Stray Thoughts on an Incident in College

For no clear reasons I can see, a little snippet from my freshman year in college springs unbidden to mind:

In my first few weeks of school, went to visit somebody in another dorm. When we stepped in the door, there we saw, in bed together, a freshman girl and an older (not freshman) student  guy.  This was the first time in my 18 years of life up to that point where it became undeniably and viscerally clear to me that unmarried people did in fact have sex with each other.

The entire scene lasted a couple seconds before we retreated. The only other things I noticed was the expressions on the couple’s faces – she looked so happy, glowing, one might say. He looked not unpleased, but not joyful they way she looked.

A couple of things, observed over time: The guy was a good-looking, charming fellow. This particular young woman had a delightfully curvy body but was not noticeably pretty otherwise. This was a brief fling – the young lady eventually transferred out, the guy was gone after that year (might have graduated, I never got to know him).

But I remember the smile, the look on her face. The guy’s look was appropriate, given his understanding – he was slightly, maybe, embarrassed but mostly proud of his conquest. She, on the other hand, seemed far more enraptured than merely getting some sex could explain.

So, what was her understanding? What had just happened, from her perspective? She’s 18 years old, she’s away at college, a handsome man has said things to and about her that resulted in an intimate encounter – did she see this, in her heart as well as in her mind, as the meaningless fling it almost certainly was to the guy? How did her life go from there? His life?

This two people passed from my life 35 years ago.  But I still think of them, from time to time.

Dictators, Mafia Dons & Controlling the Spigot

Earlier, told a little story that addressed something I thought rather funny – that people seemed bent out of shape by how rich these military dictators get. As if the kind of guy who seizes power by force should a) be expected to nonetheless keep his avarice well in check; and, more important,  b) control a country by force without controlling every dollar in it, as much as possible. That’s not the way it works.

It’s that second point that should concern us. When you read about the Mafia, or Roman Patriarchs, or English Kings, or Military Dictators, or the actual communists history has given to us (not the theoretical ones, who behave like saints without any moral baggage) one thing comes up over and over: their fingers are in everything.

Imagine you live out in the Roman countryside in the 2nd century. Do you think you could simply set up shop in a village and do business? The local Roman patriarch – head of the noble family that, in effect, provides for all law and order and ‘public’ works in his turf? He’d hear all about it within hours of your attempt to go into business, and, moreover, the locals would probably not buy from you until the social order was clear to everybody.  You’d be expected to ‘pay your respects’ to the patriarch, get his permission, acknowledge his lordship and check in with him daily, eat occasional meals with him (symbolically acknowledging that he is your benefactor), and send a little money his way, as part of the business venture you and he have entered into by way of him allowing you to run a business on his turf.

Now, change the name, time and place as appropriate, and the rules still hold. In order to do business, you’ll need the permission of the mafia don, the local representatives of the military dictator or king, or the local communist party boss  – and it will cost you. Us peons, over the ages, have loved powerful kings who have kept a lid on the local nobles, because that’s been the best possible outcome for the little guy – you pay the price, they more or less leave you alone. Same goes with life under a mafia don, a military dictator, and so on – prior to the outbreak of representative democracy, the best one could hope for was a strong central leader – strong enough that nobody dared challenge him – who took his cut, let his henchmen, um, nobles take their cut, but kept the overall take to a level where it wasn’t too big a hardship on the peasants.

What you didn’t want is warfare – civil war, in the case of kings, violent coups in the case of military dictators, or gang warfare in the case of mafias. Those are horrible for little people. So, please, a strong king!

But back to the weird, anti-entropic state of representative democracy. Social gravity, as it were, is always tugging towards the default position (in large countries – we’re not talking tribes, here, which have a different dynamic). And, I think, people who are aware of history see it – and become ‘conservative’ in a sense only loosely related to how that term is used politically. They see the state of freedom under a representative democracy for the fragile, unnatural thing it is, and so oppose anything that moves toward a more natural, restful state, socially speaking.

