Playing the Indian Card

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Banned Books

“Banned Books Week” has just concluded in the US, and this library display has been all over the Internet.

Great cartooning; but some of the claims it makes seem to be false. As far as I can tell, The Wizard of Oz has never been banned anywhere for “depicting women in strong leadership roles.” Some review did criticize it for this when it came out—i.e., in the very first years of the 20th century. Not exactly a clear and present danger. The Lorax was apparently pulled from some school libraries in California—in lumbering towns. Not because it “criminalized the foresting industry,” but because it might discourage local kids from going into that business. Is this really such a threat to our freedoms?

And then there is the bit about Winnie the Pooh being banned “because talking animals are an insult to God.” I can’t find evidence of this anywhere, but it makes no sense on the face of it.

First, there are talking animals in the Bible. Ever heard of the serpent in Eden? Balaam’s ass?

Second, there are talking animals in almost every children’s book written since Aesop.

Third, there are no talking animals in Winnie the Pooh.

Only talking stuffed toys, animated by Christopher Robin’s imagination.

Someone has been put on.

More generally, I’m afraid I cannot get too excited about school libraries and public libraries not stocking particular books. This is not censorship. Censorship is when you cannot legally buy a copy of a given book. It is just common sense that we have some limits on the books available to everyone’s children, and financed by the public’s taxes. Should school libraries stock Playboy and Hustler? Mein Kampf? The Anarchist Cookbook? At most, we are only debating whether these particular books should have been paid for and provided

Saturday, September 28, 2013

More on Gilmour

I'm seeing repeated comments from academics saying Gilmour has no business teaching English, because he has no Ph.D.

Folks, supply and demand. Ph.D.'s are a dime a dozen. Successful novelists, on the other hand, are extremely rare. It is a far harder thing to do, and takes a lot more raw ability.

And who is really best qualified to give you good insights about literature? Someone who has read a lot of it, or someone who has written it?

Of course, the bottom line should be this: do good numbers of students sign up for his course?

David Gilmour's Transgression

Novelist David Gilmour has apparently made quite a stir with recent comments about the courses he teaches at U of T. Students are holding protest rallies. A fellow U of T professor has posted a rather personal online rebuttal. The chair of the U of T English department has publicly declared himself “appalled and deeply upset.”

Goodness—what exactly did Gilmour say?

The entire transcript is here. He says he only teaches books he himself loves, and, “unfortunately,” none of the authors happen to be Canadian, women, or Chinese. All of them seem to be “serious heterosexual guys.”

I find it hard to see anything objectionable here. I think it has to be either 1. that Gilmour is teaching only books he likes, as opposed to some official canon of great literature, or 2. that Gilmour does not happen to really like any books by women (except, he notes, Virginia Woolf), Chinese authors, Canadian authors, or openly homosexual authors.

But it can't be 2., can it? After all, there's no disputing taste. Gilmour's taste is certainly not the same as mine either, but to object to this would be ridiculous.

So it must be 1, that he is departing from the accepted canon? Yet Gilmour's chosen authors are in any way obscure: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Proust, Elmore Leonard, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Phillip Roth. Surely all are, in fact, in the accepted canon, except perhaps for Roth, who is too recent to have a traditional place. So this can't be it.

And the bigger problem here is that English departments themselves have long ago departed from any accepted canon. Quite possibly they shouldn't have, but it's a bit late to blame Gilmour for this. The only issue should be whether the books and authors studies are clearly stated on the syllabus. Which, in Gilmour's case, they were.

So how, then, are books now supposed to be chosen for a course, if the traditional canon is to be ignored, yet it is not supposed to be the personal preference of the prof?

The answer, sadly, is painfully obvious. They are supposed to be chosen for political reasons, on the basis of affirmative action. Properly, whether the author is male or female, Canadian, homosexual, or Chinese, should not have any bearing on the literary quality of a book. But these days, English departments are all about politics, and have little interest in the literary quality of a book. One must include women, gays, and no doubt other designated groups in any curriculum. One need not, on the other hand, include heterosexual males; one can just bill the course "women authors," or "queer studies," and then it's okay to exclude men.

