Saturday, April 30, 2011

April Ends

April ends and hence it’s time, just
As a lark, like yesteryear so
In this wet moment here, to mark
That term of germination with
A fitting termination of
Internal rhymes.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Somebody Will Have It

Celebrating dictionaries. When you’re highfalutin, what exactly are you? My Online Etymology Dictionary failed me, for once, and in such a bind I am reminded that I am rich. Rich, that is, in all kind of dictionaries, the kind that live on shelves. Our oldest Webster’s (1920) has the word and says that it is, perhaps (their word) a corruption of high-flying—hence other dictionaries suggests that rendering it as highfalutin’ with a hyphen is correct by way of indicating the missin’ g. Our equally thick and also unabridged 1961 Webster’s suggests an origin, also qualifying it with a “perhaps,” having to do with a flute, not the kind you blow on to make music but the kind known in architecture as a “furrow in a pillar.” Those furrows were up there, as it were. This entry qualifies its ignorance by quoting several big names using it, not least Mencken and T.S. Eliot. Our Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, by Quality Paperback Books and edited by Robert Hendrickson, flunks. No highfalutin. Our Dictionary of American Slang, perhaps because it is about slang, produces the most scholarly etymology, dating the word to 1848+ (their +). They continue: “origin unknown; originally a gerund, seemingly based on a verb high falute, suggesting a humorous alteration of flute; perhaps fr a blend of highflown with some other element; perhaps fr Dutch verlooten, ‘stilted’.” The neatest etymology comes from the Web, the Wictionary. It says the following: “In his book, The Adventure of English, Melvyn Bragg records that in a nascent America, when the well-to-do travelled by steamboat, said passengers were referred to as highfalutin due to the high fluted funnels on the boats.” Just to make sure, I quickly checked if lowfalutin is around. By golly, it is. It’s being used by all sorts of people to assert that they’re just ordinary people and lovable for that reason alone, one supposes. I hope that the Websters of the world are capturing these web assertions so that someday, when it will have become highfalutin to be lowfalutin, the dictionaries will know who used this new word for the first time.

Grass, Iron, Wood, Cement

A view of four “highways,” as it were, caught on a walk to capture images of early Spring. Click through for a good view.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Hamilton on Faction

Regarding yesterday’s post, it would happen, of course, that the next thing I read, that evening, was an essay by Alexander Hamilton entitled “The Numerous Advantages of the Union.” It is essay No. X in The Federalist, written by Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison in the late 1780s. My own yellowing copy came out in 1901. Herewith some quotes:

Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it. The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations.

Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable; that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties; and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice, and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interestd and overbearing majority.

It will be found, indeed, on a candid review of our situation, that some of the distresses under which we labor have been erroneously charged on the operation of our government; but it will be found, at the same time, that other causes will not alone account for many of our heaviest misfortunes; and, particularly, for that prevailing and increasing distrust of public engagements, and alarm for private rights, which are echoed from one end of the continent to the other. These must be chiefly, if not wholly, effects of the unsteadiness and injustice with which a factious spirit has tainted our public administration.

By faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse or passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

These quotes from the first two pages of the essay. Hamilton goes on and succinctly but precisely describes the causes of faction. To entice the reader to pick up the book, I’ll provide these hints. Faction arises from liberty, inequality, and property. After that Hamilton argues why the U.S. Constitution curbs the effects of faction although it cannot eliminate it. If the crick don’t rise I’ll return to this subject and argue that changes since 1787 have made Hamilton’s own arguments much weaker today.
Image from Wikipedia here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Action and Faction

The word faction originally stood for party (the political kind). The term was used in that sense in Roman times and also early in American history. Factions, parties, formed as soon as a democratic style of government came to be established. Factions formalized into parties around about 1787 and thereafter as the Constitution was ratified. The word rapidly took on negative connotations, obvious from the way George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and others used the word. These fathers of the country discovered the pleasures of political opposition—and didn’t like it. Washington thought that governance should rise above faction. Perhaps the negative connotations that stuck to the word eventually led to the use of another, party, a word that in the eighteenth century still attached to smaller groups like hunting or dinner parties.

In our time party has itself become encrusted with negatives. “Just party politics” means, although in a milder sense, much the same thing that our founders meant when speaking of “factional disputes”; they meant the contention of limited interests rather than action for the common good. Today—certainly in the media—a positive connotation attaches to activism. Yes. On the Right that word has strongly negative connotations instead, but in the ordinary discourse of the media an activist is someone good, a reactionary someone bad.

Amusingly, both faction and action come from roots meaning “to do,” the first from the Latin facere, the last from the Latin agere. This “doing,” however, in our context, seems always to include a qualifier: against or in opposition to. The activist acts against the System. The faction opposes another faction. The Founding Fathers believed in limiting power by institutional, legal, and procedural methods. Activists and factionalists are ultimately seeking power—but outside established institutional, legal, and procedural boundaries.

Agitation also derives from agere in its sense of moving, driving, and impelling. Factionalists and activists seek to rouse passive masses who, in turn, will either force changes in the System by those who control it or give the faction power so that, in turn, it can rule.

