Monday, December 31, 2012

Tom Tomorrow Has Some Questions

All pointed, all good.  The funniest:
Can someone PLEASE tell the President if he doesn't stop negotiating with himself, he'll go blind?
The rest.  Go, read.

Top Posts of 2012

First, eight in alphabetical order:

1. An Atheist Jew Reflects on the Mormon Baptism of the Dead
2. Composition No. 1: a Review (Sort Of)
3. Do Libertarians Believe in Slavery?
4. Remarks on Red Plenty by Francis Spufford
5. Surprises in Rereading Classic Children's Literature: Kipling's Just So Stories edition
6. Thoughts on Yoram Hazony's Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture
7. What if the World Ends Tomorrow and No One Notices?
8. We Are All Senator Inhofe Now

Those are, I think, my most substantive posts of the year.

Then two others which are simply the syllabi I did for my two new courses this fall.  These are actually equally substantive (at least) as the above -- certainly, a lot of work and thought went into them --  but they're not quite your standard blog posts, so I thought I'd list them separately.

9. Syllabus for American Studies 100: The History of American Culture
10. Syllabus for American Studies 101: Myths and Paradoxes

Then two which, although both are simply quotes of things other people said, but given the collection (in the first case) and the edition/repurposing (in the other), I feel like they're substantive:

11. The Forthcoming Prequels To Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen: Quote Roundup
12. Lines in Larry Kramer's Seminal Essay "1,112 and Counting..." Which Could Be Written Today About Global Warming

And, finally, one which is rather less substantive than others on this list, but I like it, in a "it's pleasantly quirky" sort of way:

13. Theodorides's Epigram (and Diverse Tangentially Related Matters

And that baker's dozen of posts are, I think, the best I've done on this blog this year.  Although of course it goes without saying that you ought to go and read everything I post since it's all golden.

Happy New Year to all my noble readers.  I'll see you anon.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Happy Birthday Joseph!

Happy birthday to Joseph, who turns four today.  Two recent action shots:

 Happy birthday!  (And no, Joseph, you're still not old enough to be on the net.  Close that phone right now, or you're in big trouble, buster.)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

What if the World Ends Tomorrow and No One Notices?

LINDSEY: It's been here all along. Underneath. You're just too damn stupid to see it.
ANGEL: See what?
LINDSEY: The apocalypse, man. You're soaking in it.
SPIKE: I've seen an apocalypse or two in my time. I'd know I one was under my nose.
LINDSEY: Not an apocalypse. The apocalypse. What'd you think, a gong was gonna sound? Time to jump on your horses and fight the big fight? Starting pistol went off a long time ago, boys.

-- Angel, Season 5.17 "Underneath", by Sarah Fain & Elizabeth Craft
What if those predicting that, because the remaining ancient Mayans need to order their next world-cycle wall calendar now,* the world is ending, are right?  And no one ever notices?

I mean, is there some reason to think that the world has to end all at once?  Must it be over in seconds?  Can the actual sounding of the trumpets take a few minutes?  A few weeks?


Does it matter, as long as the ending really begins -- say, becomes irreversible, so that there is no longer anything to be done about it -- on the starting date?  Can't we say world, in some sense, ended on that day?**

I refer, of course, not to the penny-ante mystical apocalypsi that various adherents of internet conspiracy theories, but to the apocalypse, the one that we're sitting in, that we're perpetuating, day in and day out.

Climate change.

Because, yeah, if we don't change course, the world -- by which I mean the human race, since our "world" is the one with our feelings and thoughts and interpretations in it: mere rock and tree don't, in my view, make a world -- will end.  It'll take a while -- two centuries?  Three? -- but it'll happen.  The warming process will eventually become self-sustaining, and will go on, even as the industrial processes which began it crumbles, and our lives along with it.  And it will get hotter and hotter, until no grain can grow in it, no one can stand outside in it.  Until it's all over.

Unless we change course in time.

