Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Basic Religion Test Stumps Americans

Depressing, but predictable, information from the NYTimes on how little the average American knows about even his own religion.

For example, most Protestants cannot identify Martin Luther.

Includes a short quiz to test your own knowledge.

Requires (free) registration.


A Washington DC public school circa 1900. US Library of Congress.

There are very few signposts in the education game—very few assertions that can be backed up by hard statistical data. It is striking, therefore, that the superiority of homeschooling over the public schools can. In study after study, American students who have been homeschooled for a good portion of their primary and secondary education score about 30% higher on standard tests than do the kids in the public schools. Put another way, if the average score on such tests is 50%, the average homeschooled kid scores 70-80%. If the average score is a D, the homeschooler is scoring a B. This is true in every subject, though the public schools do seem to do slightly better on math than on reading.

Obviously, homeschooling relies on volunteer labour. But the average cost of a year of homeschooling is $500. The average cost of a year of public schooling is $5,000. And the average homeschooled kid actually studies for 16 hours per week; the average time in class for the public schools is 25 hours, plus homework.

Do the reading, do the math, and one thing is clear: homeschooling is overwhelmingly more effective than sending your kids to the public schools.

But what does this tell us about the state of the teaching profession today? Imagine if, for comparison, your chances of getting well were vastly greater if you stayed home and chose your own treatment than if you went to a doctor or a hospital? How long would the medical profession survive? Imagine if your chances of getting convicted were vastly less if you represented yourself in court rather than hiring a lawyer. How long would the profession of barrister survive?

The teaching “profession” nevertheless survives, primarily due to the political power of the teachers' unions and their PACs. They have long been the biggest contributor to the Democratic Party. But the evidence seems clearly to show that it has less than no justification for its existence. It is nothing but an interest group, a clique that has developed an efficient scam against the public. Unprettily, it has basically done this by holding people's children hostage.

That looks as though it is about to change. Chris Christie in New Jersey is rapidly building himself into a political legend, and a possible president, on the premise of going toe-to-toe against the teachers' unions in that state. His success has been signalling other politicians that this is fertile ground; watch soon for many others to follow. We are close, I think, to a tipping point.

Perhaps a more interesting question is: how on earth can a professional group consistently manage to do less well at their chosen work than a person pulled randomly off the street?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Device to Root Out Evil

See more images here..

What is really sick about this is that this bit of sculpture was rejected by New York City and by Stanford University as "too controversial." Vancouver also found it too awkward. It has now found a home in Calgary, Alberta.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

East is East, and West is West...

Which would you hit? Choose one. Explain your choice.

Huntington's famous notion that the future will be a clash of civilizations is an interesting view of the world; but in the end, it is both harmful and wrong. Wrong because, when civilizations meet, there is no need for and no benefit in any kind of clash. Historically, what generally happens is that both civilizations significantly benefit by being able to pool their best features. The notion that history is a “clash of civilizations” also exaggerates the differences among us, Samaritans, Greeks, or Jews.
Harmful, because it is the classic way to justify hostility toward and violence against another—as pre-emptive self-defense. This was always Hitler's argument, for example.

There are indeed four or five great civilizations girdling the Eurasian landmass: Confucian, Hindu, Muslim, Christian; Southeast Asia might count as a fifth. But we are ill-served by this idea of an inevitable clash among them. It has come to badly distort our understanding of current events.

Take the matter of “Islamism,” of the threat of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. The “clash of civilizations” inclines us to think, falsely, that Al Qaeda and the Islamists are legitimate representatives of Muslim popular opinion. It also tends to make us think, falsely, that the main agenda of such groups is a struggle against Western civilization.

It all looks quite different from the streets of Qatar. Elaph, the locally highly-respected Arabic online daily, held two surveys recently, the results of which might be of interest to North Americans.
In the first, they asked Arabs, in the context of the recent threatened burnings of the Qur'an by local, and otherwise completely obscure, US pastor Terry Jones, whether Arabs considered the US, on the whole, to be a tolerant or a bigoted society. The results were 63% to 37%--63% thought of the US as tolerant, and only 37 percent saw it as intolerant, in the face of the current controversy.
In other words, for the most part, Arab opinion on the US is about the same as American opinion on the US. There is no great chasm here between two civilizations—just the same debate going on in both places.

I used the website Ask500People to do my own quick poll of world opinion on the same question. Voting came to 72% of world population believing the US is tolerant, 28% intolerant. In the US alone, it was 73% to 27%. Some difference, but not a huge amount. Our similarities, Gulf Arab or American, are far greater than our differences.

Elaph's next poll asked Arabs whether they thought building a new mosque near the site of the Twin Towers in Manhattan was a good idea. Fifty-eight percent (58%) said no.

Not so different, again, from my results on Ask500People: 31% yes, 69% no. US alone: 29% yes, 71% no.

In sum, the idea that the Arabs and Islam are a truly foreign culture with very different values from our own in North America or Europe is seriously, and dangerously, wrong. It is a kind of hangover of romantic ideas about foreign lands, of chauvinistic Orientalism. Unfortunately, imaginary differences have been played up by unscrupulous people in order to increase their own power. Nothing unites people like telling them they have a dangerous enemy at the gates; the only question is whether you exploit this for appeasement or a call to arms. This little game has been played by self-appointed Muslim leaders in America and the Middle East, as well as by Western politicians and pundits, left and right.

