October 28, 2004

Going underground (again)


A while back, I noted a story about the discovery an underground cinema -- one located in the Paris catacombs. (The photo above is taken from the portion of the catacombs open to tourists; in the 18th century, the bones from several cemeteries were dug up and deposited -- in some cases, quite artistically stacked -- in a few of the miles and miles of tunnels left by the quarries which provided the stone to build the city above.) In a large "gallery" beneath the city was a movie projector with electricity to run it, a bar, a reception desk with closed circuit cameras, even a motion sensor that set off the sound of dogs barking when someone passed it, no doubt to frighten away intruders.

Reuters had an interesting story earlier this month, mentioning the cinema and adding further details about the "cataphiles," the explorers and, in some cases at least, cinephiles who roam the catacombs:

Deep beneath the streets of Paris, police are playing a game of cat and mouse with a band of explorers who have turned the city's underground tunnels and chambers into their personal playground.

The so-called cataphiles, equipped with waders, torches and rucksacks, drop in through manholes to explore disused medieval quarries and catacombs, spray graffiti and throw parties.

"You can just as easily come across the chairman of a big French company as a scruffy punk," said Alex, a 24-year-old history student who has been sneaking in for three years.

In the pitch-black corridors 20 metres (65 feet) below ground, everyone goes by a pseudonym. Cataphiles with names like Bad Trip, Silence and Nexus leave fliers printed with drawings and poems tucked into crevices in the centuries-old stones.

"It's part of the idea, not knowing what people do in real life. It's like living a double life," Alex explained.

In the Reuters story, we are presented with something of a history -- if one can believe it -- of cataphile/police relations, beginning with the no nonsense approach favored by Captain Luc Rougerie, who oversees the force that tries to police the underground:

Specially trained officers conduct regular patrols and systematically issue a court summons to anyone they catch. Offenders risk fines ranging from 60 to 150 euros (41 to 103 pounds).

This rigid application of the law has left some nostalgic for the days of his predecessor Jean-Claude Saratte, who tolerated experienced cataphiles and shared their passion. They in turn would tip him off if they saw anything unusual.

"He was surrounded by a parallel police of informers," said Alain Clement, co-editor of the "Atlas of Underground Paris".

Clement's book, at least, seems to exist; one of the oddities of the earlier Guardian story I linked on the subject was that the catacomb expert it cited, Patrick Alk, a photographer and allegedly an author of a work on the cataphiles, does not seem to turn up much either in Google or Amazon. (Whoops -- looks like the Guardian just got the name wrong. So much for a planned digression into books that exist only as bibliographic references.)

As to the cataphiles serving a useful role as informants, this passage caught my attention (and is actually something I thought of when I posted the first item on this subject, but decided to ignore -- one shouldn't let all the fun be sucked out of everything):

Clement would like to see the rest of the quarries sealed for good, but he thinks authorities are reluctant to close the network due to fears that terrorists could strike in Europe.

"If the quarries were completely shut, there would be no way to control them. The cataphiles, in fact, are like a clandestine control network," Clement noted.

Police officials acknowledge that regular patrols are essential to prevent a potential attack, but deny that they secretly welcome the presence of cataphiles.

I don't know why, but I find the idea of a clandestine network of people who themselves are breaking the law, who simultaneously prevent far worse criminals from gaining a foothold or launching an attack in their underground realm rather appealing.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:18 PM | Comments (2)

October 27, 2004


...to the Boston Red Sox and Boston Red Sox fans everywhere. I seem to have a disproportionate number of family members (parents, uncles, cousins, nephew), friends and co-workers who are also members of Red Sox nation, and I can't tell you all how happy I am for you.

I called my father after the game, who jokingly noted, midway through the conversation, that the last of his goals in life had been fulfilled.

I suggested that he start pulling for the Cubs...

Further note: Here's an interesting story on the 1918 Red Sox, who, until today, were the last World Series winners in franchise history:

Locals questioned their guts because they were on a baseball field instead of a battlefield. Fans soured on them after their demands for more money held up a World Series game. And when the 1918 Boston Red Sox finally won the title, the feat was greeted with little more than mild enthusiasm.

The 1918 World Series was the last time the Red Sox brought championship glory to the city, but there were few echoes then of the cathartic joy that greeted Boston's 2004 title.

