January 31, 2008

Readings

I am reading Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism, largely because it's something of a sensation to some and a source of consternation to others, and as always I like to make up my mind for myself. I think it's a book offered with earnest sincerity, occasional good humor, but in the end it's flawed. To the extent that Goldberg resurrects forgotten policy wonks of bygone eras, it's not bad. I doubt I'll ever get around to reading early issues of the New Republic, so it's useful to read excerpts of their editorials and get a sense of the magazine's orientation. Goldberg is right that the left (I would argue most Americans) have lost touch with their history--especially their intellectual history, and thus strangely sleepwalk through the present (I wonder, though, whether this is true of all men at all times).

The problem with Goldberg, however, is that I can't tell whether he has actually read any of the authors he quotes. His footnotes often cite, not the works of those he criticizes, but the works of other authors who've criticized them. This may well leave Goldberg misquoting passages that don't mean what he thinks they mean.

I don't know the work of the likes of Herbert Croly or Walter Lippman well enough to judge, but I do know George Bernard Shaw, so I was mildly surprised to read the following quotation offered as evidence that Shaw was "totally committed to eugenics as an integral part of the socialist project," as Goldberg puts it. Goldberg writes (page 250)

[Shaw] particularly lamented the chaotic nature of a laissez-faire approach to mate selection in which people "select their wives and husbands less carefully than they select their cashiers and cooks." Besides, he explained, a smart woman would be more content with a 10 percent share in a man of good genetic stock than a 100 percent share in a man of undesirable lineage.

The big about the 10 percent share rung a bell, and Goldberg's footnote helpfully suggests the quote is from either page 43 or page 45 of the 1903 edition of Man and Superman, from the preface to the 1917 Penguin edition of Major Barbara, or from an essay from Diane Paul, "Eugenics and the Left," from the Journal of the History of Ideas, Oct.-Dec. 1984.

Here, from the Maxims for Revolutionists (which are the work, not of Shaw, but of the fictional John Tanner, M.I.R.C., Shaw's updated Don Juan), is the full quote Goldberg abuses:

Polygamy, when tried under modern democratic conditions, as by the Mormons, is wrecked by the revolt of the mass of inferior men who are condemned to celibacy by it; for the maternal instinct leads a woman to prefer a tenth share in a first rate man to the exclusive possession of a third rate one. Polyandry has not been tried under these conditions.

I think it's a huge stretch to suggest that, in this aphorism about Mormons, Shaw is advocating eugenics. Similarly, Goldberg attributes to Shaw ideas that are expressed by his Don Juan. Goldberg says Shaw claimed, "The only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialization of the selective breeding of Man." But that's not Shaw, the quote is from the Revolutionist's Handbook. In the Epistle Dedicatory, Shaw explains the what the Revolutionist's Handbook is:

I am sorry to say that it is a common practice with romancers to announce their hero as a man of extraordinary genius, and then leave his works entirely to the reader’s imagination; so that at the end of the book you whisper to yourself ruefully that but for the author’s solemn preliminary assurance you should hardly have given the gentleman credit for ordinary good sense. You cannot accuse me of this pitiable barrenness, this feeble evasion. I not only tell you that my hero wrote a revolutionists’ handbook: I give you the handbook at full length for your edification if you care to read it. And in that handbook you will find the politics of the sex question as I conceive Don Juan’s descendant to understand them. Not that I disclaim the fullest responsibility for his opinions and for those of all my characters, pleasant and unpleasant. They are all right from their several points of view; and their points of view are, for the dramatic moment, mine also. This may puzzle the people who believe that there is such a thing as an absolutely right point of view, usually their own. It may seem to them that nobody who doubts this can be in a state of grace. However that may be, it is certainly true that nobody who agrees with them can possibly be a dramatist, or indeed anything else that turns upon a knowledge of mankind. Hence it has been pointed out that Shakespear had no conscience. Neither have I, in that sense.

Shaw's relationship to Tanner, to all of his characters, is far more complex than that of a pundit advocating a particular position. I suspect Goldberg is guilty more of ignorance than ill intent in reducing a work of the imagination to the vulgar status of a policy white paper, but it's a troubling lapse nonetheless.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:21 PM | Comments (0)

In the mails...

