Russian Cover Band, Hieronymus Bosch, Bach, Western Civ, and all that

There’s no telling what people will find fascinating. A while back, I mentioned Hieronymus Bosch, who is for me a little like a train wreck – can’t justify looking at him, but can’t stop looking, either. Many people these days are fascinated by Bosch’s weird and disturbing pictures, but evidently not as much or any more than his contemporaries. It seems Bosch’s works were copied, and those copies displayed all around Europe. Many of his works were intended as personal devotionals, not big public displays. Public demand to see them evidently led to their being widely copied and publicly displayed.

Bosch died in 1516. That means he was a contemporary of Dürer, Botticelli, and Raphael, among other objectively superior artists. Those artists were copied plenty, too, surely – but people dedicated many hours to copying Boch as well. Bosch, though no slouch, possibly was easier to copy, as Dürer is one of the very greats draftsman of all time, and Botticelli and Raphael are Botticelli and Raphael. Be that as it may – really? You’re an art student or practicing artist, and it’s Bosch you’re going to painstakingly copy? Okey-dokey.

Raphael detail
Botticelli detail
Durer detail
Bosch detail

But it wasn’t just the copyists. Artists went there because it was where the money was. Contemporary reports are that people flocked to look at those copies. Maybe the local cathedral provided all the needed beauty to calm their beauty jonesing, but the gargoyles failed to meet the demand for the disturbingly hideous? 

I mention this to illustrate that popular taste being inexplicable is not a new thing. 

Spending too much time on Youtube. There’s this Russian band that covers songs by the band Chicago. So? Couple of things: Chicago is not an easy band to cover. The musicianship of these Russians is excellent, and their enthusiasm is off the charts. They don’t fake anything – they have the full horn section, a string section, excellent backup vocalists, killer lead guitar player and an awesome drummer. These things alone make them unusual for a cover band. Check this out:


They do Chicago better than  Chicago does Chicago. (1)

Leonid, the mastermind, and the guy who has transcribed all the parts for the players, retired 4 years at the age of 60 in Moscow and decided to do something for fun. So he started getting together with his friends and covering 1970s pop tunes from an American band. As you can see, the ages range from at least their 60s on down to kids in their 20s if not younger – in other videos, the crack string section has some pretty downy-faced kids in it. 

This is not the project of some young, self-identified ‘ironic’ punks. What we have here are people – highly skilled people – spanning three generations, many of whom grew up in Soviet Union, dedicating A LOT of time and energy into mastering the music of of an American band popular when Brezhnev ran the show. 

I admire and have affection for these people. They look a lot like my relative. In fact, you could stick me in a family photo with most of those guys, or them in mine, and we’d fit right in. I suppose the music of Chicago might strike them as embodying everything that’s cool about the West. You could do worse. Their clothing – English language t-shirts, jeans, and the drummer’s ball caps – he  even sports an LA Dodgers’ hat – suggest the music of Chicago isn’t the only Western thing that appeals to them.  

But still, very Russian. I amused myself fantasy casting a Russian revolutionary era film with these guys – you got convincing Bolsheviks and peasants galore, party officials, thugs, an Orthodox priests or two. You’d need to find some stern Russian matrons somewhere. That one chick singer (‘chick singer’ is a term of art) is almost a parody of Slavic beauty, she’s so gorgeous, and so Russian!  Obvious double agent/love interest.

Raining on this love parade – really, just a light drizzle – was the thought that all this care and artistry lavished on some pop tunes is a bit like those souls who carve accurate copies of the Statue of Liberty out of a grain of rice. Or those who copied Bosch. Fascinating, I suppose, but – why? Wouldn’t it be much better if, inspired by Chicago, they spent their efforts creating some kick-ass Russian pop music? Assuming pop music is their thing. Maybe aim a little higher? These folks come from the people who built things like this: 

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While it would amuse me to no end if kids in America became obsessed with Russian pop music – a ‘Russian Invasion’ we could live with – I’d be much happier if we instead imitated them in a mania for building over-the-top cathedrals. 

I’m still mulling over the claim that Western culture has effectively stagnated since the late 1980’s, with nothing truly new and life-altering either in the arts or technology. We just make copies and tweek things around the edges. The whole generation gap idea came about when there really were life altering changes between each generation. One generation was the first to grow up with cars, a revolution in personal travel that marks the line between before and after. Before, people lived at home and rarely traveled more than a few miles in a day, and even then, were limited to destinations along train routes. After, people could travel hundreds of miles in a day to an exponentially greater number of places.  It’s routine. Same sort of thing happened with telegraphs and phones, airplanes and trains, the green revolution and computers. One generation could only communicate slowly if at all, the next is wiring messages near instantly to nearly anyone around the world. 

Now? Despite all the claims of ever increasing progress, this generation has nothing much dramatic to separate its routine experiences from the last generation’s. (Note I’m not convinced here, but this is the argument.) Phones, cars, video games, CGI – all we’ve seen is improvements around the edges. Even the internet is over 20 years old, meaning it already existed when the last generation was coming of age. 

Be that as it may, what is clear is that we live in the Age of Cover Bands. Hollywood is legendarily cannibalistic, or, perhaps more hip: they recycle diligently. Pop music is a formulistic wasteland. New houses are these weird Frankenstein’s Monsters of stitched-together traditional parts  – and they’re better than the new commercial buildings! At least the so-called Renaissance often did a better job copying better examples. After they slandered the true creative genius of the middle ages, they simplified back down to what they fancied to be Roman and Greek examples, while incorporating Medieval advances without footnotes. 

Among the most successful sources being copied today are comic books. I understand that we are not to look down on them, as they contain (or until recently contained) strong stories with dealing with the eternal themes of good and evil, weakness and strength, and beauty and ugliness laid out in a popular, easy to digest format. And comic book writers, for the most part, were inspired by the classic epics and tragedies, so that works derived from comic books could be said to be derived second hand from very great sources. But still – we are not strong enough to demand our very own epics and tragedies written for adults? 

