31 July 2009

Never Mind

I've twice started to write something about why I've started going to my high-school reunions and twice run aground on the shoals of having nothing to say. I'm going to my forty-year reunion tomorrow. And yet it really makes no sense for me to put myself through another social ordeal, this time without my Paxil shield, when I could be safe in my cocoon, hiding in my basement.

You know, it probably doesn't make sense, as Bob Newhart put it somewhere or other, but I'm going to do it anyway. And with any luck I won't collapse into a pile of gibbering protoplasm, struck down by terrors invisible to everybody else. (I hate it when that happens.) I may even enjoy it. We'll see. Stay tuned.

28 July 2009

Writer's Blog

I can't think of anything to write about. I'm sure there are vital issues to rant about, or interesting historical footnotes to cover, or nostalgic rivers to cross. (As I'm about to attend my fortieth high school reunion, don't be surprised if there are more blasts from the past soon.) But right this moment my personal circuits are mostly overloaded by the heat. I have the lights out down here, trying to keep things as cool as possible, but it's still hotter than I find it comfortable to write in, and especially to do research in. There is air conditioning in the house, but not near my computer, so it's kind of a choice. To compute or to be comfortable, that is the question. And right now comfort is winning out.

25 July 2009

Defending the Indefensible

Well-known literary critic Henry Gates, Jr., was arrested 16 July 2009 after a passer-by mistakenly thought he was breaking into his own home. According to the police report:

On Thursday July 16, 2009, Henry Gates, Jr. ([censored]), of [censored] Ware Street, Cambridge, MA) was placed under arrest at [censored] Ware Street, after being observed exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior, in a public place, directed at a uniformed police officer who was present investigating a report of a crime in progress. These actions on the behalf of Gates served no legitimate purpose and caused citizens passing by this location to stop and take notice while appearing surprised and alarmed.

Now at this point I imagine you're asking, so what was the crime, exactly, that he was arrested for? Well, that was it—"caus[ing] citizens passing by this location [his house] to stop and take notice while appearing surprised and alarmed."

Now arguments have erupted over exactly what was said when and to whom in this whole business, and (essentially) who was the bigger asshole, Gates or the officer who arrested him, but none of this matters. Ed Brayton puts it well:
Look, this whole issue is quite simple. Is it possible that Prof. Gates was being a jerk during the arrest? That he presumed racism and had a chip on his shoulder when the police got there and berated them for badgering him? Sure it is. I wasn't there and neither were you so we have to admit this is a possibility. But here's the thing: It doesn't matter.

Exactly. This isn't a playground dispute between two kids or a barroom fight. One of these guys was a supposedly trained professional, out to do a specific job. The other guy was an ordinary citizen at his own home. Different standards apply. If the ordinary citizen was not breaking the law—and no evidence is presented that he was—then the trained professional had no business arresting him. Period. No matter what the damage to his ego may have been.

The only reason I am writing about this at all is that there are a lot of clowns out there trying to defend the officer in this case. As far as I know this fellow may be a nice guy—but the arrest report itself shows that in this case he acted unprofessionally. That his feelings were hurt, that he was being berated and yelled at (and I have no idea whether he was or not) is no excuse whatsoever for arresting somebody. That's an abuse of power, pure and simple.

Police powers are not granted to individuals so that they can gratify their egos, or take private revenge for fancied slights. And that this officer's defenders seem to expect people to take their excuses seriously leaves me flabbergasted. Do we live in a police state? Is this what we have come down to?

A commenter called Brent put the case in a nutshell here:

Setting aside all of the other meta-discussions on race and class that surround this issue, the thing about all of this that creeps me out the most is that so many people are willing to defend this officer who, assuming the most charitable possible interpretation, arrested a guy because he didn't like his attitude. That is what Barnicle is defending. That is what the execrable Mika Brzenski is defending. That is what I have read numerous commenters on a multitude of sites from the entire political spectrum defend.

They are, as far as I am concerned, defending the indefensible and it is what Carlos and, surprisingly reasonably, Ford was trying to get through in that clip. They were saying that if you cannot agree that arresting Gates was just plain wrong then there is no possibility of moving the argument forward. There is no good faith argument to be had without starting from the point that officers do not get to arrest a guy because he says unkind things to him.

I have decided that I no longer have anything to say to people who can, with a straight face, defend this nonsense. Forget about race. Forget about class. Forget whether or not Gates or Officer Crowley are nice guys who treat their mothers well. The bottom line here is that an officer used the authority of law to restrict the liberty of a man who was expressing displeasure with him. If you think that is right, then you fundamentally disagree with the basic principle of a free society.

That is not hyperbole. If you are willing to grant any individual with a gun and a badge the authority to arrest people because they don't like them, then you and I share no common principle on liberty and the right of people to be free from oppression. None.

Damn, I wish I'd said that.

24 July 2009

Standard Rant #415

One thing that irritates me no end—and I've seen this all my life in letters to the editor, heard it from callers on talk radio, and now read it in comment threads—are people who recycle talking points and then pretend that these are their own notions, wisdom distilled from a lifetime's experience, or from wide reading, or from personal research. You know, the other day when I was casually thumbing through the writings of Lincoln (some guy will claim), I was struck by his prophetic words, "You cannot raise up the poor by pulling down the rich." Or as Patrick Henry put it (some earnest young woman will write) America was founded by Christians, not by religionists (and then act offended if you point out that Barton or Kennedy are hardly reliable sources). Well I never heard of this Barton (she will claim), I just like to read what our American Founders actually wrote.

You know why I call bullshit on these kinds of claims? Because you, Mr. Strawman, never got that from reading the writings of Abraham Lincoln; you got that from the misattribution of some ideologue. And you, Ms. Chimera, didn't get that religionists line from a lifetime reading the Founders; you picked it up from some fool with an ax to grind. How do I know that? In these cases it's easy; they're fake. You won't find the one in the writings of Abraham Lincoln, or the other in the speeches of Patrick Henry, because they're made up.

And even when they're genuine, you guys give yourselves away again and again by quoting Adams, say, with the same sentence omitted, or by citing rule number two of the 1642 Harvard student rules as rule number one. Copying from an anonymous e-mail is not doing your own research, and pretending that it is is not only dishonest, it makes you look as much of an ignorant fool as the ignorant fool whose work you're stealing.

For those who wish to pass off other people's work as their own I do have some suggestions. First, steal from the best. The more accurate the work you're stealing from, the harder it is to prove theft. It's the mistakes and misrepresentations that give you away.

Second, cross-check your material. If the material you're stealing cites a source, check it out. Maybe you can find something a bit different from that source that you can use that will at least give the appearance that you came to it on your own. If more than one writer is making similar points, blend them. That will muddy the trail. And if you can find somebody writing in opposition, check them out. If there was a mistake in the material you're stealing they will be likely to find it out, and at the very least it will enable you to anticipate likely objections.

Third, if at all possible add some original touch to your theft. A quotation, observation, or other bit of hard data that hasn't already been circulating with your stolen talking points will go a long way toward giving the impression of originality.

And fourth, don't repeat your talking points in the same order as everybody else. It's a dead giveaway. Two people looking at the same material independently are not very likely to come up with the same exact talking-points in the same exact order. And for God's sake vary the wording. Nothing is so fatal to the impression of originality as repeating the same wording as every other writer on the subject.

And last, leave the bogus points out. If your source says, for example, that the fossil Lucy is a known fake, drop that point. It's poison. There's a lot of made-up shit out there, and nothing is so fatal to the impression of originality as repeating a bogus "fact."

Of course you could sidestep the whole problem by not stealing in the first place. If you're using somebody else's research, say so. It really looks better than a transparently baseless claim of originality. And if you're too embarrassed to admit your source, maybe you're better off not using the stuff in the first place.

Peace of Mind

I don't know what to say. I want to get something in, but I'm upset at the moment, and I can't think of any topic to comment on. I feel as though certain people in my life are using me as a football, or perhaps a punching bag, or better yet, a pawn in their irritating games. And I just want to get on with things, both in my online life and in the real world, without all these really stupid bits of manipulation and general screwing around.

So, anyway, right at the moment this is a sort of placeholder entry, a reminder that I'm still alive and writing, even if I don't have much to say. With any luck I will have something of more general interest soon; no promises, as I don't have any particular topic in mind, but I do need to de-stress a bit, and with that in mind, maybe I'll find something fun to write about soon.

21 July 2009

Random Recollections of Werner Warmbrunn

I got an email from my college today regarding Professor Werner Warmbrunn.

Professor Werner Warmbrunn was briefly my faculty advisor, and not so briefly my teacher, as I went through college. I took his class in Nazi Germany, and he taught the history seminar that exposed us to a variety of ways of doing history, the one requirement for a history degree.

