06 December 2012

Quotation of the Day

I’ve been having some … oh, call it “nuanced views” of our hallowed Freedom of  Speech in the past year or so.

I feel strongly that all we INDIVIDUALS must have it. But I’m feeling less and less that any entity other than an individual human should be granted that same freedom. That Constitutional rights were never intended to be granted to corporations and companies, to THINGS.

05 December 2012

Time Out in the Great Beyond

When I was a child there were certain records we weren’t allowed to touch. We had a cornucopia of recordings of all kinds—45s, LPs, 78s, 7ips reel-to-reel tapes—that we could play, but there were a handful that were off limits. Most of them belonged to my mother, and, frankly, most of them didn’t interest me—Edith Piaf, Django Reinhardt, and the like. But there was one that did—a jazz album called Time Out featuring jazz pianist Dave Brubeck.

My musical interests as a young person were primitive, bizarre, and eclectic. I liked things that stood out from the ordinary wash of music that formed the background track to our suburban post-WWII lives. The rock n roll that enamored the kids I went to school with left me cold. I liked stuff that incorporated noise, unusual instruments, exotic-sounding rhythms…

It was probably the unusual time-signatures that made me like Time Out. Most of everything playing on the radio was in the same 4/4 time, with with occasional 3/4, 6/8, or 2/4 thrown in. The 5/4, 9/8, and alternating signatures were interesting, at least, and the feeling that the music gave at times that it was just about to head over the edge into pure madness, was, well, refreshing.

For reasons that remain obscure to me I didn’t ever buy my own copy of it on vinyl, though I did acquire some other Dave Brubeck albums. I bought my first copy of Time Out decades later, when the CD era was upon us, and I replaced a lot of my old vinyl, and consciously sought out music I’d liked but never owned. I still enjoy it, even though I’ve long given up my childish ambition of playing piano like Brubeck.

Anyway, I see in the news that Dave Brubeck has passed on. His heart stopped earlier today on his way to a doctor’s appointment. Tomorrow will be his 92nd birthday. Damn it.

04 December 2012

Quotation of the Day

Let us be clear what is going on. The oligarchy thinks that money spent on old and poor and sick people is money that they could have instead. They have long had their eyes on cutting spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other government services and regulatory agencies so that the savings generated could be used to continue their tax cuts or give them even more. In addition, they have long wanted to get their hands on the Social Security trust funds to invest in the modern casino that is the stock market. Such a massive influx of capital will undoubtedly boost stock prices and make a lot of wealthy people even more wealthy. Hence we see the repeated calls for the privatization of Social Security, the raising of the age for eligibility for Social Security and Medicare, and cuts in government programs and services. In this ‘debate’, they are aided by the media in that a proposal is only described as ‘serious’ and even ‘courageous’ if it harms a lot of poor and vulnerable people…

02 December 2012

The Perils of Research

So, it seems that Chris Rodda has got her copy of the new edition of David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies only to find that not only was it not published by a bigger outfit than Thomas Nelson, not only did it not contain the promised pages of new documentation for his outlandish claims, but it wasn’t even a new edition. Yes, the new edition of Barton’s work announced at Amazon was nothing but leftover copies of the Thomas Nelson edition. Chris Rodda went over it page by page and literally nothing had been changed.

God, what a disappointment. I feel quite confident that those couple dozen pages of documentation would have cleared everything up, made it all plain, and revealed to us that what he was writing was actually reasonable, rather than a dish of moldy cabbage that somehow got pushed to the back of the refrigerator. Research is like that sometimes; you expect a diamond and you get cubic zirconium; you expect enlightenment and you get Carlos Castaneda’s dissertation.

Think of the feelings of those Beatle enthusiasts when the long-lost first recording of “Please Please Me” turned up (in the back of somebody’s closet as I recall. No, that was the newspaper I kept of the first landing on the moon …) It should have been a slower, blusier, Roy Orbisonesque arrangement—but instead it was essentially identical to the version found on their second single. (The drummer was different—the moody magnificent Pete Best had been replaced by some interloper—but the same essential feel.) That must have been a real disappointment—it was for me, anyway. And so the slow version recedes into the mists of prehistory, an artefact like Jane Austen’s First Impressions, intriguing to think about, but perpetually out of reach.

Am I making sense this first Sunday of Advent in the year twelve thousand twelve of the Holocene era? I doubt it very much. We live in senseless times. Uganda fires a blow in the War on Xmas with a promise of new anti-gay laws in time for the holidays—as if the old ones weren’t severe enough. Republicans in the US Congress unveil more plans to increase the wealth of the idle bloodsucking class (or “job-creators” as they like to ironically call themselves) by robbing the nation pension fund that employees have paid into all their lives. We live in senseless times; why should I be immune to the zeitgeist?

And speaking of senseless, ever tried to follow a David Barton footnote? Footnotes are supposed to be helpful guides pointing to sources, not joke roadsigns that point you to nowhere, or useless decorations put in to give the appearance of research in the absence of evidence. Of course real research takes you off those convenient well-lit roads into the shadowy hinterland of unexamined sources. You read that such-and-such paper had a reporter at the front, you open the crumbling pages with excitement—and it turns out that the so-called reporter was only sending out political diatribes from a point some fifty miles away from the scene of action. Can’t be helped; research is like that.

Many years ago I spent considerable time and money running down a copy of the first (unrevised) edition Alfred Meacham’s Wigwam and War Path only to find that there really was no such thing. The so-called first edition is nothing but early copies of the supposedly revised edition with an errata sheet and no signature on the author’s picture in the front of the volume. There are numerous minor corrections throughout, some of which are identical to those on the errata sheet, and some of which are not, but it is manifestly the same edition, and the editorial confusion that is manifest in the volume is the same no matter which printing you use. That was a disappointment—but, as I say, research is all too often like that.

So, to recap on the David Barton saga: first, when Thomas Nelson pulled The Jefferson Lies for its inaccuracies, Barton announced that he had a bigger publisher for the book, and that it would be new and improved. Second, when a new edition was announced, the new publisher is (apparently) Barton himself, through his own Wallbuilders press. Third, when the book is actually delivered, it turns out to be published by Thomas Nelson, not by a new and bigger publisher, and it is the same old book, not new and improved. Pretty much a clean miss all the way around.

01 December 2012

Quotation of the Day

Many mysteries remain about the origins of the universe; how rapidly it has expanded, and how all the atomic parts fit together. There is a lot left to learn. But not about whether or not the universe was created in seven days. It wasn’t. Rubio is wrong—it is not a dispute for theologians. It is not a dispute at all.
There are not two sides to every issue. Some have thirteen sides and others have one.
Michael Specter (“Mario Rubio Needs Evolution”)
(h/t Paul Fidalgo)

10 November 2012

Quotation of the Day

It long has been my opinion that, sooner or later, it is the responsibility of the Democratic party to the future of the republic and the political commonwealth to beat the Republicans so badly in so many areas that the Republicans are faced with a choice of either historical irrelevance, or wringing the craziness out of their party by enforcing a set pf party orthodoxy that does not include creationism, gay-bashing, anti-science lunacy, and the crackpot economic theory that has infected the party ever since Arthur Laffer found that cocktail napkin in the airport bar. Until that glorious day when we have proportional voting, viable third parties, and sparkling white unicorn ponies, like it or not, the Democratic party is the only political institution capable of doing that job. That it largely has shirked that job ever since the first time somebody yelled “peacenik!” at it in the late autumn of 1972 does not make the job less real, or the urgency of doing it less immediate.

09 November 2012

Quotation of the Day

Any ideology based on the premise that facts don’t count will eventually fail. You can coast for a while on false beliefs, just as you can drive for hundreds of miles with a faulty gas gauge. But there comes a point when the tank runs dry and the best bullshit in the world won’t convince that engine to turn over. Fortunately for us, the Romney machine sputtered and died before it was able to roll over the entire nation and run the ship of state aground.
Steven “DarkSyde” Andrew

05 November 2012

A Horse Race and a Hanging

A reader signing himself Harley writes in response to my account of the reporters’ race to cover the hanging of the Modoc leaders in October 1873 (Dubious Documents: The Unlikely Life of William Drannan):
You suggest that according to Drannan’s story of the dispatch race he tried the route that was farther away—you suggest this as Ashland, Oregon, the closer location being Yreka Station (I can't find this on modern maps so is this just nearby Yreka?) Drannan's account of the dispatch race says that it was from Fort Klamath to either Ashland or Jacksonville. He suggests he went to Ashland because it was closer than Jacksonville. Drannan's numbers state this is 80 miles of trail to Ashland versus 100 miles of wagon road to Jacksonville, modern trails and roads suggest a trip of 70 miles versus 75 to 90 miles so his guesses were accurate enough. Modern day Yreka is not closer than either of these destinations, it is about 100 miles away. If the next account of this story was in 1960 then Drannan's account is the only account that can be considered either first hand, or second hand and alive as an adult at the time. The 1960 account is written solely as a history from someone who was probably not born at the time of the events.
Okay, reader Harley has in fact caught me out in a major inaccuracy in my account. You see, I was writing fairly quickly (and entirely from memory) when I wrote that, and I carelessly substituted Yreka for Jacksonville. Yreka, you see, was the town that carried most of the telegraphic correspondence from the front during the Modoc war: government dispatches, reporters’ accounts, and private messages all went out primarily from that location. The hanging, however, was another matter. It took place at Fort Klamath, and the main telegraph station for dispatches from that place was Jacksonville. There are other problems with the story as I related it then, and as there is, as far as I know, no full account of events available either in print or on the internet, I thought I would take a moment to relate the story as it happened, based on contemporary accounts.

