One for Woody

Eric Von Schmidt played a concert at New College on 6 October 1967, three days after Woody Guthrie died. Eric promised “one for Woody”, and delivers here.

Audio MP3

It’s been 47 years. Celebrate “with a wet belly and a dry eye!”

Edna Fish & Chips

Who is she
that looketh forth as the morning,
fair as the moon, clear as the sun,
and terrible as an army with banners?

Edna ran a fish & chips shop on Columbus in North Beach in the 60s and early 70s. It was a work of culinary art, and she knew it. A narrow storefront, as I recall, and perhaps 2,3,4 stools. I miss it, Edna, her fish, her chips, her art. I ate there, from time to time, oblivious.

(Song of Solomon 6:10, to save you the trouble. KJV. (I’m not, particularly, a big KJV fan. But here they’ve got it right, and everyone else, not.))

Edna
Edna

Nicholson Baker, on Killing

Last week, in a letter to the NY Times.

To the Editor:

Re “Pick a Topic, Any Topic. He Did” (Books of The Times, Aug. 13):

Michiko Kakutani, in her review of my book of essays “The Way the World Works,” says of me: “He even seems to suggest some sort of moral equivalence between the Nazis and the Allies.” I certainly don’t suggest that, and as I’ve repeatedly said in public, I totally reject the notion of moral equivalence as a way of looking at World War II.

Each murder, whether in war or peace, is a separate wrong: one of the things we have to do to get ourselves moving in the right direction — away from retribution, vengeance, payback — is to stop bundling deaths together and weighing them on a giant scale.

NICHOLSON BAKER
South Berwick, Me., Aug. 13, 2012

What Orwell overlooked

About making tea, that is. A year or so ago I posted George Orwell’s guide to brewing tea (by way of Hitchens, I notice; peace to his memory), and I’m compelled, on reflection and experience, to suggest that he missed perhaps the most important rule.

Make tea with good water.

Spend some time on the road, brewing tea in strange places, and you’ll find that from time to time your morning cup is nearly undrinkable, and that the only difference is the quality of the local water. What quality? I don’t really know. Search the web for tea scum and you’ll find a collection of theories, the predominant one implicating calcium carbonate, along with a suggestion to neutralize it with lemon.

So, I guess, carry a jug of good water with you, use it when the local water’s bad, and refill it when it’s good. Not, of course, if you have to get the jug past the TSA, but if you’re driving, you’ll find it makes a bigger difference than taking the teapot to the kettle.

Today another copy of The New York Review of Books arrived…

I’ve recommended David Kaiser before, right? And you haven’t been reading him, have you?

Today another copy of The New York Review of Books arrived,

… The biggest casualty of this crisis will probably be our faith in our democracy. This morning’s New York Times leads with a story on fraud in the Afghan legislative elections and quotes one American official as saying, “It’s not necessarily the pro-Karzai bloc that has done so well, it’s that the Parliament will be more dependent on big power brokers. He added that “they would be more likely to make deals with Mr. Karzai that did not necessarily serve the Afghan people.” I find it hard to believe that I could have been the only reader to notice how well his comment seemed to describe the situation right here at home. …

It’s not too late.

R G Collingwood

Andrew Brown points us to Simon Blackburn’s review in The New Republic of a new biography of R G Collingwood, quoting along the way this admiration.

“Although art as magic is not art proper, Collingwood accords it the greatest respect. He dismisses more brutally and contemptuously even than Wittgenstein the patronizing view, held by Frazer, Lévy-Bruhl, and other anthropologists of his time, that religion and magic simply amount to bad science, so that the “savage mind” is one lacking the most elementary knowledge of cause and effect. He also dismisses the ludicrous Freudian view that magic is a kind of neurosis in which the patient supposes that by wishing for a thing he can bring it about. Instead, Collingwood insists, surely correctly, that the end of magic is the raising and channeling of emotion: ‘magical activity is a kind of dynamo supplying the mechanism of practical life with the current that drives it.’ Its true purpose is not, say, to avert natural catastrophes, but to ‘produce in men an emotional state of willingness to bear them with fortitude and hope.’

“This attitude gave Collingwood an uncommon sympathy with religious ritual and practice, and a much more realistic understanding of its ongoing place in human life. He also enables us to see why the majority of people, including those like myself who have no religious attachments, are nevertheless embarrassed at the dogmatic contempt poured on religious practice by our more militant atheists. Every sane person recognizes at some level that dance, music, poetry, and ritual may be just what you need as you prepare to face a battle, or desolation, failure, grief, or death.”