But what's "in time"?  We don't really know.  It's too complex, too big.  There are too many factors.  There's good reason to think it's soon -- terrifyingly soon -- but we don't know precisely when.

In fact, we'll never know.

If we stop it in time -- if we control our emissions enough that world civilization survives well enough to mitigate and adapt -- we won't know how close we came.  All we'll know is that we came very close, but swerved at the almost-last instant.  Even if we could -- and we almost certainly won't be able to, technically, it's just too hard -- who goes out with a ruler to measure precisely the distance from the tire to the cliff?  At most you gaze, with a shiver, at the depth of the skid marks.

And if we don't stop in time, we'll even less be able to know. As things crumble -- as the waters rise, as crops fail, as refugees in search of a nonexistent safe haven -- who will have time to look back, measure, calculate, ruminate, and figure that, yes, up until this date, there was still a chance to change, up until just this moment it wasn't too late, but after such-and-such a date the inertia was too great, and no effort could have stopped it.

"Such-and-such a date."  Such as, perhaps, December 21, 2012.

Oh, there's no reason to believe it will be then -- the Ancient Mayans didn't even believe the world would end on that day, let alone have any actual grounds for that belief.  But it seems far more important to note that it might be that day.  That things are happening, right now, that will ensure that, sometime, sometime soon, it will be too late.

Surely the blithe reassurances that the world will not suddenly end today are almost beside the point when we know for a fact that the world is on its way to ending?  Perhaps instead of telling people not to worry, we should instead tell them that, yes, they should worry -- but that it's not yet set, and that perhaps action now can still turn the tide?

Because -- since we can't know for sure, since we'll never know, either way -- the only sensible thing to do -- the secular Pascalian wager, that looks not at the odds but the stakes, at what there is to be lost and won -- is to fight on as if it isn't too late.  Since acting as if it is would, after all, be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But to believe there is still time -- warranted or not -- is not the same as to say there's no danger.  The calendar is turning, and we'll be long past the end of the world by the time we are certain that there will, in fact, be one.

So run, fight, work, as if we can still escape.  Because maybe we can.  But one thing we do know is that we won't be able to always, nor even for very long.

* Although, in fairness, it was a really good calendar -- IMS, better than the Gregorian (which is to say it diverges from the sun's cycle by a tiny fraction of a second less than the Gregorian does, and thus drifts off season slightly more slowly).

** Actually, this was (very, very roughly) the response to the Great Disappointment of 1844 -- when hundreds of thousands thought the world was ending -- which eventually led to the Seventh Day Adventists.

On the Mayan Apocalypse

...if the world doesn't end, I'm gonna need a note.

-- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Episode 3.12, "Helpless", by David Fury

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Theologies of Moloch

Quotes and links on Newtown, and guns more generally (mostly via Twitter).
Few crimes are more harshly forbidden in the Old Testament than sacrifice to the god Moloch (for which see Leviticus 18.21, 20.1-5). The sacrifice referred to was of living children consumed in the fires of offering to Moloch. Ever since then, worship of Moloch has been the sign of a deeply degraded culture. Ancient Romans justified the destruction of Carthage by noting that children were sacrificed to Moloch there. Milton represented Moloch as the first pagan god who joined Satan’s war on humankind:
First Moloch, horrid king, besmear’d with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears,
Though for the noise of Drums and Timbrels loud
Their children’s cries unheard, that pass’d through fire
To his grim idol. (Paradise Lost 1.392-96)
Read again those lines, with recent images seared into our brains—“besmeared with blood” and “parents’ tears.” They give the real meaning of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning. That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily—sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).

-- Garry Wills, "Our Moloch"


Dangerous jobs in today's America (via)


Gun rights advocates also argue that guns provide the ultimate insurance of our freedom, in so far as they are the final deterrent against encroaching centralized government, and an executive branch run amok with power. Any suggestion of limiting guns rights is greeted by ominous warnings that this is a move of expansive, would-be despotic government. It has been the means by which gun rights advocates withstand even the most seemingly rational gun control measures. An assault weapons ban, smaller ammunition clips for guns, longer background checks on gun purchases — these are all measures centralized government wants, they claim, in order to exert control over us, and ultimately impose its arbitrary will. I have often suspected, however, that contrary to holding centralized authority in check, broad individual gun ownership gives the powers-that-be exactly what they want.