He grew up in Germany, and his family fled the country before the war. He told us how he regarded it as great fun to slide back into Germany for quick visits with friends, taking trains through less-traveled checkpoints, until one time on leaving the Gestapo caught up with him. Since he was on his way out the authorities contented themselves merely with telling him never to return—which was lucky—and he didn't, not till after the war anyway.

Several times he stopped to give me a lift across town or across campus as he saw me walking; on one occasion I had mentioned a particular song (I don't recall now what it was) that I got a kick out of because it was a send-up of a particular style of music. I think it may have been on the radio at the moment. The next time he dropped me off somewhere he remarked that he had been thinking about what I said about it, and about how difficult it was even after living in the United States for all these years, to pick up on such subtle details of the culture. He wondered about what else he might have been missing. All I could say is that I was born here, and I missed subtleties of the culture all the time.

When I once missed a history seminar meeting due to the flu and showed up later at his office to apologize and see if there was anything I needed to do to catch up he was deeply concerned. Not that I'd missed class; he was concerned about my health and wanted the infirmary to check me out. (He probably had reason to be concerned; I was pushing myself fairly hard at that point, eating irregularly, losing weight, and to top it all off just recovered from a short but severe bout with the flu.) I assured him that I was fine, but the incident stuck with me, and I made a point of taking better care of myself after that.

He was one hell of a teacher. Mind you, I had some damn good teachers in college, but I remember him better than most. He could seem almost woolly-minded at times, the caricature absent-minded professor, but then he would come around and put a different spin on things with an adroit comment or a penetrating question. I'm not putting this well, and I'm actually crying as I write this, damn it. He inspired real affection in his class. As the mood of the nation veered to the right he commented on how he'd seen things like this before, in his youth, and he worried about the future of our nation. One political figure in particular worried him. He had previously remarked (not in this connection) that in theory he could have changed the course of history and prevented much misery for the world, the implication being (or so we took it) through the assassination of Adolf Hitler. Once, before class, somebody suggested that we could really ease Professor Warmbrunn's mind through the timely assassination of this American politician. We could make it a class project. It was gallows humor, but our concern was real—both for our teacher, and for the nation.

He was a genuine historian. He could explain Nazi positions better than Goebbels himself, and be fair even to the lowest scum in the regime. Mind you, I don't mean that there was ever the slightest doubt where his sympathies lay; it's just that sympathies came after the business of actually doing history. When somebody in our Nazi Germany class suggested that the resources Hitler had diverted from the war effort to exterminating the Jews had cost him victory in some significant battle, Professor Warmbrunn said that it would be nice to think that. He wished that it were true; it would be a measure of justice. And then he laid out the reasons why it could not possibly be true, using hard facts and firm data. I don't know that he was right; I was merely struck by the way he kept personal feelings away from the business of evaluating information.

I did my final paper in that class on the Stab-in-the-Back myth, comparing it to other instances of beliefs firmly held in the teeth of the evidence. One key paper on my subject was long, and in German, and my German was really not up to the task of going through it all. I mentioned my problem during a paper conference, and he took my photocopy of the paper, read it, gave me a brief summary of its sections, and highlighted the parts that were key to my research. Now that was over and beyond the call of duty, damn it—although I do think he was intrigued by the particular direction I was taking with it, and wanted to see what I came up with.

God, I haven't thought of this stuff in years. He was a good guy, and a good teacher, and he passed away peacefully in his sleep yesterday afternoon.

Fifteen Books

The challenge: "Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First 15 you can recall in no more than 15 minutes."

I posted my list here, and I didn't try to stick to fifteen, since that would have given me such extreme stage fright I probably wouldn't have listed anything, for fear of missing something crucial. But since I've now been officially tagged here, I'm going to take a second stab at it and see if I can't refine my original list a bit.