Indeed, quite apart from personal taste, it may well be, in the real world, that women have just not written as many good books as have men. This is quite likely, given that women have written many fewer books overall. It may well be, in the real world, that homosexuals have not written as many good books as heterosexuals. This is quite likely, given that homosexuals have written many fewer books overall. The same might be said of Canadians, or Chinese authors, at least Chinese authors accessible in English. Why should David Gilmour be held responsible for this? And why should students nevertheless be forced to waste their precious and expensive college time with inferior books in defiance of this fact?

Gilmour deserves the Order of Canada for this.

Stephen Fry on Unbelief

A friend has sent me a link to this talk by Stephen Fry, “The Importance of Unbelief,” as the justification for their own atheism/humanism—and asked for a response.

Fry's main point, or at least the hook for the talk, is that you should not believe in an afterlife, because if you do, you will not make the most of this life. This is not really an argument against the existence of the afterlife: just because a thing is inconvenient, you cannot will it out of existence. But even on its own terms, this seems to me to be about the opposite of the truth. In either case, afterlife or no afterlife, you only have a predictably finite time in this life. If you believe in an afterlife, however, everything you do here matters; you are obliged to make the most of your time. If you do not, nothing you do now matters. You might as well just watch some more TV. You go for whatever seems most comfortable at the moment; which is generally making a living and indolence.

May I speak of myself? Believing in the afterlife, I have made rather a greater effort than most of my contemporaries to educate myself, to experience the best in art, and to see the world. But I can't hold a candle to, say, St. Francis Xavier or any of the other early Jesuits. It was the Church that invented the schools and universities, that inspired and supported all the great art, even that inspired the idea of travel (see pilgrimage), right up until quite modern times.

Fry then dismisses the argument for the existence of God from design—i.e., from the beauty of nature. But here he is confusing different things: he takes beauty to be the same as pleasantness and prettiness. There is awful death in nature? There is awful death in Hamlet, too, or Romeo and Juliet, or Oedipus Rex. Does that mean they are bad plays? Does that mean they are not beautiful?

Nature is beautiful in the true sense—true beauty is not prettiness, but must include the sublime.

Fry is left arguing that nature is morally unsatisfactory—a separate argument, and he must still account for why, if without a designing intelligence, it is beautiful. He does not; he cannot.

So we turn to the “argument from evil.” Is nature immoral? No, not in detail. Because animals, plants, viruses and volcanoes are not morally conscious beings, they cannot be acting immorally.

Does nature involve suffering? No doubt. Is suffering evil? Who knows?

What he means, then, presumably, is that nature overall seems to act unjustly. That does appear to be so—why is one person born beautiful while the next is born ugly? Why does one person die in infancy, while another lives to be eighty? This is the question famously raised by the Bible in the Book of Ecclesiastes. The world is unjust. On this, we all agree.

But then, this becomes an argument for the existence of God. If we have this unshakeable conviction that there ought to be justice, must be justice, despite all the evidence of the world as it is, where can this conviction come from? Obviously not from experience. Ergo, it must have been put there by God, Ergo, it is a sign of God's own true nature and his plan. Ergo, there will be justice. Ergo, there must be an afterlife.

Fry's next argument is that science has replaced the need for God. This is the essential premise of the new pseudo-religion of Scientism, which has done a great deal of harm in the modern world; not least to science. To begin with, science is a tool; science makes no claims to truth in the philosophical sense. If this were not enough, science can also tell us nothing about morality, meaning, or subjective experience. This last is important, because in the end, all that we really have is subjective experience. Everything else exists only theoretically.

Fry then insists that we have responsibility for “creating our own ethical and moral frameworks.” Can you see the problem here? If we have free choice over what is right or wrong, then we have the right to decide for ourselves that, for us, it is okay to torture and kill small children, for example. It is just our free moral choice, right? Then too, we have no business at all complaining about a Hitler or a Nazi Germany, do we? Killing Jews and such was just their free moral choice. Much less about a Church “imposing its morals on us.” That's just their own moral choice, isn't it?

Surely you, like me, are instantly repelled by this proposed state of affairs. No, we know in our hearts that it is wrong to torture and kill small children, right? Okay, let's leave aside abortion for now... In other words, we do not create our own ethical and moral frameworks. Morality and ethics are absolutes; we cannot legitimately violate them on our own say-so or choice. If we do, we are acting immorally. Reject this premise, and morality itself has no meaning.

