Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Hate the War but Blame the Warrior

"Nothing will end war unless the people themselves refuse to go to war."
                                                    ---Albert Einstein

While it is true that the ideal of pacifism has never in history held territory for long, its progress has only ever been checked by a failure of courage and imagination.

Just as it was once a failure of human imagination to believe that all men are equal under the law, so slavery became the habitual practice of empires.  Yet, slavery was at one time a legitimate institution, as seemingly a natural state of affairs as bathing or eating lunch at noon.

But it is not to governments, nor to society as a whole, that the blame for war belongs entirely.  Its greatest abettor, its contributor with the greatest failure of imagination, and the entity that always grants it legitimacy and a solemnity that may never be questioned, remains the common soldier.

War is a cumulative enterprise, and the lowly private is its primary unit.  Amid the camaraderie, the drills, and drink, it is quickly forgotten that that enterprise is first and foremost to kill.  That it is done on an industrial scale merely aids the soldier, granting him the impersonal quality of an assembly line worker.  Each plays his little part, but the end product is death.

Who is the "common" soldier?  Whether well educated or not, he typically has only a tenuous grip upon reality.  In the often positive sense, he is a Romantic with an unrealistic view of the world, guided by naivety and good intentions, almost all of which to be subsequently smashed by the realities of war.  There is little depth to his field of vision.

On the other end of the scale lies the animal lust for bloodshed and little else.  I am reminded of current West Point students, who upon being interviewed expressed their anxiety that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would end before they could join in the fray.  Such sentiments recall those of other West Pointers of over a hundred and fifty years ago before the slaughter of civil war taught them a lesson experience could only teach.

And then there are those stragglers between who enter service, almost always in peacetime, either to escape or postpone adult responsibility, to further their careers in the private sector or, from the sheer ego boosting rush of having other human beings like slaves at their command.  Not such an unsound analogy for, they do as slaves do, serve and die when ordered.  "Theirs not to reason why,/Theirs but to do and die." as Tennyson so chillingly depicted.  Freethinking has never been an admired quality in soldiers, except perhaps the officer corp.

Let me be clear, I make a distinction between that business of the state, War, and the more local or personal matter of self-defense.  I would not advocate absolute pacifism, except upon religious grounds.  Rather, I wish to point out that the motivations of a government to go to war are seldom to be trusted.  The dealing of arms is a trade unlike any other.  Few consumers would be happy to buy a product who's purpose was to maim and kill.  Yet, billions in tax dollars are spent each year to finance new ways of doing just that.  In a nation in which only the wealthy can run for office, the vested interests of corporations who produce those arms should not be overlooked.  To paraphrase Clausewitz: War is profit by other means.  Their representatives lobby for more funds, their government sponsors in turn agitate fear, and there has not been a sitting president yet who wished to appear soft on national defense.

In all of this, where stands the common soldier?  Ignorant, self-righteous, or with noble intent, he or she is an enabler of this condition.  And no matter how well intentioned their action's, history has shown the road to war is often paved with them.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Wacca Wacca

Having just read an excellent article by Susan Jacoby on the inevitable intrusion of religion into science and vice versa, I could not help but expand upon her mention of the vaccine controversy.  The term derives from the Latin for cow, Vaccus, (pronounced as a "W") as it was cow pox, and the milk maid's apparent immunity from the disease, which first gave Dr. Edward Jenner the clue that something was going on.  From the start Jenner had his critics, and anti-vaccine crusaders have been with us ever since, so the good doctor would be unsurprised to find the world two hundred years on still up in arms over his discovery, though, he might find it odd to see a woman at its head.

Just as the past anti-vaccinators were led by the misinformed and self-righteous, today's mob is led by one time prostitute ah, Playboy Playmate, and occasional actress, Jenny McCarthy.  Ms. McCarthy is enraged because she believes her son was stricken with autism, due to her own post hoc fallacy of connecting the disorder by way of invisible dots only she, and the holy few, can see back to a vaccine.  That the evidence vaccines cause autism is non-existent has not stopped her from asserting her own medical knowledge as superior to seasoned professionals.