  1. The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll. It's the first book I can remember really wanting a personal copy of to enjoy at my leisure. My mother had a copy, but it was one of her treasures, and while she'd read to us from it, she wouldn't let us get our grubby paws on it. I got my own copy for my ninth birthday (I think it was) and I had The Hunting of the Snark virtually memorized in a matter of days. Big chunks of it anyway.
  2. A Gnome There Was. This Henry Kuttner (I think there's some C. L. Moore in there too) anthology introduced me to science fiction. It was one morning when I got up early—two or three I suppose; it was dark anyway—to find my father doing some construction in the living room. Lots of times he'd have me help him out in these circumstances, but I think I must have been getting in his way, because he produced a book and gave it to me to read. (He later told me he'd bought it earlier that day at a used book store in downtown Portland; I think it may have been a replacement for a copy he'd lost.) I didn't stop till I'd read the whole thing by which time the sun was up and the whole household stirring. The standout stories were "Compliments of the Author," "Mimsy were the Borogoves," and "The Twonky." I had never read anything remotely like them before. I was about eleven.
  3. Letters from the Earth. This was an eye-opener, and I read it the year it came out (1962?). Mark Twain was a favorite of mine; I'd read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and then been delighted to find that there were two more Huck Finn stories, even if they weren't up to the quality of the others. But this was a Mark Twain I had no idea of. He spoke openly of masturbation and described sexual intercourse as humankind's chief joy and regretted its absence in heaven. My main exposure to the Bible up till now had been in Unitarian Sunday-school, which meant that I'd at least heard about Moses leading his people to freedom from Egypt (with its civil rights connections), and we'd been through the Sermon on the Mount pretty much word for word. Twain's quotations from the conquest of Canaan were a revelation, or maybe a shock, to me, what with Yahweh ordering His people to slaughter the inhabitants of the land, saving only the virgin women alive as booty. And then there was the unforgettable flood scene:
    Then at last, Noah sailed; and none too soon, for the Ark was only just sinking out of sight on the horizon when the monsters [the dinosaurs] arrived, and added their lamentations to those of the multitude of weeping fathers and mothers and frightened little children who were clinging to the wave-washed rocks in the pouring rain and lifting imploring prayers to an All-Just and All-Forgiving and All-Pitying Being who had never answered a prayer since those crags were builded, grain by grain, out of the sands, and would still not have answered one when the ages should have crumbled them to sand again.
  4. The Looking-Glass Book of Stories. It looks like my copy may have been a casualty of that disaster that took most of my library a few months back, and I can't find a table of contents online, which is irritating. However. This fascinating short-story collection, edited by Hart Day Leavitt, introduced me to a number of favorite authors. I believe it contained Conrad Aiken's "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," Stephen Vincent Benét's "The Devil and Daniel Webster," Thurber's "The Last Clock," and E. B. White's "The Hour of Letdown." (I'm sure I've left out some other gems.) It also had stories by Chekhov and Oscar Wilde and Ambrose Bierce; these don't happen to be my favorites for those authors, but it was a really excellent collection of stories in that while there was some fantasy element to all of them, they were varied stylistically, thematically, and—well, never mind, it was just a great short-story collection. Even when it was an author whose works I was somewhat familiar with, the story wasn't necessarily one I knew already (Thurber, Twain). Damn, I'd like to at least see the table of contents for the thing to refresh my memory.
  5. Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm. This one comes from my high-school era—Christmas, 1967, maybe. As a kid I'd enjoyed take-offs of various kinds, and frankly called them all parodies without really thinking it over. I wrote a number myself—a take-off on Hiawatha describing the antics of modern hunters on other people's property, for example. A take-off on "America the Beautiful" lamenting the destruction of the wilderness. When I was shopping for Christmas presents I noticed a book at J. K. Gills in the Lloyd Center—exactly, this very anthology by Dwight Macdonald. I stood in the aisle leafing through it and was blown away by the contents. These were parodies on a level I had never seen before, quite different from the Mad magazine stuff I was familiar with. I dropped hints about the book, but when I dragged my parents past to show it to them, so they'd know that this was the book I wanted, not some other parody collection, it was gone. That was disappointing as hell, but come Christmas morning, damned if I didn't get the book. I read and reread it a thousand times, probably, and learned about James and Horace Smith, Max Beerbohm, Wolcott Gibbs, all the great parodists, as well as becoming acquainted with writers I'd never known before—Sherwood Anderson, for one. This is the book that taught me about style, and I spent many hours trying to write like Henry James, or Sherwood Anderson, or Beerbohm himself, once I'd discovered his essays. My teachers may have cursed the day I discovered it; I wrote one paper entirely in imitation T. S. Eliot blank verse, for example. (It was about "Murder in the Cathedral," and I did get an A- on it.) Ha.
  6. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Harrison edition). Now we jump back a few years, back to when I was in junior high school. My father was chief engineer at a major Portland radio station, which meant that he could get complimentary tickets to a variety of cultural events—operas, movies, games, rock concerts, all sorts of stuff. One of the available events was the Shakespeare festival in Ashland, Oregon. It was a fair trip, some three hundred miles from Portland, but we made it our vacation one year, and headed down to see two plays. My parents cautiously suggested that we kids could do other things if we felt Shakespeare would be boring, but I at least wasn't willing to admit that there was anything in the world intellectually beyond me, and my brothers weren't about to be left out either. The first play was Macbeth, and I was not bored in the slightest. The hours seemed to pass in no time, and one speech so struck me in particular that when we got back to the motel I borrowed my mother's Shakespeare and memorized it on the spot. (It started "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow," and it's everybody's favorite, but I thought it spoke specially to me.) The Harrison Shakespeare also had wonderful appendices explaining the music and the customs and the stagecraft of Shakespeare's time, as well as giving introductions to the other playwrights of the time. I read it practically to death.
  7. It's getting tougher to choose, but Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark may as well come next, I guess. This one is one of those happy accidents, like the way I found Tolkein while looking for Booth Tarkington at the Vancouver public library. I was living at the Oregon coast, house-sitting, while trying to write a novel about Simon Magus. I was trying to get a text of the Clementine Homilies, but I somehow ended up with this strange book about a newly-discovered letter by Clement of Alexandria, telling of a hitherto-unknown version of the Gospel According to Mark. My very first thought on looking the book over (and this is absolutely true) was that it was a very clever hoax by the author; I was particularly impressed by the way he misinterpreted the text to support his hypothesis. That, I thought, lent verisimilitude to the whole endeavor. A forger usually creates a text that magically supports his hypothesis, but to create a text that then had to be tortured to fit—that was genius. When I checked up on Smith, though, I gradually concluded that the discovery had to be genuine; there were too many things about it that were beyond the art of any forger. Of course the question has been opened again since then, and with arguments that range from the intriguing to the utterly stupid (the Morton salt argument being one of the latter), but that's not actually relevant to the point of this particular book being on my list. This book marked a kind of turning-point in my life; researching it got me back into looking at the Nag Hammadi stuff, and that led to me barging in one day to the office of Dr. James M. Robinson in Claremont California, who was then directing the Nag Hammadi project, and he sent me to a woman named Margie Shurgot who was in charge of a little-known program for older students returning to school, and, well, five years later I emerged from the process with a knowledge of ancient Greek and Coptic and a degree in History of Religions. Go figure.
  8. The Motor Boys in Mexico. This is really more of a place-holder; it could have been Tom Swift Among the Diamond-Makers or The Grammar-School Boys in the Woods. After my first failed attempt at college, while I was in the throes of the recurrent depression that has plagued me all my life, I idly picked up one of the old boys series books we had kicking around the house. In my disgruntled and alienated mood I found their casual racism and jingoism savagely amusing, and under the influence of the Firesign Theatre started to create a generic boys series parody. There was Tom Wilshire, the inventor (modeled after Tom Swift and Thomas Edison); Dick Trefoil the savage and none-too-bright brawn of the group; Harry Fletcher, a glib and facile pseudo-intellectual, short Ned Eliot who perpetually made bad puns; and Ersatz Simpson, a colored lad whose eccentricities of speech provided much amusement for the comrades. (Ersatz was the actual brains of the group, a fact never noted by any of the others or by the narrator.) These were the Motor Chums, and, inspired partly by Jane Austen's Love and Friendship and partly by Robert Fish's Schlock Homes stories, I set them loose to do battle against a rival series featuring the Jefferson Aeroplane Boys (one of whom was a girl, by the way). They did really horrible things, but the narrator was always able to justify it with some standard cliche of the genre. These stories proved to be enormously popular with friends and casual acquaintances alike, and deluded me into thinking that I had actual talent in writing. Publishers, unfortunately, never agreed with my limited audience, though I suspect that the politically incorrect nature of much of the humor may have played a role here too. Sure, I was making fun of racism and excessive nationalism and the extreme right-wing economic views that (as things turned out) were about to become the dominant mode of thought in the nation, but I did so by making my narrator a racist jingoist male-chauvinist asshole, and that didn't seem to fly.
  9. Exotic Zoology. Okay, I thought I was going to just list the titles and write a couple of lines about the significance of the item, rather than launching into an incoherent autobiography. I'll try to be a bit briefer, if I can. Fat chance. All right, Willy Ley was one of the great science popularizers of the day, and I read his stuff avidly. Exotic Zoology (a revision of The Lungfish and the Unicorn, a much better title in my opinion) contained sections on fairy-tale fauna, legendary beasts, and odd critters from around the world. It informed me, entertained me, while expanding my horizons in science and in history. Brian Switek's work often reminds me of Willy Ley's.
  10. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I don't remember how or when I stumbled onto Hunter Thompson, whom I firmly believe is the single greatest prose-writer of the twentieth century. In some ways it seems like I've always known his work. I don't think prose can do more than, say, the savage Lucy chapter.
  11. The Space-Child's Mother Goose. "Probable, possible, my black hen; she lays eggs in the relative when; she doesn't lay eggs in the positive now, because she's unable to postulate how." Need I say more?
  12. Trajectories Through Early Christianity. Helmut Koester and James Robinson reopened the quest for the historical Jesus in a way I had never thought possible, building on the work of Rudolf Bultmann. This was practically our key to the New Testament when I went to school, or our key to the gospels anyway. It was so refreshing to get out of the damn boxes of New Testament vs. Patristics, canonical vs. apocryphal, and all that pointless crap, and to have a way forward through what centuries of obfuscation had made needlessly obscure.
  13. The Pogo Papers. Walt Kelly's take on the McCarthy era. It shows it was possible to be scared shitless and still laugh at the same time.
  14. The Devil's Dictionary. It's really hard to make a selection from the final bunch. Still, Ambrose Bierce helped shape my view of reality, in part by forcing me to challenge conventional opinions, and his dictionary is filled with gems.
  15. The Stars My Destination. Perhaps the greatest science fiction novel of all time.

The other books I came up with, in no particular order:
  • The Complete Sherlock Holmes
  • The Ambidextrous Universe
  • Barnaby
  • The Gospel of Thomas (or The Nag Hammadi Codices)
  • A Christmas Garland
  • The Thurber Carnival
  • The Frogs (or The Complete Works of Aristophanes)
  • Seven Plays by Bernard Shaw
  • The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus
  • Asimov's Biographical Dictionary of Science and Technology
  • The Starry Messenger
  • I Robot
  • Behold the Man
  • Mindswap
  • Hear the Sound of My Feet Walking Drown the sound of my voice talking
  • The Chronicle of Young Satan

There are a couple of books I could have included for their negative effect on my life. B. F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity turned me off science and towards mysticism for several years, for example. And Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged along with books by Barry Goldwater and Phyllis Schlafly helped steer me away from conservatism. (And on the other side of that coin, a hilarious book called It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand confirmed me in my loathing for right-wing libertarian bromides of all sorts.) But I took books that will always stick with me in a positive light, and so came the above list.

20 July 2009

Freedom is a Gift Bestowed by God

I saw at ERV a reference to this story at Lost Ogle about The Baptist Messenger forging the signatures of Governor Henry and Secretary of State M. Susan Savage to Sally Kern's idiotic "Proclamation for Morality" in their display of the document. The story, about a shameful promotion held 2 July 2009 in which a group of "state leaders" prominently signed this crazy concoction which nobody reputable would touch with a ten light-year pole. Apparently attempting to give it a veneer of respectability the Messenger added the signatures of the Governor and Secretary of State (via Photoshop or the like) to a reproduction of the document. The Baptist Messenger has since printed the following retraction:

In the July 16 Messenger, the graphic representation of the Oklahoma Citizen’s Proclamation for Morality was misleading, indicating that Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry and Secretary of State Susan Savage had signed the document. This is not the case, and the Messenger staff apologizes for the oversight and error.

Now personally I wouldn't call deliberate forgery an "oversight and error," but it's better than nothing. I suppose. I noticed also that that the Baptist Messenger said nothing about the numerous forgeries and false statements that permeate the document, two of which were mentioned in an earlier entry here.

As I was staring at the bogus "graphic representation" another quotation caught my eye. It was a saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin, "Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God." It rang a bell, but something about it didn't seem right. Where had it come from?

William J. Federer, a notorious purveyor of fake quotations, has it in America's God and Country in the form "Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature." (Note the key words omitted in the proclamation.) And he attributes it to a 1927 book by William S. Pfaff, entitled Maxims and Morals of Benjamin Franklin.

