraced democracy and the democratic process, rather than opposing it like many in Europe, who viewed republicanism as inherently anti-clerical.  American Catholic churches featured greater lay participation in their management as well.*  The Catholic Hierarchy objected to a number of these views, characterizing the American church's tendencies as the heresy of "Americanism", and tried off and on to bring the American church more in line with Rome.**

Our Wedding: Part III: The Planning

This post mostly talks about details - if you crave photos you probably want the next post.

Since we were getting married in WV while living in Annapolis there was a lot of trying to consolidate trips or work things out with my mom on the phone - we only lived two hours away, but I can't imagine what it must be like to plan a wedding much further away. We were extremely luck to have my mom willing to do so much of the leg work - she really enjoyed getting to plan everything and we were happy to let her have her way on a lot of things.

Our budget was pretty small - we planned a wedding that we would ideally be able to pay for ourselves, but our parents were quite eager to help pay for the reception food, alcohol, flowers, eating ware, and decorations. Thanks to having so may people who were willing to put in their time and effort to help us the whole thing cost about $3,000 for a 70-person party, all told - an enormous sum to my mind, but affordable.

So here are the details - maybe you'll find some ideas.

Monday, March 5, 2012

In Which I Tell What It Was Like to Try to Get Help From
the Government With Both Hands Tied Behind My Back
When My Only Other Choice Was Suicide

Hi. Guest poster here. My display name is Seneca Howland and I'm a bi-polar older dude suffering from severe depression. I thank both Testudo and Meles for the privilege of posting here and I hope my story proves helpful.

Here are the names of a few symptoms that people who are depressed know only too well:

lack of initiative or motivation. ...

  • Being unable to start or complete paying bills
  • Staring at an assignment without getting to work on it
  • Just sitting for hours doing nothing
a state of little or no motivation, initiative or drive. Usually the person has a lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities, and may be content to do little or nothing with his time.
Mental health journalist and author John McManamy argues that although psychiatrists do not explicitly deal with the condition of apathy, it is a psychological problem for some depressed people, in which they get a sense that "nothing matters", the "lack of will to go on and the inability to care about the consequences". He describes depressed people who "...cannot seem to make [themselves] do anything," who "can’t complete anything," and who do not "feel any excitement about seeing loved ones."
the inability to take pleasure in activities one would normally find enjoyable. As a symptom of depression, it is the loss of enjoyment from activities a person normally likes to do. This can include everyday activities like eating, watching television, reading, sexual encounters, etc.
And there is another symptom that has no name, but I can describe it well enough for a police artist: Feeling increasingly overwhelmed by making decisions, planning steps to accomplish a task, or interpreting instructions. This last one is particularly important. Let us call it “The Nameless One.”

I told you that to tell you this.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Past Ain't Even Past

There is a knee-jerk reaction among many northerners and suburbanites to the southern heritage crowd that wraps itself in the confederate battle flag -- "The war is over, you lost."  Sometimes it is modified by the length of time since the war (120, 150 years, depending on the decade).  But it is always wrong.

As I wrote as much in a comment on the esteemed Kevin Levin's article, but I'd like to expand my thoughts here.

To say that history is not with us because it is long past effectively cedes the field to the Neo-Confederates, and ignores the fact that the issues raised by the war (racial equality, for instance) are still alive today.  It is not a long road from Appamattox to Selma, and toxic notions that blacks are nothing but criminals and loafers can be traced back to the apologists of slavery arguing that free black men lived lives of crime and despair.

As the Comedian Louis CK says 150 years is 'two old ladies back-to-back' -- there are many African Americans alive today whose grandparents were slaves. Beyond abandoning our history to those who celebrate treason, merely moving on minimizes the closesness of the War and how much of the inequality from slavery remains in our society.

I prefer to celebrate the sacrifice of those loyal to the US and to celebrate their accomplishment, rather than just suggesting that the whole affair doesn't matter.
On the other hand, as a descendent of Confederate soldiers and slaveholders (on one side, union soldiers are on the other) I feel like southerners have a duty to wrestle with our past and where we come from (see Faulkner, William). Confronting the ugliness that we find will help southerners understand the South as it is today and to make it better.