Back then, World War I was consuming the country's attention. The Red Sox weren't the only game in town, competing for fan loyalty with the National League's Boston Braves as well as a legion of local minor league and amateur teams.

And the team's success had spoiled fans. The 1918 title over the Chicago Cubs was the team's fourth in seven years.

"(The attitude) was, 'It's another championship for our boys. That's great. They be back again,'" said Richard Johnson, curator of the Sports Museum of New England. "Little did they know it would be 86 years."

Posted by Ideofact at 11:50 PM | Comments (0)

October 24, 2004


Random notes typed as I discover again that nothing is quite so engrossing as October baseball...

I think Fox is really taking an enormous dramatic risk with a show portraying a medical doctor as being an arrogant know it alll ...

Blogfonte has made his endorsement in the election. Something he wrote kind of describes where I am in a lot of this: "I do not believe in perfections..." I thought he was going to go off in a different direction with this, but it's fairly important sentiment, and should probably be printed on the currency right beside "In God We Trust."

My wife is away on a business trip, so I had five year old duty all weekend, which of course is far more pleasure than duty, although how two men, one of whom is pint-sized, can make such a mess in such a short time is beyond me. Sunday evening I looked at the piles of blocks and toys and crayon-covered paper, the detritus from the Sunday paper, pairs of his socks, the three different jackets I've worn since taking my wife to the airport Friday night, etc. etc., and realized that the one minute you let your guard down -- ah, I'll get that later -- all is lost, and the living room, play room, tv room, even the corporate headquarters of ideofact fall into anarchy. We had a lot of letting our guard down this weekend, but with a little forceful father act, he assisted me in getting things to pass muster again.

I imagine I'll be disappointed, but I really want to see The Grudge. I'll be disappointed, because every time the TV ad comes on, regardless of what I'm doing I drop everything and stare at it. Most likely the film itself will leave me, at some point, wondering how long until I can look at something else. But the Grudge has an actresses I like in it. (Although it's most likely heresy -- pace Flea -- I prefer her in this role...

Meanwhile, Boston is now up 2 games to none, the five year old slumbers peacefully, and I will put off writing about ancient Rome for another day or two...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:50 PM | Comments (1)

October 21, 2004


It's been a while since Sayyid Qutb turned up on ideofact, but I haven't been ignoring him entirely. This column (registration required. regrettably) ties up Qutb, bin Laden and the radicalization of the Chechens:

In 1996, Osama bin Laden himself proclaimed the Chechen resistance an integral part of global jihad. Adopting Islamist cant and Taliban dress, the Chechen jihadists espouse the philosophy of Egypt's late Sayyid Qutb, earlier adopted by al Qaeda. It espouses martyrdom in the global war against "crusading Christians and Zionists."

Chechen leader Shamil Basayev, who masterminded the Beslan school carnage, is hardly a heroic figure like his namesake, 19th century Sufi warrior Imam Shamil, who battled Russian soldiers, not children. Like Yasser Arafat earlier, Basayev launched his career as a brutal, Soviet-backed commander in Abkhazia. After the fall of communism, he trained in Afghanistan, shaved his head, grew a Taliban beard and reincarnated as Abdullah Shamil Abu Idris -- a general of the Islamic Brigade of Martyrs.

Islamic verses in his headband replaced Che Guevara's sacred picture. Saudi Arabia's Haramein Islamic Foundation helped to establish his Chechen training camps. While bin Laden became the White House's bogey man, Basayev emerged as the nemesis of the Kremlin.

There probably aren't too many columns in which Qutb and Guevara turn up a few paragraphs apart, but perhaps there should be more. (And not because, as this piece suggests, we awful American rewriters of history are trying to smear Qutb as a Marxist -- but because, like Marx, Qutb's ideas seem to attract a disproportionate share of thugs, assassins, sadists and slaughterers).

There's what appears to be an online course about Qutb and Islamism -- the title is "Inventing Islamic Fundamentalism: The Religious and Political Thought of Sayyid Qutb," and I guess you can sign up at the link if you're interested. As fascinated as I am, I'm going to pass -- November and December look like busy months.