A more important question McCarthy should be asking is, not whether vaccines cause autism but, how does a role in the hay with a wealthy octogenarian in a bath robe grant one an instant medical degree?  Or, alternatively, she might reflect upon the religious arguments of her past partners in idiocy, and conclude that God has afflicted her son for the sin's of the mother.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Carnival of Creatures: Conrad von Gesner

CONRAD VON GESNER was one of those curious souls who could have known everything about anything, in an age when such a possibility was unlikely.

Born in 1516, to a Swiss furrier, he did not have a promising start. His father died in the second Battle of Kappel in 1531, during the Swiss Catholic and Protestant wars, leaving his family with little by way of inheritance. However, young Gesner was blessed with good friends who saw his potential and paid for his education. It did not take long for him to justify their generosity.

By the age of 29 he compiled, in four volumes, his Bibliotheca universalis, a bibliographical compendium of all printed editions of the classics in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. It remains an invaluable resource for our knowledge of the early years of printing. His other contributions included a study of 130 languages, the Mithridates, numerous works in botany, mineralogy, lexicography and, true to the prudery of his Protestant upbringing, a censored edition of the notoriously bawdy poet Martial.

For his accomplishments in so many diverse fields Gesner earned the sobriquet, the “German Pliny”, after the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, who compiled the first reference book of the natural world. Pliny, who famously said: “There is no book so bad that some good cannot be got out of it”, was certainly a spiritual antecedent, for Gesner’s greatest achievement, and still his most famous book, remains his Historia animalium, a work of similar encyclopedic proportions.

He was the first since Aristotle to collect and classify all known vertebrate animals. Even today, to undertake such a task collectively would be daunting. This individual effort by Gesner would even dwarf, in its design, the later efforts of John Audubon, a man who would only encompass one part of the animal world. However, despite the size of the project, Gesner was not entirely on his own. His remarkable gift for friendship allowed him to correspond with many of the leading minds of his time. This network of learned men allowed Gesner to gather information and specimens from across the continent. Their generosity was not forgotten when it came time to publish, as every contributor was acknowledged for their role.

The work was divided into five parts. Each species was categorized alphabetically, an inefficient practice, although not unusual for the period, as proper scientific classification would not come into use for another two centuries. Many species were grouped together by no other criterion other than size, while the inclusion of mythical beasts such as mermaids, a unicorn, dragons and a host of other fabled creatures, has done much to discredit Gesner as a naturalist. However, he would point out that such things were expected by his audience and, though they were not proven at that point in time, they may yet be uncovered at some future date.

The descriptions of each animal were divided under eight heads: The name of the animal in all languages, both ancient and modern, its anatomy, habitat and geography, stages of development and procreation, diseases, habits and behaviors, medicinal use, general usefulness and its record in history and literature.

This last might seem strange for a work of zoology, but as the historian Anthony Grafton has put it, "scholarship and science were necessarily fused into a single pursuit not identified with any modern discipline". Gesner was fortunate to live in the age of the learned amateur, where the lack of specialization meant the bleeding over of one area of knowledge into another. The idea of the polymath created connections that may never have occurred to the lone specialist.

Despite its primitive methods, the writing was considered superb and was used as a reference for the next several decades. Its merits were recognized so early that popular abridgments began to appear shortly after its issue, appearing in so many editions that it is these abridgments we are most likely to encounter first in libraries.