The king, the patriarch, the don, the thug – all, in the end, get their power from control of the money spigot, backed by the threat of violence. What they cannot long tolerate and survive is centers of power – wealth – that are independent, that cannot be turned off by them. The ‘conservative’ mentioned above is the one who wants to maintain as many of those independent centers of power as practical, who sees them as the guarantors of his freedom, given that modern governments exceed the ‘way too powerful to be threatened by any likely coalition of lords’ threshold by an order of magnitude or 3.

On the other hand, efforts to make sure that every dollar anyone has flows through one spigot  – that has to be opposed. If it’s not tyranny itself, it’s holding hands with it. In this sense, ‘progressive’, when it means in practice wanting to funnel everything through a central spigot, is the opposite of ‘conservative’ as used here.

In Defense of Billionaire Dictators

No, really:

It seems people assume that a Gadaffi or a Mubarak got fabulously wealthy by abusing their office as unelected military dictator, an interesting concept on several levels. I suggest that fabulous wealth or the evident ability to get it is rather a necessary prerequisite of becoming an unelected military dictator. Subtle distinction, I know, but bear with me.

In a book called something like ‘The Oxford Short History of England”, one of the authors describes early English history like this: you had a number of nobles – tribe leaders, really – who each had designs on kingship, meaning, in effect, they each thought they could beat the neighboring tribe leaders and take their stuff. Problem was, each tribe leader was surrounded by other tribe leaders who were thinking the exact same thing.

What to do, what to do? Call a standoff, and focus on agriculture? Hey, these are the English we’re talking about here.

So, intrigue: Lord A would get together with Lords B, C, and D with the following proposition: help me take out Lords E and F, let me be King, and I’ll richly reward you with spoils.

A tempting propositi0n. But, in politics, it’s always prudent to ask: what about Act II? What’s that look like?

Lords A-D defeat Lords E & F, Lord A becomes King, and Lords B-D get a cut of the spoils. Now, Lords G – M have been keeping tabs on all this, and aren’t about to let it go unchallenged. King A knows this – and so, he goes back to Lords B-D, and maybe even recruits some more Lords, with the promise of, again, a share in the loot if they win. (And a certain grisly death if they loose, but the Marketing Dept probably didn’t emphasize that too much in the brochures.)

But now, wait a second – the King really needs the help of his allied Lords, and they know it – so who’s in the strong position for bargaining? So Lords B-D get promised a good healthy chunk of the loot, and help the king again. Note that it really doesn’t matter who wins or who loses – the dynamics stay the same. Lords keep teaming up to fight each other, motivated by the chance to get some spoils (and, of course, the desire to NOT be the target of the despoiling.)

Once in a while, a strong King would emerge, and and his loyal Lords would conquer all or most of the surrounding Lords. Now for Act III – how does the King keep the loyalty of his allied Lords? The King is dependent of his Lords to rule – in total, they have the most troops and probably the most wealth. He can keep them in line by force one at a time, but not en mass. In fact, the Lords are natural allies *against* the King, exactly because the King is motivated to try to pick them off one-by-one and take their stuff so that he doesn’t need to keep buying them off – and the Lords know this.

In this game, the King is doomed. There’s no one left to loot, so he can no longer promise his allies spoils, and his allies fear him most of all. Eventually, the game starts over: Some number of Lords get together and pick off some parts of the Kingdom, share out the spoils, and a civil war ensues, etc.

How did this ever end? Potential kings realized that, in order for this to work, the king had to end up not merely being the richest Lord, but his wealth had to dwarf the wealth of any reasonable-sized set of his Lords – a reasonable sized set of Lords being the largest group that could practically get together to oppose him. Eventually, this state was reached.

Anyway, now the game changes – the best strategy for a Lord at this point is to be a loyal subject of the King, to do everything he can to help the king trust him, and, above all, to avoid looking like he might have designs on the throne. The King could pick off any Lord he wanted, and it would be difficult for the other Lords to do anything about it – they’d have to gang up, ambush the guy, and impose a Magna Carta. Or something.

