May 10, 2012

Stevenson on Pepys...

(You almost certainly already know this, but Samuel Pepys' name was pronounced "peeps." I remember feeling awkward as a youth when my dad corrected my pronunciation. The Bezan was a dutch-built yacht. King Charles II, who Pepys served for much of his life, was the main inventor of yachting as a sport. The Hope is a stretch of the Thames below Gravesend.)

Portrait of Samuel Pepys

...The whole world, town or country, was to Pepys a garden of Armida. Wherever he went his steps were winged with the most eager expectation; whatever he did, it was done with the most lively pleasure. An insatiable curiosity in all the shows of the world and all the secrets of knowledge, filled him brimful of the longing to travel, and supported him in the toils of study. Rome was the dream of his life; he was never happier than when he read or talked of the Eternal City. When he was in Holland, he was 'with child' to see any strange thing. Meeting some friends and singing with them in a palace near the Hague, his pen fails him to express his passion of delight, 'the more so because in a heaven of pleasure and in a strange country.'

He must go to see all famous executions. He must needs visit the body of a murdered man, defaced 'with a broad wound,' he says, 'that makes my hand now shake to write of it.' He learned to dance, and was 'like to make a dancer.' He learned to sing, and walked about Gray's Inn Fields 'humming to myself (which is now my constant practice) the trillo.' He learned to play the lute, the flute, the flageolet, and the theorbo, and it was not the fault of his intention if he did not learn the harpsichord or the spinet. He learned to compose songs, and burned to give forth 'a scheme and theory of music not yet ever made in the world.' When he heard 'a fellow whistle like a bird exceeding well,' he promised to return another day and give an angel for a lesson in the art. Once, he writes, 'I took the Bezan back with me, and with a brave gale and tide reached up that night to the Hope, taking great pleasure in learning the seamen's manner of singing when they sound the depths.'

If he found himself rusty in his Latin grammar, he must fall to it like a schoolboy. He was a member of Harrington's Club till its dissolution, and of the Royal Society before it had received the name. Boyle's Hydrostatics was 'of infinite delight' to him, walking in Barnes Elms. We find him comparing Bible concordances, a captious judge of sermons, deep in Descartes and Aristotle. We find him, in a single year, studying timber and the measurement of timber; tar and oil, hemp, and the process of preparing cordage; mathematics and accounting; the hull and the rigging of ships from a model; and 'looking and improving himself of the (naval) stores with' - hark to the fellow! - 'great delight'...
---Robert Louis Stevenson


Posted by John Weidner at 9:51 PM

November 26, 2011

Amen, brother Albert....

One of the more odd-but-meaningful moments of my life was in 1971. One of my professors at UC Berkeley was the well-known architecture critic Allen Temko. He brought a batch of his students over to SF for the "unveiling" of the Vaillancourt Fountain, and we handed out his flyers deriding it. (I remember the flyer described Justin Herman as "the Gauleiter of the Redevelopment Agency.") It was a signal moment of my life, though it took me 3 decades to really start to "see" it. To see what it meant.

Burke touches [the] matter of patriotism with a searching phrase. 'For us to love our country,' he said, 'our country ought to be lovely.' I have sometimes thought that here may be the rock on which Western civilization will finally shatter itself. Economism can build a society which is rich, prosperous, powerful, even one which has a reasonably wide diffusion of material well-being. It can not build one which is lovely, one which has savour and depth, and which exercises the irresistible attraction that loveliness wields. Perhaps by the time economism has run its course the society it has built may be tired of itself, bored by its own hideousness, and may despairingly consent to annihilation, aware that it is too ugly to be let live any longer.
      -- Albert J. Nock

Well, we can see this all around us. It's plain as a pikestaff, but no one wants to see. Look at this picture of the Vaillancourt Fountain, with the Ferry Building behind it...

Nihilist Vaillancourt Fountain and noble tower

Our world is belatedly becoming conscious that there's something very bad going on with birthrates. (If you are new to our brave new situation, "TFR" stands for Total Fertility Rate. It's how demographers designate birthrates. The TFR number is births-per-woman. A TFR of 2.1 is replacement rate. That is, the birth-rate at which population will stay the same. Below that, population shrinks. Above, it grows. Europe now has an average TFR of 1.5. Europe is toast.)

The book to read right now is David P. Goldman's How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too) (I wish I had the ooompf to write a full review, but I did write a bit here.)

Goldman points out that the most reliable correlation is between birth rates and faith. Family size correlates with frequency of religious observance. (This is not controversial, demographers are in agreement on this one.) I'd like to suggest that there is something else that dovetails with birthrates, although it can't be quantified or pinned down.

Knowing what we know now, I will submit with confidence that the people who built the tower in the background had a TFR of at least 3. And the people responsible for the abomination in the foreground—that's you, SF liberals—have a TFR well south of 2.

Beauty is really a proxy for something deeper. Beauty comes from God. The San Franciscans who built the Ferry Building and its towering 1898 were still in touch with the deep wells of faith from which beauty grows. (Explicit religious observance was in decline, and the architect may not have been a church-goer, but, as those who have followed my arguments about nihilism will understand, the habits of Judaism and Christianity still lingered on.)

Liberalism is the idea that we humans can navigate ourselves, without need for outside landmarks or guide-stars. [Link] One expression of that idea has long been that art and poetry etc will flourish once people are liberated from the shackles of religion and tradition and stuffy morality. So, human race, how's that bit of hopey-changy working' out for you? Hmm? Are we all happy with the buildings we are getting? With the poems—do they linger in your mind like a fragrance? How about paintings and sculpture? Do they make your life sweeter? Or nobler?

This has turned into a stream of consciousness post, and I should really outline my thoughts and re-write it. Ha ha, how likely is that? Maybe later.

Posted by John Weidner at 12:54 PM

October 7, 2011

The Amazon.com Associates program is back...

...For California residents.

So I'll post a belated link to the David P. Goldman book I wrote about here. Excellent. And to I. J. Parker, whose mysteries I mentioned here. And the Disney biography recommended by Terry here.

   

Posted by John Weidner at 9:13 PM

September 18, 2011

Book recommendation; best we've read this year...

Lightning strike at Edwards AFB

Charlene and I are both reading How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too), by David P. Goldman (who is the columnist called "Spengler.") It is really really good. And scary.

Even we, who have been following demographic news, and have read America Alone, by Mark Steyn, are flabbergasted by Goldman's stats on the many many countries in demographic (and spiritual) collapse. I've heard many times, for instance, that Palestinian birthrates are going to swamp Israeli Jews. Not true; the rates are now about the same, with Jewish Israelis still rising, and Palestinian rates still falling. (With current trends, by the end of this century Israel will have more men of military age than Germany!)

The following is an excerpt from a recent article by Goldman, which will give you a bit of the flavor of the book. But the book is about far more than Islam's problems...

Spengler -- Erdogan Has Good Reason To Be Crazy ..

...The New York Times' Thomas Friedman blames Israel for not apologizing to the Turks. But one doesn't want to apologize to Erdogan. You don't want to talk to him. Don't make eye contact. We New Yorkers learn that on the subway. It seems mad to take on Washington, Brussels, Moscow, as well as Jerusalem, all in the same week. What is driving the Turkish prime minister round the twist?

The Arab world is in free fall. Leave aside Syria, whose regime continues to massacre its own people, and miserable Yemen, and post-civil war Libya. Egypt is dying. Erdogan's "triumphal" appearance in Egypt served as a welcome distraction to Egyptians — welcome, because what they think about most of the time is disheartening. What's on the mind of the Egyptian people these days? According to the Arab-language local media, it's finding enough calories to get through the day.

Egypt imports half its caloric consumption, the price of its staple wheat remains at an all-time high, and most Egyptians can't afford to buy it. The government subsidizes bread, but according to the Egyptian news site Youm7 ("The Seventh Day"), the country now faces "an escalating crisis in subsidized flour." Packages of subsidized flour are not reaching the intended recipients, in part because the Solidarity Ministry hasn't provided the promised shipments to stores, and in part because subsidized flour and bread are diverted to the black market. A small loaf of government-issue bread costs 5 piasters, or less than one U.S. cent, but it can't be found in many areas, as the Solidarity Ministry, provincial government, and bakers trade accusations of responsibility for supply problems. Poor Egyptians get ration cards, but flour often is not available to card-holders. Rice, a substitute for wheat, also is in short supply, and the price has risen recently to 5.5 Egyptian pounds per kilo from 3.75 pounds.

Most Egyptians barely eat enough to keep body and soul together, and many are hungry. That is about to get much, much worse: The country is short about $20 billion a year. The central bank reports that the country's current account deficit in the fiscal year ended July 1 swung from a $3.4 billion surplus in the fiscal year ended July 2010 to a deficit of $9.2 billion in the fiscal year ended July 2011. Almost all of the shift into red ink occurred since February, suggesting an annualized deficit of around $20 billion. Egypt's reserves fell about $11 billion since the uprising began in February. Who's going to cough up that kind of money? Not Turkey, whose own balance-of-payment deficit stands at 11% of GDP and whose currency is collapsing, as shown in the chart below:

Not the U.S. Congress, for that matter, nor the hard-pressed Europeans, who have their own problems, nor the Saudis, who can be counted on for a few billion here and there, but not $20 billion a year. I reiterate: Egypt will make Somalia look like a picnic.

It doesn't occur to liberals that there are problems for which solutions might not exist; the notion that cultures and countries may suffer from tragic flaws does not enter into consideration, because if that were true, there would be no need for liberals. That is why Friedman, the bellwether of liberal opinion, sounds stupider than anyone else when he describes Israel as "alone and adrift at sea." If only Netanyahu had offered his own peace plan, complains Friedman...to Hamas? A news analysis in the Times meanwhile reports the Obama administration's consternation that every pillar of its foreign policy is crumbling at once.

If the Obama administration and the New York Times are pulling their hair out over the disintegration of Arab society, consider how Tayyip Erdogan must feel. His economic boom is about to come to a crashing end, and his country is doomed demographically to split up when Kurds outnumber Turks not long from now, as I argued here recently. And his ambitions for Turkish hegemony in the Muslim world have run directly into an existential crisis that is long past solution. That would make anyone crazy. Don't think of the Turkish leader as an outpatient who lost his meds. In the spirit of political correctness, we might call him "existentially challenged. "...
Posted by John Weidner at 8:06 PM

August 30, 2011

A few little things...

....That I don't have the time and energy to make whole posts about...

Art madness. Via my daughter, here's an art student who created an illuminated copy of Tolkien's Silmarillion. A huge amount of work, but he's won undying fame. Or at least notoriety. It looks great, maybe someone will print a facsimile...

Good reads! Charlene and I are enjoying I. J. Parker's series of mystery novels set in Heian Japan, about 1,000 years ago. It's the period of the famous novel Tale of Genji. We've spent twenty years or more wishing that there were more of van Gulik's splendid Chinese Judge Dee mysteries for us to read. Parker is almost at that level.

And if you've never read van Gulik, well, you have a treat you could indulge in. My favorites are perhaps The Chinese Bell Murders, and Poets and Murder.

Game recommendation. From ME? Absurd. I go for years without playing a computer game. But, I love the iPhone game Contra Jour. Playing it is sort of like falling into an odd spooky dream world. Silly, but charming. Contra jour, (literally "against the light") is the French term in photography equivalent to "back lit."

Posted by John Weidner at 8:59 PM

August 25, 2011

Steve Jobs story...

A sort of answer to those who imagine that Apple's success is just a matter of "marketing."

The wrong yellow gradient:

Steve Jobs called up Google's Vic Gundotra on a Sunday morning to get an urgent fix for something they were working on, and Gundotra was gracious enough to share the story on Google+.
"So Vic, we have an urgent issue, one that I need addressed right away. I've already assigned someone from my team to help you, and I hope you can fix this tomorrow" said Steve.

"I've been looking at the Google logo on the iPhone and I'm not happy with the icon. The second O in Google doesn't have the right yellow gradient. It's just wrong and I'm going to have Greg fix it tomorrow. Is that okay with you?"

Of course this was okay with me. A few minutes later on that Sunday I received an email from Steve with the subject "Icon Ambulance". The email directed me to work with Greg Christie to fix the icon....

You can see the offending icon at the link.

I can only think of a few comparable business leaders. Henry Ford was the same sort of obsessive perfectionist. And Walt Disney. (Terry recommended the book Walt Disney, by Neil Gabler, in a comment at my post on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Good book! I was astonished to discover that the ambitious 20,000 Leagues was the company's first live-action film made in the US. They had made a couple of films in Britain, including Treasure Island, to use money that was stuck there due to post-war currency controls.)

* Update: This also is an indicator of why Apple has always been lousy at anything network-ish. Networks of any kind are inherently messy and imperfect. They can never be gem-like objects. Apple's attempts with things like dot.mac and iDisk and Moblle.Me have been huge disappointments. I'm hoping that iCloud will break the jinx.

Posted by John Weidner at 8:21 AM

July 15, 2011

Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age...

AOG comments here, on my mention of Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age

There are a lot of gems in The Diamond Age. I thought you would particularly like the way personal repression is tied to societal success (e.g. the neo-Victorians vs. the fringe).

I assure you I found it fascinating.

I would not myself use the term "repression." Maybe "self-discipline," or "moral virtues."

My recollection is that the neo-Victorians in the book just decided to form that sort of society ab initio. I'm pretty sure that will not happen, and would not work.

Liberalism, on a deep level, is the idea that we humans can navigate ourselves, using reason, without recourse to landmarks or guide stars outside of our own human realm. (Libertarianism is just a sub-set of this idea.) I've posted some thoughts on this here.

If liberalism is true, one would expect phenomena like the neo-Victorians. That is, one would expect the commonly seen "entropy" and decay of inherited societal virtues to reverse from time to time, by purely human decision. (As opposed to, say, religious conversion.) I haven't seen it, and I predict that it won't happen.

Show me I'm wrong!

From another angle, the neo-Victorians are a fictional example of the common liberal idea that humans can invent and use workable systems of morality without recourse to religion. I haven't seen that fly either. How's that Ethical Culture movement workin' out for ya?

(Disclaimer: I really sought to re-read Stephenson's book. I'm going on memories from the 1990's, and that's a way long time ago!)

Posted by John Weidner at 7:33 PM

Pet peeve (re-posted from 2003)

Something that really bugs me is Science Fiction writers who are afraid of the future, or at least don't want to deal with it.

I just noticed an SF book that (in the blurb) was about a "grey, gritty industrial future." Gimme a break. That's the industrial past. We're IN the industrial future, and the result is an almost nauseating riot of garish color. Just pay a visit to Toys 'r Us...You will wish we we were still in the grey industrial stage...Thank God my children are now old enough that I can avoid that swamp...

For the real future, there's that guy in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age who makes his mark by inventing animated ads that appear on disposable wooden chopsticks!

I'd post an Amazon link to The Diamond Age, and whatever else struck my fancy.... except that my Amazon Associates account is stopped, due to a new California law that tries to apply sales tax to our sales, though of course I ship nothing from California--I just refer business elsewhere. Pfoooey. Reason #23,099 why I loathe Democrats. (Or rather, their evil stupid ideas--many Dems are personally quite acceptable. But brain-dead.)

Lefty Democrats, you not only stink, your day is just about over. You are the thecodonts, we are the dinosaurs!

Lefties at Yearly Kos


Posted by John Weidner at 2:53 PM

February 24, 2011

I don't think I'll read this book...

...But the description did inspire an evil cackle.

Middle-earth according to Mordor - Laura Miller - Salon.com:

...In Yeskov's retelling, the wizard Gandalf is a war-monger intent on crushing the scientific and technological initiative of Mordor and its southern allies because science "destroys the harmony of the world and dries up the souls of men!" He's in cahoots with the elves, who aim to become "masters of the world," and turn Middle-earth into a "bad copy" of their magical homeland across the sea. Barad-dur, also known as the Dark Tower and Sauron's citadel, is, by contrast, described as "that amazing city of alchemists and poets, mechanics and astronomers, philosophers and physicians, the heart of the only civilization in Middle-earth to bet on rational knowledge and bravely pitch its barely adolescent technology against ancient magic."

Because Gandalf refers to Mordor as the "Evil Empire" and is accused of crafting a "Final Solution to the Mordorian problem" by rival wizard Saruman, he obviously serves as an avatar for Russia's 20th-century foes. But the juxtaposition of the willfully feudal and backward "West," happy with "picking lice in its log 'castles'" while Mordor cultivates learning and embraces change, also recalls the clash be...

I doubt if the joke can really work at book length. But it is funny.

Posted by John Weidner at 7:34 AM

February 17, 2011

"Joshua fit de Battle of Jericho"...but it wasn't the bloodbath you thought it was

I recently bought a very interesting book, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? by William Dever.

I've always been a bit uncomfortable with the story of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites. As the story goes it's a bloody mess. Downright genocidal, in fact, and that at the command of God. That's where a lot of the "wrathful God of the Old Testament" stuff comes from. And even though I'm one of those violent Tea-Partiers, mass slaughter can get a bit tiresome!

But the odd fact is that the archeological record does not show much evidence of war and destruction in Palestine in the relevant time-period, late 13th Century to early 12th BCE.

Canaan, the region we call Palestine, was then divided up into fairly small (think 25 miles wide) city-states, under petty "kings." These were typical Middle Eastern states with a traditional pattern of agriculture practiced mostly in the flatlands and lowlands. Featuring great estates, oppressive nobles, and miserable slaves and serfs and peasants. And all of them more or less under the thumb of Egypt. However, in this period the little Canaanite kingdoms seem to have gone into decline, with fewer signs of wealth found in excavations. But not evidently suffering from much destruction or conquest

At that same time, something new was happening. Settlements were growing up in the nearby Palestinian hills, where few had lived before. Often right on a hill-top. And those settlements seem to have been egalitarian hamlets, without signs of social stratification. No big-shots, no kings, no landlords. (Continued)

 

The people who settled the hills were creating new land and wealth by the extensive use of technology, including terracing, silos and cisterns. There is little sign that they were fleeing attackers—they weren't building any fortifications, and few weapons have been found. Nor do they seem to have driven anyone else off the hills.

Dever feels that, despite the lack of inscriptions or distinctive pottery, these people were ethnically Israelite. The same type of pillar-and-courtyard house they built is what is considered typical of the Israelites a century or two later. That the Israelites were not conquerers from outside as much as they were a local development from out of Canaanite culture.

But remember, the Canaanite petty kings were all vassals of Egypt. So it could be said that the new Israelite culture was in fact based on escape from bondage to Egypt! Dever takes no position on the historical reality of Moses, but one can infer that if some people did indeed escape from Egypt (maybe the Joseph tribes, who play a disproportionate role in the story), their history could become the defining story for the larger culture. And the stories of bloody conquest are just what would seem natural and proper as explanations in those days. God could have worked through these people in a more peaceful way than the stories tell.

Of course Israel eventually adopted the usual organization of kings and aristocrats and standing armies and corvees. But it is interesting that many passages in the OT assume that the right way of life is one without kings or landlords, with everybody sitting under his own fig tree, etc.

There's also I think an interesting similarity to Victor Hanson's thinking in his fascinating book The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization. That what really made Greece what it was was a movement during the Greek Dark Age (c. 8th Century BCE) of people leaving the old-style aristocratic grain-and-cattle agriculture of the flatlands, and "homesteading" small plots of typically about 10 acres up on the unused hillsides. They developed a diverse and intensive agriculture, with vines, olives, grain, fruit-trees, vegetables, animals. This was extremely productive, at a cost of year-round labor, and much thought and experimentation. Leading to a culture of thinking and individuality and sturdy democratic values.

Posted by John Weidner at 8:01 PM

January 10, 2011

The secret of life lies in laughter and humility...

From Heretics by Gilbert Keith Chesterton: Ch. 9: The Moods of Mr. George Moore:

...If we compare this solemn folly with the happy folly with which [Robert Louis] Stevenson belauds his own books and berates his own critics, we shall not find it difficult to guess why it is that Stevenson at least found a final philosophy of some sort to live by, while Mr. Moore is always walking the world looking for a new one. Stevenson had found that the secret of life lies in laughter and humility. Self is the gorgon. Vanity sees it in the mirror of other men and lives. Pride studies it for itself and is turned to stone.

It is necessary to dwell on this defect in Mr. Moore, because it is really the weakness of work which is not without its strength. Mr. Moore's egoism is not merely a moral weakness, it is a very constant and influential aesthetic weakness as well. We should really be much more interested in Mr. Moore if he were not quite so interested in himself. We feel as if we were being shown through a gallery of really fine pictures, into each of which, by some useless and discordant convention, the artist had represented the same figure in the same attitude. "The Grand Canal with a distant view of Mr. Moore," "Effect of Mr. Moore through a Scotch Mist," "Mr. Moore by Firelight," "Ruins of Mr. Moore by Moonlight," and so on, seems to be the endless series.

He would no doubt reply that in such a book as this he intended to reveal himself. But the answer is that in such a book as this he does not succeed. One of the thousand objections to the sin of pride lies precisely in this, that self-consciousness of necessity destroys self-revelation. A man who thinks a great deal about himself will try to be many-sided, attempt a theatrical excellence at all points, will try to be an encyclopaedia of culture, and his own real personality will be lost in that false universalism. Thinking about himself will lead to trying to be the universe; trying to be the universe will lead to ceasing to be anything. If, on the other hand, a man is sensible enough to think only about the universe; he will think about it in his own individual way. He will keep virgin the secret of God; he will see the grass as no other man can see it, and look at a sun that no man has ever known. This fact is very practically brought out in Mr. Moore's "Confessions." In reading them we do not feel the presence of a clean-cut personality like that of Thackeray and Matthew Arnold. We only read a number of quite clever and largely conflicting opinions which might be uttered by any clever person, but which we are called upon to admire specifically, because they are uttered by Mr. Moore....
Posted by John Weidner at 11:12 PM

November 29, 2010

Never ridicule windows...

I'm browsing an old friend of a book, The Path to Rome by Hillaire Belloc, 1902. It's a tale he lived and wrote when he was a young and poor writer, and made a vow to walk from Toul to Rome. The charm of the book is inexpressible. It was the making of Belloc, and had a huge literary influence. He was writing in the time of the "Decadents," and the Aesthetic Movement, and Wilde and Beardsley and Pater, and others of the same weedy reedy type.

And the world was really ready for a change, and didn't know what sort of change it wanted, until Belloc gave it to them! The young poets of the next generation went off to the trenches with The Path to Rome in their knapsacks.

...The very first thing I noticed in St Ursanne was the extraordinary shape of the lower windows of the church. They lighted a crypt and ran along the ground, which in itself was sufficiently remarkable, but much more remarkable was their shape, which seemed to me to approach that of a horseshoe; I never saw such a thing before. It looked as though the weight of the church above had bulged these little windows out, and that is the way I explain it. Some people would say it was a man coming home from the Crusades that had made them this eastern way, others that it was a symbol of something or other. But I say—

LECTOR. What rhodomontade and pedantry is this talk about the shape of a window?

AUCTOR. Little friend, how little you know! To a building windows are everything; they are what eyes are to a man. Out of windows a building takes its view; in windows the outlook of its human inhabitants is framed. If you were the lord of a very high tower overlooking a town, a plain, a river, and a distant hill (I doubt if you will ever have such luck!), would you not call your architect up before you and say—

'Sir, see that the windows of my house are tall, narrow, thick, and have a round top to them'?

Of course you would, for thus you would best catch in separate pictures the sunlit things outside your home.

Never ridicule windows. It is out of windows that many fall to their deaths. By windows love often enters. Through a window went the bolt that killed King Richard. King William's father spied Arlette from a window (I have looked through it myself, but not a soul did I see washing below). When a mob would rule England, it breaks windows, and when a patriot would save her, he taxes them. Out of windows we walk on to lawns in summer and meet men and women, and in winter windows are drums for the splendid music of storms that makes us feel so masterly round our fires. The windows of the great cathedrals are all their meaning. But for windows we should have to go out-of-doors to see daylight. After the sun, which they serve, I know of nothing so beneficent as windows. Fie upon the ungrateful man that has no window-god in his house, and thinks himself too great a philosopher to bow down to windows! May he live in a place without windows for a while to teach him the value of windows. As for me, I will keep up the high worship of windows till I come to the windowless grave. Talk to me of windows!...

Posted by John Weidner at 9:00 PM

November 19, 2010

Interesting book...

Charlene and I both enjoyed the book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, by Richard Wrangham. His thesis is that the ability to make fires and cook food was a far larger factor in human evolution than has been supposed. Specifically, it was cookery that caused the jump from Homo habilis to the much larger-brained and more modern Homo erectus.

Today chimps and apes spend a large part of their time and energy just in chewing raw food. And a lot of their internal energy in digesting it. In fact chimps will often discard energy-rich meat because the chewing is just too frustrating. Cooked food is much more chewable and digestible, and can be eaten quickly. Brains make enormous energy demands on the body—your brain is about 3% of your weight and uses about 20% of your energy. Cooked food made possible a smaller gut, and that made energy available for larger brain of erectus.

The author also argues that fire allowed early humans to safely sleep on the ground, rather than in trees as chimps do. This allowed us to evolve away from tree-climbing towards being better walkers and runners. And warmth at night let us do away with fur, and so we became able to be long-distance runners, without over-heating.

And the entirety of our social life was changed, to revolve around the hearth and food cooked by wives for husbands and families. For all other primates food gathering and eating is mostly an individual activity.

Posted by John Weidner at 8:29 PM

August 19, 2010

Good prose is tough-minded and pungent...

Which is why Leftists can't write any more. (see: "Journolist." Borrrring. Boring people!)

A tweet by Sarah...

Who hijacked term:"feminist"?A cackle of rads who want 2 crucify other women w/whom they disagree on a singular issue; it's ironic (& passé)

"Cackle of rads!" I love it. She's a poet.

* Update: Hilarious (to the happy few who still read). This Lefty at TPM doesn't get the reference (and I'm sure he thinks he's smarter than Sarah, and than you and me)...

If you don't know what phrases like "cackle of rads" derive from, click on the book image..

 

Posted by John Weidner at 1:48 PM

July 5, 2010

Good book on Lincoln...

I'm reading a book I very much recommend, Lincoln at Peoria, by Louis E. Lehrman.

This section reminded me of exactly what I hate about the Civil Rights Movement. That is, that it was an orgy of self-righteousness and smugness and the insidious pleasure of feeling superior to other people. And that that has been the template for almost all leftist agitation ever since. We see today exactly the same attitude in the promoters of same-sex "marriage." Anyone who opposes them is a bigot, and deserves no respect. Likewise with those notable "civil rights" campaigns protecting our ancient hallowed right to kill unborn babies, or for women to behave like the worst men, or the right of the state to force people to build handicapped access stuff, regardless of need or expense.

...At Peoria, Lincoln remarked that though he hated slavery, he would not condemn the slaveholders of the South. He held both North and South to be complicit in America's peculiar institution and therefore did not speak of the South with the contempt that characterized many abolitionists and other anti-slavery politicians. Lincoln rarely affected a patronizing superiority. In his first major, recorded speech of the 1854 campaign—The Bloomington Pantagraph reported that Lincoln "declared that the Southern slaveholders were neither better or worse than we of the North, and that we of the North were no better than they. If we were situated as they are, we should act no better than they..." (page 241)

Posted by John Weidner at 6:00 PM

June 21, 2010

Highly recommended book...



I love books that take me behind the scenes to find out what really happened. And I love books that explain tricky things in a way I can understand. And I love mysteries and whodunits. AND, I love to witness that rarest of treats, the downfall of the wicked. SO, this book, The Hockey Stick Illusion, by A. W.Montford, is pure jam to me.

Did you ever wonder how climatologists can tell us things about the climate of the world many centuries ago? When there were no thermometers or weather stations? They use various "proxy data," such as isotope counts in ice cores or lake-bed cores. Also dendrochronology, which is the study of tree rings. But this is a very tricky and controversial business, and it involves intense statistical analysis of masses of very noisy data.

In 1998, an obscure young climatologist named Michael Mann wrote a paper claiming that global temperatures over the last 1,000 years had been very stable until there was a sharp upturn in the latter 20th Century. The graph he presented looked like a hockey stick—a long straight handle, then a sharp turn upwards that formed the blade.

This was fairly outrageous since the consensus view had always included the Medieval Warm Period, when temperatures were higher than now, and farms flourished in Greenland, and winemaking in England. Mann ought to have been greeted with extreme skepticism. Instead he was lauded, and his graph instantly became an icon of AGW—the theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming.

Why? Because the hockey stick was a "Reichstag Fire" for the leftists and fake-environmentalists who are dreaming of unprecedented power-grabs.

Enter Steve McIntyre. Once upon a time there was a brilliant young Canadian lad who planned to go to MIT for a PhD in Math. Family problems sent him into the business world instead, and he became a mining executive, using his statistics talent to delve into thousands of mining proposals. He saw the hockey stick, and immediately thought of many bogus schemes he had seen. They tended to have the shape of.... hockey sticks!

The book is the story of McIntyre's relentless insurgency fought in tangled thickets of statistical analysis. Which the author manages to make crystal clear, and utterly fascinating. (I blogged about one skirmish of the war here.)

Posted by John Weidner at 9:03 AM

January 26, 2010

A smidgeon of history...

Democrats' Bush-bashing strategy goes bust - Jonathan Martin - POLITICO.com:

...Running as much against the Bush White House as he was running against Sen. John McCain, Barack Obama easily carried Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts in 2008.