But if morality and ethics are absolutes, regardless of what this or that person, or even all people put together, might think about it, where do they come from? The answer really has to be that they are from God, and an expression of his essential nature. Ergo, God is good. They also reveal his plan: his plan is for the moral good.

Fry contrasts his view that morality is something we decide on for ourselves with the idea that it comes from “words put down in a book.” This is the fallacy of the false alternative. Nobody I know believes that morality itself comes from the Bible, or any other book. Christians believe that the sense of right and wrong is inborn. It is called conscience.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Dave Nichol Has Died

... for those who did not know. Besides being a brilliant marketer, Nichol was a real and major contributor to Canadian folk culture--which is the only real culture there is. He changed Canadian cuisine.

I used to love his Insider Reports just for the sheer reading pleasure.

Kingston Prison: Time Keeps Moving On

A new "open door" policy.
Kingston Penitentiary, Canada's historic maximum security prison, is closing down. The question on everyone's mind now is what to do with the building. Of course, most obviously, they should turn it into a museum. But it's a bit too large for that. Here's my proposed solution: make it a living museum. Besides the delightfully gruesome exhibits, it should rent rooms, like a hotel. This would of course not be everybody's idea of a fun vacation, but I suspect it would be a real draw for some people, especially young people, to spend a night in a cell that might have been used by Paul Bernardo or Clifford Olson. Great talking point once you get home. Especially great for class trips, with a double message: first, the history lesson, and second, why you don't want to end up here.

I imagine three room options: some cells could be kitted out to the maximum luxury possible without altering the essential structural integrity. Some could be kitted out just for a reasonable level of comfort. And some could be left exactly as they would have been for the last inmates. If this is still a bit plush, and I suspect it might be, a fourth level could retrofit to what the cells would have been like in the early 20th century. People could then choose their own particular adventure-to-comfort quotient.

Jailbird's eye view.
A restaurant would be needed, of course; for overnight and day visitors. The menu could offer traditional restaurant fare, for the conservative, plus, for those seeking the full experience, typical meals for prisoners from various stages in the prison's history.

Simply knocking down one exterior wall, the one facing Portsmouth Harbour, could give the prison a prime waterfront view with a marina. But if the other security walls are left up, they look as though they might make fine outdoor screens for nightly projections of classic crime and horror movies. You couldn't get much more atmospheric... And what a perfect setting for a live dinner theatre "murder mystery" evening.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Dynamics of a Rock Band

Remember him? He founded The Byrds.

There is a certain inevitable dynamic to rock bands that usually leads to them breaking up soon after achieving fame. The original leader of the band almost never ends up as the final leader of the band, and he usually quits in bitterness towards the others, most often at about this point.

Some famous examples: Who was the original leader of the Rolling Stones? Brian Jones—who left the band in 1969. Now the Stones are run by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The Byrds? Gene Clark—who left after two years. The Band? Levon Helm, who stayed with the band, but due to bad feelings towards the others, did not appear for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Band had enough cohesion from many years of playing together to weather the storm of fame better than most. The Who? Roger Daltrey put the band together, not Pete Townsend. The Doors? Ray Manzarek, not Jim Morrison. Remember Paul Revere and the Raiders? Wasn’t it confusing how Paul Revere was just the guy on keyboards, while the leader was obviously Mark Lindsay?

Did he ever make the cover of The Rolling Stone?
The original leader is generally a practical guy, an organizer. His skill is in pulling a bunch of guys together, giving them a direction, getting them their first engagements. A businessman, an entrepreneur; possibly a musical director of sorts. But these skills matter very little once a band gets off the ground, because they move to professional management. On the other hand, once the group becomes well-known, the essence of their value as a commercial enterprise becomes whatever makes their sound unique and identifiable. If this person walks, the group is dead; so whatever they say goes.

Who this person is going to be is not altogether predictable in advance. It is most likely to be the songwriter of the group. Next most probable is the lead singer, because voices are the instruments most likely to be distinctive, and the lead singer tends to be the focus of attention on stage. After that, in a rock band, the lead guitarist, if he has a truly distinctive style. Bassists, drummers, and rhythm guitarists are easily interchangeable.

