23 December 2018

Imagine an Aluminum Pole (2014)

[Χμας repost from 2014]
aturnalia week draws to an end with the decidedly nontraditional celebrations of Festivus and HumanLight. Festivus is the older of the two, going back to the 1970s (and first popularized by a Seinfeld episode of 18 December 1997), while HumanLight is the invention of members of the New Jersey Humanist Network in 1998 (first celebrated 23 December 2001).
Both seem to be intended as alternatives to the familiar Pagan / Christian / Commercial holiday of Christmas. Where Christian Christmas celebrates the intrusion of the paranormal into the natural world, HumanLight features “the unique human capacities for reason and compassion”. Where Commercial Chri$tma$ promotes consumerism, Festivus deliberately strips down the holiday (as symbolized by the unadorned aluminum pole rather than an elaborate Christmas Tree). Neither celebration has yet acquired the annoying religious advertising that unfortunately infests Christmas.
HumanLight, honestly, is so stripped-down you can hardly call it a holiday at all. It doesn’t really happen on any particular day—just whatever convenient occasion (a day off say) falls near the 23rd of December. There are no fixed elements because “Humanists tend to shy away from both rigid thinking and rituals”; it looks like little more than a social gathering with a color-scheme—red, blue, and gold, standing for reason, compassion, and hope. Celebration suggestions include those things that used to make Unitarian parties for kids so dismal—educational entertainment, audience sing-alongs, face-painting. Performances by magicians, jugglers, and comedians are also suggested. Forgive me for saying so, because I admire the sentiments of the occasion, but a HumanLight celebration is pretty damn close to my idea of hell.
Festivus, on the other hand, has its rituals. There is the low-maintenance Festivus pole, for example. There is the Airing of Grievances, where “each participant tells friends and family of all the instances where they disappointed him or her that year”. There is a Festivus dinner, followed by the Feats of Strength, in which “the head of the household tests his or her strength against one participant of the head's choosing”. It’s minimalistic, rather like a Samuel Becket play performed by a community theatre sans budget, but at least there is something distinctive about it. I believe I’ll pass, personally, but it sounds more fun than a HumanLight dinner featuring readings from Humanist authors, thank you.
As far as I can tell there are no Festivus songs. HumanLight has co-opted John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Madonna’s “Holiday”, and created in addition its own “HumanLight” and “Decorate the Tree of Knowledge” (Sonny Meadows), “These Three Flames” (Monty Harper) and “HumanLight Song” (Sara Brown). I haven’t heard any of them, except the ubiquitous “Imagine”, but they’ve got to be better than “The Little Drummer Boy” or “Do You Hear What I Hear?” (I say rashly).
Both holidays eschew the solstice with its pagan religious overtones. That may be a good thing, but ultimately seems to leave them rootless. At least the old traditions and symbols are ultimately rooted in the natural world around us. Evergreen boughs and holly, lights and candles—it doesn’t matter whether we are honoring Odin or Jesus or no-one at all. We continue the custom even as we assign different meanings to it. After all, as Latka Gravas (to borrow from a different situation comedy) observed, “the only things that separate man from the animals are superstition and mindless ritual.” These denatured holidays have all the fizz of flat cola. They leave out the heart of the thing, and are ultimately as unsatisfying as decaffeinated coffee or alcohol-free beer.

16 December 2018

Prolog to a Lost Novel (1990)

[passage written 15/16 December 1990]
e was dying; Epiphanes knew that for certain. Waves of pain washed across his body like the sea over Egypt’s shore; his thoughts no longer cohered one to the other. So much was left undone, so many things now he would never do in this life—and unfortunately for him, there would be another life. “You will never escape till you’ve paid the last penny”—Jesus had said that. Or was it his father? Carpocrates—he could hear his voice, telling him the precepts of Jesus, the god-prophet who had appeared a century before to liberate men from the cycle of re-birth, so that when a man died he would stay dead … if he’d done everything, if he’d paid that last penny. Hard to think. The pain—
His breath was leaving him now, never to be called back. His vain attempts to catch it only exhausted him and left him weak and lifeless. Okay, so this isn’t working, but this is only the detailed outline phase. Epiphanes struggled for his Breath, and felt his life ebb away. There was nothing to be done, nothing at all. He had power, wealth, disciples, but there was nothing now to prevent him going on to the next phase on the wheel, to a new set of experiences, to a new life. Make peace with your accuser, he thought weakly, make peace with the evil that is here-and-now, with the great Jailer who held the keys to the World….
Tortured by excruciating spasms he screamed aloud, red mist before his eyes. This was it, he felt, the last horrible moments of this life. Hello, Tomorrow—here comes the Future. And, as if on cue, before the red faded to final black, something reached out of the Nothingness before him. Something reached out, something seized him, and something took him away into its Nothing. The universe twisted, and Epiphanes was not.
Later his followers would say that he ascended into heaven. [15/16 Dc 1990]