Yet when Democratic nominees for governor in Virginia and New Jersey and for Senate in Massachusetts sought to tie their GOP opponents to the still-unpopular former president, the strategy didn't resonate. Voters were more focused on the current administration or local political issues — and the onetime Democratic magic formula seemed yesterday's news.

"Voters are pretty tired of the blame game," said longtime Democratic strategist Steve Hildebrand, a top aide on Obama's presidential campaign. "What a stupid strategy that was."

Howard Wolfson, a senior official on Hillary Clinton's campaign and veteran Democratic communications guru, noted that his party was able to run against Republican Herbert Hoover's Depression-era presidency for 30 years....

SO, what happened 30 years after Hoover? Hmmm? Well, Conscience of a Conservative was published in 1960, and became a huge best-seller. The book was by Barry Goldwater, but actually ghostwritten by L. Brent Bozell Jr., brother-in-law of William F. Buckley. That was the moment that conservative thought began to nudge its way into the public consciosnous.

It's hard to imagine now how un-idea-ed the Republicans were in the first half of the 20th Century. I was raised by intelligent parents who read books and were conservative Republicans. They travelled, knew lots of interesting people, and ran a business that employed scores of people. We went to the library in a neighboring town because ours was not large enough. (Still odd to me was that my folks had little interest in owning books. It may have been a Depression Era thing, or because there were few bookstores around. None really; just the book sections of department stores.)

Yet the idea of reading conservative intellectuals was not something I even imagined until the 1970's.


Posted by John Weidner at 7:01 AM

January 1, 2010

Classiest of the lawyers...

The Weidners are fans of John Yoo. [Link] Charlene's heard him speak at Federalist Society meetings, and she says this interview is just like he is in person! Totally smart, in the same understated dead-pan-funny way.

Questions for John Yoo - NYTimes.com. I wonder if the reporter has really grasped how completely outclassed she is here...

Your new book, "Crisis and Command," is an eloquent, fact-laden history of audacious power grabs by American presidents going back to George Washington. Which president would you say most violated laws enacted by Congress?

I would say Lincoln. He sent the Army into offensive operations to try to stop the South from seceding. He didn't call Congress into special session until July 4, 1861, well after this had all happened. He basically acted on his own for three months.

Are you implicitly comparing the Civil War with the war in Iraq, in order to justify President Bush's expansion of executive power?

The idea is that the president's power grows and changes based on circumstances, and that's what the framers of the Constitution wanted. They wanted it to exist so the president could react to crises immediately.

Do you regret writing the so-called torture memos, which claimed that President Bush was legally entitled to ignore laws prohibiting torture?

No, I had to write them. It was my job. As a lawyer, I had a client. The client needed a legal question answered.

When you say you had "a client," do you mean President Bush?

Yes, I mean the president, but also the U.S. government as a whole....

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Lincoln of course trampled the hell out of "civil liberties," and quite properly so. [Link, link] It needed to be done, and he did it.

And speaking of Lincoln, this is a slam bang story. And this too.

And here's my favorite (for oddness) Civil War image. Colonels Kit Carson and Lafayette Baker! Baker did a lot of Lincoln's dirty work, such as kidnapping and imprisoning suspected Confederate agents in the then equivalent of Gitmo, Old Capitol Prison. Popularly known as "Baker's Bastille." [Link]


Posted by John Weidner at 5:47 PM

November 25, 2009

"Perverse... even to imagine so heinous a crime"

Here's a little insight into how attitudes towards scientific fraud have changed since I was a boy.

In 1957 Isaac Asimov was still a professor of bio-chemistry at Boston University Medical School. His science fiction was popular, but SF was then a marginal genre that wouldn't support a man with a family. He was also starting to branch out into other sorts of writing.

He wrote a mystery novel, a A Whiff of Death, which he had a hard time getting published, and which was not a commercial success. This quote is from his autobiography, In Joy Still Felt:
...I sent it to several publishers of mystery novels, such as Harper and William Morrow. and it kept coming back. Apparently Doubleday's decision as to its unworthiness was part of a general notion.

That bothered me, for I was convinced the murder mystery was a good one. Of course the setting of a graduate chemistry department was an esoteric one, but that should have been a point in the book's favor.

I discovered eventually, that the chief flaw in the book from the standpoint of the publishers was the inadequacy of the motive for the murder. It involved a Ph.D. student faking results, and that seemed a tiny sin to most editorial readers.

When I gave fellow professors an inkling of the plot, however, they shuddered and turned away, obviously suspecting some deep-seated perverse element in my nature even to imagine so heinous a crime. Too little for one group of people, too much for another!...
[My emphasis]

I took quite a few science classes in high school and college, and I'm pretty sure the subject of scientific fraud was never mentioned. I don't think anyone considered it even possible. That's certainly a contrast with what we've seen in the CRU e-mails. Or in many other things, such as the years of frustration Steve McIntyre had trying to get a look at Keith Briffa's tree-ring data. Wow!

And it is all of a piece with the meta-theme of this blog in recent years, that much of what we see around us can be explained as results of the slow draining away, over generations, of habits inherited from the Christian and Jewish faith and culture of Western Civilization. Religious faith has been declining for several centuries, but Christian habits of mind have long lingered. And we tend to just take them for granted, until one day they are gone!

One of those habits has been the intense respect we once had had for honesty in the practice of natural science. It used to be so common that no one even imagined a different possibility... (except one science fiction writer!). What we call "science" (really just one example of science; the scientific study of the natural realm) is a product of Medieval European Catholic faith and culture. It was not invented by Newton or Sir Francis Bacon—they just popularized a philosophical tradition that had been growing for centuries before them.

This tradition grew out of Catholic beliefs, including that the created realm is good, and real, and intelligible. And that there is Truth, and we are called to be servants of Truth.

(I'll try to find time to post a bit more to support this, though it is a subject that is far vaster than me! 'Till then, a couple of quotes: Link, Link.)

[I've posted below the fold a quote from Chesterton on Aquinas, describing St Thomas's epic battle with Siger of Brabant on the nature of scientific truth. Just to give you the flavor of what I'm hinting at....]

...Nevertheless, it was never the existence of atheists, any more than Arabs or Aristotelian pagans, that disturbed the extraordinary controversial composure of Thomas Aquinas. The real peril that followed on the victory he had won for Aristotle was vividly presented in the curious case of Siger of Brabant; and it is well worth study, for anyone who would begin to comprehend the strange history of Christendom. It is marked by one rather queer quality; which has always been the unique note of the Faith, though it is not noticed by its modern enemies, and rarely by its modern friends. It is the fact symbolised in the legend of Antichrist, who was the double of Christ; in the profound proverb that the Devil is the ape of God. It is the fact that falsehood is never so false as when it is very nearly true. It is when the stab comes near the nerve of truth, that the Christian conscience cries out in pain. And Siger of Brabant, following on some of the Arabian Aristotelians, advanced a theory which most modern newspaper readers would instantly have declared to be the same as the theory of St. Thomas. That was what finally roused St. Thomas to his last and most emphatic protest. He had won his battle for a wider scope of philosophy and science; he had cleared the ground for a general understanding about faith and enquiry; an understanding that has generally been observed among Catholics, and certainly never deserted without disaster. It was the idea that the scientist should go on exploring and experimenting freely, so long as he did not claim an infallibility and finality which it was against his own principles to claim. Meanwhile the Church should go on developing and defining, about supernatural things, so long as she did not claim a right to alter the deposit of faith, which it was against her own principles to claim. And when he had said this, Siger of Brabant got up and said something so horribly like it, and so horribly unlike, that (like the Antichrist) he might have deceived the very elect.

Siger of Brabant said this: the Church must be right theologically, but she can be wrong scientifically. There are two truths; the truth of the supernatural world, and the truth of the natural world, which contradicts the supernatural world. While we are being naturalists, we can suppose that Christianity is all nonsense; but then, when we remember that we are Christians, we must admit that Christianity is true even if it is nonsense. In other words, Siger of Brabant split the human head in two, like the blow in an old legend of battle; and declared that a man has two minds, with one of which he must entirely believe and with the other may utterly disbelieve. To many this would at least seem like a parody of Thomism. As a fact, it was the assassination of Thomism. It was not two ways of finding the same truth; it was an untruthful way of pretending that there are two truths. And it is extraordinarily interesting to note that this is the one occasion when the Dumb Ox really came out like a wild bull. When he stood up to answer Siger of Brabant, he was altogether transfigured, and the very style of his sentences, which is a thing like the tone of a man's voice, is suddenly altered. He had never been angry with any of the enemies who disagreed with him. But these enemies had attempted the worst treachery: they had made him agree with them.

Those who complain that theologians draw fine distinctions could hardly find a better example of their own folly. In fact, a fine distinction can be a flat contradiction. It was notably so in this case. St. Thomas was willing to allow the one truth to be approached by two paths, precisely because he was sure there was only one truth. Because the Faith was the one truth, nothing discovered in nature could ultimately contradict the Faith. Because the Faith was the one truth, nothing really deduced from the Faith could ultimately contradict the facts. It was in truth a curiously daring confidence in the reality of his religion: and though some may linger to dispute it, it has been justified. The scientific facts, which were supposed to contradict the Faith in the nineteenth century, are nearly all of them regarded as unscientific fictions in the twentieth century. Even the materialists have fled from materialism; and those who lectured us about determinism in psychology are already talking about indeterminism in matter. But whether his confidence was right or wrong, it was specially and supremely a confidence that there is one truth which cannot contradict itself. And this last group of enemies suddenly sprang up, to tell him they entirely agreed with him in saying that there are two contradictory truths. Truth, in the medieval phrase, carried two faces under one hood; and these double-faced sophists practically dared to suggest that it was the Dominican hood.

So, in his last battle and for the first time, he fought as with a battle-axe. There is a ring in the words altogether beyond the almost impersonal patience he maintained in debate with so many enemies. "Behold our refutation of the error. It is not based on documents of faith, but on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves. If then anyone there be who, boastfully taking pride in his supposed wisdom, wishes to challenge what we have written, let him not do it in some corner nor before children who are powerless to decide on such difficult matters. Let him reply openly if he dare. He shall find me then confronting him, and not only my negligible self, but many another whose study is truth. We shall do battle with his errors or bring a cure to his ignorance."

The Dumb Ox is bellowing now; like one at bay and yet terrible and towering over all the baying pack. We have already noted why, in this one quarrel with Siger of Brabant, Thomas Aquinas let loose such thunders of purely moral passion; it was because the whole work of his life was being betrayed behind his back, by those who had used his victories over the reactionaries. The point at the moment is that this is perhaps his one moment of personal passion, save for a single flash in the troubles of his youth: and he is once more fighting his enemies with a firebrand. And yet, even in this isolated apocalypse of anger, there is one phrase that may be commended for all time to men who are angry with much less cause. If there is one sentence that could be carved in marble, as representing the calmest and most enduring rationality of his unique intelligence, it is a sentence which came pouring out with all the rest of this molten lava. If there is one phrase that stands before history as typical of Thomas Aquinas, it is that phrase about his own argument: "It is not based on documents of faith, but on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves."
Posted by John Weidner at 10:23 AM

November 13, 2009

Review: "Where The Wild Things Are"

Excerpted from an e-mail from my daughter Elizabeth, who is a credit to her parents...

The girls and I saw "Where the Wild Things Are" on Veteran's day (though I pleaded to go see "The Men Who Stare at Goats," which looks hilarious! And has Ewan McGregor, and he's definitely in my top-five of people, were I an actress, I would want to work with). WTWTA wasn't really worth it. The girls were okay with it, but I thought it was almost nihilistic and hopeless. It seemed to glorify all the things that were bad about being a child, and didn't resolve anything at all. I'm moderately peeved to say the least. It definitely could have been better.

And now instead of being a beloved children's book, it is something the hipster-indie-chic kids are looking at as the next bible. They think it's the coolest thing, and they won't really see that they need to grow up (these are the kids who wear American Apparel, and buy shoes that light up, like the ones I had when I was a kid, because now, instead of wearing them to be cool, they're wearing them for the irony of them being not cool. It's really deep, you should try it).

     
Posted by John Weidner at 11:50 AM

September 29, 2009

A lie gets halfway around the world before ....

Apparently the lie that Sarah Palin banned books when she was Mayor of Wasilla is still being circulated, this time at a school library "Banned Books Week" display. You can read about it (and get the truth) here.

The whole censorship/banned books theme is just a bunch of crap. When I owned a bookstore back in the 90's, there would be a big annual brouhaha from the ABA about how we should all be aware of this shocking situation, and put up displays of "banned books."

It's bullshit; no country on earth is more open in making books available than this one. There is no book on those "banned books" lists that any American can't get easily. No one is deprived of information because we're too Fahrenheit 451'ish.

It's just anti-Americanism. Lefty excuse #992 to despise our country. (While continuing to suck in all the good things she provides, like spoiled children sneering at the parents who support them. And NEVER moving to one of those worker's paradises they extoll.)

Meanwhile, in communist countries you can be sent to a prison camp for circulating books. Do any "liberals" care? No. "Progressives?" No. Do librarians put up displays about the librarians in Cuba who were jailed? Jerks. Frauds.

Posted by John Weidner at 8:30 PM

August 15, 2009

The distinction is between unhappy atheists and happy atheists...

I'm reading an excellent book containing the Pensées of Blaise Pascal, with interspersed commentary by Peter Kreeft. Here's a morsel from it...

(Pensées means "thoughts." They were a collection of notes written on odd scraps of vellum that Pascal wrote over many years, hoping to turn them into a book which would appeal to the young people of his time, who were almost as heedless about the important things of life as people are now. It is generally conceded that Pascal's early death was in one sense a good thing, since his book could probably never have had the intensity and vividness of his dashed-off thoughts. There are very few books written in the time of Louis XIV that can still excite people the way Pascal's "non-random jottings" do.)

...And that is why, amongst those who are not convinced, I make an absolute distinction between those who strive with all their might to learn and those who live without troubling themselves or thinking about it.

I can feel nothing but compassion for those for those who sincerely lament their doubt, who regard it as the ultimate misfortune, and who, sparing no effort to escape from it, make their search their principal and most serious business.

But as for those who spend their lives without a thought for this final end of life and who, solely because they do not find within themselves the light of conviction, neglect to look elsewhere, and to examine thoroughly whether this opinion is one of those which people accept out of credulous simplicity, or one of those which, though obscure in themselves, none the less have a most solid and unshakable foundation: I view them very differently.

This negligence in a matter where they themselves, their eternity, their all are at stake, fills me more with irritation than pity; it astounds and appals me; it seems quite monstrous to me. I do not say this prompted by the pious zeal of spiritual devotion. I mean on the contrary that we ought to have this feeling from principles of human interest and self-esteem....

Peter Kreeft comments on this section:

The absolute distinction, which will become the distinction between the Heavenly and the Hellish, is not between believers and unbelievers but between seekers and non-seekers; for all unbelievers who seek will eventually become believers who find , according to the very highest authority (Mt 7:7-8). The distinction between believers and seeking unbelievers is only temporary; but the distinction between seeking unbelievers and un-seeking unbelievers is eternal.

The absolute distinction is between unhappy atheists and happy atheists. Unbelievers who are content and happy now will be unhappy eternally, but those who are unhappy and seeking now will be happy eternally (Lk 6:21-26).

Pascal's judgement simply follows God's. God does not judge unbelievers by the supernatural standard of faith but by the natural standard of reason. As St Paul says in Romans 1, the truth they know by natural reason is what they hold down or suppress because of their unrighteousness (1:18), and this--natural reason, natural law, natural sanity is enough to condemn them.

The battle for eternal souls is largely decided here in the beginning, in the plain plains of natural reason, rather than later, in the mysterious mountains of faith. If we are honest with truth, reason will lead us to faith...

Here's a link to another post I wrote on Pascal, which is worth reading—because of the good stuff I quote, not because of my own thoughts.

Posted by John Weidner at 4:07 PM

July 9, 2009

"Metropolitan liberals who don't even know where meat or milk comes from..."

Meet the man who has exposed the great climate change con trick | The Spectator:

...His name is Ian Plimer, Professor of Mining Geology at Adelaide University, and he has recently published the landmark book Heaven And Earth, [Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science ] which is going to change forever the way we think about climate change.

'The hypothesis that human activity can create global warming is extraordinary because it is contrary to validated knowledge from solar physics, astronomy, history, archaeology and geology,' says Plimer, and while his thesis is not new, you're unlikely to have heard it expressed with quite such vigour, certitude or wide-ranging scientific authority. Where fellow sceptics like Bjorn Lomborg or Lord Lawson of Blaby are prepared cautiously to endorse the International Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) more modest predictions, Plimer will cede no ground whatsoever. Anthropogenic global warming (AGW) theory, he argues, is the biggest, most dangerous and ruinously expensive con trick in history....

...What Heaven And Earth sets out to do is restore a sense of scientific perspective to a debate which has been hijacked by 'politicians, environmental activists and opportunists'. It points out, for example, that polar ice has been present on earth for less than 20 per cent of geological time; that extinctions of life are normal; that climate changes are cyclical and random; that the CO2 in the atmosphere — to which human activity contributes the tiniest fraction — is only 0.001 per cent of the total CO2 held in the oceans, surface rocks, air, soils and life; that CO2 is not a pollutant but a plant food; that the earth's warmer periods — such as when the Romans grew grapes and citrus trees as far north as Hadrian's Wall — were times of wealth and plenty.

All this is scientific fact — which is more than you can say for any of the computer models turning out doomsday scenarios about inexorably rising temperatures, sinking islands and collapsing ice shelves. Plimer doesn't trust them because they seem to have little if any basis in observed reality....

Here's a little more of the article...

...Heaven And Earth is the offspring of a pop science book Plimer published in 2001 called A Short History of Planet Earth. It was based on ten years' worth of broadcasts for ABC radio aimed mainly at people in rural areas. Though the book was a bestseller and won a Eureka prize, ABC refused to publish the follow-up; so did all the other major publishers he approached: 'There's a lot of fear out there. No one wants to go against the popular paradigm.'

Then someone put him in touch with a tiny publishing outfit in the middle of the bush — 'husband, wife, three kids, so poor they didn't even have curtains' — and they said yes. Plimer couldn't bring himself to accept an advance they clearly couldn't afford. But then something remarkable happened. In just two days, the book sold out its 5,000 print run. Five further editions followed in swift succession. It has now sold 26,500 copies in Australia alone — with similarly exciting prospects in Britain and the US. There's even an edition coming out in ultra-green Germany.

But surely Aussies of all people, with their bushfires and prolonged droughts, ought to be the last to buy into his message? 'Ah, but the average punter is not a fool. I get sometimes as many as 1,000 letters and emails a day from people who feel helpless and disenfranchised and just bloody sick of all the nonsense they hear about global warming from metropolitan liberals who don't even know where meat or milk comes from.'...
Posted by John Weidner at 8:01 AM

June 14, 2009

Kreeft on creeds...

I like this excerpt, What's the Point of Creeds? from Fundamentals of the Faith, by Peter Kreeft. (Found at the excellent Ignatius Press blog.)

...God providentially arranged for the great creeds of the Church to be formulated in ages that cared passionately about objective truth. By modern standards, they ignored the subjective, psychological dimension of faith.

But we moderns fall into the opposite and far worse extreme: we are so interested in the subject that we often forget or even scorn the object. Psychology has become our new religion, as Paul Vitz and Kirk Kilpatrick have both so brilliantly shown.

Yet it's the object, not the subjective act, of faith that makes the creeds sacred. They are sacred because Truth is sacred, not because believing is sacred. Creeds do not say merely what we believe, but what is. Creeds wake us from our dreams and prejudices into objective reality. Creeds do not confine us in little cages, as the modern world thinks; creeds free us into the outdoors, into the real world where the winds of heaven whip around our heads. ...
...Two extremes must be avoided: intellectualism and anti-intellectualism, worshipping the words and scorning the words. If the ancient mind tended to the former extreme, the modern mind certainly tends to the latter. Both errors are deadly.

Intellectualism misses the core of faith, both objectively and subjectively. Objectively, the core of faith is God, who is a Person, not a concept. Subjectively, the core of faith is the will, not the intellect. Though informed by the intellect, it is the will that freely chooses to believe.

Faith is not the relation between an intellect and an idea, but the relation between an I and a Thou. That is why faith makes the difference between heaven and hell. God does not send you to hell for flunking his theology exam but for willingly divorcing from him.

Anti-intellectualism also misses the core of faith, both objectively and subjectively. Objectively, because its faith has no object. It calls faith an experience ("the faith experience") — a term never used by our Lord, Scripture, the creeds, or the popes. Modern people are constantly saying, "Have faith!" But faith in what or whom? They often mean "have faith in faith. " But faith in faith in what?

Anti-intellectualism is a modern reaction against the modern narrowing of reason to scientific reason. When the ancients and medievals called man a "rational animal", they did not mean a computerized camera mounted in an ape. They meant by "reason" understanding, wisdom, insight, and conscience as well as logical calculation.

Modern thinkers often forget this dimension of man and think only of reasoning (as in calculating) and feeling. And because they see that faith is not a matter of reasoning, they conclude that it must be a matter of feeling. Thus "I believe" comes to mean "I feel" and creeds simply have no place. Faith becomes a "leap" in the dark instead of a leap in the light.

Many of the Church's greatest saints have been doctors of the Church, theologians, philosophers, intellectuals: Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Bonaventure. Anti-intellectuals like Tatian and Tertullian and Luther (who called reason "the devil's whore") often die excommunicated, as heretics....
Posted by John Weidner at 7:18 PM

May 9, 2009

East Side, West Side...

This is just too cool...

(Thanks to Publius)

The book to read is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Posted by John Weidner at 8:21 AM

April 6, 2009

Anybody remember card catalogs?

My daughter sent me this...

"Google Classic" postcard

It's pretty funny, but also interesting to me because, well, that's the way it was...

Back in the misty past, like the 1980's or 90's. Back before the earth began to cool, there used to be a service for searching for rare and out-of-print books. You would go to a used-book store and ask for something. They would offer to search for a book they didn't have, for a small fee. Then they would mail in the query which would be printed on a weekly list that was mailed to all subscribing stores. Booksellers all around the country—or maybe the world—would peruse the list and try to spot something they had in stock. Then they could send a card to the store that searched for it, and they in turn would contact you with an offer.

It seemed impressively efficient at the time. Similarly, at the public library I used to fill out a one-page form and pay a couple of bucks to do an inter-library loan request. Now I can, via the SFPL's web page, search a wide variety of libraries in the region, and click to request a book. (Don't use the service if you are absent-minded. They charge a dollar a day for late books.)

Posted by John Weidner at 7:56 AM

April 5, 2009

On the frontier...

....To come at the answer to this we may hark back to Catholic theology itself, which is sacramental. That is, the Church, in keeping with the whole scriptural rendering of things, teaches that in the realm of salvation the physical world has not been huddled offstage, so to speak, but has been swept in, along with the whole creation, to the precincts of the holy, so that physical things (bread, wine, water) may become the very points at which the unseen and eternal touches the seen and temporal.

It is a natural religious tendency to huddle the physical offstage: hence the great appeal of all forms of gnosticism. We mortals like to think of ourselves as "spiritual", which of course we are; but in our eagerness to think thus, we often blithely jump out of our flesh-and-blood selves and talk as though we were pure spirits, disembodied. The poor flesh is left on one side, both in our imaginings and in our religious exercises. For nonsacramentalist Christians, it is permitted to sit or stand perhaps, since how else shall we dispose ourselves for religious gatherings. We may speak and sing and listen, since these activities indicate what is in our thoughts and our hearts, but let us not kneel or bow or make physical gestures like the sign of the Cross, or sprinkle things with holy water and hail our olfactory nerve-endings with incense: all of that is too heavily physical, and we know that the physical has been set aside by the New Testament.

No says the Church. No says the Bible. No says our humanity. The New Testament was inaugurated not by the Word of God arriving through the ether, but by that very "Word" arriving and lodging in the womb of a woman.nd then this coming of the Word to us proceeds on its way with a Visitation, when its cousin, also in the womb, leaps in recognition, and with a Circumcision, and hunger and fatigue and tears, and finally thorns and flogging and Crucifixion.

Very physical, this New Covenant. But of course then things rise to a pure spirituality surely? Yes, if we mean by this that a New Creation is now inaugurated. But if we mean that all is now restricted to thoughts and spirits, and the human intellect and will, then no. A body comes back from the dead; whatever this body is, it is not a phantom. It has wounds, not illusionary wounds; and it can eat..... The very words real and physical and literal are "born again", so to speak, when they appear in this New Creation: but they are not empty metaphors. They summon us to the mystery that presides over this frontier between the seen, as we are accustomed to it, and the unseen, which reaches beyond our mortal imaginings.

And it is on this very frontier that Christian gathering for worship occurs. It matters that the people—embodied men and women and children—show up...
From, On Being Catholic, by Thomas Howard
Posted by John Weidner at 5:18 AM

March 22, 2009

To repeat, it's a really good book...

I'm starting to re-read Feser's The Last Superstition. (I mentioned it last week.) By the time I got to the end I'd become fuzzy about some of the arguments from the beginning of the book, and the structure rests on them. So I'm starting over.

Here's a little more, from the first chapter, just in case some strange soul out there in the "audient void" still actually reads books to try to understand things...

...Nothing that follows will require of the reader any prior aquaintance with philosophy or its history, but the discussion will in some places get a little abstract and technical—though never dull, I think, and the dramatic relevance of the occasional abstraction or technicality to issues in religion, morality and science will amply reward the patient reader. Some abstraction and technicality is, in any case, unavoidable. The basic philosophical case for the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the natural law conception of morality is at one level fairly straightforward. But the issues have become ever more greatly obscured in the centuries since so-called "Enlightenment" thinkers and their predecessors first started darkening the understanding of Western man, and a nearly impenetrable philosophical smokescreen of unexamined assumptions, falsehoods, clichés, caricatures, prejudices, propaganda and general muddle-headedness now surrounds the average person's (including the average intellectual's) thinking about religion. It takes considerable intellectual effort to dissipate this kultursmog (to borrow R. Emmett Tyrrell's apt coinage).

The task is not unlike that which faces debunkers of popular but intellectually unsupportable conspiracy theories...

...Similarly, everyone "knows" that the cosmological argument for God's existence says "Everything has a cause, so the universe has a cause, namely God" and that this argument is easily refuted by asking "Well, if everything has a cause, what caused God then?"— except that that that is not what the cosmological argument says, and none of the philosophers who have famously defended the argument — not Aristotle, not Aquinas, not Leibniz, not anyone else — ever committed such a stupid and obvious fallacy. Everyone "knows" that to say that morality depends on religion means that God arbitrarily decides to command something or other ("just 'cause He feels like it," apparently) and the only reason to obey is fear of hellfire — except that that is not what it means to say that morality depends on religion, certainly not in the thinking of the many serious philosophers who have defended that claim. And so on and on...

...As we heard Quentin Smith and Jeremy Waldron complain above, apart from the few who make a professional specialty of arguing about religion, secularist thinkers are generally unacquainted with anything but absurd caricatures of traditional religious idea and arguments, are utterly unaware that anything other than these caricatures exist, and thus don't bother to look for anything but straw men to attack. They simply don't know what they are talking about, and they don't know that they don't know it...

Kultursmog! Great word. This kind of thing is worth studying just because kultursmog describes our world so very well. To think clearly about anything is an accomplishment. (One needn't, by the way, be interested in religion to appreciate Feser. His skewering of the muddled philosophy that underlies natural science is very good.)

Posted by John Weidner at 6:12 PM

March 14, 2009

Chewed up and spit out...

I have to recommend a very good book, The Last Superstition, by Edward Feser. It's a debunking of the recent spate of "New Atheist" books, drawing on the classic arguments of Aristotle and Aquinas. I've long been aware that they, and other philosophers, had given proofs of God's existence, but I must confess I've never studied them. In fact, like many people, I had picked up a vague impression of what those arguments might be--impressions that are simply wrong! (For instance Thomas does not base any arguments on the universe needing a creator to get it started in the first place!)

The actual arguments are very interesting, and Feser presents them wittily, and with lots of snark at the lameness and ignorance of people like Christopher Hitchins and Richard Dawkins. If there are any people with enquiring minds left in the world, they could enjoy this book even without being interested in the actual questions... just to appreciate clear thinking.

...But enough of this unpleasantness. Let us turn to Aquinas. To understand his arguments for God's existence, you need first to understand what is wrong with the way philistines like Dawkins read them, or rather misread them. Like many who are not familiar with philosophical modes of argumentation, Dawkins assumes that Aquinas is engages in a kind of empirical theorizing, "postulating" God's existence as a "hypothesis" to "explain" certain pieces of "data." That is, he thinks Aquinas's reasoning is analogous to the sort of reasoning a detective engages in when he infers from a cigarette butt and the size of a shoe print that the suspect was probably a six-foot tall smoker...

...When understood in this light, arguments for God's existence inevitably come to seem like what are called "God of the gaps" arguments: "Here is something science hasn't yet explained; probably God is the explanation." Dawkins, Harris, et al., come along and have little trouble coming up with some imaginative materialistic exlanation of the evidence in question, and even if the proposed explanation is unsupported or far-fetched, it serves rhetorically to undermine any confidence their hapless readers might otherwise have in the whole enterprise of arguing for God's existence.

