Saturday, December 31, 2011

Thomas F. Farr: Blasphemy and Democracy in the Islamic World

Thomas F. Farr

Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, has written a review for Christianity Today of Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide (Oxford University Press), a recently published book by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea. The review, titled "Islam's Inquisitors: A Review of 'Silenced'" (December 29, 2011), first introduces us to the authors:
Having collaborated for several years, first at Freedom House and currently at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, the pair brings to the subject a remarkable background in research and advocacy. Marshall is in many respects the intellectual godfather of the fight for international religious freedom. His 2007 Religious Freedom in the World was the first attempt to provide a comparative index of religious liberty that measured the performances of key countries. And Shea has pioneered activism on behalf of the victims of persecution, while maintaining a steady stream of trenchant writings on the subject. Of late, she has directed much of her fire at the failures of Saudi Arabia to remove toxic Wahhabist principles from its textbooks.

I was familiar with the author's names, though perhaps readers are not, but I've not read much by either, probably just an article or two over the years since 9/11. Their interest in religious freedom dovetails with that of Farr, so in drawing from the review, we'll likely be getting the views of all three combined. Farr notes that Western countries in the past also had blasphemy laws, some of these still being on the law books but largely unenforced, and that today's Christians generally support the position "that all religious communities have the right to make their truth claims freely and publicly, and to win converts where those claims are persuasive." Such a position does not find common ground with most Muslims:
The lands of Islam, however, are still far from embracing this aspect of religious liberty. Blasphemy continues to be criminalized throughout the Muslim nations of the greater Middle East, Africa, and South and East Asia. Converts from Islam -- apostates -- are often imprisoned, tortured, or murdered. Under the aegis of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Muslim nations have for years attempted to internationalize the treatment of blasphemy as a crime.

Apparently, this obvious fact still comes as a surprise to many Westerners, though not to Farr, Marshall, or Shea. The problem of religious persecution has broader implications, for Farr tells us that "there is mounting evidence that religious liberty is necessary for the stability and longevity of democracy in highly religious societies, and for the defeat of religion-based terrorism." I find the link between religious freedom and democracy intuitively obvious, but I do wish that Farr had provided some detailed evidence for the point. Pakistan would likely offer a lot of evidence for the link, for the mere accusation of blasphemy appears sufficient to get the accused killed. The Islamists shoot first and ask no questions later. God will sort the innocent out from the guilty, I suppose.

In such a society as Pakistan's, clearly, an accusation of blasphemy can be used against any opponent merely by claiming that some of the opponent's views on any topic whatsoever, religious or not, are inherently blasphemous. Now Pakistan is hardly an example of a country with a rule of law, but what of more orderly Islamic countries, say one where legal processes based on sharia are more orderly in judging words and actions? Unfortunately, Islam has a rather broad concept of blasphemy. Whereas in the West, "Blasphemy has been understood classically as manifesting contempt for God or, worse, assuming the attributes of God," in the Islamic world, any criticism of Muhammad is also blasphemy, so if one dare even question the moral propriety of Muhammad having consummated his marriage to Aisha when she was only nine years old, one can be put to death. Since Islam is based on the Qur'an as the direct word of Allah and the on the words and deeds of the Muslim prophet Muhammad as the perfect human being, then any criticism or questioning of some purportedly Islamic position could easily get the speaker charged with blasphemy. By extension, any words that might be construed as advocating views incompatible with Islam could get the speaker accused of blasphemy. The Muslim concept of blasphemy is thus implicitly a very far-reaching one, boundlessly elastic in what it can be stretched to cover.

I therefore suspect that readers can easily see how laws against blasphemy would dampen free speech and counter democratic practices.

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Friday, December 30, 2011

China must "break the tyrannical spell cast by Mao Zedong"

Robert Bellah

I see that my old Berkeley advisor Robert Bellah was quoted in a New York Times column yesterday, or at least in my Thursday issue of the International Herald Tribune, but the online version of the Times posted the column on Wednesday.

In any case, the column, "Mao's Spell and the Need to Break It," by Didi Kirsten Tatlow, is recent, and I discovered that Bellah was in China, also recently, where he gave a talk based on his magnum opus that was published this past September, Religion in Human Evolution, which deals -- among various religious and moral systems -- with Confucianism and other Chinese systems of ethics and religion. I'm particularly interested because I saw much of the book in manuscript form, looking for typos and offering minor feedback. Anyway, Bellah's book was quite warmly received by the Chinese authorities:
The emphasis in his book on Chinese tradition as a contemporary guide was warmly welcomed in a recent essay in the state-run newspaper China Daily, in which the writer, Zhang Zhouxiang, argued, perhaps pointedly, that [Bellah's emphasis on manners or rituals, the concept] li[,] justifies the ruler's right to rule but that the ruler also has an obligation to treat his subjects well.

That's rather interesting, in light of Bellah's view that China "must break the tyrannical spell cast by Mao Zedong":
In the book, Mr. Bellah notes the parallels between Mao and [Emperor] Qin Shihuangdi, a follower of the Legalist philosophy, which taught that only harsh punishments could keep people in line and provide effective government. The Qin emperor silenced criticism, burned books and buried scholars alive, while Mao, who admired the emperor, once boasted that he had caused the death of more scholars than Qin Shihuangdi.

Mao's legacy, unfortunately, is inherited by China's Communist Party, which has yet to disavow Mao, and that poses a dilemma. Disavow Mao, and the party itself is disavowed, for it is Mao's creation. Don't disavow Mao, and the party is morally destitute, for it is Mao's creation. Bellah doesn't set forth a dilemma, but he notes a related problem:
"Turning away from Legalism and Mao is going to be a challenge, because they haven't worked their way through the Mao period," said Mr. Bellah . . . . "His picture is still there, and they want to separate the good from the bad part of Mao Thought. Well, sorry, you can't. You've got to break the spell . . . . I think China has to face the fact that Mao was a monster, one of the worst people in human history."

This is particularly a problem for China's leaders because they still emphasize the thought of Mao and Marxism as offering moral authority and guidance, as Bellah notes:
Chinese leaders, who are officially atheist, assume that they have a moral system in place already, he said. "The fact that Marx is taught at every level, from kindergarten to university, shows that they think they have a civil religion. The fact that to many Chinese it's a joke and they don't take it seriously shows they have a problem on their hands."

The Communist leadership's dawning recognition of that problem might explain that recent essay by Zhang Zhouxiang in the China Daily praising Bellah's emphasis upon li. Bellah's views are broader than that as to what constitutes the moral basis of a civilization, and in response to Tatlow's query on what China's future moral basis might be if that country is to step into its role as a legitimate world leader:
Mr. Bellah offered the traditional Chinese concepts of tian, or heaven; li, manners or rituals; and yi, justice, as some building blocks of morality.

To emphasize manners and rituals (le) without grounding them in something greater, justice (yi) confirmed by heaven (tian), would pose the danger of falling again into the Legalist philosophy by another name, with "the Communist Party rel[ying] . . . on people's fear of social chaos to justify its controls."