I think that the whole-hearted engagement with our past is the only way to counter those who would celebrate our nation's dismemberment.

Why I Don't Dress Up Like a Confederate Soldier

The esteemed Kevin Levin has a post about the narrow appeal of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  It's really about the neo-confederate movement, and not about civil war reenacting, but as a reenactor who does not dress up like a confederate (or anyone else from the Late Unpleasantness of Northern Aggression Between the States), I feel obligated to answer the question in his title.

In some ways I seem like a perfect candidate for confederate reenacting -- I'm from Virginia (Northern, but my Dad was from Richmond and my mom is enamored with the South, so I grew up in a more 'Southern' environment than most kids in Fairfax County), I have been fascinated by the civil war on and off since gradeschool, and I like dressing up in funny clothes on the weekend.  I have confederate ancestors (at the moment I remember a cavalrymen who served under Stewart, but there were others as well) and the idea of connecting to them through reenacting's odd roleplaying is appealing.  Moreover, I believe that reenacting can be valuable.

But there are two reasons I haven't thrown my kepi in and joined up with the boys in gray.

Our Wedding: Part II: The Philosophy

From the beginning I wasn't looking forward to our wedding -- I wanted to get married, but the thought of planning this huge, tradition-laden thing was not at all appealing. I'm not much of a romantic, and it seemed like an enormous amount of work and expense (especially expense) that I would be expected to not only do but be enthusiastic about. As I joked with Will, I must have missed the class that all women seem to go through where they just know how many weeks before the wedding you need to send out invitations. My sister-in-law had been planning her dream wedding since she was a teenager*, but I stumbled into it with only the vaguest idea of what was expected of me. I didn't have many female friends and had never been involved in the planning of a wedding before, so the more I learned the more aghast I was at the enormity of it all, lacking as I was in close female friends and relatives to turn to for support.

WAKnight: This somewhat understates the amount of forethought -- we'd had ideas about the church, the food and the band, and Rachel's mom had provided a lot of great suggestions. So even before we really started planning in earnest we had a general idea.

While the whole thing was still a hazy blur on the horizon in October we picked a date - the third weekend in May. After Thanksgiving we sat down with our parents and looked at a wedding checklist and time table that my mother-in-law had printed out from a bridal website. The list was soothing: I like lists, and the ability to run down it and see everything that could possibly come up clarified the whole process. There was a lot to do, but as we studied the list we realized that a lot of it was stuff we didn't care about (personalized napkins? engagement photos? DJ?), and things didn't seem quite so impossible.

Still, in early in January things came to head: I was feeling completely overwhelmed with the planning, and I just didn't want to do this whole wedding thing. Maybe get married at St Anne's Annapolis (the Episcopal church we go to) with a few friends and close family and have a buffet lunch at Treaty of Paris, or have a small ceremony at my family's church in West Virginia, Tomahawk Presbyterian, and have a nice dinner somewhere in town. Will, on the other hand, wanted a real wedding, and after some careful negotiating we decided that he would take the lead on researching and planning the big items (venue, catering, cake, priest, marriage counseling) and I would assist when he asked for help and take the lead on some things, like invitations and programs.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Greatness of Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" Pt 3.

5. Pacing
All the beautiful aesthetics, great performances and solid special effects in the world could not save the movies if they were boring.  Given that they last around 3 hours+ a piece, boredom is a real threat.  Peter Jackson avoided this by pacing the movies masterfully.  The core of the narrative is the quest, the long and difficult journey from the Shire to Mordor, and Jackson builds everything else around this.

To start with, a sense of urgency pervades the movies -- the exposition never neglects to mention the gathering darkness, or the closeness of Mordor, or the frankly impossible nature of Frodo's task.

