11 September 2018

The Poor Misunderstood Herald Sun


T
he poor little babies at the Melbourne Herald Sun are bitterly whining that people—stunned by the overt and blatant racism of Mark Knight’s recent cartoon—missed the point of the piece. It was a criticism, the paper lamely protests, of Serena Williams’ (alleged) bad behavior on the court during her match with Naomi Osaka—and apparently we are supposed to overlook the over-the-top racism of the generic stereotype used to represent Serena Williams and focus on what the “artist” intended, rather than on what he achieved.
Sorry, Herald Sun, but that’s not how it works. Your “artist”—and I use the term very loosely here—blew it. If he wanted people to focus on the message, he should have done it without the racism. Overt racism, mind you. J.K. Rowling’s ironic message has it just right: “Well done on reducing one of the greatest sportswomen alive to racist and sexist tropes and turning a second great sportswoman into a faceless prop.” (When I first saw the cartoon I was wondering who the girl in the background was supposed to be, and was stunned to learn that she represented the brilliant Naomi Osaka, reduced to a nonentity by the “artist’s” blatant racism.) Great cartoonists of the past—Thomas Nast and James Montgomery Flagg come to mind—used racist caricatures to make their points about the events of their days, but nobody holds them up for admiration on that point. No, the best people can do with that is to point out that they lived in societies that were more overtly racist than ours, and racism was a convenient and available shorthand for them to use in conveying their attitudes to their public. That excuse doesn’t cut it today.
The Herald Sun’s bitching and moaning about how people didn’t get it is missing the point completely. People got it. Okay, I can’t speak for people in general, but I got it. Insofar as the (alleged) artist was being critical of Serena Williams’ behavior on the court I halfway agree with him, though the chair umpire was not taking sides with Serena Williams, as depicted in the cartoon. Quite the contrary in fact. But the point here is that the Herald Sun chose to make its point by using a racist stereotype (rather than any sort of caricature) to stand for Serena Williams, and this in the twenty-first century, when we’ve supposedly grown past that. The Herald Sun (and its alleged “artist”) needs to grow the fuck up, learn from its mistakes, and apologize for its bad judgment—not blame people for reacting to its racism rather than focusing on the “point” the paper was trying (very badly) to make.

If You Don't See Racism, You're Part of the Problem


T
his 1904 sports-related cartoon by James Montgomery Flagg—the same guy responsible for the famous I Want You Uncle Sam recruitment poster—is racist as fuck.

So is this 2018 sports-related cartoon by Mark Knight.

If you honestly don’t see racism in these cartoons then you have revealed to the entire world what is in your heart of hearts, and it ain’t pretty. You, my friend, are a racist. And you need to deal with it.

21 July 2018

And I Obviously Having Still


A
nd nothing continues to happen at high speed. I suppose that writing words gives me the illusion of life but it’s growing pretty thin. Obviously today is not the day I’m going to start writing about things that interest me; it doesn’t look as if today is the day I’m going to start anything at all. Having no money of any kind is downright depressing, and saps the will for communicating anything except maybe WTF??? Still the discipline of posting something, however goddamn inane, is probably good for me, so in that spirit I guess I’ll put up this uninspiring piece of mindscum.