But Aquinas does not argue in this lame "God of the gaps" manner, and neither do any of the great philosophical theologians referred to above (Aristotle, Maimonides, Duns Scotus, Leibniz, et al.). I will admit that some theists argue this way: Paley did, and "Intelligent Design" theorists influenced by him do as well. But their faulty methodology should not be read back into thinkers who would have had no truck with it. Why atheists are so fixated on Paley, I cannot say, unless it is precisely because he is such an easy target: If he didn't exist, atheists would have to invent him, or find some other straw man to beat. Aquinas, as is well know, always painstakingly considered all opposing arguments, and always made a point of attacking an an opponent's position at its strongest point. (This contrast is one reason I compare the moral character of the New Atheists so unfavorably to that of Aquinas, and it is a reason they will be hard-pressed to dismiss, � la Hume, as a mere "monkish virtue.")...

...What Aquinas is doing can be understood by comparison with the sort of reasoning familiar from geometry and mathematics in general...

 

x
Posted by John Weidner at 5:54 PM

March 8, 2009

"Like the tides of an invisible sea"

The Anchoress quoted this...

From Flannery O'Connor's letter to Alfred Corn on May 30, 1962:

Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea. It's there, even when he can't see it or feel it, if he wants it to be there. You realize, I think, that it is more valuable, more mysterious, altogether more immense than anything you can learn or decide upon in college. Learn what you can, but cultivate Christian sceptism. It will keep you free -- not free to do anything you please, but free to be formed by something larger than your intellect or the intellects of those around you...

Faith, by the way, is transparent. You can't see it, or touch it, but you know that it is there because you see other things more clearly--faith is sort of like the glass in a diving mask. You don't see the glass itself, but you see the underwater world much more clearly, so you know it is there.

Actually, the statement that "faith lets you see things more clearly" is true of pretty much everything. You can not, for instance, be a good scientist or engineer if you do not have faith in those disciplines. (I suppose it would be possible to do science merely as an intellectual game that you do not believe in, but it never happens.) The engineer has at some point in his life had a "conversion experience," which turns many small pieces of knowledge gained in life into a meaningful whole. (Or it could be, Catholic-wise, a series of small conversions throughout life.)

I love history, and I well remember my "conversion experience" the first time an entire period of history snapped into focus as a coherent whole, rather than a collection of interesting facts. It was dazzling. (The book was The Fatal Inheritance; Philip II and the Spanish Netherlands, by Edward Grierson.) Once that happened, then I could presume that any period of history would be found to be a comprehensible whole, if I cared to delve into it. Politics, art, clothing, military tactics, religion....all would be inter-related and meaningful. I could "see" the idea, because I had faith.


 

Posted by John Weidner at 2:11 PM

February 15, 2009

Of course it's improper to critique a book just from a review....

...but liberal thinking just doesn't compute, and I'm willing to bet money this stuff wouldn't make more sense if I read the whole thing...

Beliefs - The New Atheism, and Something More - NYTimes.com:

...Mr. Aronson proposed that neither it nor the other [atheist] books under review provided "the most urgent need" for secularists today: "a coherent popular philosophy that answers vital questions about how to live one's life." [It can't be done. You've been trying for several centuries now.]

A "new atheism must absorb the experience of the 20th century and the issues of the 21st," he wrote. "It must answer questions about living without God, face issues concerning forces beyond our control as well as our own responsibility, find a satisfying way of thinking about what we may know and what we cannot know, affirm a secular basis for morality, point to ways of coming to terms with death and explore what hope might mean today." [Tall order! You've rejected authority, so if you succeed, what authority will validate your success? It will just be a theory, competing with ten-thousand other theories.]

"Living Without God" (Counterpoint, 2008) is now the title of Mr. Aronson's own effort to provide such a popular philosophy. It is meant to take up, he writes, where books like "The End of Faith" leave off.
Mr. Aronson makes a good argument that Americans are far more secular -- or at least less religious -- than is often recognized. But, he says, contemporary secularism has lost the buoyant confidence it once gained from "its essential link to the idea of Progress, which promised so much and came to such grief during the 20th century." [Nuh uh, pal. Secularism and "Progress" caused the grief of the 20th century. YOU killed a hundred-million or two people in pursuit of various secular paradises. It doesn't work to pretend that these things just happened out of the blue. The blood is on your hands.]

"To live comfortably without God today," he says, "means doing what has not yet been done -- namely, rethinking the secular worldview after the eclipse of modern optimism." [That optimism was itself a transference of the HABIT of Christian Hope to the secular realm. But the habit's wearing off. Now you are realizing you are bankrupt. ]

Indeed, "religion is not really the issue, but rather the incompleteness or tentativeness, the thinness or emptiness [couldn't have described it better myself], of today's atheism, agnosticism and secularism. Living without God means turning toward something." [Well fancy that! Let me just guess--it's going to be a very amorphous "something." Characterized by... incompleteness or tentativeness, thinness, emptiness... Right? C'mon pal, surprise me! Invent a secular worldview that has even one one-hundredth of the gritty REALNESS of the Church Catholic.]

For Mr. Aronson, that "something" is not the ideal of an autonomous individual striding confidently into the dawning future but the drama [drama??] of an interdependent humankind embedded in complex systems of forces, knit into networks of natural environment, historical legacies, social institutions and personal relations. [What a load of galumpfh. "Embedded in complex systems of forces." What does that MEAN? Embedded like bees in a hive? Like raisins in a cookie? If you have complex systems, then decisions need to be made. Who makes them? How do people set priorities and goals?

What if your priority involves my being eliminated for the good of the whole? Hmmm? What if people don't WANT to be knit into networks? Every revolution starts with wooly-headed intellectuals sketching vague paradises of happy embeds. But the kulaks prefer not to be embedded in the collective farm. So then the ruthless rise to the top, and start forcing people into the mold. And probably sending guys like Aronson on that long march to nowhere.]


From this larger story of interdependency, he draws a ground, not surprisingly, for responsibility and morality: a recognizable left-of-center commitment to collective struggle against "domination, inequality and oppression, rooted in scarcity." [This one sentence has enough lunacy to write a whole essay on. To take just one, morality requires drawing lines. Saying X is immoral, and it is wrong to do it. Period. But just proposing your own morality gives no authority to draw hard and fast rules. How can you? What justifies your rule over someone elses?

And, importantly, who DEFINES things? Liberal morality tends to say "I can do what I want if I don't hurt someone." BUT, it's the liberal himself who is defining what "hurt" is. And who is a "someone." So they can define an unborn baby as "not human," and murder it. Or define the entrepreneurs who provide society's wealth as "parasites" and zeks, and expropriate them, or send them to the camps.]


More originally, he argues that this interdependence should summon gratitude -- gratitude "for," even if not "to." Giving thanks, he recognizes, has been central to religion, and secular culture needs to be enriched with an equivalent.... [There is no equivalent. Gratitude is, in its essence, humble. You can't be grateful for something you think you deserve; you are grateful for a gift. You must acknowledge something bigger and better than oneself. But that's a religious attitude. No one's ever going to feel gratitude to "complex systems of forces."]

I suspect that the recent spate of atheist books is not because atheists think they are winning, nor that, as some have suggested, they think they are losing. I think we are at the moment that Guardini predicted, back in the 1950's. (link) They are staring into the abyss. They are finally realizing what it's like to live without God, or without anything greater than the self.

 

Posted by John Weidner at 6:37 PM

January 28, 2009

I'm proud to say I've never read Updike...

John Updike's Dead: Do We Still Have To Pretend To Like His Books?:

...Updike was a novelist, not an economist. But the politics with which he infected his craft made him a star.

The media loved Updike because Updike was unsparingly critical of the United States. He castigated it for its greed, its stupidity, its xenophobia. He saw Americans as a group of know-nothing conservatives consumed with money-lust and more typical lust. He saw everyday Americans as hypocrites who thumped both Bibles and the minister's wife.

Updike has been hailed as one of the great American writers. When it comes to American writers, no one surpasses Mark Twain. In his famously brilliant essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," Twain took James Fenimore Cooper, author of "The Last of the Mohicans," to the woodshed. His words fairly describe Updike:
"A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language. Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.

Long before I was even starting to think clearly about such things, I've had an aversion to all those literary globbits that we are required to like. Supposed to like. You know, supposed to like them because our betters who live in New York tell us to. Fatuous people who write for the New York/er/Times/Review of Books.

"He saw Americans as a group of know-nothing conservatives consumed with money-lust and more typical lust. He saw everyday Americans as hypocrites who thumped both Bibles and the minister's wife." And how did he find that out? From other liberals in Manhattan!

I know how this shit works--I live in San Francisco. Everybody can imitate the accent and asininity of a red-neck southern fundamentalist. How? From the movies, or learned from liberal culture. No liberal I've ever heard of would try to actually get to know small-town or conservative Americans. They already know what to think.

Posted by John Weidner at 12:09 PM

January 18, 2009

"The central thing in the business of Europe..."

This looks like it may be a good book. Ignatius Press is re-publishing Hilaire Belloc's The Battleground: Syria and Palestine the Seed-plot of Religion. I've ordered a copy.

They have an except here, and I've posted an excerpt of the excerpt. (Why? Just because I can. No one can stop me!):

....It is a great misfortune to history that just at the moment when detailed historical study began, some two and a half centuries ago, there also began that gradual but increasingly rapid decay in religion which made it more and more difficult for those who would write history to understand the vital importance of doctrine.

Almost every force has been called in to explain this and that in the past--except the force of doctrine: dogma. Race has been appealed to; economic circumstance; military circumstance (certainly more important than the other two) has been appealed to, and the chief r�le has been given (by those who understand and value a decisive victory) to the fact that men were what they were because of this and that battle.

All these forces have their place in the story of change, but until quite lately the supreme factor of religious conflict has not been understood. It has puzzled and it has irritated, so that commonly it has been dismissed. Yet supreme it is.

The central thing in the business of Europe is the Doctrine of the Incarnation: the affirmation that God had appeared among men, and the denial thereof. From the first public announcement of that affirmation about A.D. 29-33, it has been the main issue dividing all men of the Graeco-Roman world, moulding and unmoulding our society.

Constantine had established his peace, he had founded his new city, he was prepared (from A.D. 325) to administer vigorously and with justice a united, orderly, permanently established society, when he found himself at the outset confronted by a storm within that world which took him by surprise, puzzled, and exasperated him. The magnitude of it he at last perceived, though he could not understand why it should be so great--and by the time he died it was the main issue in the world over which his successors were called to rule.

This storm had arisen on the fundamental question of Our Lord's Divinity.

Let there be no error; the question is fundamental not only to that time but to our own. It remains the root question for those who ridicule the doctrine, for those who are indifferent to it, and for those who would defend it. With Jesus Christ as God incarnate there is one view of the world. With Jesus Christ as a Prophet, a model, or a myth, there is another: and the one view is mortal enemy to the other. The meat of the one is poison to the other....


* Update: Writing about things forces one to think them through. My experience, as a blogger from early days (since November 2001) has been like peeling an onion. I keep asking why things are the way they are, why various assumptions about things have turned out to be wrong. I peel back layers, and end up a Catholic who's reading stuff like the above. I think Belloc is on the trail of the real story of our world, and I'm avid to find out. (Which is why this will never be a popular blog--most people's reaction is, "Why do you care about this stuff?")

If anyone's curious, the assumption I had when I started Random Jottings was that most Americans of the Left, even though they were tiresomely anti-American in many ways, would rally to our country with warm hearts if she were attacked, much like all Americans did after Pearl Harbor. Wow, was that ever wrong! Which gradually led to the question of what's going on in their heads--an onion layer. Leading eventually to the question of what's going on in people's souls--a deeper layer. And under that the deep currents of history--what's driving them?


Posted by John Weidner at 5:48 AM

January 10, 2009

"Thinking about law and the right ordering of the world..."

In honor of Fr Neuhaus, who died recently, I'm quoting a bit from has delightful book, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth...

...In an encyclical on evangelization, Redemptoris Missio, John Paul the Great offered a marvelous formulation. The Church imposes nothing, she only proposes. What she proposes, however, is the truth, and the truth does impose itself. That is because, at least according to Catholic anthropology, human beings are, so to speak, hard-wired for the truth. we live in an intelligible world that is accessible to reason. Our mind participates in the mind of God. With respect to the right ordering of the world, we can know God's law. Here too, St Thomas Aquinas is the helpful teacher. He writes of four distinct meanings of law: There is the eternal law, the natural law, the positive law, and the divine law. The eternal law is one with the eternal Being of God Himself. The natural law�and here Thomas follows St Paul in Romans 1 and 2�is the understanding of right and wrong that is written on every human heart. These are the truths that we "cannot not know," although we can deny that we know them. The positive law is human law: the man-made laws and regulations that societies adopt. These may or may not be in agreement with eternal and natural law. Fourth and finally, there is divine law, the law and laws revealed by God in the scriptures and Spirit-guided teaching of the Church.

There is no denying that this way of thinking about law and the right ordering of the world�and especially the right ordering of our own lives!�goes against the grain of our culture. The very idea of "moral truth" is a puzzlement and offense to many of our contemporaries. Twenty-five years ago the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre published his extraordinary little book, After Virtue. His argument, put much too simply, is that not only intellectuals but our popular culture has largely abandoned an understanding of moral truth and virtue, with the result that we are all dog-paddling in the murky sea of "modern emotivism."

Morality has become almost totally a matter of feelings and preferences. You have yours and I have mine. If I say that something is "wrong," I am expressing no more than my personal preference. "I am not comfortable with that." "I feel that is not right." "I would prefer you not do that." In short the making of arguments is replaced by the expression of emotions. In such a cultural context, the appeal to "conscience" is only an appeal to my personal preference. Conscience, in this view, does not discern moral truth, but subjectively establishes the truth...

 


Posted by John Weidner at 6:21 PM

December 26, 2008

Essential reading for the serious person in our time...

Macklin Horton has an important post, on reading the book Witness, by Whittaker Chambers.

I haven't quite finished Whittaker Chambers' Witness, but I'm ready to declare that it's essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the 20th century and the spiritual battle being waged in the modern world generally�meaning, by "modern," roughly "post-Enlightenment"...

...At the end of The Lord of the Rings Sauron is defeated and destroyed. But we are given to understand�I can't remember whether it's in the book or in some remark of Tolkien's elsewhere�that his evil does not cease to exist, but rather spreads as a sort of vapor, dispersing itself throughout the world; from this time on, evil will not be so concentrated and easy to identify, but will work subtly and obscurely.

Something like that is the situation we're in after the fall of the great totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century, communism and fascism. Of the two, the evil of fascism has generally been easier to recognize, or at any rate more widely recognized, principally because of the Holocaust but also because its mythos is in general less appealing, especially to those who set the terms and tone of opinion in our society. Communism had a deeper and wider appeal, in part because it spoke, superficially at least, to more benevolent motives. But if it's possible to say that one is worse than the other, I would say that communism takes the prize, in part because it was more successful and thus able to murder more people, and partly because it was more consciously and systematically an assault on God. Communism involved a cold intention to remove from the universe any moral authority external to man, to seize that authority for man�for the handful of men worthy of it, on behalf of all the rest�and to exercise it for the purpose of creating heaven in the only place where it could possibly exist, in this life. (Fascism, in contrast, seems to have been less coherent.)...

...Like the cloud that was Sauron, communism as an all-explanatory philosophy and an all-encompassing program of action, both directed against God, has been dispersed. There is no single ideology or mass movement with both its coherence and its popularity at work today. But the basic idea�there is no God, and we're glad there isn't, because now we can get on with the business of solving our problems without interference from superstition�is everywhere. The intellectual and spiritual presuppositions of much of our political and social discourse are the same as those of communism...

The "debonair nihilism" of our age does not produce the titanic struggles that were going on when I was a boy, though the battle is just as deadly. Now the "vapor of evil" is everywhere and nowhere, as hard to fight against as blowing leaves. The story Chambers tells is a kind of analog of our own story...

I quoted a little bit from Witness here

...

Posted by John Weidner at 9:38 AM

December 7, 2008

Insanity dissected...

From The Church and the Culture War: Secular Anarchy or Sacred Order, by Joyce A. Little...
...Today in America the imperial or autonomous self reigns. What more and more Americans seek, above all else, is the feeling that they themselves are in total control of their lives, that in some ultimate sense they are sufficient unto themselves, requiring nothing and no one else. Thirty years ago there was talk of the "me generation." We have now seen two "me generations", with a third already well on the way. These are the people who value above all things self-empowerment and seek as their highest goals self-actuaization, self-realization and self-fulfillment...

...These are the people who, if they are spiritually oriented, find a home in the New Age movement, which assures them they are gods unto themselves. "The self that God created needs nothing. It is forever complete, safe, loved and loving", we are told in the preface to A Course in Miracles , the basic text of the New Age. "Spirit is in a state of grace forever. Your reality is only spirit. Therefore you are in a state of grace forever."...
[...]

....This trivialization of all choices rests on a trivialization of all differences among people. This has resulted in the invidious habit of calling the way a person lives his "lifestyle." Those who speak the language of lifestyles betray by that language the meaninglessness they attach to all choices. As [Christopher] Lasch correctly notes, "They reduce choice to a matter of style and taste, as their preoccupation with 'lifestyles' indicates. Their bland innocuous conception of pluralism assumes that all preferences, all 'lifestyles,' all 'taste cultures.'...are equally valid."

In the final analysis, the imperial self, intent on exercising absolute freedom of choice, cannot accept any realm of objective truth or morality which would inhibit that freedom by requiring the self to conform itself to that objective truth. As the Pope [John Paul II] points out in Veritatis Splendor, "Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extant that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values." This notion that every person is the source of his own values is quite popular today. As the Pope observes, "Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others." (VS 32) The result of this subjectivism is not lost on John Paul II. "This ultimately means making freedom self-defining and a phenomenon creative of itself and its values. Indeed, when all is said and done, man would not even have a nature; he would be his own personal life-project."...

Excerpts don't do this great book justice. Read, as they say in Blogistan, the whole thing.

My thoughts below the fold...

To try to "fulfill" yourself is slavery. Your "self", a brutal taskmaster, will whip you ever onwards trying to make yourself into something wide and fat and tall, something that "matters." But that's crazy; the things that matter must, obviously, be very important things, and you are always going to be small in comparison to them. Sorry, that's just the way it is. Your quest is impossible.

Real freedom consists in being able to choose the good. And when you do, you will, necessarily, be a servant. That's the only thing that makes sense, once you chose the good. To serve it. And you are then more free because you have chosen not to be a slave to yourself. And happier too.

The craziest slavery of all is to try to escape slavery to your demanding self by.... your own efforts! Duh. Where does that get you? Think of the kind of people who go off on "spiritual quests." They spend twenty years freeing themselves from the Wheel of Existence, and then discover that Global Warming is the most important issue, and Mr Obama is "The One." And that they need to buy a Prius pronto, to break the entanglements of the material world... (The obligations and responsibilities that come with the good things of our world however--those they get "detached from" easily. The lil' swamis suck non-stop on the peace and prosperity of this great and good country, and Western Civilization, while attaining lofty spiritual detachment from giving anything back--even a word of thanks.)

Spiritually speaking, you would probably be better off joining the US Army, and striving cheerfully to do whatever shambolic tasks you are assigned.

Posted by John Weidner at 5:37 AM

September 28, 2008

"The Christian is the person who does not calculate..."

This is from a great book I'm reading, Ratzinger's Faith, by Tracey Rowland, p. 75...

....In particular he [Ratzinger] speaks of the twin pathologies of bourgeois pelagianism and the pelagianism of the pious. He describes the mentalité of the Bourgeois pelagian as follows: 'If God really does exist and if He does in fact bother about people He cannot be so fearfully demanding as He is described by the faith of the Church. Moreover, I am no worse than others: I do my duty, and the minor human weaknesses cannot really be as dangerous as all that.'

This attitude is a modern version of 'acedia,' —a kind of anxious vertigo that overcomes people when they consider the heights to which their divine pedigree has called them. In Nietzschean terms it is the mentality of the herd, the attitude of someone who just cannot be bothered to be great. It is bourgeois because it is calculating and pragmatic and comfortable with what is common and ordinary, rather than aristocratic and erotic....

...Contrary to the bourgeois spirit Ratzinger argues that the Christian is the person who does not calculate. A Christian with an authentic spirituality does not ask 'How much farther can I go and still remain within the realm of venial sin, stopping short of mortal sin?' Rather, the Christian is the one who simply seeks what is good, without any calculation... In contrast one can find an example of an erotic and aristocratic disposition in the prayer of St Ignatius of Loyola:
To give, and not to count the cost,
To fight, and not to heed the wounds,
To toil, and not to seek for rest,
To labor, and not to ask for any reward
Save that of knowing that we do thy will.

Posted by John Weidner at 2:57 PM

September 10, 2008

Interesting guy...

Peter Robinson at NRO is putting up videos of an interview with writer Andrew Klavan. (The latest installment is #3 of 5.)

I recommend them. Very intelligent and thought-provoking. Normally I don't want to see a video, I just want to read stuff. But I'd say Klavan is an exception. It's worth seeing and listening to him "in person," so to speak.

Posted by John Weidner at 10:52 AM

June 23, 2008

Roger Kimball is going to stop playing in a rigged game...

Encounter Bids The New York York Times Farewell
BY ROGER KIMBALL | JUNE 23RD, 2008
Beginning today, June 23, 2008, Encounter Books will no longer send its books to The New York Times for review. Of course, the editors at the Times are welcome to trot down to their local book emporium or visit Amazon.com to purchase our books, but we won’t be sending gratis advance copies to them any longer.

“But wait,” you might be thinking, “I don’t recall the Times reviewing titles from Encounter Books.” Precisely! By and large, they don’t, at least in recent years. That’s part of the calculation: why bother to send them books that they studiously ignore?

In the last month, Encounter has had two titles on the extended New York Times best-seller list: Climate Confusion: How Global Warming Hysteria Leads to Bad Science, Pandering Politicians and Misguided Policies that Hurt the Poor by Roy Spencer, and Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad, by Andrew C. McCarthy. But that list is the only place you will find these books mentioned in the pages of The New York Times. We’ve also published other brisk-selling books that the Times has ignored—Guy Sorman’s Empire of Lies: The Truth About China in the Twenty-first Century, for example, or Philip F. Lawler’s Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture, or Bruce Thornton’s Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow Motion Suicide or Caroline Fourest’s Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan, to name just a few recent titles.

Not, I hasten to add, that Encounter’s experience is unique. Consider, to take just one example, Mark Steyn’s book America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It, published in 2006 by Regnery. This is a brilliant book about one of the most pressing issues of our time—the threat of radical Islam and the West’s loss of cultural confidence. It perched for weeks on the Times’s bestseller list. But that was the only place in the Times you would see the book mentioned because the Times’s editors chose to ignore it.

In favor of what, you might ask? Well, there are reviews of books about people like Ron Jeremy, a porn star, and then there are reviews of books like Jenna Jameson’s How to Make Love Like a Porn Star. And let’s not forget Hung: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America and The Surrender: The Beauty of Submission, a meditation on the joys of sodomy by a former ballerina, both of which got full reviews in the Times (actually, The Surrender got several notices). Not that the Times is monomaniacal. In the current issue of the Book Review, there is a review of a book by a University of California linguist that endeavors to explain “how the right wins and keeps power: by framing issues and controlling minds.” I knew there had to be some reason......

Good for Roger. How I despise The Paper Formerly Known As The Paper Of Record (to use Rand Simberg's appellation). Their collapse can't come fast enough for my taste. I read the statistics of their declining circulation and revenues, and smile, and think of the Far Side cartoon where some dinosaurs are sitting around chatting, and one is holding his hand out in puzzlement to catch a falling snowflake....

           

Posted by John Weidner at 8:38 AM

June 5, 2008

"The libertarian dream turns into the totalitarian nightmare..."

In one sense, much of my blogging is just wasted electrons, since I'm often arguing against liberalism, which is incapable of arguing back. Or even thinking clearly. I've never once, since 11/2001, been given a real argument by a leftist. The poltroons carp and sneer, but don't dare think, or express their philosophy clearly

But I have often been counter-punched by my libertarian readers. Actually been forced to think to defend my hasty posts. Thank you, friends!

And in that spirit, this is a criticism of libertarian thinking that puts clearly things I've sort of groped towards...

R.R. Reno, in First Things, writing about the book Nation of Bastards: Essays on the End of Marriage, by Douglas Farrow...

...In other words, in the old system, the state presumed the existence of a substantive, natural reality that required legal adumbration: the union of a man and a woman, and the children resulting from their sexual relations. Now the Canadian government sees that it must intervene and redefine marriage and parenthood in order to give fixed legal standing to otherwise fluid and uncertain social relations. When the gay friend donates his sperm to the surrogate mother hired by a lesbian couple, the resulting “family” is a purely legal construct, one that requires the power of state to enforce contracts and attach children to adoptive parents.

The result is the opposite of the libertarian dream of freedom. As Farrow observes, with gay marriage we are giving over the family to the state to define according to the needs of the moment. The upshot, he worries, will be a dangerous increase in the power of the state to define our lives in other realms once thought sacrosanct. “Remove religiously motivated restrictions on marriage,” he writes, “and it is much easier to remove religiously motivated restrictions on human behavior in general, and on the state’s power to order human society as it sees fit.” The libertarian dream turns into the totalitarian nightmare. Who can or cannot be a spouse? That’s for the state to decide. To whom do children belong? It’s up to the state to assign parents as its social workers and judges think best...

One of the big "projects" of Enlightenment thinking was (and is) to try to construct morality without religion. "Morality without dogma." As far as I know, it's never worked, never happened. What really happens is that secularists retain a lot of Jewish and Christian morality, and fool themselves into thinking that that's what people can come up with as a matter of course, using reason, without needing religion.

Same with libertarianism, which is an off-shoot of this project. The libertarian assumes that people, if they are free to choose, will choose the good. But in fact each generation of libertarians re-defines "the good" down to whatever reduced level of morality prevails at that moment. A libertarian of fifty years ago would have said that people, if free to choose, will—most of them—form stable marriages of a man and a woman, and raise several children, and act wisely in a variety of similar ways, without those hectoring preachers and restrictive laws. And indeed they did, back then.

Libertarians now probably say that we shouldn't worry; if people are free to choose they will, most of them, marry other human beings. Or at least form caring relationships that can be expected to last for a period of several years.

And I'll bet that fifty years from now, libertarians will be scoffing at those stick-in-the-mud theists with their fear-mongering about the rise of cannibalism-as-entertainment. "Just let the market-place work, and people will choose the good. Most of them, anyway."

Posted by John Weidner at 7:34 AM

April 19, 2008

Music to think by...

I rarely blog about music, because probably 98% of you are more musical than I. But I'll make an exception for this CD, Echoes: The Einaudi Collection, which my wife and daughter also like. Einaudi is what I think would be called a "contemporary classical" composer. And also a pianist. His pieces tend to be very simple, some orchestrated, some just himself playing the piano.

And "music to think by" is just how I find him. He seems to "fit" with serious thoughts, in the same way other music tends, for me to fit with, say, frivolous fantasies. (Or "bitter" right-wing "hatemongering."--ed. Oh yeah, that too.)

Posted by John Weidner at 7:27 AM

March 30, 2008

Old wisdom...

I've started a great book, Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion, by Peter Kreeft. The subject is the Virtues. "Classical virtue theory." A badly neglected topic. As the author puts it, "We have reduced all virtues to one: being nice. And, we measure Jesus by our standard instead of measuring our standard by him." (Well that at least defines what I don't like.)

The study of the Virtues is something I'm grossly ignorant of, as is most of the modern world. It used to be central. We've lost a lot. For instance I recently was given the advice that the way to combat a persistent sin is to practice the corresponding virtue. I don't even have a clue how to put that notion into practice! Luckily I'm among the Dominicans, who used to make the Virtues something of a specialty, so I'm at least on the right track.

A little excerpt:

...Meanwhile, while ethics languish, discussion of ethics flourishes. One of the most popular courses in high schools and colleges is ethics. But the kind of ethics that is usually taught is ethics without bite, without substance, without power, for ethics without a vision of what a good man of woman is, without virtues or vices, concentrates on doing instead of being, just as our whole modern society does. Such ethics never asks the two most important questions: What is man? and What is the purpose of his life on this earth?

C. S. Lewis uses the image of a fleet of ships to show that ethics deals with three great questions, not just one. First the ships need to know how to avoid collisions. That is social ethics, and it is taught . In the second place, they need to know how to stay shipshape, how to avoid sinking. That is the question of virtues and vices, and that is not taught. Finally, they need to know their mission, why they are at sea in the first place. That is the question of the ultimate purpose of human life. It is a religious question, and of course it is not asked, much less answered....

HOW can people not ask such questions? It just floors me to think that most of the people around me think of such things as "cans of worms" they don't want to open. I don't blame people for getting the wrong answers. But asking the wrong questions, or no questions, I find contemptible.)

Posted by John Weidner at 5:16 AM

March 7, 2008

Germans are good at following orders...

From Al-Qaeda Is Losing the War of Minds , By Peter Wehner,

On the way various influential clerics are turning against Jihadism. Such as Sayyid Imam al-Sharif ("Dr Fadl"), a former mentor to Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Sheikh Abd Al-‘Aziz bin Abdallah Aal Al-Sheikh, the "highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia." (The poor terrorist boobies will soon be reduced to using the Archbishop of Canterbury for religious leadership.)