The Chinese people themselves seem to recognize the need for moral authority, for as Tatlow notes, "spiritual traditions are flourishing, including Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism and folk religions, as well as Christianity and even Bahai." The very search implies that people are "morally adrift, with the 'eviscerated' Marxism of the Communist Party failing to provide the framework for a functioning set of beliefs," writes Tatlow, summarizing Bellah. But perhaps we can expect more attention to these issues among thoughtful Chinese:
Mr. Bellah said he was deeply impressed by the forward-looking optimism and -- relatively -- free debate he saw in China among intellectuals and students.

If free debate grows into a culture of discussion, then the problem can be analyzed and addressed by the Chinese themselves, but the Communist Party will have to relinquish some controls on free speech for that to develop.

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

En-Uk's "Green Tangerine"

En-Uk Sequoya Hwang

My twelve-year-old son maintains an art blog, as most readers already know, and a couple of days ago, he couldn't think of anything to draw. My wife had just gotten delivery of a large box of tangerines, however, and that reminded me of an old, private joke of mine, a wordplay that I'd kept to myself for at least forty-two years but was finally ready to share with the world, so I told En-Uk to draw a green tangerine, which he did and which you see above. I then had him link to that weird sixties song by The Lemon Pipers from 1968, "My Green Tambourine," as I also did above under the image with the words "My Green Tangerine, that being my quirky, punning joke. Just in case any readers are interested, here are the lyrics:
Drop your silver in my tambourine
Help a poor man fill his pretty dream
Give me pennies I'll take anything
Now listen while I play
My green tambourine

Watch the jingle jangle start to shine
Reflections of the music that is mine
When you toss a coin you'll hear it sing
Now listen while I play
My green tambourine

Drop a dime before I walk away
Any song you want I'll gladly play
Money feeds my music machine
Now listen while I play
My green tambourine
Listen and I'll play

I used to sing this to myself, replacing the words "my green tambourine" with the words "my green tangerine" and smile at my little jokey rebellion against the sixties.

I was young, I was American . . .

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher!

Electoral Victory 1979

I still recall that chant by her opponents, dating from 1971, I think, when Margaret Thatcher was appointed Secretary of State for Education and Science in the Heath administration and attempted to cut spending for nonacademic things, including the free milk program for elementary students. Of course, I was too young to be aware of Thatcher at the time, being merely an eighth grader in the isolated Ozarks, and I learned of Thatcher's 'milk-snatching' intentions only later, around 1979, when she became Britain's Prime Minister and I was old enough to have developed some political views and to take an interest in international politics. Having benefitted from free milk as a poor young elementary student, I instinctively disliked Thatcher's conservative politics and found my attention grabbed by the chant.

Now, much older, perhaps slightly wiser, and confronted by the Korean Left's insistence on 'free' lunches for all elementary school students in Seoul, I mutter, "Free lunches? There is no free lunch! Where will the money for these 'free' lunches come from?" As a taxpayer, I know, of course. From me . . . and everybody else, more or less. But in the long run, as society ages in a country whose birthrate is below replacement level, I raise the same question: "Where will all that money come from?" So, I look at Thatcher with different eyes . . .

Newsweek has a fascinating article by Amanda Foreman on this woman whom the Soviets called The Iron Lady: "The New Thatcher Era" (December 26, 2011 - January 2, 2012). Readers can go to the link to read the entire article on how Thatcher predicted the European Union's current problems, so I'll just note an anecdote by Meryl Streep, who plays Thatcher in a new film, for Streep happened to see Thatcher give a speech in 2001, one of the many speeches that she gave after leaving public office:
After she left office, Thatcher's chief occupation became giving speeches, lots and lots of speeches, for lots and lots of money. Streep happened to stumble on one such event while visiting her daughter at Northwestern University: "She delivered the lecture, which was smooth and very controlled. And then she started to take questions. She continued for over an hour and a half, gaining in animation and zeal as she went on. I thought, oh my God, she's absolutely formidable."

In retrospect, I think so, too. She was formidable, great, towering over the men of her era. I didn't appreciate her enough at the time, and I'm saddened to hear of her decline due to the blight of Alzheimers.

I even went out and bought her biography for my daughter, hoping to provide motivation . . .

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Václav Havel: Living in Truth

Václav Havel
October 5, 1936 - December 18 2011

Havel was one of my heros though I know far less about his life and works than I ought. Life is short, my reading list long.

I paid more attention to him and his writings when I was living in Europe, between 1986 and 1995, though usually only what I came across in one of the many newspapers that I read back in those largely pre-internet days. He was in the news a great deal as Communism fell in Eastern Europe, so there was a lot on him as he moved from dissident prisoner to president of Czechoslovakia within a matter of months. I now have more access, due to the internet, but far less time, so I've read less of him in more recent years.

He died only a couple of weeks ago, as everyone knows, and I was moved to look for something appropriate to mark his passing, so when I found these words of his from a 2008 interview conducted by a fellow ex-dissident, Adam Michnik, in which Michnik asked Havel what advice he would give to a young person today on how to live, I had what I needed:
The basic imperative:

"To live in truth"

[This] has its tradition in Czech philosophy but basically has biblical roots -- it does not mean just the possession or communication of information. Because information, like a virus, circulates in the air so one person may absorb more and another one less. Truth, however, is a different matter because we guarantee it with our own self. Truth is based on responsibility. And that is an imperative that is valid in every age. Obviously, it takes slightly different forms today. Luckily, you don’t have to hang portraits of a Havel, or a Klaus or a Kaczyński in the shop windows anymore and of course we no longer live under totalitarian pressure -- but that doesn't mean we've won. We still need what I refer to as an "existential revolution" even though it might look different in different places.

But basically, what matters is that you have to stand up for what you believe is the truth. (Adam Michnik, "After the Velvet, an Existential Revolution?" Gazeta Wyborcza, November 20, 2008)

To live in truth. A high calling, not easy to harken to since one might also have to die for truth, but Havel lived this imperative despite the risk, and so should we.

Requiescat In Pace, Havel. You've earned it if anyone has.

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Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Greetings from Terrance Lindall

'Tis Boxing Day here across the International Date Line, but I've posted these Christmas Greetings emailed to me (and others on his e-list) by Terrance Lindall, an image from his ongoing aesthetic commentary on John Milton's Paradise Lost:
Dear Friends,

Merry Xmas Day!

This is the Enamoured page form the Wickenheiser Elephant Folio.

God gave the gift of creation and invention to Lucifer. That is the gift of godhood. Only gods can create ex nihilo. Upon the birth of the Son in Heaven, Lucifer looked inward and opened this gift of creation from God and discovered to his joy SIN!

May you open your own presents with such joy on this Christmas day!! But may your greatest gift be the fruit of the motto of our great benefactor Yuko Nii, "PEACE, HARMONY AND UNITY."


The words about Lucifer are somewhat tongue in cheek, of course, but Terrance is also actually making a good point on Satan's fall in Milton's epic poem -- the Devil's fall ensues upon sin springing to life from his own self-conception. Every spring brings a fall! Hence today's "Season's Greetings." Think about that . . . but not too deeply.

Merry Christmas to those of you still behind the times!

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Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

FOR 2011






Saturday, December 24, 2011

Francis Beckwith on Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens 2011
The Catholic Thing
Friday, December 23, 2011

The Catholic philosopher Francis J. Beckwith, writing "The God-Haunted Atheism of Christopher Hitchens" for The Catholic Thing, inquires about the source of the ethical values affirmed by Hitchens:
Hitchens writes that he and other atheists "believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion," thus implying that he and others have direct and incorrigible acquaintance with a natural moral law that informs their judgments about what counts as an ethical life.

