If you trust in yourself … and believe in your dreams … and follow your star … you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.
Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men, 2003.
September 28, 2016
September 27, 2016
Too often these days, critics of PC play the victim card. Many right-wing thinkers claim that a conspiratorial cabal of PC loons is ruining our lives. This conveniently absolves these thinkers of having to account for what happened to their morality and traditions. Where did they go? It is far easier to claim that society has been taken hostage by gangs of lentil-eating, language-obsessed nutjobs than it is to face up to and explain the demise of a way of life that had existed for much of the modern era. Indeed, in many ways the term ‘political correctness’ doesn’t really have much basis in reality — it is the invention of traditionalists unable to explain recent historic turns, so instead they fantasise about the onward, unstoppable march of sinister liberals riding roughshod over their superior way of life.
Of course, the demise of traditional morality did not have to be a bad thing. There was much in those old ways which was also censorious and pernicious and stifling of anybody who wanted to experiment with lifestyle or sexual orientation. The problem is that the old, frequently stuffy morality was not successfully pushed aside by a more progressive, human-centred moral outlook – rather it withered and faded and collapsed under the pressure of crises, creating a moral hole that has been filled by those who have influence in the post-traditional world: the increasingly vocal chattering classes.
But let’s not play the victim in the face of an apparently all-powerful ‘PC police’. No, if you feel like you are being treated as a heretic for thinking or saying the ‘wrong things’ in our politically correct world, then you should start acting like a proper, self-respecting heretic: have the courage of your convictions and say what you think regardless of the consequences.
Brendan O’Neill, “The new war against PC – it’s too late and it’s picked the wrong target”, Spiked, 2015-01-29.
September 26, 2016
September 24, 2016
I believe in only one thing and that thing is human liberty. If ever a man is to achieve anything like dignity, it can happen only if superior men are given absolute freedom to think what they want to think and say what they want to say. I am against any man and any organization which seeks to limit or deny that freedom … [and] the superior man can be sure of freedom only if it is given to all men.
H.L. Mencken, quoted in Letters of H. L. Mencken (1961) edited by Guy J. Forgue, p. xiii.
September 23, 2016
Here’s an ironclad rule of politics: the latest conservative standard-bearer is always a scary fascist who’s going to end democracy as we know it. Meanwhile, the last conservative standard-bearer – preferably a defeated one – earns strange new respect from the commentariat.
(This isn’t just an American phenomenon. Mark my words: the Toronto Star columns declaring the next Conservative Party of Canada leader “more extreme than Stephen Harper” are already written, with just the name to be filled in.)
Damian Penny, “In 2016, there really is a wolf”, Damian J. Penny, 2016-07-22.
September 22, 2016
I taught all ages, from kindergarten to high school; I taught remedial classes and honors students. One day we factored polynomials, another day we made Popsicle-stick bird feeders for Mother’s Day, another day it was the Holocaust. Sometimes I substituted for an “ed tech” — a teacher’s aide whose job was to shadow kids with A.D.H.D. or dyslexia, or kids who simply refused to do any work at all. I was a bungling substitute most of the time; I embarrassed myself a hundred different ways, and got my feelings hurt, and complained, and shouted, and ate espresso chocolate to stay awake. It was shattering, but I loved it. After a while, I stopped being so keen on developing my grand treatise on educational theory, and instead I found that I enjoyed trying to keep a class going and watching it fall apart. I liked listening to students talk — even when they were driving themselves, and me, bonkers. The result of my 28 hellish, joyous days of paid work (I made $70 a day) was a book, more chronicle than meditation, called “Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids.”
The teachers left me daily assignments called “sub plans” to follow — which I clutched throughout the day until they became as finely crumpled as old dollar bills — and mostly what the sub plans wanted me to do was pass out work sheets. I passed them out by the thousands. Of all the work sheets I passed out, the ones in high school were the worst. In my experience, every high-school subject, no matter how worthy and jazzy and thought-provoking it may have seemed to an earnest Common Corer, is stuffed into the curricular Veg-O-Matic, and out comes a nasty packet with grading rubrics on the back. On the first page, usually, there are numbered “learning targets,” and inside, inevitably, a list of specialized vocabulary words to master. In English it’s unreliable narrator, or ethos, or metonymy, or thesis sentence. This is all fluff knowledge, meta-knowledge. In math, kids must memorize words like apothem and Cartesian coordinate; in science they chant domain! kingdom! phylum! class! etc., etc., and meiosis and allele and daughter cell and third-class lever and the whole Tinkertoy edifice of terms that acts to draw people away from the freshness and surprise and fantastic interfused complexity of the world and darkens our brains with shadowy taxonomic abstractions. The instantly forgettable gnat-swarm of word lists is useful in big-box high schools because it’s easier to test kids on whether they can temporarily define a set of terms than it is to talk to them and find out whether they have learned anything real and thrilling about what’s out there.
