31 July 2011

Quotation of the Day

Conservatives built this monster. It didn’t just wander out of the woods one day, or land here from another planet. The Wingnut Base—whatever teabagger, Colonial Williamsburg camouflage they’re sporting this week, and however hard the media tries to pretend they aren't who we know they are—was manufactured by the Conservative Movement to win elections. Made right here in the U S of A out of spare parts left over from the Segregationist South, Right-wing fundamentalism, Bircher paranoia and general Archie Bunker pig-ignorance. Conservatives built the unholy thing, programmed it, wounded it up and sent it out to do their bidding. And everyone knows it.

30 July 2011

Decaying Horse Department

If there are so many damn examples of “irrefutable quotes and facts from history that our country was founded upon Biblical principles” why do its proponents keep drawing on the same short list of known fakes? Case in point: one Earl53 posting here (doing a partial cut-and-paste from “Forsaken Roots”) manages to reel off seven fake quotations and three false items of information, along with six or seven genuine quotations. (There is also one dubious item of information, in that John Adams didn’t claim that United States was exclusively founded on “the general principles of Christianity” but only that “the general principles of Christianity” were among the principles upon which the country was founded.)

This is a pretty high level of adulteration, all things considered, and contains some pretty cheesy stuff—the Patrick Henry and Congressional resolution about school bibles are particularly transparent fakes that never should have fooled anybody. And Earl53 doesn't improve matters any by pretending later on to have documents from the Library of Congress backing up his school bible fake resolution; presumably he is referring to the genuine Aitken Bible resolution, but as he gave no actual citation it is entirely possible that he was just blowing more hot air, as when he pretended that his production was not just another cut-and-paste job based on “Forsaken Roots”. (The Jefferson and school bible fake quotations both come from that source, as does the misinformation about early American universities—a dead giveaway. Copying other people’s bonehead mistakes is a sure way to be caught.) Anyway, for the record, here is another clueless clown’s score:

The fake quotations:
  1. the Patrick Henry “religionists” misattribution, actually written in 1956 in The Virginian;
  2. The Jefferson “real Christian” frankenquote with its two sentences taken from widely separated letters juxtaposed;
  3. the Washington “without God and the Bible” invention (mixed with some genuine material from the Farewell Address);
  4. a prayer from the Washington prayer-book hoax;
  5. the John Quincy Adams “indissoluble bond” misattribution (actually written by John Wingate Thornton);
  6. the fake Congressional resolution about approving the Bible for use in schools (A “Forsaken Roots” invention based on the genuine resolution commending the Aitken Bible);
  7. the Franklin “Bible and newspaper” misattribution (actual author unknown).

The incorrect information:
  1. that 106 of the first 108 universities in the United States were distinctly Christian;
  2. that Thomas Jefferson wrote “I am a real Christian” etc on the front of his Bible;
  3. that John Adams was chairman of the American Bible society (it was his son; the father took a dim view of Bible societies).

The genuine quotations:
  1. the John Jay “prefer Christians for their rulers” passage;
  2. the Daniel Webster “good Christians” quotation;
  3. the John Dickenson “higher source” quotation;
  4. part of Benjamin Franklin’s prayer for prayer at the Constitutional Convention;
  5. possibly the “rebellion to tyrants” line (author unknown, but suspected to be Franklin);
  6. the Adams “morality and religion” quotation (except for the word “true” added before “religion”);
  7. the Adams “pure virtue” quotation.

I’d say that’s about 40 points out of a possible 100. In other words, you just flunked American History, Earl53. A sad commentary on the American school system, it seems. But thanks for playing.

29 July 2011

Things Forgotten

Some kind of solitude is measured out in you
You think you know me but you haven’t got a clue
Hey Bulldog (The Beatles)
Many things are not working—please don’t tell me what they are. I have something to say, damn it. Listen to me. Words echoing down the corridors of time, deliberately preserved, accidentally preserved, partially preserved. But mostly lost. Since the beginning of writing—apparently a cobbled-together memory crutch to help keep track of sacks of grain and cart-axles—most of humankind’s words have been lost. Legends have it that this or that emperor or king ordered writings consigned to the flames—but that really wasn’t necessary. All that it took was for the educated classes, the scribes, those capable of writing, to just stop copying them. Worm, rot, fire, flood, the ordinary wear and tear of life take their toll, parchment and paper dissolve, and the words are lost. Where are the plays of Menander, the greatest comic playwright of the ancient world? Lost, except for scraps recovered from ancient garbage-heaps. Where are the works of Democritus, whose atomic theory perhaps foreshadowed the developments of science? According to ancient gossip Plato wanted to burn his books—but that wasn’t necessary. With the triumph of Christianity anti-science was in full swing, and Plato’s mystical ramblings were copied—while the works of Democritus were allowed to rot. Where are the works of the gloomy Etruscans, about which the emperor Claudius wrote, or the busy Phoenicians, who invented the alphabet? Mani’s religion stretched from Turkey to China—and where are his scriptures now? Even the favored few suffered. We have more plays from Euripides than any of his contemporaries, yet his popular Andromeda survives only in a single scene as parodied by Aristophanes. There are more copies of Paul’s letters than perhaps any writer of antiquity—but his (or is it Deutero-Paul’s?) letter to the Laodiceans is known only from a single reference.

Listen to me. I am living tradition, humankind’s memory. I am Herodotus, who hacked away at something that would someday be history, and Aristotle, who took a stab at something that would someday be science. I am Sun Tzu, who wrote of war, and Ovid, who wrote of love. I am Kālidāsa and Terence, Qoheleth and Mencius. I am the anonymous epitomizers, editors, and redactors who shaped and transmitted the material, the scribes who copied it, and the audiences for whom it came into being and continued to be transmitted, the owners who treasured the written words.

Listen to me, damn it. I’m humankind, and I have something to say. Living tradition is only part of the story; accidental preservation counts too. The letters home by Roman soldiers stationed in Britain before the empire’s retreat, preserved in unpromising soil. The inventory lists baked in Cretan clay. Astronomical observations dug out of the rocks. Someone’s ancient to-do list preserved in sand. A famous sage’s sayings preserved on bamboo and buried with its owner. A handful of characters badly scrawled by an apprentice scribe. A local official’s panicked letter to a distant and possibly uncaring monarch. An imposing monument commemorating a long-forgotten battle.

I have something to say—listen to me. I’m recovered texts, flashbacks from memories forgotten. Codices stuffed in jars and left undisturbed for a thousand years, libraries of clay tablets buried under fallen walls, words preserved in the writings of others, hymns in unremembered languages written on the walls of tombs, fragments found in unknown garbage dumps that bring dead words back to life. Accidental glimpses into past deeds, past thoughts, past ways of being.

A person’s memory is limited to a tiny slice of time; humankind’s memory extends much further, and continues to grow the further out we peer into time and space. The moment is fleeting; the future insubstantial; what we have is memory. Listen to it; it has something to say.

28 July 2011

Backward and Downward with Captain Obama

From the rumblings I hear in the external universe I gather that the American people are not happy. No, I mean they are really not happy. Their ship is sinking, the crew is brawling on the decks, and the captain is staring glumly out to sea. A messenger approaches.

Messenger (played by Peter Leeds): Captain, sir, the mutineers have presented their new demands.

Captain (played by Stan Freberg): What—new demands? I’ve already agreed to everything they’ve asked for.

Messenger: Well, the thing is … uh … it seems they’ve reached a new compromise.

Captain: Compromise? What do you mean? Compromise with whom?

Messenger: With the mutineers.

Captain: The mutineers have reached a compromise with—the mutineers?

Messenger: Exactly.

Captain: Explain yourself.