But where to start? The Modoc war is not the best known of the conflicts between the invading Euro-Americans and the peoples they found in their path, and it was far from typical, so perhaps a few words are in order about the conflict. The Modoc people lived along the present-day California-Oregon border until 1864, when they were assigned by treaty to Klamath Reservation, and were required to abandon their ancestral lands altogether. Some of them moved there voluntarily in 1867, and the rest were taken there at the end of 1869, but they abandoned the reservation en masse in the spring of 1870. Many, perhaps most, refused to return. In November 1872 a small force of soldiers from Fort Klamath were sent to escort them there, the Modocs resisted, and fled to their traditional stronghold in today’s Lava Bed National Monument. There they holed up, resisting attempts by the army to force them out, and by peace commissioners to entice them to come out voluntarily.

February and March of 1873 were taken up with peace negotiations, and during that time newspaper correspondents set up bases at various army locations, covering the war from there. One of them, Edward Fox of the New York Herald, went so far as to ride into the Modoc encampment during one of the peace conferences to talk with the Modoc leaders, interviewing Captain Jack and John Schonchin among others. Another, H. W. Atwell of the Sacramento Record, spent an uncomfortable night at the Modoc encampment, under threat of death from some of the more volatile warriors, when he accompanied a peace commissioner during some tense negotiations.

These negotiations came to an abrupt end in April, when at a prearranged signal members of the Modoc delegation opened fire on the U. S. representatives, killing two of them and wounding others. When open hostilities resumed immediately after the Modocs were driven from their lava stronghold into the open, where they split up into small bands and were captured. Those who had taken part in the murders under a flag of truce were put on trial in July and six of them were sentenced to be hanged. Two of the sentences were commuted to life imprisonment at the last moment, but Captain Jack, John Schonchin, Black Jim, and Boston Charley were in fact hanged on 3 October 1873.

The major newspapers sent out reporters to cover the event. Fox and Atwell returned, and the San Francisco Chronicle sent out a newcomer to the scene, H. S. Shaw. (The Chronicle’s coverage had been somewhat inconsistent since its original reporter, Robert Bogart, was driven from the scene when his coverage was deemed too favorable to the Modocs.) The powerful Associated Press (not the current outfit of that name), usually represented by a reporter from the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, was conspicuous by its apparent absence.

None of the reporters took note of a Jacksonville teamster named William Turner who was working at the fort. Had they known his background, however, they might have smelt a rat. Turner was a former editor of a Jacksonville newspaper, the Oregon Sentinel, and he was not there by chance. The San Francisco Evening Bulletin had hired him to represent the interests of the press association.

Fox’s coverage was probably the most thorough, including a review of the major events of the war and final interviews with the Modoc leaders, in addition to an account of the execution itself. But the execution was the notable event, and all reporters wanted to be the first to get the news out. Being first was critical in more than one sense; it took time to telegraph information, and there was only one key available at Jacksonville; whoever got there first would quite possibly keep possession of the key long enough to keep his rivals’ stories out of the papers till the next day.

Fox’s preparations were formidable: he had nine horses spaced out along the ninety-mile road to Jacksonville, and three couriers to carry the message. He also had a secret weapon the others didn’t know about; he planned to send a dispatch describing the preliminaries first, before the execution, to seize control of the key, to which his account of the execution would be added, so that even if another reporter’s courier got their before his second message, his account would still go out first. (He had not reckoned on the local power wielded by the Associated Press, however, as we will see.)

Against this the other two reporters openly on the scene sought alternatives. Atwell decided to try for Ashland, which was closer, but the road was little better than a trail in some places, and it would be difficult to make good time. Like Fox, he set up a chain of horses and couriers along his route, and prepared for the event. Shaw decided to try for Yreka, sending his account there by carrier pigeon.

Turner kept his preparations as private as possible. He arranged secretly to clear an old trail, once used to bring supplies to the fort from Jacksonville, but now abandoned. Like the others he had multiple horses and couriers to carry his report of the execution along his chosen path. Unlike the others, he was not concerned with creating a comprehensive report, but only in getting the news of the hanging out first.

The hanging of the Modoc leaders has been described many times since then, both by eyewitnesses and by those attempting to make sense of events, but these four reporters were among the first to attempt it, and certainly were the first to get their versions into print. The events were simple enough. The troops assembled to escort them at 8:30 in the morning, at 9:30 the prisoners were brought forth, by 9:50 they were placed on the gallows, at 10:00 the sentence was read, at 10:18 the ropes were adjusted, and by 10:25 it was all over.

The reporters wrote rapidly, standing by their horses, and within minutes the reports were handed to the various couriers and the race was on. Shaw’s pigeons were launched, but seemed clueless about what they were supposed to do, and circled aimlessly about, finally settling on some nearby branches. The rest, however, were more or less successfully on their way.

Fox’s first courier, sent out well in advance with a report covering the previous day’s activities including the complete military orders for the execution, arrived first, and thus gained control of the key as he had planned. He had written “more to come” at the end of the dispatch, to indicate that this was not the complete transmission, and seemingly felt confident that that would be enough to hold the wire for him. The trouble was, Western Union was hopelessly entwined with the Associated Press; its operators had been acting as local stringers for it throughout the war, and operator had orders to send its dispatch through first if at all possible. Both Turner’s agent and Fox’s arrived before Fox’s first dispatch had been concluded, but as Turner’s agent had arrived some thirty minutes before Fox’s, the telegraph operator used that as an excuse to terminate Fox’s story at the “more to come” point, and to send Turner’s account before resuming Fox’s. The result was that Turner’s brief story became the first news of the execution to reach the outside world.

Atwell, who had tried to get his story out via Ashland, fell victim to some extremely bad luck. One of his couriers had an accident on the road and fell off his horse. (According to one account he was inebriated at the time.) This mishap caused his story to be delayed for a further day, putting him squarely behind the others in the race. And to finish things off, Shaw’s pigeons never did make it to Yreka, and his story was apparently lost. He and Fox, however, had an arrangement by which Fox’s courier carried a version of his story to go out on the Jacksonville line. It took the operator there twenty-two hours to transmit all the material provided by the various reporters.

And this, dear readers, is the story of how the news of the Modoc executions first reached the outside world from Fort Klamath. The sources include the reporters’ own accounts in their respective papers, as well as a number of pieces in the Yreka Journal, the Yreka Union, and the Oregon Sentinel. As I said in my original piece, this did make a considerable local stir at the time, but it was barely reported outside the region. In a later piece I intend to cover William F. Drannan’s account with a bit more detail, but this is as much as I can stand to do at the moment. Drannan will have to wait.

04 November 2012

Quotation of the Day

There is a reason why the first thing a historian needs to learn to be a good historian is historiography, also known as the history of history. There is almost no known historical fact and there certainly isn’t any analysis of a historical fact that hasn’t been disputed at least once and, more likely, argued to death by men with beards and an unnatural appreciation for tweed.

Bronze-age Goat-herders My Ass

One of the words I don’t really get is the term “construct” when used as a pejorative noun. This is a scholarly construct some Wikipedia editor will write dismissively in explaining why there should be no article on the Ebionite gospel, or the Ur-Hamlet is nothing but a modern construct.—as though that were a reason for neglecting the evidence on the subject. As Jason Thibeault points out (“Jim Garlow: Sexual orientation is a ‘modern construct’, therefore a choice”) so is gravity a modern construct, but that doesn’t mean that people could float off the earth until Isaac Newton named the force and described it in mathematical terms.

I mean, gee whiz, most things are modern constructs, if they are of any importance. Today’s Puritan Bible—the Hebrew Tanach in the Septuagint order alongside the Greek New Testament writings—is a modern construct. The second law of thermodynamics, so much beloved by the anti-evolution crowd, is a modern construct. The Rapture, for christ’s sake, is a modern construct. While the Rapture is bullshit, the second law of thermodynamics is (as far as I know) still the best scientific approximation of the truth, and the Puritan Bible at least closer to the original texts than its predecessors (though that’s not saying much), all are recent constructs viewed against the long reach of history.

It’s not the recentness of the construct that matters, it is its utility, or its beauty, or its ability to explain the evidence. In the case of the phrase “sexual orientation,” however, we are not even talking about a construct of any sort, but only of a different phrase for something that has been understood for centuries: different people are sexually aroused by different things.

The ancients were quite aware of this fact; there’s nothing new about it. Different things turn different people on. At present we have a more detailed understanding of human sexuality than in ancient times, and we have made categories and lists of the various possibilities; orientation is part of this and refers to the gender to which one is sexually attracted, as in same (homo) or different (hetero). The increasing precision of the terminology may be new, but the knowledge isn’t.