But not too busy for me to continue delving into books. The Poe book I'd mentioned below -- Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe by John Evangelist Walsh -- is regrettably not as good a book as it could have been. I think that's in part because Walsh makes the mistake of trying to "solve" the mystery (and I put solve in scare quotes because I'm hoping Walsh, despite his at times overreaching language, realizes that his theory is an enjoyable diversion rather than a serious attempt at ratiocination). This leads Walsh to ask us to make all sorts of leaps of faith -- that a friend of Poe would, in recounting his last meeting with the author, forget that Poe had shown up at his door days before his death claiming that murderers were plotting his demise; that the doctors attending Poe's last days in the hospital would not notice on their patient's body the tell-tale bruises and contusions left by the beating administered by the murderers; and so on. Which is not to say that there may not be something to this particular rumor about the cause of Poe's death -- but rather, that in trying to prove it, Walsh betrays his rather effective telling of all the conflicting accounts and the facts that simply don't add up, and descends to the level of the disreputable, the deceivers and the deceived who tried to make of Poe's death something that it wasn't. (The physician who attended the delusional Poe in his last days wrote a book that preserved the poet's final surprisingly sober poetic phrasings -- which included of course the word "nevermore"; a temperance advocate who helped Poe to the hospital used the poet's death as exhibit A in his indictment of the devil drink...)

I suppose it wouldn't have been quite as good a book proposal if it began, "After years of meticulous research in dozens of archives across the country, I have attempted to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of America's premiere writer, Edgar Allan Poe. I failed." Maybe there were moments when Walsh was persuaded that everything confirmed his theory, followed by sickening crises occasioned by those stubborn parts -- like the friend forgetting Poe's fear of the assassins just days before he died -- which he had to reconcile with the theory. And maybe advancing a theory he didn't entirely believe in was the price he was willing to pay to get his research on Poe's death published.

With Walsh, it's a harmless thing, and I have to admit, he's a competent enough writer that he can almost carry it off. Were he slightly more adept at handling the material that completely contradicted his thesis, he might have written one of the greatest footnotes of American letters. (How's that for damning with faint, Poe-esque praise?)

I shouldn't be too hard on Walsh -- his book is an enjoyable diversion, with little at stake, so, even if he unreservedly believes his theory as definitive, what harm is there in it? (I don't need to believe it...) In a few days, I'll begin reading yet another work of Sayyid Qutb, who raises entirely different questions: not so much whether he ardently believed in what he was writing, but rather, who believes in it now, and who is likely to act on its implications...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:59 PM | Comments (7)

October 19, 2004

Note remembered


Baltimore City, Oct 3d 1849

Dear Sir,--

There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan's Fourth ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, and I assure you, he is in need of immediate assistance.

Yours in haste,

Jos. W. Walker

To Dr. J.E. Snodgrass

Quoted from Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, by John Evangelist Walsh. Poe left Richmond on Sept. 28, 1849, for Baltimore, then disappeared for five days. The note was written to an acquaintance of Poe's who lived near the mentioned ward polls; Snodgrass helped Poe to a hospital, where he died a few days later.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:36 PM | Comments (0)

October 18, 2004

A misconception dreary


This review (registration required, although if you frantically click "back" often enough, you seem to be able to get past it) compares ETA Hoffmann to Poe:

The eerie darkness of Hoffmann's stories influenced a number of authors, notably Dostoevsky. Edgar Allan Poe most resembles him, though Poe's tales tend more to the supernatural than do Hoffmann's. Otherwise, Hoffmann's work seems even more unhinged than Poe's, and without such easy explanations (drugs, insanity) that come from Poe's history.

What's astonishing about this statement is that Poe's work is singularly lacking in supernatural effects. Poe was fascinated by obsession, revenge and guilt (the Tell-Tale Heart, the Cask of Amontillado), scientific and quasi-scientific phenomena (the Premature Burial, the Descent into the Maelstrom), logic (the tales of ratiocination), corruption, decay and death (the Fall of the House of Usher) -- I can think of any number of Poe stories touching on any number of macabre themes, but if I try to remember a Poe tale with a ghost or a vampire, a witch or a magician or even an unexplained horror, I am hardpressed to come up with one.

(The photo above, by the way, was taken at the cemetery where Poe's remains lie.)