Messenger: Well, you see, Long John Boehner has lost control over his men, and some of them are insisting that the ship be scuttled, sir.

Captain: Why?

Messenger: So history will blame you for it.

Captain: I’ll accept that. It makes perfect sense. But what about the rest of them?

Messenger: Well, they think they can get the holdouts to compromise if you’ll let them heave the paying passengers overboard, and begin drilling holes in the side of the ship.

Captain: Well, that sounds reasonable. Tell them I accept.

Messenger: All right.

[A pause]

Captain: You think they’ll go for it?

Messenger: I don’t know if it’s wild enough. It’s got to be wild …

Captain: Say—tell them if they go for this one, they can set fire to the engine-room as well. That should impress the lot of them.

Messenger (dubiously): I’ll try. But I'm not holding my breath.

Captain: You do that.

Messenger: Okay.

27 July 2011

Quotation of the Day

Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

26 July 2011

Quotation of the Day

Just because you believe in magic and in micro-managing, invisible tyrants doesn't mean you possess sole authority to recognize and comment on human evil. Get over yourselves, already!

25 July 2011

Glory 2—The Quickening

A few more thoughts on Archbigot Fischer’s novel exegesis of the word religion, based on his remembrance of the notions of the backward schoolchildren of his youth.

Actually it can’t possibly be correct. The First Amendment reads in part:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
If the term religion is here supposed to mean Christianity, then the meaning of this passage has to be only that Congress is restricted from establishing some brand of the Christian religion as the state church, leaving it free (apparently) to go ahead and establish (say) Buddhism or Islam as a state religion just so long as Christianity is tolerated, and its “free exercise” not prohibited. Surely that can’t be the intention.

The only way to make the Archbigot’s notion work is to assume that religion in the first clause means, well, “religion”, while in the second clause it suddenly changes its meaning to “the Christian religion”. That’s a lot of extra work to put the same damn word to—and it is actually the same word, used once and only once, making this construction in point of fact impossible.

What about the Constitution’s only other mention of religion, that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”? Again, if religious applies only to the Christian religion, then the absurd proposition appears that the Constitution prohibits the government from requiring adherence to some particular Christian creed, but allows it to enjoin some Islamic or Hindu set of injunctions. This concept does not seem to me to have been well thought out. I would say that it is quite clear that—whatever the use of the word may have been in their time—the Framers meant religion in its broadest sense.

But is the Archbigot correct that “at the time of the Founding” the term religion “essentially had to do with what brand of Christianity you wore”? We’ve already seen that his own witness, Justice Story, let him down. What if we examined some other specific examples of the term in its native habitat? Consider this observation, written by James Madison to a Dr. Motta:
Among the features peculiar to the political system of the U. States, is the perfect equality of rights which it secures to every religious sect. … Equal laws, protecting equal rights, are found, as they ought to be presumed, the best guarantee of loyalty & love of country; as well as best calculated to cherish that mutual respect & good will among Citizens of every religious denomination which are necessary to social harmony, and most favorable to the advancement of truth. The account you give of the Jews of your congregation brings them fully within the scope of these observations.
Note here that the Jews are included in Madison’s understanding of the phrases “religious sect” and “religious denomination”. There’s no indication here that he shares the Archbigot’s playground definition that makes religion exclusively Christian.

Let’s take an example from Dr. Benjamin Rush. He wrote in his essay “On the Proper Mode of Education: in a Republic”:
Such is my veneration for every religion that reveals the attributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments, that I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mahomed inculcated upon our youth, than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles.
So it appears that when Benjamin Rush used the term religion, he would include “the opinions of Confucius or Mohamed” in it. Are we to suppose that he mistakenly thought Confucius and Mohammed were Christians? No; as his very next words make clear he preferred the “truth of the Christian revelation” to other religious doctrines. In other words Confucianism, Islam, and Christianity were all included in his notion of religion.

And here’s one from John Adams, written to Mordecai Manuel Noah, 31 July 1818:
It has pleased the Providence of the “first cause,” the universal cause, that Abraham should give religion, not only to Hebrews, but to Christians and Mahometans, the greatest part of the modern civilized world.
So it seems that when Adams used the word religion, he included Judaism and Islam as well as Christianity in its compass.

Even a quick survey shows a number of counter-examples to Brian Fischer’s claim, and these among key players in the Founding of the United States. Further, there’s no way of making sense of the Constitution if his implausible suggestion be accepted. I don’t mean to beat a dead horse to a bloody pulp here, but—get real, man. It’s pretty clear that when the Framers wrote of an establishment of religion, they meant what they said—not merely that no Christian sect would be established as a national religion over others, but that no religion of any kind should be established. And if they did indeed mean disestablishment all round, then it’s clear that they meant free exercise across the board as well. It was the same damn word, for God’s sake.

24 July 2011

There's Glory for You

Archbigot Brian Fischer is sounding off again on subjects of which he knows nothing, and Monday’s sermonette appears to be on a text from Humpty-Dumpty—“When I use a word it means what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” Apparently he has his own meaning for the word “religion”, one derived from the most ignorant kids on the playground when he was growing up, and he thinks that the Founders must have shared it:
When the Founders used the word “religion,” they used it much as we did on the playground when I was growing up in America a generation ago. We’d asked each other, “What religion are you?” By the term “religion” we meant some variety or brand of the Christian religion, since that was all that was represented among us. We were Baptists, or Lutherans, or Methodists, or Presbyterians, or Catholics, etc. The question essentially had to do with what brand of Christianity you wore. Such was the case at the time of the Founding.
Now this is quaint, almost charming in a smarmy sort of way. Because schoolkids where he lived didn’t know anything about religions other than Christianity, neither did the Founders. There’s logic for you, as Humpty-Dumpty might have observed. Now as Brian Fischer and I seem to be about the same age, maybe my experience growing up could serve as a contrast. Even when I was in grade school nobody would have been so ignorant as to suppose that “religion” was restricted to “some variety or brand of the Christian religion”; we had Jews and Buddhists and unbelievers amongst us, as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons and other exotica. To imagine that men like Charles Thomson (who translated the Septuagint), Thomas Jefferson (who studied the Koran), or John Adams were as uninformed as Brian Fischer’s retarded (and probably imaginary) schoolfellows is something of a stretch.

And why does Brian Fischer make this outlandish claim? It’s part of an argument that
the First Amendment was written neither to guarantee freedom of religion to Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus nor to prohibit their free exercise of religion. It wasn’t written about them one way or another.

It was written for one specific purpose: to protect the free exercise of the Christian religion.
And what is his evidence that the Founders mistakenly wrote “religion” when they meant “Christianity”? It’s a weird out-of-context quotation from Justice Joseph Story to the effect that the First Amendment did not intend to place some other religion in Christianity’s place, but only “to cut off the means of religious persecution, (the vice and pest of former ages,) and the power of subverting the rights of conscience in matters of religion, which had been trampled upon almost from the days of the Apostles to the present age.” Joseph Story went on to observe that as far as the Federal government was concerned, “the Catholic and the Protestant, the Calvinist and the Arminian, the Jew and the Infidel, may sit down at the common table of the national councils, without any inquisition into their faith, or mode of worship.” Note the presence of the Jew and the Infidel at that common table—there is no suggestion here that “religion” in the Constitution was restricted to Christianity.