But to speak of a natural moral law -- a set of abstract, immaterial, unchanging principles of human conduct that apply to all persons in all times and in all places -- seems oddly out of place in the universe that Hitchens claimed we occupy, a universe that is at bottom a purposeless vortex of matter, energy, and scientific laws that eventually spit out human beings.

I wouldn't have chosen the image of nature spitting out human beings since that manner of speaking likely denigrates the way in which Hitchens would have referred to the process of nature by which human beings came into existence. No need to cast aspersions on the universe!

But Beckwith has a point. Note that he does not accuse Hitchens of being some sort of moral reprobate. What he argues, instead, is that Hitchens implicitly appeals to moral purpose:
[T]o speak of an ethical life is to say that morality is more than rule keeping, that it involves the shape and formation of one's character consistent with a human being's proper end. But proper ends require intrinsic purposes, just the sorts of things that a theistic philosophy of nature affirms and Hitchens' philosophical naturalism denies.

Taking as a given that Hitchens does appeal to philosophical naturalism -- and let's infer that he does, since Beckwith is a scholar who ought to know what he's talking about -- then Hitchens was inconsistent in arguing both for philosophical naturalism and the ethical life, if he meant that both affirmations are objectively true.

This is the sort of problem that I was getting at in yesterday's blog entry. For better musings than my own on this issue raised by Beckwith, see what my friend Bill Vallicella has to say about ethics and philosophical naturalism.

As for me, I now have a lot of editing to do . . .

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Roger Cohen on Christopher Hitchens

Roger Cohen

Writing for the New York Times in an article titled "The American Hitch" (December 19, 2011), Roger Cohen, like many others this week, remembered Christopher Hitchens for his thoughtfulness and generosity, though he admits that he didn't know the man well:
I did not know Hitchens well. The last time I saw him was at a boozy Brooklyn lunch hosted by my friends Gully Wells and Peter Foges, the couple he stayed with on coming to the United States in 1981. "You've got Scotch, haven't you?” he inquired, to which the reply was non-affirmative, a crisis overcome by a foray to the corner store for a bottle of Black Label, followed by a second expedition for the Perrier to accompany it.

"The best blended Scotch in the world," Hitchens murmured as he began the almost single-handed demolition of the bottle. He could be wrong -- even if he was always wrong with panache and for the right reasons -- but he was right about whisky.

Hitchens was right about a lot of things, and wrong about many others, but he was authentic, or seemed to be, for one never knows, but he had a special gift in common with Steve Jobs. The creative Mr. Jobs had the ability to make you feel, when buying an Apple product, that you were receiving the device directly from him, as though he had personally developed it expressly for you to have as a gift from him. Hitchens had that ability in his writings. You could read anything he'd written and feel that he was addressing you personally. I did, anyway, and I hazard to suggest that others felt the same.

And he took risks. Despite Alexander Cockburn's attempted take-down, to wit:
Attacking God? The big battles on that issue were fought one, two, even five hundred years ago when they burned Giordano Bruno at the stake in the Campo de' Fiore. A contrarian these days would be someone who staunchly argued for the existence of a Supreme Being.

Really? In what part of the world? Well, maybe in Europe (though less so year by year!), but certainly not anywhere among Muslims! Nor in the States, either. On that, Cohen pointedly observes:
Of course, he took on God, a dangerous occupation in the United States, declaring him not great and religion the product of a time when nobody "had the smallest idea what was going on."

Why was he against religion? His chosen title, God Is Not Great, implies that the Islamic conception of God, expressed in its chant, "Allahu Akbar"("God is Great"), was particularly on his mind, yet the book -- which I've not read -- deals with more than that, arguing against religion generally. But as for why he was against religion in general, I've read too little of Hitchens on that issue to know for sure, though Cohen explains a bit:
Like Einstein, he viewed ethics as "an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it," a position that sparked conflict with his journalist brother, Peter, who has argued that, "For a moral code to be effective, it must be attributed to, and vested in, a nonhuman source. It must be beyond the power of humanity to change it to suit itself."

Were I to side with brilliance in this family dispute, I'd be firmly on the side of Christopher, in company with Cohen:
I'm with the atheist Christopher against the believer Peter. It's precisely the vesting of morality in a nonhuman source that's dangerous because how then can you apply reason to temper the God-given absolutes that may lead to fanaticism?

I understand this position quite well because so many theists think the way that Christopher and Cohen suspect that they do. Too many theists follow reason up to a limit -- an ill-defined limit -- and somehow turn to 'faith' as a refuge from critical thought, a quasi-fundamentalist appeal to what they feel is the hard evidence of things fervently hoped for, and they presume to have direct insight into the mind of God, doubting not the consubstantiation of God's thoughts with their beliefs, recognizing no hermeneutical distinction between the two.

I could mention my freshman roommate who believed, concerning the Bible, that "God said it. I believe it. That settles it." Not every theist of that ilk is quite so bold as to phrase the issue like that, but many theists seem to think that way.

But if God is God, then he is rational. Otherwise, he is irrational, and thus not God. Faith must therefore be rational to approach God with security against fanaticism.

Otherwise, one is left with the fideistic view: "God said it. I believe it. That settles it." What then, except to fight over the 'truth' against those who think or believe differently, for if reason cannot serve as arbiter, then what is left but force? I suppose there's always indifference, but that unbespoke suit hardly fits the form of fervent belief.

To the extent that Cohen and Hitchens appeal to reason, I'm with these two atheists, but I disagree if they think this means there are no absolutes . . .

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sheikh Nader Tamimi: Let the Sheikh speak . . .

Sheikh Nader Tamimi
December 20, 2011

. . . because we need to note his words concerning what the coming Muslim leader, the Caliph, will stand up and announce to the West:
"To the rulers of the West, this is the religion of Allah. Either you pay the jizya poll tax, or else we will bring the sword to your necks . . ."

Pleasant words, of course, and we ought to appreciate the good sheikh's advance notice, posted to the internet on December 15th, 2011. This sheikh is also a prophet, apparently, for the same report offers these words from October 20, 2000 concerning Bin Laden's words to the West prior to 9/11:
"What did bin Laden do? He said: 'I will strike the West' . . . . Has he become a terrorist?! . . . He says 'I want to fight the Jihad for the sake of Allah.' This must burst forth from the nation [of Islam], and not from the (rulers) palaces and corruption . . . . [My brother, our God said, 'Kill them where you find them' . . . . All the Muslim people must attack the common enemy. America is against us all. America must realize this. I issue a religious ruling now, and I am a mufti.] This is a religious ruling, so what is there for me to talk about? Anyone capable of doing so must strike at the target. He must strike at it -- otherwise everybody will sin."

The sheikh's words in brackets are from the same remarks made by him on October 20, 2000, but uttered a minute or so earlier. I moved them to clarify his point about being a mufti and therefore authorized to pronounce a religious ruling -- a fatwa, I presume. Be that as it may, I suspect that readers can see why I say that this sheikh is a 'prophet' whose words need to be noted.

