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Saturday, June 30, 2012

The New Deal

Some socialist realism courtesy of the WPA.


Like probably everybody else, I was taught in high school that the Great Depression proved the need for government to intervene in the free market. The free market caused the Depression. Energetic government programs, the New Deal under Roosevelt in the US and similar “slow socialism” under Mackenzie King in Canada, pulled us out.

I'd like to believe it always smelled fishy to me. The surface facts just don't fit that interpretation. Roosevelt came to power in 1932. The Depression continued until 1940-41, when the US entered the war. Had Roosevelt been a usual two-term president, he would have left office with the Depression still in full swing. 

The East is red.

Historically, one does not generally expect a recession, a depression, a business downturn, to last so long—1929 to 1940-41. Twelve years. This is surely unheard of otherwise.

Accordingly, the simple evidence suggests strongly that, whether or not the “free market” caused the depression in the first place, Roosevelt’s “New Deal” policies exacerbated and prolonged the Depression, rather than ending it.
Yonge Street Mission.


And they surely did. The basic problem is that Roosevelt, and King in Canada, kept trying different things, without much of a system behind it, but with the government always changing the rules of the game in one way or another in hopes something would work. This is almost self-evidently bad for the economy. When the rules keep changing, it is not safe to make new investments. What might look profitable today can suddenly be unprofitable tomorrow, due to unpredictable government action. So the only smart thing to do is to sit on your cash until the time of experimentation is over.

This is especially relevant today, because history is repeating itself. We hit a bad bump in 2008. I think there is some real argument whether the “free market” is unambiguously at fault for that crash, but logically, I think a free market is going to involve crashes every now and again, just as, and largely because, it involves business failures, bankruptcies. But such crashes clean out deadwood and economic obstructions, making the economy stronger over the medium to long term. 

A Bennett buggy.


When governments step in and complicate the process, they are almost inevitably going to prolong the pain for no gain. I can see things like protecting depositors; panic-allaying measures. Emergency loans for genuinely viable businesses sideswiped by another's bankruptcy. But there is a limit.

Prime illustration: given that the current long recession began in the US, where is it hurting most now? Even given that the Obama administration has taken an interventionist path, the US government remains on the whole more hand's-off with regard to the economy than the governments of the EU. And the long-term repercussions of the world slowdown seem to be getting worse and worse in Europe, rather than the US, and certainly rather than Canada.
A rugged individualist.


It also seems very likely by this point that the Obama administration's interventions in the US have prolonged the business slowdown in that country. It has now lasted longer than a recession usually lasts. That's the best evidence we have that the present policy is wrong.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Smashing Mother Nature's Head In

One of the more absurd contemporary popular delusions, among many, is the idea that Native North American societies, and hunter-gatherer societies in general, were more respectful of “nature” than European or Modern Western culture. “Nature” itself, as we now think and speak of it, was pretty much an invention of 19th century European Romanticism. Most other cultures have no similar concept. So was the myth of the “noble savage,” of which this idea that hunter-gatherers are more respectful of nature is the modern expression.

This cliff is not really here.


True, the modern descendants of North American hunter-gatherer cultures will as often as not endorse this view themselves. That only shows how completely European their sensibilities have become. They are apparently unaware of what their ancestors' traditional religion was. Which is entirely unsurprising, since their ancestors had no written records, and converted to Christianity pretty much to a man, woman, and child at least a century ago, more often several centuries ago.

But we know from a lot of anthropological evidence that they had far less respect for nature than European civilization traditionally does. 

Cliff? I don't see a cliff...


Witness Canadian World Heritage Site Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, in use for 5-6 thousand years. Entire herds of bison were driven off the cliff, far more than the local tribes could consume. Sometimes they would take only the tongues of slain buffalo, the greatest delicacy, and leave the rest of the massive animals to rot.

In the Eastern Woodlands, some tribes hunted similarly: they would set a forest on fire, then pick what they wanted of the animals fleeing the flames.