Finally, I am reminded of the curious fate of Bach. By his death in 1750, the classical music style (not ‘classical music’ as a general term, but specifically music written after the fashion popular from the early 1700’s until Beethoven’s death) had taken over, and Bach, with his dense baroque fugues and cantata, was dismissed even by his own sons as being an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy.  Note that until the later works of Mozart, classical music did not get within the ballpark of how sophisticated and adventurous Bach routinely was. Instead, the new classical style introduced during Bach’s lifetime was a simplification, structurally, harmonically, melodically, and emotionally much less complicated than Bach. Early classical music tends to be more emotionally sunny, sometimes relentlessly so. Compare the works of his sons with Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in d-minor. While beautiful, the early classical works do not compare for emotional depth. All that counterpoint and elaborate structure in the Bach are not there to show off. Themes come around again and again, never quite the same, building, like the working out of the soul’s salvation. Awesome is an overworked word. Too bad – that’s what this work is. 

Bach took what he found as the current state of music, and did not set out to refute it, but rather to push it to its ultimate perfection. Bach might roll his eyes hard at that last statement, or maybe punch my lights out (that boy had a temper on him!). He might have put it: I am a musician. By the grace of God, I will do the best I can. It just so happened that he was one of the very few truly great musical geniuses in all history, so that his best was really, really good. 

Bach’s fate was to be disparaged by his own kids and forgotten by his contemporaries, only to be rediscovered by – the great classical musicians! Hayden and Mozart each studied his Well-Tempered Clavier; Beethoven had it down by the age of 11. (I’ve been working my way through it off and on for the last few decades. At the current rate, I’ll have Book I complete by around 2050! Have I mentioned I have very meager musical talents?). These giants were working off hand-copied manuscripts – the WTC was not published until 1801! 

It’s so common to think of Bach as  – correctly – this giant, this colossus tower over the world of music, that it’s sobering to think he was once dismissed and nearly forgotten. Part of the great legacies of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is that they would not let him be forgotten. 

So, there is hope. Hollywood could have a revival by simply rediscovering the pulps, which tend to share the story-telling and moral clarity of comics, but with more room to expand on them. Or, more likely, Hollywood could be put out of business by others who rediscover them. 

The curious pointed often missed about Bach: by sticking to what he loved about music and ignoring the current style, he paradoxically become one of the most creative artists of all time. Musicians are always marveling over the harmonic and melodic twists he routinely comes up with, not to mention his ability to stealth-structure things so that they always sound perfectly complete and satisfying, even though it’s hard to say why, sometimes. Sometimes, to look at it, a piece seems an increasingly complex fugue going round and round and round, not going anywhere. Then you hear it, and it’s perfect. This experience makes complete amateurs like me strongly suspect that when I don’t get Bach – there are some long minor fugues in the WTC that seem a little amorphous, for example – that I’m just not smart enough. 

The lesson I get from all this: stick to your knitting, do what it is you do as well as you can, and, not only will you, by the grace of God, produce good and worthy work, you might even end up being very ‘creative’ and ‘original’ without trying! If you’re a genius, that is.

The late John Taylor Gatto assures us that genius is a common as dirt. 

Wouldn’t it be great if I would follow my own advice? 

  1. The reason they do Chicago better than Chicago does Chicago is that they patently LOVE this stuff – those people are having a blast. I seriously doubt Chicago could muster that level of enthusiasm after a few years of playing these songs in concert over and over and over again. Assuming enough of the band is alive and able to try. Train does Zeppelin better than Zeppelin does Zeppelin for the same reasons.
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Halloween, Hieronymus Bosch & Ephesians

This morning, had a discussion about slavery in the Roman Empire triggered by the Epistle to the Ephesians read this morning at Mass:

Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling,
in sincerity of heart, as to Christ,
not only when being watched, as currying favor,
but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart,
willingly serving the Lord and not men,
knowing that each will be requited from the Lord
for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.
Masters, act in the same way towards them, and stop bullying,
knowing that both they and you have a Master in heaven
and that with him there is no partiality.

The usual commentary here goes something like: here is a revolutionary Christian proposal by Paul, that slaves, who have no rights under Roman law, must still be treated as brothers, and that masters will be judged by God on how well they treat them.

And, of course, this is true, and this new understanding in fact set the stage for the elimination of slavery wherever Christianity held sway. (Of course, given human nature, slavery pops right back up whenever we take our eye off the ball, but one or the other – slavery or Christianity – must prevail.)

I was making the point that understanding slavery under the Romans is a little tricky for Americans, as we have this history of racial slavery, where, because Americans were nominally Christians, they could not justify enslaving other men. Therefore, black Africans had to be thought of as less than men at least to some degree in order to keep the guilt and cognitive dissonance at bay.

The Romans, while as arrogant and bigoted as any conquerors, did not necessarily consider slaves as inferior men just from the fact of their slavery alone. A brave and noble man might just get unlucky, might be cursed by the gods, and simply be on the losing side of a war, and end up a slave through no real fault of his own. This is not to say that Romans didn’t look down on slaves, or treat them terribly – they did – but they did not imagine them a different, fundamentally inferior species. In general.

Also, a vast gulf exited between household slave and agricultural slaves. Sometimes, free men would sell themselves into slavery to a patrician, in order to have some hope of upward mobility – perhaps the nobleman had business interests that he might put the slave in charge of, if the slave proved himself dependable and talented. Then, if all went well, the slave could then buy or have given to him freedom for his children. At least, he probably wouldn’t starve in the meantime.

Agricultural slaves, on the other hand, seem to have been largely treated as animals. I have not run across any stories of agricultural slaves, who made up the vast bulk of slaves under the Empire, working their or their children’s way to freedom. But again, my reading in this area is slight.

Anyway, the only point, and it is a small one, is that it might have been lass shocking to the Romans and their Greek subjects to hear that a slave must be treated as a brother than it would have been for a Southern slave owner. In fact, the American slave owner just refused to hear it.

And this discussion lead, in that ineffable way my mind works, to consideration of Hieronymus Bosch, and why there are not more Halloween costumes and parties based on his works. The connection is that slavery isn’t the only thing that the Romans thought very differently than we do. Their sense of honor doesn’t map exactly to ours, for one thing, and the same noble Roman who would die unflinching for his Republic had most likely a deep and abiding affection for scatological humor. It’s a mistake to think of them in our terms. They inhabited a very different emotional and esthetic universe, it seems.