20 July 2018

Half-year Resolve


I
 don’t want to write about politics. It’s not a topic I enjoy, but it is a topic I can’t get away from. Right now, what with the Dopey Don and his gang of goons hacking the nation apart and selling off chunks at bargain-basement prices it feels irrelevant to write about the historical puzzles and acts of contemporary lunacy that actually interest me—rather like writing a nice letter home about the interesting people I’ve met on the Lusitania while ignoring those pesky U-Boats.
But I am getting old. The friends of my youth have died in the fullness of their years without anybody remarking how they were taken from us too soon, and I do have things I want to get done before I shuffle off to oblivion. So, in this spirit, I am going to start writing again about things that actually interest me, and write about the ongoing international disaster only when the spirit actually moves me.
Since nobody reads what I write anyway, as a rule, take these meanderings as notes to myself. I hope (intend is too strong a word) to get started on some planned multi-part pieces on canon (looking at Conan, Sherlock Holmes, Shakespeare, the Beatles, and the New Testament for grist); on fake history (I have material on some of the works Goodspeed called “Modern Apocrypha” I haven’t seen gathered together at any rate, as well as stuff related to Empedocles, Jesus, Paul of Tarsus, Edward de Vere, and others); on The Gospel According to Mark (I’m really hoping to get my online informal commentary launched before hell freezes over); on the history of English-language parody (I’ve got half-jelled pieces on Swift’s “Meditation on a Broom-stick,” J.K.S.’s “The Last Ride Together,” and Kingsmill’s retelling of Othello as a Jeeves and Wooster story); and I have some Vinyl Memories about records like Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (1964), That's The Way It's Gonna Be (1965), Moldy Goldies (1966), “Horror Asparagus Stories” (1967), Touch (1969), The Naked Carmen (1970), Atom Heart Mother (1970), Short Circuits (1970), Good-Bye Pop (1976), Boulez Conducts Zappa (1984), and others.
Will I do any of these things? I don’t want to tempt the gods by making rash promises, but I’d like to get at least some of this material out in a form where that rare person who actually is interested in the topics I like to ramble through can access it, so I’m going to make an effort. At least, I’m going to think about trying to make some kind of effort in that direction.
Just take it as understood that I am concerned, nay appalled, at America’s current obsession with destroying itself and its future, with the rise of criminal thugs to power (think Erdoğan, Duterte, and Kim Jong-un as well as Vlad the Appalling and his little friend the Dopey Don), and with the wanton destruction of this fragile liferaft we call home. But I can’t do jack about these particular long-gone goblins looming ahead, and I can give anybody who is interested the benefits of my insights (valuable or not) about subjects that interest me. So—at least for this moment—that’s what I intend to do.
And good luck, everybody. Hope to see you all on the other side of the Catastrophe.

29 June 2018

MAGA: Making America Grovel Abjectly


N
ot since Caligula returned from a campaign against the Ocean bearing seashells as Neptune’s tribute have we seen such a fatuous spectacle. So the Dopey Don has returned from North Korea empty-handed, fobbed off with nothing but a promise that the North Koreans would see what they could do about returning the dead bodies of American soldiers from a forgotten war, something they should have done long ago without any U. S. sacrifices. In return the Fake President has agreed to shut down training exercises with American regional allies South Korea and Japan and to remove its nuclear weapons from the peninsula—a major objective of the North Koreans. This is Making America Grovel Abjectly with a vengeance.
As America shrugs off its leadership rôle along with all pretense of greatness or exceptionalism the world wonders. Is the puppet president dancing to rasPutin’s pipe, or is this what you really get when you put Forrest Trump into a position of authority? Not that the two are mutually exclusive, by any means; it could very well be both. I have mixed feelings about the farce—because it is, let’s face it, amusing as hell to watch the most powerful military power on earth shoot itself in the foot in what appears to be a botched suicide attempt. On the other hand, as an American myself and an admirer of its aspiration to greatness I can’t help but share in the humiliation the Idiot-in-Chief has brought upon us all.
And I hear that our Puppet President has been summoned to meet with the Puppet Master in the coming months, I assume to receive his new dancing-orders. Better hope Russia doesn’t want to reverse Seward’s Folly—with the Dopey Don’s negotiating ability, the U. S. could end up minus its forty-ninth state.

09 April 2018

Tom Lehrer or Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Your Choice


O
n this day in history Tom Lehrer was born (1928) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed (1945). Tom Lehrer is still with us; Dietrich Bonhoeffer is not—and even if he hadn’t been executed by Nazi thugs he probably would not still be around; he’d be 112 years old.
Tom Lehrer’s satirical songs were an enthusiasm of my father’s—many times as a kid I heard him play “An Old Irish Folk Song” or “The Hunting Song” for unsuspecting visitors, but I didn’t develop any particular interest in him until I realized that some of my favorite satirical songs on That Was the Week That Was were his—“Who’s Next,” in particular.
Decades ago I read something of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in connection with Adolf von Harnack, but my notes are gone and my memory too faded to resurrect the details.
There’s no real excuse for this entry except that I wanted to preserve links to two quite decent pieces—one on Tom Lehrer at Ill Folks and the other on Dietrich Bonhoeffer at Warren Throckmorton’s blog. Enjoy. Or not. Your choice.