After all, a population of privately armed citizens is one that is increasingly fragmented, and vulnerable as a result. Private gun ownership invites retreat into extreme individualism — I heard numerous calls for homeschooling in the wake of the Newtown shootings — and nourishes the illusion that I can be my own police, or military, as the case may be. The N.R.A. would have each of us steeled for impending government aggression, but it goes without saying that individually armed citizens are no match for government force. The N.R.A. argues against that interpretation of the Second Amendment that privileges armed militias over individuals, and yet it seems clear that armed militias, at least in theory, would provide a superior check on autocratic government.

As Michel Foucault pointed out in his detailed study of the mechanisms of power, nothing suits power so well as extreme individualism. In fact, he explains, political and corporate interests aim at nothing less than “individualization,” since it is far easier to manipulate a collection of discrete and increasingly independent individuals than a community. Guns undermine just that — community. Their pervasive, open presence would sow apprehension, suspicion, mistrust and fear, all emotions that are corrosive of community and civic cooperation. To that extent, then, guns give license to autocratic government.

Our gun culture promotes a fatal slide into extreme individualism. It fosters a society of atomistic individuals, isolated before power — and one another — and in the aftermath of shootings such as at Newtown, paralyzed with fear. That is not freedom, but quite its opposite. And as the Occupy movement makes clear, also the demonstrators that precipitated regime change in Egypt and Myanmar last year, assembled masses don’t require guns to exercise and secure their freedom, and wield world-changing political force. Arendt and Foucault reveal that power does not lie in armed individuals, but in assembly — and everything conducive to that.

-- Firmin DeBrabander, "The Freedom of an Armed Society"
Or, as Teresa Nielsen Hayden put it, "Americans love owning guns because it lets them pretend their safety isn't a function of our shared society. They should grow up."



Quick facts and links from diverse sources:

People in possession of a gun were 4.5 times more likely to be shot during an assault than those who didn’t have a firearm.
Although medical advances ensure that fewer lives are being lost to violence, incidences of such violence are actually increasing.
Sales are booming for kids' body armor.
Fully 87% of children killed in this way [by guns], in the industrialized world, are killed in the United States.
20 Disturbing Gun Ads
Tunisia had the lowest gun ownership rate in the world when they overthrew their dictator of 24 years.
How Japan has virtually eliminated shooting deaths.
German police fired just 85 bullets total in 2011.
The answer is not more guns.


The people who fight and lobby and legislate to make guns regularly available are complicit in the murder of those children. They have made a clear moral choice: that the comfort and emotional reassurance they take from the possession of guns, placed in the balance even against the routine murder of innocent children, is of supreme value. Whatever satisfaction gun owners take from their guns—we know for certain that there is no prudential value in them—is more important than children’s lives. Give them credit: life is making moral choices, and that’s a moral choice, clearly made.

-- Adam Gopnik, "Newton and the Madness of Guns"


Twitter-length commentary from diverse sources:

• Conn. priest: "I just told a little boy that his sister died. And he said, 'Who am I going to play with?'"-- Audrey Cooper

• "Kant famously claimed it wrong to lie to a deranged murderer to save someone, which is what Victoria Soto is rightly praised for doing" -- Chris Bertram

• "I support the right to keep and bear children." -- Tom Tomorrow

• "If you believe you live in a country where you need a gun for personal protection at all times you’re implying you live in a failed state. "  -- Tobias Buckell

• "If only the first victim, Adam Lanza's mother, had been a gun owner, she could have stopped this before it started." -- Michael Moore (he also posted a link to a free, online copy of his Oscar-winning film Bowling for Columbine)

