Removing gender from athletics

A conversation today got me thinking about the current controversy in the U.S. and in international athletics about transsexual women and girls being banned from competing in women’s and girls’ teams and competitions.

Here’s my question: Why do we still have gendered athletic competitions at all? The standard answer, of course, is that most women and girls, in most sports, will not be able to compete successfully against men and boys, who in general are bigger and stronger. But is the current norm—separate teams and leagues based on gender—the best solution?

In the case of school team athletics, for example, why not simply have First Tier teams, Second Tier teams, and Third Tier teams? Placement would be determined by performance, not gender. The current nonsense of classifying athletes by gender identity and testosterone levels could be put aside. All interested students could participate on teams suited to their skill levels. Girls, boys, and trans students skilled enough to compete against the best athletes in the First Tier could do so; those lacking the skills to make the First Tier could still enjoy playing in the Second or Third Tier.

The same idea could be employed in individual sports like tennis or swimming or track and field. In the Olympics, for example, instead of male swimming competitions and female swimming competitions, why not have First Tier swimming, Second Tier swimming, and Third Tier swimming? If your performances reach a certain level, you qualify for the First Tier. Otherwise, you compete in the Second Tier, or the Third. The objection, undoubtedly, would be the same argument used in favour of gendered competition: many women and girls would be excluded because they would not be able to compete successfully against men and boys, even at the Second or Third Tier levels. Dishonest individuals who could not win in the First Tier would deliberately underachieve so they could be relegated to the Second Tier, where they could then capture all the gold medals.

Maybe. But measures could be taken to mitigate against unfairness. And fears of cheating are overblown. Cheating is already a part of every sport, and every sport has rules and sanctions to minimize dishonesty. Most athletes, however, want to test themselves against tough competition. Winning against opponents whose skills are clearly inferior would hold no satisfaction or pleasure for the vast majority of competitors.

I am “thinking out loud” here, and perhaps I have not thought hard enough or carefully enough about these issues. It does seem clear to me, however, that banning and stigmatizing transsexual athletes is cruel and unsustainable. There has to be a better way.

You couldn’t give me a billion dollars to get on an airplane.

The great Paul Motian, from Motian in Motion, a wonderful 2020 documentary of his life and career. Skip to the 41-minute mark for this:

Oh yeah. No, I won’t get on an airplane. Forget that. You couldn’t give me a billion dollars to get on an airplane. I’m serious. Give me a billion dollars—I will not get on an airplane. I just did so much of that, man, so much touring, wow, year after year after year after year. Planes. Airplanes. Hundreds of airplanes. Terrible! That’s terrible! Touring is a horrible life.

Years of international living and traveling have led me to exactly the same conclusion. Having said that, billion-dollar offers are welcome.

Climate Change Solutions

I know some of you out there are worried about climate change.

I’m here to help.

If it gets too hot, here’s what to do. Go out to your SUV, start her up, and flick on the AC. Stay in there until you’re cooled down.

Alternatively, if it’s too cold, here’s what to do. Go out to your SUV, start her up, and turn on the heater. Stay in there until you feel warm again.

Now, somebody’s going to say these are just short-term solutions, and I have to admit, that’s true. So, if you get tired of sitting in your car, here’s what you do.

It it’s too hot, go to the airport and catch a flight to someplace nice and cool.

If it’s too cold, go to the airport and catch a flight to someplace nice and warm.

Whatever you do, don’t let this climate change thing force you to change the way you like to live. Be the boss!

That’s it.

Happy to help.

Cause of death

With AIDS, unlike COVID-19, you had to work pretty hard to be infected. Walking into a restaurant and breathing was not enough.

So when people died of AIDS, the reports would say, “died of complications from AIDS,” and everyone understood that having AIDS made you vulnerable to a host of other illnesses—pneumonia, for example.

COVID deaths, however, are being massively mis-reported and under-reported. If someone with COVID contracts pneumonia and then dies, the cause of death is reported as . . . pneumonia! Why? Because if COVID deaths were reported as “died of complications from COVID-19,” all holy hell would break loose. Lots of people would be more reluctant to walk into restaurants and breathe. Or to go to shopping malls, or go out to a nightclub, or go to a play or a concert.

That would be bad.

Gotta keep the economy going, y’know?

Companies Producing AR-15s and AR-15 Knock-Offs

Let them know what you think of them.

Colt’s Manufacturing Company
Barrett Firearms Manufacturing
Bushmaster Firearms International
Caracal International
C.G. Haenel
Heckler & Koch
Remington Arms
Sturm, Ruger & Co.
SIG Sauer
Smith & Wesson
Springfield Armory, Inc.

My message to these companies:

Why are you selling weapons to civilians that are designed for warfare and end up being used in mass killings?

You are worse than murderers: too cowardly to pull the triggers yourselves, but happy to profit from the carnage.

You are despicable.

Politics 101

  • Most voters are in the center, when they pay attention; and most don’t pay attention. They aren’t interested. They just want to work and fall in love and follow sports and watch TV.
  • It is outrages on the right that push uninvolved voters to pay attention and become involved, that motivate them to vote, and to vote for progress. Think about Bull Conner’s thugs attacking kids with firehouses and dogs in 1963. In recent days we have the right-wing Supreme Court overturning abortion rights, or DeSantis et al banning books, etc.
  • The progressive left’s best strategy is to make their votes necessary for liberals to get elected and pass legislation. This is much easier in a parliamentary system (Canada, the U.K.) than in the U.S., with its two-party system so firmly entrenched. But it’s not easy anywhere.
  • Progress is multi-generational. One lifetime is barely the blink of an eye on history’s timeline. It is natural, from the perspective of a single lifetime, to feel enormously frustrated. And it is very difficult to take heart over incremental improvements that, with rare exceptions, began long before you were born and will not be completed until long after you die.
  • Start local! National politics is really, really hard to change. City councils, school boards, county commissions, and state/provincial legislatures are where progressives need to start. But this is slow, tedious work and, historically, progressives have been more inclined to street demonstrations that usually have limited (sometimes counterproductive) effects—although we tend to remember the spectacular exceptions.

Sharp alterations and abrupt oscillations can be expected

“In view of the truly extraordinary record of the past few centuries, no one can say for sure that new and unexpected breakthroughs will not occur, expanding the range of the possible beyond anything easily conceived of now. Birth control may in time catch up with death control. Something like a stable balance between human numbers and resources may then begin to define itself. But for the present and short-range future, it remains obvious that humanity is in course of one of the most massive and extraordinary ecological upheavals the planet has ever known. Not stability but a sequence of sharp alterations and abrupt oscillations in existing balances between microparasitism and macroparasitism can therefore be expected in the near future as in the recent past.

“In any effort to understand what lies ahead, as much as what lies behind, the role of infectious disease cannot properly be left out of consideration. Ingenuity, knowledge, and organization alter but cannot cancel humanity’s vulnerability to invasion by parasitic forms of life. Infections disease which antedated the emergence of humankind will last as long as humanity itself, and will surely remain, as it has been hitherto, one of the fundamental parameters and determinants of human history.”

—Wm. H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (1976, 1998). Final two paragraphs.

COVID and history: lessons learned

1. Not just people, but entire cultures can be pigheaded
There is a pigheaded resistance to government in Anglo culture that persists even when public health measures are desperately needed to save lives. We have seen this during the COVID-19 pandemic, but history shows that it is nothing new.

British liberals, in particular, saw quarantine regulations as an irrational infringement of the principle of free trade, and bent every effort toward the eradication of such traces of tyranny and Roman Catholic folly. . . .

In England . . . a libertarian prejudice against regulations infringing the individual’s right to do what he chose with his own property was deeply rooted . . . .

[As Asiatic cholera approached, Parliament established a Central Board of Health in 1848] and began installation of water and sewer systems all over the country. . . .

Intrusion upon private property to allow water mains and sewer pipes to maintain the straight lines needed for efficient patterns of flow was also necessary. To many Englishmen at the time this seemed an unwarranted intrusion on their rights and, of course, the capital expenditures involved were substantial. It therefore took the lively fear that cholera provoked to overcome entrenched opposition.