Moreover, the sequence of scenes is structured around the journey. Action sequences are interspersed with exposition and dialogue sequences so that we are neither talked to death by backstory nor subjected to a constant assault of context-free suspense.  Moreover, the action sequences are made purposeful by being directly related to the main plot, most frequently and visibly by being complications in the characters' journey.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Our Wedding: Part I: The Department of Backstory

This is part one of what will be a series of posts looking back on our wedding. The plan is as follows:

I: The Department of Backstory
II: Some philosophy behind the wedding and thoughts on planning
III: The planning
IV: The Shower and Pre-Marital Dance Party (will come with photos)
V: The Wedding weekend and Honeymoon (will come with photos)
VII: Thoughts on marriage

Despite my occasional misgivings and frustrations I really enjoyed getting married, and I'm really enjoying being married, so I thought I'd write a little about the process as we struggle through the last of the thank-yous (anyone know who sent us the coffee grinder?). I had rather strong opinions on the whole thing and a perhaps somewhat-unusual view for a woman on the whole business (my official catch-phrase for wedding planning was GETTING SHIT DONE), and I'd like to look back on it and have WAKnight give his thoughts as well. I'm also going to discuss money, because I think that "it's MY wedding and it has to be THE BEST!" is complete bullshit, and I'm quite proud of our how our wedding turned out.

I also enjoyed getting married, and so far being married has worked out well (which is to say, no different from living together). I've already shared a day-by day account of wedding planning as comments on the Open Thread of the Estimable Coates, but its good to reflect. Since I've already yacked about this, this is mostly going to be Rachel's series of posts. 

I will say that I was always vaguely offended that the wedding was supposed to be the bride's day, so I enjoyed taking an active part of planning. Since neither of us really believes in 'separate spheres' for the sexes it made sense to divide wedding planning equally, rather than loading it all on the bride, while the groom was just expected to show up. Also, I wasn't going to let my mother in law (God bless her) dress my groomsmen and myself.

I shall start a little before our engagement, so you can understand where we're coming fro.

After I graduated from college I moved into a newly-vacated room in WAKnight and my friend Eric's three-bedroom apartment, a move that we'd discussed for several months. We were in an that odd point in our lives that many college graduates face - we'd only been dating for three years and weren't sure whether we should sign a lease together. But we liked each other quite a lot and definitely wanted to keep on dating, so I rented my own bedroom and we slept apart when we needed to -- thought the apartment was so small that we couldn't have fit in one bedroom anyway (my room was 8x8). Having another roommate, his girlfriend, and our wacky downstairs neighbor around also helped, since it didn't feel like it was just the two of us.

Early that summer we were getting ready to go to sleep and I asked Will, who was reading in bed, a question I'd been turning over for a while. "If this whole living together thing works out do you want to see about filing our taxes together?" He stared at me for a while, and then asked if I was proposing to him, and I admitted that I was.

I still couldn't have asked for a better proposal. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Reading for Ash Wednesday

Exceprted from the Episcopal Lectionary's reading for today:

Isaiah 58
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.
3“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 6Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Contraception and Catholicism

Here is a great article on contraception and Catholicism.   In addition to calling out the Church's issues on contraception, it really crystallizes the core of my disagreement with the Catholic Church's doctrines, or rather their approach to doctrines.  The Catholic church does not just set sacred revelations in stone, they also make courses of reasoning and arguments untouchable and infallible.  The problem with Catholic dogma is not (as is the case with some protestants) that it puts the Bible and the creeds beyond all doubt and scrutiny, but that it places human reasoning (of a certain sort) above all doubt and scrutiny.  It has made a philosophy part of its religion.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Greatness of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, pt II

Part II of the "Greatness of LOTR" trilogy.

3. Great Visual Design
This is the part of the movies that Jackson is least directly responsible for.  The two artists that Jackson selected, John Howe* and Alan Lee are top fantasy illustrators.  Their work does a very good job of evoking the majesty of Tolkien's world without the schlockiness most people associate with fantasy art.  Moreover Howe and Lee have managed to create a set of aesthetics that are not historical, but are grounded enough in history to seem real.

The shire is a sort of idealized Georgian England that never was.  Gondor is a combination of Renaisance Italy (the piazzas), Byzantium and the greek isles (those white buildings stacked on top of each other, going down the slope of Minas Tirith).  Rohan looks like Anglo-Saxon England meets the viking age.  And the Elves live in a more fantastical world that looks like William Morris meets Art Nouveau.  Each aesthetic fits the culture that adopts it -- the elves' world is warm and organic, Gondor's is vast and somewhat cold stone, the shire is homelike and simple.