So where did Pfaff get it? Well, I don't have the book, and as far as I can tell it isn't available online (it may well still be in copyright in the US, thanks to our archaic copyright laws), so I decided to start at the other end and see if I couldn't find it in Franklin's own writings. And it is, in fact, there, sort of:

The great deference, which Cicero paid to the judgment of the Roman people, appears by those inimitable orations, of which they were the sole judges and auditors. That great orator had a just opinion of their understanding. Nothing gave him a more sensible pleasure than their approbation. But the Roman populace were more learned than ours, more virtuous perhaps; but their sense of discernment was not better than ours. However, the judgment of a whole people, especially of a free people, is looked upon to be infallible; so that it has become a common proverb, that the voice of God is the voice of the people, Vox Dei est populi vox. And this is universally true, while they remain in their proper sphere, unbiased by faction, undeluded by the tricks of designing men.

Thank God! we are in the full enjoyment of all these privileges. But can we be taught to prize them too much? or how can we prize them equal to their value, if we do not know their intrinsic worth, and that they are not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature?

The point of the piece is that political power rightfully belongs to the people, not to a monarch, and the author draws on the example of the Roman republic:

We find that their dictator, a magistrate never created but in cases of great extremity, vested with power as absolute during his office (which never exceeded six months) as the greatest kings were never possessed of; this great ruler was liable to be called to an account by any of the tribunes of the people, whose persons were at the same time rendered sacred by the most solemn laws.

This is evident proof, that the Romans were of opinion, that the people could not in any sense divest themselves of the supreme authority, by conferring the most extensive power they possibly could imagine, on one or more persons acting as magistrates.

All this is taken from an essay entitled "On Government No. I" that was published in the Pennsylvania Gazette on 1 April 1736 as it appears on pp. 278-282 of the second volume of the Jared Sparks edition of The Works of Benjamin Franklin (1882). (Sometime I hope to do a piece about Jared Sparks as editor of the writings of the Founders; he was industrious, but he had his limitations, and was not above rewriting a text to improve on the words of the original.) But here's an interesting anomaly—this work does not appear in Alfred Henry Smyth's edition (1906-1908). Is there a reason for this?

Well, let's see. As Sparks notes in a footnote to this very item:

What proof there is, that the two essays on Government were written by Franklin, except that they appeared in his Gazette, I have no means of determining. The internal evidence does not appear very strong. They are included in Duane's edition. — Editor.

You see, the original essay was anonymous. The Pennsylvania Gazette, of course, was Benjamin Franklin's paper, but not everything that appeared in it was his. And as we learn from the first volume of Smyth's edition, "'The Essays on Government' which were published by Sparks and Bigelow, are acknowledged in a later issue of the Gazette to have been written by John Webbe." John Webbe was then an associate of Franklin's, later a bitter rival.

So this quotation, slightly mangled, comes not from Benjamin Franklin, the guy whose picture is on the quarter and whose name is known throughout the world, but rather to John Webbe, an obscure lawyer and newspaper publisher.

If Sally Kerns was really determined to use this quotation, it should have read:

Whereas, [the privileges of representative government] are not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature (John Webbe)...

And so on. Of course that wouldn't have had the same ring to it, the same sense of authority. It would have been better left out, along with the fake Patrick Henry and James Madison quotations previously alluded to.

So, what is the upshot of this tale of chicanery and forgery? Well, first, shame on the Baptist Messenger for adding the signatures of public officials to a very unofficial document. And also, shame on the Baptist Messenger for calling the protesters at this event "pro-homosexual". Again, shame on them for not mentioning the many distortions, lies, and forgeries in this tinkertoy document. Shame on Sally Kerns for spicing it with bogus quotations. And finally, a double helping of shame on each and every signer of this vile thing (over a thousand as of this date). Traitors to America, all of you.

19 July 2009

Eternal Truths

When I was growing up people filled my head with information—the days of the week, the months of the year, the alphabet. Stuff like that. Eternal truths.

I liked memorizing stuff, once I got the hang of it. When I had the alphabet down through W X Y Z, I wanted more. What comes after Z? (And no, I didn't know of Dr. Seuss's On Beyond Zebra or I might have his extra letters memorized to this day.) My mother told me (probably to shut me up) that there were no letters beyond Z, but there were other alphabets, and gave me the Greek alphabet to memorize, which I did, two letters at at time through upsilon, and the last four all at once. I memorized other things that caught my fancy—the sequence of geological ages, the order of the planets outward from the sun, and probably other stuff. In school I learned other eternal truths—the words to the pledge of allegiance, that our President was Eisenhower and our vice-President Nixon, that our country consisted of forty-eight states.

Now I've got to tell you, it's kind of hard to shake the stuff we learn in our formative years. Even though I was a child when Alaska and Hawaii became states, somewhere in my mind they are "extra" states, so to speak. The "real" states are the forty-eight, and Alaska and Hawaii are somehow—I don't know, honorary states or something like that. Jupiter has twelve moons and Saturn nine; it's just like the seven days of the week and the twelve months of the year—these are basic facts.

On the other hand there are certain things I never bought into as a kid. The books we had showed ages called Mississippian and Pennsylvanian between the Permian and Devonian periods, but for whatever reason I never considered them real. To me the "real" period was the Carboniferous, which wasn't even mentioned in our texts. (I might have got that from my father; he had a considerable knowledge of the geological periods and the kind of fossils that turned up in them, and maybe that was his take. But I don't really know.)

And by the same token, I never regarded the words "under God" as part of the "real" Pledge of Allegiance; even though we were taught them in kindergarten, visiting adults never seemed to know them, which made them seem bogus to me. (In real life they had just been added, but I didn't learn that till many years had gone by.)

What got me thinking about all this is a pointless matter. I keep up with scientific developments, sort of, as best I can. I'm aware, for example, that birds are regarded as descendants of dinosaurs, and that Pluto is no longer a planet. Both of these are changes from what I learned as a child. And yet my, shall we say, emotional reaction is very different to the two developments. Somewhere, deep inside, I remain unconvinced about the bird-dinosaur thing. Something inside me "knows" that dinosaurs never had feathers, that they were oversized cold-blooded reptiles like modern-day alligators and they looked and lived very much like the pictures in Life's The World We Live In. On the other hand Pluto not being a planet—that feels right to me. Pluto as a planet has bugged me ever since I can remember.

I don't absolutely know why. We had some very old reference books around when I was young, and some of them (I'm quite sure) predated Pluto's discovery. Maybe the old solar-system diagrams without Pluto influenced my thinking. Conversely, there were so many things that were uncertain then about Pluto in contrast to the other planets; maybe that made it seem less real to me. Or maybe it was something really lame. None of the other planets, after all, were named after Disney characters. A planet called Mickey Mouse might have given me the same feeling.

Another thing that bothered me as I learned the sizes and characteristics of the various objects in the solar system was how arbitrary the division between planets and satellites seemed to be. Some of the satellites—our own Moon, Ganymede, Titan—were pretty substantial objects in their own right. It seemed like a fairly arbitrary distinction to consider them a different class of things from say Mercury just because they orbited another planet instead of orbiting the sun. And however you wanted to look at it, Jupiter and Saturn seemed like very different creatures from say Earth and Mars. At one point I sat down and "classified" the objects of the solar system into three groups (not counting comets): gas giants, real planets, and space junk. (I don't know what terms I actually used, if any; I just remember the categories.) The gas giants were Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The real "planets" would have included Mercury, Venus, Earth, the Moon, Mars, Io, Ganymede, Europa, Callisto, Titan, and Triton. Things like Phobos, Oberon, and Ceres were just so much space junk as far as I was concerned. Pluto made me uncomfortable; there was too much that was simply unknown about it. Even its size was uncertain, if I remember correctly. (I think the inspiration for this was a book my Uncle Marvin helped me buy on a visit to California; it was called Pictorial Astronomy, and I still had my old copy of it us till very recently. I'd like to take a quick look at it and confirm (or deny) my impressions, but alas, it is gone.) I'm pretty sure, though, that I included Pluto in the planet category, but I really don't know now.

Dinosaurs, on the other hand—I don't know how much I really knew about them. Of the major dinosaurs I knew which belonged to which geological period—Brontosaurus belonged to the Jurassic and Tyrannosaurus to the Cretaceous, for instance. (And yeah, Brontosaurus is the real name, not that unreal Apatosaurus thing.) I knew the difference between Saurischia and Ornithischia, and that Pterosaurs and Ichthyosaurs weren't actually dinosaurs, even if they lived at the same time.