We need not seek far to find the root of party. Removing the tailing y will do. The parts contending to rule the whole. Were Washington and Hamilton ultimately naïve in thinking that an idealized projection of the whole actually existed, that there really was something out there that could act as a party of one? as the American People or the Athenian Demos? Or did they, perhaps, express a kind of nostalgia for a time when more people actually shared a common belief that transcended personal interest?

There is that tongue in cheek saying: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” People reject that because, echoing that sage of modernity, Gertrude Stein, they think that “there is no there there.”

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

St. Michael Mounted

Another day, another walk...but this time I had my trusty Kodak with me. Therefore I here present a photo of St. Michael mounted on a winged steed, a decoration found on St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Grosse Pointe Woods, MI (on the back entrance of one of its wings). I referred to this image in a post on Borderzone a few days back (“Winged Migration.”)

Herewith an attractive walkway connecting that wing to a tower:

Half the fun of taking walks is keeping the eyes open and giving thoughts that rise the freedom to proceed...

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Deformation

May you live in interesting times.
     Supposedly a Chinese curse
Monique commented on LaMarotte saying, “I am beginning to get the feeling that ‘times’ are always interesting… Has any human lived an entire life during peaceful, tranquil, times in which rationality and thoughtfulness prevailed? I wonder. Perhaps, only those whose lives have been particularly short...”

This got me thinking that different kinds of “interesting times” have a different “feel”. The sum of evil seems always the same, but the feel of it can certainly be different. Brigitte and I lived through World War II; it had its share of horrors, but the feel of the thing was different. The best explanation for a different “feel” may lie in the relative unity of humanity as it faces its troubles and in the trend of events. If unity is high and the trend is towards coherence, the feel is positive, otherwise negative. The troubles themselves are unchangingly the same.

Contrast troubles in business caused by growth and those caused by disappearing markets. Same problems, different feel. We might see it writ large as well. Herewith a look at Western Civilization.

At the beginning, chaos and a transcendental Inspiration (Christianity). Then in order: Formation (called the Dark Ages), High Middle Ages, the Renaissance (the exploitation of the success of the High Middle Ages), the Reformation, the Enlightenment (product of the Reformation), Modernity (the exploitation of the Enlightenment), and now, finally, we’re in the midst of The Deformation.

Some comments. The Dark Ages are well named because western civilization was then in the womb, and it’s dark in the womb. If cells participating in the formation of an embryo had consciousness, they’d call this period “interesting times.” The Dark Ages were not a period of peace but of turmoil—but the trend, the tendency was toward coherence. That coherence peaks in the High Middle Ages; in the year 1000 AD Europe “clothed itself in the white mantle of churches” (more here); in the thirteenth came its glorious peak. The Renaissance is a period of relaxation, exploitation—and of corruption. Comes the Reformation. It was a bloody—an interesting—time but its tendency once more constructive. The second peak in western civilization is not ours but the Enlightenment, which came to be exploited as Modernity. And now the excesses of modernity are producing what here I call The Deformation. It will end in chaos again—and in that total darkness, perhaps, another Inspiration.

Why not another, a third peak? My own view is that the cycles of Western culture are “lossy,” to use a modern term. At every stage less of the original transcendental Inspiration remains in force, has been lost. The culture therefore becomes ever more material in character. Therefore, if my own “feel” is right, this period, the Deformation, no longer carries anything that will help this culture peak again. And for that reason the “feel” of these times is not a good one—even though all of our troubles are the same old, same old—wars, rumors of wars, plagues, earthquakes, tsunamis, and corruption. But unity is fracturing. The center isn’t holding. It was a transcendental vision. But how many, today, actively share it? At the individual level, of course, nothing is lost. But we’re talking about the great collective.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Landscapes of Ambiguity

Cultural life produces recognizable fields of activity easily linked to physical things, but pondering them I see strange landscapes of ambiguity. Literature is an example. Literature is letters, writings, books—but, literature as such is only a narrow subset of such things. That word, for instance, excludes the Congressional Record or written forms of scientific discoveries, philosophy, etc. The word embraces imaginative writing about experience: narratives, poetry, plays. But only a subset of that category ranks as literature. To merit the name the product must have a certain structural and aesthetic quality fused with a certain difficult-to-pin-down profundity, feeling, intuition. Letters on paper, plot, rhyme, beat, story, and theme are accessible to objective valuation. Such things are either present or not; if present, they are capable of analysis, comparison. But what really matters is much more difficult to detect. Literature therefore tends to be defined by small but influential groups some members of which may be, but the majority are not, themselves creators of art. The mass of readers is also excluded. Literature has its elites, and the majority of them are neither poets nor storytellers. Rarely, but here and there, critical writings, writings about literature, also rise to the status of literature: they are unusually, creatively insightful and deep. Literature, finally, is dynamic. It has schools, movements, conflicts, camps—in which, among other things, elites compete and declare other schools, movements, or camps as producing trash. Literature also has its revered ancient forms some of which are dying of neglect, others of which enjoy brief renaissances, and so on.

The ambiguity arises because higher forms of human achievement are impossible to break down into manageable bits in order to grasp them—and their recognition by others is also impossible to discern: it depends itself on a higher function.