Hieronymus Bosch inhabited another very weird universe, one that – thankfully, I think – is very different from ours. It’s not just that his work is bizarre and often obscene – that might just be a personal quirk – it’s that his work was enormously popular. For a century after his death, people came to admire it. There are hundreds of copies drawn, painted or sculpted from that time. His work was hung in public places for people to see, and people traveled to see it. People really dug this stuff.

So I hit the web. And the answer is that first, there are plenty of Bosch themed costumes out there, if Google images is to be believed, and, second, that even a few parties along those lines have taken place. So, OK, even in these modern times Bosch has some appeal.

Then, for the first time in years, I looked, like really looked, at some Bosch.

Yikes.

 

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And this is kinda tame. There’s stuff I won’t even put up here. 

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The ice skate/funnel/red cape/yoyo combo really sets off the cross beak/letter look. 

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As a costume, you’d need the right attitude to make that fish head with butterfly wings cape, sword and shield look work. 

And these are some of the less disturbing ones.

As Halloween costume inspirations, it seems to me Bosch would not be very appropriate, at least, under what I hope are modern American sensibilities. For Catholics, we dress up as scary or even evil characters in order to mock them, to show them we no longer fear them. Oh Death, where is thy sting? after all. Bosch does seem to be mocking something. The mockery has a hard time cutting through the disturbing, at least for me.

Conclusion: the 15th and 16th century Netherlanders, and the Germans, Spaniards and Italians who admired and copied Bosch, did not look at the world the same way we do. At least most of us. And I’d frankly like to avoid the ones among us who do.

Voting is Like Taking Out the Garbage

Yes, over-the-top clickbait style title. Just thinking out loud here…

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In order to have civilization, you have to take out the garbage.  When people are few and far between, you can dispose of your refuse any way you want, partly because you’ll likely produce little refuse, and that refuse will be biodegradable or at least ‘natural’, partly because you don’t have many neighbors to complain about it.

But once you get civilized, the root meaning of which is ‘living in cities’, garbage disposal becomes an active concern. Your neighbors very likely will care where you dump your garbage. Your own home will become a dump by default if you don’t make the effort to get rid of that stuff.

No one mistakes taking out the garbage as the purpose of civilized life, even though proper waste disposal is essential to it. Instead, if we think about it at all, we think proper waste disposal is something we all do in order to make and keep space for doing what is more important to us. A comfortable, non-smelly home with places for meals, conversations, sleeping and so forth is the goal on a personal level; on a community level, we want similar standards applied to public places for similar reasons. Therefore, we take steps both for our personal garbage disposal and for methods and places to deal with our collected garbage.

Thus, every city, town and village has its garbage men and dumps. Public piles of trash outside of dumps are a sign that civilization is slipping away or has never completely arrived. Privately, Hoarders, cat ladies and people who never seem to clean up their own messes are a tolerable nuisance, usually, but could become a public issue if their personal garbage gets too far out of hand.

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Oh, the huge manatee!!

Few imagine that their success or excellence in dealing with garbage is a defining characteristic of their personhood. True, out here in California, you will meet the Prius-driving composters who would never use a plastic straw nor fail to recycle a soda can and who thinks anyone who fails at these steps is Destroying the Planet and therefore probably irredeemably eeeeeevil. But even out here, people tend to be more sane than that, and take into consideration other personal factors, such as friends, family, hobbies, and achievements before marking a person for future culling once the right-thinking people achieve their peaceful, righteous totalitarian paradise.

Not so with voting! In two different senses, voting seems to be popularly considered an indispensable sign of full personhood. First, not having the right to vote makes one less than fully human in the minds of many. Second, to some, voting *wrong* makes one an unperson, as evil, stupid and suitable for extermination as people who consciously put plastic straws in the San Francisco Bay.

I contend, rather, that voting is much more like our duty to take out the garbage than it is a defining aspect of full personhood. Voting is something we do for the sake of other, much more important things. It is those important things – family, friends, possessions and the freedom to enjoy them – that give voting its meaning.

Historically, in America, we had a revolution to a large extent over the colonists chafing at the very idea that a government an entire ocean away could make and enforce rules and taxes without so much as a how do you do to the people to be ruled and taxed. Coming from Britain, the colonists had inherited a belief in a commonwealth reflected in common law – the idea that certain rights and duties had been established by centuries of precedent, and that the day to day laws were to reflect and reinforce those precedents. More simply, the English in Britain had one commonwealth, which included peculiarly English laws and traditions, royalty, parliament and so forth, while the English colonists in America had developed, over the centuries prior to the Revolution, a different commonwealth, which included, among other things, the practice of self-government. That the Crown would attempt to unilaterally impose its will with no regard to the colonists’ long-established practices shined a stark light on the fact that America was not the same naturally-constituted Nation as England.

In such an environment, the simple act of voting, of having a say in your own government, took on the sacramental quality of religious dogma. “All men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” – this is a religious dogma in its very formulation. Compare this to the early English practice of having local votes on local issues, such as each man who bore arms got to vote on (local) issues of war: because it was my life I was putting on the line, I get a say. In medieval practice, a woman, or a teenager we might consider a child, might get a vote in local decisions if they were the ranking representative of their family. Voting was more or less tightly bound to personal duties and obligations the voter would be expected to be personally responsible for.

Having a farmer or miller vote on ‘national’ issues or ‘candidates’ made no sense, not the least because the modern idea of a nation or candidate are complete anachronisms when applied to the Middle Ages. Instead, I, the local farmer, owed allegiance to a local lord, who in turn vowed to protect me and mine and to honor our rights. That lord owed allegiance to a greater lord in a similar way. Such allegiances might or might not roll up to a king or emperor someplace, but even such nested loyalties were built upon local, often face to face, loyalties, duties and rights.

The English systems grew out of these medieval roots, and, at the time of the Revolution, weren’t all that far from them. Indeed, the new Republic’s voting ideas reflected those English roots to some extent: State governments selected Senators and Electoral College members however they saw fit; the President therefore worked for the States and only indirectly for the people. The federal judiciary was yet one step further removed from popular vote. Only the House of Representatives was the direct result of state-wide elections.