...Not surprisingly, al-Qaeda’s stock is falling in much of the Arab and Islamic world. A recent survey found that in January less than a quarter of Pakistanis approved of Mr. bin Laden, compared with 46 per cent last August, while backing for al-Qaeda fell from 33 per cent to 18 per cent.

According to a July 2007 report from the Pew Global Attitudes Project, "large and growing numbers of Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere [are] rejecting Islamic extremism". The percentage of Muslims saying suicide bombing is justified in the defence of Islam has declined in seven of the eight Arab countries where trend data are available. In Lebanon, for example, 34 per cent of Muslims say such suicide bombings are often or sometimes justified; in 2002, 74 per cent expressed this view. We are also seeing large drops in support for Mr. bin Laden. These have occurred since the Iraq war began.

Since General David Petraeus put in place his counter-insurgency strategy early last year, al-Qaeda has been dealt punishing military blows. Iraqis continue to turn against al-Qaeda and so does more of the Arab and Muslim world. In the past half-year an important new front, led by prominent Islamic clerics, has been opened. Militarily, ideologically and in terms of popular support, these are bad days for Mr. bin Laden and his jihadist jackals.

If we continue to build on these developments, the Iraq war, once thought to be a colossal failure, could turn out be a positive and even a pivotal event in our struggle against militant Islam. Having paid a high cost in blood and treasure and having embraced the wrong strategy for far too long, we stayed in the fight, proving that America was not the "weak horse" Mr. bin Laden believed it to be. Having stayed in the fight, we may prevail in it. The best way to subvert the appeal of bin Ladenism is to defeat those who take up the sword in its name...(Thanks to Orrin Judd).

Toldja so.

But wait, haven't we been in this situation before? Where we beat the stuffing out some murderous enemy, and then they suddenly discover that our ideas have merit?

I think it was in Lionel Davidson's thriller set in postwar Germany, Making Good Again, that somebody asks how a bunch of ex-Nazi's can ever form a democracy. And the answer was something like: "Germans are good at following orders. We've ordered them to become a democracy. They will obey." I always liked that. And it was true! Same thing with Japan.

And it will be true with the Islamic world too. They are good at following the "strong horse." That's us, if only we don't lose our civilizational self-confidence...

Posted by John Weidner at 9:09 AM

February 17, 2008

Highly recommended...

A book I just read with great excitement, and am starting to read over again, is The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, by Louis Bouyer. Bouyer was a French Lutheran who converted to Catholicism in the 1930's, and was able to look at both sides with great clarity. It's the sort of book I read and keep slapping my forehead and saying, "Oh. NOW it makes sense, this stuff I've been involved with all my life!"

He shows in the first part of the book that the original insights of the Protestant reformers were completely Catholic, and were positive and renewing ideas that the Church needed. And then in the second half he shows what went wrong, how the philosophy that was pervasive at the time, Nominalism, led the reformer's positive views immediately into negatives, and into opposition to the teachings of the Catholic Church. For instance, Luther's appreciation of the overwhelming importance of scripture as the living Word of God, (Sola Scriptura) soon led his movement to attack tradition, and the teaching authority of bishops and councils. They could not hold the different aspects of authority in tension—to embrace one led to denying the others. (And their Catholic opponents were in the same philosophical trap, and their defense of tradition led to denigrating scripture.)

I'll just give you a little quote I liked, to pique your interest. (Also, this post, by David Schütz, is very good, and caused me to buy the book. Thanks!)

....If this assertion sounds like a paradox to a number of Catholics, as well as to Protestants, this is due entirely to a series of prejudices and misunderstandings. And if Catholics and Calvinists seem to agree in regarding Calvin as essentially anti-mystical, it is because, as a rule, Calvinists are incredibly ill informed about Catholic mysticism, viewing it wholly on the surface, while Catholics know only the externals of Calvinism.

Rather than embark on a long discussion, we propose simply to relate a most revealing conversation we once had with the minister Auguste Lecerf, certainly the person of our generation the most learned in Calvinism, as well as embodying in himself the highest type of strictly Calvinist spirituality. As he had said, quite baldly, that a mystic, in his view, was just someone who held paradise to be a place of debauchery, we read to him, without cormment, some of the salient passages of The Ascent of Mount Carmel, by St. John of the Cross. After listening with the closest attention, he answered in perfect sincerity and without hesitation: "If that is the real Catholic mysticism it is precisely the religion for which Calvin fought all his life.".....

 

Posted by John Weidner at 7:53 AM

February 14, 2008

Reads

Here are a couple of good books on Ronald Reagan. I should write a bit about them, but I'm too tired tonight--so just trust me, they're worth reading. They are on my mind because Charlene and I will be at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley next weekend for a Federalist Society conference.

   

Posted by John Weidner at 7:26 PM

February 4, 2008

A page-turner, a thriller...

I give my highest recommendation to Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England, by Lynne Olson

It is about the small and exceedingly motley group of MP's who rebelled against Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement. The odds against them were far greater than I had realized. The story is utterly gripping. And every bit of it is applicable to right now.

We see the psychology of that time, the desperate wish to ignore or argue-away the growing menace, every day. As an example, I noticed that thebook's amazon.com page quotes this book review, by David Cannadine, in the WaPo. And Cannadine is obviously far less interested in the book itself than in applying it to the presidency of George W Bush, using the story, by twisted logic, as an argument in favor of appeasement!

...He gathered around him a coterie of tight-lipped conservative advisers who were as like-minded and narrow-minded as he was. He scorned his critics in the legislature, branding them foolish, ignorant and unpatriotic. He had no time for members of any party but his own, and he treated the opposition with contempt. He cowed and coerced the media, and he authorized telephone tapping on an unprecedented scale... ...George W. Bush? No, Neville Chamberlain...

As applied to Bush, these are simply lies. I could fisk all of them, and already have many times. Bush's wiretapping, for instance, is of foreign communications, which we have done, without warrants, in every big war since Lincoln massively tapped telegraph lines. But Chamberlain was wire-tapping his fellow MP's! There's no similarity at all.

...One problem (which Olson does not address) is that the opponents of appeasement had no effective alternative policy. In the 1930s, Britain's empire and military commitments were overextended, especially as regards Europe and the Far East. That meant that waging war on two continents was a nightmare prospect, to which appeasement seemed for a time the only option...

NO, it was appeasement that caused that problem--if France and Britain had confronted Germany earlier, their forces would probably have been more than adequate. And part of Chamberlain's policy was to not prepare for war, to resist all calls to build up the British military--because that would be "provocative." Which had of course, exactly the opposite effect. (Wilson got America into WWI by the exact same fallacy; that not preparing for war makes war less likely.) Then, as now, every hesitation and cringe is being watched by cold eyes, and assessed Hitler knew that Chamberlain would not defend Czechoslovakia (which was far more defensible than Poland), just as bin Laden knew that America was weak when he saw Clinton flinch in Somalia.

And Chamberlain had immense power over the press, and used it to keep his opponents from communicating with the Bristish people. (Nowadays our journalists and academics carry little Chamberlains inside, and do the same.) We see the same see-no-evil psychology all around us now, for instance in the Canadian Human Rights Commission's proceedings against Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn.

..."Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last," Olson rightly notes, "the lessons of Munich and appeasement were wrongly applied to a later international crisis [Suez]." President Bush and his fellow neocons should take note....

Bullshit. It is the lesson of Suez that is being wilfully misapplied.

Posted by John Weidner at 8:30 AM

January 31, 2008

"A world at peace they could scarcely remember"

C Northcote Parkinson performed the unusual feat of writing a biography of a fictional character, The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower: A Biography of C. S. Forester's Famous Naval Hero. It's not a good as the Hornblower books themselves, but it's not bad. Anyway, I happened to pick up my copy recently, and noticed this passage...

...To understand Hornblower's proposal [using explosive shells against wooden ships] and Cornwallis's reaction we have to remember that the senior officers of 1793-1815 had all been trained in the War of American Independence; a war fought between gentlemen on either side. Admiral Rodney had been living in France when war began. Howe had thought it enough to defeat the French, if he could; he did not talk of destroying them. Even Pellew had a great friend among his opponents. He and others retained some sense of chivalry. Thus, a ship-of-the-line in battle never fired at an enemy frigate unless she fired first. The game was played according to the rules; rules which might be broken but which were still held to exist. The French Revolution brought about an abrupt change of atmosphere, there being few gentlemen left on the French side. Some idea of fair play lingered even then but Napoleon lowered the tone still more, aiming now at his enemy's destruction. Some senior officers of the Royal Navy became almost as ruthless, Nelson being the chief of these.

After them, however, came younger men, and Hornblower among them, who had been trained in this particular war. Theirs was a war against the first of the modern dictators. Of the older and more chivalrous warfare they knew nothing. A world at peace they could scarcely remember, having seen it only from the classroom. Among them, moreover, were some, like Cochrane, who had been influenced by the industrial revolution....

This is accurate history, and is similar to what has happened in other wars. The American Civil War is a good example. And thinking about this gives me a certain feeling of optimism about our long-term prospects in the Global War on Jihadism.

We are in this war, and are now hobbled in fighting it, because of a variety of stupid leftist and fake-pacifist and "realist" ideas . Such as that jihadism is no big deal as long as they are just killing Jews. Or that the arhabis have legitimate grievances that can be appeased or placated.

But it seems to me likely that the young officers and troops now serving around the globe are going to be a lot more clear-sighted about things. And they are the leaders of the future. They will be much more willing to take the gloves off and destroy the enemy.

Oh, and by the way, by "destroy the enemy" I do not primarily mean by slaughter and mayhem, although those will be necessary (and merciful and Christian) at the proper times. Much more I mean the sort of thing we are doing right now in IRAQ, fostering democracy, economic freedom, and globalization, in alliance with the local population. These are weapons of the war. And their value is clearly demonstrated by how much our enemies HATE them. Jihadis, tyrants, fake-liberals, fake-pacifists, and nihilists of every stripe, are UNITED in their hatred for the possibility of Iraqis and Afghans, and other oppressed peoples becoming free and prosperous allies of the United States. That alone is enough to tell me that we are on the right course, and to say, "Thank you President Bush, for doing the right things."

   
Posted by John Weidner at 10:01 AM

January 16, 2008

Art and design...

Any fans of typography--or of unintentional humor--will like this.

Posted by John Weidner at 3:25 PM

January 3, 2008

One of the greats...

One of the greats, George McDonald Fraser has just died. Everyone will be talking about the famous Flashman books. I'd like to put in a word of appreciation for his collections of short stories about Lt. Dand McNeil and his impossible burden, Private McAuslan (the dirtiest soldier in the British Army) which are extremely funny and charming.

From a reader-review [By Reader "piratebean" (Bristol, RI USA)] at amazon.com:

...George MacDonald Fraser has written the stories of this regiment and its most infamous soldier, Private McAuslan, in three collections: The General Danced at Dawn, McAuslan in the Rough, and The Sheikh and the Dustbin.

Through the narration by platoon commander Dand McNeil, McAuslan comes alive as the dirtiest soldier in the world, "wan o' nature's blunders; he cannae help bein' horrible. It's a gift."

Yet McAuslan is one of the most loveable creatures in all of literature. He may be grungy, filthy, clumsy, and disreputable, but he tries to do his best. Through his many misadventures, McAuslan marches into the heart of the reader, right leg and right arm swinging in unison, of course.

McAuslan, outcast that he is, experiences some infamous moments in his career: court martial defendant, ghost-catcher, star-crossed lover, golf caddie, expert map reader, and champion of the regimental quiz game (!). His tales, and the tales of his comrades-in-arms, are poignant at times, hilarious at others. These tales are so memorable because they are based on true stories.

The reader basks in all things Scottish in the stories. The language of the soldiers is written in Scottish brogue, although Fraser says in his introduction, "Incidentally, most of this volume is, I hope, written in English." Don't fret - a glossary is provided. (Reading the glossary alone causes some serious belly laughs.

And also for his superb memoir of his service in Burma during WWII, Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma

You don't need much more evidence of the total decadence and decline of Britain, than to just point out that there seem to be no more George McDonald Fraser's in the pipeline...

* Update: (late late at night, and I'm drinking the Glenlivet.) I should point out that the cover pictured below on the The Complete McAuslan is a travesty!!! The immortal McAuslan is a scrawny malnourished wide boy from Gleska (Glasgow); not in any way fat. (So read the book, already!! You will thank me. Geez. Why do I even bother recommending things anyway?? People will just go buy some crappy movie on a DVD. Why do I even bother to keep living in a post-literate age???? I'm all alone. At least click-through my amzaon link to buy your stupid flick, so i make a profit on my wasted electrons...)

* Update: I mean really, why am I doing this?? I'll never speak to a soul who's read about Lt. McNeil's platoon standing guard at Edinburgh Castle. Or Captain Einstein's stunning defense of McAuslan at the Court Martial (Shakespeare himself would have smiled.) Or Captain Errol. Ah well. Let the barbarians over-run all. Perhaps a new and better civilization will arise from the steaming rubble...

* Update: One more glass. SO good. Scotland is doomed, but somebody will continue to distill the whiskey---there's too much money in it not to. SO, Mohammed--my brother--please--Scotch doesn't need to be flavored with Cardamom or Anise. Just stick with the original recipe and you will do fine. Trust me, the smokey flavor grows on you.

* Update: (I have a little program that inserts these "Update" dingbats with a keystroke--it's not like I have to working hard at this.) OK, I'll go along with the Cardamom. But, by the beard of the Prophet, that's where I draw the line!@!!

       

Posted by John Weidner at 9:13 AM

"Great challenges present great opportunities"

Hugh Hewitt had an interview with George Weigel. He posted this excerpt on his blog. (The interview transcript is here.)

HH: I want to read from the very beginning of the book, Page 8, on the complexity of the situation facing us, because I think this is one of the things that voters have to keep in mind as they cast their ballots this year, is just how difficult the situation the U.S. finds itself in. I quote now from George Weigel’s brand new book, Faith, Reason and the War Against Jihadism, “The war is now being fought on multiple fronts, with more likely to come. Many are interconnected. There is an Afghan front, an Iraqi front, an Iranian front, a Lebanese-Syrian front, a Gaza front, a Somali front, a Pakistani front, a North Africa-Magreb front, a Sudanese front, a Southeast Asian front, an intelligence front, a financial flows front, an economic front, and energy front, and a homeland security front. These are all fields of fire. Some kinetic, others of a different sort, in the same global war, and they must be understood as such.” George Weigel, that requires enormous capacity on the part of our leaders, our elected leaders.

GW: Well, great issues ought to test our great personalities to seize the opportunity to defend the cause of freedom. And as I indicate at the end of the book, Hugh, I think this can be a great moment of national renewal. We shouldn’t look at this as simply one in a series of problems to be solved, but rather if we were to gather ourselves, to make the kind of arguments for the free and virtuous society that we’re going to have to make, if we gathered ourselves to understand better, more comprehensively the role of religious and moral conviction in public life, if we rationalized our homeland security policies so that political correctness was not driving the bus, but the safety of the American people was driving the bus, if we began to defund jihadism by getting serious about alternatives to petroleum as a transportation fuel, all of these are aspects of a genuine process of national renewal for the United States. So if I were a candidate for the presidency, I would cast all of this as an opportunity, that great challenges present great opportunities. And I believe the American people are willing to rise to the occasion.

One of my beefs with President Bush is captured here. I think the oft-heard complaint that Bush has not asked the nation to "sacrifice" is really STUPID. (It usually implies mass mobilization like in the World Wars, which we don't need now, and those same critics would hate it if Bush actually did request such sacrifices.) But, I keenly regret that he has not called upon the nation to stretch itself in other ways. Jihadism is an intellectual and spiritual challenge, one that conventional liberalism is almost totally incapable of rising to.

Posted by John Weidner at 6:55 AM

December 28, 2007

Good book...

Charlene and I are reading Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action, by George Weigel. We recommend it highly for its clarity, and its challenge to Americans to think more clearly about what is going on.

...as Dean Acheson said at another moment when history's tectonic plates were shifting, the task that he and Harry Truman faced "only slowly revealed itself. As it did so it began to appear as just a little bit less formidable than that described in the first chapter of Genesis. that was to create a world out of chaos." Our task today is not dissimilar. In carrying it out we would do well to remember the counsel of the late public philosopher Charles Frankel: "The heart of the policy-making process...is not the finding of a national interest already perfectly known and understood. It is the determining of that interest: the reassessment of the nation's resources, needs, commitments, traditions, and political and cultural horizons—in short, its calendar of values.

Efforts to accelerate change in the Arab Islamic world by the administration of George W. Bush were shaped by a realistic assesment of the situation after 9/11. As Fouad Ajami notes, the "custodians of American power were under great pressure to force history's pace." To attempt to accelerate the transition to responsible and responsive government in the Middle East was neither an exercise in cowboy apocalypticism nor in Wilsonian romanticism. It was a realistic objective, given an unacceptable status quo that was inherently unstable; that was unstable because it was corrupt; and that was producing terrorists and jihadists determined to challenge those corruptions...

Posted by John Weidner at 7:59 PM

November 23, 2007

"both bug-crusher and discretionary hat"

Steven Poole on that new e-book reader, called the "Kindle," from Amazon....

....I here propose a minimal list of features that any really successful ebook device must eventually have. Feature parity with physical books, after all, is surely a reasonable baseline demand. So here is what the electronic book of the future will be like.

1 It will have an inexhaustible source of energy and never need recharging.

2 It will have resolution as good as print. (No, Amazon, really as good as print.)

3 It will be able to survive coffee and wine spills, days of intense sunlight, dropping in the ocean, light charring, and falling completely into two or more pieces, while still remaining perfectly readable afterwards....

He's got more. Including:

...13 The ebook will function, morever, as both bug-crusher and discretionary hat. Placed on my face, it will make a soft roof against the sun on the beach.....

Posted by John Weidner at 4:47 PM

October 13, 2007

"And those hours may be numbered as the sands of the desert..."

Does anyone still read Kahlil Gibran? When I was younger one seemed to see the same mournful tan cover of The Prophet on everyone's bookshelves. Which still does not mean anyone read him; it was, I think, the sort of book people liked to give as a gift, conferring an aura of profundity on the giver without any need for thinking, or commitment to any ideal.

Charlene noticed this at the First Things page, in a teaser of what will be in the November issue of the magazine, for those of us wise enough to subscribe...

“Expansive and yet vacuous is the prose of Kahlil Gibran,” writes Alan Jacobs in the new issue of First Things.

And weary grows the mind doomed to read it.
The hours of my penance lengthen,
The penance established for me by the editor of this magazine,
And those hours may be numbered as the sands of the desert.
And for each of them Kahlil Gibran has prepared
Another ornamental phrase,
Another faux-biblical cadence,
Another affirmation proverbial in its intent
But alas! lacking the moral substance,
The peasant shrewdness, of the true proverb.

O Book, O The Collected Works of Kahlil Gibran,
Published by Everyman’s Library on a dark day,
I lift you from the Earth to which I recently flung you
When my wrath grew too mighty for me,
I lift you from the Earth,
Noticing once more your annoying heft,
And thanking God—though such thanks are sinful—
That Kahlil Gibran died in New York in 1931
At the age of forty-eight,
So that he could write no more words,
So that this Book would not be yet larger than it is.

I don't suggest you buy Gibran! Your library has him, if you are curious. But any of my book links to amazon.com, if followed up with purchases various, will earn me a little percentage. Perhaps (if not a diamond necklace) a book by Mr Jacobs himself, or by the Editor in Chief of First Things...

Posted by John Weidner at 8:21 AM

October 6, 2007

It fits...

Powerline has this quote, from a new book, Shadow Warriors: The Untold Story of Traitors, Saboteurs, and the Party of Surrender.

Some have called it the CIA's greatest covert operation of all time.
It involved deep penetration of a hostile regime by planting a network of agents at key crossroads of power, where they could steal secrets and steer policy by planting disinformation, cooking intelligence, provocation, and outright lies.

It involved sophisticated political sabotage operations, aimed at making regime leaders doubt their own judgment and question the support of their subordinates.

It involved the financing, training, and equipping of effective opposition forces, who could challenge the regime openly and through covert operations.

The scope was breathtaking, say insiders who had personal knowledge of the CIA effort. All the skills learned by the U.S. intelligence community during the fifty years of the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union were in play, from active measures aimed at planting disinformation through cutouts and an eager media, to maskirovka--strategic deception.

It was war--but an intelligence war, played behind the scenes, aimed at confusing, misleading, and ultimately defeating the enemy. Its goal was nothing less than to topple the regime in power, by discrediting its rulers.

Many Americans believe this was the CIA's goal during the 1990s, when the Agency had "boots on the ground" in northern Iraq, working with Iraqi opponents of Saddam Hussein. Most patriotic Americans probably hope that the CIA today has such an operation to overthrow the mullahs in Tehran, or North Korean dictator Kim John Il.

But the target of this vast, sophisticated CIA operation was none of them.

It was America's 43rd President, George W. Bush....

I'd say it seems to fit the facts we've observed over the last 6 years. Remember this quote, by Michael Ledeen?

...ML: Before we get into the details, I've got a quickie for you. I was reading a recent interview with Charles McCarry, the ex-spook who writes terrific books, and he said something quite extraordinary.

JJA: To wit?

ML: He said: "I never met a stupid person in the agency. Or an assassin. Or a Republican... They were, at least in the operations side where I was...wall-to-wall knee-jerk liberals. And they were befuddled that the left outside the agency regarded them as some sort of right-wing threat. Because they were the absolute opposite, in their own politics."...

Fascinatin', that befuddlement! The left hates the CIA for the same reason that it hates the US military. Because their very existence presumes that we have a country worth fighting for. They do not hate the State Department, because it is presumed to share the view of nihilists that there is nothing worth fighting for, that there is no "good vs evil."

Posted by John Weidner at 9:21 AM

September 29, 2007

Things are happening...under the radar

There's a lot of interesting info in this article from American Thinker: A Quiet Triumph May be Brewing:

(Thanks to Rand)

.....The Trap
Let me summarize the fantastic work that the
Internet Anthropologist has been doing. You may remember a couple of months ago a report that al Qaeda and its' affiliates had abandoned their training camps in Pakistan along the Afghan border. The initial report caused quite a blog storm but soon the mystery was forgotten. According to AI, which links to references for all of this, the US got fed up with not being able to reach al Qaeda inside Pakistan. Then a few months back the US government told the Pakistani government that we had the coordinates for twenty-nine terror training bases and in a week we will be destroying them (perhaps on Cheney's visit this summer). The intent was to drive the terrorists from those camps so we could get to them.

It worked. That's why those camps emptied out.

So the US left the terrorists an escape route into Tora Bora. Once they had detected a large group of al Qaeda at the fortress and the likelihood of High Value Targets as determined by large scale security detachments, the US dropped the curtain on the escape routes back into Pakistan. We have been pounding the hell out of them for weeks in near complete secrecy.

But an observer may wonder why, if al Qaeda had to vacate the camps, didn't they just go to other hideouts in Pakistan?.....

Lots more. Read it all. Another morsel:

...Cutting al Qaeda's support in Pakistan has been a massive coup, of which our media has no clue of right now. It is the exact sort of thing that the Democrats and their media accomplices always complain that we are not doing and then completely ignore when we do it....

Isn't that the truth! I bet if they were honest—ha ha—they would say, "When we said we should be fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan and not Iraq, we didn't mean we should be fighting in al Qaeda in Afghanistan."

And there's this:

....It bears mentioning that this cutting off of support might not have happened if Saddam had been left in power to flood the Pakistani jihad groups with cash through the Maulana and his associates. Cutting off this funding took the Maulana out of play as a major money raiser for al Qaeda and the Taliban. Without that cash, he became dispensable to al Qaeda, which may not have realized that this man wielded such power among the Taliban that he could turn them against al Qaeda....

The author, Ray Robison, has a book, Both In One Trench: Saddam's Secret Terror Documents which will be available on Amazon.com in a few weeks. It might just be very interesting. One of the lesser reasons I've listed for invading Iraq is that totalitarian regimes always keep good records, and we could expect to learn a lot about what's really going on in the world...

Posted by John Weidner at 2:59 PM

September 23, 2007

"The opportunity to lead a hidden religious life"

Charlene and I have been reading an entrancing book, German writer and novelist Martin Mosebach's Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and its Enemy.

I have no plans to blog here my opinions on various controversies within the Church. Or get involved in them at all—there are plenty of others who can handle that job better than I. But I did want to give you a little of the flavor of Mosebach's book, just in case there are any others reading this who find these sorts of things intriguing...

In 1812, in Carlsbad, Goethe encountered the young empress Maria Ludovica; when the empress heard what a profound impression she had made on Goethe, she communicated to him the "noble and definite sentiment" that she "did not want to be identified or surmised" in any of his works "under any pretext whatsoever". "For," she said, "women are like religion: the less they are spoken of, the more they gain." It is a fine maxim, and one that deserves to be taken to heart. However, I am about to ignore it by speaking to you about religion in its practical aspect, lived religion, that is, liturgy. Perhaps the greatest damage done by Pope Paul VI's reform of the Mass (and by the ongoing process that has outstripped it), the greatest spiritual deficit, is this: we are now positively obliged to talk about the liturgy....

...We have had to delve into questions of worship and liturgy—something that is utterly foreign to the religious man. We have let ourselves be led into a kind of scholastic and juridical way of considering the liturgy....And finally, we have started to evaluate liturgy—a monstrous act....

...what have we lost? The opportunity to lead a hidden religious life, days begun with a quiet Mass in a modest little neighborhood church; a life in which we learn, over decades, discretely guided by priests, to mingle our own sacrifice with Christ's sacrifice; a Holy Mass in which we ponder our own sins and the graces given to us—and nothing else: rarely is this possible any more for a Catholic aware of liturgical tradition, once the liturgy's unquestioned status has been destroyed...

"Random Thoughts Sundays"250

Posted by John Weidner at 7:47 AM

Posted without comment...

Interesting small piece in the NYT on the trend back towards traditional church architecture...

...“Architects began to design churches that were meant to promote a sense of community gathered for celebration,” he added. “While older churches tried to set themselves apart from the world, these were buildings that were meant to blend into neighborhoods.”

These buildings were focused around casual, multipurpose spaces. Pastors asked architects for assembly halls that would allow members and clergy members to be able to see one another’s faces, so sanctuaries were often arranged in circles or semicircles. Pulpits were moved from the head of the church to the middle or done away with altogether. Statues were removed. Pitched roofs became flat. Steeples vanished.

Critics of the movement saw this trend toward plain, functional buildings as an insult to the divine. A flurry of books by influential architects and critics led the attack, including Michael S. Rose’s salvo, “Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches From Sacred Spaces to Meeting Places and How We Can Change Them Back” (Sophia Institute Press, 2001), and Moyra Doorly’s “No Place for God: The Denial of Transcendence in Modern Church Architecture” (Ignatius Press, 2007).

Ms. Doorly, an architect and writer in Britain, has also started a campaign called Outcry Against Ugly Churches, or OUCH.

While many churches have taken up the call to return to traditional building styles, especially those that still worship with a formal liturgy and sacraments, Dr. Kieckhefer points out that modern “big box”-style churches are often simply more cost effective for congregations to build, and for that reason, he doesn’t see them disappearing from the landscape...

I myself will just just keep my mouth shut here. If I ever let fly with my feelings about modern church architecture and those who promote it, I might lose control altogether and damage Charlene's oriental carpets which she loves what with chewing on them.

"Random Thoughts Sundays"250

Posted by John Weidner at 5:36 AM

September 14, 2007

Best book on the subject...

I finally got a perk for being a blogger. Free Press sent me a copy of a new book, House to House by Staff Sergeant David Bellavia.

It centers on the the bloody craziness of the second battle of Falluja, where Bellavia's army unit was one of the first to penetrate deep into the town... I'm a bookworm, and I've read lots of books on war. This is the best account of combat I've ever encountered.

I'm not going to even try to quote the wild stuff, you won't believe it unless you read the whole build-up. In fact you gotta just read the book. (All I'll say editorially is that anyone who thinks we should walk away and leave the jihadis to tyrannize over Iraq, or any other place, is insane. We have created monsters by decades of pacifism and appeasement and liberalism and nihilism, and now we must fight. There isn't a choice.)

....Inside the house, I start to move to the door. Before I can take a full step, I see a trip wire. It runs across the door and up along the doorjamb. Dangling from the wire is an orange-red pineapple grenade the size of a Nerf football. The pin is missing and the spoon is held on by the wire. If we open the door, the spoon will fly off and detonate the grenade in our faces.

"Knapp!" I shout.

He comes over and peers through the window.

"Check this shit out," I tell him.

He fingers the trip wire and sighs. "You know what? I've told my guys not to check for booby traps. This is high-intensity MOUT." Military Operations in Urban Terrain. "We're looking for bad guys. We don't have time for precision MOUT."

"No, you're right we don't. We could have dudes in the house ready to kill us. We've got to be ready for them, not heads-down searching for trip wires."

Knapp nods. We've got a serious tactical dilemma on our hands. If we're to treat each house as if it is booby trapped, we'll go in cautiously. In house-clearing, confidence and quickness are absolutely vital. If we hesitate, if we methodically search for booby traps, we hand the initiative to any insurgents who may be in the house. We'll get lit the fuck up. Moving swiftly and decisively from room to room is the only way to surprise the enemy and minimize our exposure to their fire.

So far, we haven't seen anyone inside these houses. Yet if we continue to move this quickly, we're likely to trip a booby trap. Right now, I can't see how we're going to get through this without anyone getting hurt. Either we move fast and hit a trip wire, or we move slowly and get shot at.