The reason is simple: most of the world's cultures, including those of the native North Americans, did not believe that the physical, sensed world was real. The spirit world was the real world. Therefore they were not inclined to give their physical environment great importance, and therefore they were not inclined to keep it in especially good order. 

But those are definitely wolves back there...


The Judeo-Christian tradition is an outlier in giving a real, independent existence to the physical, aka natural, world. This is why science—the serious, systematic study of nature--developed in Western Europe, not elsewhere. The Romantic worship of nature, in turn, is a byproduct of science.

Nothing could have been further from the mind of the North American shaman.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Oppression of Women in Islam


It is a fascinating truth that people don't tend to get things just a little wrong; more often, when they are wrong, they believe close to the perfect opposite of the truth.

One example is the common claim that Muslim women are oppressed by wearing the abaya and chador.

Abaya



In the Arab world, black is the colour of kingship, as purple would be in Northern Europe. Only one man, the king, is permitted to wear black. Black; like every abaya.

Holy Kaaba, Mecca


What else is clothed entirely in black? Ever seen a picture of the Kaaba? As in, the holiest shrine in Islam, the purported centre of the universe.
King Saud
King Faisal
King Abdullah

So, right, Arab culture devalues and oppresses women. Just as it devalues and oppresses the king and God himself.

Arab women also have the right to cover their faces. Men may not; for a man, to do so would be a crime. Now, in Arab/Muslim culture, who else is ritually shown with their face covered or hidden? God, and the prophets.

Not exactly slumming it here, girls, are we?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

How Hitler Lost the War


You will forgive me, I hope, for yet another post on the Second Word War. Yes, I know it's over. But for my generation, the Baby Boomers, the Second Word War was like a creation myth. With Hitler as Satan and Churchill as St. Michael the Archangel.

This blog has argued in the past that Hitler could not, as some have suggested, have won the war had he concentrated his forces in North Africa to take out the British Empire—grabbing the Suez Canal and the British oilfields in Iraq by land. This would have left Hitler's supply lines too long and too exposed to attack by a sea power. He never could have made it.

Unless... with diplomacy, there could have been a way. Briefly, after the blitzkrieg had taken out France in the Spring of 1940. Imagine if Hitler had persuaded Spain and Turkey to join the Axis at that point, as he had persuaded Italy. Why not? Both had governments that were ideologically at least semi-Fascist. Turkey had been at Germany's side in the first war, had historic German sympathies and a desire for a counterbalance to neighbouring Russia. Spain wanted Gibraltar; Turkey had every reason to seek recovery of those Iraqi oilfields, taken from her in the first war.

Hypothetical map of Axis in 1940. Red: full Axis members. Pink: Axis influence or control.


Suez is gravy. If, on its own or with the help of German troops, Spain had managed to take Gibraltar by land or air, the British Navy would have been cut off from the Mediterranean on the west side. Malta would then have been a bit of a sitting duck in its turn. This might have been enough, combined with Italian naval strength, to have made it feasible to supply German troops from Libya as far as the Suez canal—cutting off Britain's other entrance, and turning the Mediterranean into a safe, sealed Axis lake. No danger to Axis supply lines running though it. In the meantime, a problem for Britain maintaining its supply lines east of Aden. Had Hitler been able to convince Petain too to join the fight, the weight of the Vichy French Navy, along with Italy's and Spain's, could have made the matter certain. The Med could have become a wolf pen for forays into the Atlantic. No North African landings.

In the meantime, with Turkey in the war, there would not even be a need for Germany to throw long supply lines along the North African coast in order to capture the Royal Navy's oil supply, and take it for itself. Iraq could be taken from Turkey by land, coming down from the north. With an important German presence there, Iran could probably also have been held in the Axis camp.

It seems to me this could very well have knocked Britain out of the war. If not, it would have weakened her so much she might no longer have been a major military factor.