Blackburn isn’t uncritical, though.

If Collingwood is as acute and interesting as I have suggested, how does it happen that he is largely a minority interest? He has his devotees, certainly; but I doubt if he is more than a ghost in the footnotes to syllabi across the Western world. The comparison to Wittgenstein might help. It is difficult to pick up a page of Wittgenstein without being seduced: whether you understand it or not, the sense is overwhelming that something of the highest importance is being addressed with a rare detachment and intelligence. With Collingwood, there is assertion and bravado instead of seduction. Wittgenstein shows that he is a wonderfully and originally reflective thinker; Collingwood cannot help telling you that he is. Wittgenstein is silent about his being capable of other things as well; Collingwood boasts of it. You can read all of Wittgenstein without knowing of his genuine heroism during World War I. One cannot help feeling that had Collingwood done anything like that, it would have cropped up on every other page. All this is off-putting, and Collingwood’s readers have to learn to shake their heads with a smile rather than toss the whole thing into the bin.

The World According to Howard Zinn

The World According to Howard Zinn

From his 2002 autobiography You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train:

howardzinn.jpgTo be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

via James Ridgeway

Incandescent lights forever

edison_light_bulb.jpgAs I was listening to a friend discuss the early days of digital computer design, and how much things had changed, it struck me that there is one common technology of similar age that would be instantly recognizable to its inventor: the Edison incandescent light bulb.

Edison was only one of many, of course, but he’ll serve our purposes. Edison built the bulb on the right around 1880, give or take. What I find interesting is that, while we’ve all got CFLs and LEDs around the house these days, most likely we’ve also got copper wire bringing electricity into our house and through the walls, mechanical-contact switches, and glass bulbs with white-hot glowing filaments. Edison would be completely familiar with the entire technology (using a tungsten filament and filling the envelope with an inert gas were incremental improvements that Edison would have been familiar with, and didn’t fundamentally change things).

The panoply of other technological inventions from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries (automobile engines, computers, flying machines, etc) have evolved to the point where their inventors would be lost trying to explain them. Otto would understand the principle of my Honda Civic’s engine, of course, but it lives in a nest of high tech that’s well beyond his time.

Not so the lighting system that illuminates me as I type. It’s instantly recognizable in all respects by any techie from 100 years ago. And for longer than we might care to think, I’m guessing.

R.I.P. Howard Zinn

From his hometown paper:

zinn.jpgHoward Zinn, the Boston University historian and political activist who was an early opponent of US involvement in Vietnam and whose books, such as “A People’s History of the United States,” inspired young and old to rethink the way textbooks present the American experience, died today in Santa Monica, Calif, where he was traveling. He was 87.

His daughter, Myla Kabat-Zinn of Lexington, said he suffered a heart attack.

“He’s made an amazing contribution to American intellectual and moral culture,” Noam Chomsky, the left-wing activist and MIT professor, said tonight. “He’s changed the conscience of America in a highly constructive way. I really can’t think of anyone I can compare him to in this respect.”

Chomsky added that Dr. Zinn’s writings “simply changed perspective and understanding for a whole generation. He opened up approaches to history that were novel and highly significant. Both by his actions, and his writings for 50 years, he played a powerful role in helping and in many ways inspiring the Civil rights movement and the anti-war movement.”

For Dr. Zinn, activism was a natural extension of the revisionist brand of history he taught. “A People’s History of the United States” (1980), his best-known book, had for its heroes not the Founding Fathers — many of them slaveholders and deeply attached to the status quo, as Dr. Zinn was quick to point out — but rather the farmers of Shays’ Rebellion and union organizers of the 1930s.