The analogy to another great landscape of ambiguity, Religion, is tempting. I yielded to that temptation decades ago and view Literature as the religion of the secular age. In religion the creative force arises from saints and mystics. Piety as such does not suffice. Something more must be present—and is difficult to pin down. Piety is accessible to objective valuation, the saintly state escapes it—but we know it when we see it. Religion has its priesthoods, and the majority are neither saints nor mystics. They elevate some of the saints and canonize them, ignoring what the masses of the ordinary people feel; they work by rules. And the same dynamisms apply in religion as in literature where the old is sometimes selectively revived, the new is opposed as heresy and declared as beyond the pale and Satan’s own handiwork.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day Rumination

Holidays fascinate me, particularly in the context of cultural cycles. To be sure, the existence of cultural cycles is debatable. Some who study history perceive them, others do not. Both those who do and those who don’t must ignore important regions of fact in order to become didactic in their assertions. Still, poetically speaking, I see real cultural cycles, and in that sense holidays fascinate me. The seasons have their celebrations. In religious, inward-looking cultural periods, these have a transcendental focus; in secular times a material.

This year Earth Day occurs two days before Easter Sunday and coincides with the darkest day of the Christian cycle, Good Friday. Some believers who haven’t had time to think about this might rashly conclude that Earth Day is a kind of modernist affront. Yes, each culture has its holidays, but as best as I can determine, and I have the time for such things now, no offence was intended when Senator Gaylord Nelson launched Earth Day at a teach-in on April 22, 1970.

The two dates, as it happens, rarely coincide. In 1970 Easter Sunday came on March 29, hence a conscious alignment of the two isn’t credible. These days we observe the Gregorian Easter, based on a calculation. It bounds the dates of that holiday between March 22 and April 25. In the period 1875 through 2124, Easter falls most frequently (11 times) on April 10 and April 17. In this entire period, Easter on April 24 will take place this year and again in 2095, one of the least frequent dates. This link provides all the years.

The date of Easter is, roughly, based on a lunar calendar and falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon that appears after the vernal equinox. The differences, which give rise to complex calculations, are that the full moon is not what you actually see but the 14th day of lunar month. The other is that, in this dating system, the vernal equinox is assumed to fall on March 21. In nature it might occur on March 19 or 20 as well. True to form, our age has produced a wondrous mathematical computation for this date. Here are the equations for the month and the day:

month = floor (h + L − 7m + 114) / 31
day = ((h + L − 7m + 114) mod 31) + 1

How the variables h and L and m are calculated—and more, much more—is shown here for those who are likely to enjoy the indescribable delights of mathematical juggling.

The odd thing is that the event actually celebrated at Easter, Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, took place at the time of mass celebrations of the Passover—and were part of the social dynamics of that celebration. That celebration, it so happens, has no seasonal meaning. It marks the beginning of the Jews’ successful escape from Egypt which, based on the date of Passover, took place on the fifteenth day of Nisan, a month that falls into the March-April period.

“Deep, one might say infinitely deep, is the well of the past.” Thomas Mann in Joseph and His Brothers.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Of Biblical Origin?

I used the words danse macabre as the title of a post on LaMarotte today—and then having used the phrase, it took hold of me and wished to be explained. The word macabre has a history in this clan going back a ways. Back before Internet days, I once tried to get the lyrics of a Joan Baez song simply by listening to it with a pad in hand. One word absolutely stopped me. Joan was singing something that sounded like machere, almost like the French word mȃché, as in papier-mȃché. At long, long last and from the context, I had it. The word was macabre, but she gave it her own interpretation…

Danse Macabre is the Dance of Death—depicted in paintings (with skeletons dancing) and used as a theme for sermons. In German it is Totentanz, in Dutch Dodendans. It seems to have arisen in response to the black death, so-called, which ravaged Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Today it is thought to have been the bubonic plague. But why was this dance called macabre in French and macabra in Italian? The answer comes from the Online Etymology Dictionary (the affordable source). The phrase was first recorded as danse Macabré in Old French in 1376 and refers to the Maccabees. The Maccabee era in Judea extended from 164 to 63 BC, established by a revolt against the Seleucid empire in 167 BC. In the course of that a massacre took place in which a mother and her seven sons and a teacher of the law, Eleazar, were brutally slaughtered. Vividly described in the apocryphal Book of the Maccabees, Chapter 2, this story made a big impression in medieval Europe and thus became the root of a word we sometimes use in writing, sometimes pronounce as the French do, and sometimes do not, and mean by it, when we use it, something like bizarre. We’ve muted the meaning—perhaps because we haven’t ourselves lived through a genuine plague and stared into the face of Death as other eras had to. Bizarre? But no. Not now. I’ll leave that to another post. But it has something to do with hair. Many women will read that and nod.
Footnote. How many on this Maundy Thursday still remember what the word “maundy” means? I explained it carefully on this site a while back here, but Lord, I’d forgotten myself. Again.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Let the RA do it!

Learning has a visceral aspect—a touch and feel and hear and smell component. I’ve always known this at some level, but conscious knowledge of it dawned when I was already a man. I joined Midwest Research Institute as an analyst. The Econ Division employed analysts, the midlevel, and research assistants, the next level down. The idea here was division of labor: RAs did the repetitious, boring tasks, analysts the more demanding. But something in my innards resisted this division. I was always getting down, into details, doing my own literature searches, crunching my own numbers, plotting my own graphs. Something odd always happened in this process, and I became aware of that. I absorbed more information; my sense of mastery over the material grew; my confidence increased. I never trembled meeting with clients—as other analysts frequently did. I knew where all the bones were buried and the reason why.