• "The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of teachers and kindergarteners. -- " - Billmon

• "Guns don't attack children; psychopaths and sadists do. But guns uniquely allow a psychopath to wreak death and devastation on such a large scale so quickly and easily. America is the only country in which this happens again -- and again and again." -- James Fallows, "American Exceptionaslims: The Shootings Will Go On"

• "Here's a mind-boggling sentence: 'Tonight's speech was very different from any other he's given as president after a mass shooting.' "-- Angus Johnston

• "We have no reason to assume that this will be the last such incident in 2012." -- Teresa Nielsen Hayden

• The bottom line: "Gun regulation isn't about reducing violence, it's about reducing the lethality of violence. International evidence shows that works." -- Richard Yeselson


Sociologists study the links between small-towns and school shootings:
[I]n her 2004 book, Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, Newman concluded that many of these small-town massacres followed a few striking patterns.

One thing they discovered was that it was often boys at the margins of society who carried out these shootings. They weren’t loners. But they were often socially awkward and struggling to fit in. And the atmosphere of small towns could exacerbate those feelings. ”In a small town,” Newman says, “there often aren’t that many options, it’s hard to find a place where you can feel socially comfortable. These smaller towns are extremely stable — that’s what makes them such wonderful places to raise a family. But that very stability can often feel like a death sentence to those at the margins.”

So why attack schools? “Think about what the shooter wants to accomplish — trying to get the attention of their peers, trying to change how people around them think about them,” Newman says. “If you’re looking to attack a community and change the way people think about you, the school is the place where you’ll have the most devastating impact.”

Digby pairs the story of Dr. John Snow, in 1854, trying to convince a town to shut down the pump that was (although this was not yet understood, save by Dr. Snow) the cause of a cholera epidemic, with Australia's successful gun control laws, instituted in reaction to a massacre:
It took many more years before it was widely accepted that cholera came from the water. (In fact, it took a priest trying to prove that it was God's will to finally do it!)

But here's the relevant takeaway: they didn't need to cure the disease to end the epidemic. What ended it was shutting down the pump....

[Australia's gun control] did not solve the problem of mental illness or end the primitive capacity of human beings to commit murder and mayhem. Those are huge problems that their society, like all societies, is still grappling with every day. But it did end the epidemic of mass shootings. They have not had even one since then.

The lesson is this: End the epidemic and then we can --- and must --- talk about root causes and mental health facilities and our violent culture. But first things first --- shut down the damned pump.

From the front page of The New York Times, December 16, 2012:

The gun culture that we have today in the U.S. is not the gun culture, so to speak, that I remember from my youth. It’s too simple to say that it’s “sick;” it’s more accurately an absurd fetishization....

The guns that I grew up with (in the late-1970’s and 1980’s) were bolt-action rifles: non-automatic weapons, with organic fixtures - i.e., stocks - and limited magazine capacities....

I can’t remember seeing a semi-automatic weapon of any kind at a shooting range until the mid-1980’s. Even through the early-1990’s, I don’t remember the idea of “personal defense” being a decisive factor in gun ownership. The reverse is true today...

The “tactical” turn is what I want to flag here. It has what I take to be a very specific use-case, but it’s used - liberally - by gun owners outside of the military, outside of law enforcement, outside (if you’ll indulge me) of any conceivable reality-based community: these folks talk in terms of “tactical” weapons, “tactical” scenarios, “tactical applications,” and so on. It’s the lingua franca of gun shops, gun ranges, gun forums, and gun-oriented Youtube videos. (My god, you should see what’s out there on You Tube!) Which begs my question: in precisely which “tactical” scenarios do all of these lunatics imagine that they’re going to use their matte-black, suppressor-fitted, flashlight-ready tactical weapons? They tend to speak of the “tactical” as if it were a fait accompli; as a kind of apodeictic fact: as something that everyone - their customers, interlocutors, fellow forum members, or YouTube viewers - experiences on a regular basis, in everyday life. They tend to speak of the tactical as reality.