The Throne Room of Gondor kinda looks like pisa and salisbury cathedrals mashed up.

In general, aesthetics that have very strong or specific associations (gothic architecture, classical architecture) have been avoided or subsumed into a hodge-podge of somethings that people will half-remember enough to seem real, but will not look like it is from a particular time or place (this is less true of Rohan, most true of Gondor).  For instance, the Gondor throne room has the black/white motif of Romanesque Italy, but the simple piers of a gothic cathedral.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The First and Last Words on Abraham Lincoln

Tomorrow is Lincoln's birthday.  The more I learn about Lincoln the more I think he was our greatest president, just like everyone else always said.  It is strange how close to the truth some of the legends about him were.

To say that his greatness was complicated is something of an understatement.  Historians seem to have sometimes had trouble deciding whether he was conservative or a radical, a white supremacist or a man ahead of his time.  These days the consensus seems to lean toward the latter, to say the least.

Frederick Douglass wrestled with this question on a speech he gave at the unfurling of the Freedman's monument to Lincoln, located in Lincoln Park in DC, right on east capitol street.  As the title of this post indicates, I think it's the best statement on Lincoln I've ever heard.

Here is some of the meat of Douglass's speech on Lincoln; forgive the long excerpt, it would feel disrespectful to both men and to the beauty of the text to interrupt its flow any more.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Greatness of Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" Pt 1.

Let me start this out by saying that I think that Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings novels are great.  Their world-building, pacing (though some think this is boring I think it's great) and wonderfully melancholy anticlimax of a denouement are amazing.  My interlocutor and I have spent more time talking about Tolkien than any other work of fiction other than Middlemarch and the Aubriad.  Moreover, I promise to return to the novels in a future post.

The movies are also great, but their virtues are different.  Some things are strong in both, and of necessity -- world building and pacing make the movies, but they have to be done in very different ways.

Rather than an extended essay, here are the things I think make the films great:

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Black History Month for White Boys

So it's Black History Month again, and it makes me remember what it was like going through it when I was going to school.  Back when I was in school my 70% white classes would have some lessons on Harriett Tubman and George Washington Carver, and there would be posters of Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King in the hallways.  Once I did a report on WEB DuBois, because the school library thought that a bookish kid would get a kick out of learning about a famous intellectual.

I learned some stuff then -- I learned quite a bit about WEB DuBois, for instance.  But what I learned seemed rather separate from the rest of my studies -- there was American History, where black people were the background and occasionally the subject of actions by whites, and Black History, where black people took an active role but mostly effected themselves.  My own history was American history, while Black History was something other -- a worthy object of study that showed human diversity, like Asohka's India, but equally removed from my own heritage. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

In Which I Went A-Protestin'

Earlier this week I had some free time after work, a piece of cardboard, and a marker so I made up a sign that read "Christian and pro marriage equality!" and went to the end of the anti-gay-marriage rally that was taking place a few minutes' walk from my house in the state capital. I'm not generally in the habit of making political statements aside from donating money and voting, but I'd had a long day and wanted to vent, and the gym was closed.

Much to my disappointment I didn't find any other counter protesters (the homos were probably home baking cookies or helping their kids do their schoolwork) so I leaned against a planter near where people were leaving and held up my sign. The crowd was about half Catholic, white, and Republican, and half Baptist, black, and probably Democrat - one of the clearest demonstrations I've ever seen that if there was a political party that was socially conservative and not racist they'd have a lot of black voters.

I got mostly glassy stares, which surprised me until I heard someone ask a companion "What's marriage equality?" - apparently this anti-gay-marriage crowd hadn't been keeping up with the other side's rebranding. I got the usual amount of men hissing sl*t, lesbian, and lesbian c*nt hissed at me that you'd expect. A few ladies said God Bless You, and I wished them a "The Lord be with you" back.