This character that Jason is replying to—apparently his name is Jim Garlow, though I don’t know who that is otherwise—gets the meaning wrong in his little diatribe, by the way; he says that sexual orientation is how one sees oneself, which it most emphatically is not. But that’s only the beginning of his willful ignorance; he’s trying to make a distinction between attraction and practice. As his parallel he claims that every healthy heterosexual male is naturally polygamous, but that these men don’t have to act on that natural desire. Similarly, therefore, just as men who are attracted to women other than their lawfully wedded wives don’t have to act on their attractions, so men who are attracted to other men don’t have to act on theirs. How this bizarre concept is supposed to be any sort of parallel he doesn’t explain. I mean, a man who is attracted to more than one woman can still have sex with somebody, by his reasoning, but who is the other man supposed to have sex with? Or is he supposed to remain celibate? Or what, exactly?

No, Jason nails this one, and I was with him all the way through this paragraph:
Each person in society contributes to the society most optimally when they are healthy, happy and in a career well suited to them. Finding a loving consenting partner (or multiple, if polyamory is allowed for those that so choose) to support you and to provide comfort and yes, even consensual sexual relations, is a big factor in determining whether or not someone will be happy. So it is objectively better for society if people who are naturally gay have all the same recourses toward autonomy, toward self-directed pursuit of happiness as do straights and straight-enoughs.
But then, with his final paragraph, he lost me:
But these people would never see that, because some bronze-age goat herders wove their homophobia into their Bible and said God wrote it.
Oh, man, bronze-age goat-herders? Did you have to go there?

No, no, no… The iron-age urban dwellers who wrote the books that would eventually be incorporated into the bible were far from the bronze-age goat-herders whose lifestyle they idealized (and probably made up). That’s like calling Tennyson a medieval jouster because he liked to write about them. And as for the claim that modern-day homophobes get their fix from the Bible—do they really? Out of that vast collection of noble poetry, blood-drenched history, clever fables and upward of a thousand lies (as one of Mark Twain’s characters put it) there are no more than a few references to homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Romans 1:27), and while they are nasty, they hardly constitute a major theme. One of the indications of just how desperate Bible-believing homophobes are is they way they have read homosexuality into various passages, such as the destruction of the cities of the plain by fire. No, it doesn’t look as if they get it from the Bible; rather they use the Bible as a crutch for their prejudices.

I mean, when was the last time you saw any of them complain about people who reap to the very edges of their fields, not leaving anything for the poor and the alien? But that's in there too; check out Leviticus 23:22. It's in the book, as Johnny Standley used to object to those who didn't believe in the power of Grandma's lye soap.

26 September 2012

Quotation of the Day

If freedom of religion, conscience and speech are to mean anything, religious doctrines, symbols and assertions must be open to inquiry, criticism and, indeed, ridicule. Otherwise, the human thought process will be shut down by force of law in order to protect the sensibilities of the superstitious, and free inquiry into the most central issues facing humanity since the birth of the species will be effectively foreclosed.

23 September 2012

Quotation of the Day

The ‘right to religion’ is meant to be the right to a personal religion and belief. But when religion is part of the state, or judicial system, it is no longer a matter of religious belief but of political power.

In fact, religion in the state, educational system or judicial system is the end of any form of equality, choice, rights, freedoms or democratic politics.

18 September 2012

Quotation of the Day

Libertarians postulate that unfettering everyone’s most self-serving economic motives is the best way to create a vibrant, egalitarian economy, just as unfettering a giant unstable slope of rocks on a steep hillside is the best way to create a stone cathedral at the base of the hill. MRAs hold that men are unfairly treated in today’s world by comparison to women, while simultaneously holding that the subjugation of women is natural and inevitable and no big deal. Libertarianism and MRAism are philosophies that will not withstand honest and rigorous investigation by a moderately bright 7-year-old, in other words, and yet the ranks of skeptics’groups are crawling with both.
Chris Clarke, “Cats, Skepticism, and MRAs

01 September 2012

Thought for the Day

Why would anyone think that an ancient set of works, any ancient set of works, would provide moral guidance on much of anything? The Biblical writers learned their “values” from their culture. That’s how we do it too.

26 August 2012

Like on Sunday

Sitting here, in front of my computer, I feel a sudden jolt of sadness shake me. And then it crosses my mind—it’s sunday. Sunday evening. Hello darkness my old friend; LoS is back. Like on Sunday. A sense of sorrow, of regret, that all good things were coming to an end and there was nothing left to look forward to. In my journal, after trying to explain it a couple of times, I started just saying that I feel “like on sunday”, and then just abbreviating it LoS.

Originally, of course, it was about the weekend—a time that had been so bright with promise friday night reduced to ashes of might-have-beens on sunday. A time when the consequences of procrastination had to be faced and that massive assignment given two weeks ago actually had to be done in a handful of hours. A time when the demons danced and the forces of hell rejoiced.

But for most of my life sunday evening has meant no more than any other time; my schedule is as likely to involve me doing something on the weekend as doing something on weekdays. And yet, still the feeling comes. There is something basic, primeval, in this rhythm of despair. The number of times I’ve had the sense of LoS wash over me on a sunday night cannot be counted.

And therein lies the rub. Cherry-picking, confirmation bias, all that sort of thing. Does LoS really happen on schedule, appearing on the summons of a long-ago school schedule? Being more than usually self-obsessed I’ve actually kept records of this feeling, along with other irrational shafts of displeasure, and—at least while I was actually keeping the record—discovered that LoS was no more likely to happen on a sunday evening than at any other time. Nor was I particularly prone to it on a sunday. I just notice it more, apparently, when it does come then.

And yet—and yet it feels to me as if it does. Many times, like the bolt from the blues just now, I have felt the familiar stroke of a minor chord across the strings of my spirit and believed myself to be participating in a long-dead ritual set in the stones of my childhood and mindlessly perpetuated by some sort of cosmic clock. But it probably isn’t. Far more likely it is nothing more than the consequence of a choice of label given when groping for a shorthand to describe a nameless impression a long time ago.

27 July 2012

Quotation of the Day

Tilting the playing field in favor of the established rich at the expense of small businesses, tax payers, along with fair competition and brilliant innovation, is not a bug, this a feature of modern day conservative policy. The conservative CEO class has looted the nation for three decades under that policy. With President Mitt Romney they can dream of one more big score, but they can absolutely count one of their own to help pull up the ladder and give them and their spoils safe passage to the gleaming offshore paradises that await, when the jig is finally up.

23 July 2012

Thought for the Day

I wish people could be OK with that, with the fact that religion isn't true. After all, they can still go to church. They can still pray. They can still observe the rituals and special days. They can still read holy books and discuss teachings. They can still imagine heaven. They can still contemplate hell. They can still fantasize about knowing, all by themselves, deep secrets of the universe.

Religion does not need to be true for people to be interested in it, inspired by it, educated by it, moved by it. But it needs to be true if people are going to learn about the universe and about people.

And it's not true, so let's not ask it to be, and let's not try to extract knowledge where there is none to be had.

03 July 2012

Quotation of the Day

A government with the power to force us to buy health insurance can also force restaurants to serve black people.
Bruce Bartlett as quoted by Andrew Sullivan

30 June 2012

Time and Timbuktu

Barbarians are smashing the tombs of the Muslim saints in Timbuktu, and nobody gives a shit. Certainly I don’t; it’s not my field. And they aren’t my saints—and I wouldn’t care if they were. Hell, you could drag the bones of Galileo and Samuel Clemens and Martin Luther King about the streets and have one merry old celebration desecrating them and it wouldn’t bother me any; let the dead take care of the dead as some old wise guy once said. You could do the same with my bones for that matter, once I’m dead and not using them any longer. It’s all one to me.

I care more about the old libraries of Timbuktu, though it’s still not my field and I couldn’t read them if I had them sitting right here in front of me. So far, if the reports be true, the old documents with their ghosts of the thoughts of the dead and forgotten are safe; the barbarians care nothing about them. But that’s the thing—who knows what a barbarian will choose to destroy next? That’s the cool thing about barbarism; it takes no effort of any kind to eradicate permanently what generations of human beings have treasured and preserved so that the memory of humankind may be kept to some limited extent alive. It takes effort to remember; none to forget.

We hear that an assault on one of these old shrines was deflected when local citizens formed a human chain to protect it from the vandals. Cynically we may suppose that they were doing it for all the wrong reasons—superstition, fanaticism, tourism. What’s the difference? It’s a magnificent gesture, a finger of light given to the darkness. Inevitably the darkness of oblivion wins, order dissolves into chaos, nothing is left but firefly glow in the darkness. Oblivion is easy; continuity is hard. Which, when you think about it, is why the barbarians can be given no quarter. There is no compromise between existence and non-existence, movement and stillness, light and darkness. Darkness inevitably wins in the long run—but we live in the short run. And there light can prevail. It’s not much—but it’s all we’ve got.

24 June 2012

Quotation of the Day

The handful of men, and smaller number of women, who have spent the last year actively trying to ruin people’s lives, and those who have recently joined them when they realized that their ass-grabbing culture was threatened as well, really have only one motivation: They don’t want to live in a world in which women can tell guys to fuck off without said woman paying a cost of some kind, being put in her place, or a threat being made against her so she will think twice about speaking up in the future.