For this reason, at staff meetings, under pressure of deadlines, I often heard myself admonished: “Don’t do that stuff yourself. Let the RA do it.” I found it easier to take a job and simply let the RA do it all herself, start to finish—not least customer contact. In those days RAs were typically women with liberal arts backgrounds. One of these ladies rapidly developed as a consequence of such assignments and soon became an analyst. Yes. A little help with the final report—but then I was still helping with those years later when I’d become at division director at MRI. In my group we assisted other such rapid promotions, and the RA position more or less faded away.

Hands on, direct contact. Drudgery educates. It produces a real democracy of work. In a way it’s costly, but the societal benefits are great. Vice presidents of sales and marketing appointed solely on the basis of a Harvard MBA?—who’d never made a single sales call ever on a real customer? I encountered such and analogous cases. Such things breed phony aristocracies and support phony class structures. A good rule is to do it yourself; don’t let the RA do it. At least until you really know something.

These memories arise as I engage in the mathematical drudgery of comprehending how and why logarithms first arose. I was never made to experience directly what the founders of these arts experienced—and think it is a symptom of poor math education. Many more would be math-literate if we went about the education of the young in a slower, more costly, but a more genuine way.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Separation, Adaptation

The foundation of all principled activity seems to be a separation of the authentically human from nature. That sounds odd in an era the thought of which rests on the opposite notion, namely that the human not only arises from but is nature and that, strictly speaking, no qualitative differences (better, higher) mark the human. Today’s dominant thought, however, also has a system of valuation. It values adaptation. Pragmatism is its philosophical expression: whatever works. In the absence of separation from nature, everything must be relative to something else. Not surprisingly the highest revelation of our age is the Theory of Relativity.

The “separation” that makes for principles is based on the notion of a hierarchical origin of all that there is: God, the universe, and so on. Here values, indeed absolute values, are implicit in what today we call “the narrative” itself. The modern view, violating strict consistency, also has its equivalent “higher” order, now called The Market, now Democracy. But in essence, there are these two: Separate, absolute, principled—over against monistic, relative, adaptive.

The problems in modern life arise because we refuse to apply modern ideas consistently, as already noted. When some group is stronger than ours and holds views we dislike, it is inconsistent to speak of bad will, evil, corruption, and so on. There are no absolutes by which to arrive at such negative judgments of others. It is as inconsistent to accuse other humans as it is to read malevolence into tsunamis and tornadoes. But modern man wants it both ways. It wants untrammeled freedom to choose its ideology pragmatically: principled when it is hurting, adaptive when it has the hammer hand. But this is heresy, of course. If we can’t walk the talk, sooner or later a principled era will come back and take over.

You Wanted Moisture? Here It Is!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Kind of Mandarin

Here a sentence:

The first is as a coherent, if incomplete, portrayal of our age unfolding on an epic scale: a grand parable of postindustrial culture or “late capitalism,” and an anguished examination of the lot of the poor (that is, white-collar) individual who finds himself caught in this system’s mesh.
It comes from an article in today’s The New York Times Book Review. I’ve avoided looking at that weekly appendix to the Sunday Times for at least a decade. Last week I read it again, much as I used to, namely selectively, reading the review if the book appeared in any way interesting. This meant that I read about three articles. That sample somewhat surprised me. Change, change everywhere, but not in this publication. It still uses a finely honed sort of Mandarin of which that sentence is representative.

I think there are many literatures of this sort. The ingredients are a certain view of the world and then a language carefully shaped over time to give that view expression. Talmudic commentary, Marxist analysis, and Rap come to mind. Writers and readers both strive to enter this world; the readers, half the time, are aspiring to be writers. The view shapes the language, the language the view—but you have to resonate with the view to enjoy the language. Of the three above—and with the Book Review Mandarin added as a fourth—only the Talmudic is simpatico for me.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Lines of Cars

When schools let out mothers assemble in long lines of cars and vans outside the elementary and middle schools, public and parochial. This should’ve struck me as odd long ago. Isn’t female work-force participation very high? It’s been rising, rising, rising since World War II. But around here many, many women are not off somewhere laboring away at 12-hour jobs; they’re at home laboring away at 18-hour jobs. They also don’t seem to need the money; the vehicles are splendid; the majority are vans, SUVs, etc. Reminds me to get in a car some afternoon and check out the less affluent communities to see what the scene is there. The nearest high school has so many cars around it—also new, shiny, expensive—that you’d think it is a place of work. When high school lets out the students who walk home are a trickle. At the nearest big intersections double lanes going back eight, nine cars wait for the light to go green. Lots and lots of money is still in evidence, but I don’t notice it because it has become part of the background. What stand out are the homes here and there carrying straight-forward signs in the windows telling me that they are foreclosed properties.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Arab Spring, Media Winter

Now is the winter of my discontent
With poetic-sounding metaphors of
Media made glorious spring by all the
Arab risings here and there that I see,
As well, here and there, eventually suppressed.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

When All Else Fails

The threatened defunding of the Statistical Abstract by the Census Bureau (see here for more) produced, in midst my panic, an up-rush of memories, some very recent, of what to do when all else fails. When all else fails, there’s still the book. If you’re in luck it’s on the shelf; if not, our library is in walking distance. For Christmas this past year I got a complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It is a 1956 edition, in pristine condition, printed on lasting paper, illustrated by black-and-white photographs, the very occasional color photo (e.g., Trees of North America) and—and this is a genuine pleasure—here and there even an etching or two, no doubt retained from earlier editions. One of them, more or less at random, is subtitled Plowing with a 3-furrow plow. Tractor equipped with lights for night work. Nineteen fifty-six—the year I entered the Army.