The original name was going to be The Levon Helm Sextet.
Brian Jones was dead in the water—if you’ll pardon the expression--because he could not sing very well and could not compose. Outsiders naturally went to Jagger first, as both singer and co-composer. The amazing thing is that Keith Richards managed to hold his own—this indicates who the real songwriting talent is in that band. In the Byrds, Gene Clark was both a singer and a songwriter, but was doomed when producers decided to go with McGuinn’s more distinctive voice. Because it was distinctive, it became the group’s signature, along with McGuinn’s truly unique guitar playing. Even with his songwriting talents, Clark, who played no instrument, was left with nothing to do when the group was on stage. And their biggest hits were cover tunes; Clark’s songs were never a critical asset.

In The Band, Levon Helm was also a singer, but not the lead singer. That was Richard Manuel. But Manuel did not really dominate, because he was one of three good voices used regularly—himself, Helm, and Rick Danko. Robbie Robertson came to lead the band because of his dominant songwriting abilities, and a powerful stage presence. With three singers, he was the one consistent point around which everything else on stage seemed to revolve. When he left the Band, and the Band nevertheless tried to continue, it got nowhere—because it could not generate any new songs.

The Doors' founder and best musician (r), and best songwriter (l) trying to give autographs.
When Jim Morrison died, similarly, The Doors could not carry on. They retained a distinctive sound in Manzarek’s organ, and considerable songwriting talent with Robbie Kreiger, but Morrison’s voice and his outrageous stage personality were too much the essence of the band in the public eye. For The Who, Pete Townsend surpassed Roger Daltrey when he started writing songs. Daltrey stayed in the band, but the feuds the two got up to were legendary.

As the examples suggest, all this is fairly unpredictable; it is hard to know when the band is just setting out what in what they do will strike a public chord and become their marketable essence. But it is always most likely that the original leader will be supplanted. If the odds are random, and there are four or five members of the band, the original leader has only a 20 to 25% chance of ending up on top.

But organizational skill does not generally come along with artistic talent; more often the opposite. Serious artists tend to be quite impractical in their view of the world. It is the unique and original artist who will end up dominating in this situation. The odds are stacked against it being the same guy who has the organizational skill.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

One More Avowed Christian Rocker

... Orion Omar Spence, son of the lamented Skip Spence who founded Moby Grape. Omar has taken Skip's place in recent Moby Grape reunions.

The Problem with Teach for America: Less is More

Problem: our current vision of school is as a factory, where learning should be efficient and scientific. And everyone emerges identical.

Here’s a strange article objecting to Teach for America, the programme that hires top graduates fresh out of college, gives them five weeks’ training, and then sends them into the schools. It argues that the preparation the enrollees get in this program is absurd. This can easily be seen to be the case. Yet its proposed solution is to give enrollees more such training. And this despite the fact that, as the article admits, those who get more of the same training—those who go to Teachers’ Colleges--do not do as well as the Teach for America grads. The evidence for this last is actually far stronger than the author would like.

The proper solution is obvious: eliminate the five weeks’ training. Granted, it might be better to have some training, but not the training they are ever likely to get under the current system. The training they currently get is ultimately coming from the Teachers’ Colleges.

On what’s wrong with the training, the author could again be clearer. She quotes approvingly the core message she was given: “as a 2011 corps member and leader, you have a deep personal and collective responsibility to ground everything you do in your belief that the educational inequality that persists along socioeconomic and racial lines is both our nation’s most fundamental injustice and a solvable problem. This mindset… is at the core of our Teach For America—Metro Atlanta Community.”

This is a political statement. Working as a public school teacher should not require a set of political or religious “beliefs.” And this particular faith is actually antithetical to the educational enterprise. The job of the teacher is most naturally not to ensure “educational equality”—i.e., that all students get the same results. It is to strive to get for each student the best results of which he is capable. Equality of results necessarily requires holding the best students back.

Moreover, with this core principle, why should the author be surprised, or frustrated, by a student’s argument that there is no point in applying himself, since "I did the same thing last year and I passed"? Smart kid. Where everyone wins, and the hardest workers are held back, working hard is for suckers.

Come to think of it, this enforced equality of outcome could have a lot to do with the discipline problems the author, and so many other teachers, complain about. The problem is, the kids are not stupid. They get the mixed messages, and know the Mickey Mouse Show when they see it.