15 December 2018

An Unnerving Experience (1991)

[A passage from a letter, 15/16 December 1991]
 just had a rather unnerving experience, though it turned out to be nothing serious—at least, not for me or mine. A man was shot and killed in the vacant lot next to our house. I visited my brother earlier today (literally yesterday; it’s a little after one in the morning), and when I came back, my house was cordoned off and the area was crawling with police. I couldn’t find out anything about what was happening; officers assured me that I could get in to my house but they themselves couldn’t help me. Several of them as well as various bystanders told me what happened—all very different stories—but apparently a man, who may or may not have been fleeing the scene of a crime, stabbed a policeman, who retaliated by shooting him. One bystander said that the man was handcuffed and lying on the ground when the officer shot him—four times, according to her. This is a little weird, even for North Portland. [16 Dc 1991]
[The “vacant lot” is now the site of a dance studio, and “our house” is now the site of a vacant office building.]

14 December 2018

Rocks in the Sky (repost)

any years ago, when I was maybe twelve or thirteen or so, I got a paperback book with a title something like The World’s Strangest Mysteries. I think somebody gave it to me as a gift—a birthday or something like that—but the details are foggy. It doesn’t matter. The point is, I read a fascinating account of how in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries people observed stones falling from the sky, or at any rate what seemed to be stones that fell from the sky. There was no science, however, that could account for such a phenomenon. How would rocks get into the sky in the first place, in order to fall? According to the story a famous American statesman (and scientist) who read of such an event observed “that it was easier to believe that two Yankee Professors could lie than to admit that stones could fall from heaven.”
I really liked that statement. I have quoted it on various occasions since then; I think I used it in a paper I wrote for some junior high class, though maybe I only considered it. I liked the statement because it asserts the correct position to take when presented with impossible evidence. I don’t know about the lying part, but when people assert things that are impossible it is far more likely that what they say isn’t true, that they are lying or mistaken, than that the impossible is possible. Witnesses can be wrong. The universe, on the other hand, is the way it is.
Of course, the other reason I like it is that its premise is wrong. Stones can, and sometimes do, fall from heaven. Although there was no known mechanism for getting stones into the sky, there was evidence that they had fallen. Multiple eyewitness accounts, destruction caused by their coming to earth, the stones themselves. It was impossible for them to have fallen, and yet they had. As Dr. Derringer liked to observe, “Eliminate the impossible. Then if nothing remains, then some part of the impossible must be possible.”
Several explanations had been proposed to get over the impossibility of stones getting into the sky in the first place. One proposed that the materials for the stones ascended in the form of vapor, collected in the atmosphere, combusted through some unknown chemical reaction, and fell to earth in the form of a solid precipitate. Another was that volcanoes hurled the stones into the sky, either from the earth, or perhaps from the moon. And then there was the possibility that small unseen bodies were orbiting the earth elliptically like comets, and occasionally burned up when passing through the earth’s atmosphere.
The trouble is that none of these made the impossible possible. Eventually scientists would get the hang of meteors, but that hadn’t happened yet on 14 December 1807. About seven on that morning a Mrs. Gardner of Wenham, Massachusetts, took a look out her western window and observed the moon apparently in the act of falling out of the sky. It was a fleeting impression only; an instant later she saw that what she was seeing was a fireball moving parallel to the horizon. Judge Wheeler at Weston, Connecticut, and Mr. Page at Rutland, Vermont, likewise observed the meteor. Many fragments of the stone were gathered up by eager collectors.
One of these collectors was Daniel Salmon of New York. A large piece of the meteor fell near his house, and he found himself possessed “of the largest fragment of the meteor Stone which has yet or proverbelly Ever will be found wighing 37 pounds”. It was “proved by Inconterable Evidence to have fallen on the Same Day the Meteor passed Over weston”; he and his neighbors had seen “that a Stone fell on the Same field where this fragment was found”. It was a field of rye and oats and the piece “was found 3 feet below the Surface and many Spires of Green Rye & Oat Stibbel at the bottom of the Cavity” as well as on the rock itself.  “[T]his must be an Evidence that it fell from the atmosphere” he wrote excitedly.
Naturally he turned to the President of the United States as the most appropriate person to examine his find. “I Should take Great pleasure in being the bearer of this New Visitor in the united Stats and to Give the Curious an oppertunity of Seing this Mass was not the Distance So Great and my Resorces Small” he wrote to Thomas Jefferson on 8 February 1808. Were it not for the cost he would be happy to exhibit it to the President and Congress.
Jefferson replied on 15 February 1808 with an astonishing letter that should be required reading for any investigator of fringe phenomena. About the stone he noted that “Its descent from the atmosphere presents so much difficulty as to require careful examination. But I do not know,” he continued, “that the most effectual examination could be made by the members of the National Legislature, to whom you have thought of exhibiting it.” A scientific body like the Philosopical Society of Philadelphia would be more likely to be qualified to examine it, and its results would carry more conviction. “We certainly are not to deny whatever we cannot account for. A thousand phenomena present themselves daily which we cannot explain, but where facts are suggested, bearing no analogy with the laws of nature as yet known to us, their verity needs proofs proportioned to their difficulty. A cautious mind will weigh well the opposition of the phenomenon to everything hitherto observed, the strength of the testimony by which it is supported, and the errors and misconceptions to which even our senses are liable.”
Proofs proportioned to their difficulty—exactly. Extraordinary things require extraordinary evidence. “It may be very difficult to explain how the stone you possess came into the position in which it was found,” he noted. “But is it easier to explain how it got into the clouds from whence it is supposed to have fallen?” At that time, judging from the proposed explanations, it clearly was not.
An article by Benjamin Silliman, the chemist who would later be the first person to refine petroleum, proved to be a sensation. He and his fellow Yale professor James Kingsley, had thoroughly investigated the incident, and the evidence presented, including a chemical analysis of the fallen stone, made it hard to avoid the conclusion that a large rock had in fact fallen from the sky. There was enough evidence for Nathaniel Bowditch to form “An estimate of the height, direction, velocity and magnitude of the meteor, that exploded over Weston in Connecticut, Dec. 14, 1807,” published in the Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for 1809.
As time went on, more observations were gathered, and more hypotheses put forth, it became clearer not only that stones did fall from the sky, but how they did it and why. By 1874 the situation had changed so dramatically that Silliman’s son (also named Benjamin) could tell the following anecdote:
Thomas Jefferson, then president of the American Philosophical Society, is reported to have said on this occasion, in the well-known language of David Hume regarding miracles, “that it was easier to believe that two Yankee Professors could lie than to admit that stones could fall from heaven”—a remarkable evidence of the limited knowledge of such subjects then prevailing in this country, even in the minds of the most cultivated people.
And this is the actual source of the statement. Not Jefferson, but the son of one of the “Yankee professors” in question, and—as Anna Berkes pointed out, a “Yankee professor” himself. Yeah, it’s another fake quotation, one of those sayings that’s too damn good to be true. Personally, I like what Jefferson actually wrote better—but it doesn’t have the snap of the “Yankee professors” version. Too bad we can’t have both.

13 December 2018

A Lady of Syracuse (Χμας repost)