This Founders as boobs scenario really doesn’t hold water. The idea that they mistakenly wrote “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” when they meant “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of the Christian religion,” etc assumes that they weren’t capable of expressing the concept in words intelligible to later times. But it is in fact quite clear that they could have given some form of theism a special place in the Constitution—if they’d wanted to. Founder William Williams, for example, wanted the preamble to read,
We the people of the United States, in a firm belief of the being and perfections of the one living and true God, the creator and supreme Governour of the world, in his universal providence and the authority of his laws; that he will require of all moral agents an account of their conduct; that all rightful powers among men are ordained of, and mediately derived from God; therefore in a dependence on his blessing and acknowledgment of his efficient protection in establishing our Independence, whereby it is become necessary to agree upon and settle a Constitution of federal government for ourselves, and in order to form a more perfect union…
This notion did not gain favor. Actually, even for suggesting this William Williams had to clear his name from the accusation of having proposed a religious test for the Constitution. Oliver Ellsworth, who had criticized him on that front, accepted his explanation—after a fashion:
It had been represented in several parts of the state, to the great surprise of your friends, that you wished some religious test as an introduction to office, but as you have explained the matter, it is only a religious preamble which you wish—against preambles we have no animosity. Every man hath a sovereign right to use words in his own sense, and when he hath explained himself, it ought to be believed that he uses them conscientiously. … though the honourable gentleman doubtless asserts the truth, there are a great number of those odd people who really think they were present on that occasion, and have such a strong habit of believing their senses, that they will not be convinced even by evidence which is superior to all sense. But it must be so in this imperfect world.
Well, it may well be that every man hath a sovereign right (in the manner of Humpty-Dumpty) to use words in his own sense—but some people carry that sovereign right way past sensible and well into outre. When Humpty-Dumpty put a word to extra labor, he paid it extra. Does Brian Fischer, I wonder.

23 July 2011

An Annoying Letter from John Adams

I have too many damn tabs open, and there’s something of interest, positive or negative, in nearly all of them. Well, of interest to me, anyway, not necessarily to you or anybody else. I’ve been trying to bookmark them, which is not easy, as Google Chrome only lets me bookmark a page once, and many of my open pages frankly intersect various projects and interests. A case in point: I have in front of me a letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, written 4 November 1816, that stands at the crossroads of several things I’m working on.

For one thing, I have my idiot project of writing a commentary on “America’s Forsaken Roots,”—not the three-part thing I did earlier, but a more detailed refutation drawing on a larger variety of sources. One of the claims the document made is that John Adams was president of the American Bible Society. Well, in this letter he comments on the usefulness of such an institution:
We have now, it seems, a National Bible Society, to propagate King James’s Bible, through all Nations. Would it not be better to apply these pious subscriptions to purify Christendom from the Corruptions of Christianity, than to propagate those corruptions in Europe, Asia, Africa and America?
Ouch. Not so friendly as all that, it seems. So, logically, should I not bookmark this with the “Forsaken Roots” stuff?

Not so fast. He continues:
Suppose we should project a society to translate Dupuis into all Languages, and offer a Reward in Medals and Diamonds to any Man or Body of Men who would produce the best answer to it.
Okay, now we touch on another consideration—Charles François Dupuis was an astronomer and a proponent of Mythicism—the concept that Jesus never actually existed and that some kind of mythological figure (if I remember correctly Dupuis saw the Jesus story as a solar myth) has been given historical flesh and made to walk among men. Such things do happen—Robin Hood and Roswell come to mind here—but Jesus seems an unlikely candidate. In any case I’ve been toying with doing something with some of the old-line Mythicists at some point, and Dupuis is on my reading-list. File under Mythicism?

Or maybe not. Adams goes on:
It is more worth your while to read Dupuis than Grimm. Of all the romances and true histories I ever read, it is the most entertaining and instructive, though Priestley calls it “dull.
Priestley, yeah, Joseph Priestley—I’m working my way through some of his stuff even now, mostly in connection with his observations on the necessity of disestablishment—and I’ve got a piece on a weird Christian meme that he has a connection with in the works. So maybe it should go under Joseph Priestley.

Or what about Adams’ religion, a subject dear to what passes for hearts among the Christian Nationite crowd? This letter has meat for that stew as well:
Conclude not from all this that I have renounced the Christian Religion, or that I agree with Dupuis in all his sentiments. Far from it. I see in every Page something to recommend Christianity in its Purity, and something to discredit its Corruptions. 
If I had Strength, I would give you my Opinion of it in a Fable of the Bees. 
The Ten Commandments and The Sermon on the Mount contain my Religion.
So that’s where it all kind of falls apart. So many places to file it—and I have to choose one. Maybe I’ll just write about it here instead. That way I can close the tab with a clear conscience, knowing that I’ll never have to look at the damn thing again, let alone make any sort of decision on how to use it. Blog and forget. It may not be the best policy, but at least it puts off the day of reckoning.

22 July 2011

Quotation of the Day

I think it's debatable whether reminders of the past prevent us repeating our mistakes but at least they mean we can't say we didn't know.

21 July 2011

Madness and Politics

You know—just a thought. Jobs. Let me say it again—jobs. That’s what the people of the United States are looking for right now. Nobody gives a damn about this debt-ceiling nonsense. Most people are prepared for a certain number of program cuts and tax increases, but what they’re really interested in is getting back to work. Seeing the economy running again. Bromides like only the market can create jobs aren’t going to cut it any longer. People are tired of praying to a Market God that never seems to listen. This is something that both Democrats and Republicans need to deal with, but it especially applies to the Mad Tea Partiers. Sabotaging the economy in the hopes of winning elections is probably not going to be a winning strategy. People tend to re-elect when their personal finances are going well; folk who surf the wave of economic discontent are likely to crash on the rocks of broken dreams.

20 July 2011

Quotation of the Day

And let us not forget that the God hypothesis, which is, after all, the preferred alternative of Haught and Polkinghorne, also puts forth a speculative, unobservable entity without a trace of experimental support. The multiverse hypothesis at least arises as a natural consequence of certain theories that have a sound, evidential basis. The God hypothesis is just invented from whole cloth, and is supported solely by philosophical gobbledygook like the cosmological argument.

19 July 2011

Celebration of the Clueless

From one Mychal Massie comes the most colossal drivel I’ve read in a long time—well, I’m sure I could find worse, but it’s amazingly idiotic:
Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin all wrote that they had signed the Constitution July 4, 1776, but there are some historians who argue that they signed a month later. So the question becomes, whom are you going to believe—the men who were there and participated, or PBS and the History Channel?
Me, I’ll go with the historians who’ve actually examined the evidence, but I’d be really surprised to find that any of them said the Constitution was signed in 1776, in July, August, or any other month. And yet after this gaffe this Massie character has the colossal gall to lecture his readers about the true meaning of the Constitution. It appears the Founders “intended for God to be acknowledged and prayers to be offered in conjunction with good government and the observance of federal holidays and the ceremonies adjoining same.” (These are actually his words.) If the Founders had wanted “no state-sanctioned religion”, then they would have included the concept somewhere in the Constitution, Mychal Massie thinks. As proof they didn’t intend the no religious test and no establishment clauses to forbid government-mandated religion* he writes:
One of the clearest examples showing that the Founding Fathers never intended the First Amendment to be applied as it is today comes from John Adams. The day before he would sign the actual Constitution, Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail. The very first paragraph on the third page of that letter, Adams wrote: “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by the solemn acts of God Almighty.”
First of all I would observe of course that even in this very dishonest presentation of the famous Adams quotation Adams nowhere states that government is to require such acts. But the fact is that Adams only includes such devotions to God among various kinds of celebrations he anticipates for the second of July (and what were you saying, Mychal Massie, about the Founders and dates again?):
The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.
If this is “[o]ne of the clearest examples” showing that the Founders meant to establish religion when they wrote that they didn’t, the rest of his examples must be utter dreck.