Many of my friends first encountered modern European literature through Camus' Stranger or Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit. I read both when I was 17. The former is much better than the latter, but I suspect that, when I was 17, I preferred Sartre's didactic play to Camus' almost perfectly balanced work, perhaps because No Exit was easier to understand -- the journalist will go through eternity unable to sleep with the willing hot babe because of the other woman. Frustrated sexual desire is a hell any 17 year old can grasp. Camus was far more subtle.

My first encounter was a few months earlier, with a very different kind of writer -- Bertolt Brecht. Perhaps in the same way that one's parents' religious and political views imprint their children, Brecht imprinted me; after all these years I cannot entirely escape the impact some of his plays had on my thinking.

In the mail today I received a translation of the Threepenny Opera--I must say that even just holding it provides aesthetic pleasure. I've never read the play, though I've seen G.W. Pabst's version of it, have a few different recordings of it, and feel like I know the work quite well. But being alone with Brecht's words will provide a different experience, one I eagerly anticipate...

ThreePenny Opera.jpg

Posted by Ideofact at 12:32 AM | Comments (0)

January 24, 2008

The Modern Prometheus

...which follows the words "Frankenstein or" on the title page of this work.

Prometheus.jpg

I think we're a long way from Mary Shelley's vision (and Bernie Wrightson's visualizations of it), even with news like this, which is an amazing advancement for mankind:

US scientists have taken a major step toward creating the first ever artificial life form by synthetically reproducing the DNA of a bacteria, according to a study published Thursday. The move, which comes after five years of research, is seen as the penultimate stage in the endeavour to create an artificial life form based entirely on a man-made DNA genome -- something which has tantalised scientists and sci-fi writers for years.

"Through dedicated teamwork we have shown that building large genomes is now feasible and scalable so that important applications such as biofuels can be developed," said Hamilton Smith, from the J. Craig Venter Institute, in the study published in Science.

The research has been carried out at the laboratories of the controversial celebrity US scientist Craig Venter, who has hailed artificial life forms as a potential remedy to illness and global warming.

Posted by Ideofact at 09:51 PM | Comments (0)

January 23, 2008

Jezebel

While I wait for the cat to get home (it's a cold night), a few words on inversion.

One of the real pleasures of reading The Bible Unearthed is the frisson of hearing another side of the story. The wickedness of Ahab and Jezebel is transformed into an account of...well, here's a fragment:

The true character of Israel under the Omrides [the dynasty that included Ahab--id] involves an extraordinary story of military might, architectural achievement, and (as as can be determined) administrative sophistication. Omri and his successors earned the hatred of the Bible precisely because they were so strong, precisely because they succeeded in transforming the northern kingdom into an important regional power that completely overshadowed the poor, marginal, rural-pastoral kingdom of Judah to the south. The possibility that the Israelite kings who consorted with the nations, married foreign women, and built Canaanite-type shrines and palaces would prosper was both unbearable and unthinkable.

Moreover, from the perspective of the late monarchic Judah, the internationalism and openness of the Omrides was sinful. To become entangled with the ways of the neighboring peoples was, according to the seventh century Deuteronomistic theology, a direct violation of divine command. But a lesson could still be learned from that experience. By the time of the compilation of the books of Kings, history's verdict had already been returned. The Omrides had been overthrown and the kingdom of Israel was no more. Yet with the help of archaeological evidence and the testimony of outside sources, we can now see how the vivid scriptural portraits that doomed Omri, Ahab and Jezebel to ridicule and scorn over the centuries skillfully concealed the real character of the first true kingdom of Israel.


Posted by Ideofact at 12:30 AM | Comments (0)

January 21, 2008

Such a shame

I deleted a few hundred instances of comment spam. This old hulk of a blog largely operates manually because I'm sentimental and I like doing things the old fashioned way (as to movable type, I still have a set of printer's type--the cut lead characters--a frame and a small press for printing). So deleting all that stupid spam actually takes time.

Now, off to read more about the Vietnam War...


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

January 18, 2008

Of this I am certain...

...everything I believe is wrong. Well, except for that. Or to depersonalize and contextualize it, 100 percent of what humans have believed to be the truth about the big questions -- the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, as Douglas Adams put it -- is wrong, because the fractional percentage of things we've gotten right in the anywhere between 90,000 and 200,000 years ago is so exceedingly slight (and ephemeral--we have always been and still are incapable of knowing what's right) that it's far safer to assume any truth is absolutely wrong. Perhaps in Canaan 30 centuries ago, for one brief shining moment, a people worshiped the one true god -- Baal -- but were extinguished. We do know that Epicurus divined (I use the word ironically) that the stuff of the universe was made of tiny indivisible elements which much be so small as to be invisible; that insight was lost for thousands of years.