Posted by Ideofact at 10:49 PM | Comments (0)

October 14, 2004

Real presences


I started thumbing through Frances Hill's The Salem Witch Trials Reader -- a compendium of texts assembled by one of the more vociferous proponents of the notion that Salem can be explained largely with reference to Puritanism. About Chadwick Hansen, from whose Witchcraft at Salem I quoted here, Hill writes,

Someone, sometime, was bound to come up with the theory that some of the accused witches at Salem really were practicing witchcraft. Chadwick Hansen makes a coherent, if unconvincing, case for this. His book includes an excellent explanation of the onset of the girls' fits as due to clinical hysteria but suggests it was fear of witchcraft that caused the hysteria. The fear was so strong, he claims, because the witchcraft was real.

To take this in reverse order, Hansen never argues that witchcraft was real, but rather, that in a society that believes in the efficacy of witchcraft, one who is generally thought to be a witch can cause a tremendous amount of anxiety or even a hysterical reaction. (This is borne out by anthropological studies of contemporary cultures that have preserved a belief in witchcraft.) Salem's population sincerely believed in witches and witchcraft, and yes, Hansen does a fine job of comparing the original, 17th century descriptions of the girls symptoms to modern cases of clinical hysteria, including some from a few of those contemporary cultures that still believe in witchcraft's potency.

That leaves us with Hansen's central thesis -- were there witches at Salem? Well, there was certainly witchcraft; though Puritan ministers condemned such things, the common folk believed it was appropriate to turn to forms of white magic -- divination and so on -- if it had some practical (in their eyes) benefit. In a work that serves as a useful counterpoint to the hysterical historians of Salem, Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692, Richard Godbeer tells us:

Alongside Protestant Christianity there survived and flourished in New England less formal and yet influential folk beliefs that the settlers brought from England, including those that underlay the use of magic. Folk magic was based on the assumption that men and women could wield supernatural power for their own benefit. Many settlers believed that through the use of simple techniques, passed down from one generation to the next, they could harness occult forces so as to achieve greater knowledge and control over their lives. Experts in these techniques -- often called "cunning folk" -- told fortunes, claimed to heal the sick, and offered protection against witchcraft. But cunning folk could also use their skills for malevolent ends: to harm or destroy those who crossed them. Neighbors who possessed occult powers wre thus valuable allies, but also potentially deadly enemies.

Most divining, healing, and defensive techniques were quite straightforward and so it was not unusual for colonists to experiment on their own. But New Englanders did often turn to experts in times of need, hoping that cunning folk could help them to see into the future, heal their ailments, or defend them against supernatural attack and strike back at their enemies. Mary Sibley, aunt of one of the afflicted children in Salem Village, asked the minister's Caribbean slave, Tituba, to bake a urine-cake that would identify the witch responsible for afflicting her niece; Tituba had a reputation for magical cunning and claimed that "her mistress in her own country ... had taught her some means to be used for the discovery of a witch."

Tituba, of course, was one of the first accused in Salem of witchcraft (the urine-cake, by the way, was more familiarly known to New Englanders of the period as a "witchcake"). It's worth noting that no scholar -- Hill among them -- disputes the witchcake incident; by definition, there was witchcraft at Salem.

There seems to be, in the depositions at Salem, a good deal of evidence suggesting that at least some of those accused were "cunning folk." Now, we can certainly discount this, and assume everyone in Salem was a good Puritan (although this seems unlikely). We can choose to believe that those who claimed to have occult powers were always wise and benevolent in the exercise of those powers -- never giving in to the temptation to scare the bejesus out of some irritating Goody or Goodman Brown by threatening some spectral harm (again, unlikely). Or we can sift the evidence presented at Salem, and conclude that at least some of those accused of inflicting harm on the afflicted girls were actually practicing some form of magic. Again, the practicioner may well have thought herself or himself to be harnessing occult powers for benign ends or just purposes -- which, again, might have included getting even with some quarrelsome neighbor or his insufferable brat of a servant girl...

In reviewing the evidence presented at Salem, Hansen concludes that were grounds for believing that some of the accused -- including Bridget Bishop, who had been accused of witchcraft a dozen years earlier, and who kept "poppets" --which could be harmless but were often used as a sort of voodoo doll, and George Burroughs, the minister who claimed to have occult powers -- were indeed "cunning folk" (Hansen doesn't use that term). Whether they should have been put to death on the basis of the evidence presented at Salem is entirely a different matter. The magistrates at Salem ignored the advice they had gotten from ministers (including Cotton Mather) and prior precedent when arriving at guilty verdicts.