[Χμας repost]
oday is St. Lucy’s day. Standard reference sources say that all we know of Lucy is that she lived in Syracuse and was martyred during the Diocletian persecutions of 304 CE. So the Britannica, so the Catholic Encyclopedia, so Wikipedia. I have no idea on what they base this claim. There’s supposed to be a late fourth-century (CE) inscription in Syracuse supporting this, but I haven’t been able to get the text of it anywhere, and it appears that all it says is that her feast day was 13 December even back then. Even this minimal claim seems to be a considerable overstatement, unless there is something more substantial than her name appearing in ancient lists of martyred Christians.
Where evidence is lacking legend rushes in. And so it is with Lucy. Thus we read in Pedro de Ribadeneyra’s Lives of Saints with Other Feasts of the Year According to the Roman Calendar (Ioachim Carlier, 1669) “The glorious Virgin and Martyr Saint Lucy, was born of honorable, and rich parents in the city Syracosa in Sicily. She was a Christian from her Infancy, and much inclined to all things of vertue and piety especially to conserue the purity of her soul, and to offer to God the flower of her Virginity.”
These things—her parents being rich and honorable, for example—aren’t really data, so much as the stage-machinery necessary to make the legend work. Or, to look at things the other way round, they are details deducible from the subsequent course of events. And the setup continues: “Her father being dead, her mother, who was called Eutychia, against the will of the damzel, promised to marry her to a yong Gentleman of prime quality, although a Pagan; but she went on deferring it, and seeking occasion to hinder it from taking effect.”
The version of Christianity that won out made a big thing of virginity. It was a way for showing contempt for the flesh—for the physical world. (Other versions seem to have shown their contempt for the flesh by indulging it, to judge from the condemnation of both pagan and Christian sources, but we have to infer their beliefs from the invective of their opponents. Sorry about that, Carpocrates.) In ordinary terms, easily graspable by most present-day Christians, Lucy’s father had left her money and/or property so she could make a good marriage and live the rest of her life in reasonable comfort. Eutychia looked around for just such a good match, and promised her to a likely young guy with good prospects.
This is the way things have been done for generations. I don’t say they’re right, but they are how our forebears managed their affairs. Marriage was an alliance between families, arranged by the parents, and essentially a financial transaction. At least that’s how it was until some wise guys decided to redefine marriage a few hundred years back. Literature from Romeo and Juliet to Love and Friendship to Fiddler on the Roof derived conflict from the effects of this redefinition.
Lucy was faced with a familiar dilemma—familial duty vs. love, with the twist being that this love was not carnal, but the spiritual love of her lord and savior. She needed a way out. “And our Lord presented her with a very fit one,” according to de Ribadeneyra, “by sending her mother Eutychia a long and troublesom flux of blood, which lasted her four years, without finding any remedy in Physitians and medecins.” Good move, Jesus. Afflict the mother with something incurable—there’s a miracle for you. A very Christlike thing to do.
“Then it happened,” (and now we’re switching to St. Ælfric’s account, as translated by W. W. Skeat) “at the mass, that the gospel was read how the woman was healed, that had a flux of blood, when she touched the Saviour’s robe.” Lucy seized her chance. “Then said Lucy, full of faith, to her mother, ‘'If thou believest, mother, this well-known gospel, believe that Agatha has merited something from Christ, since she suffered for His name that she might ever behold Him in her presence, in eternal bliss. Touch now her tomb, and thou shalt soon be whole.’”
This plan they carried out, and Lucy was assured by St. Agatha that her mother was now healed. (Agatha of course had long since died, but dreams were apparently considered valid methods communication in this world.) Lucy seized on this fortunate occurrence to promote her scheme. “Mother,” she said (and these speeches come from the Caxton-Elliot translation of The Golden Legend), “ye be guerished and all whole; I pray you for her sake by whose prayers ye be healed, that ye never make mention to me for to take an husband ne spouse, but all that good that ye would give me with a man, I pray you that ye will give it to me for to do alms withal that I may come to my saviour Jesu Christ.”