For example, people hyperventilate about Islam having values that are incompatible with Western traditions of tolerance, of democracy, of liberty, and of human equality. Bollocks, says I. Tolerance is deeply steeped into Arab culture, and comes largely from the same source as in the West: from a long tradition as a trading nation. Consider this, in light of the current debates over Mexican and Muslim immigration in the West: how well would most Western nations tolerate a situation in which 80% of actual residents are first-generation immigrants, speaking their own original language? That is the reality on the ground in Qatar, Bahrain, or the UAE.
Democracy? Modern Arabia does not have democracy, but it is far from alien to Muslim tradition. Mohammed was the democratically elected leader of Medina; the first four Caliphs after him were also elected. In principle, it is monarchy and dictatorship which do not accord with Muslim traditions. Ask an Arab on the street if he believes in, and seeks, democracy. You will not hear many say no.

Liberty? In practical terms, few are so free as the Bedouin is traditionally. If he is not happy with his government, he simply packs up and moves on. Do not imagine, given this inheritance, that liberty is not valued in the Middle East.

Human equality? Please. Islam deliberately avoided the establishment of a professional priestly class, on the strict grounds that all men are equal before God. Even the kings of Saudi Arabia are buried without ceremony in unmarked graves. The constant claims that Arab and Muslim culture dishonour or discount women are purely bogus, based on either ignorance of deceit. They believe that men and women are different, and have different roles. This has nothing to do with equality, and never has, East or West. Those women you see wearing chador or hijab? The point is that it is their choice to do so—and it is in the West, not the Middle East, that choice in this matter is being denied them.

There is no difference at all in fundamental values between Arab culture, and Arab public opinion, and Western culture, or Western public opinion. With one exception: secularism. Even here, it is not a difference so much as a different balance of forces. The secularizing tendency is stronger in the Western cultural wars, while the religious tendency is on the attack in the Middle East.

There is a relatively recent and increasingly aggressive drive among cultural elites in the West towards a completely secular and even anti-religious society. Date it from the French Revolution; with assists from Marx, Freud, Nazis, and feminists more recently. This drive has its counterpart in the Arab and Islamic world as well, but is historically weaker. Kemal Ataturk is probably the most important figure in the Muslim secularizing movement. But most Arab governments and elites since his day have been more or less avowedly secularist. The Shah of Iran, next door, was aggressively so; so has been the government of Egypt since Nasser, the PLO, the Ba'athist government of Syria, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya under Ghaddafi until fairly recently, and Iraq under Saddam.

The current foment among “Islamists” originated as pushback against this tendency at home. The West has come to be blamed as well, on the grounds that the West seemed to support this tendency, and Western culture seems to be the model for the secularists. But the core truth to remember is that the real hostility is not toward the West, but towards secularization, which is quite reasonably seen as simple depravity.

Many Westerners, of course, would agree. Our Victorian ancestors certainly would. So too those notorious “fundamentalists” in the Southern US, traditionalist Catholics, Glenn Beck fans, and so forth. While they would never resort to the tactics of Al Qaeda—and neither would most Muslims—they can surely see the same problem that many Muslims do here.

This is the real divide: it is the culture wars, not a clash of civilizations East and West. It is the culture wars gone international.

Consider this: at base, what is the obvious significance of flying a commercial airliner into the World Trade Centre?

If this were an assault on Christianity, St. Peter's Basilica or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem would have been the preferred target—and far easier to hit. Doing so would have won Al Qaeda little sympathy in the Muslim world.

If this were an assault on liberal democratic ideals, the obvious target in New York City would have been the Statue of Liberty, not the World Trade Centre. The same would be true if their target were “America” as a cultural entity. (In Washington, we cannot draw clear conclusions—we don't know what their intended targets were. The Pentagon may not have been in the original plan.)

Even if it were an assault on globalization, the World Trade Centre was not the obvious target; that would have been over on the East River, where Ban Ki-Moon holds forth.

The WTC, obviously, symbolizes world trade. It symbolizes what Christians used to call Mammon. It symbolizes trade and commerce raised to a universal standard and to the underlying principle of world culture.

Right in front of our noses, wasn't it?

It is significant that all cultures historically have raised their highest buildings to their highest values. Right up until the mid-nineteenth century, the highest buildings in the world throughout history, and in almost every city individually, were the religious structures: pagan pyramids, Christian cathedral steeples, Muslim minarets, or Buddhist monasteries built on a nearby mountain. For a brief moment in the 19th century, this religious emphasis was supplanted by secular buildings celebrating human reason, human rights, and scientific progress: the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, “observation towers.” No more. There is a powerful symbolic significance to the fact that our highest buildings now are always consecrated to commerce; and the sounds of traffic boom while church bells are silenced. If we do not see the symbolism, it is because we are so surrounded by it, like a fish by water. It may be far more apparent to a foreigner.

That's what they hit. That's what they intended to hit. With a commercial jetliner. They saw the Tower of Babel.

This is not to say that the people who committed the 9/11 atrocity were not, first and foremost, murderous psychopaths who cared about nothing so much as personally becoming famous. That is a separate point. But even psychopaths need an alibi in order to convince themselves that their actions are ultimately moral. It is the way we are made, by God. Like John Wilkes Booth, or Timothy McVeigh, they could not have done it if they had not been able to find a moral hook that was itself valid in some way.