But this removal of most of the Federal Government from direct election by the People contradicted the dogma that government gains its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, and, even more important, the inescapable corollary that the individual is the sole sacred locus of all legitimate political power. It is clear from the Federalist Papers that insulating the bulk of the government from the whims of voters was an active goal, reflecting the republican idea that we share an inherited commonwealth that is not open to revision by vote. Such a commonwealth included the notion of individual rights, and government of, by and for the People.

The idea of the sovereign individual who reigns supreme via his consent given at the ballot box conflicts not only with the idea of an inherited commonwealth that his vote cannot overrule, but with reality in general. It seems the Founders assumed voters would be like them – men for the most part thoroughly invested in family, children and usually land. Those families, especially those children (“our posterity”) are the direct embodiment of the commonwealth. A voter could only legitimately exercise his franchise to support the commonwealth! A voter votes as a son, father, and husband, or his vote is not legitimate. Those of us who are sons, fathers and husbands get this instinctually.

This conflict between the sovereign individual and the family man produced by and protecting a commonwealth can go one of two ways:  either individual sovereignty becomes THE measure of worth in society such that not having it is being relegated to non-person standing, or voting a secondary or tertiary thing that only has value insofar as it promotes and protects the commonwealth that is the place where individual rights reside.

Further, if we go the sovereign individual route, the commonwealth itself cannot be off limits. We must be able to vote away our rights, for example, or we are not truly sovereign individuals – something completely contrary to what the Founders stated, but an inevitable result of the logic’s gravity.

In the hoary American tradition, we’ve mostly whistled past this issue for 200+ years while sliding with greater alacrity toward sovereign individualism. In a final twist, a large number of the latter-day recipients of the franchise – women, blacks, 18 year olds – choose to vote for various flavors of the idea that the individual is nothing, the masses everything. Inheritances such as free speech and due process are attacked daily – by popularly-elected officials. The gravitational pull of sovereign individualism toward destruction of the commonwealth is not just a theory.

Under a republican understanding, where a Republic consists of a common wealth held by all to the benefit of all, a citizen does not need to be defined as a voter. Citizens are all those who share fully in the benefits of the commonwealth. Voting becomes the means to an end: the protection and promotion of the commonwealth for the sake of family, and, particularly, our posterity. It would be absurd from this view to pit the right to vote against duty to family and Republic, since voting exists for the sake of those things. Under this view, voters should be those who are best situated to defend the Republic. The idea that voting could be allowed to drive a wedge between members of the same family would be a horror, or at least wildly counterproductive.

Rather than the ultimate expression of our full adult personhood, voting is more like taking out the trash. It needs to be done in order to have a civilization, but it is not that which defines us a full adults.

Finally, sovereign individualism flies in the face of reality in another sense: we Americans with few exception spend tiny amounts of time and effort on voting. If we really believed voting is the highest expression of our human dignity, maybe we’d hold votes more often that once every year or two? Maybe get the week before election day off to allow proper study of the issues and candidates? Perhaps have quarterly or monthly holidays on which to hold local meetings to discuss politics and try to understand our neighbors? In other words, shouldn’t we ACT a little more like voting is all-important if we claim to believe it is?

(Just realized I almost went full Starship Troopers here…)

 

 

A Further Thought on Politics & History

Yesterday’s post got off leash and wandered, going places I didn’t start out intending to go. Nothing wrong with that, or, rather, nothing wrong with it that isn’t also wrong with about 95% of the content on this here blog. That said, let’s take up the theme again, see where it goes this time.

I posited that there are two consistent themes in America’s political history, one of which believes that all problems can be solved if the right people – good, forward-thinking people – have overwhelming power. The power is required to be overwhelming, as there exist Bad People who must be overwhelmed. In fact, the problem definition of those who embrace this line of thought always, as in, always, contains the idea that it is only bad people who oppose them, that good people would never dream of opposing them.

Thus, we have a dichotomy: the rhetoric used by such people will always be about justice, fairness, the little people, and how their goals would be simply achievable, inevitable, even, except for the bad people who lie, bully and obfuscate in order to stop them. The rhetoric is ultimately moral; with all morality on the side of those on the team, and complete immorality the defining characteristic of the opposition.

But: the concrete actions proposed are always, as in always, a power grab; the methods are almost without exception immoral by any objective measure. The likes of Dewey and Alinsky even acknowledge this when they denounce any who would hesitate to lie, manipulate or do any other evil to further the cause. Freire, among others, makes it clear that there are no rights except those gained by commitment to the Cause. While life and property are the obvious targets – we kill you and take your stuff  being the logically inevitable next step of these self-appointed messiahs – the right one might imagine one has to be told the truth is, in practice, the first victim of effort. As Dewey, taking a break from re-architecting our modern school system, said in his defense of the Russian Revolution, the end is all that matters; the collective means everything, the individual nothing.

As, I think, Zinn, of all people, points out: the Puritans fled relative religious freedom in England and Europe in order to establish their own theocracy in America. Be that as it may, the founders of Harvard were graduates and professors from Cambridge miffed that that hoary institution wasn’t Puritan enough, but still tolerated less pure and Puritan ideas. So off to America they go, to set up a proper Calvinist state. Per Wikipedia’s article on Harvard: 

A 1643 publication gave the school’s purpose as “to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers shall lie in the dust”; in its early years trained many Puritan ministers. It offered a classic curriculum on the English university model‍—‌many leaders in the colony had attended the University of Cambridge‍—‌but conformed to the tenets of Puritanism. It was never affiliated with any particular denomination, but many of its earliest graduates went on to become clergymen in Congregational and Unitarian churches.

The ‘never affiliated with any particular denomination’ is an odd claim – when the stated goal is to provide replacements for ‘our present ministers’ and the state is an arm of the Church, as it most certainly was in colonial Boston, what would ‘never affiliated’ mean? Also, one might get the impression from the way the above is worded that Congregational and Unitarian ministers were trained together at Harvard in a lovely gesture of ecumenism. What actually happened was that around 1800, a battle raged between the ‘almost certainly damned and there’s nothing you can do about it’ Calvinist Congregationalist and the ‘we’re all saved and there’s no way for us not to be’ Univeralists, which was ultimately won by the Universalists. Because Universalists, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, don’t really believe anything, Harvard quickly fell to the secularists. (1)

The point here is that, while what has proved to be the superficial aspects of religion have been shed, the core belief that, if only they were in charge, the leaders of the Harvard community would bring about some sort of paradise on earth has persisted unabated, and, having shed the restraints of even Calvinist Christianity, is even more hell-bent on the destruction of its enemies.