Eutychia replied, “Fair daughter, thy patrimony, which I have received this nine years, sith thy father died, I have nothing aminished, but I have multiplied and increased it; but abide till I am departed out of this world, and then forthon do as it shall please thee.”
“Sweet mother, hear my counsel: he is not beloved of God, that for his love giveth that which he may not use himself, but if thou wilt find God debonair to thee, give for him that which thou mayest dispend, for after thy death thou mayest in no wise use thy goods. That which thou givest when thou shalt die, thou givest it because thou mayest not bear it with thee. Give then for God's sake whiles thou livest: and as to such good as thou oughtest to give to me with an husband or spouse, begin to give all that to your people for the love of Jesu Christ.”
Apparently this now sounded like a good idea to Eutychia, or maybe Lucy just kept at her until she was fresh out of reason, but however it went Eutychia started selling off the jewels and land left for Lucy’s benefit, and Lucy had the pleasure of distributing necessities to the poor. One apparently quite recent account has it that when taking food down in the catacombs for the persecuted Christians hiding there she would wear a wreath with candles on it around her head to find her way—presumably a retrojection of the modern practice into the ancient story. They gave to the “poor and to strangers, to widows and exiles, and wise servants of God” (according to Ælfric), a form of wealth redistribution that would have infuriated de Sade, his disciple Ayn Rand, and the mad tea partiers alike. The old accounts say nothing of what tests they administered to the recipients—did they have them pee into a cup, or what?—but those widows and wise servants of God must have been living it up on Lucy’s inheritance.
In time word came to the ears of the guy Lucy was supposed to marry. He went (according to The Golden Legend) to Lucy’s nurse to try to find out what the hell was going on. She told him they were selling off their stuff because they’d come up with something “which had a more fairer and nobler heritage than his was, the which they would buy tofore ere they should assemble by marriage.” The guy helped them out, but “when he understood that she gave all for God's love … he felt himself deceived” and turned her in to the authorities.
Dragged before the Governor, Paschasius, Lucy defended herself as best she could. Sabine Baring-Gould observes “The Acts contain the particulars of a long discussion between the judge and the virgin, which bears a family resemblance to all other such discussions, and which, if genuine, would oblige the reader to believe that all early Christian martyrs were imbecile, and all their judges fools.” Ælfric observes “Then was Paschasius wroth, and they spake much, until he promised her a beating if she would not be silent.” Not content with that he moved on to threatening rape, and then to attempting to burn her alive, without success. Lucy simply refused to either be raped or set on fire. Baffled by her noncooperation Paschasius finally simply ordered a soldier to cut her throat, which for some reason worked when the other expedients failed.
And so passed Lucy of Syracuse on the 13 day of December. Sabine Baring-Gould observes, “It is not improbable that a virgin Lucy did suffer at Syracuse, and died by the sword, but the Acts are worthless.” A couple of centuries before Pedro de Ribadeneyra felt a bit more confident, saying “the story of her life and Martyrdom is taken out of very ancient, and authentical books,” though he notes that he does not know why she is “commonly painted with her eyes in a dish, which she holds in her hands”, nor does the story recount “that she plucked out her eyes to deliuer herself from a lasciuious yong man who persecuted her, as some do write.” Personally I’m not even that confident that she ever existed. And yet she is still celebrated, even if none of his really have the faintest idea why. There’s glory for you, of a sort.