(h/t Jon Rowe)

*Of course this restriction originally was only binding on the Federal Government, not the states. The states wrote their own versions of disestablishment both before and after this date.

18 July 2011

Another Day Without Blogging

It’s overcast and the yuccas are blooming out front, and for whatever reason I’m feeling groggy and out of it. I slept most of the day. Sunday night my nephew and I made a night-excursion out to buy groceries thanks to a small but sudden influx of money; we headed out on the last train Sunday night, bought groceries, and returned on the first train Monday morning. Thanks to a variety of mostly uninteresting setbacks (getting out at the wrong stop, for one, and running into some kind of malfunction with the store’s card-reading system, for another) our time was largely eaten up with trivia, so the four-hour gap between trains was as nothing, and we got home safe and sound with our kill. The internet facilitated trip planning, and cell phone technology meant that we could get help lugging our supplies back to camp. And without light rail we would have been back in the dark ages of strange interconnecting busses. Life in the twenty-first century, I guess.

17 July 2011

Holding Entry

Okay, I blew this entry. So instead, here's a picture of my great-grandfather using his homemade barber chair at his barbershop in Steamboat Springs, nearly a century ago now. With any luck blogging will resume shortly.

16 July 2011

Things I'm Reading

Dazed and confused, my sleep in tatters from having helped to lug a recycled bathroom sink six or eight blocks so we can once again have at least one full bathroom in this deranged boarding house I once called home, I now find myself limping around my little corner of the blogosphere (and does a sphere have corners?) with nothing to say. Fortunately the rest of you haven’t given up.

I see Josh Rosenau has his piece up about the Miss USA contestants’ depressing responses to a question about teaching evolution in schools—depressing in that most of them clearly had no idea what science is, what a theory might be, or why presenting “both sides” of an issue (especially an issue where there really is only one side) may be absolutely idiotic. And Duane Smith is enthusiastic about “Akkadian tagged texts and translations from royal inscriptions from Esarhaddon [being] now online". It’s fantastic how much ancient material is now accessible without getting out of my chair; I don't think people appreciate this miracle of the age. Is the internet eroding memory? I wouldn’t be surprised; I’ve increasingly got in the habit of regoogling rather than retaining stuff in the storage heaps of my memory. I thought I was just getting old, but maybe mankind’s memory is now electronic. Jason Thibeault is appalled by a recent Greenpeace action against genetically modified crops: “The whole point of this genetically modified wheat is to provide more nutrition for humans, which one would think is a noble goal especially from an environmental standpoint—less crops feeding more people means more food for less damage to the planet in the form of pesticides.” It seems like Mary Shelley has a lot to answer for--the whole there-are-some-things-man-is-not-meant-to-tamper-with bit. Frankencrops at large. You know corn is a large part of our diet these days—ever tried corn that hasn’t been genetically modified? Humankind’s been at this game a long time, guys. And J. L. Bell muses about the identity of the remains of a British soldier found in Nova Scotia—was he a Private James Simpson, who died in 1784? Can we ever be certain with a case this cold?

Okay, I’m fresh out of inspiration. It’s a good thing you guys still have things to write about. It saves me the trouble of coming up with something of my own. Thanks.

15 July 2011

Quotation of the Day

Flood geologists have rendered untenable the hypothesis that the Flood year spanned much of the relevant slice of time, by demonstrating that too much Mesozoic and Cenozoic sediment deposition was subaerial or was prolonged for years. The continued denial of the implications of their own findings is an example of what I call the gorilla mindset: the attitude that if something looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, but religious dogma says it is a gorilla, then it is a gorilla.

14 July 2011

Quotation of the Day

There is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals.

13 July 2011

Familiar Superstitions

So Friday the thirteenth comes on Wednesday this month, as Churchy La Femme used to observe, and the consequent madness surrounds us. (Only a full moon rivals the thirteenth for lunacy, and we’re not going to have one of those until, let’s see, uh, tomorrow….) At least two Republican candidates for the most powerful office in the world signed a pledge observing that African-Americans had been better off in some ways under slavery, in that at least slave-children were raised in two-parent families. I suppose that could be regarded as true, in a perverse dysfunctional sort of way, in that many enslaved children were the property of their biological fathers, who likewise owned their biological mothers. The historical idiocy is breathtaking, though at least the candidates had some sort of excuse—this language was part of the preamble, not actually part of the pledge itself.

I already expressed my opinion of any candidate who would sign this vile vow, and I’m glad to see that several Republican candidates are backing gingerly away from it—though I’d rather they denounced it as anti-American in no uncertain terms. I mean, this lunatic leaflet complains about “non-committal co-habitation”, refers to “innate traits like race [!]”, worries that people may think “against all empirical evidence, that homosexual behavior in particular, and sexual promiscuity in general” are not unhealthy, and claims that “robust … reproduction is beneficial to … health and security.” And this thing was presumably written by adults living in the twenty-first century. Does this nest of loons have other candidate oaths supporting leeches for healthcare, opposing interracial marriage, or promising to find the philosopher’s stone so we can solve our economic problems by turning lead into gold? When I first saw this I was half expecting it to turn out to be a piece from The Onion or the like, but apparently these guys are serious. It’s a little late for April Fools, anyway.

12 July 2011

Fools and Criticism

Wikiquote—one of the Wikimedia side-projects dwarfed by its famous sister Wikipedia—has a policy that all quotation-collections ought to employ: sources must be given for all quotations used. Further, quotations are divided up into categories—quotations with sources, attributed quotations, and misattributions, typically. There are also often sections devoted to such things as famous observations about the subject of the page—for example. Alleged quotations without sources are placed on the discussion page, and Wikiquote editors (as time permits) gradually run them down.

I track certain pages and periodically check to see if anything new has come up there. Recently some anonymous editor produced an (alleged) Benjamin Franklin quotation I wasn’t aware of:
Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain—and most fools do.
Several of the big quotation sites have this one, but, as correctly noted by the Wikiquote editor, it’s not by Franklin. It’s from Dale Carnegie’s famous book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. The passage there reads:
Bitter criticism caused the sensitive Thomas Hardy, one of the finest novelists ever to enrich English literature, to give up forever the writing of fiction. Criticism drove Thomas Chatterton, the English poet, to suicide.

Benjamin Franklin, tactless in his youth, became so diplomatic, so adroit at handling people, that he was made American Ambassador to France. The secret of his success? “I will speak ill of no man,” he said, “…and speak all the good I know of everybody.”

Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain—and most fools do.

But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.
So this—it appears—is another one where somebody has attributed an author’s words to a person he’d quoted just before it. The Wikiquote editor suggests that this may be due to a misprint in some edition of Carnegie’s work, and that’s always possible, but this sort of thing happens often enough without any misprint to aid the process that I at least see no need to postulate it.

So, this much is now clear—Dale Carnegie was quoting Ben Franklin, somebody mistakenly thought his words were Franklin’s, and the misquotation was born. But is that really the case? Was Carnegie quoting Franklin? Did Franklin actually say “I will speak ill of no man … and speak all the good I know of everybody”? That’s not so clear. Turning to good old Google Books (and how that massive index has speeded up this sort of work at least tenfold) we find the oldest source for it is a book from 1901, Little Journeys to the Homes of American Statesmen, where it appears as an introductory quotation to an account of Franklin’s life:
I will speak ill of no man, not even in matter of truth; but rather excuse the faults I hear charged upon others, and upon proper occasion speak all the good I know of everybody.
The author, Elbert Hubbard, attributes it to “Franklin’s journal”, which is not very helpful. It is almost certainly, however, not from Franklin’s journal, exactly, but rather from a lost paper quoted in an 1815 source, a “Life of Benjamin Franklin” by Robert Walsh, printed in Delaplaine’s Repository of the Lives and Portraits of Distinguished Americans, volume 2, pp. 51-52. It’s part of a self-improvement plan Franklin drew up as a young man in the year 1726. The relevant section reads:
4. I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever, not even in a matter of truth; but rather by some means excuse the faults I hear charged upon others, and upon proper occasions speak all the good I know of every body.
A few words have changed, but it appears to be the same item. Carnegie’s wording, however, strongly suggests that he didn’t get it from this source, but rather from Little Journeys or some close textual relative.