So I'm not particularly troubled by this story the New York Times ran the other day:

It could be the weirdest and most embarrassing prediction in the history of cosmology, if not science.

If true, it would mean that you yourself reading this article are more likely to be some momentary fluctuation in a field of matter and energy out in space than a person with a real past born through billions of years of evolution in an orderly star-spangled cosmos. Your memories and the world you think you see around you are illusions.

I thought things were probably like that ever since I read Julian Barnes' book The End of Time, though I am certain I am wrong about this.

I liked this bit from Times article:

In the same way the odds of a real word showing up when you shake a box of Scrabble letters are greater than a whole sentence or paragraph forming, these “regular” universes would be vastly outnumbered by weird ones, including flawed variations on our own all the way down to naked brains...

In an interview Dr. Linde described these brains as a form of reincarnation. Over the course of eternity, he said, anything is possible. After some Big Bang in the far future, he said, “it’s possible that you yourself will re-emerge. Eventually you will appear with your table and your computer.”

But it’s more likely, he went on, that you will be reincarnated as an isolated brain, without the baggage of stars and galaxies. In terms of probability, he said, “It’s cheaper.”

First, "Naked Brains" should be a band (probably already is), in which case "Cheap Naked Brains" would be a good alternative. Except that I'm probably wrong...


Posted by Ideofact at 11:34 PM | Comments (0)

January 16, 2008

Religious devotion

For some time, I've had the feeling I need to know more about the Vietnam war. While The Tragedy of Vietnam by Patrick J. Hearden provides a reasonably good chronology of the developments leading up to the war (I like it because it begins with the emergence of the Vietnamese people as a distinct ethnic group more than 2000 years ago--talk about context), the war itself and the aftermath, it suffers from a rather lopsided perspective at times:

Ho Chi Minh and his comrades in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam did not act at all like Bao Dai and his dishonest cohorts. Vietminh agents collected a rice tax to promote their cause rather than to enrich themselves. The top Vietminh leaders led spartan lives, and not even their worst enemies accused them of corruption. At the same time, the high officials of the Bao Dai regime lived in luxury at the expense of the Vietnamese people.

I am certainly willing to believe that Ho Chi Minh and his comrades were less venal than officials in the puppet regime of Bao Dai, but the claim that their rectitude was such that not even their worst enemies would accuse them of corruption belongs in the lives of the saints rather than a work of history. Oddly, while French and American commanders are condemned for their bad strategy leading to the slaughter of their own troops in senseless battles, Ho Chi Minh's comrades are never faulted for their own strategic blunders, or tactics that resulted in slaughters of the their fellow countrymen. There's an asymmetry of language that perhaps says more about the author than about the Vietnam war...

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

January 15, 2008

January 14, 2008

Iranians: Jesus dyed his hair...

An Iranian director has made a film to attempt to persuade Christians that they should abandon their own delusional views about who Jesus Christ was in favor of Muhammad's equally delusional view of who Jesus Christ was, AFP reports. More on that in a moment, but first, take a look at Jesus...

Blond Jesus.jpg

I had no idea Jesus dyed his hair blond, not to mention his beard.

The most ludicrous thing about the film is the director's stated intention:

A director who shares the ideas of Iran's hardline president has produced what he says is the first film giving an Islamic view of Jesus Christ, in a bid to show the "common ground" between Muslims and Christians.

Nader Talebzadeh sees his movie, "Jesus, the Spirit of God," as an Islamic answer to Western productions like Mel Gibson's 2004 blockbuster "The Passion of the Christ," which he praised as admirable but quite simply "wrong".

"Gibson's film is a very good film. I mean that it is a well-crafted movie but the story is wrong -- it was not like that," he said, referring to two key differences: Islam sees Jesus as a prophet, not the son of God, and does not believe he was crucified.

As I've noted before, it is unlikely that Christians and Muslims will be able to find much common ground about Jesus:

We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed.