11 December 2018

The Pundit (2014)

[Originally posted in 2014]
dd things qualify an otherwise unremarkable person to become a pundit—a failed vice-presidential run based on having held a largely ceremonial job as village mayor, for example. A few speeches written for an actual vice-president. Claimed predictions of dire events. A thirty-year sojourn on top of a pillar.
That last one was what qualified Daniel the Stylite, an otherwise-unremarkable small-town monk, to advise an emperor in the warped world that was the Fifth Century of the Common Era, that liminal moment between Antiquity and the Dark Ages when the western Roman Empire tottered on the brink and finally gave up the ghost. That ghost—we know it as the Great Church—animated its twitching corpse and held the living Eastern Empire in its grip.
And that’s the clue to Daniel’s career. He probably never stood a chance of anything resembling a normal life. It’s not only that the times were out of joint—when were they not?—but that his mother promised him to God before he was born. By the time he was twelve he was hanging out at the local monastery full-time.
Present-day Christianity is strange enough to the uninitiated, but ancient Christianity was something else again. Today we think of snake-handlers and tongue-speakers as bizarre fringe-figures in Christianity. Even faith-healers are out there. These were mainstream in Christianity back then. To be noticed you had to do something really dramatic. Vows of silence, self-flagellation, never washing—these were the sorts of things you had to do to get noticed. A guy named Simeon came up with a new gimmick; he climbed up to the top of a pillar and stayed there, supplied with food by acolytes and curiosity-seekers.
On a trip to Antioch with his superior Daniel heard of this guy and wanted to see him. Hoisted up to the top of the pillar, Daniel conversed with him and received his blessing. Apparently it made an impression on him.
His first attempt at notoriety wasn’t pillar-sitting, however. After the superior died Daniel briefly took over his position, but soon abandoned it to live among the jackals and owls—and reputedly evil spirits—in an abandoned temple. Despite the annoyance this caused the neighbors, Daniel acquired a reputation as a saint and miracle-worker.
He’d been at this for some time when he ran into Sergius, Simeon’s acolyte. The pillar-sitter had died, it seemed, leaving Sergius his religious garb. Sergius had tried to pass the relics on to the Emperor Leo, but had been unsuccessful. Daniel seized on the opportunity. Why not take over Simeon’s gig? Sitting on a pillar was no doubt an improvement on living with jackals, and possession of the saint’s castoffs was authority enough, it seems, especially with Sergius willing to sign on as Daniel’s acolyte, assuming that Daniel wanted the position. Daniel immediately started looking for a likely pillar.
The pillars of the old temple were in too bad a shape to serve, but one of his fans set him up with a new pillar, and early one morning Daniel climbed on top of it, “where he soon became an object of curiosity and devotion to the sight-seers and pious of Byzanium,” according to Sabine Baring-Gould. “Crowds came to see him, and brought lunatics and sick people to be healed by him. Those who were afflicted were hoisted up to the top of the pillar, and then Daniel applies his hands to them, and was so successful as to cure many.”
As a pillar-dweller he was a hit. The Emperor Leo not only built him a more sumptuous pillar with a roof and a small room to protect him from the elements, but also came to consult him on matters of state. The Emperor Zeno, in his turn, consulted Daniel on matters both great and small. At one point Daniel predicted that Constantinople would suffer from a great fire, which it did—a connection that apparently raised no eyebrows in those simpler times.
In the end the celebrated pillar-sitter passed on at the age of eighty. His hagiographer tells it as follows:
Just about the time of his holy departure from this life a man vexed with an unclean spirit suddenly cried aloud in the midst of the people, announcing the presence of the saints with the holy man, naming each one of them; and he said, “There is great joy in heaven at this hour, for the holy angels have come to take the holy man with them, besides there are come, too, the honourable and glorious companies of prophets and apostles and martyrs and saints; they are tormenting me now, and to-morrow at the third hour they will drive me out of this tabernacle; when the holy man is going to his home in the heavens and his saintly corpse is being brought down, I shall come out.” And this did indeed happen. Our glorious father Daniel died at the third hour on the following day, a Saturday, December 11th in the second indiction (A.D. 493), and at the time of his death he worked a miracle in that the man with an unclean spirit was healed.
The people wanted a last look at the revered pundit. To accommodate them the local authorites had the body fastened to a board and raised upright so all could see and admire. When the body was taken down there was such a stampede that the men carrying it were knocked down along with the body. “By the grace of the Lord the carriers did not suffer any injury” according to his hagiographer.
It was a grotesque coda to a grotesque life. Daniel’s reward (I suppose) was to have influence in the halls of the incompetents holding the actual reins of power. It was probably worth living with jackals or standing for three decades atop a pillar, if that’s the price you have to pay for the cloak of authority. [11 Dc 2014]