"Okay, Knapp, let's keep this to ourselves."

"Yeah, alright. We don't wanna fucking freak the guys out any more than they already are. I don't want them going into houses with this shit at the back of their heads."....

[There's a short video interview of Bellavia here.]

Posted by John Weidner at 8:36 AM

September 9, 2007

"out of touch with the body of Christ"

[Thanks to David Schütz, and Louise...]

Peter Holmes writes:

Several friends have, of late, admitted they send their children to Protestant bible classes because "there is nothing Catholic" or "the Protestants are much better at this" and the old "at least they are getting something."

I surprised them by advising they remove their children immediately and take steps to remedy the damage done so far. "But isn't it better that they know Scripture? Isn't that what you've been saying all along?" they protest. My point wasn't about knowing Scripture. It was about knowing the truth, and where it all fits.

As an evangelical I learned 200-300 verses a year in Sunday School and had to recite them all at the end to get my 'prize', and yet never understood sin or grace. I understood a wickedly twisted version invented (in human terms) by a reformer hundreds of years ago, and seemingly supported by the selective choice of verses interpreted by my teachers.

As a Lutheran seminarian I read the Bible backwards, forwards in the original Hebrew and Hebrew, in later translations of Latin, German and various historic English translations. I learned critical method and medieval exegesis, read the fathers take on Scripture and STILL didn't understand grace and sin (I persist with these examples though there are many others) in the Catholic sense.

It's hard for a Catholic with a positive outlook to suspect a Protestant is undermining their belief when they use all the same words, even some of the same formulae, but only discover later that they mean different things. (The joint statements b/w Catholics and Protestants tend to be full of such language.)

If a Protestant encourages me to read the Scriptures, that is a great and noble thing. If they offer to TEACH me the Scriptures, I have to decline. They are lacking the context they were written from, and into. They are out of touch with the body of Christ that preserved them and interprets them authoritatively.

Specifically they justify their non-catholicity on the basis of Scripture. We should expect their interpretation to contradict the Church not only in some aspects, but in method, content, context and in spirit.

I am astounded when good Catholics, who would not let a religious sister or priest within a mile of their children's faith education, will entrust their education in the central aspect of the Catholic Tradition to people who reject Catholicism...

I'm just starting to understand the slight-of-hand involved in supporting Protestant theology sola scriptura. Fascinatin' subject. A book to begin with is Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic, by David Currie. Charlene and I both give it our highest marks...

"Random Thoughts Sundays"250

Posted by John Weidner at 7:08 AM

"to waste time for the sake of God..."

From The Spirit of the Liturgy, by Romano Guardini. (Also online here)

From Chapter 5. THE PLAYFULNESS OF THE LITURGY

GRAVE and earnest people, who make the knowledge of truth their whole aim, see moral problems in everything, and seek for a definite purpose everywhere, tend to experience a peculiar difficulty where the liturgy is concerned. They incline to regard it as being to a certain extent aimless, as superfluous pageantry of a needlessly complicated and artificial character. They are affronted by the scrupulously exact instructions which the liturgy gives on correct procedure, on the right direction in which to turn, on the pitch of the voice, and so on. What is the use of it all? The essential part of Holy Mass--the action of Sacrifice and the divine Banquet--could be so easily consummated. Why, then, the need for the solemn institution of the priestly office? The necessary consecration could be so simply accomplished in so few words, and the sacraments so straight-forwardly administered--what is the reason of all the prayers and ceremonies? The liturgy tends to strike people of this turn of mind as—to use the words which are really most appropriate—trifling and theatrical....

....But this has one thing in common with the play of the child and the life of art—it has no purpose, but it is full of profound meaning. It is not work, but play. To be at play, or to fashion a work of art in God's sight—not to create, but to exist—such is the essence of the liturgy. From this is derived its sublime mingling of profound earnestness and divine joyfulness. The fact that the liturgy gives a thousand strict and careful directions on the quality of the language, gestures, colors, garments and instruments which it employs, can only be understood by those who are able to take art and play seriously. Have you ever noticed how gravely children draw up the rules of their games, on the form of the melody, the position of the hands, the meaning of this stick and that tree? It is for the sake of the silly people who may not grasp their meaning and who will persist in seeing the justification of an action or object only in its obvious purpose. Have you ever read of or even experienced the deadly earnestness with which the artist-vassal labors for art, his lord? Of his sufferings on the score of language? Or of what an overweening mistress form is? And all this for something that has no aim or purpose! No, art does not bother about aims. Does anyone honestly believe that the artist would take upon himself the thousand anxieties and feverish perplexities incident to creation if he intended to do nothing with his work but to teach the spectator a lesson, which he could just as well express in a couple of facile phrases, or one or two historical examples, or a few well-taken photographs? The only answer to this can be an emphatic negative. Being an artist means wrestling with the expression of the hidden life of man, avowedly in order that it may be given existence; nothing more. It is the image of the Divine creation, of which it is said that it has made things "ut sint."....

[I posted a little more below the fold]

"Random Thoughts Sundays"250

...The liturgy does the same thing. It too, with endless care, with all the seriousness of the child and the strict conscientiousness of the great artist, has toiled to express in a thousand forms the sacred, God-given life of the soul to no other purpose than that the soul may therein have its existence and live its life. The liturgy has laid down the serious rules of the sacred game which the soul plays before God. And, if we are desirous of touching bottom in this mystery, it is the Spirit of fire and of holy discipline "Who has knowledge of the world"—the Holy Ghost—Who has ordained the game which the Eternal Wisdom plays before the Heavenly Father in the Church, Its kingdom on earth. And "Its delight" is in this way "to be with the children of men."

Only those who are not scandalized by this understand what the liturgy means. From the very first every type of rationalism has turned against it. The practice of the liturgy means that by the help of grace, under the guidance of the Church, we grow into living works of art before God, with no other aim or purpose than that of living and existing in His sight; it means fulfilling God's Word and "becoming as little children"; it means foregoing maturity with all its purposefulness, and confining oneself to play, as David did when he danced before the Ark. It may, of course, happen that those extremely clever people, who merely from being grown-up have lost all spiritual youth and spontaneity, will misunderstand this and jibe at it. David probably had to face the derision of Michal. It is in this very aspect of the liturgy that its didactic aim is to be found, that of teaching the soul not to see purposes everywhere, not to be too conscious of the end it wishes to attain, not to be desirous of being over-clever and grown-up, but to understand simplicity in life. The soul must learn to abandon, at least in prayer, the restlessness of purposeful activity; it must learn to waste time for the sake of God, and to be prepared for the sacred game with sayings and thoughts and gestures, without always immediately asking "why?" and "wherefore?" It must learn not to be continually yearning to do something, to attack something, to accomplish something useful, but to play the divinely ordained game of the liturgy in liberty and beauty and holy joy before God. In the end, eternal life will be its fulfillment. Will the people who do not understand the liturgy be pleased to find that the heavenly consummation is an eternal song of praise? Will they not rather associate themselves with those other industrious people who consider that such an eternity will be both boring and unprofitable?....
Posted by John Weidner at 6:51 AM

September 3, 2007

The metaphor of the "page"

I've never liked using Microsoft Word, so I was primed to enjoy this piece by writer Steven Poole, Goodbye, cruel Word:

....The second crucial thing was an answer to prayers I hadn’t even known I was praying. It was Full-Screen Mode, which I first discovered in WriteRoom. WriteRoom’s slogan is “distraction-free writing”, and it does just what it says on the tin. Your entire screen is blacked out, except for the text you are working on. I now use WriteRoom for all my journalism. When I’m working, the screen of my MacBook looks like this....

[picture of orange text on black screen]

.....Pretty old-skool, huh? It’s perfect: far less temptation to switch to a browser window, much better concentration on the text in front of you. WriteRoom has a “typewriter-scrolling mode”, so that the line you are typing is always centred in the screen, not forever threatening to drop off the bottom, and what you have already written scrolls rapidly up off the top of the screen, dissuading you from idly rereading it. It’s a bit like the endless roll of typewriter paper on which Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road.

So WriteRoom allows me to turn my whizzy modern computer into the nearest equivalent possible (allowing for modern conveniences like backup to the internet and so on) to my old Brother typewriter and its six-line LCD. The focus is on the words and nothing else. Except for that line you can just make out at the bottom left of the screen. That’s the Live Word Count.

Microsoft Word still uses the metaphor of the page, the computer screen that imitates a blank, bounded sheet of physical paper. For me, this is outdated and unimaginative. It has become a barrier rather than a window. And there is always the distraction of changing font and line-spacing, jumping ahead too quickly to imagining the text as a visual, physical product instead of a process, a fluid semantic interplay. Instead, turning my MacBook into a kind of replica 1980s IBM machine, with the words glowing and hovering in an interstellar void, is liberating: as though I am composing the Platonic ideal of a text that might eventually take many different forms....
(Thanks to Gruber)

When I first encountered it the metaphor of the "page" seemed so utterly cool. WYSIWYG, and all that. And of course it still is, for many purposes. But it can also be so very irritating. I suppose I ought to take a look at the two programs he uses, WriteRoom and Scrivener. But I probably won't find the heart to do so. The truth is, I fell in love once, with the old WriteNow, and since my sweetheart perished along the cruel upgrade trail, I've never looked at another.

Poole's book Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes Reality looks like it was a good idea—analyzing the loaded language of politician's sound-bite phrases—that was deformed by his leftist bias. From a reader's amazon review: "...Bush and Blair's 'war on terror' is asymmetric warfare: 'we' are fighting a war; 'you' are not, so you cannot be prisoners of war, only 'enemy combatants' and 'terrorist suspects', so 'we' can imprison you without trial and torture you..."

Uh, sorry to break this to you pal, but if the terrorists are fighting a war, then they are committing war crimes daily, and we could, and probably should, execute them on the battlefield. Under the Geneva Conventions POW status is a reward for following the rules of war. It is Rumsfeld & Co who are being asymmetricly humane and decent.

And I can bet he never once contrasts the terrorist's phrases with the simple fact that any Coalition soldiers captured by al Queda have received torture and death, and usually had their bodies booby-trapped to blow up others... That kinda stuff is OK with a lefty; only Bush and Blair are real, and merit criticism.

Posted by John Weidner at 8:51 AM

August 26, 2007

Book recommendation...

I've been reading an excellent book, The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World, by John O'Sullivan. It's about Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II, and how they cooperated in bringing about the downfall of the Soviet Progressive Empire...

...All three [in the early 1970's] were plainly at or near the peak of their careers. And those peaks were tantalizingly short of the very top.

It was not hard for any intelligent observer to explain why these three, with such high abilities, had obtained only limited success. All three were handicapped by being too sharp, clear, and definite in an age of increasingly fluid identities and sophisticated doubts. Put simply, Wojtyla was too Catholic, Thatcher too conservative, and Reagan too American.

These qualities might not have been disadvantages in times of greater confidence in Western civilization—or in moments of grave crisis such as 1940 in Britain, or 1941 in America, or in sixteenth-century Rome—when people prefer their leaders to be lions rather than foxes. But 1970 was two years after the revolutionary annus mirabilis of 1968. It was a time when historical currents seemed to be smoothly bearing mankind, including the Catholic Church, Britain, and America, in an undeniably liberal and even progressive direction....

Wojtyla, by the way is pronounced voy-TEE-wah, Krak�w is KRA-koov. I always find it maddening when a book includes foreign words without giving one the pronunciation. Fortunately I have George Weigel's splendid book on John Paul II, Witness to Hope, which has a nice guide to pronouncing Polish.

Posted by John Weidner at 7:27 AM

August 7, 2007

Beauchamp, Again...

Shakey Pete:

Okay, now TNR is offering as proof of Beauchamp's truthiness that his story of how his horrible treatment of a woman wounded in an IED accident happened in Kuwait. Yes, the war is so horrible that it robbed him of his decency before he even set foot in the country.

We have a new problem, PTSD to watch out for. Yes, friends, Pre Traumatic Stress Disorder. Please write your Congresscritter, we'll need to spend a few billion studying this disease. Since it affected Beauchamp before he ever set foot in Iraq I volunteer to take a few million to study this new form of PTSD, I'm qualified because I haven't been to Iraq, either.

That's pretty good. I myself was just thinking idly today about joining up and going to Iraq, and now I find myself dreaming of tossing babies up to impale on my bayonet. And running over dogs, of course, I can't wait to do that.

I wonder if TNR will pay ME to expose the brute savagery of war, and the way it turns innocent lads into sociopathic killers. I can do it, and I don't even need to go to Kuwait!

Actually, what poor Beauchamp was doing was getting a start on writing this generation's All Quiet on the Western Front. That's the model for all literary and journalistic views of war, and I'm sure Random House has a stack of hundred-dollar bills waiting for whoever can provide the product for this go-round. Just fill in the blanks for your particular conflict.

Great book by the way, unforgettable. Impressed the heck out of me when I was about 15. Of course, since I'm not a brain-dead lefty, I am aware that its applicability to the Fourth-Generation Warfare we are engaged in today is about zero.

Posted by John Weidner at 5:52 PM

July 29, 2007

The Real Lion...

Some interesting thoughts about Harry P...

....It has been widely observed that J.K. Rowling owes a creative debt to Christian fantasists J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (apart from their fondness for initials). It's odd now to remember that, at the same time, some parents have objected to the magic depicted in the Harry Potter books as a glorification of satanic practices. For "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" confirms something else apart from the well-thought-out-ness of Ms. Rowling's moral universe: It is subtly but unmistakably Christian.

The principal Hogwarts holidays have always been Christmas and Easter, but it took five books before Ms. Rowling really began tipping her hand. In Book Six, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," she addressed concepts of free will, the power of love, and the sanctity of the soul. But in the final volume she gently lays it all out. The preciousness of each human life; bodily resurrection after death; mercy, forgiveness and redemption; sacrificial love overcoming the powers of evil--strip away the elves, goblins, broomsticks and magic wands and these are the concepts that underpin the marvelously intricate world of Harry Potter.

There are clues throughout. At one point, Harry is led to a weapon that will enable him to destroy the Horcruxes when he finds them: "The ice reflected his distorted shadow and the beam of wandlight, but deep below the thick, misty gray carapace, something else glinted. A great silver cross . . ."

Two unattributed New Testament quotations recur in the story after Harry sees each on a tombstone in the village where he was born and his mother and father died. He discovers on the Dumbledore family tomb "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also," from Matthew. And on the grave of his own parents, he finds this, from I Corinthians: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." On seeing it, Harry feels momentary horror: Does it imply a link between his parents and Voldemort's followers? Hermione gently sets him straight: "It doesn't mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry. It means . . . you know . . . living beyond death. Living after death."....

I'm not sure what I think about this, but it is plausible. However, my guess is that Rowling is just dabbling in a Christian direction because if one is playing with deep questions of life and death and meaning, there aren't many other places to go. It will be interesting to see what she does next. I've never heard rumor of her having any faith, but if she follows the logical path she's on....well, these things sneak up on you. I'd opine that Rowling is showing a sentimental attachment to some leftover shreds of Christian tradition, rather than the real Lion. Read this for contrast. (More thoughts below)

"Random Thoughts Sundays"250

One thing I find fascinating about the Harry Potter books is that they not about magic. At least not in the way it is usually portrayed. The "magic" in the book is more like some esoteric technology, and Rowling could have fit the very same plots into pure science fiction. The stories could have been about an unusual boy selected to go to a secret "Star Fleet Academy," and learn to use light sabers and matter transporters. And become pals with Ron Solo and Leia Granger.

The magic in the books does not seem to have any effect on people's souls, beyond the ways that anything we do affects our inner selves. Being a Slytherin and dabbling in black magic is bad for you, but no more so than, say, getting hanging out with a bad crowd and starting to commit non-magical crimes. The Death Eaters have gone bad, but it's not their magic that corrupts them. Rather, they are like people who join some socialist group and have to commit atrocities, which make them become more and more evil. Nor does anyone have to bend their souls in either a good or bad direction in order to be able to practice magic.

Nor is there any "Fairyland" in the books, no transcendent or otherworldly aspect to the magic. There's no mysticism involved. And HP is not like those fantasies where the magic itself has a deep or world-changing meaning. The Earthsea Trilogy, or The Serpent Mage are examples. But Rowling closed off that option from the beginning.

A Catholic aspect of HP is that Hogwarts has always included the good and the bad. There's never any suggestion that the Slytherins might be excluded from the "church,", or that the Gryffindors might split off to form a smaller and purer "denomination." And in the last book Dumbledore is revealed to have been rather flawed as a youth, and his good qualities seem to have grown from his sins. This is like many a saint, and not like a "Gandalf."

Posted by John Weidner at 6:49 AM

July 22, 2007

"slapped him clean out of his seat..."

From The Church and the Culture War, by Joyce Little, 1995...

... I have said so much about what is not a Catholic sentence that I think it only fair, in conclusion, to give an example of a sentence that is truly Catholic. And I am going to turn to a real expert on the subject, Walker Percy. He was a Catholic who knew what the Catholic faith is. He was a novelist who knew what words are all about. He was a medical doctor by education and thus knew all about diseases and how to recognize them in their symptoms. And he was an astute physician of our age, having diagnosed the "modern sickness" as "the disease of abstraction".

Happily, he also contributed to the "Writing Catholic" article and has supplied us therein with not just one but two truly Catholic sentences. The major point of his contribution is that the Catholic faith better serves the novelist than does any other religion or philosophy, because of its recognition that man is a pilgrim journeying through a world that is both sacrament and mystery rather than an ego absorbed with itself in a world of abstractions and illusions. What, concretely, does this mean? Percy tells us what it means: ''Show me a lapsed Catholic who writes a good novel about being a young Communist at Columbia and I'll show you a novelist who owes more to Sister Gertrude at Sacred Heart in Brooklyn, who slapped him clean out of his seat for disrespect to the Eucharist, than he owes to all of Marxist dialect."

Now there is a Catholic sentence—direct, concrete, specific, vigorous, and colorful. And every one of us, even those of us who have never been to Brooklyn or indeed have never been in Catholic schools, know all about Sacred Heart and Sister Gertrude and just what she is capable of meting out when her high standards of respect for the Eucharist are violated. And we all know just as well how deeply indebted we are to her today for whatever reverence we have been able to retain for the Eucharist through the many intervening and difficult years in which we have had to endure that abstractive process known as "liturgical renewal".

As for the second sentence. Walker Percy tells us: "In the end, 10 boring Hail Marys are worth more to the novelist than 10 hours of Joseph Campbell on TV." For those of you who know anything about the phenomenon of Joseph Campbell, you will recognize that to be truly a Catholic sentence....

"Random Thoughts Sundays"250

Posted by John Weidner at 7:50 AM

July 21, 2007

Sufficient for the day is the snarkiness thereof...

Dr Weevil:

The theory taught in graduate schools of modern literature is like mortadella: it’s expensive, imported, beautifully packaged, made with loving care by experts who have devoted their lives to their work and do it very well . . . but it’s still bologna.
Posted by John Weidner at 9:56 AM

July 10, 2007

Good escape fiction...

Charlene and I both recommend The Peshawar Lancers, by S. M. Stirling. It's about an alternative future in which Britain and the Northern Hemisphere were devastated by meteor showers in 1870. Millions of English re-located to India, and re-constituted the British Empire. Now, 150 years later, technology is at about the level of our 1900, and the cultures have merged and blended in interesting ways.

It's a story of old-fashioned daring-do and romance, with splendid heroes and the most exceedingly evil villains...

Posted by John Weidner at 12:18 PM

June 12, 2007

"The omnipresent fear of being accused of racism.”

A snippet from Stanley Kurtz's review of The Last Days of Europe, by Walter Laqueur...

...Laqueur returns several times to the failure of Europe’s authorities to consult with the public on immigration. Instead of putting the matter up for debate, government and corporations quietly and unilaterally set policy. Europe’s elite had a bad conscience, given memories of refugees from Nazi Germany who’d been turned away decades earlier. There was also the omnipresent “fear of being accused of racism.” This bizarre combination of multiculturalism and complete disregard for the significance of culture opened up a huge gulf between Europe’s elite and the public — a gulf that emerged openly when France and The Netherlands rejected the proposed EU constitution (in part over concerns about Muslim immigration and the accession of Turkey to the EU). There was, says Laqueur, “a backlash against the elites who wanted to impose their policies on a population who had not been consulted....Another important motive was the reluctance to hand over national sovereignty to central, remote and anonymous institutions over which people had no control.”...

The whole review is well worth reading...

Posted by John Weidner at 6:50 AM

June 11, 2007

I recommend...

Hugh Hewitt's A Mormon in the White House?: 10 Things Every American Should Know about Mitt Romney

My current estimate is that it is quite likely that Mitt Romney will be the Repubican nominee. And if this is even remotely interesting to you, then Hugh's book is the book to read. It is not too long, very well written, and covers a lot.

Posted by John Weidner at 4:34 PM

May 6, 2007

Sunday reading....

Charlene and I have been greatly enjoying a new book by one of my heroes, N.T. Wright. (That's his authorial moniker; in conversation he's referred to as Tom Wright, or Bishop Wright—he's the Anglican Bishop of Durham.)

It's called Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. It's an attempt to do something like what CS Lewis did in Mere Christianity. I recommend it. Actually, it has a sort of intellectual clarity that might appeal to the curiosity of someone with no great interest in religion. If an author wanted to explain Christianity adequately, it would be much easier to write a long complicated book than a short and simple one, as Wright has done. It's an impressive performance.

(Also, if you are interested in this stuff, Wright has posted his personal appreciation and criticism of Mere Christianity: Simply Lewis: Reflections on a Master Apologist After 60 Years.)

I posted an excerpt from the new book below...

...Discovering Help in Prayer

Help is at hand not least in those who have trodden the path ahead at us. Part of our difficulty here is that we moderns are so anxious to do things our own way, so concerned that if we get help from anyone else our prayer won't be "authentic" and come from our own heart, that we are instantly suspicious about using anyone else's prayers. We are like someone who doesn't feel she's properly dressed unless she has personally designed and made all her own clothes; or like someone who feels it's artificial to drive a car he hasn't built all by himself. We are hamstrung by the long legacy of the Romantic movement on the one hand, and Existentialism on the other, producing the idea that things are authentic only if they come spontaneously, unbidden, from the depths of our hearts.

Frankly, as Jesus pointed out, there's a lot that comes from the depths of our hearts which may be authentic but isn't very pretty. One good breath of fresh air from the down-to-earth world of first-century Judaism is enough to blow away the smog of the self-absorbed (and ultimately proud) quest for "authenticity" of that kind. When Jesus's followers asked him to teach them to pray, he didn't tell them to divide into focus groups and look deep within their own hearts. He didn't begin by getting them to think slowly through their life experiences to discover what types of personality each of them had, to spend time getting in touch with their buried feelings. He and they both understood the question they had asked: they wanted, and needed, a form of words which they could learn and use. That's what John the Baptist had given to his followers. Other Jewish teachers had done the same. That's what Jesus did, too, giving his disciples the prayer we began with at the start of this chapter, which remains at the heart of all Christian prayer.

But notice the point.There's nothing wrong with having a form of words composed by somebody else. Indeed, there's probably something wrong with not using such a form. Some Christians, some of the time, can sustain a life of prayer entirely out of their own internal resources, just as there are hardy mountaineers (I've met one) who can walk the Scottish highlands in their bare feet. But most of us need boots; not because we don't want to do the walking ourselves, but because we do.

This plea, it will be obvious, is aimed in one particular direction: at the growing number of Christians in many countries who, without realizing it. are absorbing an element of late modern culture (the Romantic-plus-Existentialist mixture I mentioned a moment ago) as though it were Christianity itself. To them I want to say: there is nothing wrong, nothing sub-Chrisrian, nothing to do with "works-righteousness," about using words, set forms, prayers, and sequences of prayers written by other people in other centuries. Indeed, the idea that I must always find my own words, that I must generate my own devotion from scratch every morning, that unless I think of new words I must be spiritually lazy or deficient—that has the all-too-familiar sign of human pride, of "doing it my way": of, yes, works-righteousness. Good liturgy—other people's prayers, whether for corporate or individual use—can be, should be, a sign and means of grace, an occasion of humility (accepting that someone else has said, better than I can, what I deeply want to express) and gratitude. How many times have I been grateful, faced with nightfalls both metaphorical and literal, for the old Anglican prayer which runs,
Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, 0 Lord;
and by thy great mercy
defend us from all perils and dangers of this night;
for the love of thy only Son,
our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
I didn't write it, but whoever did has my undying gratitude. It's just what I wanted...
Posted by John Weidner at 4:24 PM

A shadow of hope...

From a review by Msgr. Eric Barr of the Anamchara Blog on the new book by Tolkein, The Children of Hurin.

If you have read the Silmarillion you have already read this tale in more fragmentary form. I read it long ago, and remember the story of Turin being one of the most harrowing things I ever encountered. But I didn't understand what Tolkien was getting at...

...In our world, we like to think of ourselves as the masters of creation, flawed but not really sinful. Ask a friend if he or she sins and they will tell you they make mistakes but "sin?"--not so much. The Western world values "niceness" above all other virtues and raises tolerance to an almost oppressive level. We must accept anything and everything because each of us is the ultimate decider of what is right and wrong. Ambiguity rules our hearts and assuages our consciences. What is good for you may be wrong for me and vice versa. Too much reflection and we may think badly of ourselves. The problem is: not enough reflection and when our sins come home to roost and we must face them, then we may just give in to despair.

Critics will say our world is nothing like the one Tolkien created in his mythology, but they would be wrong. It is exactly like it--peopled with characters who are much like us, convinced that they can look evil in the eye and conquer it; convinced that if we just all tolerate everyone's take on the truth, we can do anything we want; convinced that salvation rests in our own virtue and courage. Just like the heroes in Tolkien's story, we do not reflect on our weakness for fear that such reflection will drag us down and tear us apart. The irony is that a little reflection on personal sin, balanced with humility usually leads to a chastened and wiser person who goes forward better for the examination of conscience. If we keep running away from the evil within us, then it becomes most dangerous when we are forced to face it. That fact destroyed Turin and Hurin, his father, and may very well destroy us...
...Turin is a kid who grows up with an absent father, who happens to be a hero, and deals with the fear of terror every day. His father, Hurin, captured by the Satanic figure of the story--Morgoth--is held in thrall in Middle-Earth's version of hell. As Turin's world breaks apart (Morgoth stretches out his hand to conquer his family), he flees to the Elves where he is fostered by the Elven King. Yet, as he grows into adulthood, he remains a man apart, a loner, given to flashes of anger and compassion, in the grip of emotions he doesn't understand. In his hatred of Morgoth, he dances with the Dark. His loathing is very close to a perverted form of love, for his very self finds its only meaning in relationship to this terrible evil force. Elves and men who try to befriend him, women who try to love him are pushed away in favor of his lust for revenge...

— — — — — — —

...Never has Tolkien shown so powerfully, the existence of Original Sin. This is an unredeemed world, long before the advent of Judeo-Christianity, and in this graceless time no human, despite his or her inherent goodness, has the power to successfully confront evil. Neither elves nor men can destroy Morgoth; sin has weakened them too much. Indeed, though not told in this tale, it takes the angels of Middle Earth, the Valar, to thrust Morgoth outside the world's bounds. Humility is the lesson of this story. If humanity is to succeed in conquering evil, it must look elsewhere for salvation. It will not come from man, or elf, or anything in this creation. Critics see only tragedy in this story, but there is a shadow of hope, an unseen answer that Tolkien is pointing to. It will not be found in the later Lord of the Rings tales, but will only be found, as Tolkien has written elsewhere, in the Gospel with the Incarnate God who came to earth to save a fallen humanity and cosmos. Tolkien the Catholic is alive and well in this newly published story. A parable for our times, this cautionary tale warns us of thinking ourselves as gods, as masters of the universe...

Posted by John Weidner at 6:29 AM

April 29, 2007

Book recommendation...

Charlene got this book, Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (I mentioned her here) from the library on Friday, and hasn't put it down since. And intends to purchase it. I tried to get her to write a little wee something for the blog, but she's shy. But I've read part of it myself, and it's very good.

Posted by John Weidner at 6:11 PM

March 26, 2007

New technology, without the usual battery woes...

Having just taken a four-hour flight squeezed into a middle seat, I have to say "amen" to brother Scott:

Good, nay, great news on cell-phone talkers:
Update:
FCC ready to continue cell phone ban on flights

Just the thought of sitting next to some ditzy teenager with a rap song for a ringtone, or a hausfrau catching up on the coffeeklatch goings-on, or Mr. Uber-Important, over a two-hour flight makes me feel bloody. And I’m a big fan of cellphones.

Now, if they want to turn data only on, that I’m cool with, though I suspect I’d get half as bloody with the little dings and chimes and bleeps of text messages. And, of course, if the operators get their most fervent wishes, we’ll have mobile entertainment to deal with…just imagine the dipstick next to you chortling his way through whatever garbage he would normally be sucking down at home. Here’s some mobile entertainment for you: it’s light, portable, unobtrusive, serially sharable, has very low power requirements, practically no RF emissions, and is rock-solid proven technology:

This is called a “book”

Here are a couple of "books" I enjoyed...

The first book is a must-read for language or history buffs. I mention the second one, because I learned in it that "books" are very fire-resistant, which is important in space travel. They "ablate," that is, the pages burn and flake off one at a time, rather than the whole thing burning like a log. Also, it's by far the best thing I ever read about the Apollo Program.