Like some modern historians, they should have paid more attention to the evidence.

Posted by Ideofact at 10:15 PM | Comments (1)

October 13, 2004


After the debate, a second Red Sox loss, and -- oh yeah -- a pile of actual work (the kind I actually get paid for) I'm too tired to finish the post I started tonight about the classics, the one I started a while back about Frances Hill's misrepresentations about Chadwick Hansen's book on Salem, or one on Poe I've been fooling around with. So I'll offer this comment a reader offered on an old post on Christoph Luxenberg -- an alias for a scholar who's applied the tools of textual analysis to the Qur'an with controversial results (mentioned on ideofact here, here and here:

I am an applied linguist teaching language at a university. I did my master's in language teaching from Warwick university U.K.I've studied reviews on his book. I'd like to say that he doesn't possess a deep knowledge of the Quran or Quranic Arabic. He is totally wrong. This isn't any research. It is speclation and conjecture. For example,finding a similarity of words and their meanings today , out of context, dosn't prove anything. A language may borrow words from anothwe language but the words are used in the contexts of sentences and paragraphs differently. It is the use and meaning in the context that proves that words are used for those meanings.The Quran was revealed in pure Arabic as told by God Himself.There is no proof that it was revealed in Syriac Aramaic Arabic. The meanings of Aramaic words in the Quran as beleived by him do not fit into the context of the verses. The reading of the Quran is also right and genuine. A speaker of Arabic, Persian, or Urdu will easily and rightly understand and read written words with correct pronunciation even if there are no diacritical marks or points because the meaning of the sentence will bound him not to make any mistake. For example if you hear a sentence first in English e.g. he is very dear to me , you can't understand deer for dear, because deer is an animal, although the sounds are the same.If hoor means white grapes, it is wrong because there is no word for grapes. Grapes are called a'naab and white is called abyad in Quranic Arabic. Then 'een means eyes. Luxenberge has not given any meaning in Aramaic to give the meaning of the phrase, hoorun 'een. Furthermore, Hoorun maqsooraat is not explained by him.

This book is a misguiding speculation and deserves to be thrown into a trash bin.

I expressed some misgivings about Luxenberg's thesis myself, but as I noted, I haven't read it, nor do I have the requisite specialized knowledge to make up my mind one way or another. Modesty prevents me, at least, from reaching a conclusion based on reviews of the book, as opposed to the work itself.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:54 PM | Comments (0)

October 12, 2004

Wonders of the Invisible Blog


I don't think Cotton Mather, a peripheral figure in the Salem witch trials (he certainly believed in witchcraft, but he wasn't involved or even in Salem during the proceedings), qualifies as our blogging forefather, as American Digest suggests, but I was reminded of blogging -- liveblogging, actually -- when I read about the circumstances under which Mather composed Wonders of the Invisible World, which was supposed to be an account of the Salem trials based on the transcripts and records:

The court could not immediately supply the material needed; nevertheless Mather began his writing. Unfortunately, the material still didn't arrive, and Mather continued writing....

T.J. Holmes has plotted Cotton Mather's progress. Having written his 'Enchantments Encountered', he unearthed a sermon delivered on 4 August, and included it under the title of 'A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World'. This he also probably expanded by adding the corollaries, etc. He ended this section by saying, 'But so much for our Corollaries. I hasten to the main thing designed for your entertainment. And that is," but the promise ends abruptly with the comma and instead Mather proceeds to 'An Hortatory and Necessary Address'. But before he actually wrote this address Mather probably sent the manuscript as completed up to that point to [William] Stoughton [the Lt. Gov. of Mass., and one of the judges whom Mather sought to defend by writing the work -- ideofact]: in reply he received the letter which he published in his 'Authors Defence' which he next composed. Returning to his comma, he inserted the 'Address', promising at the end to supply next 'the chief Entertainment which my Readers do expect, and shall receive ... a true History of what has occurred'. However, since he could not supply what he didn't have, he instead moved on to 'A Narrative of an Apparition'. At the end he made a determined effort to will the reports into being: 'But I shall no longer detain my Reader from his expected Entertainment, in a brief account of the Tryals.' Faith may move mountains, but the court remained unmoved, so Mather had to move on to his account of the famous Bury St Edmunds trial under Sir Matthew Hale. At last the report from Salem arrived, and Mather could pretend that all had worked out as he had planned, as he introduced the trial of the Reverend George Burroughs in a businesslike manner.