As he wrote in his autobiography, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train” (1994), “From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity’; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.”

via Balloon Juice

The Poverty of Economics

Marx: The Poverty of Philosophy — Chapter 2.1

Economists have a singular method of procedure. There are only two kinds of institutions for them, artificial and natural. The institutions of feudalism are artificial institutions, those of the bourgeoisie are natural institutions. In this, they resemble the theologians, who likewise establish two kinds of religion. Every religion which is not theirs is an invention of men, while their own is an emanation from God. When the economists say that present-day relations — the relations of bourgeois production — are natural, they imply that these are the relations in which wealth is created and productive forces developed in conformity with the laws of nature. These relations therefore are themselves natural laws independent of the influence of time. They are eternal laws which must always govern society. Thus, there has been history, but there is no longer any. There has been history, since there were the institutions of feudalism, and in these institutions of feudalism we find quite different relations of production from those of bourgeois society, which the economists try to pass off as natural and as such, eternal.

via bourgeois economist Brad DeLong

Andrew Brown, Will Self, Sebald, the holocaust

Andrew Brown:

Will Self, Sebald, the holocaust

… It seems to me that the moral significance of the holocaust is not so much that Jews were the victims, as that Germans (mostly) were the perpetrators. In many ways, the German-speaking world in 1913 was at the summit of Western culture. If all that civilisation could not withstand a world war, a plague, inflation and then a slump, what civilisation can?

This is not in any way to diminish the horror of what happened under the Nazis. But to make it the synecdoche of every evil is to dehumanise and distance it. If the holocaust is taken to be the most evil thing that humans ave ever done, and we didn’t do it, then we feel when we consider the horror as if we have passed some important exam in being human. We haven’t. We were spared the question, and that’s a very different thing. …

Lars Brownworth: Byzantines & Normans

christ-pantocrator.pngI noticed that I haven’t mentioned Lars Brownworth excellent lecture series, 12 Byzantine Rulers. It’s available as a podcast series through the iTunes Store, or from his site.

This history lecture podcast covers the little known Byzantine Empire through the study of twelve of its greatest rulers.

Brownworth is an engaging speaker, and the subject matter is fascinating.

I bring this up now because Brownworth has just begun another series, Norman Centuries. The first installment:

They were the great success story of the Middle Ages, a footloose band of individual adventurers who appeared out of nowhere to blaze across the face of Dark Age Europe. In the course of two centuries the Normans launched a series of extraordinary conquests, transforming Anglo-Saxon England into Great Britain, setting up a powerful Crusader state in Antioch, and turning Palermo into the dazzling cultural and economic capital of the western Mediterranean. Their story, however, begins rather humbly in the fierce Viking Age, when a group of Scandinavian raiders came crashing into Charlemagne’s empire. Join Lars Brownworth as he follows the ferocious warrior Rollo, the first Norman, who began life as a simple raider and ended it as a great lord of the West.

Enough with the Nazis

Thus The Mudflats, whose father was a WW2 POW. Here’s the end.

… I remember as a child I was not allowed to watch Hogan’s Heroes. It wasn’t a joke in my house. There was nothing funny about prisoner of war camps. There were no handsome well-fed prisoners with secret tunnels under their bunks, and pirate radio equipment who always managed to play their captors for the fool. There were frightened, emaciated young men whose minds and bodies were broken an ocean away from home, who were shot on fences , and who ate cats, and watched their friends die. There was nothing to laugh about. Those were Nazis.

I am tired of people comparing Obama to Hitler. I am tired of seeing signs with swastikas and nazi symbols at health care rallies. I am tired of people saying that a health care plan designed to uplift millions of Americans to give them dignity, and choice and the ability to care for their families, is like Naziism. I am tired of Rush Limbaugh.

As time passes, and as the greatest generation becomes a memory, passing into history one soul at a time, it is up to the generations that follow them to keep “Hitler” and “Nazi” out of the clutches of those who would make them political buzzwords for people they don’t like, or policies they don’t understand. Those words remind us of the worst that people can be. There is nothing horrible about Germans in particular that caused them to do these things. This is humanity’s dark potential, and something that we all need to remember, whether we were there or not, or whether our family was affected or not, because this is what people can do to each other. To strip those words of their power and meaning in order to create political fear for self-gain is inexcusable and needs to be confronted and refuted whenever it arises, by all of us, whether we support the current health care bill and the current president or not.

Continuous (bloody) revolution

Well before Mao’s “continuous revolution“, Thomas Jefferson suggested that revolutions should be, if not continuous, at least fairly regular.

God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. …

And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.

This was in November of 1787 (the year the US Constitution was drafted), in the aftermath of Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts, while Jefferson was serving as ambassador to France. (Ironically, twenty years later Jefferson was in his second term as President, and not really looking for a rebellion.)

That’s all by way of historical context for this photo from one of the town-hall protests this last week:

guy-with-gun-sign-town-hall.jpg

Perhaps there’s a more benign interpretation of the sign than a call for the assassination of Barack Obama, but it’s not springing to mind.