And I think there’s a sense in which they’ve constructured their own (batshit insane) reality.

One in which we have to live.

-- "Tactical Reality" (Letter to the Editor at Talking Points Memo)
There are a lot of folks who believe we’re free in the US because of guns.

It’s worth stepping back for a moment and thinking about what that means.

It is a bizarre, weirdly narcissistic notion that is totally unhinged from any of our history.... [T]he Jacksonian drive for universal manhood suffrage, the fight against the bank of the United States, abolitionism, the women’s rights movement, progressivism, the various religious awakenings, westward expansion, industrialization, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Era. Obviously you could come up with a very different list. But we’ve been a country now for well over two centuries and we have the longest period of unbroken republican, constitutional rule of any country in the world.

We’ve expanded our freedoms, sometimes let it recede. We’ve had major blots on in our history like the post-Reconstruction era in the South or the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II. It’s a rich and complex, sometimes tragic, but generally incredibly powerful and inspiring story. And yet in really not a single one of these cases has any government — state or federal — been pushed back in some moment of overreach by armed citizens or even affected in its decision-making by the knowledge of an armed citizenry.

You could imagine a very different history in which various strong men had taken power and been deposed by violent uprisings. That just hasn’t been our history.

-- Josh Marshall, "In Search of the Guns & Freedom Unicorn"
It’s telling that the people who get paid to analyze politics recoil at the notion that its practitioners should connect it to real-life pain. They think they’re covering a sport, an entertainment. But politics matters, because policies matter. “Obamacare” and “gay marriage” are not just issues that might play badly with swing voters or turn the tide in Virginia; they’re issues that affect people’s lives. Gun control and the Second Amendment are issues, too, and now seems like a pretty good time to talk about them.

This was written in response to an earlier massacre.  I guess for a writer, publishing a piece about a gun massacre in America is a perennial.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.
-- 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1, quoted by President Barack Obama on December 16, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Lyrics of the Day: Bob Dylan's Masters of War

This one's going out to Ron Cohen, CEO of Sig Sauer:
Come you masters of war:
You that build all the guns,
You that build the death planes,
You that build the big bombs,
You that hide behind walls,
You that hide behind desks--
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks.

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy,
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy.
You put a gun in my hand,
And you hide from my eyes,
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly.

Like Judas of old,
You lie and deceive;
A world war can be won
You want me to believe.
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain,
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain.

You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire,
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher.
You hide in your mansion
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud.

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled,
Fear to bring children
Into the world.
For threatening my baby,
Unborn and unnamed,
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins.

How much do I know
To talk out of turn?
You might say that I’m young;
You might say I’m unlearned.
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you:
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do.

Let me ask you one question:
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness?
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find,
When your death takes its toll,
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul.

And I hope that you die,
And your death’ll come soon:
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon,
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed,
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
’Til I’m sure that you’re dead

-- Bob Dylan
Cover of the song by Steve Earle (song starts about 0:55):

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Latest Horror

It's stupid, I know: yet while I really, really have nothing to say, still I can't help feel that it is somehow wrong to let this blog stand empty, without at least some acknowledgement of the latest horrific violence in our country, this time in Newport.  (This time: and yes, as so many are saying, how awful to feel such bleak certainty that it is only the latest in what has become a seemingly endless series of crimes we shriek about but do nothing to stop.)  It is the combination of the need to acknowledge and the utter lack of anything to say that makes ritual and symbol so necessary at such times, I guess.  But I don't even have those.  So take this admission of inarticulate despair as a feeble equivalent for wearing black, flying the flag at half staff, covering the mirrors.  Verbal dirt thrown onto the casket of a child.

Rest in peace.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Fact to Make You Feel Old, Stolen In Its Entirety from Randall Munroe

Quoth Munroe:
The first Star Trek episode aired closer in time to the ratification of the 19th Amendment—guaranteeing women in the US the right to vote—than to today.
My flabber is officially gasted.