—William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, pp. 272, 276-77

Pigheaded resistance to common-sense public health measures can be found outside of Anglo culture, of course. McNeill notes elsewhere in the same book that, confronted with bubonic plague during the annual hadj to Mecca, Islamic authorities shrugged it off on the theory that Allah alone determines who lives and dies, and when. Similarly, regular outbreaks of cholera among during Hindu pilgrimages to the Ganges River did nothing to diminish enthusiasm to join the crowds.

2. Money talks
Scurvy had been a problem for sailors ever since Columbus. When the British navy learned that the disease resulted from a Vitamin C deficiency, they decided to supply British warships with citrus fruits. As it turned out, however, Mediterranean lemons were more expensive, so they opted for limes from the West Indies, which were much cheaper. Unfortunately, the West Indies varieties were also much lower in Vitamin C, so scurvy outbreaks in the British navy continued for another 80 years. But think of the money they saved! [McNeill, pp. 273-74]

3. Public health is not private health
As I have noted previously, governments are not particularly concerned with your health, or mine. They are only concerned about health when it becomes a public problem by swamping hospitals or impacting the workforce and damaging the economy. Soft-headed dopes like me who continue to think that my governments, local and national, ought to be concerned about my health, are bound to be disappointed.

Scared to go to the hospital: an open letter to BC Premier Dave Eby

To British Columbia Premier Dave Eby

Dear Mr. Eby,

Before Dr. Henry’s latest announcement that health care workers would no longer be wearing masks on the job, I was already extremely reluctant to go to the hospital because of the outrageous waiting times in the emergency department.

In August 2021 I was forced to call an ambulance and go to the ER when I had an attack of vertigo. Nauseous, miserable, and dry-heaving into a cardboard bucket, I sat for 12 hours in a waiting room filled with scores of sick people. It was horrible.

Now, in addition to inhumane waiting times, going to the hospital will mean being needlessly exposed to every airborne disease around.

If these policies were being promulgated by a right-wing party I would not be surprised. But the NDP??

What the hell has happened to the NDP??

Whatever it is, it’s appalling.

Sincerely yours, [etc.]

Gun violence is not about ideology: it’s about money

In 16th-century France the Wars of Religion tore the nation apart for almost forty years. The atrocities committed make 21st-century terrorists look like Boy Scouts. King Henri IV finally restored peace (for a while) by addressing the real causes of the conflict: not religious doctrine, but economics and political power.

I was reminded of this today talking with a friend about the latest wave of gun homicides in the U.S. Those eager to prolong the status quo want you to think that this is an ideological disagreement about the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, about the right of citizens to own guns.

Wrong. It’s about the profits of gun manufacturers and sellers. The ideological hysteria is stirred up by people who profit from it.

Remember when bar owners were held liable if they allowed customers to get drunk, and those customers subsequently got behind the wheel and caused accidents? The epidemic of drunk driving, seemingly insoluble, stopped. There are still drunk drivers, but not nearly so many.

The same approach could dramatically reduce gun violence in the U.S. Make it possible for victims and their families to sue gun makers and gun sellers whose guns are used in mass killings. Suddenly sellers will be much more careful about who they sell guns to, and manufacturers will change the kinds of guns they sell.

Follow the money.

Casablanca American School Turns 50

Hala R. Mustafa Al Hassan
Casablanca American School
Casablanca, Morocco

Dear Hala,

I have been pondering what to say in response to your appeal for memories of CAS as part of the school’s 50-year anniversary celebrations.

My first thought was: it should not be all about me. It should be about you, Hala, and your classmates in 1986 when I arrived to teach all of the English courses, Grades 7-12. I remember the first time I asked students, “What do you think?” and seeing the looks of blank terror on their faces: having come from schools where “learning” was all about memorizing what the teacher said, they had never before been asked that question. I remember Hind arriving in Grade 10 with barely a word of English. At break one day she was sitting with her friends outside on a sunny fall day during a break. “How are you?” I asked. “Oooh,” she said, fanning herself, “C’est hot!” I remember my Indian students explaining the logic of arranged marriages to me and persuading me that arranged marriages made more sense than “love matches.” I remember Nita, Sanguita, and Meenakshi dressing me up as Krishna for “Indian Night” at the Churchill Club. Although my three years at CAS (1986-89) came near the beginning of my teaching career, I am still in touch from time to time with so many of my former students from Casa: Myriam and Kamal, Marcus and Pontus, Cat, Amal, Noura, Alia, Hind, Youness . . . . It speaks to the strength of the bonds we formed.

This little memoir should be about John Randolph, the best head of school I ever worked for across four decades and four continents and eleven schools. When I first met John, at a recruitment fair in San Francisco, I saw him sitting behind the table under the Casablanca American School sign and assumed from his looks that he was Moroccan. By now, I think he probably is! John showed me that a head of school could be fiercely principled, passionate about education, and utterly devoted to the best interests of his students. I could write a small book about John and his profound influence on me and my career. I remember him reciting Langston Hughes’ poem, “As I Grew Older,” at morning assembly in the courtyard of the old upper school. I am still teaching that poem, almost forty years later. John Randolph started out as my boss and became a dear, lifelong friend. I know that I am far from alone when I say that I could never thank him enough. 

My colleagues at CAS left lasting memories, and became lifelong friends. Mike Radow and I met on the plane returning home to Oregon from that San Francisco recruitment fair and ended up sharing a flat for the first year; or was it two? John Hall, Velma, Marcia, Orestes, Gayle, and then all the local staff who were so kind, generous, and helpful to us clueless expats. It was a vibrant, committed group of teachers. Anne Osman was a pillar of strength, along with her marvellous husband, Farid. Jack and Tricia Shepherd arrived in my second year and became essential members of the faculty. And through it all the indefatigable Marie Randolph, like a mother hen, took care of us all. We did not always agree, but we always cared about teaching and learning above all else.

In another sense, however, this little memoir should be about me, just as those of other CAS alumni should be about them, because that’s what Casablanca American School was always about: the students, teachers, staff members, and parents who made it the wonderful place it was, and is. I am sure that the 50th anniversary celebrations will provoke a tremendous response, because Casablanca American School has made a tremendous difference in the lives it has touched.

Sincerely yours,
(yes, you can call me Eric now, Hala!)

A purposeful life: Stephen Kotkin

“Having a purposeful life is actually not that hard. You’re in a school, you’re in a workplace, you’re somewhere where you can affect other people in a positive way. You can lead a life that can show others what good values are, and you can lead a life that dedicates yourself not only to your own material well-being but to the well-being and development of others around you. And it can be on a humble scale. It can be in a small classroom or a small workplace, a small work team. And having a positive impact, even on one other person, gives far greater meaning to your own life, and is profoundly satisfying.”

—Stephen Kotkin

Source: The very tail-end (2h41m) of a long discussion from May 2022 of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Slightly edited for clarity. Kotkin is a scholar (Princeton, Stanford) and historian who specializes in Russian history.

Plagues and uncertainty

In the three centuries when bubonic plague swept across Europe, no one understood that the disease was carried by fleas and rats. Many people died; some became ill but recovered; some never became ill at all. These apparently random events made no sense, and so people resorted to superstition, mysticism, bigotry, and hysteria.

How little has changed since then.

Despite modern science and medicine, we don’t understand why some people suffer serious illness or death from COVID-19, while others experience only mild symptoms, or none at all; why some may escape entirely; why some suffer long-term disability after surviving the acute phase of the disease. Popular responses to this fear and confusion are often medieval in their embrace of irrationality and superstition and pseudoscience.

Humans seek clear, simple answers to their questions. They do not respond well to uncertainty and ambiguity. Plagues kill, but the suffering is compounded by our determination to arrive at an answer in the face of contradictory or incomplete evidence. As uncomfortable as it may be, we will be better off acknowledging that we don’t know, and acting accordingly.

To be hopeful in bad times: Howard Zinn

“To 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.”

—Howard Zinn, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, p. 270.

A plague on half your houses. Repeatedly.