Let's stay clear about this, and let's stay focused. It seems to me that, if we do, people of good will may find a lot of common ground.

The world is not flat. It is in the very nature of east and west that the twain must, at some point, meet.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Repressed Memory Syndrome Remembered

It is truly incredible to me that nobody seems to remember or take into account the old horrors of "repressed memory syndrome" in the context of current accusations of child sexual abuse against Catholic priests--and in demanding goverments lift the statute of limitations on prosecution of this crime in particular, when it is precisely the sort of situation the statute of limitations is intended to address. I remember those old absolutes from the eighties, obviously false even then, but seemingly held as articles of faith by every social worker and judge in North America: "Children never lie about these things." "If you think it happened, it happened." "Any truly upsetting memory is repressed." Any speaker who dared to question this orthodoxy was literally shouted down.

The whole thing back in the 80's turned out, of course, at terrible human cost, to be a witchhunt.

"Can you remember the name of the Papist priest who did this to you?"

The current pogrom against priests traces exactly the same familiar parabola. For that matter, the elements are all the same as in Salem, Massachusetts, back in 1692. You'd think we'd remember, you'd think we'd learn, but there is always some new extraordinary popular delusion to stir the madness of the crowd.

A Call to Arms from Pope Benedict

My hero

You can praise John Paul to the skies all you want, and I will agree with you. But for those who suggest that Benedict is not every millimetre his worthy successor—not so, not so at all, a million times no, at least for me. Even long before he was Pope, Ben Ratzinger was always my man. He looks you straight in the eye, it seems, even if you are the whole world, and always says what needs to be said, without fear of favour.

Here's what he said recently in England, on the beautification of Cardinal Newman. It's a clear call to action for us all.

One of the Cardinal’s best-loved meditations includes the words, “God has created me to do him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another” (Meditations on Christian Doctrine). ... Faith is meant to bear fruit in the transformation of our world through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the lives and activity of believers. No one who looks realistically at our world today could think that Christians can afford to go on with business as usual, ignoring the profound crisis of faith which has overtaken our society, or simply trusting that the patrimony of values handed down by the Christian centuries will continue to inspire and shape the future of our society. ... each of us, in accordance with his or her state of life, is called to work for the advancement of God’s Kingdom by imbuing temporal life with the values of the Gospel. Each of us has a mission, each of us is called to change the world, to work for a culture of life, a culture forged by love and respect for the dignity of each human person. As our Lord tells us in the Gospel we have just heard, our light must shine in the sight of all, so that, seeing our good works, they may give praise to our heavenly Father (cf. Mt 5:16).

No relation to Alfred E.

... only Jesus knows what “definite service” he has in mind for you. Be open to his voice resounding in the depths of your heart: even now his heart is speaking to your heart. Christ has need of families to remind the world of the dignity of human love and the beauty of family life. He needs men and women who devote their lives to the noble task of education, tending the young and forming them in the ways of the Gospel. He needs those who will consecrate their lives to the pursuit of perfect charity, following him in chastity, poverty and obedience, and serving him in the least of our brothers and sisters. He needs the powerful love of contemplative religious, who sustain the Church’s witness and activity through their constant prayer. And he needs priests, good and holy priests, men who are willing to lay down their lives for their sheep. Ask our Lord what he has in mind for you! Ask him for the generosity to say “yes!” Do not be afraid to give yourself totally to Jesus. He will give you the grace you need to fulfill your vocation.

Each of us has a vocation. Wherever we are in our own lives, whatever our job and responsibilities are, I guess we must all stop right now and ask ourselves, what it is that we can do, what is it we are meant to do, for truth and for our fellow man?
Let's rumble.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sunday, September 12, 2010

What the Dawkins?

Could this have been randomly generated?

I've been reading an article by Richard Dawkins titled “The Improbability of God.” I presume it is an essential statement of his case for atheism. If so, there is nothing new there, and nothing very thought-provoking.

He begins, predictably, with the standard “religion causes wars” opening everyone must by now be familiar with: “Much of what people do is done in the name of God. Irishmen blow each other up in his name. Arabs blow themselves up in his name.”

Okay--Arabs, perhaps. Any member of the IRA is blowing people up in the name of Marx and scientific socialism. Still, so what; if someone tries to pass a cheque in my name, am I responsible? And consider, for balance, what has been done in the name of science: science was the stated justification for Hitler's holocaust, Stalin's holocaust, Mao's holocaust, Pol Pot's holocaust, Kim Il-Sung's and Kim Jong-Il's holocaust. When Turkey went from religion to science as the justification for its existence, in the early years of the 20th century, the immediate result was a holocaust of Armenians and Greeks. Science—eugenics, environmentalism, demographics—has been used to sanction abortion. Religion could not. If the existence of Al Qaeda is an argument against religion, that it can be misused to justify killing people, Dawkins must accept that there is a far stronger argument of this sort against science.

In his listing of the evils done in God's name, Dawkins goes on to make one surprising specific claim: “Jewish shohets cut live animals' throats in his name.”

This alone rather discredits Dawkins as a serious thinker. The man has no sense of irony—even if the point of what the shohets do were to kill more animals, just how many lab animals have been sacrificed for science? And the point of the shohet's work is not to kill an animal, but to ensure that it be killed humanely. The same animal would have died, at the same time, with or without the shohet. It is killed for food, not religion. Not so for lab animals.