One can well imagine Mather cursing his modem -- well, he was a Puritan writing in the 17th century, so I guess it would be admonishing his modem -- to download the Salem material faster. Oh, and he kept posting throughout the wait --

Holmes suggests that Mather may well have sent each section off to the printer as he completed it.

--From M. Wynn Thomas, "Some Metamorphoses of Salem Withcraft," in The Damned Art: Essays in the Literature of Witchcraft, edited by Sydney Anglo.

Posted by Ideofact at 10:09 PM | Comments (2)

October 11, 2004


Kelly from Everybody's Got One offers some useful perspective. After quoting a somewhat too precious program note from a classical performance, K. writes:

As this tawdry election oozes toward its long-belated close, it's good to be reminded that the politically obsessed aren't the only people who desperately need to take themselves less seriously.

I feel the same way, but not out of any "pox on both your houses" type of indifference -- though I don't think the victory of one or the other of the candidates would represent "the end of civilization as we know it!", I do have a preference. In fact, there have moments when I've been reminded of the 1993 Phillies -- my favorite Phillies squad of all time. Those Phils had a closer by the name of Mitch Williams, a left hander who couldn't throw strikes (not a desirable quality in a closer), who walked batters, who fell so far off the mound after delivering a pitch that he was a defensive liabilty -- a real nail biter. In a statement showing true insight into the effect he had on fans, Williams once said, "The best thing about me is that I get the job done, the worst thing is you have to watch me do it." Late in the season, in a crucial game against Montreal, Williams came in and started putting men on base, making errors, before once again wiggling out of trouble to get a save and preserve the Phils lead in the pennant race. In the midst of it, the Phillies color commentator, a hall of fame ex-ballplayer who'd seen thousands of games, said in utter exasperation, "I don't know how people can enjoy watching this."

So it is with politics these days, most likely for people on both sides of the aisle. And, unlike Mitch (well, at least until Joe Carter put the final pitch of Game 6 into the left field seats), I don't get the sense that partisans on either side are entirely sure that their candidate can get the job done. Which makes for very anxious times indeed.

HOUSEKEEPING NOTE: The other day, I added three new entries to the blogroll -- Smoking in the Dark, North Sea Diaries and Swerve Left.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:54 PM | Comments (1)

October 09, 2004

Homage to Afghanistan

I recall a phrase uttered about a month after 9/11 -- I found it in Nexis, from a CBS Evening News Broadcast on October 9, 2001 -- well, let's hear it from the horses mouth:

CBS (Phillips) added, "Success and frustration reported by returning pilots today. Success in hitting some targets, including Taliban MiG jet fighters on the ground. The Taliban air force never posed much of a threat. It poses even less threat now. After just two nights of bombing, many planes of the USS Enterprise return to the carrier with full payloads. Some have had their missions extended to more than six hours, double the normal flight time; refueled again and again as they searched for targets. They're not easy to find when the adversary has little in the way of conventional infrastructure -- bases, fuel and ammunition dumps -- to hit. . The term used is asymmetrical warfare -- the Goliath of the US Navy trying to hit the David of Osama bin Laden's terrorists and his Taliban supporters. And in Afghanistan, this campaign may have already reached the point of making the rubble bounce."

(via Nexis -- sorry, no link). Leave aside the idiocy of the comparison of bin Laden to David (er ... was CBS woefully ignorant of Biblical symbolism? Implying a subtext?), and consider for a moment that the war on terror was already on the verge of failure a mere two days after it started. Make the rubble bounce. As if that were all there were in Afghanistan, and that were all we could accomplish. As if there weren't something of value there, something worth fighting for...

Had the U.S. Navy's planes been the sole weapon at our disposal, then CBS would have been right. But we had far more weapons than that, chief among them, the Afghan people. From a Washington Post editorial dated Nov. 18, 2001:

Never underestimate people's desire to live freely: This is a lesson we seem to have to relearn every time. When the United States began its intervention, some military experts warned of likely defeat, citing the Soviet misfortune. Other experts pointed to factors distinguishing the two wars: The United States was not seeking to occupy the nation; the Taliban, unlike the anti-Soviet, CIA-backed mujaheddin, would receive no support from surrounding nations.