Posted by John Weidner at 8:37 AM

December 26, 2006

Cool tool...

My collegiate son is studying Classical Greek, and showed me this web site, The Unbound Bible. It lets you compare bible passages in an astonishing range of versions and languages. You could, for instance, see side-by-side the same verse in Armenian, Amharic, Africaans and Aramaic....

Sample from Unbound Bible

Posted by John Weidner at 5:01 PM

December 23, 2006

"from those who had laid the foundation for all things to come"

We often refer to Orwell's Newspeak, which is the concept of destroying words or their meanings so that people will not be able to form certain concepts. He pictured it, in the book 1984, as the open policy of a tyranny, and we tend to imagine that it doesn't happen here and now. But in fact the destruction of language is commonly seen, and I just stumbled on an example in a very good book Charlene and I are reading.

The author is writing about the difference between authority and power. And I realized when I read it that the word authority, in its real meaning, has almost been obliterated from common discourse. (I myself, as a Catholic with a love of history, have something of a feel for the word, but would have been hard-pressed to use it as a sharp weapon. And if I do so now I will have to define it, or risk being misunderstood)

...St. Augustine long ago remarked, "If you ask me what time is, I can't tell you; if you don't ask me, then I know." Much the same thing turned out to be true regarding my own knowledge of authority. When I first took up this subject, I knew what authority was. Once, however, I started really working on it, I discovered I did not know. Furthermore, few who write on the subject bother to define the word. And, to make matters worse, many writers use "power" and "authority" interchangeably, as though they were synonymous or as though authority were a variant of power, i.e., legitimate power as opposed to illegitimate power.

Hannah Arendt is one of the few writers to raise and answer the question of what authority means. As she points out, while the Greeks had no specific word for or concept of authority, the Romans had a well-developed notion of it which was closely linked to their understanding of religion and tradition. In fact, religion, tradition and authority formed what Arendt calls the "Roman trinity".

The religious element in this trinity was the founding of Rome itself, understood not simply as a political but even more as a primordial religious event for which the gods were responsible. Authority, which is rooted in the Latin words auctoritas and augere meaning authorship and augmentation, was directly connected to and dependent upon this founding event. Since the gods had authored or instigated the creation of Rome, it was imperative that their wishes regarding its well-being be consulted at all times. Those invested with authority were thought to have the ability to augment or interpret the will of the Roman gods regarding all decisions having a bearing on the life of the city.

This authority was derivative or representational, since those in authority did not have that authority in their own right but only insofar as they represented the founding fathers who, because they had established the city in accordance with the will of the gods, were both eyewitnesses to and participants in that event and the first, therefore, to be invested by the gods with the authority to carry out their will. In the words of Arendt,
Those endowed with authority were the elders, the Senate or the patres, who had obtained it by descent and by transmission (tradition) from those who had laid the foundation for all things to come, the ancestors, whom the Romans therefore called the maiores. The authority of the living was always a derivative, depending upon the auctores imperii Romani conditoresque, as Pliny puts it, upon the authority of the founders who no longer were among the living.

The book is The Church and the Culture War, by Joyce A. Little. It is not about the actual battles of our current culture war, but about the theological and philosophical issues beneath it. (I'll have to add it to my list of great books I initially avoided because their titles mislead me. Such as Death Comes for the Archbishop or Bleak House!) I give the book five stars. Alas, it is out-of-print. It is Catholic, but would it be of interest to anyone who is trying to think clearly about the ongoing attacks on our civilization.

By the way, the word Newspeak itself is under attack by our contemporary creators of Newspeak. I once read an egregious left-wing propagandist who wrote that Newspeak is a characteristic of fascism, and gave as an example a Bush Administration statement something like, "the goal of the war is peace." This was supposedly like the Newspeak definition "war is peace." But of course it is not like that at all. The Bush statement is logically clear, and so if you don't like it you can argue against it. You can criticize it. It does not blur or confuse concepts.

Whereas using the term Newspeak in this way does blur the concept of Newspeak. In fact it tends to blur it towards meaning "any statement leftists don't like." This is similar to the way the word "hate-mongering" is used to mean "criticizing leftists." Rush Limbaugh is accused of hate-mongering not because he demands anyone be lynched or tarred-and-feathered, but because he uses argument and ridicule against his opponents....

Posted by John Weidner at 1:14 PM

December 20, 2006

I forgot to mention it until (probably) too late...

...but this would make a GREAT Christmas gift for anybody interested in American history...I give it five stars!

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It's about Lincoln and the three men who were the front-runners for the Presidential nomination of the new Republican party in 1860: William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates. They and almost everybody else considered Lincoln a bumpkin and a minor figure.

But Lincoln was a far shrewder politician than they, and astonished the country by winning the nomination and the presidency. And then proceeded to put all three into his cabinet. All of them, especially Seward, expected to be the powers behind the weak man on the throne. All were quickly disabused, and discovered in Lincoln a commanding personality who won their affection and welded them into a winning team...

Posted by John Weidner at 7:45 PM

December 10, 2006

You can skip this book note, unless...

....you happen to be a history/religion nerd like me, in which case you might find Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham totally thrilling. You really don't even need to be interested in early Christianity to enjoy learning a lot of stuff about how things were done in the ancient world. That, for instance, Greek and Roman historians thought that the highest expression of their craft was to be what we would call oral historians, artfully arranging the testimony of those who had seen what happened....or even better, what they had seen with their own eyes. And how they would often heap scorn on historians who only used written records!

But if you know a little about how scholars have long viewed the evolution of the Gospels and early Christian writings, then this book will be an eye-opener. Bauckham points out that, while all the specific conclusions of Form Criticism have been discredited, we are still totally stuck in the form critic's general schema that the Gospels percolated up like folk-tales or "collective memory" out of communities of early Christians, and were shaped by the various needs of those groups. Groups who were not really much interested in recounting what actually happened.

I won't try to summarize the author's arguments, but he makes a convincing case that, in fact, eyewitnesses were treasured as repositories of the facts of Jesus' life, and that the four Gospels were either written by eyewitnesses, or taken directly from their stories. And also that certain eyewitnesses were not named in Mark, which was written first, but were mentioned by name in the later books, because they were still alive when Mark wrote, and could be put in danger. Such as Bartimaeus, or a certain chap who cut off another feller's ear.

Personally I just love delving into the mucky details of how things work, and what happens behind the scenes. What makes it all tick. I would love this kinda stuff even if I were an atheist...

[As I've mentioned before, if you are about to buy that $6k flat-panel TV you've been dreaming about, click through to amazon.com with one of my little ads and then spend, and help buy Tiny Tim Weidner a new pair of crutches ;-) ]

Posted by John Weidner at 4:53 PM

November 30, 2006

There's only one war....

Charlene and I caught on the radio a little of author John O'Sullivan discussing the events he writes about in his new book, The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World.

It sounds like a great book! Three oddballs who no one expected would be put in charge of anything, especially not the crusade to defeat the evil of Soviet Communism. In fact, most "experts" didn't think there was, or even should be, a crusade.


Then, just afterwards, I found this very interesting piece, on just what the present Pope is up to. One doesn't have to be religious to suspect that we have an ally in the Vatican, just as we did during the 80's. I suspect Pope and President would both be saying that we are not at war with Islam (Yeah, yeah, I read Michelle Malkin too, and sometimes I doubts it myself) but rather we are tacitly allied with the majority of Muslims (though they may not have figured it out yet; they don't seem to be too big on thinking things through), who don't really wish to be clamped inside some Taliban death regime, OR to have their faith dissolved by corrosive secularism. And if that's true, then probably only the Pope has the standing to convey the message to them.

...Thus Benedict's true purpose in Turkey is that of uniting all the monotheistic faiths against a militant and self-consciously destructive secular culture. To that end he will seek a new political communion with Bartholomew I, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople — the symbolic leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians. Even the Russian Orthodox patriarch, Alexei II, who rejected overtures by the late Pope John Paul II, has indicated that he would now welcome talks with Rome.

Nor are the pope's attempts to produce a concerted monotheistic alliance restricted to Christians. On the first day of his visit, Benedict quoted an 11th century pope, Gregory VII, who talked about the duties that Christians and Muslims owe each other "because we believe in one God."

Far from being anti-Muslim, the pope views Islam as a key cultural ally against the enlightenment liberalism that for him corrodes the moral core of Western society.

It is important to realize, however, that Benedict recognizes a mutual problem in this explicit project of religious realignment around shared critiques and common discernment. Secular conceptions of race, state and nation have corrupted all the faiths, too often turning them into a vehicle for nationalism or racism...(Thanks to Amy)

It's worth reading the whole thing. I'll paste in a bit more below...

...But the papal visit is not primarily an attempt to pacify relations between Christianity and Islam. Instead, Benedict is there to engage with Islam and Eastern Orthodoxy in the hope of persuading both to join his project of overcoming secularism.

The Pope, far from being sectarian, wants to inaugurate a new religious renaissance in Europe that opposes both secular and religious fundamentalism. This apostolic journey is of a piece with the logic of the Regensburg address, rather than a belated act of repentance for it.

Benedict opposes secularism because it is both absolute and arbitrary. In the name of being neutral with regard to values, secular ideology eliminates all rival world views from the public sphere. By denying the existence of objective moral truths, it elevates self- assertion as the measure of all things. Social life is reduced to the arbitration of conflicting self-interest — a process in which the most powerful always win.

Ultimately, this arbitrary absolutism produces a society ruled by an unholy alliance of utilitarian ethics and the proxy politics of the managerial class. This collusion destroys the very idea of common action and a binding collective discernment. Thus does the pope attribute the failure of Europe's common political project to the growing secularization of European culture.

Benedict's religious alternative is not some form of theocratic absolutism. On the contrary, the Pope is a staunch defender of secularity — the separation of church and state. Benedict wants to disentangle the church from the state, but without divorcing religion from politics, because only a religion freed from subservience to the state can save modern culture from itself...

One has to suspect that the Regensburg speech was the equivalent of the old joke about hitting the mule with the 2 x 4. "You don't have to beat this mule. You just have to get his attention first."

Posted by John Weidner at 9:34 AM

November 24, 2006

People in the past were very very different...

Diogenes writes:

...Part of the syndrome of being a child of one's age is a lack of the historical imagination to recognize oneself in a different setting, endowed with a different array of sentimentalisms. In fact, such people are certain they'd be on the side of the angels in any situation. The personal advantages they have purchased by their social conformity are so enormous and comprehensive that they fail to see it as conformity at all. This was true in 1930s Germany, when the right wing was in the ascendant, and it's true in the West today, when the left wing is. Joseph Sobran once wrote:
[Liberals] want us to believe that their willingness to conform to today's fashions is proof that they would have had the courage to defy yesterday's fashions. Somehow I find it hard to believe that today's coward would have been yesterday's hero, if only he'd had the chance. More likely he would have been, like most people, a timid conformist in any circumstances...(Thanks to Michael L)

This subject is a particular peeve of mine (feel free to tune out). People in the past were very very different from us now. If you are interested in history, as I am, that's fact number one. To study the past you must enter imaginatively into a different world of thought. And most people won't do so, and usually don't even grasp the concept.

This bugs me in a whole bunch of ways. One of course is the lefty professor who condemns our country's founding fathers for not conforming to the rules we follow today. In matters like slavery, sexism and egalitarianism. (This is only done to America and her allies. Or to Christians. In all other cases we are supposed to respect cultural differences. Sudanese Arabs can enslave blacks right now without criticism.) But if that little dweeb had been born in, say, Charleston in 1770, he would have thought that slavery was perfectly OK, and that women ought to defer to his opinions. He would be a conformist then just like he is now. A conformist, and probably incapable of standing outside his preconceptions and examining them.

Another way this bugs me is that my favorite form of fiction should be the historical novel. But in fact I find 98% of them to be pure crap. They are about contemporary people dressed up in historical gear. Same with films, or those "historical detective novels" that proliferate so. Blehhh. Same, for that matter, with science fiction—a trip to the future should be as much of a cultural shock as a trip to the past, but rarely is.

In reading a real historical work, fact or fiction, you should frequently be brought up sharp by characters thinking or acting differently than you expect. Patrick O'Brian's books are pretty good that way. Steven Maturin, a physician, not only bleeds people who are sick, they feel better after he does so! Jack Aubrey never questions his right to be, by birth, a landed proprietor, an MP, a naval officer, and in general a person with the right to command, and to be obeyed. And so, as we read the stories, we are drawn into that world-view, and come to temporarily share it. Our mental horizons are expended. I just love that!


Posted by John Weidner at 3:47 PM

November 19, 2006

Good book about colleges...

This is a great book for students and parents thinking of colleges! Our daughter is starting to do so, so the subject is much on our minds. (Our middle son is applying to schools right now, but he's a singer, and is looking at conservatories and music programs.)

(As I've mentioned before, if you click-through one of these ads, and then buy the item, or something else, amazon.com tosses some crumbs to the Weidners, who thank you from the bottoms of their hearts.)

This is from one of the essays in the book, by Louise Cowan:

IN Kagemusha, the Japanese film director Akura Kurosawa portrays a beggar called upon to impersonate a powerful warlord. About to be put to death for thievery, this lowly figure is snatched from execution by royal officers who detect in him an uncanny physical resemblance to their chief. They hide him in the palace to understudy the great man and to master the ways of the court. On the death of the warlord, the officers pass this double off as the ruler himself, hoping by this deception to conceal from their enemies their vulnerability. The beggar learns to act the part of a noble and fearless leader and, as he grows in his understanding of his role, acquires its internal as well as external dignity. He successfully continues the impersonation until—after the monarch's death has been discovered and the ruse is no longer useful—he is driven away from the palace, a beggar once more.

But a strange thing has happened: this pretender has developed a genuine sense of responsibility that cannot so lightly be dismissed. The burden of leadership, with its peculiar blend ofselflessness and pride, has become his own. Despite his low station, he follows along after the troops in battle and stands at the last defending the banner of his defeated people, exposing himself to the enemy's onslaughts when all others have fallen. The film makes us question: Is this heroic gesture still part of the act? Where does it come from, this apparent greatness of soul thai finally requires in a counterfeit role an authentic death? Kurosawa implies that it issues from the depths of human nature itself. But if so, as the film makes clear, it hardly arises naturally. On the contrary, its realization has come about through schooling in a tradition. Such magnanimity, we are shown, requires mimesis—imitation. To remake oneself in the image of something that calls to greatness demands a heroic tradition displaying heroic models. Kagemusha is, in fact, despite its Japanese subject matter, in the line of the Western and Roman epics, an extension of the Greek heroic code. Like these classics, it uncovers the innate nobility of the soul as a driving force that issues in noble action. Kagemusha, a modern classic, speaks to us with a peculiar power in a time when all energies seem to be devoted to self-preservation and to bodily comfort...
Posted by John Weidner at 9:32 AM

October 29, 2006

Take that, Newfoundland!

Though I've been trying to stay out of the blogging hurly-burly on Sundays, I just had to post this...I just noticed I was noticed, by Mark Steyn! Linking to this post. One of my heroes. Too cool.

This is on the sidebar at SteynOnline—in the post titled Campaign Countdown 2006 PELOSIPALOOZA!...(Living as we do in Pelosiville, we have to love that.)

Mark Steyn on my post

Posted by John Weidner at 5:10 AM

October 21, 2006

Obsessing over Global Warming is a way to avoid facing the big problems...

Charlene and I have been reading Mark Steyn's America Alone. It's about demographic implosions and the collapse of civilizational morale in the Western world. And about population growth and growing aggressiveness in the Islamic world, which is moving into the vacuum at a frightening rate...

And it's all stuff I already know about and have blogged about. But it's different having a brilliant writer like Steyn slam it into your face. All at once, not picked up her and there. Grim. Painful. Highly recommended...

....The single most important fact about the early twenty-first century is the rapid aging of almost every developed nation other than the United States: Canada, Europe, and Japan are getting old fast, older than any functioning society has ever been and faster than any has ever aged. A society ages when its birth rate falis and it finds itself with fewer children and more grandparents. For a stable population—i.e., no growth, no decline, just a million folks in 1950, a million in 1980, a million in 2010—you need a total fertility rate of 2.1 live births per woman. That's what America has: 2.1, give or take. Canada has 1.48, an all-time low and a more revealing difference between the Great Satan and the Great White North than any of the stuff (socialized health care, fewer hand-guns, more UN peacekeepers, etc.) that Canucks usually brag about. Europe as a whole has 1.38; Japan, 1.32; Russia, 1.14. These countries— or, more precisely, these people—are going out of business....

...In the fourteenth century, the Black Death wiped out a third of the Continent's population; in the twenty-first, a larger proportion will disappear—in effect, by choice. We are living through a rare moment: the self-extinction of the civilization which, for good or ill, shaped the age we live in. One can cite examples of remote backward tribes who expire upon contact with the modern world, but for the modern world to expire in favor of the backward tribes is a turn of events future anthropologists will ponder, as we do the fall of Rome...

The vastness and strangeness of the changes that are happening leave me abashed, and I don't feel like pontificating. But I found it interesting that Steyn quotes Henri de Lubac, who placed the blame for the modern world's many troubles on "atheistic humanism." De Lubac wrote, famously, "It is not true, as is sometimes said, that man cannot organize the world without God. What is true is that, without God, he can only organize it against man."

My gut feeling is that that's the key.

Charlene surprised me by remarking that it's a "fun book." I resisted the impulse to say, "You're crazy," but yet I immediately understood, evil fellow that I am. We are witnessing a great bonfire of failures of everything we hate. Trendy leftism, smug secularism, feminism, multiculturalism. Pacifism. Big-government liberalism. Anti-human environmentalism. Atheism. The Culture of Death (and how!). Nihilism! Steyn captures it perfectly when he writes that it's the belief that everything is going to end up being like Sweden. (In whose capital, by the way, the most popular boy's name is now...Mohammed.)

...Across the developed worid, we're at the beginning of the end of the social-democratic state. The surest way to be in the demographic death spiral is to be a former Communist country in Europe: the five lowest birth rates in the wor!d are Latvia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Russia, and Ukraine. But the next surest way is just to be in Europe: nineteen of the lowest twenty birth rates in the world are on the Continent (the twentieth is Japan). Conversely, the only advanced nation with a sizeabie population reproducing at replacement rate is the United States. True, there are significant variations from red state to blue state, immigrant to native-born, and in other areas: Mormons in Utah have one of the highest fertility rates on the planet, while the city of San Francisco could easily be mistaken for an EU capital, though in fairness to the good burghers of that town they had to embrace homosexuality to achieve levels of childlessness the Continentals have managed to achieve through ostensibly conventional sexual expression.

But the fact remains: Europe is dying and America isn't, Europe's system doesn't work and America's does, just about.

So here's a radical thought for Will Button and the Europeans: instead of cal!ing for America to "join the world," why not try calling on Europe to rejoin the real world? Otherwise, you'll be joining what we used to call "the unseen world."...
Posted by John Weidner at 10:31 PM

September 1, 2006

Too cool...

Charlene found an awesome site, an online gallery of 15 splendid books at the British Library. You can literally turn the pages, and use a "magnifying glass" to look closely at details....

Our favorits are the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Jane Austin..

Posted by John Weidner at 10:08 PM

July 30, 2006

Book recommendation

Both Charlene and I highly recommend the book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, which is about the populations and civilizations of the Western Hemisphere before Europeans arrived. It pulls together a large amount of research that has been done in recent decades. In short, everything you thought you knew (or at least, that we thought we knew) about the indians is wrong.

There were many more indians (the author, by the way, makes it quite clear that "indians" is the preferred term, not PC constructions like "Native American") than historians had realized, the hemisphere was much more "civilized" and more modified by human action than anyone had guessed.

And the diseases that explorers brought were much more lethal than historians had thought. (Why more lethal? Probably mostly because the indian populations were much less genetically diverse, having grown from rather small populations that migrated from Asia. Also because they did not live in proximity to domestic animals, which have been a source of many of our disease organisms.) Epidemics spread in waves ahead of Europeans, and only the very earliest explorers saw intact populations. And their reports were often dismissed as lies by those who came a few years later, and found a very different situation.

For instance, the vile Hernando de Soto wandered through our Southeastern states and reported them thickly populated with towns, often three others being visible from any one. A century later, de la Salle passed through some of the same places without seeing a village for hundreds of miles! And the earliest Europeans did not find millions of Buffalo. That was a population explosion that resulted from the collapse of human populations.

I found the section on the Amazon Basin the most staggering. It too was thickly populated...

...[p. 284] Carvajal wrote little about the peoples who spent so much time trying to kill him. But the small amount he did write depicts a crowded and prosperous land. Approaching what is now the Peru-Brazil border, he noted that, "the farther we went, the more thickly populated and the better did we find the land." One 180-mile stretch was "all inhabited, for there was not from village to village a crossbow shot."

How did the people live? By planting trees. The Amazonian forest today is amazingly thick with fruit and nut-bearing trees, and many researchers now believe that these are in fact the remnants of old "orchards." Also, they found the means to enrich the soil--jungle soil is notoriously poor, but perhaps as much as 10% of the Amazon Basin has rich black soil that can grow crops for decades without fertilizers. People dig it up and sell it as potting soil. How did they do it? Hey, read the book! You will be so astonished.

Posted by John Weidner at 7:57 AM

July 10, 2006

The happiness of reading...

A nice quote, borrowed from another LibraryThing user...

"This nice and subtle happiness of reading, this joy not chilled by age, this polite and unpunished vice, this selfish, serene life-long intoxication."
   ~Logan Pearsall Smith
Posted by John Weidner at 10:14 AM

Still on the train...

I like this paragraph by Andrea, which could be a coda to many a discussion these days...

....It’s all rather like the attitudes that were on display during the Alger Hiss trial. On one side we had the witty, urbane, intellectual and pseudo-intellectual, well-dressed, powerful, liberal friends and fans of Hiss, not to mention Hiss himself, joking and laughing and deliberately treating the trial and the accusations against him as too, too beneath the concerns of important people. The sneers and the opprobriums against the ordinary, part-time farmer, badly-dressed (these days he’d be mocked as a “Walmart shopper”) Whittaker Chambers, whose intellect and cultural acumen hadn’t been handed to him on a silver platter but had actually been wrestled and hammered out of the Real Experience that liberals are always babbling about, are echoed in today’s putdowns of “those Christian fundamentalist rightwingers” who are threatening the fun party existence of the cool, clever people everywhere with their dumb insistence on taking life seriously. So sometimes they take life too seriously and miss the joke. Well, sometimes in the midst of joking we cool, clever, intellectual (and pseudo-intellectual) people miss the seriousness. It cuts both ways.

For someone historically minded, it's just a pleasure to see that the Hiss trial hasn't quite dropped into oblivion like the Dreyfus trial. But way more than that is the pleasure of vindication for the good guys. We know things now that we didn't know then. We know that Hiss was guilty, was in fact a Soviet secret agent, and was laughing like sinners laugh on The Hell-Bound Train. We know he was cynically using the "useful idiots" who passionately believed in his innocence. (And now we have the pain of watching the same idiots being cynically used by Islamic terrorists, who despise them, and they still think they are clever and sophisticated.)

We also know that Chambers was one of the best writers of his time. His book Witness is a stunning thing to read. I recommend it unreservedly. (And here's a Brothers Judd review of Ghosts on the Roof : Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers 1931-1959)

A sample of Chambers' writing...

"...I date my break from a very casual happening. I was sitting in our apartment on St. Paul Street in Baltimore. It was shortly before we moved to Alger Hiss's apartment in Washington. My daughter was in her high chair. I was watching her eat. She was the most miraculous thing that had ever happened in my life. I like to watch her even when she smeared porridge on her face or dropped it meditatively on the floor. My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear -- those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind: 'No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature (the Communist view). They could have been created only by immense design.' The thought was involuntary and unwanted. I crowded it out of my mind. If I had completed it, I should have had to say: Design presupposes God. I did not know that, at that moment, the finger of God was first laid upon my forehead."
Posted by John Weidner at 7:58 AM

July 4, 2006

the dewdrop of her life...

Our mad infatuation with LibraryThing has led to one happy result, the rediscovery of many fine books on our many many shelves. This is a piece from Tale of the Heike, which I haven't read these twenty or thirty years...

..."You are coldhearted. Even so I cannot stop loving you..." began the letter, [to lady-in-waiting Kozaishô, which princess Shôsaimon-In has picked up off the floor] and the princess read until she came to the following poem, which concluded it:
As a single log
Over a small mountain stream
Endures being trodden upon,
I feel like that log and weep,
Having no reply from you.
"This is a letter protesting that you never responded to him," said the princess, turning to Kozaishô. "If you remain too hard-hearted, you will be liable to ill-fortune.

"Long ago there lived a woman named Ono no Komachi, renowned for her beauty, and her talent at composing poems. Many men approached her and wooed her, but they were all rejected, and finally everyone began to despise her. Her heart of stone brought inevitable retribution to her. She was then obliged to live alone in a desolate hut, hardly protected from the wind and rain. Her eyes, dimmed with tears, reflected the light of the moon and stars filtering through the chinks of the hut. She managed to sustain the dewdrop of her life by eating young grass in the field and plucking watercress. This letter should be answered by all means.

So saying, she called for an ink stone and wrote as a reply in her own distinguished hand the following poem:

Simply trust the log,
Be it ever so slender,
As strong is the core.
Although trampled and splashed,
It will stay over the stream.
The poem kindled the fire of passion that had been smoldering in the depths of Kozaishô's heart. Now it rose like smoke from the crater of Mount Fuji. Her tears of joy rushed down her sleeves like the lapping waves at the Kiyomi Checkpoint. Thus her flower-like beauty brought her happiness and led her to be the wife of Lord Michimori of the third court rank. The affection between them was so profound that they journeyed together even among the clouds of the western sea and even to the dark path in the world beyond.

The Vice-Councillor by the Main Gate, Norimori, outlived his eldest son Michimori, and his youngest son Norimori. Only two of his sons—the governor of Noto Province, Noritsune, and the priest and vice-councilor, Chukai—survived the battle. He had eagerly wished to see Michimori's child, but this hope was carried away with his daughter-in-law Kozaishô to the regions beyond the grave. He now fell into deep sorrow...
Posted by John Weidner at 3:30 PM

July 2, 2006

forgot to mention...

What I forgot to mention before, is that LibraryThing is "social" in nature. Once you've entered some books, you can find out who has a similar library, and look at their collection. Currently this guy, oakesspalding, has the most books in common with us. He writes:

...Against my better judgment, I have started rating nonfiction books. My central criterion is to what degree the work accomplishes what it should, given the sort of book that it is. So, for example, Inside Hitler’s Bunker will presumably never be counted among the great works of Western Civilization, but in its way it is an almost perfect work of journalism and military history, hence the five star rating. Subsidiary criteria include 1) accuracy, 2) honesty--the thesis of a work may be false but honest in the sense that the author did the best he could given the evidence available to him, 3) rationality, 4) clarity, 5) information content--the more the better, 6) novelty, 7) good writing--yes, even in nonfiction, this counts, and finally 8) basic goodness, or the lack thereof--thus, Plato’s Republic, the Koran and The Communist Manifesto, for example, all receive only one star due to the wickedness of their respective theses, the bad intentions of their authors and the pernicious effect these works have had on mankind. However, an educated person should certainly read all three to better understand the nature of their harmful arguments and assumptions...

Gotta like somebody who still uses the word "wickedness." Amen, brother.

Posted by John Weidner at 7:38 AM

July 1, 2006

New on the blog...

I had left open on my computer a web page for a new web enterprise, LibraryThing, because I thought I might get around to investigating it someday. Charlene, always an early riser, got up this morning, saw it, and went BONKERS! (She's always dreamed of being a librarian.) By the time I woke up she had entered over 100 books...

It's one of the most the most addictive things we've encountered. I've put a blog-widget of our library on the sidebar, displaying random covers of books we own. Scroll down a bit, and you will see them. In fact, you can even see what shelf they are on. (I can just expect some future commenter to tell me I'm wrong and that I've obviously failed to read book X, which I have on LivingRoom 11!)

And if you click on a book, and then buy it from Amazon, we get a percentage, once our Amazon Associates membership activates...

* Update: LibraryThing is apparently having server problems due to rapid growth. So sometimes it just isn't there. (I knew I shouldn't have told anyone about it.)

Posted by John Weidner at 9:50 AM

March 3, 2006

Crunch nonsense...

I might have missed, if a friend hadn't pointed it out, Jonah Goldberg's critique of Rod Dreher's book Crunchy Cons. I find Dreher's way of thinking ludicrous, and 10-x ludicrous when garbed as conservative thinking. The idea that hippie affectations, such as "organic food" or "natural" fibers constitute virtues always reminds me of the woman in CS Lewis's marvelous Screwtape Letters, who rejects the food offered by her hosts, and demands they make her just a little dry toast, cooked just exactly so. She is a glutton, though she imagines she is just the opposite.

Eating lovingly prepared foods with congenial friends may well be an antidote to the anomie of modern life, but so is sitting in McDonalds reading a good book....

...And then there's this whopper of a statement: "Adam Smith and Karl Marx are two sides of the same coin: they define man as primarily economic man."