That being the case, I reckon the Caliphate will be re-established sometime in the coming year . . .

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Presence . . .

My good old Baylor friend and fellow NoZe Brother Tim Anderson, now living in Spain, sent me a Christmas card of the Three Kings of Orient, who are already on their way to see the Christ child bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh -- gift-wrapped, no less! -- but who always arrive a couple of years late with news that precipitates a bit of political instability and occasions a rather unsettling event, which you can read about in Matthew 2:1-18, but let's not go there today and thereby disturb the holiday spirit. Instead, enjoy the card, which depicts these Oriental kings as speaking Spanish, English, and French. Odd . . . though if one looks far enough eastward, the West appears. Anyway, Tim writes:
I hope all is going well with you all and the latest developments up North will have a positive effect. Here is our Christmas card, a rendition of the 3 Kings by Jan (4 yrs).

Very lovely card! Thanks, Tim. Give my regards to the young artist, who has made East meet West.

I've been very busy this holiday season, but some of my editing work for journals is being appreciated, for I received an email yesterday evening with these words:
Every author thanks you for your proofreading . . . . [and] the author of . . . [one of the papers] said, "Your lovely English Studies prof had several very good suggestions to make, and the paper is considerably improved because of these. Please thank him for his work."
Nice praise, especially the part about being "lovely" . . . but I guess that this writer has never seen a photo of me.

Similar thanks arrived from one of my students. There had been some plagiarism by too many students on the first draft of a paper, but in the spirit of Christmas, I decided to toss out that first grade (many D-minuses) and allow all students in the class a second chance by having only their second draft count, which the class received as good tidings of great joy, a joy enhanced at seeing their final grades -- at least for this student:
I checked my grade this afternoon, and I was surprised at the result . . . . I don't know how to thank you for the final grade. I really couldn't expect that high grade. I got D- for the first draft because of my fault, and I was totally confused during the end of the semester. I'm really happy that you forgave my fault, and I could correct my essay the right way.

I'm not a Christian, but I really thank God that I could attend your class. Your class was the toughest class for my entire undergraduate course, but, it was also the most meaningful class that I learned the real joy of studying novel.

I already told in my course evaluation, but I want to tell you again. I really thank you for all your kind and patient help for my essay. I will keep the lesson that I learned in mind.

Hope you have a merry Christmas and a happy new year!!

Goodness! Who knew that a final grade could occasion a religious experience? Well, Christmas is nigh upon us, so miracles do happen . . .

[UPDATE: From Tim Anderson, a report as of December 21, 2011: "Jan was tickled pink to see his drawing on the internet!!!"]

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Kim Jong-il: Revolutionary Art of Death

Kim Jong-il

Some readers will recall this deathly image of Kim Jong-il from a couple of years ago, drawn and colored by my son, En-Uk, who was about ten years old at the time. In honor, therefore, of the death of Kim Jong-il, I thought that the occasion called for this work of art to be resurrected as somehow fitting.

Not everyone will be pleased to see it, I suppose, perhaps least of all a Swedish fellow who goes by the pseudonym "Revolutionärt äckel," which translates as "Revolutionary disgust," and who visited my blog a couple of days ago. He stumbled across one of my posts while conducting a Google search for:
women skirts north korera

I can't imagine what he might have been looking for, but what he found was my deeply ironical blogpost "Skirting Trouble in North Korea." He remained at my blog only 24 seconds, but that was long enough. Challenged by my ironic remarks about North Korea's shortlived attempt to prevent women from wearing pants, he wrote:
Propaganda. When my party has had meetings with north korea or went to north korea, our female comrades had pants. I know more about NK than you do, skirts are fashion there, just like leggings and tights jeans are fashion in western world. Do you see any white girls without tights jeans or leggings these days?

I don't see many 'white' girls these days, so I don't know about that, but to his contention that he knows more about North Korea than I do, I replied:

"But," I told myself, relenting a bit, "perhaps I am being too hasty, too quick in assuming that Scandinavians still brag like Beowulf in opening their word-hoard. After all, the man belongs to a party that has been to North Korea, so he must be an expert." I therefore visited his blog, Revolutionär konst, i.e., "Revolutionary art," which tells us:

Hej. Jag vill vara anonym av den enkla anledningen att det jag kommer lägga ut på denna blogg kommer att kunna rasera en karriär. Folk har hela tiden bara lekt med tankar, men dem vågar inte eftersom dem vet att fascisterna, med andra ord neo-liberalisterna kommer att straffa dem.

Jag är antirevisionist, antireformist, marxist-leninist och inspireras även av maoism. Jag vill inte berätta vilket parti jag är med i då detta kan få er att hitta mig väldigt fort, om någon kamrat till mig hittar denna blogg så, ja, det är jag. Var vänlig och säg ingenting om detta till dem andra. Tack!

Mina aktioner kan ses som sexuella för perversa mentalt rubbade människor som kommer att sitta runka till mina videor, imorgon kväll ska jag lägga ut min första video. Det här gör jag för att jag ser det som en konstnärlig aktion, och inget annat, det ni kommer att få se av mig är endast mina ben eller mina händer, händerna ska jag dölja med något för om någon ser mitt specifika särdrag på handen så kan man lätt identifiera mig om man har träffat mig på politiska evenemang eller tillsammans med mitt parti. Jag vill vara anonym med respekt för mina kamrater och parti.

En del av er kanske kommer hylla mina videor, andra kommer att hata dem. Kolla in här imorgon kväll. Jag har lyckats pricka in ett perfekt tillfälle dessutom, jag hoppas Hans Majestät tycker om lite lingonsylt till drinken. Om han inte gör det får han göra det ändå, vi arbetare får finna oss i hans fascistfasoner. Det är dags för honom att få igen all skit han gjort.

Hmmm . . . let's see if Google Translate can sort this out:

Hello. I wish to remain anonymous for the simple reason that I will post on this blog will be able to destroy a career. People have always just played with tanks, but they dare not because they know that the fascists, in other words, neo-liberal revisionists will punish them.

I antirevisionist, anti-reformist, Marxist-Leninist and even inspired by Maoism. I will not tell you which party I'm in, as this can make you find me very quickly, if any friend of mine found this blog so, yes, that's me. Please do not say anything about this to the others. Thank you!

My actions can be seen as sexual perverts for mentally disturbed people who will be sitting j*rk off to my videos, tomorrow night I'll put out my first video.

This I do because I see it as an artistic action, and nothing else, what you will see of me is only my legs or my hands, the hands should I conceal with something because if someone sees my specific characteristics of the hand as one can easily identify me if you have met me on the political events or with my party. I wish to remain anonymous with respect for my peers and party.

Some of you might pay tribute to my videos, others will hate them. Check out here tomorrow night. I have managed to pinpoint the perfect opportunity also, I hope His Majesty likes a little lingonberry jam to drink. If he does not, he may do that anyway, we workers will find us in his Fascist airs. It is time for him to get back all the sh*t he did.