24 May 2012

Quotation of the Day

If this country actually did have that famous rule of law that we talk so often about, if we actually cared about the UN Convention Against Torture that we pushed through 30 years ago, if we actually gave a damn about torture and human rights as we so often grandly claim to, that trial would have taken place here. But we don’t mean any of those things. We condemn every other nation for doing what we do, then we feign offense at the outrageous suggestion that we are hypocrites. We arrest and prosecute others, like the son of Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, for torture and we issue grandiose statements of our eternal commitment to human rights. That, ladies and gentlemen, is American exceptionalism.

03 May 2012

Quotation of the Day

[R]eason must be the guiding principle of our democracy. In a nation of citizens from so many different backgrounds and beliefs, the only way we can solve our problems is through cultivating intelligent, moral, and ethical interactions among all people.

19 April 2012

Advice from a Flounder

The Cranston prayer banner case has descended from low comedy to outright farce, with a group of Cranston citizens filing a brief to intervene in the case after it had already been decided. For those who aren’t familiar with the case, or maybe don’t remember it (the internet seems to have shortened people’s memories further than ever) let me observe that the city of Cranston, Rhode Island, erected an illegal prayer banner in a local high school half a century ago, and then had the gall to argue that it should be kept up because it had been hanging there (illegally) for a half century. The court ordered them to take it down.

Well now a group of Cranston citizens—the names of these jackasses are Michael Motaranni, Christian Frangos, Olivia Frangos, Carolyn Mesagno, Lori McClain, Jared McMullen and Ronald L’Heureux—are trying to argue that “compelling and dispositive arguments were presented to the Cranston School Committee at the public hearings that were not included in Defendants’ briefs to this Court. Movants believe that these arguments, if considered by this Court, would have resulted in a different ruling.” The judge tersely added, “They are wrong.” Relying on “the Aitken act of 1872 authorizing the use of bibles in all schools in America” Michael Motaranni and his associates argued that virtually every school prayer case has been wrongly decided at least since 1947.

There is an obvious problem with this—several of them, actually. First there is a category error involved here—“authorizing the use of bibles in all schools in America” is not the same thing as authorizing prayer. The bible is a religious text—or rather a collection of religious (and secular) texts held to be sacred by a variety of religious groups. The bible can, in fact, be used in government schools today, as a historic or literary document. Use of the bible in school is not necessarily endorsing one particular religious viewpoint over another.

Prayer, on the other hand, is a religious exercise. There is no such thing as a secular prayer. Any school-sponsored prayer crosses the line that separates spiritual and temporal affairs. Even if “the Aitken act of 1872 authorizing the use of bibles in all schools in America” were in force, it would not be relevant to the issue at hand—state-sponsored prayer.

But where on earth did this crackerjack legal team get the impression that there was an “Aitken act of 1872 authorizing the use of bibles in all schools in America”? What was their source for this erroneous belief? This is what cracks me up about this—this notion goes back to the anonymous internet document sometimes called “History Forgotten” or “Forsaken Roots”. Its author, apparently remembering in a vague and confused way the story of the Aitken Bible, claimed that Congress passed this resolution in 1782:
The Congress of the United States recommends and approves the Holy Bible for use in all schools.
Now when Robert Aitken printed the King James Bible in America for the first time (until the revolution printing it was a Crown monopoly) Congress did in fact pass a resolution approving it and recommending it “to the inhabitants of the United States”. It also authorized him to publicize its recommendation “in the manner he shall think proper.” It did not however authorize “the use of the bible in all schools in America”. That was an error made by the anonymous author of “Forsaken Roots”. He probably had in mind Aitken’s own description of his bible being “for use in schools.” Congress at no time echoed this language, however.

Please note, this is one step lower than relying on the likes of David Barton for ammunition; this is relying on an anonymous internet document, sans documentation, that mistakenly recycled bad Christian Nation arguments into an imaginary act of congress. Pathetic doesn’t begin to describe the case.

16 April 2012

Redefining Marriage: Anyone Can Play

I don’t know how I stumbled onto this story out of Minnesota—I know somebody I read sent me there, but I can’t retrace my steps now—but a Federal judge there sent down this absolutely blistering opinion (Radtke v Local #638 Fund, PDF) against a union’s medical fund that decided on its own bizarre interpretation of state law that a man and his wife were not legally married. The Miscellaneous Drivers and Helpers Union Local #638 Health, Welfare, Eye and Dental Fund denied benefits to Christine Radtke, claiming that she was not legally Calvin Radtke’s spouse. In point of fact Calvin Radtke and his wife Christine were legally married under Minnesota law on 10 August 2005, as the fund in question was fully aware, as they were supplied with copies of the documents in question. But the fund decided that the marriage was not valid because Minnesota law explicitly rejects marriage “between persons of the same sex”. Apparently “Lawful marriage may be contracted only between persons of the opposite sex”.

So how on earth does this affect the Radtkes’ marriage? It is a matter of record that Calvin was recognized as male and Christine as female by the state of Minnesota at the time of their marriage. But the fund argued that as Christine was assigned male at the time of her birth, that should be the governing factor, and their marriage was therefore not valid under Minnesota law.

It was on this point that Judge Michael J. Davis waxed sarcastic, explaining the obvious as though trying to simplify matters so that a two-year-old could understand:
Minnesota’s requirements for the capacity to enter into a marriage contract, by their very nature, apply at the time the marriage is entered into. For example, both parties must have “attained the full age of 18 years.” Minn. Stat. § 517.02. Both parties must not be married to anyone else. Minn. Stat. § 517.03, subd. 1(a)(1). To apply these requirements as of some time other than the time of the marriage would be absurd—divorced individuals would be prohibited from marrying, and adults could not marry because they once were children. There is nothing in Minnesota law indicating that the opposite-sex requirement of § 517.01 should be treated differently from the other capacity requirements. Therefore, the opposite-sex requirement must be determined as of the time of the marriage, rather than as of the time of the participants’ births.
For reasons best known to themselves the Fund’s lawyers chose to drag in various irrelevancies concerning same-sex marriage—how it is seen by the Federal government and the state of Texas, for example. As the Radtkes were not claiming benefits on the basis of a “same-sex marriage” none of this had any conceivable relevance, as the Judge Davis correctly noted. The sole question at issue was whether the state of Minnesota recognized Christine Alisen Jensen as female at the time of her marriage—which it clearly did, as legal documents (including her amended birth certificate) showed, and her status as female was accepted by the IRS, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, and the Social Security Administration.

The summary of the decision reads in part:
The Plan was unambiguously written to allow all persons who are legal spouses under Minnesota law to be eligible family dependents. The Fund’s role was to ascertain Minnesota law. It was not the Fund’s role to impose its own definitions of gender and marriage upon its participants. In this case, the Fund ignored all evidence of the State of Minnesota’s view of Plaintiff’s sex and marital status. The Fund’s decision was not only wrong, under a de novo review, it was a flagrant violation of its duty under any standard of review.
As if to make clear that their redefinition of marriage was not an honest misunderstanding of Minnesota law but only a cloak behind which they were hiding their prejudices, the union fund chose to rewrite its plan explicitly to exclude transgender spouses from all coverage:
[T]he Plan defines a spouse as a male or female member of a legally recognized marriage between a man and a woman. . . . For purposes of deciding whether a marriage is between a man and a woman, in all cases, the Board will only recognize the anatomical sex of the individual at the time of birth.
Nothing like an honest bigot, I guess. George Wallace would be proud.

30 March 2012

Quotation of the Day

The whole goal of denialists is to create the appearance of a legitimate debate when there is in fact no legitimate scientific debate to be had. What is the point of arguing with someone who denies the moon landing? Or evolution? Or that HIV causes AIDS? Or the holocaust? They get real angry when you mention that one as they feel it creates a moral equivalence between the types of denial. But the operative word is “denial”…

26 March 2012

Sympathy for George Zimmerman

You’ve got to feel sorry for poor old George Zimmerman. 26 February 2012 must have been a rough day for him. Think about it. It’s evening and rainy when he sets off on an undisclosed errand completely unrelated to his volunteer work as a neighborhood watchman. We don’t know what his mission is exactly—presumably it isn’t stalking and killing the neighborhood kids—but for some reason it is imperative that he carry his gun with him. On his way there good citizen George spots a “fuckin’ coon” (or “goon” as his black friend insists) clearly up to no good. “A real suspicious guy … on drugs or sump’n … walkin’ around, lookin’ about … starin’ at all the houses ….” Yes, an obvious menace. Curious George decides to follow him, keep an eye on the menacing “asshole” in the gray hoody—it wouldn’t do to let him get away, you know, what with all that walkin’ and lookin’ and starin’. And from his SUV he uses his cell phone to call the emergency in to the authorities.

While he’s doing it the “fuckin’ goon,” also speaking to somebody on his cell phone (ain’t the future grand), spots him and takes a good look at him, then heads off at a brisk pace. “These assholes, they always get away,” George sighs in resignation, as he follows him in his car. Just doing his civic duty, old George is, taking time out from his mysterious mission that somehow involved carrying a gun to stalk a real suspicious guy. Probably on drugs. Or sump’n.