From William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (1998), pp. 182, 185:

“[In the Mediterranean port cities] until the seventeenth century occasional plague outbreaks, carrying off anything up to a third or a half of a city’s population in a single year, were normal. Venetian statistics, for instance, . . . show that in 1575-77 and again in 1630-31, a third or more of the city’s population died of plague.

“Outside the Mediterranean, European exposure to plague was less frequent . . . and, at least sometimes, also more catastrophic. . . . In northern Spain, 1596-1602 . . . half a million died . . . . Subsequent outbreaks in 1648-52 and 1677-85 more than doubled the number of Spaniards who died of plague in the seventeenth century. Pasturella pestis must thus be considered as one of the significant factors in Spain’s decline as an economic and political power. . . .

“. . . The plague did not disappear among populations living closer to the Eurasian steppe reservoir, nor did it diminish in virulence . . . in those regions where it continued to manifest itself. . . . Changes in housing, shipping, sanitary practices, and similar factors . . . were the decisive regulators, both in the advance and in the retreat of plague.”

July 1914: can’t be bothered with politics

Helen Pearl Adam, a British journalist then working in Paris, wrote in her diary for July, “In 1914, the people of France had decided that it could not be bothered with politics.”

—Mary McAuliffe, Twilight of the Belle Epoque, p. 270

A month later the German offensive had begun the war that would transform Europe at the cost of millions of lives.

Robert Louis Stevenson on learning to write

“Whenever I read a book or a passage that particularly pleased me, in which a thing was said or an effect rendered with propriety, in which there was either some conspicuous force or some happy distinction in the style, I must sit down at once and set myself to ape that quality. I was unsuccessful, and I knew it; and tried again, and was again unsuccessful and always unsuccessful; but at least in these vain bouts, I got some practice in rhythm, in harmony, in construction and the co-ordination of parts. I have thus played the sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne, to Defoe, to Hawthorne, to Montaigne, to Baudelaire and to Obermann. . . .

“That, like it or not, is the way to learn to write; whether I have profited or not, that is the way. It was so Keats learned, and there was never a finer temperament for literature than Keats’s; it was so, if we could trace it out, that all men have learned; and that is why a revival of letters is always accompanied or heralded by a cast back to earlier and fresher models. Perhaps I hear someone cry out: But this is not the way to be original! It is not; nor is there any way but to be born so. Nor yet, if you are born original, is there anything in this training that shall clip the wings of your originality. There can be none more original than Montaigne, neither could any be more unlike Cicero; yet no craftsman can fail to see how much the one must have tried in his time to imitate the other. Burns is the very type of a prime force in letters: he was of all men the most imitative. Shakespeare himself, the imperial, proceeds directly from a school. It is only from a school that we can expect to have good writers; it is almost invariably from a school that great writers, these lawless exceptions, issue. Nor is there anything here that should astonish the considerate. Before he can tell what cadences he truly prefers, the student should have tried all that are possible; before he can choose and preserve a fitting key of words, he should long have practised the literary scales; and it is only after years of such gymnastic that he can sit down at last, legions of words swarming to his call, dozens of turns of phrase simultaneously bidding for his choice, and he himself knowing what he wants to do and (within the narrow limit of a man’s ability) able to do it.

“And it is the great point of these imitations that there still shines beyond the student’s reach his inimitable model. Let him try as he please, he is still sure of failure; and it is a very old and a very true saying that failure is the only highroad to success. I must have had some disposition to learn; for I clear-sightedly condemned my own performances. I liked doing them indeed; but when they were done, I could see they were rubbish. In consequence, I very rarely showed them even to my friends; and such friends as I chose to be my confidants I must have chosen well, for they had the friendliness to be quite plain with me, ‘Padding,’ said one. Another wrote: ‘I cannot understand why you do lyrics so badly.’ No more could I! Thrice I put myself in the way of a more authoritative rebuff, by sending a paper to a magazine. These were returned; and I was not surprised nor even pained. If they had not been looked at, as (like all amateurs) I suspected was the case, there was no good in repeating the experiment; if they had been looked at—well, then I had not yet learned to write, and I must keep on learning and living.”

Memories and Portraits, Chapter IV (1912)

Anti-Semitism and COVID: plus ça change . . .

In 1900 the French government granted a general amnesty to everyone involved in the notorious Dreyfus Affair, in which anti-Semitic members of the military establishment had framed Alfred Dreyfus, who was falsely convicted of treason and spent years in prison before being released and pardoned. Dreyfus and his supporters wanted justice, not a pardon for a crime he never committed. The French government, however, wanted an end to the controversy. To prosecute the wrong-doers would have stirred the national passions, which had been stirring for far too long already.

Emile Zola, in an open letter to the President of the Republic, wrote this sentence:

The view that one can save a people from the disease that gnaws it by decreeing that the disease no longer exists is myopic indeed. [L’Aurore, 22 December 1900]

Plus ça change . . .

Hugo, at last

What a surprise to discover, in my old age, the magnificent Victor Hugo!

Having been subjected as a child to the maimed reductions of Hugo produced by Walt Disney and his ilk, I thought that I knew his work, and had no desire for further acquaintance. My main interest, moreover, was history, not literature, and certainly not corny melodrama. When in my mid-twenties I rather surprisingly chose to become a high school English teacher, I embarked on a crash course of literary education, but Hugo—whose books were far too long for any high school reading list—never merited my attention.

A few months ago, however, I began listening to an audiobook version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, wonderfully narrated by George Guidall. I was looking for something entertaining but not wholly frivolous, and decided to fill this gap in my reading without straining my aging eyes.

What a surprise, then, to discover that Hugo’s novel is actually an essay, a long, sprawling essay on the architectural history of Paris, with the famous cathedral both literally and figuratively at its centre. The French title, Notre-Dame de Paris, rightly places the cathedral in the forefront and fails to mention its bell-ringer. The melodrama featuring Quasimodo, the hunchback, Esmeralda, the gypsy girl, and Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon, provides the spoonful of sugar needed to help readers swallow Hugo’s passionate dissertation. Published in 1831, it turned the Cathedral of Notre-Dame into a tourist attraction, forcing the authorities to invest in its restoration and to preserve numerous other medieval buildings that otherwise would have disappeared.

Even the melodrama is far from what Disney made of it. Following the penniless playwright, Gringoire, through the darkening streets of the city, we stumble with him into a gang of street criminals. We are shown the desperate poverty of Esmeralda’s mother as a young woman, and her crazed religiosity as a prematurely-old woman. Most striking, for me, was the sexually frustrated, self-absorbed Claude Frollo and his obsession with Esmeralda. Here he is, in Hapgood’s translation:

“I love you. Oh! how true that is! So nothing comes of that fire which burns my heart! Alas! young girl, night and day—yes, night and day I tell you,—it is torture. Oh! I suffer too much, my poor child. ’Tis a thing deserving of compassion, I assure you. You see that I speak gently to you. I really wish that you should no longer cherish this horror of me.—After all, if a man loves a woman, ’tis not his fault!—Oh, my God!—What! So you will never pardon me? You will always hate me? All is over then. It is that which renders me evil, do you see? and horrible to myself.—You will not even look at me! You are thinking of something else, perchance, while I stand here and talk to you, shuddering on the brink of eternity for both of us! Above all things, do not speak to me of the officer!—I would cast myself at your knees, I would kiss not your feet, but the earth which is under your feet; I would sob like a child, I would tear from my breast not words, but my very heart and vitals, to tell you that I love you;—all would be useless, all!—And yet you have nothing in your heart but what is tender and merciful. You are radiant with the most beautiful mildness; you are wholly sweet, good, pitiful, and charming. Alas! You cherish no ill will for any one but me alone! Oh! what a fatality!”

He hid his face in his hands. The young girl heard him weeping. It was for the first time. Thus erect and shaken by sobs, he was more miserable and more suppliant than when on his knees. He wept thus for a considerable time.