At that time, in my Mother’s house, our source of information about the world came from a 1919 edition my mother had obtained at a side-walk sale. This particular EB had a similar history. John and Monique were visiting here last fall during a kind of outdoor fair. John and I wandered about, fingering wares. And there was an EB out there, but under a table, and not exactly up for sale. How it got there is a little mysterious. I think the lady had planned to sell it, but then she changed her mind. I tried my best to make her change her mind right back but failed—John a silent witness. But he knew what would please me for Christmas… Behind the books all sorts of scenes like that that only surface when memories return. Now I have an Encyclopaedia Britannica again—and when all else fails…

Actually we have three sets of encyclopedias. One is a Funk & Wagnalls (1972). We got it new. Yes, it was a budgetary compromise, but we had to have one, children, you know. It is a competent and useful work, more color photographs but not that many. The other is a World Book Encyclopedia (1989), a visually stunning, gold-leaved work, seemingly brand new and never touched—and obtained for the hauling right from the curb-side of a dissolving household two years ago.

In time one learns—especially if one is in the business too—that reference works are just as ephemeral as anything else, but their life-cycles are longer. This is true of encyclopedias, dictionaries—and above all statistical works. Continuous publication of the last is absolutely necessary in order to maintain any kind of deep view of the past. This means that, for certain subjects, it is very useful to have old as well as newer versions of these works. Fashions change. Emphases change. And, indeed, on my periodic in-depth looks at this or that, I’ll be looking at all three—all open to the same article and Wikipedia up on the screen. But the always handy Wiki just doesn’t have lungs it takes for real mountain climbing or deep spelunking in the dark.

What a relief it was, the other day, in search of mathematical fundamentals—old textbooks on algebra, trig, and calculus all having failed me—when I discovered, indeed with surprise, how complete, indeed almost personally casual and tutorial the EB article on my subject sounded, still revealing the individual authorship that those articles have. But the odd thing is that we are too easily tempted by the superficialities of the Internet and content ourselves with thin, thin summaries when genuine information in real depth is actually available right there, if mutely, on the shelf. And all you need for access is a knowledge of the alphabet.
Image source is Wikipedia.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Balanced View of Priestly Sexual Abuse

The Catholic League ran a full-page ad in the New York Times today on the subject of priestly sexual abuse. It is a very thoughtful, balanced, and well-documented text well worth the time that it takes to read. The following link will take you to an on-line version of this advertisement, titled STRAIGHT TALK ABOUT THE CATHOLIC CHURCH and signed by Bill Donahue, president of the League. Here is how this organization describes itself in the first paragraph of its About Us page:

The Catholic League is the nation’s largest Catholic civil rights organization. Founded in 1973 by the late Father Virgil C. Blum, S.J., the Catholic League defends the right of Catholics – lay and clergy alike – to participate in American public life without defamation or discrimination.
Some comments of my own. I’ve been following this subject for years in the papers and on the electronic media. My own reaction has been disgust. Indeed I think that attending to the media even with a moderate amount of concentration will produce the undeniable impression that these media are strongly prejudiced toward religion in any form and toward Catholicism above all—this last emphasis due not particularly to any specific features of Catholic theology but a reflection of the general size, strength, and cohesion of this church which does not look like it will weaken, thin out, secularize, and become, de facto, a mild cheering section for a gentler sort of materialism. The fact that papers have “religion” pages on which articles have quite a different slant than elsewhere does not negate my impression at all.

We’ve been parents of children who have attended both Catholic and ordinary public schools. In all those years we knew of only a single case of alleged abuse of a pubescent minor. It took place in one of the public schools our girls attended, and the party under suspicion was a coach who gave himself some freedoms in touching girls. The school went through all kinds of procedural motions; indeed we frankly felt as if we had done something questionable rather than that jerk, the coach. And, as it turned out, the teacher remained in place—although, after these events, his behavior became extremely circumspect. All institutions tend to behave in similar ways.

The media also treat some religious persuasions as if they were, indeed, untouchable. But that’s another story. All forms of biased reporting, for or against—all disrespect for those who exercise their conscience, whether approved by modernist ideology or not, falls outside the pale of professional journalism. It is too bad that the Catholic League has to expend big bucks to put a balanced view of priestly abuse in the New York Times—rather than encountering that view, as a matter of course, in the pages of the newspaper of record.

Same Old, Same Old?