“Shit, he’s runnin’.” Yes, the mysterious stranger in the gray hoody has taken off running. The prophecy turns out true; the asshole is getting away. That’s right, our George has lost his quarry and another “fuckin’ goon” has escaped to look around and walk about and stare at houses another day. What a disappointment for him. While civic-minded George Z makes arrangements to meet an officer that has been dispatched to take care of the emergency he must be regretting the time he’s had to take away from his mission—the one involving the gun. Confused and disoriented he tries to figure out exactly where he is. Unable to read a street sign from inside his car, he steps outside.

Fortunately for him he takes his gun with him. Fortunately, I say, because as he returns to his car he is abruptly confronted by the mysterious hooded stranger that he thought had gotten away.

“What are you following me for?” the stranger demands.

“Hey, do you live here? What are you doing here?” George counters.

Little did he know that the hooded stranger had ninja-like powers—at least that’s the only explanation for what happens next. Somehow the “goon” gets behind him and—despite having a cell phone in one hand and a bag of skittles and a can of iced tea as well—bashes him in the back of the head with some kind of weapon. Helpless, on his back, pinned down by the hooded stranger who weighs a hundred pounds less than he does, George does the only thing he can—he shouts for help, in a voice that sounds strangely unlike his own. No help comes—though people are now frantically dialing 911 in the immediate vicinity. But George doesn’t know this. And that’s when it suddenly occurs to him. He has a weapon.

Yes, fortunately he was carrying his gun on that other errand, the one he was really on when he spotted the “goon” acting suspiciously and walkin’ about. And even more fortunately he had taken it along with him when he went to check out that street sign. Yes, against all reason and odds he actually has it now in his possession—so he falls back on it as a last resort. He draws his gun and shoots the hooded stranger in the chest.

The shot is fatal. It is the one piece of luck old George has had all day—well, unless you count the miracle of his having his gun along with him. And even better, he’s got off from the life-and-death struggle relatively unscathed—a gash in the back of the head and a broken nose. The mysterious stranger in the gray hoody is now lying face down in the grass.

After the adrenaline rush of the fight has passed, surely cold reality must have set in. It must have been a bleak moment for George. The man he’s just killed is young, a teenager, probably a neighborhood kid. George outweighs him by a good hundred pounds. He is unarmed, while George is carrying a gun. And all he has as a defense is a story so implausible that he himself could hardly have believed it if he hadn’t been there—a story with as many holes in it as the Albert Hall (as Nick Danger would put it).

When the police arrive, he does the only thing he can think of. He claims that he was acting in self-defense. It isn’t plausible, as George is on record following the kid; any confrontation will thereby be on his head. But here George Zimmerman really lucks out. You see, Florida has a bizarre law on the books that makes a person “immune from criminal prosecution and civil action” if he claims to have been acting in self-defense. The police “may not arrest the person for using force unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful.” Although the law allows for investigators to “use standard procedures” in looking into such a case, the local police seem to have concluded that it prevented them from making any kind of investigation. They rule it self-defense without even having determined the most basic of facts—such as who the dead boy is. They send him to the morgue as John Doe.

Despite this, however, George’s ordeal is only beginning. You see, the dead boy was indeed part of a local family, a kid named Trayvon Martin, and he was on a mission that rainy evening. He was off to buy Skittles and iced tea before watching a sports event on television. Nothing obviously sinister about it. His record was good, and he was generally liked. His family, his neighbors, other residents of his town, his state, his nation, his world—all find George’s narrative of stalking the teenager and then killing him in self-defense somewhat, well, hard to swallow.

Outrage builds. George hunkers down, hoping things will blow over. Then the first death threats arrive. The police plaintively back him up: He said it was self-defense. Nobody said it wasn’t. Our hands are tied by the state. What else could we do—actually investigate the matter? You have to understand that when a survivor of a fight says he was acting in self-defense, we have no choice but to accept his word for it, no questions asked. It’s the law. Somehow people aren’t buying it. The authorities release his 911 call, along with those of various neighbors. For some reason it only seems to make things worse. People manage to misunderstand George’s affectionate references to “fuckin’ goons” and “assholes” as slurs of some kind. It’s unfair, and damned unfortunate. The police chief steps aside, and outside investigators are brought in. Will they understand the situation the way the local police had?

George examines his options. They are not good. Stalking and then killing a child doesn't look good on your resume, not even when you do it in self-defense. People want blood. His blood. It’s going to take time for people to forget, and for Fox News to spin him into some kind of hero. A modern-day Bernhard Goetz. It looks like his best option is to go into hiding.

I guess you could call it self-defense. Or sump’n.

23 March 2012

Quotation of the Day

...if one is willing to posit interpolations where the manuscript evidence does not show evidence of such interpolation, then one can draw any conclusion. The historian, however, seeks to draw the best conclusion possible based on the evidence we have.

17 March 2012

Quotation of the Day

The tyranny of the legislatures is the most formidable dread at present, and will be for many years. That of the executive will come in its turn; but it will be at a remote period.
Thomas Jefferson (Letter to Madison, 15 March 1789)

16 March 2012

My Crystal Ball Must Have Been Cracked

[From my pre-weblog of 12 April 1995]

There is supposed to be a sort of rip-tide of conservatism sucking the nation down at the moment—so we read in the papers anyway. A veritable conservative revolution is said to be in the works, with Newt Gingrich leading the charge and Rush Limbaugh sounding the bugle. Legions are prepared to reinvent government and create a virtual utopia. Yeah. Sure. I’ll believe it when I see it. So far what do we have to support this notion? Well, we have one slightly-used talk-show host, no different in essence from his predecessors Morton Downy Jr., William F. Buckley, or Paul Harvey. We have one skewed off-year election, characterized by record-low voter turnout, paper-thin victories by a party in the grips of a minority ideology, and all the uncertainties of recent redistricting. And we have an enraged and volatile public, ready to lash out at anything and everybody.

If the conservatives think they’ve tamed that tiger, they’re kidding themselves. When the people figure out that they’ve been conned—and this may not take long if the representatives in Congress continue to vote tax breaks for the rich at the expense of legitimate programs that benefit everybody—they are as likely to turn on them as anybody. Hell with it.

15 March 2012

Some Parody Collections (a list)

Max Beerbohm, A Christmas Garland (1912). Parodies, mainly in prose, of writers like H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Joseph Conrad, and Henry James. Beerbohm is probably the greatest prose parodist writing in English.

Horace and James Smith, Rejected Addresses (1812). Parodies, mainly in poetry, of William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the like. The brothers Smith are very good; some modern parodists have equaled them, none have surpassed them.

Wolcott Gibbs, More in Sorrow (1958). Includes a section of parodies, mostly published earlier in the New Yorker, including those of Ernest Hemingway (“Death in the Rumble-Seat”) and Aldous Huxley (“Topless in Ilium”).

The Hee Bee Gee Bees, 439 Golden Greats (1981). A collection of song parodies, many originally featured on the BBC radio show Radio Active, skewering the Bee Gees, the Eagles, David Bowie, the Police, and others.

Frederick Crews, The Pooh Perplex (1964). A collection of critical reviews of Winnie the Pooh, each a send-up of a particular style of criticism (Marxist, Freudian, Christian (with Eeyore as Christ!), and so on.

Liam Lynch, Fake Songs (2003). It includes superb parodies of Bjork, David Bowie, Depeche Mode, and others.

The Rutles, The Rutles (1978). This is something of an oddity, in that it contains parodies of only one group, the Beatles, more or less tracing their career from covers of the likes of Chuck Berry (“Blue Suede Schubert”) to the psychedelic phase (“Doubleback Alley”) to the end of their career (“Get Up and Go”). Utopia’s album Deface the Music does essentially the same thing.

Bret Harte, Condensed Novels: Second Series (1902). A collection of broad parodies of Anthony Hope (“Rupert the Resembler”), Arthur Conan Doyle (“The Stolen Cigar Case”), Rudyard Kipling (“Stories Three”), and others. Far superior (and generally funnier) than his first collection in the same vein, though the Cooper take-off had some good moments.

Frederick Winsor, The Space Child’s Mother Goose (1958). A collection of Mother Goose rhymes updated for the space age. Thus we have “This is the theory that Jack built,” for example, and “Little Jack Horner / Sits in his corner / Extracting cube roots to infinity, / An assignment for boys / That will minimize noise / And produce a more peaceful vicinity.” Technically burlesques rather than parodies, but still, entertaining as hell.

Randall Garrett, Takeoff! (1980). Includes a section of science fiction parodies, targeting the likes of Isaac Asimov, E. E. Smith, and H. P. Lovecraft.

14 March 2012

Letter from the Future

John McKay, inspired by the vision of the future offered by the Seattle World’s Fair of 1962, has a reply from The Future. Some highlights:
Dear 1962,

This is The Future speaking. You spent a lot of time thinking about me lately. I'm touched. Let me tell you what's happened:

We never got jet packs, flying cars, or a four day work week.

Monorails never caught on.

The president is a black man named Barak Hussein Obama. The governor of Louisiana is an East Indian man named Piyush Jindal.

The last pope was Polish. The current one was a Hitler Youth.

The Americans were the first to put a man on the moon. We were also the last. It's been almost fifty years since anyone has been further than about two hundred miles from Earth.

We finished the Interstate Highway system and now we’re letting it fall apart.

You know all that talk about the inexhaustable food resources of the ocean? We exhausted it.