“Come!” he said, these first tears passed, “I have no more words. I had, however, thought well as to what you would say. Now I tremble and shiver and break down at the decisive moment, I feel conscious of something supreme enveloping us, and I stammer. Oh! I shall fall upon the pavement if you do not take pity on me, pity on yourself. Do not condemn us both. If you only knew how much I love you! What a heart is mine! Oh! what desertion of all virtue! What desperate abandonment of myself! A doctor, I mock at science; a gentleman, I tarnish my own name; a priest, I make of the missal a pillow of sensuality, I spit in the face of my God! all this for thee, enchantress! to be more worthy of thy hell! And you will not have the apostate! Oh! let me tell you all! more still, something more horrible, oh! Yet more horrible!…”

And of course there is no happy ending. Esmeralda, forced by Frollo to choose between him and the hangman, goes to her death. Frollo, watching the execution from the top of Notre Dame, is pushed to his death by his adopted son, Quasimodo, who is also in love with the girl. Quasimodo then disappears, but we are told that many years later his bones are found embracing Esmeralda in her grave. My only serious complaint with this melodrama is Esmeralda herself, who shows spunk and intelligence early on but becomes a simpleton when she falls for the worthless Captain Phoebus.

Inspired by Notre Dame, I decided to have a go at Les Miserables. At first I was disappointed. In Notre Dame, Hugo has barely begun his story before launching into his disquisition on Paris. In Les Miserables, the story dominates the beginning of the novel. I began to think that in his second masterpiece, Hugo had surrendered entirely to melodrama.

I was wrong.

Caught in Hugo’s web by the improbable sentimentality of Jean Valjean’s tale, readers of Les Miserables find themselves a captive audience for the author’s history of France; his quasi-Hegelian theory of history; and his long, detailed argument that all of the political ups and downs, progressions and regressions, actions and reactions of French history from the Revolution of 1789 to the follies of Louis Napoleon and the Second Empire—that all of these contradictory movements tend, slowly and unevenly, toward the establishment of a truly democratic republic of justice and equality. Hugo’s fierce denunciations of injustice retain their power 160 years later.

Along the way he pauses to consider, at some length, the Battle of Waterloo; the history of convents; the street urchins of Paris; the sewer system of Paris, and the use of slang. How did he find the time and energy to, first, learn about all these matters and, second, write about them at such length? “Astonishing” is the least one can say. For a taste of Hugo in one of these expository expostulations, see my earlier post, “Victor Hugo: socialism and the fate of England.

Having discovered, so late in life, these two magnificent books, do I regret not reading them when I was younger? Not really. I doubt I would have appreciated them. And I am not inclined to recommend them to my high school students, either—with perhaps a rare exception. But some of you may be ready for the unexpurgated Hugo, and if so, I salute you. Enjoy the journey!

The Story of the Taoist Farmer

The following text was published on a website that no longer exists, and I am unable to contact its author, Duen Hsi Yen, so I am reposting it here.

Version 1:

This farmer had only one horse, and one day the horse ran away. The neighbors came to condole over his terrible loss. The farmer said, “What makes you think it is so terrible?”
A month later, the horse came home–this time bringing with her two beautiful wild horses. The neighbors became excited at the farmer’s good fortune. Such lovely strong horses! The farmer said, “What makes you think this is good fortune?”
The farmer’s son was thrown from one of the wild horses and broke his leg. All the neighbors were very distressed. Such bad luck! The farmer said, “What makes you think it is bad?”
A war came, and every able-bodied man was conscripted and sent into battle. Only the farmer’s son, because he had a broken leg, remained. The neighbors congratulated the farmer. “What makes you think this is good?” said the farmer.
As told by Executive editor, Elise Hancock, in the Johns Hopkins Magazine, November 1993, page 2, in section entitled Editor’s Note.
Version 2:
A man named Sei Weng owned a beautiful mare which was praised far and wide. One day this beautiful horse disappeared. The people of his village offered sympathy to Sei Weng for his great misfortune. Sei Weng said simply, “That’s the way it is.”
A few days later the lost mare returned, followed by a beautiful wild stallion. The village congratulated Sei Weng for his good fortune. He said, “That’s the way it is.”
Some time later, Sei Weng’s only son, while riding the stallion, fell off and broke his leg. The village people once again expressed their sympathy at Sei Weng’s misfortune. Sei Weng again said, “That’s the way it is.”
Soon thereafter, war broke out and all the young men of the village except Sei Weng’s lame son were drafted and were killed in battle. The village people were amazed as Sei Weng’s good luck. His son was the only young man left alive in the village. But Sei Weng kept his same attitude: despite all the turmoil, gains and losses, he gave the same reply, “That’s the way it is.”
As told by Chin-Ning Chu, in “The Asian Mind Game: unlocking the hidden agenda of the Asian business culture — a westerner’s survival manual,” New York:Macmillan Publishing Company, page 182. (1991)
Version 3:
A man who lived on the northern frontier of China was skilled in interpreting events. One day, for no reason, his horse ran away to the nomads across the border. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?” Some months later his horse returned, bringing a splendid nomad stallion. Everyone congratulated him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?” Their household was richer by a fine horse, which his son loved to ride. One day he fell and broke his hip. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?”
A year later the nomads came in force across the border, and every able-bodied man took his bow and went into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame did the father and son survive to take care of each other. Truly, blessing turns to disaster, and disaster to blessing: the changes have no end, nor can the mystery be fathomed.
The Lost Horse, a Chinese Folktale.
As told by Ellen J. Langer, in” The Power of Mindful Learning,” Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, page 99-100. (1997).
Version 4:
Translation (see above link for annotations and comment):
Among the people who lived close to the border, there was a man who led a righteous life. Without reason, his horse escaped, and fled into barbarian territory. Everyone pitied him, but the old man said : “what makes you think this is not a good thing?”
Several months later, his horse returned, accompanied by a superb barbarian stallion. Everyone congratulated him. But the old man said: “what makes you think this is cannot be a bad thing?”
The family was richer from a good horse, his son enjoyed riding it. He fell and broke his hip. Everyone pitied him, but the old man said: “what makes you think this is not a good thing!”
One year later, a large party of barbarians entered the border. All the valid men drew their bows and went to battle. From the people living around the border, nine out of ten died. But just because he was lame, the old man and his son were both spared.
Version 5 (under construction)
“Explaining Conjunctions” from The Book of Lieh-tzu: A Classic of Tao, translated by Angus C. Graham, New York: Columbia University Press (1960, revised 1990)
Version 6:
An African king had a close friend who had the habit of remarking “this
is good” about every occurrence in life no matter what it was. One day
the king and his friend were out hunting. The king’s friend loaded a
gun and handed it to the king, but alas he loaded it wrong and when the
king fired it, his thumb was blown off.
“This is good!” exclaimed his friend.
The horrified and bleeding king was furious. “How can you say this is
good? This is obviously horrible!” he shouted. The king put his friend in jail.
About a year later the king went hunting by himself. Cannibals captured
him and took him to their village. They tied his hands, stacked some
wood, set up a stake and bound him to it. As they came near to set fire
to the wood, they noticed that the king was missing a thumb. Being
superstitious, they never ate anyone who was less than whole. They
untied the king and sent him on his way.
Full of remorse the king rushed to the prison to release his friend.
“You were right, it WAS good” the king said.
The king told his friend how the missing thumb saved his life and
added, “I feel so sad that I locked you in jail.That was such a bad
thing to do”
“NO! this is good!” responded his delighted friend.
“Oh, how could that be good my friend, I did a terrible thing to you while I
owe you my life”.
“It is good” said his friend, “because if I wasn’t in jail I would have been
hunting with you and they would have killed ME.”
Source unknown
Version 7:
Taoist Farmer stories are based on the Chinese belief that life has its ups and downs, and does not always go up. Click on the following link to read a story I wrote about the ups and downs in the lives of some chickens, and one eccentric chicken’s interpretation of whether the farmer that feeds them is good or bad.
The Benevolent Farmer? [dead link]
Here is another related tidbit: When Communist era Premier Chou En-Lai was asked whether or not the French revolution was good or bad, his response was “It’s too early to tell.” (From “The Geography of Thought, How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why,” by Richard E. Nisbett, NY:Simon and Schuster, 2003, page 13). When I first read this, I couldn’t stop laughing!
Version 8:
Three Questions, a short story by Leo Tolstoy, has a similar flavor. (From “Twenty-three Tales “published around 1872. This version, translated by L. and A. Maude and published by Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York, 1907. Other adaptations: 1, 2, 3
IT once occurred to a certain king, that if he always knew the right time to begin everything; if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid, and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.
And this thought having occurred to him, he had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom that he would give a great reward to any one who would teach him what was the right time for every action, and who were the most necessary people, and how he might know what was the most important thing to do. And learned men came to the King, but they all answered his questions differently.
In reply to the first question, some said that to know the right time for every action, one must draw up in advance, a table of days, months and years, and must live strictly according to it. Only thus, said they, could everything be done at its proper time. Others declared that it was impossible to decide beforehand the right time for every action; but that, not letting oneself be absorbed in idle pastimes, one should always attend to all that was going on, and then do what was most needful. Others, again, said that however attentive the King might be to what was going on, it was impossible for one man to decide correctly the right time for every action, but that he should have a Council of wise men, who would help him to fix the proper time for everything.
But then again others said there were some things which could not wait to be laid before a Council, but about which one had at once to decide whether to undertake them or not. But in order to decide that one must know beforehand what was going to happen. It is only magicians who know that; and, therefore in order to know the right time for every action, one must consult magicians.
Equally various were the answers to the second question. Some said, the people the King most needed were his councillors; others, the priests; others, the doctors; while some said the warriors were the most necessary.
To the third question, as to what was the most important occupation: some replied that the most important thing in the world was science. Others said it was skill in warfare; and others, again, that it was religious worship.
All the answers being different, the King agreed with none of them, and gave the reward to none. But still wishing to find the right answers to his questions, he decided to consult a hermit, widely renowned for his wisdom.
The hermit lived in a wood which he never quitted and he received none but common folk. So the King put on simple clothes, and before reaching the hermit’s cell dismounted from his horse, and, leaving his bodyguard behind, went on alone.
When the King approached, the hermit was digging the ground in front of his hut. Seeing the King, he greeted him and went on digging. The hermit was frail and weak, and each time he stuck his spade into the ground and turned a little earth, he breathed heavily.
The King went up to him and said: ‘I have come to you, wise hermit, to ask you to answer three questions: How can I learn to do the right thing at the right time? Who are the people I most need, and to whom should I, therefore, pay more attention than to the rest? And, what affairs are the most important and need my first attention?’ The hermit listened to the King, but answered nothing. He just spat on his hand and recommenced digging.
‘You are tired,’ said the King, ‘let me take the spade and work awhile for you.’
‘Thanks!’ said the hermit, and, giving the spade to the King, he sat down on the ground.
When he had dug two beds, the King stopped and repeated his questions. The hermit again gave no answer, but rose, stretched out his hand for the spade, and said:
‘Now rest awhile — and let me work a bit.’
But the King did not give him the spade, and continued to dig. One hour passed, and another. The sun began to sink behind the trees, and the King at last stuck the spade into the ground, and said:
‘I came to you, wise man, for an answer to my questions. If you can give me none, tell me so, and I will return home.’
‘Here comes some one running,’ said the hermit, ‘let us see who it is.’
The King turned round, and saw a bearded man come running out of the wood. The man held his hands pressed against his stomach, and blood was flowing from under them. When he reached the King, he fell fainting on the ground moaning feebly. The King and the hermit unfastened the man’s clothing. There was a large wound in his stomach. The King washed it as best he could, and bandaged it with his handkerchief and with a towel the hermit had. But the blood would not stop flowing, and the King again and again removed the bandage soaked with warm blood, and washed and rebandaged the wound. When at last the blood ceased flowing, the man revived and asked for something to drink. The King brought fresh water and gave it to him. Meanwhile the sun had set, and it had become cool. So the King, with the hermit’s help, carried the wounded man into the hut and laid him on the bed. Lying on the bed the man closed his eyes and was quiet; but the King was so tired with his walk and with the work he had done, that he crouched down on the threshold, and also fell asleep — so soundly that he slept all through the short summer night. When he awoke in the morning, it was long before he could remember where he was, or who was the strange bearded man lying on the bed and gazing intently at him with shining eyes.
‘Forgive me!’ said the bearded man in a weak voice, when he saw that the King was awake and was looking at him.
‘I do not know you, and have nothing to forgive you for,’ said the King.
‘You do not know me, but I know you. I am that enemy of yours who swore to revenge himself on you, because you executed his brother and seized his property. I knew you had gone alone to see the hermit, and I resolved to kill you on your way back. But the day passed and you did not return. So I came out from my ambush to find you, and I came upon your bodyguard, and they recognized me, and wounded me. I escaped from them, but should have bled to death had you not dressed my wound. I wished to kill you, and you have saved my life. Now, if I live, and if you wish it, I will serve you as your most faithful slave, and will bid my sons do the same. Forgive me!’
The King was very glad to have made peace with his enemy so easily, and to have gained him for a friend, and he not only forgave him, but said he would send his servants and his own physician to attend him, and promised to restore his property.
Having taken leave of the wounded man, the King went out into the porch and looked around for the hermit. Before going away he wished once more to beg an answer to the questions he had put. The hermit was outside, on his knees, sowing seeds in the beds that had been dug the day before.
The King approached him, and said:
‘For the last time, I pray you to answer my questions, wise man.’
‘You have already been answered!’ said the hermit still crouching on his thin legs, and looking up at the King, who stood before him.
‘How answered? What do you mean?’ asked the King.
‘Do you not see,’ replied the hermit. ‘If you had not pitied my weakness yesterday, and had not dug these beds for me, but had gone your way, that man would have attacked you, and you would have repented of not having stayed with me. So the most important time was when you were digging the beds; and I was the most important man; and to do me good was your most important business. Afterwards, when that man ran to us, the most important time was when you were attending to him, for if you had not bound up his wounds he would have died without having made peace with you. So he was the most important man, and what you did for him was your most important business. Remember then: there is only one time that is important — Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with any one else: and the most important affair is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!’
Last updated 18 November 2006
Copyright © 1998-2006 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.

The link between colonialism and police brutality

I highly recommend this recent episode of the BBC World Service programme, “The Real Story”: How do you stop police brutality? It inspired me to think about the problem of police brutality in broader terms.

Previously I was thinking more about the problems inherent in the kind of people sometimes attracted to policing (and the military):

We need police officers. We need soldiers. Unfortunately, both professions tend to attract people who enjoy weapons, conflict, and power—sometimes to the point of psychopathy. Not all, but a significant percentage. And that turns out to be a significant problem for which we do not have a solution.

But the problem is bigger than that. Surprisingly, that may mean that it is more possible to find solutions. Not easier, but more possible.

Coercive policing was an essential element of colonialism. Colonial police were given a job by their governments with clear mandates:

  1. Surveil the population, looking for potential troublemakers who might threaten the colonial system.
  2. Control those groups and individuals who would dissent, demonstrate, and organize to change or overthrow the system.
  3. Use whatever means are necessary, including coercion and violence, to ensure order and stability.

This pattern can be recognized immediately in the histories of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern peoples colonized by European nations in the 19th century. In all such cases, the European police officers were supplemented by large numbers of policemen recruited from among the local population. These native policemen, in return for job security and a certain kind of power and status, gave their loyalty to the colonial regimes that were exploiting their own people. Decolonization after World War II led, most often, to colonial governments being replaced by despotic native rulers who used the same system of coercive policing to control the population and keep themselves in power.

In the Americas we see the same coercive policing used against domestically colonized populations: indigenous people and racialized minorities. These domestically colonized people have provided cheap labour essential to the prosperity of the affluent majority. To ensure the supply of cheap labour, such people must be kept in their place. Dissent, demonstrations, and organization against the status quo must be quashed, and coercive policing is used to suppress such activities, in exactly the same way that colonial police forces operated in the 19th century. And, again, police recruited from among the colonized population have been essential to making the system work. We should not be surprised, then, when a Native American band council subsidized by the US government forms a local police force that proceeds to use violence against their own band members who oppose the leadership; or when Black police officers in an American city commit violence against Black citizens. In both cases, the police officers’ loyalty is to the system in power that has employed them and raised their status, not to the people they have been hired to, theoretically, “serve.”