11 July 2011

Quotation of the Day

By most writers the invention of gunpowder is ascribed to the Chinese, but not upon very convincing evidence. Milton says it was invented by the devil to dispel angels with, and this opinion seems to derive some support from the scarcity of angels.
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

10 July 2011

Fireflies in the Night

L’affaire Elevator-Guy continues, Congress worries over defending us from the scourge of energy-efficient light bulbs, the King James Bible celebrates its 400th anniversary, and the people rehash the Casey Anthony verdict. I’m sure all these things are important, and I intend to throw in my two bits’ wroth on them all in the near future, but I don’t really feel motivated right now. Enervation takes over. It’s hot, not July summer hot, but hot enough to sap energy and will for all that. Fitful firefly weather—not that we get fireflies here in the pacific northwest. I’ve seen them, though, eerie and silent in the summer night.

Random thoughts flicker aimlessly through my night-dulled mind. An airplane crash in 1951 that took the life of a young West Point cadet who left behind a remarkable monument to his life—a thirty-page account of an Indian war that in some respects surpassed any serious work available at that time. A proposed duel between a future president and a political opponent that would have involved broadswords and a pit on a Mississippi island. A bizarre 1966 album by some guys from New Jersey that could have changed the course of rock ‘n’ roll (well, no, but it would have been an interesting collectable if it had been released). More sightings of Christian Nationite faux quotations. A strange Supreme Court case which Daniel Webster—who once beat the devil—lost in arguing that only Christians were capable of charity. But none of it jells. I need something for each of them—some further bit of information, some way of putting the inexplicable into perspective, to do any of them justice. If History isn’t to be just “a bunch of stuff that happened” (to quote the great Homer Simpson) or “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (as a British playwright once put it), there has to be something more to it. A place to stand that puts the whole into some sort of perspective. And right now my perspective is limited indeed. Events look like nothing more than fireflies flitting fitfully through a hot summer night.

09 July 2011

Vinyl Memories: The Baroque Beatles Book

Many years ago, in some high-school class or other—World History, maybe—we had a guest presentation by an art teacher of four centuries or so of Western Art—slides and music, as I recall, depicting painting and sculpture while accompanied by examples of music from the various eras—Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and so on.

One bit that cracked me up was a piece selected for the Baroque section. Although it sounded as if it ought to be something by (say) Bach, it was actually a sort of orchestral fanfare version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” I asked the guest presenter about it when the question-and-answer session came, and he said it was from something called The Baroque Beatles Book by Joshua Rifkin. I didn’t say this, but I thought it was kind of a clever idea, using a familiar tune to illustrate the peculiarities of the era’s music, but that illusion was immediately shattered when a girl in my class raised her hand to ask what on earth did that piece have to do with the Beatles or “I Want to Hold Your Hand”? as she at least saw no similarity between them. Several others appeared to agree with that assessment, and the class went on.

This is an example of what I would have called a “travesty” at the time—though my Latin teacher said there was no such literary genre, pointed out that travesty and transvestite were from the same roots, and traced the components back to reconstructed Proto-Indo-European. But I digress. “Travesty”—a change of clothes—dressing one subject in the style of another. It’s an old sport. It can be done for humorous effect, as with the eighteenth-century Hamlet Travestie (which took aim as much at contemporary Shakespeare scholarship as at Shakespeare himself), or seriously, as with the Duke Ellington versions of suites by Tchaikovsky and Grieg. Rifkin’s effort was somewhere in between, as indicated by his own notes: “We were absolutely crazy about this music,” he observed, meaning the Lennon-McCartney compositions. “Even if we had fun with it, it was fun with it in a way that was taking it seriously, giving it its due.”

I recently dug up my old copy of the record and listened to it again. My current system (essentially my computer) sucks, but it was still enjoyable. The liner notes, supposedly written by a Baroque musician looking for patronage, are at least mildly amusing:
I have also written, for your splendid court festivities—to which your unworthy servant hopes that he may be invited—a festive cantata, beginning with the words and melody of Please Please Me (your Lordship will remember how you sang it to me with a most melodious voice while we played croquet that afternoon, I still limp from the broken leg I suffered when you, justly displeased with my insolent correction of the way you sang the second half of the melody—how like an upstart of me to suggest to you that it was in the major mode—properly struck me).
About the same time I heard three Indian musicians do a version of “Greensleeves” featuring a sarod. That was memorable too, but it wasn’t recorded, and I can’t revisit it

08 July 2011

Quotation of the Day

We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.
Louis Brandeis as quoted by Raymond Lonergan (h/t)

07 July 2011

Today's Crapfest

Being a Republican, I vote in the Republican primary. Please rest assured that no candidate that signs the idiotic “Candidate Vow” [PDF] put out by the group calling itself “The Family Leader” (and when exactly did “family” become code for bigotry?) is going to get my vote. This anti-science anti-humanity childishly-scribbled screed wants candidates to promise to support the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (which should never have been passed in the first place), to support a Constitutional Amendment redefining marriage as between one man and one woman (and why not add in “of the same race” while you’re at it?), to suppress “all forms of pornography and … abortion” (and to hell with the Bill of Rights, apparently), to reject “Sharia Islam” (which I include only because of the mind-numbing idiocy of the phrase), and to support overpopulation as beneficial to the American way of life.

Nobody who supports the continued over-population of the planet gets my vote. Nobody who calls scientific evidence “anti-science bias” or who uses a phrase like “complete absence of empirical proof” in that context gets my vote. And nobody who thinks that he (or society in general) gets to decide on what consenting adult I choose to marry will ever get my vote.

06 July 2011

Fatherly Advice

Frustration continues, as I try to hack together one or two minor projects for placement somewhere in the vast interwebs of humankind’s collective wisdom/insanity. While trying to find anything new that might be going on on the Patrick Henry front, I stumbled into another one of those noxious collections of pseudo-Christian mock-patriotic quotations, this one of course including the Henry “religionists” and the Madison “ten commandments” frauds. Since where one hoax turns up there are likely to be others, I glanced through the set, hoping for some new gem of fake-oratory or the like, and stumbled on this item, attributed to John Jay:
The Bible is the best of all books, for it is the word of God and teaches us the way to be happy in this world and the next. Continue therefore to read it and to regulate your life by its precepts.
The first thing that bugged me about this one is that it appears to be directed to children, somewhat in the manner of one of Noah Webster’s primers. The second thing was that it didn’t seem much like John Jay—not the John Jay of the Federalist Papers anyway. And the third thing was that I couldn’t find it in any of online editions of Jay’s works.

And gradually, as I idly Googled it, looking for anybody quoting it who actually gave a source (and striking out), it crossed my mind that it seemed familiar. I had an increasingly strong mental image of a document, a scan of an actual manuscript page—not just a transcript of some sort. A father’s words to his son—that was it. But where had I seen it? And more important, when? If this was something I’d seen on microfilm at some far gone time in some distant library and maybe noted down in one of the many notes I lost in storage a couple of years back, my chances of relocating it by that route were slim to none. But it was far more likely that this was something I’d seem relatively recently, online, in one of those amazing digital repositories that are now proliferating. I scurried over to the Columbia University John Jay papers project—and struck out again. Damn.