Not for the first time yesterday I e-filed our joint Federal Income Tax return. In that process we had to “sign” the electronic return—but how do you sign an intangible something? The act is in the same category as raising a number to the power of 0.39. In the one case the physical image is of a fountain pen, in the other of doing a series of multiplications—but in this strange world neither actually applies. The last time we signed electronically supplying the adjusted gross income (AGI for short) of the year before sufficed. That number matched to our two social security numbers, was signature enough. This year TurboTax told me to call the IRS. A nicely modulated recorded female voice then guided me through the process. And behold. In no time at all, I got both Brigitte’s and my own IRS PIN, which stands for Personal Identification Number. The speaking computer required our SS numbers, last year’s filing status, and our dates of birth. Now we are both owners, in some invisible dimension, of a five-digit number of our own. It makes us uniquely what we are.

For a while there I had doubted that Douglas Adams was on to something in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. No more. At the end of that story the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything turns out to be the UPIN, the ultimate PIN, the Number 42. The greater the item, the fewer the digits, I suppose. We’ve got to lose quite a few digits before we become important, and it seems that even Life, the Universe, and Everything hasn’t quite got there yet.

The process must have made an impression on me because all through the night I dreamt of acquiring a new identity. In the dream the new identity was a green little square—and it lived on a spreadsheet—and it was Hispanic (don’t ask me why)—and a philosophical discussion went on as well—in which I argued that this was not identity theft—because I already had an identity—and therefore I was not really stealing it but just kind of multiplying the identity I already had, originally from God. Get it? My dreaming self was cooking up a stew of the two mysteries that April 2011 had spawned: taxes and logarithms.

Woke up this morning thinking I ought to write a post titled Identity. Careful as I tend to be when important projects lie ahead, I looked up the etymology of the word first—and then came a great delight, a genuine pleasure!

It turns out that the root of that word is “sameness,” from late Latin identitatem. That term, in turn, comes from identidem, meaning “over and over.” And that phrase, once removed, comes from the Latin phrase idem et idem, meaning “same and same.” And I was laughing, reading that. Wonderful, wonderful! The Romans, again, got there before us on that phrase as well. Now I knew my true identity. It is the same old, same old over and over again. But until when? The end of time?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Vox Populi...

It startled me to learn, from a cartoon, no less, in the New York Times, this morning, that Glenn Beck is now a Has Been. I went to find out the reason for something that seems quite unbelievable—and indeed I didn’t really credit the immediate information that surfaced, namely that Glenn Beck had sort of overstepped the line, too many conspiracy theories and so on. The initial clutch of news stories Google served up for my perusal were in the same lunatic fringe Glenn Beck himself inhabits, therefore it took another precious nano-minute more before I found a source I view as sane, the Christian Science Monitor. Here I learned the credible reason for Beck’s projected bow-out—and I immediately made a graph of it for all to see. Beck’s ratings have dropped from 2.9 million in 2010 to 1.8 million in 2011. An audience of 1.8 million strikes me as pretty big, but broadcasting’s another world. When ratings head south, advertisers head out. Its not the content, it’s the audience—and trends in audience. The real lord of these rings is money. Well, a month ago or so someone near and dear to me started watching Glenn Beck now and then to keep up with the Bad Guys—hence I glimpsed the magician at work occasionally when sneaking some chips in the kitchen. And I should have known. When Near and Dear puts her jaundiced eye on someone like Glenn Beck, Katie bar the door.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

My Kind of Story

The following brief legend comes from Tony Hillerman’s The Waiting Wind. The speaker is Joe Leaphorn, retired Lieutenant of the Navajo Tribal Police. He is talking to Bernadette Manuelito, a young policewoman in the same organization. Herewith the legend:

         Leaphorn nodded. “I know,” he said. “When I was a lot younger, an old Zuñi told me their legend… Two of their young hunters rescued a dragonfly stuck in the mud. It gave them the usual wishes you get in these stories. One wished to be the smartest man in the world. The dragonfly said, ‘So you shall be.’ But the second hunter wanted to be smarter than the smartest man in the world.”
         On this Leaphorn paused, partly for effect, partly to see if Bernie had already heard a version of this, and partly to see if she had cheered up enough to be listening. She was listening.
          “So dragonfly converted the second hunter into a woman,” Bernie said, laughing and nodding at Leaphorn.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Walk

Long solitary walks produce a kind of silence. Even when my head happens to be busy as I set out, busy in a directed sort of way, that process is sure to fade, eventually to end. It isn’t countryside around here, but functionally close. Depending on the route, I meander through one or two of five small but old communities. To the east the waters of Lake St. Clair. To the west the great vast dirty broken-down sometimes empty, abandoned Detroit metroplex extends—to a man on foot infinitely deep. I’d probably have to walk for days before, eventually, genuine country would open around me somewhere west of Anne Arbor, Michigan.

Around me here houses, sometimes grandiose mansions, always trees, lawns, parks, bushes, yards, streets. Surprisingly few people. They’re all inside. TV. Whatever. Out here lots of squirrels, birds, rabbits—and in season butterflies. Cars pass, but I no more consciously notice them than I see the electric over-grid when I look up into the branches of the trees.

Sometimes I pass places surrounded by walls too high to see over easily, but stepping to them I can rest my arms on neck-high parapets and look into empty private places—and there I’ll see a bird pecking at something, itself all alone. Equally silent bushes and grass, sometimes flowers; lonely lawn chairs wait for warm weather; pots left over from the fall stand mute against some wall. And always that peculiar silence of nature, not really an absence of sound but, instead, the absence of that something else we call civilization. The pecking bird is very much at home, oddly centered in itself, unaware of names. Startled it flies away—and its flight is spontaneous, swift, clean, and empty of all qualities we associate with people—anxiety, embarrassment, hurry, discomfort. Nothing of the sort. Just peck-peck-peck—a swift straight flight.