The first volume appearing in Zurich in 1551, when its author was 35, concerned four-footed animals that gave birth to live young. The second volume, published in 1554, focused on egg layers, while the third part, from 1555, discussed birds. The fourth, released in 1556, concerned fish and other aquatic animals while a fifth book, about serpents, was published posthumously. Material for a sixth volume on insects had been gathered, but would only go to press more than two decades later through the efforts of an English admirer. Gesner's seeming command of the beasts of the land and the fowl of the air are reflected in the coat-of-arms granted to him by Emperor Ferdinand I. The image of an eagle with open wings, as standing lion, a snake and a dolphin evoked his dominion over the animal kingdom.

Just as important as the text were the lavish illustrations that informed the readers. Every animal represented filled at least an entire folio page and almost all illustrations were executed exclusively for this project. The artists most likely lived on Gesner's property for the duration of the work. We can imagine Gesner looking over the shoulders of his artisans and judging the quality of the woodblock engravings, many of the drawings for which he did himself. For their detail and execution, they are still justly admired as works of art.

Gesner produced so much material so quickly, that perhaps he felt a twinge of foreboding that his was not meant to be a long life. His health had never been the best and was perhaps only prolonged by the exercise from his numerous mountaineering expeditions. There, amid the grandeur and desolate beauty of his native Swiss Alps, he gloried in the wonders of the natural world and renewed his efforts to share his enthusiasm with others.

In 1564, Gesner's health at last began to deteriorate beyond repair. He was stricken with the plague, but recovered enough to see many old friends die of the illness the was rampant in Zurich. He heroically offered his services as a doctor to his fellow citizens. Knowing his time was short, Gesner no longer slept in his bed but rested for periods in a chair, keeping to his duties as teacher and physician. On 8 December 1565, he suffered a relapse of the disease and, five days later, he was dead.

English bibliographer, Thomas Frognall Dibdin, described the scene of Gesner's death: "When (says Niceron) he saw his end approaching, he desired to be carried into his book-boudoir, in order to breathe his last in that spot which had been the dearest to his heart!"

An end that only a scholar might envy. Gesner was 49.

Selected Bibliography

Bay, J. Christian. "Conrad Gesner the Father of Bibliography an Appreciation." The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America. Ed. Theodore W. Koch, James C.M. Hanson, and G.S. Aksal.
Vol. 10. 2. N.p.: n.p., 1916. 53-88.

Beza, Theodore. "Conrad Gesner." Contemporary Portraits of Reformers of Religion and Letters. Trans.
Charles Greig McCrie. London: Religious Tract Society, 1906. 134-37. Google Book Search. 19
June 2007. 4 Mar. 2008 http://books.google.com/.

"Conrad Gesner." The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art XXVIII.3 (Mar. 1853):
366-77. Rpt. in The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art. Google Book
Search. 4 Mar. 2008 .

Dibdin, T F. "Tenth Day." The Bibliographical Decameron; Or, Ten Days Pleasant Discourse upon.
London: Bulmer, 1817. 221-22. Google Book Search. 4 Mar. 2008 .

Duncan, P. Martin. "Heroes of Zoology." Heroes of Science. London: Society for Promoting Christian,
1882. 125-29. Google Book Search. 2 Nov. 2005. 4 Mar. 2008 .

Gribble, Francis Henry. "VIII." The Early Mountaineers. Unwin, 1899.
51-60. Google Book Search. 1 Mar. 2008 http://books.google.com/.

Macgillivray, W. "Zoologists of the Sixteenth Century." Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle.
Edinburgh: Oliver, 1834. 102-08. Google Book Search. 14 Sept. 2006. 4 Mar. 2008.

McLemee, Scott. "The Alchemist of Erudition." The Chronicle of Higher Education (July 2002). 4 Mar.
2008 http://chronicle.com/free/v48/i43/43a01201.htm.

Smith, Charles Hamilton. "Memoir of Gesner." The Naturalist's Library. Ed. William Jardine. Vol. 20.
London: Bohn, 1866. 17-58. Google Book Search. 4 Mar. 2008 .