We see similar coercive policing used against immigrant populations in European countries.

So the actual motto of such police forces is not “Protect and Serve” but “Surveil, Control, and Coerce.”

If this is correct, we have good news and bad news. On one hand, the problem of identifying and removing officers or recruits with psychopathic personalities appears quite manageable. As noted in the BBC programme, Norway has an effective system of screening out such individuals. Once that is done, we are no longer dealing with chronic but seemingly random acts of violence involving rogue police officers.

On the other hand, trying to solve the problem of police violence by reforming the police with better training, body cameras, etc., is doomed to fail. It is like reforming school curricula to address racism and poverty. Hence the bad news: the system of coercive policing supports a social and economic system that is inherently unfair and unequal. Without poverty, without income and wealth inequality, the affluence and social status of the privileged classes disappear. Moreover, in places like the United States there is a culture of violence that compounds the problem. An armed and often violent population seems inevitably to require an armed and violent police force.

And so, just as we must repair broken communities to repair broken schools, we must reform the system that employs coercive policing if we want to reform policing itself.

No justice, no peace.


False steps: looking for the message

I wrote this piece several years ago. It covers much of the same ground as “Sending the Right Message About Literature” a bit more concisely, and with the addition of the “Little Red Riding Hood” example.

Teachers and students waste a good deal of time looking for messages in literature. I know this both because my own students almost all come to me with this idea firmly implanted in their minds, and because I have seen so much evidence of it in my work as an examiner for the International Baccalaureate.

A great work of literature, as evocative as a tree or as the world itself, invites us to respond with our minds and our hearts, but it does not prescribe those responses. It invites us to explore, to reflect, to read and re-read. It does not say to us, ‘This is life’ or ‘This is the world’ or ‘This is what people are like’. Instead it shows us life, the world, and people, from a certain angle (or, more often, from a variety of angles) and asks: what do you think? what are you feeling now?

Unfortunately, many students learn in school that stories, plays, and poems are cryptic messages meant to be deciphered. As I wrote in one of my examiner’s reports a while back,

Most students have been taught that literature is filled with hidden messages and meanings cleverly disguised with symbols, metaphors, and other ‘literary devices’. Their job is to decode the messages and file them under various standard headings such as ‘existentialist’, ‘nihilist’, and ‘archetypal’. One candidate actually made this theory of literary criticism the opening sentence of her essay: “It is important to understand the intentions of authors as most of the time they are trying to convey hidden messages.”

Finding hidden messages is difficult. Not surprisingly under such circumstances, most students simply retail ideas that their teachers or other sources have fed them. When the same interpretation of a work is repeated by student after student, it’s clear that they are simply parroting what they have been taught. Such teaching appears to be the norm, as one can infer from Billy Collins’s wonderful “Introduction to Poetry”:

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

To be sure, it is perfectly possible to tell a story, or write a play or poem, with the intention of sending a message or making an argument. With rare exceptions, such works quickly fall by the wayside and are easily dismissed. Perhaps they have some historical significance, but they are not taken seriously as works of art. Equally clear is the case that certain stories are written for children and adolescents with the intention of teaching their readers to be kind to others, or to avoid illegal drugs and unwanted pregnancies. Again, these are not often serious works of art. 

Some children’s stories, of course, do achieve a standard recognizable as art, and they illustrate my argument here quite well. What is the ‘message’, for instance, of A.A. Milne’s ‘Pooh’ stories, or of Arnold Lobel’s ‘Frog and Toad’ stories? Like all good stories, these tales for children create an imaginary world that raises questions: Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing here, and what should we be doing? These are the questions raised again and again by literature and by other forms of art. But how can we tell the difference between real literature and propaganda, or moralizing tales? For one thing, the questions remain open: it is up to the readers or audience to answer them.

As an example, let’s have a look at Charles Perrault’s version of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Perrault (1628-1703), a well-connected member of the bourgeoisie in the court of King Louis XIV, began collecting children’s stories in his old age and published them with the subtitle, “Tales of Mother Goose.” In his version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” the grandmother and the girl are both eaten by the wolf, and the tale ends there. But not quite. Perrault adds this paragraph to the end of the story:

Moral: Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.

Apparently Perrault intends to send a message with his story, and his final paragraph makes his message very clear: young ladies are in danger of being seduced—or even raped—by nefarious men who may be “charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet.” Despite his apparent intentions, however, both his story and his “moral” raise a multitude of questions. Why is a story addressed to young women written as a fairy tale for children? Why is the main character a little girl when the “moral” is about young women? Why does the mother send the girl off alone into such a dangerous world? Why does the grandmother not have a proper lock on her door? From another angle, why is Perrault (or rather, the men of his time, society, and class) so intent on controlling young women, and preserving their virginity? And so on. What is the “message” of “Little Red Riding Hood” now?

As another example, let’s try one of the greatest novels ever written: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. From the epigraph alone (“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord; I will repay”) one could infer what the historical record shows: Tolstoy began his tale with the moralistic idea of showing us that Anna was a sinful woman deservedly punished by God. But along the way, a funny thing happens: Tolstoy seems himself to fall in love with Anna, at least temporarily, and at least enough to bring his moral certitude into doubt. Indeed, his alter-ego protagonist, Levin, visits Anna when she and Vronsky are living at Vronsky’s country estate. Levin, prepared to meet an immoral woman, is surprised to find her delightful and charming. Only after he returns home to his wife is his newly-sympathetic view of Anna brought down to earth with a bump. Anna does suffer a famously terrible end, but as readers we are not at all certain that she deserves her fate. As critics have often remarked, Tolstoy the artist wins out over Tolstoy the Christian moralist. The story that Tolstoy apparently set out to write would perhaps have ‘sent a message’; but if it had finished up that way, it would not be regarded today as one of the greatest novels ever written. The novel does not leave us with a message; instead it leaves us pondering many questions.

I am not arguing, of course, that an author’s tone—his or her attitude toward characters and events—cannot be inferred. It’s clear that Tolstoy sympathizes more with certain characters than with others, but these sympathies and antipathies are not ‘messages’ that close off alternatives. On the contrary, when Tolstoy treats Oblonsky with comical delight, we wonder why he should remain beloved by all—including the author—when his sister Anna (who is guilty of the same ‘sin’) becomes a pariah doomed to a tragic death.

Shakespeare remains the supreme example in our literature of an author who does not send messages. His plays are filled with ideas, with characters and events that raise questions, but at no time can we imagine Shakespeare sitting down to write, thinking, “Ah, now I will write a play with the message, ‘if you need to take revenge, act quickly!’“

We were attacked

We were attacked.

Babies cried, or lay lifeless.

Mothers sprawled awkwardly.

Young men, old men, old women, girls and boys,

body parts and fluids everywhere.

Only whimpers or dazed silence as the sun shone indifferently.

Somewhere, crowds cheered in triumph.

Somewhere, crowds screamed in rage.

We struck back.

Babies cried, or lay lifeless.

Mothers sprawled awkwardly.

Young men, old men, old women, girls and boys,

body parts and fluids everywhere.

Only whimpers or dazed silence as the sun shone indifferently.

Somewhere, crowds cheered in triumph.

Somewhere, crowds screamed in rage.

—6 May 2011 / 27 January 2023

Snarky Jane Austen

When King George III went mad and was unable to carry out his duties, his son became Prince Regent in 1811, ruling in his father’s stead until the old king’s death in 1820, when the Prince Regent became George IV. As Prince Regent, he led a notoriously dissolute life, with massive debts, multiple mistresses, and rumours of multiple illegitimate children—having separated from his wife, Caroline, after the birth of their only child, Princess Charlotte. The public sided with Caroline and despised the Prince Regent.