Only two guys stopped to engage me - one yelled "Gay men can't make babies!" and I responded "Neither can old people, and they can marry" and he yelled back that homos spread diseases and have created 38 new ones - I'd never heard that one before! A middle-aged man in a red sash from the Catholic contingent came up to me and asked "Should a father be able to marry his daughter?", to which I replied (smartass that I am), "Well, it's one man, one woman..." - he stomped off. I folded up my sign, went home, and laid down to recover from witnessing so much vitriol. Watching others' hatred is sickening and exhausting.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


When I was younger, I despised small talk.  Talk should be about meaningful things -- philosophy, religion, politics, science.  Moreover these topics should be tackled at the most fundamental level.  Small talk -- the weather, sports, whether the fish were biting or the deer were out -- seemed like a waste of time.  When I was a bit older, I conceded that talk didn't have to be intellectual, but could have important personal and emotional content -- one's inmost personal thoughts and fears were valid, though in a different way from Ideas.  Talking about clothes or interior decorating, on the other hand, was not just dull, but a sign of moral and intellectual emptiness.

In this I was echoing what we see in films or TV, particularly 'serious' ones -- banal conversations are a stand-in for the fact that characters are either so vacuous or so alienated from each other that they cannot talk about anything important.  More fundamentally, though, I assumed that conversation was instrumental, either toward talking about and wrestling with great topics, or learning the true self of whomever I was talking to.

This instrumental view of conversation sells people short, however.  The surface of someone's personality is assumed to be of little value, it's what's inside someone's head or heart that truly matters.  Only getting at the soul of someone makes them worth your time.  The rest of human interaction and the human experience is of little value.  In this scheme, human contact is a means, not an end, and the mundane details we spend most of our day on are without value.

These days I love small talk.  It's humanizing to talk to another person, even if it's just BSing about how much the 'skins suck this year, or what's the best deer cartridge, or how nice that necklace is and where did you get it.  And this is as it should be if we assume that talking to other people is an end, not a means -- if talk is not just a vehicle for our ideas, but a way that we connect with other people, whether they are our spouse or a stranger.  It's not just people's inmost thoughts that are important, but the mundane details of everyday life, that we spend so much time on.  Acknowledging small talk is another way to affirm that my entire life is meaningful, not just the momentous or meaningful bits.

Monday, January 23, 2012

John Brown's Surprisingly Sane Plan

People will generally say that John Brown was a mad fanatic.  A fanatic for a good cause, but crazy nonetheless.  Generally the evidence proffered is his raid on Harper's Ferry, which does indeed seem to have had little chance of success -- it through down the gauntlet in a rather overt way, and it seems like it only threatened to nibble at the institution of slavery -- Harper's Ferry isn't exactly the heart of cotton country.

Once upon a time I myself thought it was ludicrous that John Brown would try to start a revolt in the mountains of Virginia, since while the terrain is favorable there are very few slaves.

Then I looked at a map showing slave distribution, and saw that Jefferson County (where Harper's Ferry is) is about 30% enslaved, while Clark County, immediately to the South, is 50% enslaved. On a map you can see a dagger of counties that are mostly slaves going down from Clarke County all the way to the North Carolina line. - Faquier, Culpepper, Albemarle (Jefferson's home) and on down, to the James River and beyond.  So Harper's Ferry is actually fairly close to the sort of marjority-slave counties that would be good candidates for Rebellion.

Meanwhile, Harper's Ferry is less than 50 miles (over rough terrain, where concealment is relatively easy) from the Mason-Dixon line.

If you wanted to start a slave insurgency and funnel slaves to the North (and receive reinforcements from there) this would be the place to do it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Sacred Purposelessness

Better bloggers than I have covered the myriad issues with the Lost Cause, the traditional Southern narrative/rationalization of the civil war.  Mostly these revolve around the Lost Cause;s denial that the civil war was about slavery and it's other efforts to white-wash the peculiar institution out of Southern history.

But in addition to the Lost Cause, there is another narrative that is roughly contemporaneous, the 'Brother Against Brother' narrative.

This narrative around the turn of the century as a way of creating a story of the civil war that all Americans could agree on.  Since Americans had been killing each other 40 years before to determine the future of the Union and Slavery, any discussion of -why- solidiers actually fought was divisive, and thus all people could agree upon was that the soliders of both sides fought bravely and well.