While really truly Calvinist Puritans despised all other beliefs, believing Methodists, for example, almost certainly damned, they shared with other Protestants a particular hatred of Catholicism. They (we) were the real enemy, the Church the whore of Babylon. Over the last century or so, many ‘good’ Catholics have fallen under the sway of Harvard, and will, as the price of sitting at the cool kid’s table, embrace the project.

Of course, not everyone gets to go to Harvard. But there are workarounds. Early in the 19th century, Harvard ditched its ‘classic curriculum on the English university model‍’ and refashioned itself into a research or Prussian-model University, after the then-new University of Berlin. In the 18th century, various president and scholars at Harvard had prided themselves on their mastery of Latin and the classics; commencement speeches were delivered in Latin. But this began to pass away, as Harvard lost its religious drive and replaced it with the Prussian model’s research drive. It became much more important to discover new things, to advance mankind, than to pass on old things such as Latin and the classics.

As the oldest and most successful University in America, and as the source of key faculty and administration to other American colleges, Harvard was the model to follow. Publish or perish. Get in line with Progress. We are centuries smarter than those old guys anyway.

Everybody learns this wherever they go to school in America. (2)

The dominant position of this take has made assuming those who do not share it are ignorant, stupid and evil as easy as falling down for those who accept it. You, the true believer, owe them nothing but contempt. Following Marx, you would assume there is practically no chance you can awaken them to the enlightened truth, although, out of the goodness of your heart you might try. That’s how it happens that we who disagree get lectured on what we believe by those hoping to convince us, and dismissed with ad hominems when we push back. You either get it and are woke, or you don’t and are broke beyond repair.

The other thread mentioned yesterday, the one championed by Washington and the writers of the Federalist Papers, is the ferocious commitment to being free from tyrants of any flavor. To such a one, the most pathetic belief possible is that today’s wannabe tyrant, arriving in the fullness of time and one the Right Side of History, cares, really cares, about Justice, Fairness and all that is good, and will only inflict the degree of harm on our enemies that is necessary to achieve the Good.

Having seen the world operate under tyrants, under Central Committees and Committees for Public Safety and Five Year Plans, having read about Athens and Florence and Paris and the whiplash of mob rule to tyranny to aristocracy and back, and all the innocents destroyed and all the wealth robbed and wasted, we aren’t buying that now, finally, it will work of only we put a nice man like Bernie in charge. He’ll only seize the wealth of those who have too much (presumably more than three houses and a net worth of a couple million, but I’m sure that’s flexible…) and give it to those who deserve it!

What could go wrong? We, the Enlightened, the Woke, simply won’t repeat the results of EVERY OTHER ATTEMPT THROUGH ALL OF HISTORY to anoint a secular savior. We just won’t, and you’re a meanie, an unenlightened bad  person to even bring it up.

Is it any wonder the Bern wants college for everyone?

  1. I’ve long noticed something I call the Christian Hangover, where those who have drunk deeply of Christian ideals typically stay drunk on them for a generation or even two, all the while claiming their behaviors are not based on Christianity. Thus, we often see rabid atheists, at least for the first generation or even two, behaving more or less like traditional Christian gentlemen. It falls to their children or sometimes grandchildren to reach the logical conclusion that gentlemanly behavior is stupid under their current beliefs. This is why it is a good thing atheists have so few children. Harvard kept up appearances until almost 1900. It went from demanding traditional moral behavior from its staff – a manifestation of its internalized Puritanism – to tolerating bad behavior if you kept it quiet, to tolerating bad behavior out in the open to, today, demanding the enthusiastic embrace of immorality as a condition of employment. Increase Mather’s corpse is doing about 1,000 RPMs.
  2. With, one hopes, the exception of the Newman List schools and some of the committed Evangelical schools. And maybe St. John’s College.

Actual versus Potential: Aristotle and Quantum Probability

I only understand maybe 50% (and that may be optimistic) of the esteemed William Briggs’ latest post, but must share: Quantum Potency & Probability.

Here’s my take on the issue: I’ve heard most of my life about how, at a quantum level, reality is probabilistic. What this seems to mean to people propounding it is that reality, viewed on a fine enough level, is not governed by the laws of cause and effect, nor even by the law of noncontradiction. Things can come into being and pass out of being for no reason; and some things can truly be said to both be and not be at the same time in the same way.

To be fair, it’s not often put exactly like that, but it sometimes seems to be. ( As is almost always the case, the better the scientist, the more careful they are about how they express themselves. Heisenberg was a great scientist, and so he was generally careful. His acolytes, and especially those who use him as a club with which to beat their enemies, not so much.) And to honest, as mentioned above, it’s not like I understand the math or even the finer points of the experimentation that is claimed to lead to these assertions. What I do understand is that math is not reality, however useful and even indispensable math may be to our understanding and using of the world.

In his book on the philosophy of statistical analysis Uncertainty: the Soul of Modeling, Probability and Statistics (which I still need to reread and review here! Time eats life, as some French dude once said) Dr. Briggs takes great care to distinguish between epistemology – how we understand things – and ontology – how things are. Applied mathematics belongs to the world of epistemology. I am reminded of a section of the Feynman lectures where he pauses after having filled a couple large blackboards with equations to note that it sure took a lot of math to describe what was, essentially, a simple motion, and that nature in doing what it does certainly isn’t doing all that math.

Related imageAnd, for me, that is the point. Just because quanta are nigh impossible to see and measure and appear to behave in incomprehensible ways doesn’t mean that their states are not caused, nor that they are anything other than what they are regardless of what we are able to deduce about what they are. It is a radical and unnecessary step, and contradicts the minimalist approach embodied in Occam’s Razor, to assume a new principle: that there are classes of uncaused phenomena, not just phenomena the causes of which we don’t yet understand.