By this point I was fairly sure that this quotation was legitimate, that I was looking at John Jay’s fatherly advice to his son Peter. The facts were coming back to me a little vaguely, but they were coming back—or so I thought. I decided to dig up my personal fake quotation index and look through it even so—and damned if it wasn’t there, flagged as “genuine”. There was even a link back to the John Jay papers project. So here’s what John Jay wrote to his eight-year-old son, Peter Augustus Jay, on 8 April 1784:
She [your aunt] also tells me that you love your Books, and take great pains to improve yourself. that you daily read in the Bible and have have learned by Heart some Hymns in the Book I sent you. These accounts give me great pleasure, and I love you the more for being such a good Boy.—The Bible is the best of all Books, for it is the word of God, and teaches us the way to be happy in this world and in the other {next}. Continue therefore to read it, and to regulate your Life by its precepts.

05 July 2011

Patrick Henry “Religionists” FAQ

I see that for whatever reason myriads are storming the fort here and over at Fake History regarding something Patrick Henry allegedly said:
There is an insidious campaign of false propaganda being waged today, to the effect that our country is not a Christian country but a religious one—that it was not founded on Christianity but on freedom of religion. It cannot be emphasized too clearly and too often that this great nation was founded, not by “religionists”, but by Christians—not on religion, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.
Regular readers (both of them) are probably sick of this by now, but as questions persist, I’ve thrown together a sort of FAQ on the subject.

Q – When did Patrick Henry say this?

A – He didn’t.

Q – How do you know?

A – Well, first and most important, it isn’t found anywhere in Henry’s known letters, or in the fragments of recovered and reconstructed speeches.

Q – Couldn’t he have said it anyway? Not everything somebody says gets written down, after all. Maybe it was passed down by word of mouth or something.

A – Or maybe he was misquoted. Or maybe it was said by somebody else altogether. People often make mistakes about what other people have said, or attribute something to the wrong person. That’s why giving your source is so important.

Q – I have a source that says he said it. It’s in a book/in a magazine/on a website. Doesn’t that count?

A – Not unless Patrick Henry himself wrote the material in that book, or magazine, or website. That’s why it’s so important to be able to say where he wrote it, or when he said it.

Q – Okay. My mother/my pastor/a book/somebody on the internet says he said it in a speech to the House of Burgesses in May 1765. That ought to be good enough, right?

A – How do we know he said it then and there? Where was it recorded?

Q – Well, they must have kept records, right?

A – Actually, no. Not of the exact speeches, anyway. Remember, there were no recorders, no cameras, no stenographers taking things down as people said it. Sometimes the text of a speech made it into print—more often not. In Patrick Henry’s case, only one speech from May 1765 is on record, and only a fragment of that. And that’s the famous (reconstructed) “if this be treason” exchange.

Q – And this wasn’t part?

A – No.

Q – But I’ve seen the date 1774 for it—also 1776. Couldn’t one of those be right?

A – Again you have the same problem. Where was it recorded? How do we know it was Patrick Henry who said it, and not some other person?

Q – Well, but people have been saying Henry said it for generations. When something’s been passed down by tradition, different rules apply, right?

A – There are two things wrong with that. Traditional evidence is evaluated in the same way as other evidence—and the pseudo-Henry quotation has not been passed down by tradition. It was first attributed to Henry in the 1980s.

Q – What do you mean about evaluating traditions like other evidence? How is that possible?

A – First, there is the matter of external attestation. How old is the tradition? How likely were the transmitters to know what they were claiming? Things like that. Second, there is internal evidence. Does the tradition jibe with things we know about the period from which it is supposed to have come? The pseudo-Henry quotation fails on both fronts.

Q – Well, how old is this tradition?

A – The oldest claimed source for these words as Henry’s is a book called God’s Providence in American History published in 1988 by Steve C. Dawson. It’s a long time between Dawson and Henry, and there’s no obvious chain of custody to get it there.

Q – What about the internal evidence?

A – The words don’t belong to Patrick Henry’s time. The phrase “false propaganda” for example was common from the early twentieth century on, but was unknown in Henry’s time. The author refers to “this great nation”—a nation that in Henry’s time had yet to come into existence. And “peoples of other faiths” would not be “afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here” until much later. There was no “freedom of worship” for most of the country at the time Henry is alleged to have said this.

Q – Still, if you can’t say where it did come from, I’m still entitled to quote it as Henry’s, right?

A – Not unless you have a source for it.

Q – I have lots of sources for it—websites, politicians, evangelists—don’t they count for anything?

A – You only need one source for it—the book Henry wrote, the speech he made, the letter he sent where those words appear. Otherwise you got nothing.

Q – Well, but you’ve got nothing to back your claim either.

A – Uh, actually I do. In point of fact the words were originally written in the April 1956 issue of The Virginian in a brief item about—not by—Patrick Henry. Not that that matters. The burden of proof is always on the person making the positive claim.

Q – So if you didn’t need to show where it came from, why did you?

A – It amused me at the time, and I had nothing better to do.

04 July 2011

Independence Day Oration

[by John Phoenix, 1865]

Brother soldiers and fellow citizens:—I feel honored by the call that I have received and accepted to deliver on this great occasion, the glorious anniversary of our nation’s independence, the customary oration. … It is the Fourth of July. This morning, at half-past two o’clock, every inhabitant of this great, free, and enlightened republic, amounting in number to several millions, was awakened from a sleep by the discharge of cannon, the explosion of fire-crackers, and the continued and reiterated shouts of little boys, and children of larger growth. From that time until four o’clock sleep has been rendered impossible, and every inhabitant of this republic has had an opportunity to reflect with gratitude and thankfulness on the wisdom of our progenitors, and the greatness of our institutions; until at that hour the bells of every church, meeting-house, factory, steam-boat, and boarding-house throughout the land, beginning to pour forth a merry and universal peal, joining in the glad anthem of our nation's independence, every citizen has got up, put on his pantaloons, taken a cock-tail, and commenced the celebration of the day in good earnest.

Throughout our whole vast extent of country, from Hancock Barracks, Houlton, Maine, where they pry the sun up in the morning, to Fort Yuma on the Colorado River, where the thermometer stands at 212° in the shade, and the hens lay hard hard-boiled eggs, this day will be a day of hilarity, of frolicking and rejoicing. Processions will be formed, churches will be thronged, orations will be delivered, (many of them, possibly, of a superior character to this of mine,) the gallant militia, that right arm of our national defence, will pervade the streets in astounding uniforms, whereof it may be said that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Small boys will fire pistols and burn their fingers; large boys will fire cannon and blow off their arms; men will guzzle inebriating liquors, and become much intoxicated thereby; and a mighty shout will go up from the land, which, if the wind happens to be in the right direction, will cause the Emperor Alexander to tremble in his boots, and the young Napoleon to howl in his silver cradle. For on this day the great American eagle flaps her wings, and soars aloft, until it makes your eyes sore to look at her, and looking down upon her myriads of free and enlightened children, with flaming eye, she screams, “E Pluribus Unum”, which may be freely interpreted, “Aint I some?” and myriads of freemen answer back with joyous shout: “You are punkins!”