I guess that's a rought equivalent of the Swedish, and if so, I'm relieved to see that our new friend doesn't take himself too seriously, that he's neither full of self-importance nor overweening in his belief about what he can accomplish. Nor is he the sort to spout terms like "fascism" or define them in arbitrary ways. Nor is his political position grounded in aesthetic reaction rather than intellectual engagement. And I'm especially pleased to see that he's neither a Maoist-inspired, Marxist-Leninist antirevisionist resolutely opposed to reform nor, I hazard to infer, associated with North Korea's party of Juche (주체, jou-che), a position that would be so antirevisionistic as to nearly predate Marx himself. Excellent, if I reason right, for I doubt that our new friend would wish to man that particular fort now that Beloved Leader Kim Jong-il has passed on from his earthly reward to his more metaphysical one.

I hope our new friend, this Revolutionary Artist, enjoyed his 24-second visit at Gypsy Scholar and that he might return soon and offer his aesthetic views on the artwork above, views that I am sure will, in their wounded disgust, shed revolutionary light on everything, or as Georges Braque put it:
"L'art est une blessure qui devient une lumière."
"Art is a wound that becomes a light." I can't put it any better than that . . .

[UPDATE (December 22, 2011): Sometime after posting this entry above, I found time to view the video referred to by this Revolutionary Artist, and I now believe the 'Artist' to be a woman rather than a man, a woman deserving our pity, based on what I discovered in the video, and probably even a woman in need of long-term psychological counseling.]

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Monday, December 19, 2011

"Korean is the world's most superior language"

Professor Sohn Ho-min
University of Hawaii
Photo by Lee Sang-sub

Astounding news from respected University of Hawaii professor of linguistics Sohn Ho-min:
"When we say Korean is superior, we are basing this on scientific examination. The Korean language's method of making sound through a combination of vowels and consonants is very scientific and economical, even."

And we can believe it because in this Korea Herald article, "Korean language scientifically superior," the reporter, Shin Hae-in, assures us that:
"As a scholar who has spent the past four decades studying his mother-tongue and language in general, professor Sohn Ho-min should know what he's talking about when he says Korean is the world's most superior language."

Unfortunately, the article never explains in what way the "combination of vowels and consonants" in Korean is "scientifically superior" because the term "scientific" remains undefined, unless this has some connection to "economical," but that term seems to be a separate adjective, intended to describe the language, not to define "scientific."

Moreover, I have to wonder if this reporter has really understood Professor Sohn Ho-min. Perhaps the good professor actually is a linguistic chauvinist, but a close reading of the entire article does not turn up an exact quote with Sohn claiming that "Korean is the world's most superior language." The reporter supposedly paraphrases Sohn as saying this, but no quote is provided.

I presume that Sohn was speaking in Korean, and I suspect that Sohn was talking not about the Korean language (한국말, Hangungmal), but about the Korean alphabet (한글, Hangul), instead. In that case, the statement by Sohn would read:
"The Korean alphabet's method of making sound through a combination of vowels and consonants is very scientific and economical, even."

If Sohn said that and maintained merely that "When we say the Korean alphabet is superior, we are basing this on scientific examination," then his statement is more reasonable, for he's not speaking of a natural language but of an invented alphabet, and he does not directly state that the Korean alphabet is "the world's most superior" alphabet.

Sohn might, of course, actually mean that it is "the world's most superior" alphabet, and if so, then his statement is the problematic sort of nationalist claim that Koreans often make about Korea's writing system, i.e., Hangul, but offering only reasons that seem unconvincing to most non-Koreans.

But I'd need to know exactly what Sohn claimed.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Terrance Lindall's Lost Bifolia . . .

Terrance Lindall was rummaging through his earlier oeuvre and sent me some images of what he'd found, along with permission to post them. I'll include his remarks, posted in block-quote form beneath each image. First comes the room of his rummaging:

Note those black tea and coffee urns. That's silver that has nor been polished in 35 years. The coffee urn belonged to the Tiny Tim Society, whatever that was.
A bit of alchemy will bring those 'Dorian Gray' urns to shine again, even while purifying the soul of its baser material. While Terrance contemplates those musings, let us go forth into the past and gaze into the outpourings of his amusing muse, what at first glance appears to stem from his days as illustrator for such magazines as Creepy . . . except for what Terrance tells us:

I once spent about a year writing notes for what I thought was going to be great philosophical short story. Recently in sorting my notes from the past forty years I came across it. It was about Beauty and the Beast. In it a man has a conversation with the animal side of his character. It is like Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov where the prince has a conversation with the devil. It was sort of like CS Lewis' Screwtape Letters too. The beast argued that all that is worthy comes about through desire passion and eagerness to possess, whether it is to possess beauty or love, or indulge in sensual pleasures, etc. The beast also argues that pursuit of knowledge also is by urge of the passions. Without desire, we desire nothing. Thus without the beast in us, our animal nature, life is empty and nothing. Fear is good too, we fear and run from pain and death. I have to go back and look at it. It is a jumble. It has some pen sketches of the beast too.

"A thing of Beauty is a joy forever." Is it? Or is it precious and beautiful because it is fleeting. Even if it is fleeting, is it still a joy forever? In what way? Is that just a poetic throw off or a philosophical truth? If one cannot believe it, is it good poetry?

Does not one become indifferent to beauty as one becomes indifferent to any stimulus? The animal in us becomes sated once glutted.
Interesting musings for a Beast. Perhaps alchemy is working its magic. I hope that Terrance returns to that story and reworks it. But let us turn to his Paradise Lost images. This one's titled "Satan Summoning His Legions" . . . but note the fullcaps caption:

That's a bit unexpected, a differently gendered Satan! But why, after all, should we be sexist and always use the masculine for Satan? Anyway, on a sheet associated with this image are Terrance's musings on the theme of Paradise Lost -- and look, an alchemical trope!

No caption to that one, but you can click on the image and read what Terrance wrote. Let's move on to the next image, titled "Eve Sees Her Reflection" and reflect on its significance:

Again, no caption, but we can read of Eve's captured, captivating image below -- in the image of the writing itself as well as in Lindall's further musings, including remarks prefatory to the final image of Eve and the Serpent:

Eve is reflecting on her image in the pool. She is mesmerized by the beauty and yet is loathe to look, subconsciously aware that this is the fascination akin to that of a mesmerizing snake! Yes, there is fasciation and perhaps a bit of horror by the strong attraction she feels. Can this be lust? Horror and beauty are somehow related. Consider the swirling eddies of colliding star clusters in the galaxy -- creation and desctruction -- the beauty and the horror, Krishna and Kali, aspects of the same God! Notice in my final painting of Eve and the Serpent that they have the same blue irises for eyes! They are aspects of each other. Both are tempters. She is tempted by the Serpent and Adam is tempted by her. How many parallels are there?

Good questions about parallels between Eve and the Serpent, and these demonstrate something that I posted some years back, namely, that Terrance is an artist of ideas. Not all artist are, though all perhaps have conceptions of what they want to create, but Terrance has consciously thought-out ideas that fit together in a system of thought. He is an intellectual as well as an artist. And we see this all because he was cleaning house:

Looking behind a large piece of Victorian furniture I knew there was a shallow box standing upright that I thought contained our complete Fugaku hyakkei 'One hundred views of Mt. Fuji' by Hokusai.

No indeed, it contained my lost bifolia drawings of Paradise Lost. These were missing for about 20 years. The bifolia are \t 15 x 15 which, when you open the page, contains notes on the ideas illustrated on the first page.
"Bifolia," Terrance says.

"Biophilia," I say . . .

