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.

03 March 2012

Quotation of the Day

Faith is dangerous because it is the opposite of thought. Because it deliberately silences, halts, and suppresses thought. It asks us to simply accept, and not to question. It says that evidence is unnecessary. It becomes a belief that is “above” criticism. Therefore any action taken on account of that belief does not need to consider its consequences, its danger, or who it harms. You don’t consider anything at all, really. All the usual intellectual and ethical precautions that keep us from making mistakes get thrown aside. You “just know”. Like George W. Bush “just knew” the invasion of Iraq was the right thing to do.
Copyright © 2005-2023