Emigration from Great Britain and other countries then commenced, and continued to a tremendous extent, and all our fore-fathers, and eight grandfathers, came over and settled in the land.
They planted corn and built houses, they killed the Indians, hung the Quakers and Baptists, burned the witches alive, and were very happy and comfortable indeed. So matters went on very happily, the colonies thus formed owing allegiance to the government of Great Britain until the latter part of the eighteenth century, when a slight change took place in their arrangements. The king of Great Britain, a Dutchman of the name of George Guelph, No. 3, having arrived at that stage of life when Dutchmen generally, if at all inclined that way, naturally begin to give way to ill-temper and obstinacy, became of a sudden exceedingly overbearing and ill-disposed toward the colonies. He had offenders sent to England to be tried; he was down on a bank and a protective tariff, and began to be considered little better than an abolitionist. He also put in effect an ordinance called the Stamp Act, which prevented applause in places of public amusement, prevented the protection of cattle against flies, and interfered with the manufacture of butter; and he finally capped the climax of his audacious impositions by placing such a tremendous duty on tea, that our female ancestors could not afford to drink that exhilarating beverage. Our ancestors were patient and long-suffering, but they could not stand every thing.

By this time it suddenly occurred to some of the smartest of our respectable ancestors that it was a good long way to the little island of England, that there was a good many people in the provinces, and that perhaps they were quite as able to govern themselves as George Guelph No. 3 was to govern them. They accordingly appointed delegates from the various Provinces or States, who, meeting together in Philadelphia on the fourth day of July, 1776, decided to trouble the King of England no longer, and gave to the world that glorious Declaration of Independence, to the support of which they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. This was the birth-day of Freedom—the birth-day of the United States, now eighty years of age; and as there are few of us but feel some inclination to celebrate our own birth-day, there can be little wonder that we celebrate the birth-day of our country in so joyous, earnest, and enthusiastic a manner.

Love of country is strongly impressed on every mind; but, as Americans, we should and in fact do have this feeling more strongly developed than any other citizens of the world. For our country is a free country; its institutions are wise and liberal, and our advantages as its natives are greater than those of other citizens. …Upon the whole, I believe that a man has quite as much chance for a life of happiness if born under the glorious stars and stripes as if he happened to be born anywhere else, and perhaps a little more. We elect our own rulers, and make our own laws, and if they don’t turn out well, it’s very easy at the next election to make others in their place. … I do not wish to flatter this audience; I do not intend to be thought particularly complimentary; but I do assure you, that there is not a man present who, if he had votes enough, might not be elected president of the United States. And this important fact is the result not so much of any particular merit or virtue on your part, as of the nature of our glorious, liberal, republican institutions.

In this great and desirable country, any man may become rich, provided he will make money; and man may be well educated, if he will learn, and has money to pay for his board and schooling; and any man may become great, and of weight in the community, if he will take care of his health, and eat sufficiently of boiled salmon and potatoes.

Moreover, I assert it unblushingly, any man in this country may marry any woman he pleases—the only difficulty being for him to find any woman that he does please.

Washington has been called the “Father of his country;” … He was twice elected President of the United States by the combined Whig and Know-Nothing parties, the Democrats and Abolitionists voting against him; and served out his time with great credit to himself and the country—drawing his salary with a regularity and precision worthy all commendation.

Although, for the time in which he lived, a very distinguished man, the ignorance of Washington is something perfectly incredible. He never travelled on a steam-boat; never saw a railroad, or a locomotive engine; was perfectly ignorant of the principle of the magic of the magnetic telegraph; never had a daguerreotype, Colt’s pistol, Sharp’s rifle, or used a friction match. He eat his meals with an iron fork, never used postage-stamps on his letters, and knew nothing of the application of chloroform to alleviate suffering, or the use of gas for illumination. Such a man as this could hardly be elected president of the United States in these times, although, it must be confessed, we occasionally have a candidate who proves not much better informed about matters in general.

Washington died from exposure on the summit of Mount Vernon, in the year 1786, leaving behind him a name that will endure forever, if posterity persist in calling their children after him to the same extent that has been fashionable. He is mentioned in history as having been “first in peace, first in war, and first in the hearts of his countrymen;” in other words, he was No. 1 in every thing, and it was equally his interest and his pleasure to look out for that number, and he took precious good care to do so. … A monument has been commenced in the city of Washington to his memory, which is to be five hundred feet in height; and it should be the wish of every true-hearted American that his virtues and services may not be forgotten before it is completed; in which case, their remembrance will probably endure forever.

In future times, when by some impartial historian the present Oregon war is faithfully depicted, posterity, as it peruses the volume, will drop a tear o'er the picture of the sufferings of those noble volunteers that wallowed in the Walla Walla valley, and their intrepid march into that country, and their return, will excite a thrill of admiration as an adventure never equaled even by Napoleon H. Bonaparte, when he effected the passage of the Alps.

But the war will soon be ended; it is even now drawing to a close. The completion of the Pacific railroad, which may be looked upon as certain in the course of the next fifty years, increasing our facilities for transportation of arms and supplies, will undoubtedly have a most favorable effect; and I look upon it as a matter of little doubt that, three or four hundred years from this time, hostilities will have ceased entirely, and the Indians will have been liberally treated with, and become quiet and valuable members of our society. … Four hundred years from this time, the descendants of Kamiakin will be celebrating with our posterity the recurrences of this glorious day, with feelings of interest and delight. While to-day that great chief, moved by feelings of animosity toward us, sits and gnaws the gambrel-joint of a defunct Cayuga pony, little knowing on which side of his staff of life the oleaginous product of lactation is disseminated. But long after that time shall arrive, centuries and centuries after our difficulties shall have been settled, and the scrip, with accumulated interest, paid, may our glorious institutions continue to flourish, may the Union be perpetuated forever in perfect bonds of strength and fraternal affection, and the
Star-spangled banner continue to wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

03 July 2011

Constant Interruptions in a Sea of Crap

Every time I drift away from the mindscum principle I end up regretting it, and this July seems to be no exception. I had some thoughts—if that’s not too grandiose a term for a few disjointed and random reflections—about the birth of my nation, as seen from the perspective of its decline and fall, and I had them fitted into a scheme with themes for each of the first four days of July, but nothing is working out. The first day of July was filled with constant interruptions, and what I thought I would post early never got posted at all. The second day got aborted in an orgy of food and irrelevant festivities.

I’ve lost whatever impulse I’ve ever had to write this third day of July in the twelve thousand eleventh year of the Holocene Era. The question that keeps going through my head as I try to keep up with the noxious fumes that pass for news in the vast sea of crap that is the internet is—what the fuck? The writers I read are all obsessed with L’Affaire Elevator-Guy, my fellow-Republicans (and I hereby denounce you all) are intent on destroying the nation that supports them and allows them to thrive, and that nation is spending its blood and treasure on foreign wars of no obvious utility. And all of this is nothing but smoke-and-mirrors, meaningless sideshows to the main event—the suicide of the only species on earth capable of appreciating the universe, in any abstract sense, that is.

We’re flunking our first test as an intelligent matter-manipulating species—a species in control of its own destiny. I get that microbes will eat up their surroundings until there is nothing more to eat and then perish. They’re microbes, damn it, brainless, senseless, barely a notch above the fucking rocks. They don’t know any better. We do. We’ve always known better than our behavior. When Euro-Americans were slaughtering the indigenous peoples and piously pretending that it was God’s doing, not theirs, there were people like John Beeson to point out that their excuses were a load of shit, empty self-serving mutterings and shriekings used to keep common sense at bay. When the United States embarked on its imperial adventure in the Philippines under the guise of a noble quest to aid an oppressed people there were people like Mark Twain to call its bluff and show the enterprise for what it was. And we know now that our primary energy source—the one that allows us to exist in the billions on the surface of our planet—is running out. We know that one of the consequences of exploiting it recklessly is increasing heat here where we live. We have this amazing material, the residue of organisms that have lived and died in their millions before us, our stored capital as it were—and we can think of nothing better to do with it than burn it. We know that we cannot feed the people who are already here without some major new influx of energy—and yet we do nothing to solve our problems, nothing but hysterically deny the very existence of what is right in front of us. We are the actual embodiment of the fictional lemmings—the creatures who periodically destroy themselves by rushing into the sea and drowning themselves in large numbers. This is a test, damn it—God’s test for us, if you like—and we’re flunking it big time.