For many years I had a little booklet my brother had started, but then was finished by a kid who lived across the street from us and was a couple of years older. It had everything in it I mentioned above, and quite a bit more. Each dinosaur was assigned to its period and family, and details of its size and presumed habits (meat-eater, swamp-dweller) were included. For quick reference it was invaluable, though it had its limitations. The pronunciations given for each beast, for example, were the way the kid across the street pronounced them, and differed from those given in actual printed works in some cases. I may still have the booklet somewhere, though I don't have it right in front of me, but I've seen it recently enough to have some idea of the things we knew and didn't know about dinosaurs.

And there was nothing in that booklet about dinosaurs having feathers. Or being warm-blooded. Or looking after their young. They were big reptiles, scaly toothy critters out of some surreal nightmare. They probably would have eaten their own young if they could catch them—the carnivores anyway. It was hard to picture how they could have fit into a world that had people in it. It was a good thing they'd all died out at the end of the Cretaceous period.

And that was another eternal truth. We would never know what killed the dinosaurs off. There were theories. Maybe tiny egg-eating mammals had done them in by preying on their unprotected unborn young. (Yay for our egg-eating ancestors!) Maybe the climate changed, becoming cooler, so that the cold-blooded dinosaurs couldn't cope and just died off. Maybe they just plain got too big and died off from over-specialization. Maybe disease did them in. Maybe it was some combination of causes. Whatever it was, it had undoubtedly been a gradual event taking millions of years, not some catastrophe like a gamma-ray burst from a nearby supernova.

(My brother and I were both fond of the idea of some extra-terrestrial cause, even though the authorities were against it. I see from a quick bit of googling that gamma-ray bursts weren't discovered until we were in our teens, but I know we discussed possible extra-terrestrial causes from way back. My favorite was that an alien race had used Earth as a big-game hunting ground until they had driven everything huntable into extinction and moved on.)

In any case, we would never know. That was one thing you could take to the bank; whatever had happened, it had happened so long ago that there was no conceivable evidence that could ever be produced that would give any plausible answer. Fossil skeletons could tell us the size and shape of the critters, radiometric dating could tell us how long ago they lived, comparison with living beasts could give us some idea even of what they ate and how they lived, but there was nothing, nothing at all, that could solve the mystery of their extinction.

Now I don't go by my childish feelings about stuff to decide what to consider as probable or what to reject as impossible. I'm perfectly willing to accept that some dinosaurs had feathers, or that astronomers now classify Pluto as a dwarf planet. Pluto, yeah—that fits with some long-time prejudices. And a comet causing the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction—that feels satisfying But there is a very basic part of me, deep inside, that knows damn good and well that dinosaurs never had feathers. And that there are forty-eight states in the union. And that the words "under God" are not really part of the Pledge of Allegiance. And I don't think anything—not seeing the feather impressions, not hearing the pledge—will ever entirely shake the eternal faith of the child inside me.

17 July 2009

John Quincy Adams' Highest and Most Important Role

One of the problems with being self-educated (and I use that term very loosely) is that I have great gaping chasms of ignorance surrounding various isolated peaks of knowledge. I've read quite a bit in James Madison's writings, public and private, for example, and in Thomas Jefferson's, but in John Quincy Adams'—not so much. I have nothing against the guy, but Jefferson and Madison were architects of the nation I live in, and Adams was merely its sixth president.

Quick—name three things he did. (No cheating now.) If your first thought was the Alien and Sedition Acts, you're wrong—that was his dad. (Adams was the first and only son of a former president to be seated as President until George W. Bush came along.) Think Tariff of Abominations and you'll be closer. But really, it wasn't an administration given to the stuff of legend.

So, anyway, when I read in "History Forgotten" (or whatever name you want to give it) that Adams was the chairman of the American Bible Society and regarded it as his highest and most important role I wasn't inclined to challenge it. Of course he wasn't actually chairman (strictly speaking the ABS doesn't have such a position, though there are chairmen of various committees); it turns out he was a vice-president. One of twenty-five vice-presidents.

Okay, but still—maybe he threw himself into the work with enthusiasm and gusto? Something of the sort?

Well, it kinda doesn't look that way. I had a hell of a time finding anything about Adams and the ABS, but in a book by Samuel Hanson Cox called Interviews: Memorable and Useful; from diary and memory reproduced (New York, 1853) I found on pp. 270-73 an address Adams delivered to that organization in 1844. In his opening comments he said:

Thirty-five years have passed away since, in the State House at Boston, the capital of my native commonwealth, I became a member of the Bible Society; and although I have followed, with a deep interest, their continual exertions and the various fortunes of their success in distributing this Book, I think I have never been able to attend another meeting of the society from that time to this. Since that time one generation of mankind has passed away—another has arisen.

Two meetings in thirty-five years? (Actually that thirty-five years can't be right; it would place the date of his membership before the organization was formed.) It doesn't really sound like he was that involved with the group. He justified himself by observing that

in the maturity of manhood I associated with my brethren of that age, for spreading the light of that gospel over the face of the earth, by the simple and silent process of placing in the hands of every human being who needed, and could not otherwise procure it, that Book, which contains the duties, the admonitions, the promises, and the rewards of the Christian gospel.

He expressed his view

that this book has been furnished him [mankind], by the special providence of his Maker, to enable him, by faith in his Redeemer, and by works conformable to that faith, to secure his salvation in a future world, and to promote his well-being in the present. If this be true, the improvement of successive generations of men in their condition upon earth, and their preparation for eternity, depends in no small degree in the diffusion and circulation of this volume among all the tribes of man throughout the habitable globe. This is the great and exclusive object for which, in the last generation, this society was instituted. The whole Book had then existed upward of eighteen hundred years ; and wherever it had penetrated and heen received, it had purified and exalted the character of man.

And he looked forward to the point of the society's labors,

that consummation of human felicity promised in this book, when—The wolf, also, shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf, and the young lion, and the failing together; and a little child shall lend them.

Now all this is all very well and good, but there is nothing in any of it that shows any special activity on his part in the society. Adams admired the Bible. He respected the work the ABS was doing to spread it to the four corners of the earth. He did his part by supplying Bibles to people who needed them, and who, for whatever reason, were not otherwise able to obtain them. But it's really hard to square this with the claim that he regarded his position in the ABS as his highest and most important role. On the available evidence he invested more energy in his position as Massachusetts' representative in Congress (this after his presidency, by the way) than he did in his vice-presidency of the ABS.

Oh—and by the way, one thing I did know about Adams: he was a Unitarian. (Score one for Unitarian sunday-school after all these years.) And it's said that he refused to take his Presidential oath of office on the Bible, using instead a book of laws. Not exactly congenial company for the average "History Forgotten" buff. He was no atheist either, though—by all accounts a deeply religious man. Some day—should I live so long—I'll have to look into the guy a bit more. But for the moment, this was an interesting glimpse of an early American president—and the last of the bunch before Ol' Hick'ry Jackson launched the infamous spoils system and started shipping native Americans off west to clear the way for honest god-fearing rednecks to—what was that Firesign Theatre line?—oh, yeah, to carve a new life out of the American Indian. By contrast Adams had his points. But if he really regarded his tiny part in the ABS as his highest and most important role, he had a skewed sense of priorities. There's no getting around it.

12 July 2009

As Thyme Goethe Bye

When I did a series a while back on "Forsaken Roots" (or whatever you want to call it) I ended up establishing a text for it, mostly because there was no authoritative source, and I'm picky about my texts. If I'm going to take the time to write a commentary on something, I want to be sure that I have something resembling a definitive text to work with, else what's the point? For my purposes at the time I simply picked four texts sort of at random—but not quite. I looked for older examples, and I wanted examples that were textually divergent. If the textual tree had branches, I wanted samples from as many as possible.

Actually I already knew that the tree had at least two branches, a longer recension and a shorter one. I'd picked that up pretty quickly when I went to Ed Brayton's commentary with questions from the longer recension only to find he didn't cover them; his commentary was based on the shorter recension. I suspected the most likely explanation was that the longer recension had grown by accretion from the shorter recension, but I didn't assume anything, which was just as well, as that hypothesis proved incorrect.

Since for technical reasons (the width of my screen mainly) I wanted to restrict my comparison to four versions, I decided to pick two from the longer recension and two from the shorter. If I could construct something resembling a reasonable text from them then I'd be off and running with my real purpose—doing the commentary. Close enough for jazz.

When my laptop died one of the things I lost—I'd never bothered to copy it—was the "Forsaken Roots" synopsis I'd used to construct the text. I figured I was done with it. But as I see new versions of it surface again like a goddamn hydra my textual sleuth keeps being activated—there's another one of those, I say to myself, noting the missing word "Supreme" in front of "Court" and the telltale period after "first" and before "Harvard". Where are they coming from? Idle Googling produced some answers (those missing-Supreme copies for example all go back to a website published by one Mary Jones), but I kind of wanted to know a bit more. I didn't particularly want to repeat the work I'd done, but I wanted something. I decided to see if I could establish a text for the longer recension.

