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.