And not just Britain. If Hitler had still felt it necessary to invade Russia, he would then have had a considerable advantage—instead of having to drive thousands of miles into Russia to reach the Russian oilfields in the Caucasus, Germany and Turkey would have had to fight a much shorter distance north—the Turkish-Russian border is already almost on the Caucasus. In fact, with Iran in the equation, the Axis lines start out already well to the east of Stalingrad. Turkey, stripped in the past of a good deal of territory by Russia, would probably be delighted to cooperate. Together with a drive east from the German border, this could have been a pincer movement, as if Hitler's first year and second-year Russian offensives occurred together. Meantime, with Iran holding for the Axis, Russia would have been cut off from much of its supply from the Western Allies, if they still counted.

Add to that the potential for Japan to attack from the East, far more tempting to Japan in this scenario—it seems an incredible failure of German diplomacy that Japan did not join in the attack on Russia. Surely there is a good chance this would have made the difference in that campaign, and sealed Stalin's fate.

Why did this not happen? I have heard it suggested that Hitler did not really try hard to gain more support from Spain or Japan or Vichy—though he did try. The theory is that he was confident Germany could do it on its own, and did not want to strengthen any other powers on Germany's dime. But if so, this seems to be a departure from his attitude up to this point: he showed a deep concern for diplomatic manoeuvre in gaining Italy's support, and in achieving the pact with Stalin.

It may have been overconfidence; it may have been chickens coming home to roost. How reliable was a pact with Hitler going to seem after Munich?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Dandelions

When Adam delved and Eve span--Portuguese tile painting.


A friend complains of the chore of weeding his garden, suggesting that the tendency of gardens to sprout up in “noxious weeds” is a result of the fall. He struggles in particular with dandelions. And what he says is borne out by Genesis: Eden was originally a garden, and after the fall, Adam had instead to struggle to wrest his food from the ground “by the sweat of his brow.” All of nature fell when man fell. “Cursed is the ground for thy sake... Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee.:” (Genesis 3:17-19).

Yup. Clear enough. But dandelions? Dandelions are delicious. Every part of a dandelion can be eaten, in a variety of ways. The leaves make a good salad. The flowers do too, or they can be deep-fried like fritters, or potato chips. They can also be fermented into a wine that tastes a lot like champagne. The roots are good boiled or sauteed. Roasted, they make a coffee substitute; or the dried leaves make an herbal tea. Even the crowns are good—you can pickle them, like capers. The white milk is soothing for skin lesions. Dandelions have more beta-carotene than carrots, and more iron than spinach. Noxious indeed! 

Everything you see here is edible.


This, of course, is not to mention the many recreational uses of the dandelion—the fun of blowing on the seeds, or twisting the stems into daisy chains. Or that it is, in fact, a remarkably beautiful flower.

You might think this remarkable neglected utility might be special only to the dandelion; more generally, a weed is a weed. But it seems it is not so. It seems to be the common case. In my Ontario childhood, the second-most hated garden intruder, after the dandelion, was the plantain. But it too is edible: so much so that the Anglo-Saxons called it “way-bread.” Leaves and stalks suitable for salad, leaves boiled a substitute for spinach, seeds with a nice nutty flavour. And it is much better than the dandelion as medicine: proven good in clinical trials for a variety of respiratory problems, reputedly also good for ulcers, fevers, and against toxins. It has cosmetic uses as a skin softener; and the seed husks are the world's finest natural source of fibre: a key ingredient in Metamucil. 

No, not the banana kind.


How about crabgrass? Did you know that crabgrass is actually a variety of millet? Perfectly good grain, suitable for making flour, bread, porridge, pasta, or beer. And used in all these ways in Africa. 

Fancy a pint? With bread, or pasta?


Another friend complains of goutweed. And why is goutweed called “goutweed”? Because as a poultice it is a great salve for the pains of gout or arthritis.

So what gives? How come these things are considered “weeds,” and worse than useless, when they are in fact incredibly useful?

Their fault, it appears, is simply that they are too easy to grow. They grow without being cultivated, and even in the worst conditions. We are obliged to work so hard largely, it seems, because we do not value what comes too easy. You have heard, no doubt, the Biblical saying, “No rest for the wicked”? In fact, that is a bad paraphrase. What the bible actually says is, “The wicked will not rest.”