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christopher Hitchens: Requiescat In Pace

Christopher Hitchens
(13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011)

Christopher Hitchens has died of pneumonia, a complication of his throat cancer treatment, and I take this moment to offer my respects. I enjoyed reading his views as he expressed them, not because I always agreed but because he expressed himself so well, with such style, verve, nerve, and flair. Martin Kramer observes that "[t]here was much to admire and dislike about the late Christopher Hitchens," and I am put in mind of a stanza from Auden's poem "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," his tribute to that poet upon learning of his passing:
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

Curious what his enemies might have to say about him, I went to Christianity Today to read the tribute there by Douglas Wilson, who had debated Hitchens in 2007 on the question "Is Christianity Good for the World?" Wilson had these kind words for the man:
He was actually an affable and pleasant dinner companion, and fully capable of being the perfect gentleman. He was fully aware of the authority an enfant terrible could have, provided he played his cards right, and this was a strategy that Hitchens employed very well indeed. One man who delivers a terrible insult is banned from television for life, and another man, who does the same thing, has people lining up with invitations and microphones. In case anyone is wondering, Christopher was that second man.

I found Wilson's parting words rather gracious as well:
We therefore commend Christopher to the Judge of the whole earth, who will certainly do right. Christopher Eric Hitchens (1949-2011). R.I.P.

"Well, I say amen to that, sir," though in my pride and my prejudice, perhaps with a touch of sincere irony . . .

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Korean Unification Gang . . .

My scholarly friend Kim Myongsob, currently director of the Yonsei Institute for Korean Unification Studies (연세대학교 부설 통일연구원), which is housed in the same building as the Kim Dae Jung Presidential Library and Museum, asked me to meet with some of his masters students and offer advice on research writing, so I met with them and provided some guidance:

That's me in the cap, second from the left. First from the left is Choi Jaehoon, who works with the Korean police force and is studying terrorism with the intention of finding a job at Interpol, which doubtless keeps a sharp eye on North Korea's activities. Third from the left is Lim Honey, who is hiding from Big Brother and working on the puzzle of North Korea's continuing, mystifying existence! Fourth from the left is Chou Yuh Bin, of Taiwan, who wants to explain why so many non-Koreans think that Samsung is a Japanese firm (!) -- clearly essential for understanding North Korea (since the two Koreas get conflated, too). Fifth from the left is Jun Dae-jin, who studies international law and wants to apply the Right to Protect to North Korea, specifically, the Right to Rebuild if the North becomes a failed state. (If?) Sixth from the left is Jo Sung Gwun, a doctor of medicine who is interested in North Korea's health care system but is currently working on understanding diabetes (maybe Kim Jong-il can use some treatment). Seventh from the left is Yoon Kyeongwon, who is studying linguistics with the aim of teaching Korean better to English speakers, which has something to do with North Korea, I suppose, but you don't see him since he's so far right that he has disappeared out the door . . .

I was also soon caught on the way out, as you see from my 'deer-in-the-headlights' look as I adjust my bag:

The whole gang and I had such a nice time that we plan to meet again next week . . . at Craftworks Taphouse!

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Sheikh Ahmad Abu Quddum: "There is indeed a clash of civilizations . . ."

Sheikh Ahmad Abu Quddum

From MEMRI comes a report that "Sheikh Ahmad Abu Quddum of Jordan's Tahrir Party Discusses Jihad," Middle East Research Institute (Special Dispatch No. 4354, December 12, 2011):
"[Jihad] is in order to remove obstacles . . . . When we declare Jihad against . . . [a] state, for refusing to allow Islam to spread to the people . . . . [w]e give them a choice: Either to convert to Islam, or to pay the jizya and submit to the laws of Islam. The jizya is the . . . tax paid by non-Muslims . . . . We should fight the states and the armies . . . . [I]f a certain state insists on preventing the spread of Islam on its soil, we will fight that state . . . . [Samuel Huntington was right.] There is indeed a clash of civilizations . . . . If not for Jihad, Islam would not have reached us and all the other places. Within a quarter of a century, Islam reached most of the ancient world by means of Jihad . . . . [T]his is Islam's way of spreading . . . . [R]uling positions . . . are exclusively for Muslims. Anyone who is part of the rule –- the head of state, who is the Caliph, the empowered official, the executive official, the wali, or the governor –- must be a Muslim. Moreover, he must be a man . . . . The future belongs to Islam. The Islamic caliphate is bound to come, as was foretold by our Prophet Muhammad . . . . [T]here will be a caliphate following the path of the Prophet Muhammad."

When queried about the West's advantages by a political activist, Omar Abu Rassa, the sheikh retorted, "European countries live in prehistoric, pre-human times." When the activist pressed a bit further and asked about the West's "scientific accomplishments" and "freedom of thought," the sheikh asked, "What scientific accomplishments?! We [Muslims] brought them there." The report does not say if the sheikh also insists that Muslims brought freedom of thought to the West, but I assume that the sheikh's Tahrir Party is the same as the Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Party of Liberation, a Sunni pan-Islamic organization that has spread around the world, doubtless to bring true liberation of thought, i.e., submission to Islamic law.

I therefore infer that the good sheikh would also insist that Muslims bring authentic freedom of thought, the freedom to think whatever one wants to think so long as that thought remains a thought.

No freedom of speech, however . . .

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ian Buruma on Europe's Crisis

Ian Buruma has an interesting article on the European Union for Project Syndicate, "Is the European dream dead?" (December 8th, 2011).

I say "interesting" because it echoes some of the points that I've made over the past few years in occasional posts. For instance, I've noted the need to enhance European identity if the EU is to survive, though I believe that such strengthening is possible if grounded in the traditions of Western Civilization, broadly interpreted and deepened, though this won't be easy, and doesn't appear to be working very well at the moment, as Buruma notes:
Since the EU is neither a nation-state nor a democracy, there is no "European people" to see the EU through hard times. Rich Germans and Dutch do not want to pay for the economic mess in which the Greeks, Portuguese, or Spanish now find themselves.

I wouldn't go so far as to declare that no European people exists. The Greeks, after all, got in for being who they are, one of the fountainheads of European Civilization. But the nations of the EU are flirting with nationalism and its risks, which I consider a latent danger in the European psyche, as Buruma also notes:
Instead of showing solidarity, . . . [the northern Europeans] moralize, as though all of the problems in Mediterranean Europe were the result of native laziness or its citizens' corrupt nature. As a result, the moralizers risk bringing the common roof down on Europe's head, and confronting the nationalist dangers that the EU was created to prevent.

National identities are not necessarily inconsistent with Western identity, but extremist views of nationalism will wreck the European project and set European against European. One way to increase a sense of European identity would be to give the people of Europe a greater role in EU politics. I've long argued that the EU suffers from a "democratic deficit" and thus needs more democracy . . . but how? Buruma has similar thoughts:
Europe must be fixed politically as much as financially. It is a cliché, but nonetheless true, that the EU suffers from a "democratic deficit." The problem is that democracy has only ever worked within nation-states. Nation-states need not be monocultural, or even monolingual. Think of Switzerland . . . . But democracy does require that citizens have a sense of belonging.