My car has more computing power than your Pentagon.

The Space Needle is still there. We’re quite fond of it.

Life still goes on.


The Future

13 March 2012

A(n Icy) Blast from the Past

[from Charles William Janson, The Stranger in America (London, 1807):
I was present at a baptism according, as they say, to the doctrine of Saint John, in Rhode Island. The day was one of the severest in the month of January, and in that part of the world it is many degrees colder than in England. The thermometer was, at the time, 10 below 0.

A concourse of people near the water-side attracted my attention. I joined the crowd, and found that it was assembled to witness a baptism by immersion. The ice, which was about a foot thick, had been cut through to the distance of twenty or thirty yards, but so intense was the frost, that some of the elect were obliged, with poles and staves, to keep the hallowed water from freezing. A few minutes would have cemented the whole again. In order to turn the hearts of unbelievers, and to reclaim such as have gone astray, the baptists on these occasions are particularly prolix. They assert that the spirit enures them to this rigid penance, making to them the day mild, and the water of the summer’s temperature. I had waited for the end of the minister’s exhortation, after which he was to lead his flock to the water, until my limbs ached with cold. At length the penitents appeared. They consisted of the members of the meeting, two and two; then followed the devotees, about twelve in number, of both sexes, in long gowns, resembling a robe de chambre. At the head of the noviciates was the priest, alternately praying and singing, in honor of Saint John the baptist: and thus without slackening his pace, or altering his dress, he plunged into the freezing stream, till he was nearly breast-high in the water. His disciples, with wonderful resolution, hand in hand, followed; while the members who had already been purified by immersion, ranged themselves along the margin of the deep. The pastor then turned round, and began a solemn exhortation on baptism, which continued a few minutes; a dreadful interval in his situation! He then seized the nearest devotee, and with great dexterity immersed him entirely in the water. Another short prayer succeeded, then another immersion; and this was repeated till the whole had thus received the holy sacrament. They returned, giving thanks to God, after suffering the severity of the freezing water, at such a season, about ten minutes.

During this unnatural ceremony, I was no less entertained with the remarks of the spectators. On[e] of them observed that, severe as the discipline was, they seldom took cold, or suffered subsequent bodily pains; adding, that their enthusiasm was so great, and their minds were wrought up to such a degree of religious phrenzy, that no room was left for reflection, or sense of danger. Another related a story of a public baptism of this nature in Connecticut, which was attended with a fatal circumstance. “It was about the same time of year,” continued the narrator, (for the severer the weather the greater their faith) “when I was present at one of these duckings, (as he termed it.) It was performed in a small but rapid river, then covered with ice, except a place cut for the purpose. The minister, with his followers, advanced to the proper distance into the water: after the usual introductory prayer, being in the act of immersing the first, he accidentally lost his hold of the unfortunate person, who was in an instant carried down the stream, still running under the ice, and irrecoverably lost. The good man finding his subject gone, with a happy serenity of mind exclaimed, “The Lord hath given, the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord:—come another of you, my children.” The remainder, astonished and confounded, lost their faith, and fled.

12 March 2012

Blasphemy in Old New York

So, continuing the other day’s rage against the clueless theme, let’s look at another quotation from that long-ago comment posted by Sapient:
The people of this State, in common with the people of this country, profess the general doctrines of Christianity, as the rule of their faith and practice … We are a Christian people, and the morality of the country is deeply engrafted upon Christianity, and not upon the doctrines or worship of those imposters [other religions] … It is also said, and truly, that the Christian religion is a part of the common law … proven by the volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of utterances that this is a Christian nation. We find everywhere a clear recognition of this same truth.
This one is easy. Most of it comes from a bizarre 1811 New York case (People v. Ruggles), while the last part is a fragment from an 1892 Supreme Court decision (Holy Trinity v. United States). Holy Trinity I will deal with on some other occasion, should the spirit ever move me, but the People v. Ruggles is my topic for this day. I remember the case from my American Religion class in college; it was regarded as a kind of outlier in American freedom-of-religion cases. While most cases of the sort tended to side with religious liberty, People v. Ruggles came down on the other side of that particular coin.

Nobody knows much about Ruggles. Even his first name is a mystery. The one thing that we do know about him is that “he did, on the 2d day of September, 1810, at Salem &c, wickedly, maliciously, and blasphemeously, utter, and with a loud voice publish, in the presence and hearing of divers good and Christian people, &c., of and concerning the Christian religion, and of and concerning Jesus Christ, the false, scandalous, malicious, wicked and blasphemous-words following, to wit, ‘Jesus Christ was a bastard, and his mother must be a whore…’.” Not, perhaps, what he would have chosen to be remembered for, but history is not always kind. And for all I know, maybe he was proud of this observation. It’s technically true, anyway—if Jesus Christ was indeed God’s son, and God and Mary weren’t married (and I’ve never seen it claimed that they were), then Jesus would indeed be a bastard. It wouldn’t follow that his mother must be a whore, if by whore you mean a sex worker, but the term was often used then (as now) more loosely.

Context would be nice here. If Ruggles were arguing on behalf of outcasts—illegitimate children and their mothers say—by noting that after all even Jesus was illegitimate and his mother had given birth out of wedlock—he might well have a point. On the other hand, if he were just trolling some group of churchgoers (2 September 1810 was a Sunday) after a Saturday-night bout of drinking or something, he was probably going way outside the bounds of civilized discourse. Whatever the circumstances, though, he clearly had a right to say it.

Or did he? He had no protection under the first amendment of the Federal Constitution in 1810 as the fourteenth amendment had yet to be proposed, let alone passed, and I can find nothing in the New York constitution of that time that guaranteed freedom of speech or of the press. It would take a legal scholar to research the state of New York law at the time, and I’m not that interested, but in any case the free speech issue didn’t apparently come up, as far as the one surviving record of the proceedings shows.

I have my doubts about the trolling scenario I suggested above simply because in that case the authorities could easily have charged him with being drunk and disorderly or making a public disturbance or something of that sort. They obviously wanted to get Ruggles for some reason—and I say this with good cause. They had to go out on a limb to do it. The authorities charged Ruggles with blasphemy, not because there was a New York law against it, but because blasphemy was a crime under English common law, which New York had inherited. Trial was “held on the 11th June 1811, in Washington County, before Mr. Justice Spencer, and the judges of the Common Pleas, when the defendant was tried and found guilty, and was sentenced by the court to be imprisoned for three months, and to pay a fine of $500.”

I’ve heard it suggested that this was a mild sentence and hardly worth the trouble of appealing, but it seems pretty steep to me. I don’t know what $500 would be in 2012 dollars, but I would think it would be at least $5000, and possibly a great deal more. I suppose three months is still three months; I don’t know whether they did time off for good behavior and the like. In any case Ruggles seems to have objected to it, or maybe to being found guilty of a law that wasn’t actually on the books, and he did appeal it. His lawyer argued that Christianity was not part of the common law in New York state. That old saw applied in England, sure, but that was because England had an established church. New York did not. The New York constitution in fact guaranteed to its citizens “the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference” so long as it was not “so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness, or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of this State.” His lawyer argued that “The constitution allows a free toleration to all religions and all kinds of worship. The exception as to licentiousness, refers to conduct, not opinions. Judaism and Mahometanism may be preached here, without any legal animadversion. For aught that appears, the prisoner may have been a Jew, a Mahometan, or a Socinian; and if so, he had a right, by the constitution, to declare his opinions.”

You'd think that would be self-evident, but the People’s representative begged to differ. He argued that “blasphemy, or the contumelious reproaches of our Saviour, were punishable by the common law of England … not on account of there being an established church, but [as] a principle coeval with the English law [that] had stood unshaken amidst all the revolutions and changes in Church and State.” (Thomas Jefferson would have disagreed with him on that, by the way.) “While the constitution of the State has saved the rights of conscience, and allowed a free and fair discussion of all points of controversy among religious sects, it has left the principal engrafted on the body of our common law, that Christianity is part of the laws of the State, untouched and unimpaired.”

The judge in this case was James Kent, later to author the four volume Commentaries on American Law. A Federalist and a professor of law at Columbia College, he mingled with the elite of his time. He was a great reader; among English writers he admired Henry Fielding, and among the French, Voltaire. He was a member of the Presbyterian church. “It is certain, however,” a biographer wrote of him, “that he entertained the fashionable doubts concerning orthodox religion; and in the literary club to which he belonged, he aired them. The playwright and painter, William Dunlap, recorded in his diary: ‘Kent remarked that men of information were now nearly as free from vulgar superstition or the Christian religion as they were in ye time of Cicero from pagan superstition—all, says he, except the literary men among the clergy.’”

Governor John Jay—one of the writers of The Federalist Papers—appointed him to the New York Supreme Court in 1798. In 1804 he became Chief Justice. He held this position when People v. Ruggles came before him. Now you might think, given his admiration for Voltaire and his “fashionable doubts” that he might have some sympathy for Ruggles’ right to his religious opinions. You would be wrong. Kent distinguished clearly between opinions held in private by “men of information” and opinions expressed by some commoner in public “in a wanton manner … with a wicked and malicious disposition, and not in a serious discussion upon any controverted point in religion.” “[D]isputes between learned men upon particular controverted points” are one thing; “contumelious reproaches and profane ridicule of Christ or the Holy Scriptures” by the unlearned are something else. “Nothing could be more offensive to the virtuous part of the community, or more injurious to the tender morals of the young, than to declare such profanity lawful,” he proclaimed. “No government among any of the polished nations of antiquity, and none of the institutions of modern Europe, (a single and monitory case excepted), ever hazarded such a bold experiment upon the solidity of the public morals, as to permit with impunity, and under the sanction of their tribunals, the general religion of the community to be openly insulted and defamed.”