10 December 2018

Peace and Good Will—We Should Be So Lucky (2014)

[Posted in 2014]
oday is Human Rights Day, commemorating the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly on this day in 1948. And how appropriate it is to the season. Consider Article 1:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Damn right. In a way it’s sad that the remaining twenty-nine articles have to exist at all, spelling out that people should not be tortured (Article 4) or enslaved (Article 5), or deprived of employment (Article 23) or leisure (Article 24) or education (Article 26). Shouldn’t this all go without saying? Apparently not; when the nation that prides itself on being the city on the hill and the beacon of hope for the world descends to torture and degradation of human beings for political ends all bets are off.
The release of the heavily-censored report on torture in the United States comes to us during this joyous season, thanks to the vagaries of politics and our President’s lame-duck attempt to kill it altogether. And this on top of the spate of random police officers killing unarmed civilians over minor crimes or perceived threats. Not that the rest of the world has that much to boast of, with Pakistan orchestrating lynchings over the purely imaginary crime of blasphemy, Russia and Uganda persecuting gay people and anybody who so much as says such persecution is wrong, Ireland and Saudi Arabia engaging in the worst kind of religious oppression, India’s promotion of rape … All, all are guilty.
On the whole a noble document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights favors good things—equality before the law (7), equal pay for equal work (23), the right to privacy (12), freedom of thought (18), freedom of opinion and expression (19), freedom of movement (13), the right to an adequate standard of living (25), the right to enjoy and arts and share in scientific advancement (27), and so on. It lies squarely in the tradition represented by classic US documents like The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
If there’s a single document that spells out the meaning of the season in practical terms, this is it. It was supported in 1948 by states as disparate as Afghanistan and Mexico, Egypt and Thailand, Syria and the United States, Iceland and Turkey. No one voted against it, though a handful of states (including unsurprisingly Saudi Arabia, the Soviet Union, and the then-segregated Union of South Africa) abstained from voting.
Too bad we can’t live up to it. [10 Dc 2014]

08 December 2018

ATTN: Time-Travellers (2009)