As Jane Austen was about to publish Emma, a representative of the Prince Regent was sent to her, in an apparent attempt to improve the Prince’s reputation, with a request that she dedicate the novel to the Prince Regent. Austen was unhappy, but finally agreed. Here is the dedication:













. . . Which reminds me of women in an Austen novel, holding their bone china tea cups, backs straight, smiling, and neatly inserting verbal stilettos between the ribs of the  ladies on the opposite sofa. Ouch!

The plague in China

. . . Chinese records do not show anything unusual before 1331, when an epidemic in the province of Hopei [Hubei] is said to have killed nine tenths of the population. Not until 1353-54 do available records indicate a more widespread disaster. In those years epidemic disease raged in eight different and widely scattered parts of China, and chroniclers reported that up to “two thirds of the population” died. . . .

Plague coincided with civil war as a native [Han] Chinese reaction against the Mongol domination gathered headway, climaxing in the overthrow of the alien rulers and the establishment of a new Ming Dynasty in 1368. The combination of war and pestilence wreaked havoc on China’s population. The best estimates show a decrease from 123 million about 1200 (before the Mongol invasions began) to a mere 65 million in 1393, a generation after the final expulsion of the Mongols from China. . . . Disease assuredly played a big part in cutting Chinese numbers in half; and bubonic plague . . . is by all odds the most likely candidate for such a role.

—Wm. H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (1976), pp. 174 – 175

Victor Hugo: socialism and the fate of England

In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo wraps his accounts of history and his commentaries on social, political, and economic problems in the melodrama of Jean Valjean’s life. In Volume 4 (“Saint Denis”), Book 1, Chapter 4, he delivers the following astute and prescient assessment of socialism:

All the problems that the socialists proposed to themselves, cosmogonic visions, reverie and mysticism being cast aside, can be reduced to two principal problems.

First problem: To produce wealth.

Second problem: To share it.

The first problem contains the question of work.

The second contains the question of salary.

In the first problem the employment of forces is in question.

In the second, the distribution of enjoyment.

From the proper employment of forces results public power.

From a good distribution of enjoyments results individual happiness.

By a good distribution, not an equal but an equitable distribution must be understood.

From these two things combined, the public power without, individual happiness within, results social prosperity.

Social prosperity means the man happy, the citizen free, the nation great.

England solves the first of these two problems. She creates wealth admirably, she divides it badly. This solution which is complete on one side only leads her fatally to two extremes: monstrous opulence, monstrous wretchedness. All enjoyments for some, all privations for the rest, that is to say, for the people; privilege, exception, monopoly, feudalism, born from toil itself. A false and dangerous situation, which sates public power or private misery, which sets the roots of the State in the sufferings of the individual. A badly constituted grandeur in which are combined all the material elements and into which no moral element enters.

Communism and agrarian law think that they solve the second problem. They are mistaken. Their division kills production. Equal partition abolishes emulation; and consequently labor. It is a partition made by the butcher, which kills that which it divides. It is therefore impossible to pause over these pretended solutions. Slaying wealth is not the same thing as dividing it.

The two problems require to be solved together, to be well solved. The two problems must be combined and made but one.

Solve only the first of the two problems; you will be Venice, you will be England. You will have, like Venice, an artificial power, or, like England, a material power; you will be the wicked rich man. You will die by an act of violence, as Venice died, or by bankruptcy, as England will fall. And the world will allow to die and fall all that is merely selfishness, all that does not represent for the human race either a virtue or an idea.

It is well understood here, that by the words Venice, England, we designate not the peoples, but social structures; the oligarchies superposed on nations, and not the nations themselves. The nations always have our respect and our sympathy. Venice, as a people, will live again; England, the aristocracy, will fall, but England, the nation, is immortal. That said, we continue.

Solve the two problems, encourage the wealthy, and protect the poor, suppress misery, put an end to the unjust farming out of the feeble by the strong, put a bridle on the iniquitous jealousy of the man who is making his way against the man who has reached the goal, adjust, mathematically and fraternally, salary to labor, mingle gratuitous and compulsory education with the growth of childhood, and make of science the base of manliness, develop minds while keeping arms busy, be at one and the same time a powerful people and a family of happy men, render property democratic, not by abolishing it, but by making it universal, so that every citizen, without exception, may be a proprietor, an easier matter than is generally supposed; in two words, learn how to produce wealth and how to distribute it, and you will have at once moral and material greatness; and you will be worthy to call yourself France.

This is what socialism said outside and above a few sects which have gone astray; that is what it sought in facts, that is what it sketched out in minds.

Efforts worthy of admiration! Sacred attempts!


“This Heart That Hated War”

This Heart That Hated War
by Robert Desnos (1943)

This heart that hated war now throbs for combat and battle!
This heart that once beat only to the rhythms of the marshes, the seasons, the hours of day and night,
Now swells and sends through my veins a blood infused with saltpetre and hatred,
Sending such a noise in my brain that it whistles in my ears,
Such a noise that must be spreading through towns and fields
Like the sound of a church bell calling the people to riot and combat.
Listen! I hear it returning to me in echoes—
But no! it is the noise of other hearts, millions of other hearts like mine, beating all across France.
All these hearts beat to the same rhythm for the same duty,
They sound like the sea crashing against the cliffs,
And all that blood carries to millions of brains the same command:
“Revolt against Hitler! Death to his supporters!”
Though this heart hated war and beat to the rhythm of the seasons,
One word—liberty—sufficed to awaken the old anger
And millions in France prepare themselves in darkness for the task that the coming dawn will impose on them.
Because those hearts that hated war beat for liberty, for the rhythms of the seasons and the marshes, day and night.

—Translated by Eric T. MacKnight

Original text: « Ce cœur qui haïssait la guerre… »

About Robert Desnos (1900 – 1945), from Wikipedia:

During World War II, Desnos was an active member of the French Résistance network Réseau AGIR,[4] under the direction of Michel Hollard, often publishing under pseudonyms. For Réseau Agir, Desnos provided information collected during his job at the journal Aujourd’hui and made false identity papers,[4] and was arrested by the Gestapo on 22 February 1944.

He was first deported to the German concentration camps of Auschwitz in occupied Poland, then Buchenwald, Flossenburg in Germany and finally to Terezín (Theresienstadt) in occupied Czechoslovakia in 1945.[5][6][7][8]

Desnos died in Malá pevnost, which was an inner part of Terezín used only for political prisoners, from typhoid, a month after the camp’s liberation.

“He didn’t believe it, no sir” or, “I’m masking for a friend”

[Manhattan’s dismantled Sixth Avenue elevated tracks were bought as scrap metal by Imperial Japan three years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.]

plato told

him:he couldn’t
believe it(jesus

told him;he
wouldn’t believe

certainly told
him,and general

and even
(believe it

told him:i told
him;we told him
(he didn’t believe it,no

sir)it took
a nipponized bit of
the old sixth

el;in the top of his head:to tell

—e. e. cummings, 1944

Question: Why does it take a bullet in the head for us to see what has been right in front of our eyes the whole time?

Nothing good came of it

In Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, the narrator is an older woman who lives alone in a small rural community in southwest Poland. Walking in the forest one day, she meets an entomologist and, upon learning that he has been sleeping under the trees, invites him to stay with her and sleep on her sofa. The eccentric capitalization mimics the writings of William Blake, the English Romantic poet, artist, and mystic.

Boros’s presence reminded me what it’s like to live with someone. And how very awkward it is. How much it diverts you from your own thoughts and distracts you. How another Person starts to irritate you without actually doing anything annoying, but simply by being there. Each morning when he went off to the forest, I blessed my glorious solitude. How do people manage to spend decades living together in a small space? I wondered. How can they possibly sleep in the same bed together, breathing on and jostling each other accidentally in their sleep? I’m not saying it hasn’t happened to me too. For some time I shared my bed with a Catholic, and nothing good came of it.

*  *  *

As we were off to bed, emboldened by the wine, Boros and I embraced, to say thank you for this evening. A little later I saw him in the kitchen, taking his pills and swallowing them with water from the tap.

It occurred to me that he was a very good Person, this Boros. And it was a good thing he had his Ailments. Being healthy is an insecure state and does not bode well. It’s better to be ill in a quiet way, then at least we know what we’re going to die of.