Just so. Consider the lilies of the field; they work not, neither do they spin. I would venture to suggest that caviar does not taste any better, objectively, than dandelions. We prize it more only because it is more difficult to get.

It is perhaps partly in this sense that nature has fallen along with man: it is our perverse attitude towards it that constitutes its fall. This perverse attitude prevents God from helping us, when his help and bounty is often all around.

And isn't this perversity, in the end, exactly the same as the original sin of the Garden of Eden itself? We only want what we cannot get. If there is just one thing we cannot get, we are inconsolable until we get it. Just one tree we cannot eat from is sufficient. Who cares about all those tasty dandelions about our feet?

But I do not suggest that this is the whole story. Even on this principle, I cannot justify mosquitoes.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Palm Sunday

Mk 11:1-10

When Jesus and his disciples drew near to Jerusalem,
to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives,
he sent two of his disciples and said to them,
"Go into the village opposite you,
and immediately on entering it,
you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat.
Untie it and bring it here.
If anyone should say to you,
'Why are you doing this?' reply,
'The Master has need of it
and will send it back here at once.'"
So they went off
and found a colt tethered at a gate outside on the street,
and they untied it.
Some of the bystanders said to them,
"What are you doing, untying the colt?"
They answered them just as Jesus had told them to,
and they permitted them to do it.
So they brought the colt to Jesus
and put their cloaks over it.
And he sat on it.
Many people spread their cloaks on the road,
and others spread leafy branches
that they had cut from the fields.
Those preceding him as well as those following kept crying out:
"Hosanna!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come!
Hosanna in the highest!"





This is generally presented as Jesus's triumphal entry into Jerusalem, hailed as a king. This makes the events of Easter Week sound like a classic tragedy: the fall from the heights to the depths.

But this is surely wrong. Once again, we are missing the comedy of the Gospel. A king does not enter his capital on a donkey. He enters on a white horse. A donkey is a distinctly undignified animal for a king to ride. Yet note that the supernatural way in which Jesus acquires the donkey makes it plain that he could have entered on a horse had he wished to do so. He chose to enter instead on a comic beast. He rode into Jerusalem, so to speak, on his ass.

Okay, so, his kingdom is not of this world. But that's only the half of it. A donkey is an ill-omened steed for a religious figure as well. Never mind the donkey's reputation for randiness in the ancient world. A prophet on a donkey, in the Hebrew context, is an obvious allusion to Balaam, he of the talking donkey: a comic figure, and not an admirable one.

Riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, therefore, is either a mockery of Jesus, Jesus denying and deliberately humbling himself, or a mockery of both prophecy and kingship. Or both.

Jesus is playing the clown. Pretty literally—the floppy three-pointed cap and bells of the medieval fool were supposed to represent donkey's ears, and also probably allude to the king's crown. His bladder on a stick was a parody of the king's sceptre.

Surely you jest?


The crowd spreading palms before him possibly completes the joke: putting the tops of trees on the ground implies turning the world upside down. They seem to be heralding a period of misrule, a common part of many festivals, in which all the rules are turned upside down and the village fool rules temporarily as king.

So what is the point of all this? Don't ask; you cannot explain a joke. The point is to laugh. If one is genuinely laughing, from the heart, one is, for the moment, in the world but not of it. One is in the kingdom of God.

The comic vision of the world is the vision of Christianity.

Good thing I'm inconspicuous...

Saturday, June 23, 2012

In the Country of the Blind


Slovenian Dragon.


Here's what I suspect is the truth about the world. The world we perceive through our senses, I accept to be real. But the only thing we can be sure is real is the world of our thoughts. Given that lack of knowledge, it is at least equally likely that there is an objectively existing world that corresponds to our imagination, as that there is one that corresponds to our senses. We simply assume the latter, as Berkeley points out, without any real justification. We might as well also assume the former, yet we arbitrarily do not. We arbitrarily decide it is "not real."

Chinese Dragon.