So I went back to hunting for these things, examining example after example, looking for particular textual characteristics. Most examples turned out to be either from the shorter recension or from the Mary Jones family, neither of which were any use to me. A kind of sadness came over me as I examined these things in their original context, often a blog entry or a comment thread. First the text itself would appear, typically cut-and-pasted from the Mary Jones or some other familiar site. Next would come the admiring comments. This one is pretty typical:

Thanks for sharing. This was very informative. Neither in my secondary or college education, do I recall this information be read, taught or discussed. It shines a brighter light on the foundation of America for me.

(If you're wondering about the text of the version immediately above this comment, it's from the longer recension, but not part of the Mary Jones family, which, if the date is correct, had yet to be established.) All the elements are there—gratitude, admiration for the research, enthusiasm for the Christian light on early America, and curiosity (or anger) about why this information had been suppressed. Missing is the clear light of common sense which, for some reason, nobody ever seems to think to switch on. Is it bloody likely that these guys would have said or written the sorts of things attributed to them here? Would Patrick Henry really refer to this "great nation" before it had been established? What conceivable set of circumstances would have prompted Congress to pass a resolution recommending the Holy Bible for use in all schools? (The "1782" is a particularly nice touch on this one.) What on earth does it mean for the Bible to be quoted 94% of the time?

Sometimes the next question will be, Did you write this? And the reply comes (if at all) No, I got it from the internet. From the internet. Words from on high, I guess, supplied by the Internet Genii for the benefit of us lesser mortals. What do you mean, you got it from the internet? You might as well have said you found it blowing in the wind alongside the road one day, or you found it scurrying through the fields of Elysium. The internet? Somebody wrote those words, and somebody did the research behind them, and, you know, that somebody deserves credit.

Now, in all fairness, in this case not a lot of credit. The writer/researcher here has simply bundled together a clutch of remaindered misinfo, and retailed the package to the gulls. He or she may even be quoting from memory for some of them; there are pointless variations in them from the authentic text (though speaking of the authentic text of a forged passage seems a bit on the paradoxical side). The fake Madison is a case in point:

We have staked the future of all our political constitutions upon the capacity of each of ourselves to govern ourselves according to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments

sounds more like a fuzzily-remembered

We have staked the future of our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government: upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God

than a poorly-copied one. (It is quite possible that a skip of the eye from the first capacity to the second caused the omission of the one genuine bit of Madison in this whole farrago—the capacity of mankind for self-government; that wouldn't explain the mangling of what follows, however.)

Occasionally—not often, but occasionally—somebody will question the item. Once I noted somebody actually asking the key question—what are your sources? More often it will be a remark to the effect that this can't be true, since the Founders were all deists, and anyway, what about the treaty of Tripoli? or something like that. And then maybe somebody will contribute a story about some kid they heard of from a friend of a friend who wasn't allowed to bring her Bible to show-and-tell, or some such idiocy. (Okay, I made that one up, but it's always something in that vein.)

But the thing that really gets me is the pitiful sense of gratitude emanating from these comments. Children picking up pretty pieces of broken glass and telling themselves they are diamonds. Playing with them, passing them around. The pathos of it all starts to overcome me. I almost want to depart from my rôle as observer and help out. The "Forsaken Roots" I could write for them! Oh, it probably wouldn't have Madison in it, but there are many famous names among the Founders, and I can cherry-pick with the best of them. Of course that would only be what Archie Goodwin calls fancy lying, rather than Forsaken's plain lying—a matter of taste, really, I suppose.

But, getting back to the textual issues at hand—the one thing that really bothers me, and for which I can see no answer whatsoever, is—what on earth created the shorter recension in the first place? Some horrible and malign force, early in the transmission history of this bagatelle, blew two large holes in it, seemingly at random. And yet, and yet, the disseminators of this savagely shattered version went right on distributing it, never noticing its broken condition, as mindless as those ants who, upon running out of food, start cutting off the back ends of their larvae to try to keep the front ends fed. And the hosannas of joy were just as heartfelt, regardless of the presence of palpable nonsense like

Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed ... to lay Jesus Christ as the only foundation for our children to follow the moral principles of the Ten Commandments?

(And that question-mark is part of the original text.) Did they not read what they were writing? How do you go about instructing a student to lay Christ as a foundation for our children to follow anything at all, let alone the moral principles of the Ten Commandments? It's madness—but nobody seems to notice.

And the other hole that makes it look as though Thomas Jefferson, rather than John Quincy Adams, was an officer in the American Bible Society—this is greeted as a welcome new discovery, rather than as a sign of the corruption of the text. And they say random mutation can't generate new information! Tell Jefferson! He never would have made president of the ABS without it.

The whole thing reeks of corruption. Fake quotations, themselves misquoted, and then further mangled through copying errors. False interpretations given new false twists, without anybody apparently bothered enough by any of it to even check the goddamn internet, their source for it all. Random holes fixed by random guesses—

Seriously, how much trouble is it to Google something? No, it looks like it's easier to just plain guess. Here's an example. The original text read:

However, in 1947, there was a radical change of direction for the Supreme Court. It required ignoring every precedent of Supreme Court ruling for the past 160 years. The Supreme Court ruled in a limited way to affirm a wall of separation between church and State in the public classroom. In the coming years, this led to removing prayer from public schools in 1962. Here is the prayer that was banished: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee. We beg Thy blessings upon us and our parents and our teachers and our country. Amen.”

The Mary Jones version dropped a piece of it here, producing:

However in 1947, there was a radical change of direction in the Supreme Court. Here is the prayer that was banished: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee. We beg Thy blessings upon us and our parents and our teachers and our country. Amen."

(Note also the change of "direction for" to "direction in"; this is one of the seven distinguishing characteristics of the Jones text. Of course the omission that follows is another.) And here's how one transmitter "fixed" the problem:

In 1947, it all changed! The Supreme Court removed the prayer that had been used for over 100 years at the opening of each session of the Court. "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee. We beg Thy blessings upon us and our parents and our teachers and our country. Amen."

Again, is it likely that the Supreme Court began each session with a prayer begging the blessings of God upon parents and teachers? Doesn't this sound more like a school prayer? Hello? Is nobody awake in there? And this version is supposedly reprinted from the February 2005 edition of the Liberty Tree newsletter. No checking, even with the quasi-immortality of print in view? Just guesswork?

I guess. Sometimes my sense of exasperation overcomes my feelings of pathos. People this unreflective deserve to eat garbage.

But nobody deserves this. Not even those poorly-informed clowns who blather on about how Jefferson invented the concept of separation of church and state when he wasn't even in America at the time the Constitution was being written—how would he know anything? And besides, wasn't it some unknown justice named Hugo Black who decided to pull it out of an old forgotten letter written to the Danbury Baptists, of all people, and foist it off on all of us as settled law?—yeah, not even these crackers deserve this kind of treatment. Even canonical critics and flat-earthers deserve better.

Well . . . maybe not canonical critics.

10 July 2009

Quotation of the Day

Stupid people are little different from mosquitoes. They’ll always be around, and although they are not fundamentally responsible for being the loathsome creatures they are, they’re pests in the extreme who are ideally avoided via physical barriers or some other form of repellent.

09 July 2009

A Brief Pause To Listen to Myself Breathe

I'm sorry about falling behind here; I have been busy, though, adding entries to my Fake History blog at Wordpress. The last series has been devoted to fake or questionable quotations attributed to the American Founders, each entry dealing with a single item. Most of these I've already taken a bash at here, but usually as part of a longer critique or diatribe. Sometimes it's nice to be able to point somebody to a place that gives specific information about a specific item; it can be tough here picking the relevant part out of the lush verbiage when in pursuit of a particular quarry.

So I'm putting together a series on common quotations, mostly fake, to make quick reference to them easier. At the moment all of them deal with the US Founding Fathers (I think) but if I keep this up (Allah willing) I should have fake quotations from other eras as well. My most recent entry (the one that kept me from writing anything much here) takes on Patrick Henry's alleged words on the Bible being worth more than any other printed book. It's not exactly fake (unlike, say, that 1782 school-bible turd salad), but it isn't exactly Henry either. It falls somewhere betwixt and between, in that nameless valley of historic curiosities lying between the pit of credulity and the summit of skepticism, in that place of wonder we call the twilight zone.