He came to me in the Night and squatted by my bed. I wasn’t asleep.

“Are you asleep?” he asked.

“Are you religious?” I had to put the question.

“Yes,” he replied proudly. “I’m an atheist.”

I found that curious.

I raised the quilt and invited him to join me, but as I am neither Maudlin nor Sentimental, I shall not dwell on it any further.

—pp. 157, 166-67

John Adams, “Thoughts on Government” (1776)

Asked for advice by a fellow member of the Continental Congress who was going home to help draft a new constitution, Adams sketched his ideas in just under 3,000 words.

The purpose of government, he writes, is to promote “the happiness of society.”

From this principle it will follow, that the form of government, which communicates ease, comfort, security, or in one word happiness to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.

A review of the best thinkers on the subject, he goes on, will conclude that the best form of government is a republic, and “the very definition of a Republic, is ‘an Empire of Laws, and not of men.'”  The best government, therefore, must ensure “an impartial and exact execution of the laws.”

Describing a government with powers divided between a bicameral legislature, an executive, and a judiciary, he notes that “Great care should be taken . . . to prevent unfair, partial, and corrupt elections.” He believes that all executive officers should be elected for a single one-year term. “This will teach them the great political virtues of humility, patience, and moderation, without which every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey.” Alternatively, he suggests longer terms, but again without the possibility of re-election. Judges, on the other hand, “should hold estates for life in their offices . . . during good behaviour” to ensure their freedom from influence.

To limit the accumulation of excessive wealth by a few individuals, he recommends sumptuary laws. “Whether our countrymen have wisdom and virtue enough to submit to them I know not,” he remarks.

Essential to such a government’s success—a government whose foundation is “some principle or passion in the minds of the people”—is universal education.

Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that to a humane and generous mind, no expence for this purpose would be thought extravagant.

Equal justice for all; honest government based on free and fair elections; a limit on the accumulation of personal wealth; and universal education aiming to produce an informed and intelligent citizenry. Still good ideas, and still more aspirational than realized.

Pop philosophy from a mystery writer

“You see, when I was young I had democratic ideas. Believed in the purity of ideals, the equality of all men. I especially disbelieved in kings and princes.

. . . “Since then, I’ve traveled and seen the world. There’s damn little equality going about. Mind you, I still believe in democracy, but you’ve got to force it on people with a strong hand, ram it down their throats. Men don’t want to be brothers. They may, someday, but they don’t now.

“My belief in the brotherhood of man died the day I arrived in London last week, when I observed people standing in a tube train, resolutely refusing to move up and make room for those who entered. You won’t turn people into angels by appealing to their better natures, just yet awhile. But by judicious force you can coerce them into behaving more or less decently to one another.

“To go on with, I still believe in the brotherhood of man, but it’s not coming yet awhile. Say, another ten thousand years or so. It’s no good being impatient. Evolution is a slow process.”

The Secret of Chimneys, by Agatha Christie (1925)

Another solution

From The Murder of Professor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle, by David Edmonds, pp. 191-192:

In July 1938 Franklin D. Roosevelt convened an international conference, in Évian-les-Bains in northern [sic] France, to discuss the Jewish refugee crisis . . . [but] the conference, attended by representatives from more than thirty countries, made no progress; there was no loosening of immigration controls. Politicians feared increasing Jewish immigration would be hugely unpopular; four in five Americans were opposed to allowing in a large number of refugees. A poll shortly before the conference in the United States revealed that a majority of Americans believed that the Jews bore at least some responsibility for their persecution. The Australian delegate at the conference summed up his government’s attitude and probably the attitude of others: “It will no doubt be appreciated that, as we have no racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.”

An indirect consequence of failure at Évian was that the Nazis came to believe that, if foreign states would not take their Jews, they would have to find another solution to the Jewish problem.

Knowledge and intelligence

Amid clear signs of a neo-fascist movement led by Donald Trump and fueled by social media propaganda and disinformation, news reports and polling tell us that American voters are concerned above all with the price of gasoline and groceries, and that they are almost certainly going to elect a majority of Republicans in the House, and quite possibly in the Senate, too—not to mention dozens of state races with neo-fascists on the ballots for positions like Secretary of State, which will put them in charge of counting votes in the 2024 presidential election.

Counting on the knowledge and intelligence of American voters suggests a serious lack of knowledge and intelligence.

2022, meet 1950

Lionel Trilling, writing in the preface to The Liberal Imagination (1950):

In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. . . . The conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action, or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas. . . .

When we say that a movement is “bankrupt of ideas” we are likely to suppose that it is at the end of its powers. But this is not so . . . . It is just when a movement despairs of having ideas that it turns to force, which it masks in ideology.

So much for the idea that 1950 was a long time ago (or that these words apply only to the United States).

Thinking about old age

Why do old people so often lament the state of the world today and speak nostalgically of the world as it used to be? Is the world really so different today than it was in the historical nano-second-ago that was our childhood and youth?

I think not.

We idealize the past and demonize the present, first, because we know how the past turned out, and we survived—an outcome we struggle to believe in with regards to the future. Second, we know so much more than we did. Had I known, growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, of all the atrocities and crimes and injustice that had preceded my birth and were continuing through my early years, my optimism would have suffered. Third, we live today in a media environment that depends, economically, on a constant stirring of the pot. Chicken Little provokes clicks, views, ratings, and success. To the extent that we construct our view of the world through the media, we almost never hear good news.

In the essays attached to Christa Wolf’s remarkable 1983 novel, Cassandra, she includes diary entries from 1981 in which she and her friends debate how to live in a world that they expect to self-destruct in a nuclear war within three or four years. What’s the point, under such circumstances, of doing anything? Why go to work? Why read a book, or write one? Their discussions remind me of similar discussions in those years. I was bemused by the panicked excavation of backyard bomb shelters, fully equipped with bottled water and canned food. What folly! If there were a nuclear holocaust, the last outcome one could possibly wish for would be to survive the initial blast and have to live in the irradiated hell-scape that would result. Others around me were terrified at the mere thought of nuclear extinction. To me, there seemed little difference: whether one dies in his twenties, or in his eighties, one dies. The cause of death is incidental. As for the destruction of humanity as a whole, there would be much to lament in our extinction; but there would be much, too, of which one could only say, “Good riddance!” However we will die, the important question remains: How shall we live, in the meantime?

All such youthful ponderings of death, individual or collective, cease to be speculative in old age. “If it be now,” says Hamlet,

’tis not to come;
if it be not to come, it will be now;
if it be not now, yet it will come:
the readiness is all.

In old age we know that, whenever it comes, it won’t be long. It could be any moment, or it could be thirty years from now. The old question in the face of destruction—”Why do anything? What’s the point?”—seems now almost quaint. Why not?? What else should one do with life but to live it? In old age I see more clearly than ever before that life itself is the point. The morning cup of coffee, with its delicious odour and comforting warmth, is the point. It doesn’t need to mean anything; it simply is. And so am I. As long as I am here, I intend to savour every sip. And that’s not consolation—it’s pretty damn good!

A weakling who lacked self-esteem

Agamemnon . . . pushed his way imperiously to the front of Arisbe’s stall, slid the ceramics back and forth choosily, and broke one of the most beautiful vases, which he paid for in haste at a word from Arisbe; then fled with his retinue amid the laughter of the onlookers. . . .

“He will take revenge, that one,” I said to Arisbe; and it troubled me deeply that the great and famous commander in chief of the Greek fleet was a weakling who lacked self-esteem. How much better it is to have a strong enemy.

“In heaven’s name, how can opinions differ about a case that does not exist? That was invented especially for the purpose?” “Even if that’s true, once something has become public knowledge, it is real.”

. . . I still believed that a little will to truth, a little courage, could erase the whole misunderstanding. To call what was true, true, and what was untrue, false: That was asking so little (I thought) . . . . Then I understood: . . . we were defending everything that we no longer had. And the more it faded, the more real we had to say it was.

—Christa Wolf, Cassandra, pp. 52, 84-5 (1983)