Putting aside the grotesque slander to Smith, who was one of the great moral philosophers of the last three centuries, it's simply untrue that the free-market is rooted in materialism or that Smith's intellectual descendants define man in economic terms. Classical liberals root their case for laissez-faire in the autonomy of the individual, the primacy of freedom, the faith that virtue not freely chosen isn't virtuous, and in a deeply religious conception of the individual conscience (another sorely missing voice in Rod's book is Michael Novak, the world's leading authority on the intersection of market economics and Catholicism). Save for a few Randians (heh), the only people who really think the free market is based on a materialist vision in an intellectually serious way are themselves Marxist materialists, in much the same way that the only people who see white racism behind every black problem are people convinced of the primacy of race.

Besides, we don't even get the sort of metaphysical materialism Rod talks about from Marx, or even from economics. We get it from Darwin and Malthus....
Posted by John Weidner at 8:17 AM

February 27, 2006

Freedom of Speech...

Cathy Seipp writes:

A FRIEND OF MINE took his young daughter to visit the famous City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, explaining to her that the place is important because years ago it sold books no other store would — even, perhaps especially, books whose ideas many people found offensive.

So, although my friend is no fan of Ward Churchill, the faux Indian and discredited professor who notoriously called 9/11 victims "little Eichmanns," he didn't really mind seeing piles of Churchill's books prominently displayed on a table as he walked in.

However, it did occur to him that perhaps the long-delayed English translation of Oriana Fallaci's new book, "The Force of Reason," might finally be available, and that because Fallaci's militant stance against Islamic militants offends so many people, a store committed to selling banned books would be the perfect place to buy it. So he asked a clerk if the new Fallaci book was in yet.

"No," snapped the clerk. "We don't carry books by fascists."

Now let's just savor the absurd details of this for a minute. City Lights has a long and proud history of supporting banned authors — owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti was indicted (and acquitted) for obscenity in 1957 for selling Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," and a photo at the bookstore showed Ferlinghetti proudly posing next to a sign reading "banned books."

Yet his store won't carry, of all people, Fallaci, who is not only being sued in Italy for insulting religion because of her latest book but continues to fight the good fight against those who think that the appropriate response to offensive books and cartoons is violent riots. It's particularly repugnant that someone who fought against actual fascism in World War II should be deemed a fascist by a snotty San Francisco clerk...(Thanks to Austin Bay).

It's ironic and repugnant, but it is not surprising. Neither Ferlinghetti nor his bookstore believed in free speech in 1957. If there had been a thoughtful well-written conservative book that criticized the Beat Movement and Howl, they would not have carried it. (Important note: If there had been an absurd or unreasonable anti-Howl book, say by a foaming-at-the-mouth KKK leader, they would have carried that, and proudly proclaimed their commitment to "free speech.")

It's the same with the leftist ACLU, which boasts about defending the right of the American Nazi Party to march. But that's easy for them to do; the existence of neo-nazis makes the Left look good. It helps them. The real test for them is whether they will defend the free speech of reasonable people opposed to their leftist views. I've heard over the years of a number of instances where the ACLU has failed that test. It was against the right of teachers to march against school busing. And against a young man who wished to remain in the US when his parents returned home to the Soviet Union. (NOTE: these decisions are made by local chapters of the ACLU, and don't necessarily indict the organization as a whole.)

If I defend the right of of moveon.org to publish, that doesn't show much of a commitment to Free Speech. They help my side, and we often quote them as examples of leftish loathsomeness However, if there were a thoughtful leftist blog that was actually wooing people away from conservative positions (ahem, I'm still waiting), my defending their free speech would be meaningful.

Posted by John Weidner at 7:41 AM

January 21, 2006

The saboteurs

From a book review by Rich Lowry (Thanks to Commonsense and Wonder). Sounds great; I've put in a request for the book at our library...

John Lewis Gaddis, author of a half-dozen books on the topic, is the nation's foremost historian of the Cold War. So when in the 1980s he dismissed Ronald Reagan's goal of ending the Cold War, arguing instead that the American-Soviet competition had settled into a stable "long peace," it would have been natural to conclude that Gaddis, the august expert, was right.

He was wrong, of course. Gaddis explains why in his crackling-good, recently published book, "The Cold War: A New History."...

...As Gaddis puts it, "An entire generation had grown up regarding the absurdities of a superpower stalemate — a divided Berlin in the middle of a divided Germany in the midst of a divided Europe, for example — as the natural order of things." It fell to the saboteurs to remove the world's "mental blinders."

"They used to the utmost," he writes, "their strengths as individuals: their personal character, their perseverance in the face of adversity, their fearlessness and frankness, but above all their dramatic skill, not only in conveying these qualities to millions of other people, but also in persuading those millions themselves to embrace those qualities."

When the might of the rival superpowers was measured in material terms — how many missiles, with how much throw-weight — they realized the power of "a moral and spiritual critique of Marxism-Leninism." When stability had come to be valued above all, they sought change. When the truth — most importantly about the nature of the Soviet Union system itself— had become obscured, they spoke it.

Gaddis quotes Thatcher: "I had long understood that detente had been ruthlessly used by the Soviets to exploit western weakness and disarray. I knew the beast."...

"I knew the beast." I really like that. And I don't need to point out the obvious parallels with our own time.

Posted by John Weidner at 6:24 PM

December 4, 2005

Good book. Scary.

On rare clear days we can see the Farallones, a cluster of rocky islets 27 miles from San Francisco, where many ships have perished. Charlene and I have been reading The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America's Great White Sharks, by Susan Casey, a book about them, and about the astonishing fact that for about 3 months a year they are a gathering place for Great White Sharks. LOTS of White Sharks! Hundreds, nobody knows how many for sure.

But a handful of scientists study them, at considerable risk and hardship. For instance, there is no safe place to tie up their whaler, which is lowered from a crane when they rush out because a kill has been spotted. Which is about the only way they have to get close to the sharks, watching for seal kills. Thousands of seals and sea lions live on the Farallones, and the sharks arrive lean and hungry, and depart much fatter in a few months.

Great Whites are BIG. Females can be 20 feet long, and 8 feet wide! They are mysterious creatures, smart, fast, warm-blooded. There's a terrible story, true, (and one I could not help laughing over, evil person that I am) in the book about some people who found an injured seal and nursed it back to health. And decided those nice islands off the coast would be a good place to release it back to the wild...in about 30 seconds a shark bit the thing literally in half!

...Later I saw the pictures myself, and they are spectacular. A two-ton, sixteen-foot male shark named Gouge [they give them names not to be cutsy, but to help keep track of them--some have been returning for a decade or more] is heaving himself out of the water only a few feet from the camera...In one image a tiny flipper can be seen hanging out of the left side of Gouge's mouth...
Posted by John Weidner at 5:28 PM

November 19, 2005

Book report...

I'm currently reading Titan, by Stephen Baxter, on the recommendation of my son. It's very entertaining so far. It's about a last-gasp effort by a dying NASA, launching a low-budget expedition to Saturn's moon Titan, where slight signs of life have been detected.

But there's one thing in particular that interests me, as a conservative blogger in the year 2005. The book was written about 10 years ago, takes place in 2007 and in some ways it is a very revealing liberal fantasy.

• The glorious American space program is almost dead.
• Young people don't care about space, or much of anything.
• A villainous Military-Industrial Complex tries to shoot down (literally) the brave expedition.
• AND, there's a disastrous incoming Republican President, a FUNDAMENTALIST, who hates space travel, and almost everything else...

...Armed militia bands came in from Idaho and Arizona, to fire off black-powder salutes to the nationalist-populist who promised to repeal all gun control laws. In the crowd, Hadamard saw a couple of Ku Klux Klan costumes...there was a rumor that a a former Klan leader was being made ready to become a future White House chief of staff...in his speech Machlachlan appealed to the people to end what he called the "Israeli occupation of Congress"...

...foreign aid stopped. The UN was being thrown out of New York,...started to build a wall, two-thousand miles of it, to exclude illegal immigrants...withdrawn the US from the North American Free Trade treaty, from the World Trade Organization, from GATT...he had raised tariff--ten percent against Japan, fifty percent against the Chinese--and world trade collapsed...

...And back home, Machlachlan had cut off any remaining programs which benefitted blacks and other minorities...

Well. Quite a fantasy. And fascinating, considering that the story takes place right about now. So what's happened? We can compare! We actually have an evangelical Christian Republican president, and Republican control of Congress!

But, strange to tell, it's the liberal Democrats who are now the protectionists and isolationists. And it's Christians and conservatives who are the idealists, who want to change the world, and overthrow fascist dictators and stop genocide in places like Sudan. It's the Republican administration that is pursuing free trade, and, conspicuously, NOT building a 2,000 mile-long wall on the border. And trying to expand NAFTA, and working with the WTO. Even trying to work with the UN (!) for which they get precious little thanks from Lefties.

I think Baxter's picture, which we have all heard over and over, is a protective fantasy. One that hides a painful truth. The sourpusses, the reactionaries, are now on the Left; something they are in deep denial about. It's mostly lefties who now claim that Jews are secretly running things (and it's Dems who have the former KKK leader.)

In Baxter's book, young people are weirdly indifferent to the adventure of space, and graying NASA veterans are leading one last charge. This is probably mostly a Baby-Boomer fantasy, but it also covers something liberals don't want to think about--"liberal" is no longer synonymous with young and cool and idealistic.

And, far from losing interest in space and letting NASA die, people now, young people, are starting thrilling new space ventures (and letting NASA die). The big-government/NASA/send-only-the-elite-few vision of space travel is being replaced by one where young billionaires want to let everybody get to space. And it's not a movement that has much connection with traditional politics, but it fits more with conservative thinking than liberal.

There are lots of people still in denial, still insisting, comically, that fascist insect Republicans and prudish Christians are sending us back to the Dark Ages, and that every judicial nominee is going to undo the Civil Rights Movement. But the evidence to the contrary is all around them. And the person pushing it in their faces is President Bush, which is why he drives them nuts. One revealing oddity of the book is that the author is very savvy about political maneuvering, except that this horrid President can just do whatever he wants. Baxter must surely know that a President can't raise tariffs, or withdraw us from a treaty, or expel the UN. Congress does that. But he is a useful boogyman, not an attempt at reality...

Posted by John Weidner at 8:30 PM

September 26, 2005

"a socially conservative plinth"

This is a quote by Peter Burnet I had copied last year and never blogged...

...And they are right. The market is cold and uncaring, which is why radical libertarianism is bound to fail. Political freedom and free enterprise are proven essentials to a healthy and resilient society, but, unlike socialism, they are not self-contained, comprehensive philosophies that address all aspects of collective life, as Adam Smith recognized. A society that believes only in an atomistic individualism with no obligations beyond basic civility will leave behind the dull, the unlucky, the emotionally fragile, the unattractive, the socially unskilled, the unhealthy and many of those locked into family obligations. That is a lot of us. It is both morally offensive and politically dangerous.

Free societies must be built on a socially conservative plinth of interdependence of family, community and faith. They will flourish with citizens that see duty to others as the definition of the good life, not “finding the real me”, self-actualization or any of the other noxious creeds touted by educators and pop psychologists that serve only to drive practical and ethical wedges between us. The exact extent of these duties will always depend upon empirical realities and the vagaries of human nature and cannot be defined a priori. But to ignore or evade them will lead to both political instability and a sterile existence wherein life's highest purpose is summed up by that old Yuppie joke: "He who finishes with the most toys wins."

It's kinda scary all the draft posts I have that never got used.

And I feel particularly bad because I'm reminded I haven't blogged the BEST BOOK I've read this year, the Anglosphere Challenge, by James C. Bennett. (Charlene agrees; we were grabbing it out of each other's hands). One of his points is that the nations and groups that succeed are those with a strong "civic society," where groups easily arise other than just the citizen and the state.

But it will have to wait; no time right now...

Posted by John Weidner at 7:32 AM

August 6, 2005

wotthehell, archy, wotthehell...

Mike has a great long post on Don Marquis, a great American writer. I've been a fan of Archy and Mehitabel since I bought the book of that title when I was in high school, but I've never really investigated his other writings. (And probably won't, it will be on my to-do list, along with the other 9,444 items.)

I liked this poem. Fits my mood...

LINES FOR A GRAVESTONE

Here the many lives I led,
All my Selves, are lying dead:
All they journeyed far to find
Strawed by the dispersing wind:
You that were my lovers true,
That is neither sad nor new!

Naught that I have been or planned
Sails the seas nor walks the land:
That is not a cause for woe
Where the careless planets go!
Naught that I have dreamed or done
Casts a shadow in the sun:
Not for that shall any Spring
Fail of song or swallow's wing!

Neither change nor sorrow stays
The bright processional of days --
When the hearts that grieved die, too,
Where is then the grief they knew?

Speed, I bid you, speed the earth
Onward with a shout of mirth,
Fill your eager eyes with light,
Put my face and memory
Out of mind and out of sight.

Nothing I have caused or done,
But this gravestone, meets the sun:
Friends, a great simplicity
Comes at last to you and me!

By Don Marquis, in
"The Almost Perfect State," 1927
Posted by John Weidner at 2:19 PM

July 11, 2005

I'm not alone...

Glenn Reynolds just mentioned that the Insta-Daughter is reading The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. That was the book that sent me skidding off of the main highway of normal life. And even more so, the sequel, Mr Bass's Planetoid, with the stunning spooky wind-swept illustrations by Louis Darling.

Such as this, of the sinister Prewett Brumblydge, discovering an astonishingly heavy meteorite...

Prewytt Brumbledge

When I discovered Eleanor Cameron's books, in maybe 1960, there really wasn't any science fiction for kids. It was a revelation to me...


Here's Tycho Bass, in an illustration by Robert Henneberger...good, but not a genius.

Tycho Bass
Mr Bass kept much useful information in a big notebook called......Random Jottings!

Posted by John Weidner at 10:33 AM

July 10, 2005

Bag stuffed with books; clothes optional...

Now here's a quandry I have often found myself in...

Headed out, after confronting my usual packing problem. I have an obsessive fear of being caught short on reading material on trips. I don't know what this phobia is called--am I a bibliodeficencyphobic or something like that?--but it's a major crimp in my travel. Sure, I tell myself, this thick novel should be enough to last me a week. But what if it doesn't engage my interest? What if I have more time on my hands than I thought and get through it relatively quickly? Better take something else. But what if that other book proves very skimmable and it lasts less than a day? Better take something else. But what? What if I take the wrong thing, and feel the urge to read something else instead? And on it goes until I've stuffed my bag with so many books--the vast majority of which will go untouched--that I've got to worry about how to fit all my clothes.

I rarely go out, beyond my neighborhood, without a book. What if the car breaks down, and I have to sit and wait for a tow truck?

Posted by John Weidner at 8:35 AM

April 7, 2005

Maybe for our next house...

Via Baldilocks, here are some people who are hoping to build themselves a hobbit hole. They've started a web site to gather information and inspiration.

I think it's a cool ambition. The form has real potential...

Gandalf returns to hobbiton
Illustration by John Howe...
.

Posted by John Weidner at 9:22 PM

January 23, 2005

Crazy. Who could live without search engines?

From a Pew study on Internet use:

...Internet users behave conservatively as searchers: They tend to settle quickly on a single search engine and then stick with it, rather than switching as search technology evolves or comparing results from different search systems. Some 44% of searchers regularly use just one engine, and another 48% use just two or three. Nearly half of searchers use a search engines no more than a few times a week, and two-thirds say they could walk away from search engines without upsetting their lives very much.

Internet users trust their favorite search engines, but few say they are aware of the financial incentives that affect how search engines perform and how they present their search results.

Only 38% of users are aware of the distinction between paid or “sponsored” results and unpaid results. And only one in six say they can always tell which results are paid or sponsored and which are not....

As usual, one is a bit disappointed in the "folk." two-thirds say they could walk away from search engines...! Hmmm. Make that very disappointed. I can't even imagine living without Google. I jump up from the dinner table to Google things that come up. I have thousands of questions in the back of my mind, little things I've wondered about over the years, but have had no inclination to research. Or no way to research. They are almost forgotten, but not completely, and when one pops into mind, I can usually answer it now. (via boing boing)

One such question came to mind yesterday. I once read that the great pianist Gary Graffman had contracted a mysterious ailment that had left him unable to play piano. I felt very bad because I had read Graffman's marvelous memoir, I Really Should Be Practicing, (which I recommend highly). I feel like I know him, and I wondered from time to time how his life had turned out.

So yesterday I googled and found out...

(Also, if you click on the book link, you will discover that the paperback of Graffman's book is selling for $35 and up! Ouch.)

Posted by John Weidner at 8:34 PM

January 9, 2005

Some day I'll get even....

When I'm made Dictator of the World, I will probably be a mild and benevolent despot. With one exception: the bozos who run Borders Bookstores are in for a rough time.

I hate them bitterly for forcing me to listen to loud multicultural music while trying to find something to read. The cells they will be kept in will be very uncomfortable and very NOISY.

Posted by John Weidner at 12:49 PM

December 24, 2004

"Tolkien's moral universe"

Drop Cap Alan makes a good point on how the film of The Lord of the Rings is flawed because "Jackson's greatest fault as director of LOTR is his inability to enter Tolkien's moral universe."

...Another example of an immoral choice is Aragorn's slaying of the Mouth before the Black Gate. This is a barbaric act, utterly unmeet for the King of the West, who would never so treat an emissary under flag of truce. All the nuances of the Tolkien confrontation are gone. In the book, the Mouth feels menaced when Aragorn merely glares at him. In Tolkien's worldview, evil is always proven cowardly when confronted one-on-one. Cringing, the emissary appeals to the morality of his enemies, saying he 'may not be harmed' under the rules of war--rules which no servant of Sauron would honor, if the roles were reversed.

By scripting Aragorn to behead the Mouth, Jackson showed that he cares not a whit whether the heir of Numenor might seem no different in spirit from the Dark Lord himself. I fear that the director is just a spoiled, obese, nasty child playing with skulls and spiders. He is not morally fit to engage Tolkien's work. It's a pity, because he did so much right--especially in allowing the artists to fulfill their visions of Middle Earth. If someone had been handy to argue for Tolkien's values, as well as his dialogue, to be sustained in the script, the film would have fared better. But I probably couldn't have worked with him...

I myself think the whole idea of filming LOTR was a catastrophic mistake. Every single element of the story has been reduced and diminished by the literalism of film. Even the stupefying beauty of the New Zealand landscape is less profound than the far realms which the book evokes in my mind. (I have my own film running in my head, so you can put all this down to petty jealousy that the other fellow's stuff gets so much attention) All the mystery and strangeness is leached away, and the Misty Mountains have become just mountains, and elves are no longer spooky, dangerous and beautiful creatures lingering from the Morning of the World...but just people in costumes...

It is a curious fact that polls taken of people in the English-speaking world often claim LOTR as the most important book of the 20th Century. I'm sure literary-critic types greet this as more evidence that "the voters are morons," but I'm not so sure. I won't opine about literature, since I'm less and less sure what the word means. But I often think the LOTR is an extremely important political book.

You could say that the entire leftish project, from the days of Marx and Engels onward, has been to get rid of Hobbits! Hobbits are sturdy and self-sufficient, and not inclined to be clients of the state. They are democratic, but never vote for grandiose projects of reform or big government, and don't give over-much respect to elected leaders. They are not intellectual or theoretical, but have deep reserves of common sense. They are not warlike, but are dangerous, even deadly, if attacked. They are not regimented or organized, but can self-organize beautifully in time of crisis.

Tolkien himself had no sympathy for any political party, perhaps because no party of his world had much sympathy for Hobbits—that is, for the virtues of ordinary Englishmen, which is what the Hobbits really are. I suspect, if he had heard about it, that he would have understood just what John and Sam Adams were saying when they declared that they were "fighting for the rights of Englishmen." The current effort to punish anyone in England who defends his home against intruders would have been understood by JRR Tolkien and John Adams in precisely the same way. It is calculated to destroy exactly that doughty quality of Englishmen (and Hobbits) that is resistant to grandiose projects of the state. It is probably too late to save the people of England, but fortunately the hobbit-spirit has spread far and wide, and has a way of bubbling up from below in unexpected ways wherever English is spoken. Hence, the "Anglosphere."

Word Notes: The Lord of the Rings is not a "trilogy." It was divided into three parts to suit the needs of the printers, but was not written as three books. And it is not a novel. An epic fantasy or epic romance is what I guess it should be called.

Posted by John Weidner at 1:16 PM

November 9, 2004

NYT...looking weak and foolish...

The NYT had a letter from President Bush's uncle yesterday, expressing dismay that the NYT Book Review gave a puff-piece review to that vile scandal-monger Kitty Kelly's book on the Bush family...

...As in any big family there will always be one or two disgruntled exiles, and, not surprisingly, Kelley has used these for some of her material. That they have in some cases retracted the statements doesn't seem to have fazed Ted Widmer, your reviewer, who cites them anyway.

Abundantly clear is the fact that the timing of the release of this book, so close to the election, was clearly designed to enrich Kelley and Doubleday, her publisher. They have greedily published for large monetary gain a book designed by lies, distortion and fabrication to hurt and cause emotional distress to a large, closely knit family.

Might one assume that, by giving this trash such a prominent review, the editors of the Book Review could have been trying to give a slight boost to the candidacy of J. F. Kerry?...(thanks to PowerLine)

A literary journal has a lot of power to shape the reviews it gets, by who it chooses to write them. So who was asked to write this one? You would think, given the circumstances, it would be someone authoritative and respected, wouldn't you? No, it was a Ted Widmer, a former Clinton speechwriter who I've certainly never heard of.

I've read a good deal about the Bush family. They are as decent and honorable a crowd as you are likely to find. Quite unlike the Kennedys. And hard-working; they have more money than you or I, but not the kind of dough that lets them live in idleness. Bush senior, after leaving the presidency, put in about a decade's worth of work earning money to buy the famous Kennebunkport compound from his aunt, to save it from development and preserve it for the whole family.

By the way, if you want something very funny to read, I recommend The Belles Lettres Papers, by Charles Simmons. It's a maliciously witty fictional look at the world of book-reviewing and best-seller lists, by a former editor of the NYT Book Review.

Posted by John Weidner at 9:22 AM

October 30, 2004

Deceptive title...

I picked up at the library the book: Patrick O'Brian's Navy: The Illustrated Companion to Jack Aubrey's World. Sneaky title, you might think it was a companion volume to Patrick O'Brian's books. But it's actually a coffee-table book about the Royal Navy in the Napoleanic wars, with a few snippets about O'Brian.

As history, it's pretty banal, but as a picture book of contemporary illustrations it is quite splendid, with much I hadn't seen before. However, as a Patrick O'Brian fan, that's not what I want. What I'd like to see are dozens of detailed illustrations of HMS Surprise, showing every nook and cranny in minute detail. And the Sophie, and the Ringle. I want to see Pulo Prabang! And Kutali.

Somehow I don't think it's going to happen...

Posted by John Weidner at 8:15 PM

September 26, 2004

Coincidences...

Apparently Phillip Roth is coming out with an alternate history novel, The Plot Against America, where the Isolationist Charles Lindbergh runs for President in 1940, and keeps us out of WWII.

Orrin Judd begs us not to accept the popular caricature of Lindbergh as a Nazi-type racist. This is from a book review by Orrin of the biography Lindbergh, by A. Scott Berg:

...None of this excuses Lindbergh's ill considered language about Jews.  But it does raise the question of why he is the one who is dogged by the reputation of being an anti-Semite and a Nazi.  When you think of FDR, your first thought is not: "He was an anti-Japanese, anti-Black racist".  But he actually wielded power and helped to oppress these peoples.  Lindbergh never had a chance to violate anyone's civil rights, but his entire life seems to indicate that he would not have been capable of these actions.  (For a long time he prayed for the soul of the Japanese pilot that he shot down.)  It is completely unfair that this reputation will always follow him.

Moreover, his reasons for being an isolationist turned out to be prophetic.  He foresaw a brutally destructive war that would leave Europe in ruins and at the mercy of the Soviet Union.  He feared that having become involved in the war, America would be mired in Europe for generations.  After fifty years of Cold War and crippling military expenditures, who will argue that he was wrong?

Topping it all off, as soon as the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he endorsed our entry into the war and sought to join up.  A bitterly vindictive FDR made sure that he could not return to active duty, but Lindbergh found ways around this and eventually flew fighter and bomber missions in the South Pacific, in addition to helping with aircraft design, devising ingenious ways of conserving fuel in flight, serving as a human guinea pig in high altitude flight experiments, and many other unheralded contributions to the war effort...

I don't know much about Roth's book yet, but a plot where a Republican is elected President, and America immediately turns into a Nazi-like state? Hmmmmmmm. Haven't I heard something like that lately? Probably not, it would be strange if more than one person came up with that idea. A strange coincidence....

Oh vell, ven mein President iss re-elected unanimously, zen vee vill no longer tolerate zeese insults!

* Update: It occurs to me that I may have this wrong. I assumed this was just another iteration of the half-witted Bush-is-Hitler cackle we hear so much of. But if it's a book about an appeaser elected (improbably) President, who keeps America on the sidelines while crazed fanatics slaughter helpless people and the world slides into savagery, well, kinda sounds like a devastating portrait of Kerry and the Dems.

I somehow doubt that that's what's intended. Being a writer or artist means, above all, that you have to conform. I don't think Mr Roth would be allowed to deviate so far from the official line....


Posted by John Weidner at 1:38 PM

September 3, 2004

various things...

Every time I see any of those heartrending scenes of the school children murdered by terrorist animals in Russia, I think of Senator Kerry puffing himself up and declaring that "IF attacked, we will retaliate." What a useless idiot he is. Sit and wait for attacks...brilliant.

How he makes me appreciate the President. I only wish Bush could move faster, and be more aggressive...but he's trying to walk with scores of ankle-biters clinging like giant lampreys to his legs. (Who then have the nerve to criticize him for not doing such-and-such.) I'm predicting we will shed a bunch of them in November, and then the War can be pushed harder. Somewhere I read him quoted as saying, when told there might be 60 countries supporting terrorists, "We'll pick 'em off one at a time." Yeah!

But we are making progress. Here's a bit of the good stuff...a notorious Talib has been killed by our Special Forces in Afghanistan! Way to go, guys! Scalps!

IT'S ONE WAR. Just. One. War. Israelis, Russians, Iraqis, Nepalese, even the French...we're all in it together.

Terrorists turned to grease spot in Yemen.
More of this please....
Captain Ed quotes former Bush press secretary Ari Fleisher, who was participating at a blog conference:
...I used to be a Democrat. I was raised a liberal Democrat in Democratic New York, Upper West Side parents ... [laughter and crosstalk] One of the reasons I left the Democratic Party was that strong-on-defense, Scoop Jackson-Zell Miller wing of the Democrat Party shriveled up and went away. We had people apologizing for America around the world. This is what I'm afraid has taken over the Democratic Party, represented in Fahrenheit-9/11 and those who [defend] it. And I'm proud not to be a Democrat any more, because that proud-to-be-pro-democracy, pro-defense wing of the Democratic Party is gone. They've become Republicans. It's too bad. They've left reality, and I think that that movie and the people who watch it represent that narrow wing of America...
I think the Bush quote earlier in this post was from The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty, by Schweizer. It's a fascinating book, and I recommend it. One of the aspects that interested me about the family is their ability to network, which seems to be genetic. They know, or have in their card files and Christmas card lists, people by the tens of thousands.

W has inherited this in full. He apparently knew personally over a thousand people in his Yale class. (The number of people I knew in college was probably a couple dozen...) There are lots of stories of his ability to connect with people quickly, and grasp their essence and relate to it. And then to remember them, and call on them later. Of course this sort of intelligence is invisible to our "intelligentsia."

Posted by John Weidner at 10:08 PM

August 15, 2004

Update on Amazon.com

I see that Unfit for Command is now on the Amazon bestseller list.

In the previous post, Andrew Cory, who's a bookseller himself, commented that the official release date is today, the 15th. So possibly it wasn't on the list before because of that, and now it is. Maybe no conspiracy, no hackers breaking into Amazon, no scandal. No excitement, go back to sleep...

Posted by John Weidner at 12:18 PM

August 14, 2004

tight as the scales on a serpent's flank...

I do not normally recommend historical fiction, because most historical fiction is, by my standards, garbage. The past was different. If you delve beneath the surface levels of history, you will find yourself frequently perplexed...because people in other times thought and acted differently than we do.

So the very first test a historical novel must meet is to transport us into a world that seems weirdly different than ours. If a historical novel has characters that act or talk or think like you or I, it's the bunk. They are most of them equivalent to those fantasies, where we re-live our childhood and avoid all of our embarrassing mistakes. Historical novelists get to go to Elizabethan England and know, unlike everyone who actually lived then, that Shakespeare is the guy to watch. Idiocy.

I do recommend Gates of Fire, by Steven Pressfield, which centers on the military culture of ancient Sparta (which was also called Lacedaemon), and climaxes at the Battle of Thermopylae. (Warning, lots of blood and guts.) Here Xeo, the narrator, the squire of a Spartan Peer, describes the Spartan phalanx deploying for combat against a minor foe...

...To the beat the Spartans and their allies advanced, eight-footers [spears] at the upright, their honed and polished spearpoints flashing in the sun. Now the foe broke into an all-out charge. Leonidas, displaying neither haste nor urgency, fell into step in his place in the front rank, as it advanced to envelope him, with the Knights flowing impeccably into position on his left and right.

Now from the Lakedaemonian rank rose the paean, the hymn to Castor arising from four thousand throats. On the climactic beat of the second stanza,

Heaven-shining brother,
Skyborne hero
the spears of the first three ranks snapped from the vertical into the attack.