12 December 2017

The Fake President and the Loser


A
s it turned out I wasted part of the day writing a piece about Alabama’s next senator—a fellow who believes that the passage of the thirteenth amendment to the constitution (abolishing slavery) was a mistake, that a Muslim cannot hold office in America because of the constitutional requirement of being sworn in on a Bible, that Joseph Story’s bizarre exegesis of the first amendment (based on Story’s misreading or misrepresentation of the congressional debates) is valid, and apparently that it is perfectly acceptable for a man in his thirties to make sexual advances to a fourteen-year-old—and what it means for the state and the nation. Unfortunately—or rather fortunately—none of this is true. Apparently Alabama’s next senator is a guy named Doug Jones about whom all I know is that he successfully prosecuted two of those scumbag terrorists who murdered four girls about my age in Birmingham in 1963 as a protest in favor of racial discrimination.
But I feel confident that we haven’t heard the last of the other guy. I imagine the Fake President will find some place for him in the government—Supreme Court, maybe? Ambassador to Saudi Arabia? Some place where he can do real damage to his country, anyway.

06 December 2017

A Punch in the Jaw from Jolly Old St. Nick (2009)


[Originally posted 6 December 2009]
Tara: There’s a Santa Claus?
Anya: Mm-hmm. Been around since, like, the 1500s. But he wasn’t always called Santa. But with, you know, Christmas night, flying reindeer, coming down the chimney, all true.
Dawn: All true?
Anya: Well, he doesn’t traditionally bring presents so much as, you know, disembowel children. But otherwise…
Tara: The reindeer part was nice.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “The Body”