That's C.S. Lewis from Mere Christianity. I never quite believed this wholeheartedly or even half-heartedly growing up, and I do not believe it all now. However, Christians do believe this, and it strikes me as a peculiar form of cultural chauvinism that some Muslims seem to think that saying "this is wrong," based on the supposed superiority of a text cobbled together several hundred years and several hundreds of miles from the event, would influence anyone.

One final observation: As pretty as the Jesus of the Iranian film is, aren't depictions of the prophets forbidden in Islam?

Posted by Ideofact at 11:20 PM | Comments (3)

January 12, 2008

"I think we know a little more than Voltaire"

When I was in high school, some friends and I started an underground newspaper. We had a lot of fun, wrote and published some funny things. One of my favorites came in response to a school Christmas concert that featured a number of traditional songs like Silent Night. We proposed, for the sake of balance, that there be a companion event with songs like "Om Om Om, yeah yeah yeah," "Good God There is No God" and "Sing a Song of Satan." Much of it was pretty juvenile stuff -- I wrote a piece comparing a clique with the Archies comic characters.

All too predictably, of course, we ran afoul of the school administration, leading to a hearing with some administrators and, I seem to recall, the school board. The mother of one of my co-publishers defended our efforts, leading a school board member to ask what kind of a parent could possibly defend -- and he read something from one of the articles that probably wasn't on a par with the New Yorker. Her son leapt to her defense ("I wasn't going to let him rag on my mom," he later said) and explained, "I think the point my mom is making is like Voltaire. She may not agree with everything we say, but she'll defend our right to say it." (Voltaire's attitude was a bit more forceful.)

The board member responded, "I think we know a little more than Voltaire."

And so, apparently, do the Human Rights Commissions of Canada, which have extralegally claimed jurisdiction over the inalienable right of free speech and free press. I have a horror of any restriction on freedom of speech beyond the very narrow and well defined exception for shouting fire in a crowded theater. Contrary to his exalted view of himself, our school board member was a pinhead all on his own--one need not have compared him to Voltaire to find him wanting.

Ezra Levant, publisher of the now defunct print edition of the Western Standard, has been hauled before one of the Human Rights Commission to defend himself for publishing. We need not offer a predicate: the right to publish what one wants, whether it be essays on Shakerspeare's sonnets or racist bilge or pornography of the most vile sort, is a fundamental right. Making fun of a religion (I am beginning to think of it as a duty) also enjoys absolute freedom.

I am thrilled to see Levant defend himself -- it's well worth watching. I doubt I would share much of his politics, and chances are he wouldn't much care for many of my views, but I was thrilled to watch his opening statement.


Posted by Ideofact at 11:47 PM | Comments (1)

January 03, 2008

The words came down

I've been reading The Bible Unearthed, which I bought a while back and skimmed a few pages and put aside and forgot all about until this came along. The book reevaluates the Bible--or about two thirds of the Old Testament at least--in light of archaeological findings, and comes up with a fairly different narrative. No Exodus, for example--the Israelites were always Canaanites. The evidence for a Davidic state with Jerusalem as its capitol or for a Solomonic empire extending from the Nile to the Euphrates simply doesn't exist. There wasn't even a united kingdom. While Judah was a pastoral backwater, ancient Israel, the land of Ahab and Jezebel, Baal worshippers and Asherah sticks -- was actually a sophisticated multiethnic state that vied culturally, economically and militarily with Syrians, Assyrians, Moabites and Phoenicians for dominance in the Levant.

Authors Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman have put together a work that, I think, someone not versed in interpreting archaeological evidence could easily follow. The gist is that the Bible begins with two parts, a sort of collection of legends (which may have had some basis in fact but are essentially myths) and a polemical, imagined history concocted to support the goals of the 7th century BCE king of Judah who sought to add to his territory what had been the old Omri empire of northern Israel.

A few caveats: Archaeological evidence is open to interpretation and those interpretations can prove to be totally erroneous by new discoveries (or new techniques--Carbon 14 dating radically changed our understanding of the spread of ancient culture). In the case of this book, it seems to me that the authors are sometimes forced to label certain remains are "Israelite" or "Hebraic" although there's nothing in the material remains that indicates the religious orientation of the creator. As always, reasonable people could find fault with some of the arguments. That said, I think it's a compelling work -- one which demonstrates from actual evidence a counter-narrative to the Bible that makes a great deal of sense. I don't believe fealty to the text is reasonable.


Posted by Ideofact at 11:52 PM | Comments (0)