Back to present: there’s really not much difference between an old school King and an unelected military dictator, apart from taste in clothing, except for one thing: there are ways in the modern world to keep getting loot without having to keep conquering people: oil and foreign aide, for example. The key for the military dictator is making sure he’s the spigot through which all this wealth flows – that way, he can buy the loyal and cut off the disloyal, he can pay the troops he needs to keep everybody in line.But is has to be completely under his control – if anyone else can get at the cash without going through him, he’s in trouble.

So, Q.E.D. – military dictators are going to be richest guy by far in the countries they rule, as much as possible controlling every dollar. If they don’t they won’t be around very long.

Finding Your Guy Fawkes

Guy Fawkes was executed in 1606 for conspiring to blow up Parliament, intending thereby to kill the King and the House of Lords, with the goal of replacing James as monarch with his Catholic daughter.

Henry VIII had declared that he was the head of the Church in England in 1534.  From 1534 up until 1606 and beyond, hundreds of men and women were killed for the crime of being Catholic, often hung, drawn and quartered, after having been tortured over the course of days or weeks.

The English had a PR problem that Fawkes went a long way toward solving – the vast majority of Catholics they were executing were people like Thomas More, John Fisher and Margaret Clitherow, people who weren’t crazy, weren’t violent, weren’t traitors in any usual sense and were vastly more sympathetic and believable than Henry or his successors.  Much better to have a guy like Guy, who was easy to portray as a traitor, foreign agent, and violent lunatic – the kind of man it seems almost appropriate to execute in a painful, gruesome and long fashion – rip the entrails out of still-living body, cut off and burn his genitals before his living eyes, tear his body to pieces  – typical of the urbane, sophisticated behavior for which the English are so famous.

Today, I’m thinking about how at least some of us do learn from history – Guy Fawkes enabled the English to enforce their anti-Catholic laws to the fullest, for a while at least.  They got a lot more public sympathy – blowing up Parliament and killing a roomful of people including the King crossed a whole bunch of lines, I’m sure. The Gunpowder Plot allowed for much more vigorous anti-Catholicism, and drained away support for Catholics from what I suppose we should call the Moderates of the era.

So, today, people in favor of getting the government to do their dirty work are always on the lookout for a Fawkes, someone who can be portrayed as crossing too many lines, who can stand in the place of the many people who condemn the Fawkes’ actions but do agree with or are sympathetic to beliefs that motivated, or at least can be plausibly said to have motivated, this Fawkes’ outrageous behavior . With 300 million Americans, no matter what kind of Fawkes you want, you won’t have to wait long.

A Contemporary Education Success Story – Pardada Pardadi School in India

See this article from NPR for the details.

Basic story: Sam Singh is an Indian executive with DuPont, who, at age 60, took half a million dollars of his own money and returned to his ancestral homelands in northern India – and founded a girl’s school on land from his family’s ancient feudal estate. Girls and women are traditionally and routinely mistreated in this impoverished area. Mr. Singh wanted to break this cycle – thus, his school.

The girls learn how to become economically independent, and tend to delay marriage in order to do so. Now, economically valuable and independent of their family, they can free themselves from the cycle of abuse.

So, who can argue with this story? Who doesn’t want girls and women to be treated well? So, Sam Singh is rightly honored for his altruism.

But there’s a more general and problematic facet exemplified by this story: Sam Singh, by providing this school, is trying to kill an existing culture and replace it with one he likes better. In this case, we can all agree that a culture of cruelty and abuse toward women deserves to die, and so we don’t mourn it. Small price to pay for progress, etc. In general, all schooling aims to either support and reinforce an existing culture (religious schools, rural one room schools) or it aims to destroy an existing culture and replace it with something else.  Continue reading “A Contemporary Education Success Story – Pardada Pardadi School in India”

American Education History 101: One Room Schools

The iconic one-room schoolhouse is a good place to start trying to understand the history of education in America. I get the impression most people think that the schooling system we have today is somehow the result of organic growth from the roots of one-room schools, that the sort of schooling described in Anne of Green Gables (Canadian, I know, but same model) developed logically into the ubiquitous Woodrow Wilson Middle Schools of today. This is most definitely not the case.

A good short book on the topic is One Room Schools of the Middle West by Wayne E. Fuller, a professor emeritus of history at the U of Texas El Paso. Much of what follows can be confirmed from that source.