As far as the notion that the New York constitution’s guarantee of “the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference” is concerned, James Kent snidely dismisses it as words without meaning. Only “the general religion of the community” need be protected from “malicious and blasphemous contempt”. The State was not “bound, by any expressions in the constitution, as some have strangely supposed, either not to punish at all, or to punish indiscriminately the like attacks upon the religion of Mahomet or of the Grand Lama; and for this plain reason, that the case assumes that we are a Christian people, and the morality of the country is deeply ingrafted upon Christianity, and not upon the doctrines or worship of those imposters.” His intention to override the constitution’s guarantee of religious liberty is manifest. Not a word of this distinction is actually in the document in question; Kent pulls this notion straight from his ass in as fine an exhibition of judicial activism as has ever been seen on the bench. His justification comes not from any legal document, but from an appeal to consequences: as oaths are administered by kissing the gospels, “we are bound to conclude, that wicked and malicious words, writings and actions which go to vilify those gospels, continue, as at common law, to be an offense against the public peace and safety. They are inconsistent with the reverence due to the administration of an oath, and among their other evil consequences, they tend to lessen, in the public mind, its religious sanction.” Kent concluded by affirming the judgment against Ruggles.

Even his generally sympathetic biographer notes that “This opinion was not in keeping with the spirit of the times.” A less sympathetic writer (such as myself) might refer to it as utter sophistry, judicial overreach, absolute balderdash, and an attempt to wrap the state in the cloak of religious liberty while standing proudly naked and unabashed for religious establishment. The tortuous logic that gets him there is irrelevant; only the result matters. His purpose was to legislate from the bench, and in that he succeeded; some ten years later we read of one Jared W. Bell being charged with blasphemy for saying in the heat of a political argument that “God Almighty was a damn’d fool” and that “Jesus Christ was a damn’d fool”. People v. Ruggles was the precedent. (For the record, Bell was acquitted.)

Now today this case has been promoted by certain pseudo-historians as evidence of how the first amendment to the Federal Constitution was interpreted in the early nineteenth century. This is bogus. The case nowhere makes mention of the Federal Constitution at all; only the New York constitution is referred to. (See here for details.) Again, this is not surprising; at this time the Bill of Rights was not binding on the states. But this is actually doubly absurd—the document in question, the New York Constitution of 1777, has long since ceased to be in effect, so even if Kent’s extremely dubious reasoning were accepted, it would no longer be relevant to any current legal situation. But a drowning man will clutch at any stray bit of flotsam, no matter how flimsy, and the same, no doubt, is true of a drowning ideology. Requiescat in pace. Or maybe caveat emptor. You decide.


For the text of The People v. Ruggles, see here.

“It is certain, however…” from John Theodore Horton, James Kent: A Study in Conservatism, 1763-1847 (New York, 1939), p. 116.

“This opinion was not in keeping…” from John Theodore Horton, James Kent: A Study in Conservatism, 1763-1847 (New York, 1939), p. 191.

“God Almighty was a damn’d fool…” from The New-York City-Hall Recorder, June 1821 (Vol. VI No. 5) p. 38.

11 March 2012

Messing with the Clocks

Many thousands of years ago, when I was in fifth grade, my insane fundamentalist teacher said something I have never forgotten—What business does the government have to tell us how to set our clocks? If people want to get up an hour earlier, they should just do it. (Or words to that effect.) And then a good many years later, in high school, we had a reading in one of our books where some nineteenth-century writer was complaining about the government adopting railroad time. If we don’t watch out, he warned, we’ll be getting up, dining, and going to bed on railroad time, instead of God’s own time as regulated by the sun.

Well that guy, whoever he was, turned out to be a sort of prophet, since the time zones we live by were a direct outgrowth of the railroads’ need for some sort of conformity. It’s one thing for every little town and hamlet to have its own time when the Pony Express represents the last word in speed, but as things speed up conformity is in order. And arguments about whose time, exactly, should prevail, are going to have to be settled ultimately by some sort of civil authority. It’s a natural government function, really.

Personally I don’t think that time zones go far enough. I’d opt for some sort of greater uniformity. If it were up to me, the whole world would be on Universal Time, and here on the Pacific Coast of North America we'd be getting up around 15:00 and sacking out around 6:00 on the day following. If the whole world were on one time we could simply dump the inconvenience of time table conversions and the like. I’d develop that theme a bit, except that I’ve noticed that people generally change the subject and edge away when I bring the concept up. The world isn’t ready, maybe.

On the other hand, one of the few things I do agree with my fifth grade teacher on is this business of messing with the clocks. It does seem a bit much that every few months some government bureaucrat is telling me to change my clock an hour ahead, or an hour back, or something. What about splitting the difference? Maybe next October we could just turn the clock a half-hour back and leave it there. It’s just a thought. Always assuming, of course, that that Universal Time thing is out of the question.

10 March 2012

Samuel Chase and the First Amendment

In the course of my wanderings today through various thickets of the underweb I stumbled on this quotation on a long-forgotten comment thread:
By our form of government, the Christian religion is the established religion; and all sects and denominations of Christians are placed upon the same equal footing, and are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty.
It is there attributed to Samuel Chase, described as a member of the Continental Congress and an Associate Supreme Court Justice. I’ve seen this thing before, but I can’t find my notes on the subject, so I’m going to wing it here, relying on my aging memory. Bear with me.

A 2003 article entitled “Not Separation of God from State” attributed to Fr. Bill McCarthy sheds a little more light, after a fashion. McCarthy writes:
The process of drafting the First Amendment made the intent of the Founders abundantly clear; for before they approved the final wording, the First Amendment went through nearly a dozen different iterations and extensive discussions.

Those discussions—recorded in the Congressional Records from June 7 through September 25 of 1789—make clear their intent for the First Amendment. By it, the Founders were saying: “We do not want in America what we had in Great Britain: we don’t want one denomination running the nation. We will not all be Catholics, or Anglicans, or any other single denomination. We do want God’s principles, but we don’t want one denomination running the nation.”

This intent was well understood, as evidenced by court rulings after the First Amendment. For example, a 1799 court declared:

“By our form of government, the Christian religion is the established religion; and all sects and denominations of Christians are placed on the same equal footing.”

Again, note the emphasis: “We do want Christian principles—we do want God’s principles—but we don’t want one denomination to run the nation.”
Now, just to be clear, the business about “God’s principles” that McCarthy placed between quotation marks is not a quotation—it is something McCarthy apparently invented out of his own head. It is neither a quotation, nor a paraphrase, of anything that was recorded during the discussions on what would become the first amendment. But he does note that the quotation we’re interested in—“The Christian religion is the established religion” one—comes from a 1799 case.

Another source is even more helpful:
One of the first cases that came before the Supreme Court in which religious principals were invoked:

1796 – Runkel vs. Winemiller

The Supreme Court stated:

“By our form of government, the Christian religion is the established religion, and the sects and denominations of Christians are placed upon the same equal footing.”
Now in 1799 Samuel Chase was an associate justice of the Supreme Court, as advertised—but these words are not from a Supreme Court decision. They were in fact written in 1796, when Chase was Chief Justice of the Maryland General Court. The case was indeed Runkel v. Winemiller, in which William Runkel, a former minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, sued to get his position back, alleging that his replacement was not qualified according to the laws of his institution. (He won the case, incidentally.) In the course of the decision Chase wrote:
Religion is of general and public concern, and on its support depend, in great measure, the peace and good order of government, the safety and happiness of the people. By our form of government, the christian religion is the established religion; and all sects and denominations of christians are placed upon the same equal footing, and are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty. The principles of the christian religion cannot be diffused, and its doctrines generally propagated without places of public worship, and teachers and ministers, to explain the scriptures to the people, and to enforce an observance of the precepts of religion by their preaching and living.
Now a naïve reader might imagine from this that Chase was saying that the United States had an established religion, namely Christianity, notwithstanding the first amendment prohibition on any law respecting such an establishment. It’s pretty clear that that’s what people mean us to gather when they produce this with a flourish from their bag of tricks. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course.