Our one great warrant that the sensory world is real is the apparent truth that we sense the same things (albeit this is a bit circular--we can know of "we" only through the sensory world in the first place). But we have that same warrant for the world of the imagination. Not only do our fellow dream personages seem to experience the same thing in dreams, but even in the context of the sensory world, we imagine the same things, at least in broad strokes. For example, everywhere around the world there is an essentially similar concept of a huge winged serpent: if I say "dragon," you have a pretty distinct idea of what I am talking about. Everywhere there is a story of an ancient, world-consuming flood. The image and legends of Mary in Western Europe and Guan Yin in East Asia are eerily similar. When the Greeks and the Romans conquered or traded with some new people, they never had any trouble recognizing their own gods there. Christianity, Hinduism, and Taoism all imagine godhead, illogically on the face of it, as a supreme Trinity. Why is it, similarly, that the sound “ma” is or forms part of the word for “mother” in so many unrelated languages?

Thai Dragon (Nagaraja).


If one studies comparative mythology, the similarities are too great not to require some explanation. Jung noted these similarities, and the same similarities in dreams and hallucinations, and theorized that they somehow reflected the structure of the brain. But this does not make as much immediate sense as assuming they simply reflect an objective reality that these dreams or hallucinations are perceiving, as our eyes and ears perceive the physical world. Just, for most of us, not in as sharp focus. That is, there really are dragons, existing not physically, but spiritually, independent of our perceptions of them. There really are the gods Zeus, Thor, Krishna, and Ishtar.

Native American Dragon (Quetzalcoatl)



This, I think, was indeed the operating assumption of most cultures until fairly recently. Theoretically, it is still the operating assumption of anyone who is genuinely religious: the world is filled with angels and daemons of various kinds. St. Paul never denied the Greek gods, for example, existed. He said they were daemons.

Most of us see all this for the most part as if  through a glass darkly. Most of us lack the spiritual sight to see dragons clearly, although there always does seem to be something within us that can respond to a well-drawn image of a spiritual being. It takes an artist, or a shaman, to have a clear perception. Unfortunately, I suspect, in modern times, in our Western European culture, those with such shamanic perceptions are usually simply declared mad. In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man, as H.G. Wells pointed out, is not made king. He is simply not believed. That there is no position in our culture for a shaman (or a prophet) means, by default, that many people are declared mad who would not be elsewhere. In Korea, for example, they would simply become mudangs, and would have a recognized job and social function.

Indian Dragon (Nagaraja).


Our dreams and hallucinations, and the ancient stories that enthrall us, to the extent that they can enthrall us and command our dreams, are then our warrant for a great deal of information about the spiritual world. From them, we know, for example, that the soul survives death. Creatures of the spirit world are generally, as an objective experienced fact, more or less immortal. We know that there is a heaven, and we know there is a place of torture, a hell. We know a vast range of things, preserved in our many myths and legends.

No kidding. There be dragons here.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Christian Abayas

I have heard it claimed that Christianity, unlike Islam, does not have a dress code for women. But it does--basically the same dress code. The only difference is that most Christian women now ignore it.

See the following quotes:


1 Timothy  2, 9  "In like manner women also in decent apparel: adorning themselves with modesty and sobriety, not with plaited hair or gold, or pearls or costly attire."

1 Corinthians 11:10 Therefore ought the woman to have a power (covering) over her head, because of the angels. (who are present in the assemblies of the faithful)

1 Corinthians 11,5  "But every woman praying or prophesying with her head not covered disgraceth her head:  for it is all one as if she were shaven."

Deuteronomy 22:5  "A woman shall not be clothed with man's apparel, neither shall a man use woman's apparel: for he that doeth these things is abominable before God."

"A dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers breadth under the pit of the throat; which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows; and scarcely reaches a bit beyond the knees.  Furthermore, dresses of transparent materials are improper."
-- The Cardinal Vicar of  Pius XII

No trousers, arms and legs covered to the elbows, hair covered, no cleavage, and no fancy jewelry.