T
oday is St. Nicholas Day, the official start of the holiday marathon that constitutes Yuletide. This is the day little children in Teutonic countries who put out a shoe filled with hay the night before wake up to find the hay replaced by candy. The hay is for St. Nicholas’ horse, and the candy is a reward for decent behavior from the kids. Sometimes stockings are put out instead of shoes, and the St. often comes into the house through the chimney. St. Nicholas, by the way, has a variously-named helper who not only carries the bag of rewards, but also helpfully carries a rod for corporal punishment of bad kids. In Switzerland, Austria, and some parts of Germany he’s an unkempt horned demon named Krampus, or Klaubauf; in other parts of Germany he’s a uncouth knight called Ruprecht; and in the Netherlands he’s a nasty-looking guy known as Black Peter (Zwarte Piet), not to be confused with the old whaler whose death Sherlock Holmes once investigated.
Like so many of the older saints and martyrs, the historic Nicholas of Myra is a slippery fellow. He scuttles about in the shadows, leaving little for a researcher to work with. What small record about him we do have to go on is legend, and only the existence of those legends gives us any reason to believe that the guy was important in his own time, and apparently much loved. Historically all we can say is that a cult of St. Nicholas was already prominent in the sixth century. Behind the cult presumably lies a real human being, but we know nothing whatsoever about him.
Reference works usually say something like this:
Saint Nicholas (Greek: Άγιος Νικόλαος , Agios [“saint”] Nikolaos [“victory of the people”]) (280 - 6 December 343) is the common name for Nicholas of Myra, a saint and Bishop of Myra (Demre, in Lycia, part of modern-day Turkey).  Although born to great wealth, he was generous to the poor. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving and many stories are told of his benevolence. At the council of Nicea he championed orthodoxy against the Arian heresy. He died 6 December 343.
The trouble is, none of this is actually history. It is, rather, an attempt to find historic kernels hidden in the mass of legends that surround the figure. Extracting history from legend is an exacting task, one that requires a great deal of time, patience, and above all, some basis (other than personal preference) for evaluating the material.
Ideally there would exist a historical record, however meager, about the figure in question—as there is, for example, about Billy the Kid or William Shakespeare. The matter of history then gives us something with which to judge the matter of legend; we have in that case a basis for making a decision. The exact balance struck may depend on the views held by the particular historian about the soundness of tradition or the like, but at least there is some ground to stand on in making a decision. But for Saint Nicholas there is nothing of the sort, no historical record of any kind.
Another possibility would be to examine the context in which he is supposed to have lived; to take a look at what is known about Myra (let us say) or the office of the bishop in the early fourth century (let us say) and use that information to judge the plausibility of the stories that have come down to us. The weakness with this approach, however, is obvious. It already assumes a certain body of facts—say that a man named Nicholas in fact existed in the early fourth century, that he was a bishop and that he lived in Myra. You could apply the same sort of standards in evaluating the stories about Sherlock Holmes, for example, and in the end you’d be no closer to determining any facts about the historic Sherlock Holmes, because there was no such person.
Given the absence of anything but the legend to work with, the starting point has to be the legend itself. A story that has been attached to various figures, for example, is far less likely to be genuine than one that is told only about the character we’re looking at. A story that appears late in the transmission of the legend, and whose growth can be traced over time, is almost certainly not accurate, especially in its latest stage of development. I would also note that stories that purport to tell the origin of some particular custom or landmark should be examined extremely closely; human beings enjoy telling such stories and attaching them to famous figures without too much regard for the facts on the ground.
Two stories about the legendary Saint Nicholas have always stuck in my mind. The first I encountered many years ago, though I don’t specifically remember where. Essentially the bishop gets wind of a guy in town who is impoverished; he is so poor that he can’t afford dowries for his three daughters. The father is therefore contemplating turning his house into a brothel and prostituting his kids in order to make ends meet. (The version I remember from my childhood was a bit vague on this particular point, actually.) The bishop, however, decides to circumvent this by providing dowries for the daughters. He does so by tossing a bag of gold through the man’s window in the dead of night. (Again, the version I remember from childhood had him dropping the bag down the chimney.) The man is delighted with this and does indeed succeed in marrying off his eldest daughter, thanks to Bishop Nicholas. Pleased that the father didn’t for example make off with the money himself, the bishop tosses a second sack of gold through the window for the second daughter, and then later on a third sack for the third. On that occasion, however, he is caught by the father, who expresses his gratitude for what the bishop has done for him and his children. And they all live, we may assume, happily ever after.
Now Jona Lendering suggests that this story is likely to be true because it contains no supernatural elements, and that the motive for Nicholas’ actions—his concern over the fate of the girls—is unique in ancient literature.
Care for women was not a top priority in the Roman empire, and the anecdote, in this form, can not have its roots in a pagan environment. On the other hand, in early Christianity, women played an important role (e.g, as deaconesses). Only when the new faith had become a mass religion, the attitudes of the majority of the Mediterranean population started to infiltrate Christianity. The position of women became worse.