All of this, though, is mere poisoning of the wells, mere ad hominem. Even if Dawkins' points were legitimate, they would not be arguments against the existence of God, only against the moral character of his opponents, or perhaps an argument that God's existence is unfortunate or inconvenient. So might mine be, but I still exist.

On this, the supposed “improbability of God,” Dawkins seems to have only one bullet in his magazine, and it is a very old, worn one. He addresses only the “watchmaker analogy” of William Paley, a now relatively obscure 19th century Anglican cleric. Obviously, even if Dawkins manages to effectively disprove Paley's argument, he has done nothing at all to disprove God's existence, only to disprove the proof—absence of proof is not proof of absence. And, of course, there are dozens or even hundreds of other well-known proofs of the existence of God that Dawkins does not even address, by such rather better-known thinkers as Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, Aquinas, Anselm, Pascal, and so forth. If, after all, monotheists believed in God solely because of this analogy proposed in the early 19th century, what kept them going over the three millenia or so before Paley evolved; let alone the century and three quarters since Darwin?

Rev. William Paley

Yet Dawkins actually asserts that there is no other known argument for God's existence, except for the claim of personal revelation. This is either deceit on his part, or a shocking and almost necessarily wilful ignorance of the entire history of Western thought. It is also a straw-man argument, as no prominent theist has ever proposed personal revelation as proof to anyone but themselves.

This itself is ad hominem, and entirely aside from the present argument, but I cannot help but think: if this is the best and the brightest that contemporary Oxford has to offer, it is strong evidence that the entire academic edifice in the Western world has become a house of cards.

To summarize Paley's teleological argument: Paley argued that, if one came across a pocket watch lying in a field, even if one had never seen a pocket watch before, one would easily be able to deduce, from its complexity and its orderliness, that the watch was not something that happened spontaneously, but was deliberately designed by some intelligence. Just so, if we look at things in nature, and find them on inspection to be equally orderly and complex, we can reasonably deduce from this that they, too, must have been deliberately designed by some intelligence. He cites biological organisms as the obvious example—any one of them is more complex and well-ordered in its parts than a pocket watch.

Dawkins then asserts that this proof of God's existence is rendered “superfluous” by Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Not disproven, actually—only that there is a possible alternative explanation.

And that's it? That's all he has to back his own faith? That it is a possible explanation? That it _could_ be true? Yep—that's it. He then simply appeals to Occam's Razor, saying that Darwin's concept is a simpler one than positing a God, and the simpler explanation is generally to be preferred.

But he merely asserts it to be simpler; this does not make it so. In fact, to either the average person or the average great philosopher, certainly including William of Occam himself, Darwin's theory is a good deal more complex, and requires a good many more assumptions, than Paley's alternative. Berkeley demonstrated that the entire material world need not be assumed to exist, so long as God does.

What is worse, Dawkins is wasting our time. There is nothing here that has been news for the past century and a half. Paley invented his analogy of the watch in 1802; Darwin's counterargument appeared in 1838. The matter was all debated out in public by Huxley and others at the time—at the Oxford Union, in the newspapers, in many books, all now in the public domain.

Perhaps, nevertheless, it is interesting to look at Paley's theory in light of Darwin for ourselves. Does Darwin's theory really disprove Paley's theory? Only if one assumes that the process Darwin describes is purely random, and not itself guided or originally crafted by some higher intelligence. On this assumption, most Christians have never been particularly troubled by Darwinism, and Dawkins, if he were both knowledgeable on the subject and honest, would have needed to address this possibility.

Indeed, the elegance of the process described by Darwin, and what it has managed to produce, if the theory is true, in itself could just as easily be seen to argue for a designer behind it. Darwin, if right, simply came across one more beautiful pocket watch. To show that this is not so, Dawkins would have to be able to prove that the process was genuinely “random,” in an absolute sense. This is well beyond anything that science can do, and is counter to the entire thrust of scientific enquiry. The fundamental assumption on which science is based is that matters are never random, but can be discovered to follow regular, comprehensible laws. Every time science succeeds, it reinforces Paley's claim.

One can, on the other hand, see other, philosophical, objections, to Paley; objections that Dawkins does not seem to be aware of. The fundamental problem with Paley's analogy would seem to be that we have no basis for comparison. If there is a God after all, everything that exists is designed, the wildflowers of the field as much as the pocket watch. This being so, and we having no experience of an absence of design, how can we make any distinction, between the pocket watch and the blades of grass or stones among which it fell?

But then, by the same token, if there is no God, nothing can really have been designed, including the pocket watch; because the human intelligence behind it, must itself be purely random. There can then be no purpose or orderliness to anything; if there seems to be, this is an illusion.

And here, I think, the human mind must rise in revolt, and side with Paley. To suppose that human thought, human consciousness, and the laws of nature, mathematics and logic are themselves perfectly random, and could as easily have been something else, is literally inconceivable. What could be more obviously nonsensical than, for example, saying that 2+2 could just as easily equal any given random number? But that is what such a claim must assume. It makes nonsense of the process of human thought itself, and therefore of itself as a thoughtful assertion. It is, accordingly, that grail of philosophy, an a priori, to assert that consciousness, thought, order, and logic, really do exist. If they do not, we cannot think in the first place.