Few, though, highlighted what may have been an essential difference: that the Soviet Union was seeking to impose an unwanted form of rule, while the United States was liberating Afghans from repression. It's always dangerous to attribute views to a large population, especially of a country without democracy, but initial reports from Kabul and elsewhere suggest many Afghans are delighted to be casting off their veils, shaving their beards, flying kites, listening to music and speaking freely. Many seem grateful for U.S. intervention, not angry over bombs dropped on their country.

That desire would not have been met -- first and foremost, it is true, by U.S. military power, strategy and tactics, but secondly, by Afghan fighters (particularly the Northern Alliance) who fought by our side, in some cases alone, to liberate their country from the barbaric Taliban. (American Digest offers us a graphic history lesson as to the difference between them. Also, note that I don't write much here about politics, but I will say this -- I find it a little disconcerting that one of the two major party candidates feels the need to denigrate Afghans as part of his talking points -- "Here's looking down at you!" it seems to scream out.)

So today, amidst petty squabbling and what not, the Afghans' took another momentous step toward freedom:

AFGHANISTAN has proven skeptics wrong yesterday. The people there have won the first round when the presidential election saw massive participation of voters.

I could not have put it better myself.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:25 PM | Comments (2)

October 07, 2004

This, that...

Last night, I konked out on the couch in front of the television just after putting the five year old to bed, and didn't wake up until one of the cable channels was showing Sonny getting it on the causeway from the Godfather (warning: Lots of gunfire -- and not much else -- in that first link).

Tonight I don't feel much like writing or even thinking, although I will stick around long enough to note that a paragraph at the end of my last post was dropped (I must have deleted it by mistake) which tried to bring things back to the first part -- something to the effect that while Reginald Scot is by and large forgotten, the frame he developed for viewing the world to counter the witchmongers is one with which we're all familiar. It's the template, more or less, through which we view the world, with religion -- as Mather fretted -- experienced at the individual, rather than collective, level. It's not clear to me that a Martin Luther or John Calvin or any Renaissance or Reformation-era Pope understood the world as I understand it; it seems that Scot and I start from the same page. Which is why such discussions of Luthers or Popes for the Muslim world don't seem to be quite on point for me.

Since we could use a picture to relieve things, and since it's October, here's a lovely picture of Theda Bara:


Posted by Ideofact at 11:48 PM | Comments (0)

October 05, 2004

The Science of Witchcraft

Occasionally, this blog has entertained discussions on the order of "Was Wahhabism the Islamic Reformation?" (short answer from me: no), or does Islam need a Pope (ditto), or, conversely, does Islam need a Luther, (again, no) etc. etc. My own poor contribution to such debates is that of a not-particularly-well-educated layman; I find it difficult from such a great remove to make sweeping recommendations to or generalizations about one billion souls scattered over a few dozen polities. But there is something more to it than that -- which perhaps I can better indicate with a brief sketch on a work and an author I know only from a few excerpts, an altogether unsatisfactory biographical sketch, one trenchant essay, collected in the aforementioned The Damned Art: Essays in the Literature of Witchcraft, and from the influence he exerted over an intellectual adversary separated from him by an ocean and a century.

Reginald Scot, a minor landholder, an occasional office holder in the English parliament, author of the first English manual on growing hops, set out, at some point in the 1570s, to refute the "witchmongers," as he called them -- those bent on persecuting witches. Scot took it for granted that he would have to see for himself. He conducted interviews with judges, jurors, witnesses, and confessed witches; he experimented with various sleight-of-hand and optical illusions -- to show what nature was capable of -- and he tried, following the spells in various condemned books, to conjure demons. His reliance on empirical methods had a salutory effect. In the 1690s, when Cotton Mather attempted to prove that Scot was wrong and that the power of witchcraft was indeed real, he relied not on the authority of scripture but rather his own observations and treatments of afflicted persons.