Now, to be fair, it isn't yet much closer.  The first Star Trek episode aired Thursday, September 8, 1966 -- 16,898 days ago, or 46 years, 3 months and 5 days ago.  The 19th Amendment was ratified Wednesday, August 18, 1920 -- 16,822 days (or 46 years and 21 days) prior to Star Trek's airing.  (Number of days calculated using this handy tool.)  In fact, given that Munroe posted this on September 29 of this year, he waited until it was true only by a day (or so, depending on the times all these things happened).  Now, that was a while ago, so now it's more comfortably -- or, rather, more uncomfortably -- true.

And, as these things tend to, it will only get worse as time goes on.

...It occurs to me that Munroe probably had that thought earlier, and was waiting until it was true to post it.  (The coincidence otherwise seems too great.)  Which leads to the further thought that someone should set up some sort of automated system to generate such depressing thoughts automatically (just feed a list of cultural milestones into a date calculator, and voila).  Which leads to the final thought that the person best suited to do this is, clearly, Randall Munroe himself.

We eagerly await his next masterpiece. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Poem of the Day: Farewell, Rewards and Fairies

Farewell, Rewards and Fairies

Farewell, rewards and fairies,
Good housewives now may say,
For now foul sluts in dairies
Do fare as well as they.
And though they sweep their hearths no less
Than maids were wont to do,
Yet who of late for cleanness
Finds sixpence in her shoe?

Lament, lament, old Abbeys,
The Fairies’ lost command!
They did but change Priests’ babies,
But some have changed your land.
And all your children, sprung from thence,
Are now grown Puritans,
Who live as Changelings ever since
For love of your demains.

At morning and at evening both
You merry were and glad,
So little care of sleep or sloth
These pretty ladies had;
When Tom came home from labour,
Or Cis to milking rose,
Then merrily went their tabor,
And nimbly went their toes.

Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs, which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.

By which we note the Fairies
Were of the old Profession.
Their songs were ‘Ave Mary’s’,
Their dances were Procession.
But now, alas, they all are dead;
Or gone beyond the seas;
Or farther for Religion fled;
Or else they take their ease.

A tell-tale in their company
They never could endure!
And whoso kept not secretly
Their mirth, was punished, sure;
It was a just and Christian deed
To pinch such black and blue.
Oh how the commonwealth doth want
Such Justices as you!

-- Richard Corbet (1582–1635)
This poem, I believe, is now quite obscure: but in Rudyard Kipling's day it was apparently common enough that his child protagonists of Puck of Pook's Hill (1906) had memorized it.

It's a strange poem. On a first read it may seem -- at least it seemed to me -- largely a poem about disenchantment: the sense that the old magic has gone from the world that so much fantasy is based on, even about. (Which is one of the reasons that fantasy can seem, at times, such an essentially anti-modernist genre.) In which case nothing may surprise about it save that it's so early -- the first few decades of the Seventeenth century, after the ascent of James to the throne of England (1603), but before Corbet's death in 1635. And there, of course, we may be surprised, but we shouldn't be: that sense of modernist disenchantment is in other works from the period, too, such as the famous passage by Corbet's more famous contemporary poet-in-arms, John Donne:

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th'earth, and no man's wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world's spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation;
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.

But though we have become distracted by Donne, and recognize that it is a better poem and wish to follow that particularly path with leaves no step has trodden black (no, no, don't go on another tangent--), reread the Corbet. And on a second reading you may zero in, as I did, on the somewhat puzzling religious politics of the poem.

At second glance the poem may seem simply anti-Catholic: the Faeries are declared gone because they were Catholic, and the new spirit of the age is equated with protestantism:
...the Fairies
Were of the old Profession.
Their songs were ‘Ave Mary’s’,
Their dances were Procession.
But now, alas, they all are dead;
Or gone beyond the seas;
Or farther for Religion fled;
Or else they take their ease.
(The "old Profession", of course, is not the proverbial oldest profession (though faeries of that sort might make an interesting story, should anyone wish to write it), but the former faith (profession, that which you profess, i.e. your religion.))