And this in itself proves the existence of God, though it is a different proof from Paley's; it is the “proof from universals.” It also, I think, makes any naturalistic understanding of Darwin, a Darwinism without God controlling the process, a genuinely “random” evolution, pretty much nonsensical—as Darwin's co-discoverer, Wallace, himself pointed out. Because if it really is random, Darwin's theory itself must be random, itself being the ultimate product of such a process, and so cannot really explain anything. The Origin of Species might as well have been produced by an infinite number of monkeys sitting at typewriters over an infinite length of time. Its relationship with any reality outside itself can be nothing more than random.

So the assumption that God does not exist and that even the pocket watch is random is simply not tenable. On the other hand, there is indeed a possible explanation for why some things seem to be profoundly ordered and complex, and others simpler and less organized, on the premise of theism. It could well be so, if there is a God, and he has created the physical universe more or less as a language through which he is communicating with us. If so, he is drawing our attention to things with displays of profound order or beauty. These are the words in which he speaks to us. The less-ordered elements are the silences between the words, making them audible.

A very Christian conception, by the way: the order of the universe is the Logos, the Word of God, who became flesh as Jesus of Nazareth.

No; it all works only if, when we become aware of some order underlying the visible phenomena of the universe, as scientists do, or some great beauty underlying it, as artists do, we understand this as a deliberate communication of mind to mind, a dialogue between soul and God.

In defense of his Darwinian/scientistic faith, Dawkins surprisingly goes on to assert, on a rather lower plane of debate, that “Not a single fossil has ever been found in any place where the evolution theory would not have expected it, although this could very easily have happened: a fossil mammal in rocks so old that fishes have not yet arrived, for instance, would be enough to disprove the evolution theory.”

This is a powerful claim; and one heard from Darwinians many times before. Unfortunately, it is not true. There have been hundreds of fossils found in places where they should not be; a quick search on the Internet can turn up many such claims. A variety of explanations have of course been used to reconcile these with Darwinian assumptions; and this is a trivially easy thing to do. If nothing else, one can simply revise one's estimates of when the given species first appeared, or when it became extinct. The core assertions of Darwinism are actually invulnerable to such evidence.

Accordingly, while these explanations for “misplaced” fossils may be true, Dawkins cannot rely on the fossil record to prove Darwin. Perhaps there is some other way to prove or disprove Darwin; but Dawkins does not offer it. The Creationists have been saying for over a century that the essential claims of Darwinian evolution do not really seem to be vulnerable to falsification by evidence in any way. If so, this means it is not a scientific theory, but a philosophical position; or perhaps an article of faith.

In fact, as one would expect of a religious person, Dawkins wants to extend the workings of Darwinian evolution beyond the bounds of biology, to cover all existence—to explain life, the universe, and everything. He claims the same random evolutionary process in the Big Bang and the subsequent history of all matter and energy. “There must have been some earlier hereditary system,” he says; an “original kind of natural selection.”

He does not explain, at least in the present article, how this can be so—how, for example, non-living things can reproduce, let alone mutate, let alone grow systematically more complex as a result. It is all covered by that one word, “must.” My guess is that he cannot; he is simply expressing a kind of emotional conviction—a statement of faith. Does it seem impossible by the known laws of physics? That is not, it seems, to Dawkins a concern.

Whatever forms the basis of his beliefs, it is not philosophy, and it is not science.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Fenian Song

Another old Canadian rhyme to stir my Irish blood.

The Queen's Own Regiment was their name;

From fair Toronto town they came
To put the Irish all to shame -
The Queen's and Colonel Boker!

 What fury fills each loyal mind!
No volunteer would stay behind.
They flung their red rag to the wind -
"Hurrah, my boys!" said Boker.

Now helter skelter Ohio,
See how they play that "heel and toe"!
See how they run from their Irish foe -
The Queen's and Colonel Boker!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Ode to the Mammoth Cheese

Here's another stirring anthem of my homeland--an ode written on the mammoth cheddar cheese, the world's largest, produced in 1888 by the Ingersoll Cheese Factory, in the Ottawa Valley.

If this does not bring a tear to your eye, sir, you are not human!

We have seen the Queen of cheese,
Laying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze --
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.
All gaily dressed soon you'll go
To the great Provincial Show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto.
Cows numerous as a swarm of bees --
Or as the leaves upon the trees --
It did require to make thee please,
And stand unrivalled Queen of Cheese.
May you not receive a scar as
We have heard that Mr. Harris
Intends to send you off as far as
The great World's show at Paris.
Of the youth -- beware of these --
For some of them might rudely squeeze
And bite your cheek; then songs or glees
We could not sing o' Queen of Cheese.
We'rt thou suspended from baloon,
You'd caste a shade, even at noon;
Folks would think it was the moon
About to fall and crush them soon.

The Lake of the Thousand Isles

You just never know what you're going to find on the Internet; gradually, all the world's literature, all the world's libraries, are becoming searchable from your desk. Today, I picked up this poem. Although I grew up in the Thousand Islands, and my ancestors have lived there for six or seven or eight generations, I never knew this rousing poem existed.

By Evan MacColl, sometime in the 19th century, obviously before the abolition of slavery in the US:

Though Missouri's tide may majestic glide,
There's a curse on the soil it laves;
The Ohio, too, may be fair, but who
Would sojourn in the land of slaves?