The discussion on Dr. Briggs’ blog is far more nuanced and deep than my feeble understanding. One part I do understand, and which is commonly discussed on this blog: Insofar as science actually advances, they are following Aristotle and not any of the post 1630 philosophers. (1) Hylomorphism – the understanding that any object in the real world that we can consider is made up of form and matter – is, of course, how science routinely understands the world, even if the terminology has been beaten out of it. Modern science desperately wants there to be material and efficient causes only, and so does its best to pretend that there are no formal or final causes. This results in the absurdity of saying, for example, that a bird’s wings are not *for* flying, that it is not possible to describe them in terms of how they are to be used.

Of course, nobody talks this way except when pushed to the wall. But our analytic philosopher comrades, living on the cutting edge of the early Enlightenment, must insist that we don’t know and can’t meaningfully talk about formal and final causes lest we fall into the trap of *gasp* metaphysics. Can’t have that. Can’t live without it, either, but that just makes them mad.

Anyway, the most fascinating idea:

Additionally, hylomorphism entails a gradual spectrum of material beings with greater degrees of potentiality to greater degrees of actuality. Something has greater actuality if it has more determinate form (or qualities) and something has higher potency if it is more indeterminate with respect to being more receptacle to various forms. For example, a piece of clay has higher potency insofar as it is more malleable than a rock and thus more receptacle to various forms. A rock can likewise be modified to receive various forms, but it requires a physical entity with greater actuality or power to do so because it has more more determinate form as a solid object… [H]ylormophism predicts that you will find higher levels of potency because you are getting closer to prime matter. This is precisely what we find in QM. The macroscopic world has more actuality, which is why we experience it as more definite or determinate, whereas the microscopic world has far less actuality, thereby creating far less determinate behavioral patterns.

Briggs quoting Gil Sanders “An Aristotelian Approach to Quantum Mechanics” (which I haven’t read yet, but will). My paraphrase: the higher up a thing is on the scale of being – the more ensouled, the more natural in the sense of having a fuller nature – the more primary is form. The lower one goes, the less primary is form. Thus I am a human animal, among the most natural objects in the universe, one where over my 60 years has had pretty much all the matter in my body swapped out one or more times. Yet no one sane doubts that my form – human animal – has persisted through all those changes. Once we get down to barely perceptible objects, we barely are able to perceive their form at all – all we can see are the mysterious undulations of prime matter as various forms subsume it. And this is what an Aristotelian would expect: less or lower forms, less nature, less definition.

Mind blown. I’m going to need to think this over a lot.

  1. 1630, more or less, is the year Descartes retreated to his room, drew the curtains, contemplated his navel and started producing the anti-Thomist philosophy that spawned all the crap since. I wouldn’t object to using 1517 as the real start date, but it’s Easter Week! We’re playing nice!

Space: In Search of…?

Taking a break this week from crying woe and attacking my friends and ancestors to get all skiffy, asking the Question That Shall Not Be Asked Too Loudly: why do we want to explore space, again?

Sure, I get the adventure and romance part, and space pirates buckle my swash right up, but, really: why?

Consider: here is the first of a few videos, well worth the hour they take to watch, of a bunch of nuts building a traditional 18th century trading ship.

By the time you get to the launch, you’ll have seen many men spend many hours cutting trees, shaping timbers, bending planks, applying tar and hemp caulking, forging fixtures and nails and otherwise engaging in feats of manly craftsmanship. Getting from a design to a plan to an ocean-going vessel made of wood is dazzling. And, even in modern times with modern tools, pretty expensive.

Or this, to take it back a few centuries, the classic viking long ship, the big version known as a dragon ship:

Amazing and beautiful ship. Aside: the Vikings generally used bog iron to forge the iron nails on their ships. When iron-rich water drains into bogs, the iron tends to settle out into accumulations of iron-rich ores. All it takes to get this stuff is slopping around in bogs with a shovel and something to carry the ore in. Evidently, finding the deposits was a combination of skill and luck.

After you’ve collected enough ore, you’ll need to heat it and crush it. Many times as much wood as ore is needed to melt it down, so somebody is cutting  A LOT of firewood. (Aside on the aside: it is claimed that the Zulus, who were master iron workers, created a lot of grasslands and deserts by cutting down forests of trees to fire their smelters.)  Then build a clay furnace, heat the crushed ore in the furnace for many hours, including pumping some sort of manual bellows, until the dross (liquid rock!) flows off and you’re left with a bog iron bloom – a lump of very impure iron. A team of smiths alternately heat (meaning: somebody cut down and gathered yet more wood) the bloom and hammer out the impurities. You heat and pound for hours until you’re left with a few pounds of usable iron – from which you can forge a few nails.

A dragon ship needed hundreds of iron nails. Building wooden ships: a labor and resource intensive exercise.

Or, going back as far as we can in the West, bronze-age stitch ships:

People cut down huge oaks with bronze hand tools, and then carved those oaks into the pieces needed, fitted them and tied them together to make boats that could ply the English Channel. Again, fabulous amounts of labor and ingenuity.

Those 18th century Indiamen came back laden with spices and other valuables. The Dragon Ships came back with booty as well as trade goods. Even the stitch ships seem to have been used to ship out English tin and other trade goods and bring back copper or bronze. But a lot of those ships, and the people on them, didn’t come back. Every trip was a life and death adventure. People had to really want to go for these trips to take place at all, even apart from the enormous investment it took to build the ships.

People will put tremendous effort and take huge risks if there is a payoff at the end. Only rarely will people spend a lot of time and money just to see what’s out there. Even then, what they want to know is if there are goods out there worth the trouble of getting. The Age of Exploration was the age of finding and getting stuff worth getting. It would have ended pretty quickly or followed a much different trajectory if it weren’t for the spices and gold and other goodies that came flooding back to Europe.

Back to space travel. I read once that the moon rocks brought back by the landing missions have mostly sat in boxes collecting dust. Once a few were thoroughly analyzed and found to be very ordinary, science mostly lost interest in them. Be that as it may, so far, we have not discovered anything in space worth the cost and risk of getting it. Reality check. People love to speculate on the value of certain asteroids, and start in predicting that we might go fetch those big rocks full of valuable metals. And maybe we can. It won’t be easy or cheap.