The case took place in Maryland, under Maryland laws, and the federal constitution didn’t come into it at all. At that time Maryland was under its constitution of 1776—written, I might add, before either the federal constitution or its first amendment had come into being—and the Maryland constitution did in fact make Christianity (in effect) the established religion. Of Maryland.
XXXIII. That, as it is the duty of every man to worship God in such manner as he thinks most acceptable to him; all persons, professing the Christian religion, are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty; wherefore no person ought by any law to be molested in his person or estate on account of his religious persuasion or profession, or for his religious practice; unless, under colour of religion, any man shall disturb the good order, peace or safety of the State, or shall infringe the laws of morality, or injure others, in their natural, civil, or religious rights; nor ought any person to be compelled to frequent or maintain, or contribute, unless on contract, to maintain any particular place of worship, or any particular ministry; yet the Legislature may, in their discretion, lay a general and equal tax for the support of the Christian religion; leaving to each individual the power of appointing the payment over of the money, collected from him, to the support of any particular place of worship or minister, or for the benefit of the poor of his own denomination, or the poor in general of any particular county…

XXXV. That no other test or qualification ought to be required, on admission to any office of trust or profit, than such oath of support and fidelity to this State, and such oath of office, as shall be directed by this Convention or the Legislature of this State, and a declaration of a belief in the Christian religion.
Thus in 1796 this statement was true, for Maryland, and it would remain true until this constitution was replaced in 1851, at which time the Christian requirement was dropped from the guarantee of religious liberty, and Jews as well as Christians were allowed to hold office in the state. Further, it was not until the passage of the fourteenth amendment to the Federal Constitution that the provisions of the First Amendment became binding on the states as well as the Federal government—so, regardless of what McCarthy and his allies would like us to understand, this decision was absolutely irrelevant to any possible interpretation of the First Amendment.

So how did these various commentators come to make such a bonehead mistake? My guess, and it is only a guess, is that none of them did any actual research. I suspect they were all copying from a common source, and my guess is that whoever it was probably hadn't bother to look into the background of the case, but just seized words that looked shiny to him, like the magpie is supposed to do when building a nest. The thing is, as one writer accurately observed, “There is really nothing extraordinary about this case.” The only thing extraordinary here is how gullible some people can be when they are determined to swallow a lie.

09 March 2012

Quotation of the Day

Peorgie: Gee, everybody at Morse Science High has an extracurricular activity but you.

Mudhead: Well, doesn’t Louise count?

Peorgie: Only to ten, Mudhead. You know, that’s just it.

Mudhead: Just what?

Peorgie: Well, we’re the leaders of tomorrow.

Mudhead: Yeah, but it’s today.

Peorgie: But what are you going to do tomorrow, after you graduate?

Mudhead: Oh, well, I thought maybe I’d go out and find a bunch of guys that dress alike and follow ‘em around.

Peorgie: What?

Mudhead: Or, I could go pick up a couple of girls.
Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers

Peter Bergman (1939-2012)

Vinyl Memories—To the Silent Majority, With Love

How’s about three cheers for the good guys
They don’t march and they don’t shout
So you never read about
The quiet men, who are the backbone of our land.
“Three Cheers for the Good Guys” (Harlan Howard)

1969 was not a good year for me. I graduated from high school and started college—and found myself increasingly out of sync with my context. I wanted to quietly learn Greek and master calculus, while my government looked on me as another body to be used in a failed exercise in something-or-other in Southeast Asia. Protests of this policy shut down classes and made learning difficult—sometimes impossible. Our relatively new President, a fellow named Richard Nixon, best known for his red-baiting activities as a Congressman and as the monumentally unpopular Vice-President under Eisenhower, was pushing a plan he called Vietnamization—the ludicrous concept that somehow, someway, the corrupt and incompetent regime in South Vietnam would be able to take over the war and run it successfully. On 3 November the old Idiot-in-Chief made one of the most amazing speeches I ever read, one of those pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain moments, three parts artful dodging and one part divide-and-conquer.

The war, it seems, was not his problem, as he kept reminding us—he’d inherited it from his predecessors in the office. But he had a plan. A plan for peace. He believed it would succeed. It would be a “just peace through a negotiated settlement if possible, or through continued implementation of our plan for Vietnamization if necessary—a plan in which we will withdraw all of our forces from Vietnam on a schedule in accordance with our program, as the South Vietnamese become strong enough to defend their own freedom.” The important thing was that we present a united front to our enemies “for the more divided we are at home, the less likely, the enemy is to negotiate” and that the protests of the “vocal minority” who were actually being called on to fight the war should be ignored in favor of the “great silent majority of my fellow Americans”—older folk who could sit back at home and watch other people’s children being sent off as cannon-fodder in an endless war.

Ah, memories. In my limited circle what we knew about the war came primarily from its veterans, people who had been there and had lived through what seemed like a real-life black comedy. Maybe it was all bullshit—I don’t know—but they had no patience with the “silent majority” or “walking dead” as one guy I knew called them. Maybe the guys at the Pentagon have a plan, one veteran observed, but they sure as hell aren’t letting us in on it. Disjointed fragments from a time best forgotten—Kent State and Cambodia, Song My and Medina, Agnew and his “effete corps of impudent snobs”, the Berkeley Barb and the Free Press, and the Great American Hero William Calley, praised by the likes of Jimmy Carter and George Wallace.

It was a weird and wondrous time, with The War lurking behind everything we did. My personal connection with The War ended in September 1970 when the United States Army turned me down for the draft as being subject to “psychotic depression”. “Son,” one fellow gently explained to me as I was classified 1-Y (later 4-F), “you’d be more of a danger to our side than to the enemy.” I still don’t know what actually happened on that occasion—I suppose I had the mother of all panic attacks—but my impression at the time was that I got rejected because I couldn’t pee into a paper cup. I don’t suppose my disorientation or mild hallucinations helped matters much either. In any case when they kicked me out with my New Testament and a bus ticket to find my own way home I knew that The War and I were not destined to be on speaking terms any time soon, if ever.

I’d been collecting odd bits of vinyl for years—radio-station discards, Good Will rejects, bargain bin oddities—but in the early 70s I had a sort of competition going with a friend; I’d match his Wild Man Fischer with my Captain Beefheart, and so on. Sometime during 1971 I turned up something called To the Silent Majority With Love featuring the hit single “Sunday Morning Christian”. The “artist” was a certain Harlan Howard, whom I’d never heard of. The lyrics to the songs were printed on the back cover, and they combined self-pity, anti-intellectualism, and self-righteousness in a fine goulash. I had trouble believing it was intended seriously (the title alone seemed perfect as a satire), with songs like “Uncle Sam (I’m a Patriot)”, “Better Get Your Pride Back Boy”, and “Mister Professor”. I had to have it, and I quickly shared it with my friend.

Although it was clearly intended seriously, in some ways it surpassed my wildest expectations. In “Uncle Sam” the singer lamented that his tax-dollars were being taken away for the benefit of foreigners and millionaires and suchlike unworthy types, but concludes “and though I’ve got a complaint or two you can write my name in red, white and blue.” Yes, the perfect tool for Nixon’s vision of America. In “Sunday Morning Christian” he laments the way good Christians cheat and rob and lie and still turn up at church on Sunday “singing louder than the rest”. He doesn’t seem to draw the obvious conclusion from this, and makes sure we understand that the Good Guys (“Three Cheers for the Good Guys”) are restricted to Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. Buddhists, Freethinkers, and Atheists obviously need not apply. (“Thank God if we’re cheering for you.”) It’s even clearer in his paeon to anti-intellectualism, “Mister Professor”:
They’re under your influence, so hear my cry in the night
And if you go changin’ the good kids we sent you
Be sure that you’re right
On the subject of God if you have any doubts don’t discuss ‘em
For a teacher should teach and a preacher should preach
Not betrayin’ the people that trust ‘em
We sent you a good Christian boy and he knows right from wrong
Beware of the danger, don’t sent us a stranger back home
Rick Santorum would feel right at home here.

My buddy used to refer to the album as Better Get Your Hair Cut Boy, referring to the song “Better Get Your Pride Back Boy”:
I’m just a truck driver and I don’t think I know it all
But son you got thoughts in your mind that I don’t understand at all
They’re needin’ you boy and you’re sittin’ in your coffee house
Whatcha gonna do when your woman begs you save her from a mouse?
You better get your pride back boy,
Better get your pride back boy,
That’s the most important thing that the Lord ever gave you…
And repeat ad nauseum. With stuff like this Harlan Howard could give Janet Greene a run for her money.

While this may look like a sort of precursor to the whole Mad Tea Party Movement, Howard reflected a kindler, gentler era. He had sympathy for “the little dirt farmer” who “works all his life and leaves eight dollars to his kids and wife” where the modern conservative crowd would chant their mantra, “Let them die” and cheer. And at least old Howard thought kids should go to college, even if he didn’t want them actually learning anything. And when Mr. Jones sold him that defective car (“Sunday Morning Christian”) he didn’t rhapsodize about the wonders of the Free Market™; no, he sings “Mr. Jones I’d like you better if you robbed me with a gun.” And if he objects to “too many lazy people lookin’ for a hand out” he at least can feel sorry for “too many cold and hungry children walkin’ about” (“We Didn’t Build This World”). Short of actually doing something about it, of course. So far the right wing has come in forty years—but there’s still a lot of the same old shit there.

Yeah, okay, I have a certain fondness for Harlan Howard. His crazed meanderings took me through some dark times, and I was still including his “Mister Professor” and “Better Get Your Pride Back Boy” on anthology tapes for friends as late as the 1980s. Wikipedia tells me that he died almost exactly ten years ago, on 3 March 2002. It also credits him with a definition of a great country song: “Three chords and the truth.” This album definitely comes up a bit long on that first element, and way short on the second. Still, it perfectly encapsulates its little moment of time, like a prehistoric beetle trapped in amber.
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