Be my prouder lot a Canadian cot
And the bread of a freeman's toils;
Then hurrah for the land of the forests grand,
And the Lake of the Thousand Isles!

I would seek no wealth, at the cost of health,
'Mid the city's din and strife;
More I love the grace of fair nature's face,
And the calm of a woodland life;

I would shun the road by ambition trod,
And the lore which the heart defiles;--
Then hurrah for the land of the forests grand,
And the Lake of the Thousand Isles!

O away, away! I would gladly stray
Where the freedom I love is found;
Where the pine and oak by the woodman's stroke
Are disturbed in their ancient bound;

Where the gladsome swain reaps the golden grain,
And the trout from the stream beguiles;
Then hurrah for the land of the forests grand,
And the Lake of the Thousand Isles.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Amor Vincit Omnia

As I was watching a YouTube video of British troops in Afghanistan, a truth dawned on me: armies are strong because of love.

A real Southern Gentleman.

The enemy, in modern warfare, is little more than a distant rumour: just the point from which those shots are coming. But your mates in the trench or beside you are vividly real. The imperative is to stop those theoretical people from shooting at them. Dead simple. Even in ancient forms of war, you know the people to your left and right; you probably know them intimately. The enemy, almost always farther away, you do not know. It seems most likely to me that the average soldier never thinks about that guy behind the helmet or the face paint, at the other end of the field; never enough to hate him, or feel much about him at all; just about protecting himself and his buddies, and maybe the wife and kids back home.

So the unit, and the culture, which is held together by the strongest bonds of love and trust among one another, will be the strongest in war.

The Desert Pussycat.

The Romans, notably, exploited this in their military system. Each centurion lunged to his left, protecting the guy beside him, not himself. Worked pretty well for them for a millennium or so.

It follows, and history proves it, that the most democratic and open societies are the strongest in a fight, and not the military dictatorships who claim strength at war as their raison d'etre. This is especially proven in defeat. Dictatorships and stern governments can do well so long as they are winning; anyone can do well so long as they are winning. But it takes love for one's government, not just fear of it, or a shared egotism over possible spoils, to hold a unit together and keep it fighting in defeat and retreat.

A hero to the Japanese.

It is this that built the British Empire. Hence the British record of, as they often say, "losing every battle but the last": the great strength of the British military has always been in holding rank and order in retreat and in adversity, or in situations where the individual's self-interest clearly tells him to cut and run. Rourke's Drift; Dunkirk; the Charge of the Light Brigade; Agincourt. More dictatorial regimes notoriously snap in retreat, or at a sudden, sharp, shock: Napoleon in Russia; the Germans at Stalingrad; the French on the Plains of Abraham; the Persians at Gaugamela.
It follows in the same way, and seems to be true historically, that the most successful generals are not the tough guys, the taskmasters, the disciplinarians, and the carpet chewers; they are the kindly ones, or at least the ones who project that impression.

Start with Ike. Who gave a better impression of being easygoing than Ike?

Of Robert E. Lee, in his postwar tenure as president of Washington and Lee College, a historian reports, "the students fairly worshipped him, and deeply dreaded his displeasure; yet so kind, affable, and gentle was he toward them that all loved to approach him... No student would have dared to violate General Lee's expressed wish or appeal; if he had done so, the students themselves would have driven him from the college." This seems to have been, equally, his style as a general on the field. It is said that he never gave orders; only suggestions.

Saladin the Chivalrous.

You find similar comments about most truly great generals. Rommel, greatest German general of the Second World War, was even popular with the troops who opposed him. His Afrika Korps was never accused of any war crimes. Soldiers captured during his Africa campaign were reported to have been treated humanely. He ignored orders to kill captured commandos, Jewish soldiers and civilians in all theaters of his command. Rommel himself referred to the fighting in North Africa as Krieg ohne Hass—war without hate. Exactly so--that is the recipe for success at war: war without hate.

It all sounds like the Crusader descriptions of the great Muslim commander Saladin; famous for his magnanimity, and able to defeat anything the Franks could throw at him. Julius Caesar was also famous for his magnanimity; Marc Antony started out as a defeated enemy, as was Brutus. Some say his tolerance of opposition and inclination to let bygones be bygones led to his death. Douglas MacArthur is remembered quite fondly among the Japanese for his magnanimity in administering a defeated nation. For all his reputation as a fire-eater, George Patton, similarly, was criticised at the time for being similarly lenient towards occupied Germany. Hindenberg, as German Chancellor, was a pretty easygoing figure. So was Washington as US President.

Avuncular Uncle Von Hindenberg.

Nice guys, it turns out, finish first. Tough guys finish last.

Friday, September 03, 2010

News Flash: Holy Grail Has Been Found

The Holy Grail, by Arthur Rackham, 19th C.

This may be disappointing. This may be bad news for romantics. It's been found in Valencia Cathedral, where it has been hiding in plain sight for six hundred years.
Not as romantic as some of the legends, perhaps.
The Holy Grail, of course, is the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper, the first and original communion chalice. The quest for this relic is of course a central theme of Medieval romance. Parsifal, King Arthur, and all.