Sometimes, to be sure, in a big store, observing women shopping by themselves, I see the same total absorption—the same unity of total identification with a task, faces without makeup, just shopping, concentrated, hands helping the eye sorting through some pile of something. And then a swift turn to another rack, another stand on which more blouses hang.

But on my walks I see this always, no exceptions. Even when birds arrive in flocks, even when they make a great noise, even when they push and shove competing around a feeder—while others wait on gutter edges for their turn—even then, in social manifestations, still a kind of silence rules, the absence of something—an absence that, oddly, means peace.

Walks that last long enough, walks that outlast the mentation in which they begin and endure until the eye sees what is all around, walks that last beyond an hour and take place without the sense that I am exercising or trying to arrive at any point at all, just movement, sometimes a stop, arms on a wall, or a stop, hands on the bars of a wrought iron fence, such walks wash away the accumulations of grit and dust and grime deposited while pursuing strictly human occupations so that I arrive home and, at the door, I slide it open with a kind of sigh.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Defending the Tram

In re David Brooks new book, The Social Animal, the issue is not really about the conscious or the unconscious mind, and which predominates, but ultimately about the presence or the absence of a genuine agent who may be held responsible.

One reviewer (Will Wilkinson in Forbes) quotes Brooks summarizing the thrust of his book. It is “the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connection over individual choice, character over IQ, … and the idea that we have multiple selves over the idea that we have a single self.” These are supposed to be (and no doubt they are), the revolutionary discoveries of modern psychology and brain science.

I note here the incoherence of this characterization, so prevalent everywhere these days. If we have multiple selves, who has the emotions? How do we define the character (singular) of multiple selves (plural). I know, I know. We also speak about public opinion, as if it were something tangible, the national interest, as if there was a concrete something actually capable of having an interest. But now we find it projected backwards into the individual who, on close inspection, turns out to be a crowd.

If someone hired me to defend this characterization on rational grounds, I’d want to be paid in advance—because my chief argument would be, “Well, I don’t mean that precisely, but you know what I mean.” I would, in other words, appeal to a presumed understanding in my public that modern science denies the actual presence of a soul, an individual, an agency because science can’t decant it, hold the glass beaker up to the light, and then, pointing, say: “There it is! Can you see it? It’s swirling in there.”

The presumption here is that belief in an actual conscious person capable of genuine choice is a “traditional” belief, meaning old, pre-scientific. Also obsolete, hoary, dated, primitive. Therefore the discovery that we are a more or less cohering, continuous, but ever-changing phenomenon—but inhabited by a multiplicity of selves generated by the phenomenon—is “revolutionary.” But if we really are this phenomenon, then there isn’t really anyone there to notice that a discovery has been made. The “revolutionary” modern theory may be rendered as a street-car line in which the real objects are the power lines and the car that runs on rails. The passengers who come and go, our multiple selves, are not really what it’s all about. The revolutionary theory is about as easy to defend as this description of a streetcar line.

(If youre inclined to read more on a single soul or many (my take, that is), I suggest this post on Borderzone. And here a post, also on BZ, on the actual interactions between understanding and intellect. Understanding is a feeling, isnt it? A feeling is an emotion. Are there different kinds? Do they mean the same thing?)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

An Artist in Disguise?

On even days I see our dimension as a fallen world, on odd as a kind of reformatory. But such is the force of our culture that it shocks me when some person somewhere burns a Koran. This is the Age of Progress after all that naturally follows, doesn’t it, the Great Enlightenment? I’ve absorbed that ethos without being as sharply aware of it as I should to be. Therefore a sense of discomfort arises. It comes in waves. Did it really start with the Satanic Verses (Salman Rushdie)? With the Mohamed cartoons (in the Danish paper, Jyllands-Posten)? Will it end with the Reverend Terry Jones? That act has now cost some lives—and more yet to come. But the interesting aspects here are…

Well, the interesting aspects here are the vast upsurge of indigntion, the righteous defense of Rushdie, with prominent artists rushing to his defense back then…the outrage in the media over Muslim reaction to the cartoons…and now, surprise, an altogether contrarian reaction to the Reverend Terry Jones. Shouldn’t, for the sake of consistency, Terry Jones be staunchly defended, indeed even celebrated? Wasn’t he striking a blow for Free Speech, Freedom of Expression, and the People’s Right to Know just how the Reverend Terry Jones feels about things in general and Muslims in particular? Isn’t he, perhaps, an artist in disguise? Wasn’t he doing performance art? Shouldn’t that instantly justify him?

The interesting aspects here are that some things are sacred and others are not, but you have to have a really sophisticated and nuanced (to use one of those sophisticated words) sort of judgment to know precisely which is which. Artists and journalists are in—and religious zealots are out of—the zone, the Zone of the Sacred. Self-expression is in and religious convictions are out of the zone, unless the self-expression comes from a religious background.

The interesting aspect here is that evil stupid deeds are perennially with us (this is a fallen world or some kind of reformatory), but the current problem is itself the ripe fruit of the Enlightenment—although here the Enlightenment is in conflict with itself.