Except is that right? Because the metaphor of the changeling, the faerie put in place of a babe, is used to explain the replacement of Catholicism by Protestantism:
Lament, lament, old Abbeys,
The Fairies’ lost command!
They did but change Priests’ babies,
But some have changed your land.
And all your children, sprung from thence,
Are now grown Puritans,
Who live as Changelings ever since
For love of your demains.
So is it in fact a pro Catholic poem, since Protestants are equated with changelings (not, traditionally, a positive association)?  Possible, I suppose, but given that its author was a bishop in the Church of England, it seems unlikely.  I presume such a bishop was unlikely to be a secret Catholic?

Except that that last stanza seems to praise Faeries specifically for their punishment of (what we would now call) snitching, and actually wishes that England had similar "Justices":
A tell-tale in their company
They never could endure!
And whoso kept not secretly
Their mirth, was punished, sure;
It was a just and Christian deed
To pinch such black and blue.
Oh how the commonwealth doth want
Such Justices as you!
What is that all about?

My guess is that the answer to this mystery would be more-or-less obvious to anyone well versed in the history of early Stewart England, but that I (whose period is far off from that in both space and time) am just missing it.

So anyone have a sense of what is going on -- in terms of religious politics, and the sense of the changing metaphysical beliefs -- in this poem?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Five Classic SF Stories Online

A propos of nothing in particular, here are links to five of the "classic" SF stories that SciFiction had put online between 2000 - 2005, which are still available thanks to the good services of Web Archive.  No judgment that these are the best or the most interesting intended; they're just five that caught my eye:

R. A. Lafferty, "The Transcendent Tigers"
Joanna Russ, "When it Changed"
Robert Silverberg, "The Man Who Never Forgot"
Howard Waldrop, "The Ugly Chickens"
Gene Wolfe, "Paul's Treehouse"

Three of those I'd read before, two I hadn't. But they're all worth reading. I commend them to your attention.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Atrios Contra Bipartisanship

The real reason for bipartisan deals is so Congress can pass horrible things that the public hates and it isn't clear who you can blame.

-- Atrios

Friday, December 07, 2012

Verbatim Title of a Recent Presentation at a Major Scientific Conference: "Is the Earth F**ked?"

LINDSEY: It's been here all along. Underneath. You're just too damn stupid to see it.
ANGEL: See what?
LINDSEY: The apocalypse, man. You're soaking in it.
SPIKE: I've seen an apocalypse or two in my time. I'd know I one was under my nose.
LINDSEY: Not an apocalypse. The apocalypse. What'd you think, a gong was gonna sound? Time to jump on your horses and fight the big fight? Starting pistol went off a long time ago, boys.

-- Angel, Season 5.17 "Underneath", by Sarah Fain & Elizabeth Craft
Today in apocalylinks:

The question we all want to know the answer to: Is the Earth F**ked?
As for the big question—is Earth f**ked? ...there’s a choose-your-own-adventure element to the story that has yet to play out. Resistance, Werner argued, is the wild card that can force dominant systems such as our current resource-chewing juggernaut onto a more sustainable path. Werner hasn’t completed that part of his model, so we’ll have to wait to find out what happens. But during the Q-and-A session, he conceded that “even though individual resistance movements might not be fast enough reacting to some of these problems, if a global environmental movement develops that is strong enough, that has the potential to have a bigger impact in a timely manner.”

In other words, according to at least one expert, maybe the Earth is not quite f**ked yet after all. But the ultimate outcome may depend on how much, and how many, scientists choose to wade into the fray.
Read the rest here.

Michael Klare sums up the recent World Bank report:
Even if governments take vigorous steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the report concluded, the continuing increase in fossil fuel consumption will result in “a long-term average global temperature increase of 3.6 degrees C.”