So, once the blush of conquest fades, why do we want to explore space? People, seems to me, are grasping at straws: we’re going to use up the earth! Too many people! We need to spread out or we’ll all die!

Where to even start. Carrington Event, anyone? That’s when the sun emits enough radiation to fry anything in space out to the orbit of Mars. They happen quite regularly, just rarely hit the earth – a planet with a thick atmosphere and a strong magnetic field. Which is why there are still people here. Out in space, or on the moon, or on Mars – not so good. The people in the International Space Station know that, should a Carrington Event happen while they’re up there, they’re not coming home alive.

Same goes for people in transit, people in space habitats, or maybe people on Mars if they’re facing sunward at the time it hits. Maybe we can figure it out, maybe not. The Carrington Event hit in 1859, so we’re 160 years without anything quite so big. Due? Overdue? Don’t think anybody really knows.

I mention this merely to point out that space is, if anything, even more inhospitable than people seem to think. It’s not just the freezing vacuum and occasional bits of high-speed rubble that can kill you. Remember the galactic capital of Trantor from Asimov’s Foundation series? He imagined it as located somewhere near the galaxy’s heart. These days, astronomers strongly suspect that the galaxy’s core is a black hole, and in any event that the denser inner part where most of the stars are is bathed in enough radiation to render it uninhabitable by us. It may just be the case that only out here on the fringes of the spiral arms, the sticks, as it were, are things calm enough long enough for life to survive.  That’s not counting the more local difficulties, like novas, neutron stars and black holes, which will make their local neighborhoods very inhospitable.

But forget about all that. Just focus on how valuable something would have to be in order for people to build some way of going into outer space to get it. In Dune, Herbert imagines a drug that confers long life and way cool mind powers on people – that’s the spirit! I can see people risking their lives and spending a trillion or two to get something like that.

But it had better be relatively close by. If it’s not in or very near our own solar system, we’d have a situation where the generation that footed the bill and took the risks is dead long before the payoff. Taking a look at people in general, most of us have trouble planning ahead two weeks, or caring about what happens in 10 years. All of the sudden, we’re going to start investing planetary-level resources into ventures with a payoff (if any) generations in the future?

So: what reasons do we propose for people to venture out into space? Here’s my list of ideas that are at least usable for SFF:

  • Romance/adventure: people just want to go because they can. This is Elon Musk and the thousands who signed up for that one-way trip to Mars he proposed.

People – I suspect some very small subset of people, when the rubber hits the road – really, really want to explore strange new worlds, etc. They imagine they are Columbus, heading off into the great unknown, and that something like a New World awaits them.

This works, to some extent, if they are or know billionaires. An industry, such as the shipbuilding industries described above, will not spring up to fund these romantic adventures unless there’s money in it. Columbus had to bring back the goods to keep the exploration flowing. Governments just might do it, but romance and adventure don’t commonly figure into the motivations of governments.

Problems: such people are not rational. Musk and others try to dress it up with reasons such as the ‘need’ to spread out to preserve the species (it’s that payoff in generations thing again) or maybe finding something valuable enough to warrant the expense. Bottom line, such people are hopeless romantics. That one-way ticket to the imagined Mars colony is a death sentence, probably much sooner than later. Even if it works, you’d be living inside a camp or in holes in the ground, trying not to suffocate, freeze or starve. Assuming you survive the trip. People are going to stay sane under these conditions?

Other romance/adventure scenarios are at least this bad. You want to live on/in an orbital structure or asteroid? For something like a few trillion dollars, we could build a nice habitat in space, and a few thousands of people could live there until something hits it, a Carrington Event, a system failure – assuming we can solve the Biosphere 2 problems.  Which we have not yet done, nor are there efforts to fix them or even understand them actively underway. Weird, huh?

  • Spice/Stroon/That Very Valuable McGuffin.

Sure, that’ll work. Now find it before you’ve driven earth into penury.

Note that asteroid mining, which is still more than a little dubious as an economic activity, isn’t really exploring space in the sense that science fiction imagines it. At best, it’s an excuse to set up bases and space stations. Economically, what you’d want to do would be to send robot drones to capture and redirect asteroids into more convenient orbits, maybe with robot refineries on them to extract the valuable materials.

What is utterly uneconomical is to send people up there to do this. Why? It’s dangerous, boring work that is ideal for a robot which needs neither food nor air and can easily survive high G’s.

So, we’d need to be talking about something much more valuable than minerals, and something that somehow requires physical human intervention.

  • Alien life, intelligent or not.

I imagine the lure of alien life would be too great to resist for long. If we knew for sure, somehow, that non-terran life existed anywhere we could get to, I think we’d go.

  • Pulling a geographic. Grass is always greener.

Upon consideration, this seems to me to be about the best, most realistic reason for exploring and colonizing space. It works well with and even largely overlaps the Romance/Adventure motive.

We all know or are this person. Many, many people at some point in their lives just want to leave. They will talk themselves into some reason for wanting to leave, but the basic motivation is that feeling that if they could just leave, they would leave their troubles behind.

Let us imagine a surplus economy. We are effectively there, barring major wars or the advent of universal socialism. Everybody is fed, clothed and housed. Nobody works themselves to death unless they want to.

Let us further imagine a civil war between, oh, let’s call them the Party of Death and the Party of Life. (It should not need to be pointed out that these groups do not at all correspond to any current political parties.) The outcome is better than we have any reason to hope: the Party of Life wins its freedom, but allows the Party of Death to exist so long as it does NOTHING to interfere with the free functioning of families and the government instituted by them. You know, to ensure domestic tranquility and secure rights for us and our posterity? No messing with that. Otherwise, you can live your self-destructive, hedonistic lives as long as you keep it to yourselves.

Since the future belongs to those who show up for it, this may not be too far-fetched to at least work as SF&F: those hellbent on their own destruction lash out and destroy – but they don’t have many children. Those dedicated to their families and kids don’t destroy things and do have children. Choosing one course means you are not represented in the future; choosing the other means you are.

The civil war is won when the Party of Death loses control of the government, the schools, and, as a result, of the media and entertainment industries. In my fantasy here, a relatively small number of people die – some when the Party of Life is finally pushed to fight back, some few especially deserving individuals are lined up and shot at dawn due to a (slight) excess of fervor on the part of the victors. But not much real war, as the people with the guns – cops, soldiers – will mostly very much want to stay out of it, and are more sympathetic to the Party of Life anyway.