The story fits the early fourth century, cannot be derived from pagan roots, and does not require “a miraculous suspension of the laws of physics”. He therefore concludes it “to be inevitable that it [is] simply true.” Against this I would note that while truth is one possibility, even accepting his arguments it is not the only one. The best we can say is that the story is likely to have originated at the same time the bishop is supposed to have lived. Charles W. Jones (St. Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend, p. 57) is a bit less certain:
May we presume that a devotee of N, most probably a preacher, knew a fine story and believed that to add it to N’s life would honor both story and hero, as Washington was wedded to the equally inexplicable cherry tree?
I’m not going to mix into this particular discussion except to say that (as Lendering points out) there is in fact an ancient antecedent to this story, and it is found in the life of the first century Neopythagorean philosopher Apollonius of Tyana. The philosopher ran into a guy who had four daughters and an inadequate sum of money with which to provide dowries; further, once he had given their dowries he would be wiped out. Apollonius persuaded him to invest the money in an estate outside town instead. At first the man complained “because, whereas he might have kept the 20,000 drachmas that he had in hand, he now reflected that the estate which he purchased for the sum might suffer from frost and hailstorms and from other influences ruinous to the crops.” However, when instead “he got a very large yield from the olive-trees, when everywhere else the crops had failed, he began to hymn the praises of the sage, and his house was crowded with suitors for the hand of his daughters urging their suits upon him.” Again, all live happily ever after, we may suppose.
Now there are notable differences between the stories; Nicholas hands out money, where Apollonius only hands out advice. Nicholas may come off as the more generous here, but Apollonius comes up with the better long-term solution; he makes it possible for the man to support himself by steering him in a useful direction, where Nicholas provides only a quick fix for his present difficulties. Did either incident happen? Anything is possible, but we’re clearly in the realm of folklore here, not history.
The other story that sticks in my mind about the bishop of Myra is one that came up while I was sitting in on the Nag Hammadi seminar in Claremont. One time during the Christmas season, before the event started, one of the grad-students (I actually don’t remember who, now) entertained us with a rundown of the life of Saint Nicholas as recorded in legend. According to him the bishop was present at the Council of Nicea, and got into a disputation with the arch-heretic Arius himself. The disputation became heated and Arius seemed to have the upper hand. Orthodoxy itself was trembling on the brink of disaster, when Nicholas came up with the perfect refutation. He slugged Arius, breaking his jaw, thus keeping him from continuing his heretical arguments, and so Christianity was saved from error, and all lived happily ever after (we may assume).
Okay, there actually is such a story about Nicholas, though the versions I’ve seen are not quite so dramatic as the one I remember from that particular occasion. It wasn’t Arius himself; it was an anonymous Arian, and the bishop silenced him by slugging him in the face; nothing is said about breaking his jaw. Jona Lendering notes:
According to this legend, Nicholas was so angry at an advocate of Arianism that, overcome by apostolic zeal, he struck his opponent. Not everyone appreciated this blow for Arianism, and the presidency of the Council decided that Nicholas was no longer allowed to wear the ornaments of a bishop. Therefore, Nicholas is shown without mitre on Greek icons. In fact, this anecdote is embarrassing, and this is a reason why it is unlikely to have been invented.
Okay, it is true that an embarrassing anecdote is less likely to have been invented than a praiseworthy one, at least by a historical figure’s admirers, but the extant accounts don’t seem to have looked at it that way. Jesus and Mary are supposed to have approved his action. And here the history of the tradition is overriding; when it turns up in an earlier account we read:
…all the Orthodox were gathered at Nicea to establish a true Constitution of the Faith and to drive away the blasphemous doctrine of Arius, with a view to peaceful conciliation of the whole Church.  It was effected by the determination that the Son was equal in honor with the Father and that both Persons were conjoint. The admirable Nicholas helped to bring this about as a member of the sacred synod, and he strenuously resisted the casuistry of Arius, reducing to naught his every tenet. [Symeon Metaphrastes as quoted in Charles W. Jones, p. 63]
Only later does Nicholas punch an Arian, and only after that do accounts mention the negative reaction from other bishops. Plausible it may be, but truth and plausibility are by no means the same thing. In this case the lateness of the story, combined with the fact that we can trace its development, suggests that the information is bogus. It’s also worth noting (perhaps) that Nicholas is not listed as a participant in the council of Nicea in most lists, though as they were compiled after the fact and are not necessarily complete, that may not count for much.
None of this really matters all that much. There’s no real evidence to suggest that the historical Saint Nicholas was anything more than a convenient name to graft onto a legend; the legend might well be much the same if Nicholas of Myra never existed. And in truth, though I’ve expressed it as a hypothetical, it may well be the fact that Nicholas never existed. A cult and a legend do not necessarily add up to a historical figure, and wishful thinking is not the same as historical research. For one thing, the former is much easier than the latter.
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