Nicholson Baker, “Fortress of Tedium: What I Learned as a Substitute Teacher”, New York Times Magazine, 2016-09-07.
September 21, 2016
… I am conceding that by the standards of today, my parents’ behavior would be considered irresponsible. Actually, “irresponsible” is not a strong enough word. By the standards of today, my parents and their friends were crazy. A great many activities they considered to be perfectly OK — hitchhiking; or driving without seat belts; or letting a child go trick-or-treating without a watchful parent hovering within 8 feet, ready to pounce if the child is given a potentially lethal item such as an apple; or engaging in any form of recreation more strenuous than belching without wearing a helmet — are now considered to be insanely dangerous. By the standards of today, the main purpose of human life is to eliminate all risk so that human life will last as long as humanly possible, no matter how tedious it gets.
And the list of things we’re not supposed to do anymore gets longer all the time. I recently encountered an article headlined:
IS YOUR HANDSHAKE AS DANGEROUS AS SMOKING?
The answer, in case you are a complete idiot, is: Of course your handshake is as dangerous as smoking. The article explains that handshakes transmit germs, which cause diseases such as MERS. MERS stands for “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome,” a fatal disease that may have originated in camels. This is yet another argument, as if we needed one, against shaking hands with camels. But the article suggests that we should consider not shaking hands with anybody.
If you could travel back in time to one of my parents’ parties and interrupt the singing to announce to the guests that shaking hands could transmit germs and therefore they should stop doing it, they would laugh so hard they’d drop their cigarettes into their drinks. They were just not as into worrying as we are today.
And it wasn’t just cigarettes and alcohol they didn’t worry about. They also didn’t worry that there might be harmful chemicals in the water that they drank right from the tap. They didn’t worry that if they threw their trash into the wrong receptacle, they were killing baby polar bears and hastening the extinction of the human race. They didn’t worry about consuming trans fats, gluten, fructose, and all the other food components now considered so dangerous they could be used to rob a bank (“Give him the money! He’s got gluten!”).
Dave Barry, “The Greatest (Party) Generation”, Wall Street Journal, 2015-02-26.
September 20, 2016
Another land-use regulation that makes space more expensive is municipal requirements that establish a minimum number of parking spaces per housing unit.
According Donald Shoup’s analysis, parking requirements add significantly to the cost of housing, particularly in areas with high land values. For example, in Los Angeles, parking requirements can add $104,000 to the cost of each apartment. Parking requirements limit consumers’ choices and increase the cost of housing even for those who prefer not to pay for parking.
Developers typically build only the minimum amount of parking required by law, which indicates that those requirements are binding. That is, in a less-regulated environment, developers would devote less land to parking and more land to living space. A greater supply of living space will, other things equal, lower the cost of housing.
Sandy Ikeda, “Shut Out: How Land-Use Regulations Hurt the Poor”, The Freeman, 2015-02-05.
September 18, 2016
1. Treat all guns as though they are loaded.
2. Never point the muzzle at anything you don’t intend to destroy.
3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target and you’re prepared to fire.
4. Always confirm your target, as well as what’s in front, behind, and around it.
September 17, 2016
… the movie is seriously anti-historical in one respect; we are supposed to believe that traditionalist Samurai would disdain the use of firearms. In fact, traditional samurai loved firearms and found them a natural extension of their traditional role as horse archers. Samurai invented rolling volley fire three decades before Gustavus Adolphus, and improved the musket designs they imported from the Portuguese so effectively that for most of the 1600s they were actually making better guns than European armorers could produce.
But, of course, today’s Hollywood left thinks firearms are intrinsically eeeevil (especially firearms in the hands of anyone other than police and soldiers) so the virtuous rebel samurai had to eschew them. Besides being politically correct, this choice thickened the atmosphere of romantic doom around our heroes.