Is a stronger sense of belonging possible? Can Europe draw upon common traditions beyond its national differences for the sense of belonging needed to make a democracy work well enough for a greater sense of belonging to develop? Buruma also wonders:
Is this possible in a supra-national body like the EU? If the answer is no, it may be best to restore the sovereignty of individual European nation-states, give up on the common currency, and abandon a dream that is threatening to become a nightmare.

But there is a price to be paid for such a break-up:
Still, even if disbanding Europe were possible, it would come at enormous cost. Abandoning the euro, for example, would cripple the continent's banking system, affecting both Germany and the affluent north and the distressed countries in the south. And, if the Greek and Italian economies face difficult recoveries inside the eurozone, consider how hard it would be to repay euro-denominated debts with devalued drachmas or liras.

Quite apart from the financial aspects, there would be a real danger of throwing away the benefits that the EU has brought, particularly in terms of Europe's standing in the world. In isolation, European countries would have limited global significance. As a union, Europe still matters a great deal.

What, then, can be done? Buruma speculates:
The alternative to dismantling the EU is to strengthen it –- to pool the debt and create a European treasury. If European citizens are to accept this, however, the EU needs more democracy. But that depends upon a vital sense of European solidarity, which will not come from anthems, flags, or other gimmicks devised by bureaucrats in Brussels.

For starters, affluent northern Europeans have to be convinced that it is in their interest to strengthen the EU, as it certainly is. After all, they have benefited most from the euro, which has enabled them to export cheaply to southern Europeans. While it is up to national politicians to make this case, the EU's governing institutions in Brussels, Luxembourg, and Strasbourg also have to be brought closer to European citizens.

Perhaps Europeans could vote for members of the European Commission, with candidates campaigning in other countries, rather than just in their own. Perhaps Europeans could elect a president.

Buruma sees the difficulty, but reminds us of the stakes:
Democracy may seem like a mad dream in a community of 27 nation-states, and perhaps it is. But unless one is prepared to give up on building a more united Europe, it is surely worth considering.

We find Europe caught between a potentially impossible deeper union and a recognizably catastrophic threatening crack-up.

Which will it be?

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Addiction: Tolerance and Withdrawal

Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow
Intolerable Withdrawal?
Adolph Northen (1828-1876)

My Advanced English students recently handed in their final essays on a topic labeled "My Addiction."

Early this semester, we had read in our textbook a short article on addiction and learned that two key elements of genuine addiction are "tolerance" and "withdrawal." The article explained these quite clearly -- the former being the tendency over time to need more and more of a substance or behavior to obtain the same satisfaction and the latter being the painful physical and emotional symptoms associated with cessation of a substance or behavior.

This final essay was the second rewrite of the assignment. For their first essay, I had asked students to write on their 'addiction' -- prior to reading the article. The results were predictable. Most students called their habit an "addiction." We then read the article and learned the crucial elements "tolerance" and "withdrawal," and I asked the students to rewrite their essays with a definition paragraph in the body of the essay to clarify what an addiction is. Though not all students did so, most complied, but then failed to apply the two elements to their own 'addiction' to determine whether it was truly an addiction, or not.

I therefore had them rewrite again, telling them clearly what to do. I also warned them against using dictionary definitions and exhorted them to stick to the book's explanation. Most students complied, but a few didn't, including one clueless student who had previously included no definition paragraph and who then proceded to write the following explanation for the tolerance and withdrawal characteristic of an addiction:
If people rely on something, symptoms of tolerance and withdrawal begin to show. Tolerance has the meaning that 'tolerance is the practice of permitting a thing of which one disapproves, such as social, ethnic, sexual, or religious practices' in the dictionary. And it is causes that people are even more dependent on. This is the starting point in the addiction. Withdrawal has the meaning that 'A withdrawal may be undertaken as part of a general retreat, to consolidate forces, to occupy ground that is more easily defended, or to lead the enemy into an ambush.' When people ban dependent, this result(withdrawal) appears. And it is causes that make difficult to stop addiction.

I wrote above that this student was "clueless," and that judgment may have seemed harsh, but readers can now see that I wrote accurately. I had warned students that anyone who didn't include a definition paragraph using the textbook's explanation would get zero out of ten points, but I gave the student a 5.5 since the terms "tolerance" and "withdrawal" were used more or less correctly when this same student went of to discuss an addiction to a smart phone.

But how one can know the terms well enough to use them with roughly the correct meaning, yet define them formally using entirely different definitions lifted from a dictionary, entails a blindness to intellectual insight that I'll never comprehend!

At least, the essay offered an amusing diversion after dozens of similar definitions . . .

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Monday, December 12, 2011

Poetry Break: "Illegal"

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

I've long liked Tennyson's sharp, concise poem "The Eagle":
The Eagle
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

But despite liking it, I want to contradict it with a parody, a "paradiction":
He grasps the rag with crooked hands;
Closed to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd by an assured whirl, he stands.

The wrinkled skin upon him crawls;
He washes plates from mounting walls,
And like a blunderdolt he falls.

That'll likely raise the hackles of some sensitive souls, but I worked as a dishwasher for three years, and I've sometimes in my life had to support myself as an 'undocumented' laborer, so I've got street cred and can compose this sort of poem.

If I feel like it . . .


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Niall Ferguson for the euro?

Niall Ferguson

I see Niall Ferguson, usually a critic of the EU project, seems implicitly to support a monetary role for the European Central Bank, if I read his recent Newsweek column correctly: "The Fed's Critics Are Wrong: We Need to Avert Depression" (December 5, 2011). In that column, he supports monetary easing:
In normal times it would be legitimate to worry about the consequences of money printing and outsize debts. But history tells us these are anything but normal times.

Ferguson isn't just speaking about the US Federal Reserve:
[A]larmingly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated her opposition to monetary easing as well as to the creation of common "euro bonds." Her latest proposal is that each European state should set up a national debt-reduction fund.

In Ferguson's view, the politicians are setting out to repeat a bad stretch of history:
People often forget that the Great Depression . . . [had] two halves. The first half was dominated by the aftermath of the 1929 U.S. stock-market crash. The second half, which made the depression truly "great" in both its depth and its extent, began with the European banking crisis of 1931. To understand . . . you need to know this history . . . . [and] read Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz's Monetary History of the United States, the single most important book about American financial history ever written . . . . [as well as] Barry Eichengreen's Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression . . . . Friedman and Schwartz argued that the stock-market panic of 1929 turned into a depression because of avoidable errors by the Fed. Instead of easing monetary policy by cutting interest rates and buying bonds, the Fed tightened. The result was a catastrophic chain reaction of bank failures, which caused the money supply to contract by approximately a third, and economic output with it. Eichengreen's book tells . . . [how] the rules of the gold standard forced central banks to transmit the American shock around the world. Then an increasingly polarized political atmosphere made it impossible to reach agreements about the enormous war and reparations debts that weighed down European governments. Despite multiple international conferences, the global financial system collapsed. Countries recovered only when they abandoned the gold standard and focused on job creation.

Not only are political leaders like Merkel opposed to monetary easing, some politicians think that a return to the gold standard would provide 'real' money. Ferguson is relieved that central bankers understand economic history:
We are indeed fortunate that at least the world's leading central bankers have studied this history: not only Ben Bernanke but also the heads of the Bank of England, the Bank of Canada, and the European Central Bank.