It really was lost, or at least in hiding, for centuries. But not since the Renaissance.
Here's the full story, as understood in Valencia, and as recounted in the book "St. Laurence and the Holy Grail," by Janice Bennett. After Jesus's death, the owners of the Upper Room, reputedly relatives of Mark the Evangelist, gave Peter the simple agate cup Jesus used at the Last Supper, as a memento. The apostles, after all, were still meeting there regularly, after the crucifixion. It was only fitting that the cup go to Peter: he was the acknowledged leader of the apostles, and so would have officiated at their masses in the Upper Room. Peter, naturally enough, took it with him whenever he travelled, so that he could always celebrate communion using the actual cup Jesus himself used for the first communion.
So, when Peter went to Rome, the cup came too. When Peter was martyred there, it became one of the prized possessions of the See of Rome and of the papacy.

Then, under Valerian, came an especially severe persecution, in which Pope Sixtus II, among many others, was martyred. St. Lawrence, the treasurer of the Roman diocese, was commanded by the emperor to surrender all of the church's treasures. Lawrence asked for three days in which to gather the assets. He used the three days instead to scatter them to safe refuges, meantime gathering a group of poor and infirm parishoners to present as the "real treasures" of the church.

He was, as you may recall, put to death by being roasted alive for this impudence.

Among those treasures was the grail. Lawrence was from Huesca, in Spain; he entrusted the grail to a fellow townsman, Precellius, who smuggled it back to Huesca.

We have independent confirmation that the grail was displayed in the Cathedral of Huesca in 533 AD, after the Roman persecutions had ended.

Then came the Muslim invasions. Starting in 711, they began to conquer the Iberian peninsula south to north, at various times taking all of Spain up to the Pyrenees, and threatening France beyond. They were not finally driven out until the 1490s.

This is when and why the grail went missing: to protect it from the Muslims, it was hidden for centuries in various caves and isolated monasteries, mostly in the Pyrenees, to avoid falling into Muslim hands.

And here we are in the Medieval period, and just at the time and place where the tradition of Medieval romance was born--the land of the troubadours, southern France, just beyond the Pyrenees. Everyone there surely knew of the grail, and everyone knew it was hidden in some secret place, although very few would know the true location. Hence the Grail quests, and the romantic legends around them. In Chretien de Troyes's time, it was still incommunicado; he wrote the epic poem "Parsifal," the first written source to mention the Grail quest. The quality of his work spread the legend throughout Europe: to Germany, and Wolfram von Eschenbach second version of "Parsifal," which he himself claimed came from the traditions of Provencal, of southern France; and to the writers of the "Welsh Romances," earliest British source for the King Arthur tales. Both von Eschenbach and the Welsh bards were also still writing in the time when the Grail was missing.

But in 1399, the Muslim danger largely passed, the cup re-emerges, to be displayed once again in the relatively secure cathedral of Barcelona, in Spain's northeast corner. Later it is shifted further south, to Valencia, roughly midway down the peninsula, as the Muslim power further recedes.

And there it remains today.

The Grail as it appears today. Roland Noe, Creative Commons license.

Cynics scoff that the cup you see in Valencia Cathedral cannot be the true Grail, because it is too elaborate. This is either ignorance or deliberate deceit. The cup is a simple round agate cup, without adornment, of exactly the sort known to have been commonly used in first-century Palestine. It looks ornate because it has been placed in a gold stand. This, record show, was done in 1744, after the cup was once dropped and broken, in order to preserve it from future mishaps.

You hear similar cynical comments about the Holy Rood, the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Mention it, and you will almost inevitably hear that "if all the pieces of the holy cross scattered over Europe were put together, you would have a whole ocean of crosses."

Someone actually tried that experiment. They took the measurements of all such claimed cross fragments, added them all together--and came up with a block of wood barely sufficient to make the crossbeam, not even the full cross.

The wide distribution of pieces of the Cross is due to the same cause as the Grail legends. Invading Muslims, when they took Jerusalem, seized the Rood, and the Christian world had to pay a stiff ransom to recover it. To ensure that this could not happen again, the cross was then hacked up, and its pieces scattered throughout Europe, This would ensure it could never be completely lost again.

And so with the Grail.

What we see in Valencia may not be the real Holy Grail. Pre-Modern sources are always sparse and questionable. But the story, and the lineage, is entirely plausible; the sources seem to corroborate; and archaeologists have discovered time and again that such ancient traditions, when they concern something people held to be of really great importance, are usually pretty accurate.

But so much for romance.

A Spanish Renaissance painting, rather inaccurately, shows Jesus using the Valencia Grail in its modern stand and a contemporary communion wafer at the Last Supper.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Democracy is Coming--To the USA

Angelo Codevilla has made a splash with an article in The American Spectator explaining why the Tea Party movement has gotten such traction (

His argument is that the current US popular rebellion is a reaction to the emergence of a new ruling class on America--a self-conscious class that thinks alike and sees their interests as alike and distinct from those of the common man. In the past, he argues, America's leaders were not at all homogenous. This was largely due to regional differences--a benefit of being a large country; and also because they had achieved their wealth and prominence through a variety of sources, public and private. That, he feels, is the thing that has evoked the spirit of the Tea Party.
Improved communications and transportation in the postwar years have indeed surely allowed the ruling class to homogenize, to stay more closely in touch, to collude. But the growth of government also matters, according to Codevilla: more and more of those on top are directly or indirectly drawing their wealth and influence from the same source, the public tax revenues. Even most "private industry" is now entirely bound up in the government machine: it becomes necessary to have the right government connections to meet all the latest regulations and qualify for all the latest government grants.