Published in August/September issue of
History Magazine.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Witch in the Wardrobe

If there is one trait in the American character shared by both rich and poor alike, it is greed.  It's two chief symptoms are delusions of grandeur and magical thinking.  It is delusional because the average member of the working poor is convinced that with the scratch of a lottery ticket their luck could change, regardless of statistics.  It is an understandable and forgivable daydream for those who languish in poverty.  But even among those without the means to buy a scratch and sniff, the disease abides.  For them, merely the possibility, however improbable, that they too could become fabulously wealthy inclines them against their own best interests.

This kind of thinking was made very real to me when I was young, in my high school history class.  Upon discussing the economic models of capitalism and communism, most of my classmates enthusiastically applauded the capitalist ideal on this very basis.  To them, the mere possibility of wealth, and the power and status that stems from it, was worth any risk.  This would be understandable in school children who have little knowledge of reality, except, that their parent's often appear to share the same views regardless of their greater contact with the "real" world.  But, just how real is that world?

In recent years there has been a trend in television programming.  With the rise of the, ironically termed, reality shows earlier in the decade, has come an even more popular genre, the, for lack of a better term, antique appraisal show.  It first came to wide knowledge in the U.S. with Public Television's Antiques Road Show, but has now spawned several imitators.  One of the more caustic is called Pawn Stars on the even more ironically named History Channel.

However, despite their different formats and settings, they all indulge the same aspiration of the viewer: that, at this very moment that old armoire of Grandma's, or that ugly little locket your great aunt left you on her death bed, may turn out to be the proverbial genie in the lamp, ready at a moments assessment to be cashed in for riches.

Such desperate thinking seems to illuminate the majority understanding of the veiled mysteries of money.  If only economics education were as appealing as the lottery, the dream of instant wealth might at last die the pauper's death it deserves.

Friday, June 25, 2010

So You Think You Can Vote?

If it is even half true that more Americans are likely to vote for their favorite pop singer or dancer than they do for president, it should not be at all surprising.  So it is with all empires.  As a nation grows in power and wealth, decadence is the one sure dividend to trickle to the bottom of this otherwise dry economy.

In order to appease the agitated mob, it is necessary to supply them with their bread and circuses, and this correlation came home for me most recently in an episode of the hit show So You Think You Can Dance?  Not the most stimulating fare, but it reminded me of how politicians could take a lesson.

The political process has been likened to theater, as politicians are already mere pantomimes of themselves, going through the motions. There is as little decorum and a lot less grace than on a stage. In ancient Rome, much like the gladiators, the dancers kept the people compliant and incurious as to their government's actions. Much preferable to lounge upon the soft cushions of the Odeon, than to sit upon the hard benches of the Senate. Even the emperors themselves would get in on the act, promoting popular favorites like Mnester under Caligula, or Paris under Domitian, to positions of high office and influence, while at the same time debasing the very institutions they grabbed as token honors. I am reminded that even Theodora danced with bears before becoming queen of the Roman world. Not so strange a thing as Hillary's long uncomfortable dance with Bill.

Understandably, dancing, like gladiatorial sport, was considered beneath the honor of statesmen, who left such professions to the dregs of society.  However, unlike the blood sport of the Colosseum, dancing remained the height of fashion until the very end of the empire.  So, perhaps we shall be among the happy few to live just long enough to see the farce of our pretended virtues shed to reveal the dancing shoes beneath, while we vote from our living rooms for candidates like cattle at auction, televised from the White House Ball Room floor.  It would be little different from how the process is conducted now, and would save the electorate the very weighty trouble of rising from their couch's.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Uncle Tom's Log Cabin

It seems easier to accept those who act in character with their belief's, even when you find those beliefs repugnant, than with those who seem willfully ignorant of their own best interest's.

It makes sense to us that the man of money sees the poor as but stepping stones to greater wealth, and that the arms dealer trades death for dollars. Like the wolf who preys upon the lamb, we can say it is in the nature of things that it is so, but send out the sheep dogs to look after the flock.