Reading Scot, reading about Scot (the essay on him in The Damned Art is by Sydney Anglo), one feels at once that he's stating the obvious; it is worth remembering he is often stating it for the first time. Not always -- he argued that witch trials, by their very nature and the special procedures they allowed, were antithetical to English custom. More importantly, he seems to be the first to point out that most of the witches -- impoverished old women with no financial or material support -- made a rather bad bargain selling their souls to the devil, and getting not a nickel for it. If the devil indeed was the prince of this world, his treatment of the hired help was appalling. (And if witches did have access to demonic power, why didn't they use it to procure themselves a comfortable income along with doing away with the neighbors' livestock?) His descriptions of various magic tricks -- including a magician may make it appear that he has lopped off his own head -- while perhaps tedious for us to read are often the first explanations of how such tricks were done.

But what makes the Discoverie of Witchcraft so interesting is that Scot not only relied on empiricism to make his case, he turned to the authoritative Scriptures themselves, and strove to reinterpret them -- to, through superior exegesis, rescue the Word of God from the witchmongers. Scot noted that the early translators of the Bible had a disturbing tendency to translate various words -- including those for "malefactor, poisoners, cheats, false soothsayers, and lying pseudo-magicians," to quote Anglo's fine essay, as "witch."

But Scot also argued that, had the Witch of Endor been able to raise Samuel from the dead, doesn't that diminish Christ's raising of Lazarus? And if witches are indeed capable of harnessing supernatural power to effect the course of events on earth, doesn't that diminish Christ's miracles?

Scot changed the terms of the debate -- in his questioning of the witchmongers, he reordered the universe, eliminating the agency of supernatural powers from everyday affairs and leaving us in a state in which Cotton Mather lamented, "We shall come to have no Christ but a light within, and no Heaven but a frame of mind."

Most of us, I daresay, would not share Mather's gloom.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:42 PM | Comments (3)

October 04, 2004


Puritans always surprise me. I was reading an essay in a now out of print collection called The Damned Art: Essays int the Literature of Witchcraft, edited by Sydney Anglo, and came across a list of subjects about which one author wrote one, two or in some cases three books:

pirates, captives, criminals, thieves, imposters, evil customs, murder, drinking, taverns, dancing, cursing, anger, idolatry, hypocrisy, slothfulness, slanders, the ark, the tabernacle, sacrifices, adversity, prosperity, fifth of November, new year, winter, summer, heat, change, time, heavenly world, terrors of hell, natural science, Sabbath-keeping, antinomianism, arianism, quakerism, rules for right living, civil affairs, society to suppress disorders, commerce and trading, debtor and creditor, fidelity in engagements, masters, servants, parents, children, widows, orphans, youths, catechisms, oaths, calamitous fires, earthquakes, storms, rainbow, aurora borealis.

Our prodigious author was a member of the Royal Society, and, in 1721, was a proponent of using smallpox inoculations. His name was Cotton Mather.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:40 PM | Comments (1)

October 02, 2004



This week, the mails brought The Salem Witch Trials Reader, compiled by Frances Hill, who is also author of A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials and, more recently, Such Men Are Dangerous: The Fanatics of 1692 and 2004. The latter work compares the Puritan judges who condemned 19 men and women to death on charges of witchcraft to the Taliban, the Iranian mullahs, and, of course, the perpetrators of the Beslan massacre, the Bali bombing, the attacks on Madrid, the suicide bombings in Israel, and finally, and most eloquently, those responsible for September 11. I haven't read the book, but I am told that Hill is well aware of the limitations of her metaphor. The Puritans, after all, came to their senses within a year of the beginnings of the witch trials. Those imprisoned and awaiting trial, and some who had been sentenced to death, were freed. Within five years, Salem repented for the witch hysteria and the shedding of innocent blood; Salem's citizens also paid restitution to the relatives of those put to death. Obviously, the fanatics of today have no intention of apologizing for their heinous acts of murder...

...ah, no. In fact, Ms. Hill believes the fanatics of 2004 are members of the current U.S. administration:

The author, well known for her books about the Salem witch trials, finds a close parallel between the Puritan ideologues of 1692 and the neoconservative ideologues who hold power in America today. In side-by-side accounts, Hill re-tells the story of the witch trials and American history subsequent to September 11, 2001, showing chilling similarities in the men who hold leadership positions and their pursuit of personal power and wealth.

Right. Because, just like there weren't any witches in Salem, there aren't any terrorists today, and Sept. 11 was just a figment of our imagination.


Posted by Ideofact at 11:54 PM | Comments (6)