Another minor clanger in the depiction of samurai fighting: We are given scenes of samurai training to fight empty-hand and unarmored using modern martial-arts moves. In fact, in 1877 it is about a generation too early for this. Unarmed combat did not become a separate discipline with its own forms and schools until the very end of the nineteenth century. And when it did, it was based not on samurai disciplines but on peasant fighting methods from Okinawa and elsewhere that were used against samurai (this is why most exotic martial-arts weapons are actually agricultural tools).
In 1877, most samurai still would have thought unarmed-combat training a distraction from learning how to use the swords, muskets and bows that were their primary weapons systems. Only after the swords they preferred for close combat were finally banned did this attitude really change. But, hey, most moviegoers are unaware of these subtleties, so there had to be some chop-socky in the script to meet their expectations.
One other rewriting of martial history: we see samurai ceremoniously stabbing fallen opponents to death with a two-hand sword-thrust. In fact, this is not how it was done; real samurai delivered the coup de grace by decapitating their opponents, and then taking the head as a trophy.
No joke. Head-taking was such an important practice that there was a special term in Japanese for the art of properly dressing the hair on a severed head so that the little paper tag showing the deceased’s name and rank would be displayed to best advantage.
While the filmmakers were willing to show samurai killing the wounded, in other important respects they softened and Westernized the behavior of these people somewhat. Algren learned, correctly, that ‘samurai’ derives from a verb meaning “to serve”, but we are misled when the rebel leader speaks of “protecting the people”. In fact, noblesse oblige was not part of the Japanese worldview; samurai served not ‘the people’ but a particular daimyo, and the daimyo served the Emperor in theory and nobody but themselves in normal practice.
Eric S. Raymond, “The Last Samurai”, Armed and Dangerous, 2003-12-15.
September 16, 2016
A professional politician is a professionally dishonorable man. In order to get anywhere near high office he has to make so many compromises and submit to so many humiliations that he becomes indistinguishable from a streetwalker.
H.L. Mencken, quoted in LIFE magazine, Vol. 21, No. 6, 1946-08-05.
September 15, 2016
Toward the end of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the governor of Georgia was a white trash dingbat named Lester Maddox – who is still with us, in one crude form or another – and when the curtain finally falls on George Wallace, he will probably go down in history as the Greatest Thief of them all. Wallace was the first Southern politician to understand that there are just as many mean, stupid bigots above the Mason-Dixon Line as there are below it, and when he made the shrewd decision to “go national”‘ in 1968, he created an Alabama-based industry that has since made very rich men of himself and a handful of cronies. For more than a decade, George Wallace has bamboozled the national press and terrified the ranking fixers in both major parties. In 1968, he took enough Democratic votes from Hubert Humphrey to elect Richard Nixon, and if he had bothered to understand the delegate selection process in 1972, he could have prevented McGovern’s nomination and muscled himself into the number two spot on a Humphrey-Wallace ticket.
McGovern could not have survived a second-ballot shortfall in Miami that year, and anybody who thinks the Happy Warrior would not have made that trade with Wallace is a fool. Hubert Humphrey would have traded anything, with anybody, to get the Democratic nomination for himself in 1972 …… and he’ll be ready to trade again, this year, if he sees the slightest chance.
And he does. He saw it on the morning after the New Hampshire primary, when five percent of the vote came in as “uncommitted.” That rotten, truthless old freak was on national TV at the crack of dawn, cackling like a hen full of amyls at the “wonderful news” from New Hampshire. After almost four years of relatively statesmanlike restraint and infrequent TV appearances that showed his gray hair and haggard jowls – four long and frantic years that saw the fall of Richard Nixon, the end of the war in Vietnam and a neo-collapse of the U.S. economy – after all that time and all those sober denials that he would never run for president, all it took to jerk Hubert out of his closet was the news from New Hampshire that five percent of the Democratic voters, less than 4,000 people, in that strange little state had cast their ballots for “uncommitted” delegates.
To Humphrey, who was not even entered in the New Hampshire primary, this meant five percent for him. Never mind that a completely unknown ex-governor of Georgia had won in New Hampshire with more than 30% of the vote; or that liberal Congressman Morris Udall had finished a solid but disappointing second with 24%; or that liberal Senator Birch Bayh ran third with 16%……. None of that mattered to Hubert, because he was privy to various rumors and force-fed press reports that many of the “uncommitted” delegates in New Hampshire were secret Humphrey supporters. There was no way to be sure, of course – but no reason to doubt it, either; at least not in the mushy mind of the Happy Warrior.