However, every now and then one comes upon an individual seemingly determined to spit upon their own humanity, by turning, as the phrase goes, Uncle Tom.

I understand that many will find this epithet to be at worst racist, at best politically incorrect. To those who know me, the former is ridiculous, but of the latter I am unconcerned. I am guided by the liberal spirit, not constrained by it. Or, to put it another way: “I calls 'em as I sees 'em.”

Some years ago I had the fortunate experience of knowing such a person. I say fortunate because, any experience that expands our knowledge of the world and human character is something to be thankful for. For the sake of anonymity let's call him D.

I was introduced to D by mutual friends, and came to consider him a friend in turn. With the passage of time I learned that he had risen from poverty to become an accomplished and successful scientific researcher for a major company. However, human nature being what it is, he contracted AIDS after a brief intimate encounter in a motel, which led to pneumonia and cerebral hemorrhage, almost ending his life.

With time and perseverance D recovered almost completely but, his career was over and he entered early retirement, no longer strong enough to endure the taxing calculations of his former work.

It was at this point in his life that I encountered him, but it would only be much later that I discovered his politics. It was casually, while I and another acquaintance were criticizing the then current administration, that his temper was suddenly roused to fever pitch. The details are unimportant, let us just say his opinion was understood.

After this event, in the naivety of my youth, I wrote D several emails in defense of my view's. The correspondence was genial, except for his assertion that my atheism was a very dangerous thing indeed. Being unwilling to hurt a friend, never once did I pointedly ask him to resolve for me the contradiction of his identity as a human being, and his support for a party which saw him as something a little less than human.

In time, for various reasons, our little quartet dissolved, and communication between us ceased. Since those head-butting days I have often thought what his motivations could have been. An examination of his past provided some answers.

As I said, born into a poor family, that was often without even telephone service, he knew struggle early. As has been observed, those who grow up in want of money will gravitate in one of two directions. Either they will have learned the virtues of living with less and to treat wealth for its own sake with contempt, or its accumulation shall be the loadstar they follow to the end of their day's. In D's case it was the latter, and thus the party of Mammon must claim his soul.

Never much of a church goer before his misfortune, he became increasingly religious afterward, and I have little question such a mindset added to his anguish. Had he been punished by his God for the evil of sodomy, and thus was deserving of his affliction? Considering the mindset of conservatives of all places and ages it takes only a little leap of the imagination to believe he thought it so. Likewise, his callousness seemed to equal his own inner contempt. While Christians are looked upon as paragons of compassion and pity, in regards to the less fortunate, there were many instances where his sentiments were less than traditional, to put it lightly.

Callousness for the poor and underprivileged, self-loathing and guilt, self-deception, love of wealth and professor of faith, these are the origins of the conservative mind and its fruits.  They have certainly been the qualities I have encountered in all of those who uphold its creed.

I have no doubt my analysis is incomplete, but so are my materials. And it is perhaps too dangerously tempting to cast the complexity of human nature in black and white.  Nevertheless, I think it goes a long way to explaining things like the Log Cabin Republican phenomenon --- yes, phenomenon seems the nicest way to put it --- that disgusts those of us with a little deeper circumspection, if a little lighter conscience.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Incredible Shrinking Ghost

Something disturbing has happened! The modern ghost is shrinking, and in exact inverse proportion to the amount of technology invested in its capture.

Here is another example of how a little study of history (not to mention basic photography and critical thinking) broadens the mind and gives ground to dissent from a cherished popular delusion.

Compare the two photos below.

The first, from the middle part of the last century, shows us the traditional figure of myth and legend, hands clearly displayed as if it were a great effort to get its wisp of a body up the stairs. The second is what this once proud creature has been reduced to, a floating dot of light, often reported with a trade mark smiley face appearance. Forgetting the question of what a disembodied spirit has to be smiling about, is the even more obvious conclusion that the "orb" is merely a matter of poor photography.