The “sea of jargon, buzzwords, and touchy-feely exercises” in which our author was immersed for five weeks must indeed have been uncomfortable for a good student. But welcome to Teachers' College: imagine a full year or two of this. And then emerging to subject one’s students to much of the same.

These things are vague time-wasters for a reason: the current educational establishment has nothing else to offer. They have no specific suggestions on how to manage an unruly class, or on how to improve student retention, because they have no idea how to do it. If they knew, they could probably convey it well enough in five weeks. But if they ever say something concrete, their bluff could be called; the next—or worse, the last—study is just as likely to discredit it. the studies all go around in a circle, and never come to any solid conclusions. They never will, for the human mind is too complex a thing.

Monday, September 23, 2013

St. Dympna's Solution to Mass Murder

St. Dymphna of Ireland. patron of the "mentally ill."

The recent US Navy Yard shooting seems to be giving people the idea that there is something wrong, not with the gun control laws, but with the mental health system. That, after all, is the common thread among seemingly all recent shooting rampages: that the perps were psychotic.

But it is not simply a matter of putting more money into the system; since we don't really know of any cure for “mental illness” anyway. Is it, then, a matter of reversing “deinstitutionalization,” the closing down of mental health beds? Seems logical on the face of it: as Anne Coulter has pointed out, the spike in mass murder corresponds closely to the releasing of more psychotics onto the streets.

But the problem with this is that a mental hospital looks and operates very much like a prison; and the people forcibly interred there have done nothing to deserve this. To lock them up on the presumption that they might commit a crime is Minority Report territory. And wide open to political abuse. Since we do not know what “mental illness” is, dissent from the majority opinion too easily becomes “mental illness.”

The essential need is simple, though: quarantine the psychotic. Keep them apart from any potential shooting victims. And this in itself is not repressive, since in general this is what the psychotic most want: a chance to get away from it all and grapple with their voices. Indeed, this is very likely to also be the shortest route to a cure.

But why make this a prison? Why not instead a remote townsite, a no-frills resort? Heaven knows, we have a lot of space for such a thing, at least in Canada. Good use for one of those abandoned mining towns, perhaps.

There is, as it happens, a model for this. The town of Gheel, in Belgium, has for centuries taken in the insane and placed them with local families, under the patronage of St. Dymphna. The system seems to be successful, and popular in the town, since it brings economic benefits.

No doubt there are risks to the townspeople; just as there are risks to the doctors and nurses in a psychiatric hospital. But in this non-coercive atmosphere, I suspect that confrontations are far less likely. And, in the atmosphere of a small town, it is easier to unobtrusively detect incipient trouble.

And as overseers and providers, rural families are a lot cheaper than doctors and nurses.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Note on Abortion

There are only four countries that allow abortion past the point of viability, and for any reason: Canada, the US, China, and North Korea.

Bad company.

And on this Rock I Shall Build My Church

Rock and roll is essentially Christian music, with its roots firmly in gospel. It remains Christian music; you might be surprised how many prominent rockers have publicly outed themselves as Christian. Given the troubles that Dylan got for openly turning Christian in the Seventies, it is remarkable that anyone has dared since. It makes me suspect there are ten more for every one on this list.

Start with three of rock's founders: Elvis Presley, Little Richard, who became an ordained minister, and Johnny Cash. Dion is also a professed Christian.

Both surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, have come out as monotheists, if not specifically Christians.

So—Elvis, Dylan, and the Beatles. Can't get much higher up the rockface than that.

Add Roger (Jim) McGuinn, the leader of the Byrds, the American response to the Beatles. Throw in Eric Clapton, Alice Cooper, Bono and the Edge from U2, and Bob Marley. Richie Furay of Buffalo Springfield has since become a Christian minister. Arlo Guthrie, son of Woody. Roger Daltrey from The Who. Gladys Knight. John Mellencamp. Barry McGuire. Paul Jones of Manfred Mann. Boys II Men; The Backstreet Boys.

In addition, some of the best straight up rock songs ever written have had Christian themes: “Put Your Hand in the Hand,” “Spirit in the Sky,” Dylan's “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Aretha Franklin's “O Happy Day!,” the Byrds' “Jesus is Just All Right” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!.” Boney M's “Rivers of Babylon.” George Harrison's “My Sweet Lord,” though it is not specifically Christian.