This is all nothing new, in world terms. Europe has always had a ruling class, and really made few bones about it. But it is new to America, and counter to American traditions.

Arguably, the problem emerged in Canada before it did in the US. At least since the debates on Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accord, and the non-debate on abortion and gay marriage--it has been pretty clear to the average Canadian that there is a ruling class in Canada of politicians, academics, journalists, judges, bureaucrats, and business execs who basically agree on policies among themselves and seek to avoid putting matters they consider important up to any public vote. The people would only get it wrong.

Canadians kicked back, a bit, with the Reform movement. Not that it helped much. But this trend may not sit nearly as well, it seems, with Americans. They probably have a stronger tradition of classlessness and democracy.

For this new ruling class, Codevilla observes, "Using the right words and avoiding the wrong ones when referring to such matters -- speaking the 'in' language -- serves as a badge of identity." Under the camoflage of "avoiding discrimination," this "politically correct" speech really serves to demonstrate whether or not you have gone to the right schools, read the right newspapers and magazines, attend the right cocktail parties, and buy in to the class consciousness and the class agenda. No wonder, then, that "speech codes" are most severe on college campuses. This is the main thing colleges are there to teach: the proper pc principles to hoist you into this ruling class. Can't have party members breaking ranks.

Hence in turn the "culture wars": these have been a symptom of the fact that the emerging ruling class has, more or less deliberately, created a separate culture very different from and hostile to that of mainstream America, or Canada. different languages is only the start. There is also the matter of differing religions. Mainstream America, one way or another, solidly believes in God; the ruling class holds all religion, but especially Judeo-Christian ethical monotheism, to be bad.

Codevilla relies on several figures to come up with an estimate that the ruling class plus its loyal supporters add up to about one-third of the American population; two-thirds are hostile to it.

I think we must concede Codevilla's basic point: there has been a growing class consciousness among those at the top in America (and Canada). But, we might say, so what? Does it matter so much that there is a ruling class? Probably not, so long as 1) admission is open to all based on merit, and 2) its interests are the same as the interests of the country as a whole.

America's new ruling class certainly claims that admission is based purely on merit: that it its basic premise. It is because they assume this is so that they see a right to intervene in private affairs generally. Because they are "experts," better educated and smarter than the rest of us, we are all better off if we cede some of our decisions to them. Things like wearing seatbelts, taking medicines, what TV channels we get to watch, and so forth.

Is it so? Codevilla argues that it is not, on the grounds that the grade inflation in the "best" schools, those that graduate the ruling classes, is so severe that they really make no distinctions on merit at all. If there is any selection, it must happen before that point, in high school. And "affirmative action" has seriously distorted the selection process at that level, away from merit. At both the high school and university level, conformity to class dogmas seems to have largely superceded academic merit as a selection criterion. If this is not a class, it is a party, a club, or a syndicate. You don't get bad marks for turning in a shoddy essay, any more. You get bad marks for failing to espouse the right views in it.

Secondly, it is clear that the ruling class itself sees its own interests as diverging from those of the nation as a whole. In fact, it is a hallmark of the new ruling class, one of the shibboleths for membership, that they view with contempt all the traditions and traditional values of the nation as a whole. the message is clear: the commitment to class must supercede the commitment to nation.

There are some tangible examples of this in the news recently. One symptom is the rather disturbing discovery that the average salary of federal government employees in the US is now double the national average. That's a pretty clear departure from the notion of a "public service": servants do not usually make twice as much as their masters. That is a ruling class.

Another is the bizarre recent trend in retail: bargain outlets are struggling, while luxury firms are doing well. This is the reverse of what has previously always happened in a recession. It shows clearly that this time, the pain is not evenly distributed; instead, the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. Specifically, given a Keynesian approach, governments boom during a recession. Given that government workers are now about the richest sector of the economy, and larger in numbers all the time, this means a boom in luxury items.

This also makes it quite clear, however, that the interests of the ruling class are now very different from the interests of those they rule; that their cheif objective now is to exploit the country, not to advance its interests.

Hence, indeed, the need for a Tea Party.

It seems to me, though, that Codevilla is missing one important factor in the mix, a more hopeful one. The same technological forces that allowed a ruling class to form a generation or two ago, are surely now about to doom it. The improvements in transportation and communications are now at a point where the bulk of ordinary people are able to communicate with each other and organize without reference to the ruling class. This is exactly what the Tea Party has shown.

Step-by-step: In the slow-motion implosion of the "mainstream media," we are seeing a crucial pillar of this ruling class being taken out of the mix--the Ministry of Truth, their control over news and information. Soon, I expect the collapse of the conventional education system, its second pillar--already shuddering from incursions by homeschooling and online learning. The Internet can potentially completely privatize learning, making it essentially a small business, teacher-to-student, bypassing the indoctrination monopoly of the ruling class, just as the information monopoly has been turned.

The Tea Party, in turn, is kicking hard at the party system, the pillar of power within elected government. It is showing itself apparently able to organize politically quite effectively from the grassroots, through cellphones and Facebook and email, mostly without the ruling class political professionals. It may not work this time; it may be co-opted; but it will work next time, or the next.

It's all a snowball rolling downhill. It will get bigger. It is all the Sixties running in reverse, but raised by the power of ten. And God alone knows where it will end.