His first TV appearance of the ’76 campaign was a nasty shock to me. I had been up all night, tapping the glass and nursing my bets along (I had bet the quinella, taking Carter and Reagan against Udall and Ford) and when the sun came up on Wednesday I was slumped in front of a TV set in an ancient New England farmhouse on a hilltop near a hamlet called Contoocook. I had won early on Carter, but I had to wait for Hughes Rudd and the Morning News to learn that Ford had finally overtaken Reagan. The margin at dawn was less than one percent, but it was enough to blow my quinella and put Reagan back on Cheap Street, where he’s been ever since …… and I was brooding on this unexpected loss, sipping my coffee and tapping the glass once again, when all of a sudden I was smacked right straight in the eyes with the wild-eyed babbling spectacle of Hubert Horatio Humphrey. His hair was bright orange, his cheeks were rouged, his forehead was caked with Mantan, and his mouth was moving so fast that the words poured out in a high-pitched chattering whine …… “O my goodness, my gracious …… isn’t it wonderful? Yes, yes indeed……. O yes, it just goes to show…. I just can’t say enough…….”
No! I thought. This can’t be true! Not now! Not so soon! Here was this monster, this shameful electrified corpse – and raving and flapping his hands at the camera like he’d just been elected president. He looked like three iguanas in a feeding frenzy. I stood up and backed off from the TV set, but the view was no different from the other side of the room. I was seeing The Real Thing, and it stunned me……. Because I knew, in my heart, that he was real: that even with a five percent shadow vote in the year’s first primary, where his name was not on the ballot, and despite Jimmy Carter’s surprising victory and four other nationally known candidates finishing higher than “uncommitted,” that Hubert Humphrey had somehow emerged from the chaos of New Hampshire with yet another new life, and another serious shot at the presidency of the United States.
Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’76: Third-rate romance, low-rent rendezvous — hanging with Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and a bottle of Wild Turkey”, Rolling Stone, 1976-06-03.
September 14, 2016
… the historical novel as we know it emerged at the end of the 18th century. The great historians of that age – Hume, Robertson, Gibbon and others – had moved far towards what may be called a scientific study of the past. They tried to base their narratives on established fact, and to connect them through a natural relationship of cause and effect. It was a mighty achievement. At the same time, it turned History from a story book of personal encounters and the occasional miracle to something more abstract. More and more, it did away with the kind of story that you find in Herodotus and Livy and Froissart. As we move into the 19th century, it couldn’t satisfy a growing taste for the quaint and the romantic.
The vacuum was filled by a school of historical novelists with Sir Walter Scott at its head. Though no longer much read, he was a very good novelist. The Bride of Lammermoor is one of his best, but has been overshadowed by the Donizetti opera. I’ve never met anyone else who has read The Heart of Midlothian. But Ivanhoe remains popular, and is still better than any of its adaptations. Whether still read or not, he established all the essential rules of historical fiction. The facts, so far as we can know them, are not to be set aside. They are, however, to be elaborated and folded into a coherent fictional narrative. Take Ivanhoe. King Richard was detained abroad. His brother, John, was a bad regent, and may not have wanted Richard back. There were rich Jews in England, and, rather than fleecing them, as the morality of his age allowed, John tried to flay them. But Ivanhoe and Isaac of York, and the narrative thread that leads to the re-emergence of King Richard at its climax – these are fiction.
I try to respect these conventions in my six Aelric novels. Aelric of England never existed. He didn’t turn up in Rome in 609AD, to uncover and foil a plot that I’d rather not discuss in detail. He didn’t move to Constantinople in 610, and become one of the key players in the revolution that overthrew the tyrant Phocas. He wasn’t the Emperor’s Legate in Alexandria a few years later. He didn’t purify the Empire’s silver coinage, or conceive the land reforms and cuts in taxes and government spending that stabilised the Byzantine Empire for about 400 years. He didn’t lead a pitifully small army into battle against the biggest Persian invasion of the West since Xerxes. He had nothing to do, in extreme old age, with Greek Fire. Priscus existed, and may have been a beastly as I describe him. I find it reasonable that the Emperor Heraclius was not very competent without others to advise him. But the stories are fabrications. They aren’t history. They are entertainment.