[Originally posted 8 December 2009 here at Rational Rant.]
his is Pretend to be a Time Traveler Day, in which the objective is to try to blend in unobtrusively with current customs and mores.  Some suggested activities include:
·         Greeting people by referring to phenomena of the past and future; some examples might be: “What spectrum will today’s broadcast be in?” or “Is this song available on 78?” or “Can you direct me to the nearest sleep deprivation chamber?”
·         Walking up to random people and asking them, “What year is this?” and on hearing their reply, muttering (after a moment’s pause), “Then there’s still time” before hurrying off.
·         Standing in front of a statue, falling to your knees, and yelling “Nooooo!”
·         Dressing in moderately anachronistic clothing and speaking in slang from varying decades.
This one really appeals to me; I think it was my father who used to suggest that one way of appreciating the mundane world was to imagine oneself as a time traveler experiencing the past (or future) for the first time. [8 Dc 2009]

06 December 2018

A Fine Piece of Police Work (2002)

[Passage from my journal, written 12:21 a.m. on 6 December 2002]
’ve been mostly sleeping the past few days, or weeks, or whatever, so everything’s kind of screwed up. Today I got up at five in the afternoon (Darryl was at the door), watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer from six to eight mostly up in my room, and then something on Court TV called The Interrogation of Michael Crowe. This was a fascinating account of how the police somewhere in southern California framed a kid for the murder of his sister by convincing him that he must have done the murder even though he didn’t remember it and urging him to give a false confession so that the system would show him some leniency. “You have my personal guarantee that the help you need will be forthcoming” said the detective, if the kid gave a detailed confession. They had an avalanche of evidence, he claimed, that would bury him. What disgusts me about the whole thing is not that they picked on the kid in the first place—that he did it was not an unreasonable hypothesis after all—but that they decided to go for this bogus confession rather than do any actual investigatory work. The police actually had in their hands (as it turned out) a shirt with Stephanie Crowe’s blood on it that belonged to a transient who was in the area that night, and who may well have been the guilty party. (At the very least he has some explaining to do.) But the police took the short cut of going for the confession rather than looking for evidence, which is slipshod work at best (confessions are never as reliable as hard evidence). And the upshot of this fine piece of police work was that they put a bereaved family through hell and let the real killer of this little girl (she was twelve years old) go free. Even when they had the solid evidence in their hands the authorities screwed around for awhile apparently trying to figure out if they couldn’t come up with something to save their asses. [5/6 Dc 2002]

05 December 2018

Time Out in the Great Beyond (2012)

[Originally posted at Rational Rant on 5 December 2012]
hen 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 the 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. [5 Dc 2012]

04 December 2018

A Deteriorating Stand-Off (1979)