But he worries about the world's political leaders:
The bad news is that so few politicians and voters understand what . . . [the bankers] are trying to do, or why. The even worse news is that central bankers by themselves may not be able to stop our depression from turning great.

Ferguson doesn't come out and directly state it, but if I read him right, he's saying that the euro needs to be saved and the only way to do so is to give the European Central Bank power over the eurozone's monetary policy.

An EU critic coming to the EU's rescue . . .

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

War and Peace?

My old Ozark friend Pete Hale sent me tidings of great joy for the holiday season: Peace On Earth.
I heard part of a "TOTN" [Talk of the Nation] interview on NPR [National Public Radio] today with Steven Pinker and Joshua Goldstein, on how much less violent the world is than, well, it used to be. Goldstein I don't know of, but I know Pinker is a monster [in the best sense of that word] and I've followed some of his stuff over the past few years. I might well have to get his book on this subject (they each have one out respectively) . . . . Anyhow, during the interview they talk about how the world may well be as non-violent as at any time in recorded history now; international economic connectedness being a huge driver, and an interesting bunch of other likely factors. Goldstein in particular dwelled on how the UN has really gotten GOOD at keeping peace (I swear, it almost seems quaint and odd to imagine an organization actually getting better at doing something over time, but clearly it does happen upon occasion . . .), and that it's made a real and evidently lasting difference.
Pete is referring to the books by Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature) and Joshua Goldstein (Winning the War on War), both of which argue that the world has never been more peaceful. Readers with an interest in this issue can go directly to the NPR site and read the interview by "Conan the Nonbarbarian" of these two contrarians, for I'm just citing here a passage relevant to a recent post on the EU:
CONAN: Steven Pinker, Harvard college professor of psychology. And also with us, Joshua Goldstein, a professor emeritus of international relations at American University. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And this email from Michael in Spanish Fork, Utah: Looking at what's going on right now in Europe, one can't help but think that 70 years ago, similar issues were resolved with tanks and airplanes. In my opinion, economic interdependence has done more to mitigate violence than anything else.

GOLDSTEIN: Absolutely. The European story is just miraculous after centuries of bringing the world some of its biggest, most bloody conflicts. People there, it's not all economic. That's part of it, but people deliberately set out to integrate the continent, to make the countries dependent on each other and to build a common culture of Europe. And today, that French German border that was fought over with huge fortifications and massive armies crossing back and forth, now that border consists of a single sign by the side of the road that says Germany or France. By the way, you're crossing a border, which barely is a border. And this is remarkable, it's the dog that didn't bark. The thing that didn't happen, the war in Europe . . . that we don't pay attention to because it didn't happen, but it is the story, the things that are not happening that could have happened or that in the past would've happened . . . .

PINKER: Yeah. And for all the criticism that greed and capitalism and profit and materialism are subject to, we should remind ourselves that they're historically often better than rectifying historic injustices, promoting national or religious supremacy, bringing the kingdom of God to earth, and all kinds of spiritual motives that can do a lot more damage than people just wanting a good material life for themselves.

In light of the threatening collapse of the Euro Zone, this might focus a few minds on what's at stake if the Eurocrats fail . . . assuming that Pinker and Goldstein are correct, of course.

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Friday, December 09, 2011

Hitchens feeling a little down in the mouth . . .

(The New York Times)
Image from Vanity Fair

I read a poignant passage by Christopher Hitchens in a Vanity Fair article, "Trial of the Will" (January 2012), which he has written on his experience with treatment for his esophagal cancer:
I am typing this having just had an injection to try to reduce the pain in my arms, hands, and fingers. The chief side effect of this pain is numbness in the extremities, filling me with the not irrational fear that I shall lose the ability to write. Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my "will to live" would be hugely attenuated. I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it's true. Almost like the threatened loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.

I'm no Hitchens, but on those mornings when I also feel a hitch in my style and can't type quite so normally as I'd like, when the progressive decline we call aging makes a premature visit just to remind me that it's out there lurking in my future, when I wonder how much time I've still got left to enjoy posting my right-hand thoughts for myself and the random reader who stumbles across these blog spots, I can almost find myself able to imagine how the man feels.

A bit morbid, I suspect . . .


Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Religion of Pieces . . .

Haraam Cucumber?

Just when you thought that the news couldn't get any weirder, the Egyptian-based news source Bikya Masr reports that "[a]n Islamic cleric residing in Europe said that women should not be close to bananas or cucumbers, in order to avoid any 'sexual thoughts.'"

In the report compiled by Manar Ammar, "Islamic cleric bans women from touching bananas, cucumbers for sexual resemblance" (December 6, 2011), we learn "that if women wish to eat these food items, a third party, preferably a male related to them such as their . . . father or husband, should cut the items into small pieces and serve."

Why? Well, because "these fruits and vegetables 'resemble the male penis'" -- though apparently not the female penis -- "and hence could arouse women or 'make them think of sex.'"

Right. We all know just how easily women can be led into thinking about sex. The thought would never occur to men, of course. That's why the cleric "also added carrots and zucchini to the list of forbidden foods for women."

Better not let this cleric know about certain mushrooms.

Personally, I would add peanuts, not for their appearance, but because the word "peanuts" sounds too much like "penis." For that matter, the word "penis" sounds too much like "penis" and should also be banned. In the interest of pure thoughts, this blog will henceforth refer to it as "that-thang-that-must-not-be-named." Hmmm . . . or maybe not. A long-handled name like this might make a woman think of "that-thang-that-must-not-be-named." Oops . . . this is getting hard. Um . . . I mean "difficult."

But how is one "to 'control' women when they are out shopping for groceries . . . if holding these items at the market would be bad for them"? Apparently, "[T]his matter is between them and God."

At last, a sensible remark from the cleric! If only he hadn't let himself come between women and God in the first place . . . a point that could be applied to Islam generally.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Merkel the Marathoner

First Marathon Runner

Angela Merkel has compared the euro crisis as a "marathon," according to a report by Nicholas Kulish and Alan Cowell: "No quick fix for crisis in euro zone, Merkel says" (International Herald Tribune, December 3-4, 2011):
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, a central player in efforts to rescue Europe's single currency, on Friday ruled out a rapid solution to the euro zone's debt crisis, comparing the process to a runners' marathon and saying it could take years . . . . "Resolving the sovereign debt crisis is a process and this process will take years," Mrs. Merkel said . . . . Marathon runners, she said, believe that their efforts become particularly difficult after the "35 kilometer mark . . . . But they also say that you can get to the finish if you are conscious of the magnitude of the task from the very start."

I'm not going to hazard a suggestion on how the European Union should resolve its euro zone crisis, but I will say that a "marathon" is not the most useful analogy. Merkel takes the analogy rather literally, too. She speaks of its "magnitude" and apparantly means 42.195 kilometers, for she refers to the "35 kilometer mark." Merkel's view of this economic crisis is too static. She imagines a fixed timeline for the crisis, with a clear beginning and a clear end and precisely 42.195 kilometers from the former to the latter. But this crisis is not static; it is dynamic, and if the EU does not run more quickly, then the race could extend indefinitely . . . until the euro's collapse, of course.

We might also want to remember that Pheidippides, the first marathon runner, died upon finishing his run . . .

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