The power of rock is almost necessarily religious. If you get the religion right, you're in a sweet space. If you get the religion wrong, you are playing with a power you are not likely to be able to handle.

This list of Christian rockers is mostly a list of survivors.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Veiled Patriarchy

First Communion

This piece actually appeared in the National Catholic Reporter about a year ago; but I saw it posted on Facebook only today. It argues against women wearing a head covering in church, on feminist grounds.

The author notes, firstly, that the tradition of covering one's head during mass is from 1 Corinthians, where St. Paul writes:

“2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. 3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man,[a] and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.
7 A man ought not to cover his head,[b] since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own[c] head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.
13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God. (NIV)

This really ought to end the matter: if the New Testament (not the Old) says that women should cover their hair in church, then women should cover their hair in church.

Man oppressed with hat.
Her counter:

“adopting practices from biblical times that have no meaning today makes little sense. Catholics are not the Amish. We use electricity, avail ourselves of modern medicine and walk around without bonnets and hats.”

On the face of it, this is the heresy of Modernism: the notion that faith and morals change over time. Citing electricity or medicine is a red herring: there is nothing in the New Testament requiring us to avoid either. Nor does Biblical warrant have anything to do with their rejection by the Amish.

Moreover, Paul himself does not rely upon revelation alone as warrant for women to cover their heads. He also cites nature. In all societies, women wear their hair relatively long, and men relatively short. It is apparently the natural order of things, then, for women to cover their heads, and men to bare them. This seems to be instinct.

Our author goes on:

“Yet covering women’s heads does still have meaning today, and that meaning is hardly a feminist one. Despite the attempts of some Muslim feminist women to claim the hijab as liberating, most today see the covering of women’s heads as quaint or backward, if not downright repressive.”
This is the fallacy of argumentum ad populum: what “most people believe” is irrelevant to the truth of an assertion, and is not even useful information. Most people will already know this.

However, she does then try to justify this popular belief:

“It’s not an unsubstantiated assumption, given that historically some women’s head covering has meant to limit men’s sexual temptation for them and often has symbolized submission to a husband (this may have been Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians).”

Mary, Queen of Scots.

The first part of this sentence seems to be a non sequitor: how is it repressive of women to assume they are responsible for tempting or not tempting men? Isn't it patronizing them, infantilizing them, to think otherwise? Was the Serpent of Eden an innocent party? Is the Devil?

As to the second point, the wife's submission to the husband may have been at least a part of St. Paul's point in the quoted passage. Why is this relevant here? If your politics do not conform to your religion, you are supposed to change your politics, not your religion. To do the opposite is to be unethical. This is a challenge, then, that any Christian feminists must face. It need not concern the rest of us.

That makes her following argument irrelevant, but it is worth noting that it is also contraductory:

“I wouldn’t be so skeptical of head covering if it applied to both men and women. If modesty is a Christian virtue, why wouldn’t believers of both genders be called to demonstrate it by covering their heads? In fact, the opposite is true for men: Tradition requires that men remove their hats to show respect, most likely because historically hats symbolized status.”

But then, if wearing a head covering implies status for men, doesn't it imply status for women as well? Don't queens as well as kings wear crowns? Her own explanation here suggests that it is men who are being humbled by the traditional practice, while women are being exalted. Just as--she herself points out--the tabernacle is exalted by being covered. What is valued is covered. And, in fact, St. Paul says exactly this: “if a woman has long hair, it is her glory... For long hair is given to her as a covering.”

Queen Isabeau of France.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Whatever Happened to Moby Grape?

Rear, l to r: Lewis, Spence. Front: Miller, Stevenson, Mosley.

Once upon a time, and a time some of us may even remember, there was a rock band named Moby Grape. They came out with an introductory album back in 1967, and it was really, really good. My brother and I played the grooves off of it. If you listen to the music today, it is still really good. Then they put out a second album, which was clever, but no longer that good, straight up rock and roll. Too academic for my tastes. Too Sergeant Peppery. Then they just kind of disappeared.

So what happened to them? Specifically, how could a group of musicians who seemed to be so good, and a group of songwriters who seemed so good, just seem to disappear without a trace? Jerry Miller, their first guitar, was called by Eric Clapton “the best guitarist in the world.” Even if the group broke up, as so many groups have done, why didn’t the individual members at least resurface in other groups? It just seems weird.