I try not to know exactly where I'm going with these blog entries, so sometimes my provisional title ill accords with the actual substance of the piece. I was just about to publish this one when on preview I saw my title and winced. My original title: "Tom Swift and His Electric (fill in blank)."

04 July 2009

Hot Summer Day

Long summer dream
Sliding round my mind
Those long summer dreams
Are leaving me behind
Hot summer day
Carry me along
To its end where I begin.
It's a Beautiful Day

One hundred forty seven years ago the Civil War was raging in North America, the Taiping Rebellion was cooking away in China, and France was busy intervening in Mexico. In England Victoria was already a quarter century into the interminable reign that would wind up gasping in the very foothills of the twentieth century. And on 4 July a mathematician set out on a river excursion with a fellow clergyman and three little girls, a trip that would change the face of English literature forever.

Charles Dodgson, soon to be known to a wider public as Lewis Carroll, was already an accomplished story-teller that July day in 1862 when he started to entertain the three Liddell sisters—Lorina (13), Alice (10), and Edith (8)—with an improvised adventure featuring a girl named Alice. He had entertained his own sisters with stories and drawings when younger, and had moved on to amuse other children as time passed; we may assume his art improved with practice. These tales, as Dodgson put it, "lived and died, like summer midges, each in its own golden afternoon."

What happened on this particular afternoon to make things different? Ten-year-old Alice Liddell begged Charles Dodgson to write the story down—and, as things turned out, she was persistent enough to get him to actually do it. In the first burst of enthusiasm Dodgson wrote out the headings for the book—soon to be titled Alice's Adventures Under Ground—the very next day, but how far he got past that is unrecorded. He did not start writing the extant manuscript until November of that year, and he finished it in February of 1863. Illustrating it took still longer, and it was not until 26 November of the next year, 1864, that he finally presented it to Alice. By then he was already hard at work on a revision that would become the published Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Now it would be naive indeed to suppose that Alice's Adventures Under Ground is an exact transcript of the story Charles Dodgson told the Reverend Duckworth and the three Liddell sisters that 4th of July. (And of course nobody does make that supposition.) The author himself tells us that "In writing it out, I added many fresh ideas, which seemed to grow of themselves upon the original stock". On the other hand it must have borne some passing resemblance to the story as originally told.

The question that I have wondered about for years, nay decades, is just this: What exactly was the tale that Charles Dodgson told that 4 July now nearly a century and a half ago? Obviously there is no way directly to find out, short of coming up with a time-machine and some sort of audio recorder, but there are hints and indications. First, we may start with what the author tells us, "I distinctly remember, now as I write, how, in a desperate attempt to strike out some new line of fairy-lore, I had sent my heroine straight down a rabbit-hole, to begin with, without the least idea what was to happen afterwards." As the long fall, the arrival in the little hall, and the attempts to get out through the small door into the garden all follow reasonably naturally from this, we may reasonably assume that they had some counterpart in the Ur-Alice.

On the other hand there is material that seems unlikely to have belonged to the original sp0ken story. The Mouse's tale, for example, that weaves tail-like across the page. This is a visual joke, and while we can imagine Charles Dodgson perhaps indicating by gestures what Alice was picturing, it seems more naturally at home in the written manuscript. Again, "the driest thing I know", lifted from Chepmell's Short Course of History, is a joke more likely conceived in the study than while rowing up the Isis on a hot summer day.

And another thing—the it-was-all-a-dream conclusion. Did Charles Dodgson reach a conclusion on this expedition? Several things make this unlikely. Alice Liddell tells us, in her recollections as quoted by Dodgson's nephew, that he would break off a story in the middle saying, "That's all till next time," to which the girls would reply, "Ah, but it is next time." That this may well have been one of those occasions when the story did not continue at once we have Dodgson's own diary entry for the 6th of August, over a month later, when he tells of continuing his "interminable fairy-tale of Alice's Adventures"—some indication that this was an ongoing performance. And it's very tempting to suppose that he told the girls the episode of the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon after the Liddell sisters sang "Beautiful Star" for him on 1 August 1862; the song is burlesqued as "Beautiful Soup." (On the other hand it is possible that Dodgson's burlesque of the song inspired the sisters to sing it for him correctly, or even that the two had no particular cause-and-effect relationship.) Another song ("Sally Go Up"), burlesqued in the same scene however, the Liddell sisters sang the very day before the 4 July expedition. Maybe "Beautiful Soup" was one of the additions to the written tale.

One odd feature of the book is worth noting here—there are two distinct parts to it. In the first part Alice is constantly changing size; at first she has no control over the situation, but then, thanks to advice from a caterpillar, she acquires the parts of a magic mushroom that allow her to control her own size. In the second part of the book, however, this is all forgotten. Once Alice finds her way into the garden the mushroom is never mentioned again, and in the original story her size (as far as we can tell) stays constant. (In the published version she starts growing uncontrollably during the trial scene.) She is said to be fifteen inches high in the MS (a foot in the published version), but the fact is that it is difficult to tell exactly what size she is. She interacts with playing cards as though she were in the same size range (three inches, maybe?), but the game of croquet is played with ostriches for mallets and hedgehogs for balls—are we supposed to picture them as miniature ostriches and hedgehogs? Or are the cards gigantic? The size thing, which is such a major feature of the first part of the book, has gone completely out the window by this point.

The point where this change happens has its own interest. Abruptly, just after the encounter with the pigeon in the MS (just after the Mad Tea Party in the book), Alice sees a door in a tree. She goes inside and finds herself back in the dark hall with the little door to the garden where she had been at the beginning of her adventures. This time, thanks to the magic mushroom, she is in control of her size and manages to make it through the door into the garden with ease. And it is from this point on that the mushroom and the size changes so evident up till now are forgotten.

It's very satisfying that Alice manages to achieve the goal that frustrated her earlier, but it's also arbitrary. The door in the tree that leads to the dark hall comes from nowhere; it has been prepared for in no way, and it's really unnecessary. To put it another way, if Alice had never got through the door into the garden, but instead had further Pig and Pepper style adventures, we would never have noticed the omission. If Alice had come to the garden via another route, we as readers would have been perfectly happy. It is true that getting into the garden is the one element of the story that provides anything resembling purpose—but it's hardly a major element. In fact Alice's determination to somehow get into the garden is only mentioned once between the two hall episodes—just after the pigeon encounter.

While I'm not pretending to have exhausted the possibilities here, there is one plausible reason from the author's perspective why it may have been necessary to return to the little hall and the exit to the garden: because that's how the story already went. If, to put it as simply as possible, in an earlier version of the story Alice had made it out into the garden at the end of the first hallway episode, and had subsequent adventures there; and if Dodgson had decided to add at this point some of those "fresh ideas, which seemed to grow of themselves upon the original stock" that take Alice away from the hallway, then it would be necessary at some point to get Alice back to the hallway to continue with the earlier version of the story.

Let's see how this plays out, then. On this hypothesis the pool of tears, the encounter with the mouse et al (including both the driest thing I know and the mouse's tale mentioned above as unlikely to have been part of the original oral version), the adventures at the white rabbit's house, the encounter with the caterpillar (including the advice about the mushroom), and Alice's confrontation with the pigeon who thinks she's a serpent—all these will have been additions to the earlier story. It is these adventures that contain and elaborate on the changing-size motif. The reason, then, that the mushroom and size-changing aspects of the story disappear when Alice gets to the garden is simple. They weren't part of the earlier version of the story. Once Dodgson gets back to the earlier version of the story those elements disappear precisely because they were later elaborations.

Another point: one of the things that irritated me about the hallway episode when I was a child is this: Alice, when she's nine feet tall, is able to unlock the door and peer out into the garden. But, when she accidentally shrinks down to about three inches and runs back to the door, it's once again locked and the key is back again on that glass table. Now that just seemed plain arbitrary to me. How did the door get itself locked again? (Yeah, I know it's a dream, but still—) And for that matter why on earth didn't Alice either hold onto the key, or put it down somewhere where she could reach it when she was small enough to get through. Hell, why hadn't she simply left it in the keyhole? We are supposed to imagine, apparently, that after looking out through the door she relocked it and thoughtfully placed the key back on the glass table where it would be inconveniently out of reach the next time she was small enough to get out through it—and all this without a word of narrative to support it.

Now let's suppose for a moment that the original narrative had gone something like this:

As she said this, she looked down at her hands, and was surprised to find she had put on one of the rabbit's little gloves while she was talking. "How can I have done that?" thought she, "I must be growing small again." She got up and went to the table to measure herself by it, and found that, as nearly as she could guess, she was now about two feet high, and was going on shrinking rapidly: soon she found out that the reason of it was the nosegay she held in her hand: she dropped it hastily, just in time to save herself from shrinking away altogether, and found that she was now only three inches high.