Words cannot convey the impact of awe and terror produced upon the foe, any foe, by this seemingly uncomplex maneuver, called in Lakedaemon "spiking it" or "palming the pine," so simple to perform on the parade ground and so formidable under conditions of life or death. To behold it executed with such precision and fearlessness, no man surging forward out of control, none edging right into the shadow of his rankmate's shield, but all holding solid and unbreakable, tight as the scales on a serpent's flank, the heart stopped in awe, the hair stood straight up upon the neck and shivers coursed powerfully the length of the spine.

As when some colossal beast, brought to bay by the hounds, wheels in his fury, bristling with rage and baring his fangs, and plants himself in the power and fearlessness of his strength, so did the bronze and crimson phalanx of the Lakedaemonians now snap as one into its mode of murder.

PS: My thanks to George Turner, blogger and weapons nut, who clarified for me how it might be possible to snap those spears from upright to horizontal (which in a Greek phalanx would, I believe, be overhand, stabbing over the shield) in one move. E-mail me if you are interested.

Posted by John Weidner at 1:30 PM

July 2, 2004

Harry Potter & the Pillar of Storg rumor is false...

Ith pointed me to something I was unaware of, JK Rowling's web page. The graphics are exceptionally pleasing. (And book six is to be called Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince)

Posted by John Weidner at 10:47 PM

June 5, 2004

This is the book you MUST read...

If you have nothing else on your summer list, read The Pentagon's New Map, by Thomas P. M. Barnett. You owe it to yourself...

Among other reasons, because this is the most optimistic book I've ever read. Not because he minimizes the difficulties facing mankind, but because he points out something I've been vaguely groping towards. If nations reach a certain point of prosperity and "connectedness," they don't slip back! (So far.) They stop fighting wars with their neighbors. They continue to grow economically. They move towards more democracy and freedom. So there are victories in our struggles that can be permanent. That can pay back whatever we invest in them a hundredfold, because that place becomes a permanent plus on the world's balance sheet.

...Let me tell you what we get when we do these difficult things. What America gets in return is the end of war as we know it. It gets a global economy with nobody left on the outside, noses pressed against the glass. Most important, it gets a definition of what constitutes the finish line in the global war on terrorism. In sum, shrinking the Gap gets us the final piece to the puzzle that is global peace. The end of the Cold War solved the threat of global conflict, and America's continued willingness to play Leviathan has effectively ended state-on-state war. What stands between us and the goal of making globalization truly global is the threats posed by the forces of disconnectedness—the bad individual actors that plague the Gap. Defeat them by denying them the Gap as their own and the Core wins this war on terrorism, plain and simple...
Even if you don't agree with it, this book will expand your thoughts. And Barnett is a very good writer, with fascinating stories to tell, and lots of detail on how things work in Washington and in the Pentagon.

There were a lot of "ah ha" moments for me in this book. I'll try to blog some more soon.

Also, it's not a pro-Bush screed. You don't have to be a bagel-eating Neocon to enjoy it.

Posted by John Weidner at 11:04 AM

April 26, 2004

A page-turner...

For some reason histories of the American Revolution always seem dull to me. And George Washington likewise, though I'm well aware that he was a fascinating and great man. Perhaps it's an attitude left over from school days.

But Washington's Crossing, by David Hackett Fischer, is anything but dull. It's thrilling! Charlene and I have been snatching it away from each other to read it. It focuses on several crucial months of the Revolution, from the disastrous American defeats at New York, the retreat through New Jersey into Pennsylvania with Washington's army melting away and a British army settling into winter-quarters in New Jersey. Then the very difficult crossing of the Delaware river in a winter storm and the famous attack on a Hessian brigade at Trenton, NJ. Then Washington fights another battle at Trenton a week later (I'd never heard of it) and then slips away at night from the growing British force at Trenton, to attack Princeton, where the British had marched from. And all the while New Jersey is changing drastically, as the ugliness and looting of the occupation arouse the population into something like guerilla war. (The Hessians had many military virtues, but were horrid plunderers.)

The people and institutions involved come alive. I had no idea General Cornwallis was important in so many other spheres. The famous Hessian soldier-trade is explained, and a number of interesting Hessians appear! The terrain comes to life, you feel the agonies of night-marches in rain and mud and ice. Gullies too steep for teams mean cannon must be lowered on drag-ropes by muscle power, then hauled up the other side.

We listen in on meetings and watch the flow of communications. The German and British junior officers who skirmished with the retreating Americans knew we were still dangerous, but their superiors weren't listening. Warnings that British forces were too widely dispersed went unheeded. The Hessians at Trenton were not drunk, as legend would have them, but they were exhausted with skirmishing and patrolling and night-alerts.

And the Americans were driven by ideas. Tom Paine's pamphlet The American Crisis was published a week before the Battle of Trenton. He marched with the Army across New Jersey, scribbling by campfires. He rode to Philadelphia, found the city in chaos, and struggled for ten days to get his pamphlet published. A day later it was having an electrifying effect on the army, and soon on all the colonies.

THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value...
This is the book for your summer vacation. I give it my highest recommendation.

Posted by John Weidner at 10:05 PM

January 11, 2004

Gallant

Orin Judd, writing on the anti-Americanism of author John Le Carré

...The loathsome Mr. LeCarre said something revealing in an Entertainment Weekly profile: that he's not anti-American, in fact he believes in the American ideals that prevailed from Jefferson to Kennedy. This conveniently ends his admiration of America just as Vietnam hotted up and we demonstrated that we were in deadly earnest about defeating the Soviet Union, which is why so many Europeans hate us. Even worse than Vietnam was the Reagan presidency, when he had the audacity to call communism evil and to recommit us to its defeat. And, of course, now we've another president leading a crusade against evil and stoking Euro hatred. How can they help but hate us, who believe so fiercely in Western/Judeo-Christian values, long after they've ceased to believe in anything? We remind them of what they were when they mattered and show them what they've become, a fetid secular culture hastening towards its death...
No need to be diplomatic, Mr Judd. Go ahead and say what you think...

I had long ago an infatuation with Le Carré's books, beginning when I read the dazzling Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. I still have a bad taste in my mouth, sort of what I might feel if I had been involved with a floozy. I didn't realize what was wrong until years later, when I encountered Anthony Price.

Price was a less talented writer than Le Carré, (though by no means inconsiderable) but his heart was far warmer. In a series of books he created an imaginary department of British Intelligence, which avoided the catastrophic defections and subsequent dreary hopelessness that Le Carré portrayed so brilliantly. His characters in the "Research and Development" department fight the Cold War with wit and cunning and decency nicely leavened with a sort of schoolboy ferocity that delights in nasty revenges upon the deserving. And they are "gallant," the more so because they are far from being sure that they are going to win. The spirit of Kipling pervades the series, and Price quoted several times the words of the Roman officer defending Hadrian's Wall in Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill. Pertinax tells the invading Picts that he won't surrender even though doomed, because "The Wall must be won at a price."

Anthony Price did one very unusual thing. He avoided, at least partly, the usual flaw in a series of books with the same characters, which is that they tend to be the same book written over and over again. Though he has a regular cast of characters, each book is written from the perspective of a different person. A minor character in one book may be the protagonist of the next. Very effective.

I kind of lost interest in Price after the end of the Cold War, and put his books on a high shelf with things not likely to be needed. But it occurs to me that we are once again fighting a secretive and deadly war with the enemies of freedom. And once again those on the Wall earn the sneers and contempt of nihilists like Le Carré. Perhaps I'll pick up Price's books again. If you are interested, you might start with The Labyrinth Makers or perhaps Gunner Kelly.

..."'But Maximus has given you your dismissal," said an elder. "You are certainly free to serve�or to rule�whom you please. Join�do not follow�join us!"

"'We thank you," said Pertinax. "But Maximus tells us to give you such messages as�pardon me, but I use his words�your thick heads can understand." He pointed through the door to the foot of a catapult wound up.

"'We understand," said an elder. "The Wall must be won at a price?"

"'It grieves me," said Pertinax, laughing, "but so it must be won," and he gave them of our best Southern wine.

'They drank, and wiped their yellow beards in silence till they rose to go...

-- Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook's Hill

Posted by John Weidner at 5:30 PM

January 9, 2004

�It�s all legendary, of course, especially the absurd tale of Frodo..."

If you've ever been exposed to Biblical Criticism, you'll see the humor in this...

Experts in source-criticism now know that The Lord of the Rings is a redaction of sources ranging from the Red Book of Westmarch (W) to Elvish Chronicles (E) to Gondorian records (G) to orally transmitted tales of the Rohirrim (R). The conflicting ethnic, social, and religious groups that preserved these stories all had their own agendas, as did the �Tolkien� (T) and �Peter Jackson� (PJ) redactors, who are often in conflict with each other as well but whose conflicting accounts of the same events reveal a great deal about the political and religious situations that helped to form our popular notions about Middle Earth and the so-called War of the Ring. Into this mix are also thrown a great deal of folk materials about a supposed magic �ring� and some obscure figures named Frodo and Sam. In all likelihood, these latter figures are totems meant to personify the popularity of Aragorn with the rural classes.

Because The Lord of the Rings is a composite of sources, we may be quite certain that �Tolkien� (if he ever existed) did not �write� this work in the conventional sense, but that it was assembled over a long period of time by someone else of the same name. We know this because a work of the range, depth, and detail of The Lord of the Rings is far beyond the capacity of any modern expert in source-criticism to ever imagine creating themselves....

I like the "Quest for the Historical Sauron" ...(thanks to Brothers Judd Blog)

Posted by John Weidner at 8:42 AM

January 7, 2004

Book people will understand ...

I enjoyed this snippet, from Andrew

...Anyway, as I was chatting with my Girlfriend yesterday about household stuff, I said �let�s mingle our books�

She got a shocked look on her face.

�What� Said I �do you not think we are ready to have our books on the same shelves, organized in together?�

�Well, I don�t know. I mean, its such a big step�....

Posted by John Weidner at 2:21 PM

December 28, 2003

Book recommendation

Usually, tall books with lots of pictures are fun to leaf through, but aren't the sort of thing one reads from cover to cover. But James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, which is, by general acclamation, the best one-volume history of the Civil War, has been re-published in a large picture-filled format as The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom, without losing anything. We got it for Christmas, and I've been reading, or rather, re-reading it with avidity

Posted by John Weidner at 5:07 PM

"A more humane Mikado never did in Japan exist" ...

When I'm made Dictator of the Planet, my first proclamation will be to forbid all background music in public places. Maybe with an exception for something quiet and classical. But loud pop music in shops, elevators, shopping malls will punishable by casting-into-volcano.

Especially bookstores! The only bookstore in our neighborhood is a Borders. And it's often a race there to see if I can find something to read before driven away screaming because Borders is trying to raise my consciousness by exposing me to some trendy authentic ethnic South American whatever-it-is. And even if the music isn't hateful in itself, it's impossible to appreciate the charm and flavor of prose with an alien rhythm being crammed into my ear canals. I HATE IT!

I have evil fantasies, where my goons are breaking down doors and dragging the top management of Borders away for questioning. First we will soften them up by locking them into steel trash-cans, and letting an infinite number of monkeys with sticks try to recreate the complete works of Shakespeare by pounding out Morse Code on the cans.

I'm not sure what I'll do to them next. Perhaps I should get in the mood by re-reading that peerless work of SF, Souls in the Great Machine, which tells of an alternate Earth where librarians are powerful leaders, with their own secret police, and firing squads! The perfect fantasy for bookworm types like me.

Posted by John Weidner at 2:09 PM

November 20, 2003

Interesting ...

A friend writes:

John
In reading Cryptonomicon I've experienced an interesting by-product that for me that is worth as much as the book itself. Here's the story.

When I saw an 1100 page book I said "no way." I've always been a slow reader. Then I started anyway because of your recommendation. After 3 weeks of reading a half hour or so at night I was up to 100 pages. Pitiful.

So, on a whim, I looked around the web for speed reading technology. I discovered Rocket Reader. It's reading software for kids. The first selection one must make in using it is to say if you are above or below 10 years old.
That aside, the technology is simple and sound. It's based on the fact that the eye moves in discreet jumps and sees only when it's still, between jumps. To read faster you need to take in more words when the eye is stationary. This is well known of course, but how to do it?

Rocket Reader uses a flash system in which word groups flicker on the computer screen for a 1/10 of a second and you have to respond by typing what you saw. Your progress (gold stars and bar charts) is based on your success rate. It begins with just two letter words and then moves up to groups of several words. I started with 10 min. sessions twice a day and within a week my reading speed doubled. After that progress slows down, but I think I am close to tripling.

Here's the really good part. You don't have to DO anything; or TRY to do anything. Just read normally and it's significantly faster. And it's only $60.00.

I've never tried this sort of thing because I'm lucky enough to be a naturally fast reader. What I wonder is, does the improved speed persist, or will it fade away after a while?

* My friend writes: I'm pretty sure we slow readers need to make Rocket Reader (or something comparable) a daily exercise. Otherwise we regress to normal. At least it's short (10 min.) and fun. And unlike pumping iron, say, the results are quick.

Posted by John Weidner at 4:36 PM

November 19, 2003

Death of a true original...

I just read that Fritz Kraemer has died, at the age of 95. I thought instantly of Peter Drucker's book Adventures of a Bystander. (In fact there are many happenings that make me think of that book. I give it my very highest recommendation.)

Drucker has a chapter on Kraemer, who he met when they were young men in Frankfurt in the 1930's. It's entitled The Man who Invented Kissinger. The chapter-title is perfectly accurate, and you will just have to read the book yourself to discover the details...

...It was on one of those miserable days in early April [1929] with freezing winds and blinding rain squalls that I espied a kayak amid the ice floes on the Main River in the middle of the city of Frankfurt. In the little boat a cadaverous man, naked except for the scantiest of black bathing trunks and a monocle on a wide black ribbon, was furiously paddling upstream. And the stern of the fragile craft flew the black, white and red battle pennant of the defunct German Imperial Navy...

..The ultra-nationalists and the Nazis were for Kraemer pure scum, proletarian rabble, motivated by resentment at their own inferiority and by envy of their betters, all the more contemptible for covering their Jacobin lawlessness with the rags of nationalist and pseudo-conservative rhetoric. For Kraemer considered himself a genuine Conservative, a Prussian monarchist of the old pre-Bismarck, Lutheran, and Spartan persuasion...

...Many years later, during World War II, I had to explain again and again why Kraemer was not a Nazi and could not be a Nazi because he was a genuine conservative....the investigators came to me repeatedly, and went away shaking their heads....However romantic Kraemer's notion and behavior were�and he was, of course, very young in those years�the fact remains that all effective resistance to the Nazis came from the likes of him, from men and women who were old-fashioned pre-Bismarckian "Conservatives" or pre-Bismarckian Lutherans. The men who made the desperate attempt to kill Hitler in July 1944�Count Helmuth Moltke, Count Stauffenberg, and the former Lord Mayor of Leipzig, Dr Goerdeler�were "old-fashioned Prussian Conservatives"; and the leader of the Protestant resistance, Pastor Niemoeller, was an old-fashioned Prussian Lutheran monarchist and former submarine commander....

Posted by John Weidner at 3:00 PM

November 16, 2003

An aimless ramble?

By the way, I did finish Quicksilver. I skipped ahead a bit until it seemed more interesting to me.

I'd say it's a book well worth reading but not one I'm going to buttonhole people to recommend. For while it was an interesting journey, with many curious sights and adventures, I'm not at all sure where I've arrived. Of course it's but the first of three volumes, and not doubt the point will become clear soon enough....

I kept waiting for it to turn into a "historical novel," but it doesn't seem to fit the genre. For instance, Daniel Waterhouse, having drifted rather aimlessly through his life, is present at the death of Charles II, and the accession of James II. He is appalled that a Catholic has become King of England, and bestirs himself to do something about it. He becomes an important figure in the Glorious Revolution, the plot to bring the Protestant William of Orange and his wife Mary (daughter of James) to the throne. He is, in the book, the man who carries the famous letters from various English noblemen, inviting William to invade.

Now, in any ordinary historical novel, this would be the climax of the story! The point of it all! But once it becomes clear that William is coming in, Daniel seems to lose interest, and drifts along on the periphery of events. And the whole revolution passes off much too easily, and is obviously not what we have read 900 pages to get to. Anybody know where we are heading?

I liked this bit, which has the flavor of the time. Eliza has just encountered King Louis XIV:

"D'Avaux says you are good with money," the King said.

I say D'Avaux is good at flattering young ladies,' I answered.

"It is an error for you to feign modesty when you are talking to me," the King said, firmly but not angrily.

I saw my error. We use humility when we fear that someone will consider us a rival or a threat; and while this may be true of common or even noble men, it can never be true of le Roi and so to use humility in His Majesty's presence is to imply that the King shares the petty jealousies and insecurities of others...

Posted by John Weidner at 8:57 PM

November 15, 2003

A new sleuth, at last!

Charlene and I both recently enjoyed the mystery novel The Winter Queen, by Boris Akunin. Akunin has become a best-seller in Russia, and this is the first of a detective series set in Czarist times, this one in 1876. The hero, Erast Fandorin, is a young clerk hoping to make a career in the Moscow police.

But this is unlike any police novel you will read from the western world. It's strange and Russian, full of quirky comedy, sudden shifts of fortune and labyrinthine conspiracies reminiscent of Foucault's Pendulum. It starts with two students who have been alarming the city, wandering around playing "American Roulette." That is, carrying revolvers with one cartridge and attempting to shoot themselves. Eventually one succeeds. Here is an excerpt from his suicide note:

Gentlemen living after me!

Since you are reading this little letter of mine, I have already departed from you and gone on to learn the secret of death, which remains concealed from your eyes behind seven seals. I am free while you must carry on living in torment and fear. However, I wager that in the place where I am now and from where, as the Prince of Denmark expressed it, no traveller has yet returned, there is absolutely nothing at all. If anyone should not be in agreement, I respectfully suggest that he investigate for himself....

Highly recommended. Alas, though there are 10 books written about Erast Fandorin, the next one to be translated into English won't appear until next Spring.

I often feel that good mystery novels just aren't being written any more. What a treat to discover I'm wrong. Mostly I just re-read old favorites, though there have been two other good authors we've found in the last decade or so. Arturo Perez-Reverte (especially The Flanders Panel) and Iain Pears.

Posted by John Weidner at 6:18 PM

November 1, 2003

He's a massacree dog that knows no fear...

TIM, AN IRISH TERRIER

It's wonderful dogs they're breeding now:
Small as a flea or large as a cow;
But my old dog Tim he'll never be bet
By any dog that ever he met.
'Come on,' says he, 'for I'm not kilt yet.'

No matter the size of the dog he'll meet,
Tim trails his coat the length o' the street.
D'ye mind his scar an' his ragged ear,
The like of a Dublin Fusilier?
He's a massacree dog that knows no fear.

But he'd stick to me till his lastest breath;
An' he'd go with me to the gates of death.
He'd wait for a thousand years, maybe,
Scratching the door 'an whining for me
If myself were inside in Purgatory.

So I laugh when I hear them make it plain
That dogs and men never meet again.
For all their talk who'd listen to thim
With the soul in the shining eyes of him?
Would God be wasting a dog like Tim?

-- Winifred Mary Letts

Posted by John Weidner at 6:13 PM

October 14, 2003

Painting the Lily...

I'm now into the second part of Quicksilver, and I'm bogging down. Frankly, I don't like this part as much. Stephenson has a sort of flippant style, and his charcters often give us some bit of modern thinking or jargon, as if they were actors pausing in their performance to wink at the audience. As if they were modern people playing some virtual-reality game set in the 17th Century. It's starting to pall as I move along in the book.

Here's an example; we are seeing a foppish courtier's clothing through the eyes of Daniel Waterhouse: ...The stocking/breech interface was presumable somewhere around his knees and was some sort of fantastically complex spraying phenomenon of ribbons and gathers and skirtlets designed to peek out under the hems of his coat, waistcoat. and allied garments... What's wrong with this? It's what we might say if we were trying to describe a portrait by Van Dyke. But a real person of the 17th Century would not see these things as incomprehensible; the ribbons and lace and the cut of the garments would make sense to him, even if he didn't wear that sort of thing himself.

It's the equivalent of someone in our time describing a necktie as: a lump of colored cloth at the center of his throat with two streamers of the same cloth descending to somewhere near the belt. And using contemporary words like "interface" is another way of winking at the audience over the heads of the characters.

That was tolerable in the first section, when the characers were often absent-minded-professor types, and where we know that the story is going to have a sort of happy ending, with Newton's physics culminating eventually in in our own modern world, and the Internet, and trips to the moon.

But in Book Two we are following the fortunes of Jack and Eliza, poor rascally vagabonds caught up in a terrifying and cruel world. They are wandering among brutal armies, and the horrors of war, and starving near-feral peasants. People just like them are seen hanging from gibbets from time to time. Yet among it all they are even more flippant and clever than the first group of characters.

For me it just doesn't work. The tone is off. The persistent air of detachment seems wrong when you are being slightly detached from truly frightful and ugly things...

Perhaps I'm being too critical, Stephenson is a heck of a good writer. And I just love a chance to go messing around in that period. I've read the Diary of Samuel Pepys, and Churchill's biography of his ancestor Sir John Churchill, son of Sir Winston. (I would advise the abridged versions.) On the minus side, those guys were much more interesting people than Stephenson's characters. On the plus side, there's just a lot of historical fun here--there really was a CABAL, but Stephenson has invented entirely new people to put into it. Crazy. I love it. And the description of the Fire of London...splendid. On the minus side again, Stephenson seems to feel he has to jazz up the 17th Century to make it interesting for moderns. Since I find the period immeasurably rich and complex, and utterly fascinating and charming, this just seems stupid.


A Dutch man-of-war firing a salute. Painting by Willem Van de Velde the Younger

Posted by John Weidner at 8:41 PM

October 2, 2003

Nothing's so frustrating as a good book that's also short...fortunately that's not a problem here

I'm a hundred pages into Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson. As you probably know, it's a historical novel which explores the early days of what we now call "science," with fictional characters interacting with actual people. (Dating, as far as I've read, from the 1660's to 1713.) So far it's a great read, and I recommend it. (Assuming, that is, that you like history. I noticed some dorf gave it a terrible review on Amazon, because of all the boring historical stuff!! Today's tip: There's a certain sort of Amazon review that starts: I just don't understand why everybody likes this book. I don't get it... If you feel that way, keep quiet.)

...There was no other furniture in the room, although the eight-foot-high grandfather clock in the adjoining hall contributed a sort of immediate presence with the heaving to and fro of its cannonball-sized pendulum, which made the entire house lean from one side to the other like a drunk out for a brisk walk, and the palpable grinding of its gear-train, and the wild clamorous bonging that exploded from it at intervals that seemed suspiciously random, and that caused flocks of migrating waterfowl, thousands of feet overhead, to collide with each other in panic and veer into new courses. The fur of dust beginning to overhang its Gothick battlements; its internal supply of mouse-turds; the Roman numerals carven into the back by its maker and its complete inability to tell time, all marked it as pre-Huygens technology. Its bonging would have tried Daniel's patience even if it had occurred precisely on the hour, half-hour, quarter-hour, et cetera, for it never failed to make him jump out of of his skin. That it conveyed no information whatever as to what the time actually was, drove Daniel into such transports of annoyance that he had begun to entertain a phant'sy of standing at the intersection of two corridors and handing Drake, every time he passed by, a libel denouncing the ancient Clock, and demanding its wayward pendulum be stilled, and that it be replaced with a new Huygens model. But Drake had already told him to shut up about clock, and so there was nothing he could do...
You can see that Stephenson is not taking himself too seriously here. So I can enjoy the story and not mind a few liberties taken with history, things that would usually drive me into "transports of annoyance." And not mind of course, that, as a historical novelist, he's cheating... that his fictional characters are able to concentrate on getting to know people who will be in the history books three-hundred years later, and not waste any time befriending future nobodies. Enoch Root pals around with Huygens and Leibniz, and is able to discern the genius of Isaac Newton when he is a mere schoolboy glimpsed in the street; and Daniel Waterhouse shares a room with Newton at Trinity, and witnesses the invention of the Calculus.

But it's all done with lots of verve and humor and insight, and I'm enjoying it immensely.

* WORD NOTE: There is nothing so frustrating as having a concept without a good name to use when speaking of it. The characters in this book experience that frustration as they grasp the possibilities of what we now call "science" but have no better term for it than "natural philosophy." It's a testimony to the prodigious influence of Isaac Newton that a common name for "science" in the 18th Century was the Newtonian Philosophy.

Posted by John Weidner at 7:22 PM

September 30, 2003

Pet peeve...

Something that really bugs me is Science Fiction writers who are afraid of the future, or at least don't want to deal with it.

I just noticed an SF book that (in the blurb) was about a "grey, gritty industrial future." Gimme a break. That's the industrial past. We're IN the industrial future, and the result is an almost nauseating riot of garish color. Just pay a visit to Toys 'r Us...You will wish we we were still in the grey industrial stage...Thank God my children are now old enough that I can avoid that swamp...

For the real future, there's that guy in Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age who makes his mark by inventing animated ads that appear on disposable wooden chopsticks!

Posted by John Weidner at 10:33 AM

September 10, 2003

I'm nervous ...

I'm very nervous. Neal Stephenson is coming out with a new novel, Quicksilver. The happy thought in my mind is that we enjoyed Cryptonomicon immensely and we've been hungry for more. The foreboding I feel is because it's historical, and my standards for historical fiction are extremely high, and most historical novels I've read have disappointed me.

What I can't bear in typical historical fiction is the re-writing of the past to make it fit our view of what's important and pleasing. For example, every historical novel set in Elizabethan England just has to drag Shakespeare in somehow, all too often putting him at the center of the story. That's forcing the past into our priorities, and it grates on me horribly. No one in his own time thought Shakespeare was a giant. He had a certain literary reputation, but only because of two poems he wrote, not for writing Hamlet..

People in the past were different. They are NOT people like us in funny costumes. A good historical novel should give you some rude shocks, as you encounter a very different culture. You get some good ones in Patrick O'Brian's books. At one point it's mentioned that Stephen Maturin's anatomical studies are aided by hard winters, which make lots of bodies of orphans available for dissection! Also, like any 18th Century physician, Stephen believes in bleeding and purging. At one point he bleeds the entire ship's crew, and it seems to do everybody a world of good. A lesser writer would adjust his character's remedies to be more pleasing to modern readers.

This is from the Amazon.com review of Quicksilver:

...Stephenson's very long historical novel, the first volume of a projected trilogy, finds Enoch Root, the Wandering Jew/alchemist from 1999's Cryptonomicon, arriving in 1713 Boston to collect Daniel Waterhouse and take him back to Europe. Waterhouse, an experimenter in early computational systems and an old pal of Isaac Newton, is needed to mediate the fight for precedence between Newton and scientist and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, both of whom independently invented the calculus. Their escalating feud threatens to revert science to pre-empirical times...
Hmmm. If this is handled with a light touch, it could be a lot of fun. But I fear that Stephenson's early 18th Century will be skewed to fit what we know now. For instance, Isaac Newton applied his almost unbelievable brain-power in roughly equal proportions to what we now call science, to Alchemy, and to Biblical studies and Theology. Those all seemed like equally important and promising realms to Newton and his contemporaries. When we look at Newton as just a "scientist," we are substituting our own interests for the actual world he lived in. I hope that won't be the flavor of this book...

(By the way, I was puzzled because, in Cryptonomicon, the character Enoch Root doesn't age or change. Now I know why.)

* ODDITY. I'm sure I heard about the book on InstaPundit this morning. But Glenn's post seems to have been removed...

Posted by John Weidner at 11:54 AM

September 5, 2003

Blue Suede Shoes ...

Natalie Solent has translated part of a Le Monde article on Asaf Bimro, an Ethiopian Jew who migrated, through great peril, to Israel and became a champion marathon runner. Do read it.

And among other good things she's written lately, this sentence, from a post about her blue suede shoes:

On the way down from falling over a cat the other day I wondered to myself if dying this way was sillier or less silly than my previous record Silliest Way to Get Killed or Nearly So...
Cool.

If I ever write a novel it will be pleasant to have someone fall over a cat, and then fill a chapter or two with their meditations on the way down. (My novel will probably not be popular with the swineing masses, but to the discerning few it will surely be what Lawrence Durrell called "a suck-eggs d'estime.") I adore the parts in books by Michael Innes, where a character like Inspector Appleby will walk across, say, an Oxford college quad, pondering the intricacies of a case, and it takes twelve pages to get to the other side. And by the way, if you are writing to please me, don't start your book by laying out all the characters and their importance in the first few pages. Borrring... let me figure them out gradually on my own.

Posted by John Weidner at 8:08 AM

August 25, 2003

and filled the broad lap of the world with branches and leaves ...

I was leafing again today through Seamus Heaney's deeply pleasing translation of Beowulf. I recommend it highly...

Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man's beginnings,
how the Almighty had made the earth
a gleaming plain girdled with waters;
in His splendour He set the sun and the moon
to be earth's lamplight, lanterns for men,
and filled the broad lap of the world
with branches and leaves; and quickened life
in every other thing that moved...
I have little doubt that you already know this, but Old English poetry is Alliterative. Rather than having rhymes, it repeats initial stressed consonants: Hard, harrowed. Almighty, made. Mastery, man's. Lamplight, lanterns.

Heany does a wonderful job of translating this, without following the original poetic form too pedantically. If you emphasize the alliterations slightly as you read, you will fall into the rhythm of the poem.

Posted by John Weidner at 12:33 PM