This should stop everyone in their tracks.  Most scientists believe that an increase of 2 degrees Celsius is about all the planet can accommodate without unimaginably catastrophic consequences: sea-level increases that will wipe out many coastal cities, persistent droughts that will destroy farmland on which hundreds of millions of people depend for their survival, the collapse of vital ecosystems, and far more.  An increase of 3.6 degrees C essentially suggests the end of human civilization as we know it.

To put this in context, human activity has already warmed the planet by about 0.8 degrees C -- enough to produce severe droughts around the world, trigger or intensify intense storms like Hurricane Sandy, and drastically reduce the Arctic ice cap.  “Given those impacts,” writes noted environmental author and activist Bill McKibben, “many scientists have come to think that two degrees is far too lenient a target.”  Among those cited by McKibben is Kerry Emanuel of MIT, a leading authority on hurricanes. “Any number much above one degree involves a gamble,” Emanuel writes, “and the odds become less and less favorable as the temperature goes up.” Thomas Lovejoy, once the World Bank's chief biodiversity adviser, puts it this way: “If we’re seeing what we're seeing today at 0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply too much.”
As Tom Englehardt puts it in his introduction to the piece: "climate change is getting scarier by the week".

• Disasters making their way through production, should soon be in a theater near you!  Possible climate Pearl Harbors; -- or, as Gerry Canavan, from whom I got the link, suggested, climate fiscal cliffs.

We Can Cut Carbon Pollution One Third By Closing ‘Carbon Loophole’ Through The Clean Air Act... which Obama could do without Congressional approval.  If Obama doesn't get serious about climate change soon, then his only hope for avoiding history's remembering him solely for his inaction is the possibility that the world will be so f**ked that no one will have any time to think about history at all.

The New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert says it's time for a carbon tax. Ibid's Hendrik Hertzberg says that said carbon tax should replace the payroll tax.

One climatologist predicts the 2012 drought will last through 2013.

At least large groups of Belgians are singing cheerful songs about the apocalypse

President Obama, Disregarding Gandalf's Warnings, Looks Into a Palantir

(Photo from here; link via.)

Monday, December 03, 2012

Kim Stanley Robinson on Geoengineering

Kim Stanley Robinson, "Earth: Under Repair, Forever":
We lack the political mechanisms, or maybe even the political will, to decarbonize. So people are right to be worried, and some of them have therefore put forth various geoengineering plans as possible emergency measures: problematic, but better than nothing.

Objections to geoengineering appeared immediately. Many people have expressed doubt that the proposals would work, or believe that a string of negative unintended consequences could follow. Merely discussing these ideas, it has been said, risks giving us the false hope of a "silver bullet" solution to climate change in the near future -- thus reducing the pressure to stem carbon emissions here and now.

These are valid concerns, but the fact remains: our current technologies are already geoengineering the planet -- albeit accidentally and negatively....

For the rest of history, we will be required to work at repairing the damage we've already done to the biosphere. Geoengineering, then, has become our ongoing responsibility to life on this planet, including all human generations to come....

...just as technology has aided us in the task of deforesting and draining our wetlands, so too does it now provide us with the capability to do things like reforest and rehydrate. Thinking about such potential reversals makes me believe the definition of geoengineering should be broadened. Our actions have a global impact; it's good to be reminded of this by giving that impact a name. Were we to take up hybrids and electric cars in great numbers, for example, could that be considered geoengineering? Under an expanded definition, absolutely. Whatever we do as a civilization of seven billion is inevitably going to have a geoengineering effect.

What about that number, seven billion? Could stabilizing our population count? Again, yes. And we know of one good way to achieve this goal: promoting women's legal and social rights. Wherever they expand, population growth shifts toward the replacement rate. This particular geoengineering technology nicely illustrates how the word technology can't be defined simply as machinery; it includes things like software, organizational systems, laws, writing, and even public policy.
Read the rest. (via)