"Now for the garden!" cried Alice, as she hurried back to the little door, and then she found herself at last in the beautiful garden, among the bright flowerbeds and the cool fountains.

Although as I've mentioned size is ambiguous in this final section, at three inches Alice would have been a reasonable height to interact with playing cards. (The ostriches and hedgehogs are unreasonable whether Alice is three inches or fifteen inches high, however.)

So as I've indicated this hypothesis explains quite nicely some of the features of the narrative that are otherwise puzzling. Is there any reason to suppose, however, that Dodgson would be likely to work in this manner—slicing a narrative open to insert new material?

Yes, there is. The Hunting of the Snark grew from a three fits eight by the addition of episodes between the opening two fits and the closing one. Sylvie and Bruno clearly shows signs of this same hollowing-out process; the original plot-line, abandoned after chapter 12 of Sylvie and Bruno, resumes abruptly at chapter 20 of Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, picking up with the same themes and plans that had vanished in the previous volume. In each case Dodgson cut the work apart to insert new material into the innards, though in the case of Sylvie and Bruno at least some of the new material was actually older than the surrounding text into which it was inserted. And in the change from the MS to the printed version of Alice's Adventures itself we can see the process continuing; the new Pig and Pepper and Mad Tea Party episodes are added between the pigeon and second hallway episodes. And with their insertion we can see how material becomes displaced from its original context.

In the MS we find:

It was so long since she had been of the right size that it felt quite strange at first, but she got quite used to it in a minute or two, and began talking to herself as usual: "Well! there's half my plan done now! How puzzling all these changes are! I'm never sure what I'm going to be, from one minute to another! However, I've got to my right size again: the next thing is, to get into that beautiful garden—how is that to be done, I wonder?"

Just as she said this, she noticed that one of the trees had a doorway leading right into it. "That's very curious," she thought...

In other words we are reminded immediately before Alice sees the doorway leading her back to the hall of her intent to get into the garden. But in the book we have:

"...how is that to be done, I wonder?" As she said this, she came suddenly upon an open place, with a little house in it about four feet high.

Two chapters later, after the Pig and Pepper and Mad Tea Party episodes Dodgson returns to this moment:

"At any rate I'll never go there again!" said Alice, as she picked her way through the wood. "It's the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!"

Just as she said this, she noticed that one of the trees had a door leading right into it. "That's very curious," she thought.

Note how he gets here. Dodgson has taken the original phrase "Just as she said this" and used it twice in the resultant text, leaving on it ("As she said this she came suddenly upon...") and then returning to the original text with it ("Just as she said this, she noticed that one of the trees..."). In the process of making this insertion the original preparatory text about Alice's plan to get into the garden has become separated by two chapters worth of material from its payoff (the door in the tree), and that small duplication shows us exactly where the incision was made.

Now there's no exact verbal duplication that seems to mark the point of the original incision (nor does there have to be, but it's helpful when there is), but I suggest that "as she hurried back to the little door" (original episode) may well be parallel to "then she walked down the little passage" (second hallway episode). The reference to the little passage is wrong in any case; the door was behind a curtain and led to a little passage out into the garden; there was no little passage leading to the door. I suspect Dodgson here engaged in a little careless rewriting.

And another thought: we know that Dodgson continued working on the story even after the MS had assumed its final form. Note where he added the two new episodes (Pig and Pepper and the Mad Tea Party): directly at the end of the earlier new material, by this hypothesis. True, not all the new material was added here; he expanded the trial scene considerably, for one thing. But it is interesting; it is as though the MS froze the story at a particular moment in time as it was being developed. Dodgson starts writing the material for the insertion; he cuts it short so that the MS actually gets finished and he can present it to Alice; but for the book he simply keeps on going from that same point.

Okay, I could continue elaborating on my thoughts, and in fact have started and abandoned a couple of paragraphs that do just that, but there's a barbecue waiting for me down the street and I want to get this published some time in the foreseeable future. So let me cut to the chase. Is there any remote chance that the tale as I've recovered it, shorn of the various parts I've mentioned as probable additions, represents what Charles Dodgson told Alice and her sisters that long-ago 4th of July?

Probably not. It might be a stage closer, but, well—the thing is, there was almost certainly at least one manuscript between the MS we have and the story as it was told. In pre-computer days it was standard to create a manuscript (rough draft) before typing up or hand-lettering the presentation copy. Everything about the extant MS (including the fact that it was a presentation copy) suggests that it is a final copy, and Dodgson will have prepared it from a rough draft of some kind. That rough draft will have been where he worked out the changes and revisions that created the present tale. The earlier version that I have tentatively reconstructed, even if it be valid, is just as likely to have been an earlier MS draft as the oral story itself.

And another thing—there were months between Charles Dodgson's first telling of the story and his creation of the extant MS. Months to forget, to alter, to blur the details of the original story. Now we can assume that he had something to go by—he himself tells us he wrote out the "headings" for the story the very next day, and with any luck he will at least have had that to go by.

Now here's my fantasy of how we might have at least the outline of the story as told on 4 July 1862. (There are too many speculative elements now for me to even call this a hypothesis.) We know Dodgson wrote out the "headings" for the story the next day. Canon Duckworth tells us that Dodgson told him "that he sat up nearly the whole night, committing to a MS. book his recollections of the drolleries with which he had enlivened the afternoon." Now maybe Canon Duckworth is confused, and the MS he's thinking of was the one we have, the presentation copy to Alice, and he was just flat wrong about when it was written and how long it took. But what if his story is correct? The MS book in this case would be a lost rough draft, precisely the sort of thing that could have formed the basis for the final MS copy we actually have, and exactly the sort of thing that my reconstructed Ur-Alice would look like. Maybe, just maybe, we are this close to the tale as told.

Now one of the consequences of this is that we have gradually been losing some of the best parts of the Wonderland story as I've been going through this. Of course we already knew that the Mad Tea Party formed no part of the story that memorable day, but now we've lost the caterpillar as well. And maybe the croquet scene—remember those troublesome ostriches and hedgehogs? And of course the trial was a mere sketch of what it would eventually become. And the gryphon and the mock turtle may have been part of story told at a later time. What was it about the story, then, that so enthralled Alice, whose enthusiasm ultimately enriched us all?

Well, we'll never know, and that's probably how it should be. For some things, you just had to be there.

02 July 2009

Some Old Fart Doesn't Know

I'm in a nasty mood right now, so I say thank the gods for the Alvin Sun-Times of Alvin Texas. Under the title "Young People Don't Know" the Alvin Sun-Times presents a screed by one W. Edward Murphy so stunningly clueless, so absolutely idiotic, as to be my perfect punching-bag for this session. Of course it's not going to surprise you that I'm off yet again in pursuit of some poor clown who used some fake quotations to enliven his pitiful attempt at an editorial. But this is even more priceless. Here's a list of his fake quotations in order:

  1. The Patrick Henry "religionists" quotation.
  2. The George Washington "God and the Bible" quotation.
  3. A George Washington "personal prayer-book" hodge-podge.
  4. The Jefferson well-worn Bible frankenquote.
  5. The Jefferson "best friend of government" quotation.

Are you beginning to get the picture? What if I added that he begins with the following claims:

  1. "Of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, 52 of 55 were deeply committed Christians."
  2. "The congress formed the American Bible Society..."
  3. "The congress ... voted to purchase and import 20,000 Bibles for the people!"

Yes! Not only is this guy so pig-ignorant that he mistakes a 1956 newspaper for Patrick Henry, and a fake prayer-book for Washington's that isn't even in his handwriting, he gets the number of signers of the Declaration of Independence wrong and fancies that congress formed the American Bible Society! Yes, you guessed it—this W. Edward Murphy lifted his "facts" straight from that "America's Christian Roots" e-mail that was circulating a few years back.

Unbelievable. And Murphy wonders why we don't find these fake quotations in schoolbooks. Could it be, oh, say, because they're all fakes? No, it has to be some sort of crazy conspiracy.

It occurred to me, like a lightning flash, reading the quotes of these great men, that the degradation of our morality, of our political corruption, can be laid at the feet of our public educational establishment.

In the next column I will be specific about the history and decline of our educational establishment, and the ravages it has wreaked on our nation, particularly our children.

Okay, fine, but I believe I'll pass on that somewhat dubious pleasure, W. Edward Murphy. Quasi-plagiarism and fake quotations do not inspire me with any confidence in anything whatsoever you might have to say. Get your facts straight, and do your own damn research instead of lifting it from some idiotic e-mail, and then maybe you might have something to say that's worth listening to. Until then, forget about it.

Copyright © 2005-2017

StatCounter