Recovering the lituus

‘Lost’ music instrument recreated

lituusNew software has enabled researchers to recreate a long forgotten musical instrument called the Lituus.
The 2.7m (8.5ft) long trumpet-like instrument fell out of use some 300 years ago.

Bach’s motet (a choral musical composition) “O Jesu Christ, meins lebens licht” was one of the last pieces of music written for the Lituus.

Now, for the first time, this 18th Century composition has been played as it might have been heard.

Researchers from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the University of Edinburgh collaborated on the study. …

1968 is ancient history

So I was catching up on On the Media this morning, and heard this bit buried in a piece on the movement of public opinion toward approval of gay marriage.

… if we look back at interracial marriage, it was initially only at a 19 percent support level in 1968, one year after the Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court, had acted in this issue.

19%! 1968! That seems crazy to me (I was in college at the time); 1968 is only yesterday, isn’t it?

On the other hand, 41 years seemed like a lot longer back then; in 1968 that would have been 1927, which, of course, is ancient history, right?

It has been said of predicting technological progress that we tend to overestimate advances in the short term and underestimate them in the long. That seems right to me, and the cases seems somewhat similar. Year to year, change happens at a glacial pace. Yet glaciers do move.

Having written the above, I did a quick search on the subject of public attitude toward interracial marriage. Here’s what Gallup finds:

E6523928-EB40-4E99-983A-3D444DAA159B.jpg

Notice that there wasn’t even a plurality supporting interracial marriage until 1991 (now that is just yesterday).

I didn’t find such a concise presentation on same-sex marriage, and the data are harder to compare, since polls have been talking about both marriage and civil unions. But there’s a pretty good overview here. Two trends jump out at me. One is that opposition, especially strong opposition, to gay marriage is steadily dropping. The other is a dramatic age difference; one poll in 2008 found 69–22% opposition for gay marriage by respondents over 65, but 51–40% support by those 18–34.

In Anne Lamott’s words, “In a hundred years? — all new people!”

Just following orders

Those of us who grew up in the shadow of WW2 surely remember the contempt with which the “just following orders” defense was met. From the Nuremberg principles:

Article 7. The official position of defendants, whether as Heads of State or responsible officials in Government Departments, shall not be considered as freeing them from responsibility or mitigating punishment.

Article 8. The fact that the Defendant acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior shall not free him from responsibility, but may be considered in mitigation of punishment if the Tribunal determines that justice so requires.

Suddenly it’s all, “never mind”? Isn’t anyone even a little embarrassed at mounting this defense some 60 years later?

via Hullabaloo

More from Glenn Greenwald.

…the next time you’re pulled over by a police officer for speeding, quote Barack Obama: “This is a time for reflection, not retribution.” See if that works. If not, move to: “It’s time to focus on the future, not look to the past.” Criminal defense attorneys should try that on juries and judges, too.

The Obvious Comparison

Hilzoy, at the Washington Monthly.

The Obvious Comparison

You would like to place Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect. You have informed us that he appears to have a fear of insects. (…) As we understand it, you plan to inform Zubaydah that you are going to place a stinging insect into the box, but you will actually place a harmless insect in the box, such as a caterpillar. If you do so, to ensure you are outside the predicate death requirement, you must inform him that the insects will not have a sting that would produce death or severe pain. If, however, you were to place the insect in the box without informing him that you are doing so, you should not affirmatively lead him to believe that any insect is present which has a sting that could produce severe pain or suffering or even cause his death.”

OLC memo of August 1, 2002, signed by Jay Bybee.

“‘You asked me once,’ said O’Brien, ‘what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.’

“The door opened again. A guard came in, carrying something made of wire, a box or basket of some kind. He set it down on the further table. Because of the position in which O’Brien was standing. Winston could not see what the thing was.

‘The worst thing in the world,’ said O’Brien, ‘varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive, or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.’

He had moved a little to one side, so that Winston had a better view of the thing on the table. It was an oblong wire cage with a handle on top for carrying it by. Fixed to the front of it was something that looked like a fencing mask, with the concave side outwards. Although it was three or four metres away from him, he could see that the cage was divided lengthways into two compartments, and that there was some kind of creature in each. They were rats.

‘In your case,’ said O’Brien, ‘the worst thing in the world happens to be rats.'”

—George Orwell, 1984