Even so, they are underpinned by historical fact. The background is as nearly right as I can make it. I’ve read everything I could find about the age in English and French and Latin and Greek. I’ve read dozens of specialist works, and hundreds of scholarly articles. My Blood of Alexandria is a good introduction to the political and religious state of Egypt on the eve of the Arab invasions. My Curse of Babylon is a good introduction to the Empire as a whole in the early years of the 7th century. The only conscious inaccuracy in all six novels comes in Terror of Constantinople, where I appoint a new Patriarch of Constantinople several months after the actual event. I did this for dramatic effect – among much else, it let me parody Tony Blair’s Diana Funeral reading – but I’ve felt rather bad about it ever since. This aside, any university student who uses me for background to the period that I cover will not be defrauded.
There’s nothing special about this. If you want to know about Rome between Augustus and Nero, the best place to start is the two Claudius novels by Robert Graves. Mary Renault is often as good as Grote or Bury on Classical Greece – sometimes better in her descriptions of the moral climate. Gore Vidal’s Julian is first class historical fiction, and also sound biography. Anyone who gets no further than C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brien will know the Royal Navy in the age of the French Wars. Mika Waltari is less reliable on the 18th Dynasty in The Egyptian. In mitigation, we know very little about the events and family relationships of the age between Amenhotep III and Horemheb. He wrote a memorable novel despite its boggy underpinning of fact.
Richard Blake, “Interview with Richard Blake, 7th March 2014”, 2014-03-07.
September 13, 2016
Most leaders let their people do their thing, watch them, critique them, and then train them some more so when the time comes, you feel confident in knowing you can do your job. The second lieutenant you’re following might get your whole fucking platoon killed, but you know your job, and because of that you’ll know what to do when the L-T walks out of the tent to take a piss and ends up in a minefield.*
* I actually had a lieutenant get lost at night walking out of the tent to go piss and walked in to a simulated minefield at JRTC (big Army playground, essentially) once during a field exercise. Never leave lieutenants unsupervised, kids. Ever.
Because lieutenants, man.
Ted Glover, “Your Moment Of Zim Tzu: Startless In Seattle”, Daily Norseman, 2016-08-19.
September 12, 2016
Today, it is not uncommon for rape charges to be brought in respect of foolish or stupid sexual encounters. After presiding over back-to-back trials where a female complainant had been so drunk she could not remember what had happened and, therefore, whether she had consented to sex, Judge Mary Jane Mowat observed that “the rape conviction statistics will not improve until women stop getting so drunk”.
It was significant that Judge Mowat prefaced her comments by noting she would “be pilloried for saying” them. She may have had in mind the treatment of Ken Clarke MP, who, in 2011, referred to “serious rape”. This prompted Labour leader Ed Miliband to call for Clarke’s resignation on the grounds he was suggesting “there are other categories of rape”. Clarke spent the rest of the day saying he “always believed that all rape is extremely serious” and he was “sorry” if his comments had given any other impression.
Despite the censorious you-can’t-say-that attitude of some feminists, there is an urgent need, not to debate the seriousness of rape, but to debate what rape is. Rape, properly defined, is serious. But by redefining rape to encompass drunken or foolish sexual activity, which a man believes the woman is consenting to, the crime of rape is, in these instances, being stripped of its criminal culpability.
“Impossible”, claim rape campaigners with a glib understanding of how rape is now defined. Labour MP Harriet Harman responded to Sarah Vine’s column with an all-too-familiar analogy: “If I leave a window open an inch and someone breaks in, steals everything I own and ransacks my house, no one would say it wasn’t a crime or that the offender had ‘made a mistake’.”
Yet there is no parallel between a burglar who trespasses into a house and steals, and a man who believes a woman is consenting to sex. Trespass followed by theft is inherently unlawful. Sex, though, is inherently lawful, which is why it requires a carefully drawn law before it is criminalised. Traditionally, a conviction for rape could only be secured if the prosecution proved beyond reasonable doubt that the man either knew the woman was not consenting to sex or he could not care less whether she was consenting (Morgan, 1975). It was this mental element of the offence (mens rea, as lawyers call it) that ensured that only defendants with an appropriately guilty mind could be convicted of rape.
Jon Holbrook, “New rape laws: turning sex into a crime”, spiked!, 2015-02-12.