Remember the Piss Christ? Andres Serrano’s crucifix submerged in his own urine, photographed and displayed and winning the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art’s “Award in the Visual Arts” competition? That drew the wrath of Jesse Helms but Serrano was defended on the grounds of artistic freedom and the freedom of speech. The trouble here is that the Spirit of the Enlightenment delights in such things as that, but it frowns on religion—if frown is a strong enough word.

But some things are sacred, others are not. Free speech is fine—if it does not deny the holocaust. And what if Serrano had submerged a Star of David in his spent body fluids? There are limits, folks. We know where the buck stops.

Now from a pre-Enlightenment perspectives, where I am still stuck, all of these expressions of our liberation, freedom, whatever are wrong. Rushdie was sucking up to Western secularism, Serrano’s “art” is beneath contempt, the Danes were both stupid and provocative, forgetting that not all people regard religion as ridiculous, and Terry Jones is simply wandering blindly in the darkness. And I’m also certain that there are no good guys. I’m one of the other kind too. Not here—not among the Muslims, either. The very people who threatened Rushdie with assassination have branches that destroyed the great sixth century Buddhas of Bamiyan with artillery fire in Afghanistan.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Worse than a Rorschach Blot

My subject is the National Interest, not psychology, ink, or blots. And my purpose is to contemplate how well that concept works in justifying policy decisions such as bombing this coast line or that. And I’ll give you my conclusion right out of the box. Using a concept like National Interest translates into saying, “I can do whatever I damned well please.”

Now for the fun part. To use something as a justification, it ought to be capable of description in some rational, traceable, and somewhat measurable way. Let’s take such a justification. It may be policy to defend the U.S. population by keeping its borders secure. Very well. We can draw lines on a map that closely approximate the actual borders of the United States, including the 12-mile limit sanctioned by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Now, grant you, even here, I could create insurmountable problems. I’ve learned this years ago studying fractal geometry. It turns out that applying fractal methods, the U.S. borders are infinitely long. Fortunately Great Nations made up entirely of Conscious Bacteria do not as yet confront us, so defending borders as we know them is still in the ballpark of the rational, traceable, and somewhat measurable.

We’re also still in the ballpark if we define national interest as the protection of the U.S. population. That would justify action to protect our citizens, even if they are elsewhere, from harm by groups that violate international law or those prevailing where they happen to be. But problems already surface at this point. Theoretically such an interest would apply equally to a single person whose rights have been violated by a very powerful and large country at the very center of its large geographical landmass. But would that also necessitate going to war with that country?

But is it in the National Interest generally to defend people against “bad things that can happen?” In the future? Whatever they might be? That one fails the test. Irrational, untraceable (the future actually is, is untraceable), and immeasurable.

But let me illustrate that more narrowly. Supposing some of our petroleum companies have invested millions in risky exploratory ventures somewhere far away—and some foreign land now seizes these assets and nationalizes them. Better yet, what if some country that supplies one-sixty-fourth of our total imports of oil is attacked by a third party that, in the past, has expressed hostile attitudes toward us and does not trade with us now? Here the national interest becomes extremely fuzzy. Our national interest might include getting cheap gas, and that invasion, not of our land but another party A’s, by a third party B, might, if it succeeds, eventually cause our gas price to rise by a cent or two. Should our national interest therefore cause us to mount a major military expedition to defend A from B?

In both cases above, the government as such is not a party. Investors invest where they please, importers import from where they wish. The national interest is difficult to define much better than the way I have defined it: we’d all rather not pay as much as we usually have to.

The moment we get away from something as basic as the defense of our shores or of our citizens, the National Interest rapidly turns wondrously fuzzy. An infinity of interests start to be part of it, virtually all of these private, undertaken freely, usually for gain. Tracing them all out is impossible in practice. It’s certainly logical to keep terrorists and their weapons outside our borders. Trying to transform entire foreign regions in the name of National Interest, preemptive wars and the like, is not justified by rationality, traceability, and precision. To say that a stable Egypt is central to the U.S. National Interest is merely to say that we don’t like unpredictability. But nobody does. To think that we can actually manage these fuzzy balls of total ambiguity amounts to claiming that we can see precisely what each of Rorschach’s ten ink-blot cards actually represents.

Only it’s actually worse. I discovered today that Hermann Rorschach didn’t actually use ink blots. Rather, he discovered a way to design very interesting figures, with a meaning built in but made ambiguous, and to make them look like blots. I have this from a chapter of scholarly book (here). That makes good sense after you view the ten chart close up (visible here).  Unfortunately I could not discover, from the document itself, either the title of the book or the name of its author. In Rorschach’s blots, a certain meaning is intended, but in many of our claims to act in the National Interest, all that we can discover is that that interest is a mask behind which anything might be justified—if it sells to a benighted public that only wants it, whatever it is, cheaper, sooner, and better.

That blot above is Number 7, also from the already linked Wikipedia site.

Friday, April 1, 2011

April's Back

April’s back but we still lack strong signs of Spring.
The frost still clings to door and hinge and roof.
Most morning skies are overcast with vast
Black bellies under. We need the thunder, drenching
Rain to gain a foothold in this season,
Keen to see more green where drab brown lawn lies
Tawdry under Autumn’s dried-up, shriveled leaves.