[Passage from my journal, written 4 December 1979 at 11:46 pm PST]
he things are crawling out from the walls of the nation now; the wood is rotten. This is not a good time for the United States, nor for my own country [Cascadia]. It is revolting when it is somehow treasonous to criticize the Shah of Iran, ex-Shah really and ex-Iranian, a bloody tyrant who—bluntly—deserved to lose his country. I am not going to change my beliefs just because his replacement is another of his ilk and further has showed his true colors by not only supporting the murderous PLO but also by holding hostages with his own already bloody hands. For my part I support this Iranian revolution—stupid though many of its manifestations be—as a return to the basics of the cultural fabric. But it has shown itself bankrupt in its fruits and in its leader. It has massacred Kurds and Arabs, slaughtered its political enemies, and directed violence against its women. Were it not for this last incident, Khomeini’s regime would have collapsed by now, or would be in the process of collapsing—if it hasn’t collapsed already.
The things are crawling out of the rotten wood. God help us when the Ku Klux Klan—which only recently massacred unarmed folk at a rally—is cheered for planning a counterdemonstration in favor of the Shah. God help us all when the PLO can appear as a savior, as a responsible organization—when still engaged in its illicit traffic in human lives. And God help us all when holy men call for war.
The logic of the situation inevitably is leading to war, because there is literally no way out for either party, short of intervention from heaven. Consider this—there is no way that the terrorists in Iran can back down now, without losing face and in any case it is clear that they are living in a very alternative universe. They may seriously believe that there is a chance of the US handing over the ex-Shah—although it is difficult for me to imagine how, given my mindset. More probably they realize that there is no chance of this happening (and have realized this from the start) but are caught up in the push of events. In either case they cannot moderate their demands now—how? Would they be satisfied with the handing over of a ransom from the ex-Shah (always assuming the ex-Shah is willing to pay such a forfeit)? I wouldn’t be, in their place. What then? A UN inquiry, rather than justice? When the UN is obviously dominated by the CIA? I may well be caricaturing their views, but I feel that has to be the direction they’re going, to judge from their rhetoric—a poor source, but what I’ve got. What compromise is possible?—the ex-Shah cannot be halfway handed over.
But they are trapped, nonetheless. They cannot get the Shah, and their only alternative is to sit forever in the embassy with the hostages. Really, they cannot proceed to the next step without great difficulty. Killing the hostages would likely provoke US reaction and (discounting the words involved) would be avoided. Even staging a mock trial I believe is more dangerous than they dare to go. They may of course go ahead with such shows, but they must realize what toboggan they are climbing on in that instance; they will escalate the shouting but must hold off on action.
Neither can the US act now. Again, there is no way that the US can give in on this point. But military action is basically impossible until the hostages are killed—at which point it becomes pointless. Economic actions on either side will have no real results. So—
So it’s a deteriorating stand-off. Deteriorating, because both sides must give the appearance of taking steps, and sooner or later one will have to cross the line. The US must move closer to military action, while the terrorists towards their trials. We both realize that the other is bluffing; but we also both know that our bluffs will sooner or later be called.
If any of the US folk are put on trial (perhaps with confessions extracted under torture) then the US will have to take action—either that or back down. If it invades Iran, then the interests of the Russian Empire are threatened inevitably (just as they were when the US had a military presence there). The US would certainly take a dim view of Russian maneuvers in say Mexico—and the reverse holds true. A US/Russian Empire conflict in Iran is not out of the question, although I do not think it would go further. I don’t think it would, but it is not a desirable thing to have happening.
I had intended to say a few things about the perceptions of the Iranian terrorists, who can see the CIA as being so powerful. It is sad to think of the kind of oppression that would produce this misconception—misconception outside of Iran, I mean, not necessarily inside. But I am tired, and the night is wearing on, and soon, when I turn out the lights, the things will again creep out of the woodwork. [4 Dc 1979]

03 December 2018

Three Short Notes [1990]

[A repost from 3 December 1990]
wo instances of surprising ignorance in my weekend’s reading: Bruce Michelson in an essay on The Mysterious Stranger mentions that Mark Twain already had the idea for the book before The Innocents Abroad; he goes on to say “In the Alta California letters from which Twain’s first real book developed, there is a sketch for an ‘Apocryphal New Testament,’ in which Jesus returns to earth as a playful boy:”—and the passage that follows is Twain’s description of two incidents (the clay birds and the dyer’s shop) from the Infancy Gospels. It sure looks as if Michelson thought Twain was inventing a plot, instead of repeating a well-known story, and even if Michelson somehow was unfamiliar with the Infancy Gospels, he must have read The Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts, and this matter is dealt with in the introduction. (Another oddity is the fact that Michelson speaks of the second manuscript (Young Satan) as if it were the first, and overlooks the first (“Mr. Black” etc.) altogether.)
In Tell Me Why Tim Riley seems to think that George Harrison wrote the words of “The Inner Light” (from the Tao Te Ching), instead of merely setting them to music. “George’s philosophical musings are less condescending than those of ‘Within You Without You,’…” And yet, even if we grant Riley’s ignorance of one of the greatest religious works of all time, he has read I, Me, Mine, and that should have straightened him out. Worse yet, in his description of The Beatles Forever he quote Schaffner as saying, “The lyrics to Harrison’s ‘The Inner Light’ were ‘pinched almost verbatim from a Japanese poem by Roshi, translated by R. H. Bluth’”.
George Bush, it is reported, has appointed Robert Martinez of Florida to the post of drug czar here in the land of the free—another illustration of how phony this “war” on drugs really is. During Martinez’s reign in Florida drug use has increased. What is the secret of his success? He emphasizes punishment over education, jail over treatment. How does Bush justify his choice? He points out that 61 (or some such number) men have been executed in Florida during Martinez’s rule—a revealing admission. It’s blatant now—he doesn’t even bother to hide the fact that the “war on drugs” is a phony war to conceal the real war on the Bill of Rights. One thing’s for sure—whether we have Conservatives or Moderates in office, the government gets more and more power over the citizen. [3 Dc 1990]
[Note and Update: The Bruce Michelson essay referred to above was “Deus Ludens: The Shaping of Mark Twain’s ‘Mysterious Stranger’” in NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Autumn, 1980), pp. 44-56. (8 Ap 2011)]

Copyright © 2005-2023