However, the question I keep asking but appears to materialize for no one else is, why is it shrinking? If we examine the early years of spirit photography, we find a world just getting used to the revolutionary new technology. Keep in mind, at that time getting your picture taken was a major event for which you usually wore your Sunday best. Today, photographs are so common we take them by the dozen, often in regrettable poses, because they are cheap. But along with this familiarity has come a more discerning eye. We tend to spot fakes more easily than our forebears because we have been exposed to so much fakery that most of us hold realism to a higher standard. And secondly, modern forensic technology allows for a dissection of purported spirit photographs unimaginable to earlier generations.

I don't mean to suggest that the current orb craze is part of a conscious effort to deceive, but rather, like a Rorschach test, such images allows the believer room for belief with little effort. He or she sees what they want to see without the need to defend a more obvious fraud.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Guiding Star

Imagine a scraggly wide-eyed boy in his early teens, and you will imagine me when I first encountered the poetry of Keats.

Most often it is by accident we stumble upon those things which change our lives and put us on a different course. Perhaps I’m being overly romantic, but I would like to believe it was so with me as it was with the young poet who wrote “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” after spending a night of enraptured reading and discovery. The idea of Keats’s friend John Clarke rising to find a literary masterpiece awaiting him at his table, has long lodged in my imagination. Poetry: the breakfast of champions.

In Jane Campion’s new film Bright Star, we find many similar recreations. Perhaps more controversially, the composition of his “Ode to a Nightingale”, the veracity of which is somewhat disputed, but to the lover of this poet it is of little matter. What does matter is its correspondence to the image many of us have of Keats in our head’s. For those who have seen the famous paintings by his good friend Joseph Severn, the images supersede the facts: "Beauty is truth...."

Of all the Romantics Keats, in my opinion, was the most authentic. He had none of the flamboyance of Byron, nor was he all too concerned with politics as was Shelley. He had no world-changing utopian dreams, his simple wish was the honor of writing a few "verses fit to live", as he charmingly put it in a letter to a friend. Since childhood his life was plauged by a series of misfortunes that occurred with almost laughable regularity. First his father dies after a fall from his horse casting his family into poverty, his mother following, then finally his youngest brother Tom of the same illness that would one day take his own life.

The greatest torment, his never to be consummated romance with Fanny Brawne, on which the movie is based, might round out the absurdity of existence for any other human soul, and cause us to reflect badly on what life promises but fails to give. However, Keats was no ordinary human being. He had given his all for poetry and, in this one case if rarely another, poetry repaid her disciple with the gift of immortality. To read the earnest letters of the man is to know not every good and noble soul goes unrewarded. We can see his legacy extending now farther than the wide Pacific from that peak in Darien.

"Good-night, sweet prince; and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Republican Master Plan

The following is verbatim an email I received concerning its author’s ire at divining the true motivation's of the Conservative party:

Dear Sir,
I am a long-time reader of your posts, and have always enjoyed their wit and insight, but have been curious as to why you of all people have never caught on to the Republican parties seemingly insane disregard for their own best interests. Do you not understand the Lord’s divine plan, or have you not been listening?

Jesus voted Obama into office with his own right hand for a great purpose. As you and all good Christians know, Barack Obama is the anti-Christ prophesied in the Book of Revelation, therefore it is understood what our Christian duty must be: vote Democrat at every opportunity. The more abortion loving, America hating liberals we aid, the closer we come to the End of Days and our glorious ascent into Heaven.

With our marching orders so obvious to all and yet, the “Conservative” party intervening at every turn to thwart our Heavenly Father’s work, can mean only one thing: the Republican party is a liberal plot to prevent the Second Coming of our Lord and Savior.

Please be so kind as to publish this letter so it may reach the righteous.
God bless you and all that you do.


An American Christian

As requested, I publish this email for the public’s anxious perusal. May we all heed its message well.