And weird, it turns out, it really was. Uncanny, in fact. Part of the problem was a really bad, really rapacious manager. He managed to get full rights to the group’s name, and somehow took or lost them all the royalties. So the members of the group got nothing for their work, and could not even perform as Moby Grape in order to earn any more.

Still, that shouldn’t have been enough to stop them, should it? Just regroup under another name, and soon word would get around? They might have been tight for cash for a while, but they were surely prominent enough to at least make a living at clubs until the mojo jelled.

Except that, in the middle of recording that second album, Skip Spence, the real leader of the group and their best-known member, went completely schizophrenic and tried to kill the drummer. He was locked up for six months, shop up with thorazine, and was never fit to perform again. He ended up homeless, living on the streets, and died in 1999.

Skip Spence in middle age.

So the full band never really could re-form, and they had lost their most important member. But they still could have managed something, right? After all, the Stones replaced Brian Jones.

And this they indeed tried to do. But not long after that, their bassist, Bob Mosley, arguably the second-most-important member, also went schizophrenic. He too ended up homeless, and is apparently living on the street as of this writing.

The other three still seem to be more or less functional, and really do still perform. They have even managed, in the last few years, to even win the rights to their name back. But it is necessarily a shadow of what was Moby Grape. Jerry Miller has done best. But Peter Lewis, second guitar, seems to have had his own problems. He has said he was only able to stay with the band because he was under psychiatric care, taking librium.

What the heck was going on here?

The obvious thought is that this was caused by recreational drug use. Lots of folks say taking LSD can cause madness. But that doesn’t really fit, to my mind. All the bands in those days were taking recreational drugs; there was nothing special about Moby Grape in that way. So why, if it was drugs, did it hit one band so hard—and such a good band?

Peter Lewis himself seems to have a different idea, and it makes some sense to me at least. Being rather aware, as a survivor himself, of psychiatric issues, he because convinced that his bandmate, Skip Spence, was not really schizophrenic. He thought, in fact, that it might be demonic possession, and took him to a monastery to be exorcised.

From his account, it sounds very much as though he was right. That night, they took adjacent cells in the monastery:

“I started dreaming there was an angel who pulled back the curtain, and I could hear this terrible cracking and flashes of light and screaming from the next cell, and the sound of somebody being thrown up against the wall. It was like something out of The Exorcist, and I got real scared. I'd been scared of Skippy anyway since they locked him up in the Tombs. …. The next morning I went out in the courtyard, and Skippy was the same guy I'd first met in San Francisco - absolutely lucid, nothing wrong with him at all. We went and had lunch at this place at the bottom of the hill. But as the night came he began to slip back.

That's when they told us we had to leave because they'd heard what went on the night before. ‘You'll have to go,’ one of the monks told us. ‘Don't touch him, don't stop the car and don't give in to your fear. I'll be praying for you.’ So we started driving away, and I was scared to death. Halfway down the hill he started to snarl like a dog and he came across the front seat and tried to strangle me. His hands were around my neck, while I'm trying to drive on this winding little road. But I controlled my fear and wouldn't let him have power over me. Soon as my fear started to subside I got angry, and then he'd get afraid and start whimpering. The more afraid he got the angrier I got. All of a sudden I heard voices telling me to stop the car and kill him. And I recognized that as the voice of Satan. So now I'm turning into him. Then I get afraid again, and he starts getting angry and coming across the car at me. It goes on like that for as long as it takes you to drive from Lucia to San Jose (about two hours). It was the most insane thing I've ever been through. By the time we got back to San Jose I was talking normal to him, just like that morning. And that was the end of Skippy's demonic phase.”

Though he never recovered his sanity.

Interestingly, according to the standard account, and in the words of Lewis, Spence originally went psychotic after running out of the band’s recording session with “some black witch.” Next time he appeared, he was both psychotic and murderous. Before that time, Lewis says he gave no indication at all of being mentally unstable.

So, given that we accept that there is a Devil, might he have been ultimately behind the destruction of Moby Grape?

An intriguing thought, if not one that most people these days would care to entertain. Perhaps coincidentally, I can think of two other major figures from the 1960s with a reputation for getting involved with real Satanism--as opposed to just toying with the idea of witchcraft or magic.

Brian Jones, and Jim Morrison.