Happy Independence Day.

02 July 2011

Guns, Bells, and Bonfires

The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

Of course if John Adams had had his way we would have been celebrating with our Guns, Bells, and Bonfires in December or so. If independence had been declared seven months earlier, he bitched, we could already “have formed Alliances with foreign States.—We should have mastered Quebec and been in Possession of Canada”. Unfortunately “Hopes of Reconciliation, which were fondly entertained by Multitudes of honest and well meaning tho weak and mistaken People” needlessly delayed the declaration—well, not needlessly, as it gave time to “cement the Union, and avoid those Heats and perhaps Convulsions which might have been occasioned, by such a Declaration Six Months ago….” With this attitude it’s perhaps not surprising that British loyalist and military historian Charles Stedman described him (along with Benjamin Franklin and Edward Rutledge) as a man “whose principles were violent in the extreme, and who sought every opportunity of reducing the parent-state to humiliating and mortifying situations.”

Quotation of the Day

Suspending Halperin only reinforces a phony definition of “civility” in our discourse, in which it’s unacceptable to use foul language and be “uncivil,” but it’s perfectly acceptable for reporters and commentators to allow outright falsehoods to pass unrebutted; to traffic endlessly in false equivalences in the name of some bogus notion of objectivity; and to make confident assertions about public opinion without referring to polls which show them to be completely wrong.

01 July 2011

Eighteenth Century Talking-Points

When, during the Wilson-Palmer saturnalia of oppressions, specialists in liberty began protesting that the Declaration plainly gave the people the right to alter the government under which they lived and even to abolish it altogether, they encountered the utmost incredulity. On more than one occasion, in fact, such an exegete was tarred and feathered by shocked members of the American Legion, even after the Declaration had been read to them. What ailed them was simply that they could not understand its Eighteenth century English.
When the Committee of Five delegated the drafting of a declaration of the American colonies’ independence from Great Britain to Thomas Jefferson in June of 1776 they had no way of knowing that this “audacious paper” (as one critic called it) was going to become a foundational document for a new nation. And not just a new nation—a new kind of nation, a nation governed not by a executive answerable to a supernatural being seen by no-one, but rather a nation governed by the consent of its citizens as Hobbes or Locke or whoever had it, or in Mencken’s paraphrase, “people ought to choose the kind of government they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter.”

Theorists had talked up the concept for a long time, but nobody’d ever really put in into practice, as the American colonists were threatening. And it could easily have gone the other way. Robert Sobel’s brilliant For Want of a Nail looks at it from exactly that viewpoint—as a historian might look on it if the revolution had been lost.
A five man committee … was established to draw up a bill of charges against the King and a Declaration of Independence. The former resembled the one presented to King Charles I by the revolutionaries of his day; the latter was an eloquent restatement of contemporary French radical philosophy regarding the rights of man … a thinly disguised play to win further support from French intellectuals. In sum, the Declaration was more a political and propaganda vehicle than a serious attempt to state radical philosophy.
For its purposes, it didn’t really have to be anything more than “a political and propaganda vehicle”. The amazing thing is that this occasional document in fact does resonate (regardless of the distortion) down the corridors of time. No guarantees of course—look what happened to Menander, after all. Two centuries is nothing in the long view. But a great many documents haven’t had half the resonance.

Mind you, a big chunk of the document is taken up with comparative trivia—long-forgotten grievances it takes a history buff to explain. “He [King George] has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary, for public good.” “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.” “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out our substance.” (In Mencken’s restatement these come out “He vetoed bills in the Legislature that everybody was in favor of, and hardly nobody was against,” “He made the Legislature meet at one-horse tank-towns, so that hardly nobody could get there and most of the leaders would stay home and let him go to work and do things like he wanted,” and “He made a lot of new jobs, and give them to loafers that nobody knowed nothing about, and the poor people had to pay the bill, whether they could or not.”)

John Lind, an English writer who took it on himself to reply to the statement, was scathing about swarms of officers.
To articles, thus generally worded, it is not always easy to give an answer. In the instance before us, however, we are under no difficulty. The “multitude of new offices created, and the swarms of officers sent over to America” under the present reign, consist, first, in a Board of Customs; and secondly, in additional Courts of Admiralty. … They forgot to tell us, that no new power is given to these officers; that the Board of Customs continues to exercise only the same power, that the English Commissioners had always exercised; that the new Courts of Admiralty continue to exercise only the same powers, as had been always attributed to the antient Courts. They forgot to tell us, that the salaries of the officers of the four new Courts of Admiralty are fixed; can never vary: that these salaries arise, in the first place, from the produce of the forfeitures; that if any deficiency remain, that deficiency is made good out of the produce of the old naval stores: they forgot to tell us, that this is a fund purely British: they forgot to point out to us how beneficial an improvement Was hereby made on the institution of the ancient Courts of Admiralty. They forgot to tell us, that the salaries of the officers of the ancient Courts were not limited: that they arose entirely from a certain rate assessed upon the forfeitures; were the forfeitures many and considerable? the salaries rose;—were they few and inconsiderable? the salaries fell.—See now the mighty injury done to the Colonies: Justice is brought home to them: the means of acquiring it are at hand, and cheap. The temptations to injustice removed from the officers. To the salary of the officers no honest citizen in America is to contribute. Of one class of people, and of one only, can they devour the subsistence. Will the Americans confess, that the class of smugglers is so numerous in that country, as to entitle them to be called—by way of eminence—the people?
Ah, but that’s not where the Declaration of Independence shines. No, it’s the opening statement of the revolutionary principle that the people have the right to determine what government is best for them, to tinker with it, to change it, or to abolish it if necessary, that is what stands out. Sure, it was a convenient principle for a gang of revolutionaries out to sever their relationship with the nation that brought them up. Okay, it was self-serving. But it was more than that. It gave a clear statement of the basic function of government, and thereby gave a way of evaluating whether and how well a given government was in fact carrying out its function. And it asserted that people could, in the event of failure, change that government.

Among the things that government was supposed to secure for its people were “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (or in Mencken’s translation “every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time whichever way he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else”). John Lind, predictably, scoffed at the entire concept:
The rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—by which, if they mean any thing, they must mean the right to enjoy life, to enjoy liberty, and to pursue happiness—they “hold to be unalienable” This they “hold to be among truths self-evident.” At the same time, to secure these rights, they are content that Governments should be instituted. They perceive not, or will not seem to perceive, that nothing which can be called Government ever was, or ever could be, in any instance, exercised, but at the expence of one or other of those rights.— That, consequently, in as many instances as Government is ever exercised, some one or other of these rights, pretended to be unalienable, is actually alienated.

In these tenets they have outdone the utmost extravagance of all former fanatics. The German Anabaptists indeed went so far as to speak of the right of enjoying life as a right unalienable. To take away life, even in the Magistrate, they held to be unlawful. But they went no farther, it was reserved for an American Congress, to add to the number of unalienable rights, that of enjoying liberty, and pursuing happiness;—that is,—if they mean any thing,—pursuing it wherever a man thinks he can see it, and by whatever means he thinks he can attain it:—That is, that all penal laws—those made by their selves among others—which affect life or liberty, are contrary to the law of God, and the unalienable rights of mankind:—That is, that thieves are not to be refrained from theft, murderers from murder, rebels from rebellion.
Yeah, talking-points. What would we do without them?
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