Hey, it’s my fantasy.

Imagine a world where there are many hardworking people devoted to their families, who now hold power to the extent of vetoing policies and programs that harm them, yet there are also millions of people who want no part of this family nonsense, and are left to destroy themselves in a million ways, if they insist.

More to have something to do and dream about than anything else, such a culture might build generation ships to explore and colonize the stars. So we burn a trillion dollars building such ships and perhaps giant space lasers to help propel them…

It’s not like we don’t burn a trillion here or there even now.

And people will go. Romance, adventure, and the desperate hope that you can leave your troubles behind will drive them.

You can never really leave your troubles behind. Unless you die, which may or may not lead to other troubles.

Thoughts?

Thought on Black Panther

Some minor spoilers ahead.

As part of a 14 year old’s birthday party, saw Black Panther last night.

Image result for black panther movie
Ok, maybe just the Alps. But, seriously?

It was pretty OK. Beautiful to look at and very well acted (if you ignore what I suppose is supposed to be everybody’s generic ‘African’ accent). But I got up at one point to use the men’s room, and all I seemed to miss was how the Himalayas ended up in central Africa. (Really –  isn’t Kilimanjaro the only peak in equatorial Africa that ever gets any snow? Or did I miss a geography lesson? Or are we hiding major mountain ranges now?)

Couple thoughts:

Viewed as mythology,  the Black Panther is fascinating. I’m not much of a comic book or classic pulp guy, most of what I know I got from movies and hearing other people talk about them.  Take that into consideration here.

It seems that the archetype for an American hero is either a vigilante fighting as much against a corrupt system and against bad guys, or a tragic yet honorable character who finds himself the possessor of mystical powers. With of course some overlap. Batman versus Superman, I suppose. Or The Shadow versus Spiderman. Philip Marlowe versus the Cisco Kid? Either way, a lone man, or a lone man with a tiny support team, takes on Evil for the sake of Justice. In Superman’s case, that would be defending the innocent. In Batman’s, part of the tragedy is his love for a city full of the not-so-innocent. Both are good men, motivated in the end by a desire to do good. They are only accidentally public figures.

The Black Panther isn’t one of these. He’s a king, and not just a king but an absolute monarch. His kingdom depends on his virtue for its survival – and not just his, but his ancestors back for thousands of years! The only thing holding him in check are tradition, especially ancestor worship, and some sort of mysticism. The only laws shown to constrain him at all were laws of ceremonial combat – which merely determined who got to be absolute monarch.

As if that isn’t enough fantasy for one movie, it is also imagined that this little nation that could have easily conquered the world given its massive tech advantage, didn’t because something something. Instead, they use all that tech to hide so that, evidently, Wakandans can buy colorful hand-woven baskets from each other in open markets when they’re not inventing nanotech.

(Aside: were the war rhinos a nod to Jared Diamond? He speculates in Guns, Germs, and Steel that the Zulus, who for centuries had better steel tech than contemporary Europeans, might have conquered Europe if they’d only had domesticable mounts  – he even used rhinos as his example!)

In real life, African mysticism has never constrained Africans from slaughtering each other, in the same way neither Buddhism nor Christianity have succeeded in stopping Asians and Europeans from slaughtering each other. But we accept it, somehow, like we accept Superman’s race being super just and peaceful when they’re not blowing up planets (as mentioned above, I’m fuzzy on the details here.) It makes the Black Panther and his people as alien in this respect as the natives of Krypton.

Clearly, Black Panther is meant to some extent as a departure from American superhero stories. I think the better comparison goes back much farther. Camelot leapt to mind as a better match. Not perfect, by any stretch, but better.

Arthur is a king like no other. He seeks first Justice, and the reform and improvement of those around him. His mythical kingdom is an island of high ideals in a sea of brutality and bloodshed. Fabulous and magical weapons are everywhere. The land he trod is in some sense hidden and impossible to exactly locate.  His downfall and the downfall of his kingdom is due to his personal weaknesses as embodied by Mordred.

And that’s about it. With the Gawain from the Orkneys and Palamedes the Saracen, Arthur’s court was symbolically drawn from the ends of the earth, not a monoculture hidden in secret. Arthur came from flawed parents and left a destroyed kingdom behind him – no mythology of millennia of practical perfection.

Yet we await the Once and Future King, who will be God’s chosen instrument to set things aright. That’s the core mythology that Black Panther shares. His inhuman moral strength contrasts with Arthur’s clear personal failings. The vague mysticism that somehow guides T’Challa to seek justice and refrain from exercising his absolute monarchy to his personal benefit contrasts greatly with the concrete demands of Arthur’s Catholicism which Arthur concretely fails.

Of course, people are mostly talking politics. I have my doubts: an absolute monarchy that bans all refugees and refuses all trade with the outside world? Talk about border control. The happy ending isn’t a scene where millions of impoverished Africans cross into Wakanda and are welcomed and taken care of, but rather Wakanda sending way-cool aircraft to Oakland and delegations to the UN. Ummmm – what?

The best part: a black boy is deprived of his father and inheritance and grows up to be a psychopathic mass killer. The man, a king, no less, deprives this child of his father then abandons him to his fate when it was well within his power and was his duty to care for him. This act of betrayal ends up almost costing that man his own son and almost destroys his kingdom. N’Jadaka is pretty much Mordred, in other words. That all this begins in Oakland is almost too broad. The message here would be?

Possibly the weakest part of the movie is N’Jadaka’s sort of reconciliation with T’Challa at the end. We are given the ‘this is a bad, bad man’ scenes that make N’Jadaka not just a bad man, but an insane, evil man – he simply kills his lover in cold blood to get at Klaue  and shows not the slightest remorse over this or any other of his dozens of kills. Yet, he gets almost soft at the end. Next to the fantasy elements of an absolute and absolutely virtuous monarch of an invisible country, this deathbed conversion of sorts is the least realistic thing about the movie. That, and the Himalayas.

Anyway, rough outline of what’s going through my mind at the moment. Subject to revision as my loyal readers point out just how crazily I missed EVERYTHING about this flick. 😉