When the teenagers and 20-somethings that made up the vast bulk of the settlers headed West, it wasn’t a free-for-all. The Land Ordinances of 1785 and 1787 established how the land in US lands west of the Appalachians were to be divvied up and sold. All the western lands that the US had claimed under the Treaty of Paris were to be surveyed and divided into 6 by 6 mile squares, with each such square further divided into 36 1-mile squares. Square 16, one of the squares adjacent to the middle of the 6-mile square, was set aside for education  in each of these ‘townships’ . How square 16 was to be so used was not spelled out in any detail, but was left up to the settlers.Therefore, the details may vary from place to place – I’ll just give a typical outline. Continue reading “American Education History 101: One Room Schools”

Christian Iconography: Madonna and Child

You might also want to check out Christian Iconography: the Basics.

Over on Fr. Z’s wonderful blog, the good father discusses a very interesting aspect of western Medieval and early Renaissance Madonna and Child representations – that the Child Jesus has a habit of grabbing His Mother’s veil or, less commonly, cloak:

By Duccio around 1300. A detail:

This gesture of the Christ Child is by no means universal – eastern icons, for example, often have the Child in a rather more formal pose, often issuing a blessing – but it is a strong theme especially in Italy.

Continue reading “Christian Iconography: Madonna and Child”

A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day – John Donne

‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
The world’s whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring ;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness ;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have ;
I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave
Of all, that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown’d the whole world, us two ; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else ; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death—which word wrongs her—
Of the first nothing the elixir grown ;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know ; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means ; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love ; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am none ; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s and the day’s deep midnight is.

UPDATE: Final rewrite to make this a little more scholarly.

Continue reading “A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day – John Donne”

Historically Conditioned Ramble, Pt 1

Sometimes listen to NPR. Terry Gross’s interviews are my favorite item. She should give lessons to all interviewers in whatever format that is she uses, which would consist of 3 things: Shut up and let your guest talk; ask good questions; shut up and let your guest talk.

Anyway, she was talking to some legal scholar a bit back, and the topic of ‘original intent’ came up, and she, very predictably (this is NPR) blessed the notion that, since it is inevitable that issues and situations not covered by the original intent of the drafters would come up, OF COURSE the SCOTUS would need to, you know, sort of make it up as they go, with an implied ‘what can these crazy original intent types be thinking?’.

Now, of course, the issue isn’t really binary: thinking people (especially lawyers) understand that you can’t write everything down, that there will be plenty of situations that require judges to apply law that wasn’t written with the concrete case in front of you in mind, and few ‘living document’ types really, truly believe that the Constitution is a blank piece of paper (although many of our elected officials seem damn close to that POV – it doesn’t count when your behavior is constrained by fear of the people, and that just happens to coincide with some musty legal fundamentalist’s interpretation of the Constitution. That’s called cowardice, not principle.)

What struck me was not that Ms Gross came down on the issue the way she did – news flash! Sun sets in the West – but rather how, given a situation where, from any objective perspective, you’re walking a path between the state whereby intolerable evils persist because no written law applies to remedy them and the state of chaos where the law means whatever any judge happens to feel like it means at that moment, that you’d recognize the dangers on one side of  the issue but totally miss or ignore the trouble lurking on the other.

That path is not all that narrow, but it seems to me to important to recognize you’re on it, and work to stay on it. If all you fear is that some evil might not be redressed because there are as yet no laws available with which to redress it, while not also fearing that judges might confound what they want to see happen with justice (like we all do) and thereby do evil, then you will, frankly, arrive at the current unhappy state of affairs.

Thinking about this in relation to a different but conceptually related notion: that the beliefs of the Catholic Church are ‘historically conditioned’, meaning, it seems,  that any statement of belief can be challenged and overturned based on the assertion that the belief does not represent an eternal truth, but is rather just a data-point of how people at one time and place *understood* a fundamentally ineffable truth that defies any attempt at definitive formulation.

Something like that. There’s probably a cleaner formulation of this concept out there.

Continue reading “Historically Conditioned Ramble, Pt 1”