Flowers for Algernon

August 27, 2015

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes is one of those books which every literate person in America should be familiar with, at least to the extent of knowing the basic plot. It has been taught in schools, and has been challenged for being inappropriate. Flowers for Algernon has won awards and been adapted for the television, radio, and film. There aren’t many science fiction novels which have had the kind of influence that Flowers for Algernon has had.

flowers-for-algernon-book

The plot is straightforward enough. Charlie Gordon is a thirty-two year old retarded man who works in a bakery. All his life, he has desperately wanted to be smart. He gets his chance when he is selected to be the first human subject for an experimental technique for raising intelligence. This new procedure has already proved to be effective on a mouse named Algernon and the scientists have good reason to believe that it will be just as effective on a human being. The procedure is successful and soon Charlie is as far above average in IQ as he was below. Charlie discovers, however, that high intelligence is not without its own problems. He becomes bitter and anti-social when he learns that his “friends” at the bakery only liked him because they laughed at him and took advantage at him. The scientists he believed were geniuses turn out to be knowledgeable only in narrow fields. Charlie is as much as outsider with a genius level IQ as he was when he was retarded and this time he knows it. Worst of all, Charlie’s own research reveals that the success of the procedure is only temporary. He will lose his intelligence as quickly as he gained it. In the end, Charlie is back to the level he was at the start of the book, except perhaps a little wiser than he was even at his height. He can no longer understand the contribution he made to science but he at least regained the humanity he came near to losing, and he understands what it is to be smart a little better.

Daniel Keyes did a wonderful job conveying Charlie Gordon’s growth and decline through the medium of Charlie’s journals or progress reports that he is required to write as part of the experiment. The earliest entries show a naïve and simple Charlie with misspellings and grammatical mistakes. Charlie really doesn’t understand what is going on around him, yet he wants to be liked. People do like him, even his friends who laugh at him, because of his determination to learn as much as he can despite his limited intelligence. As Charlie gains in intelligence, his spelling and punctuation become more correct and he begins to use a more advanced vocabulary. He also begins to be less likable and more arrogant. As Charlie begins to revert to his earlier state, the language he uses in writing the progress reports also deteriorates. This last section of the book is heartbreaking and more than a little terrifying. There are few things that most people dread more than losing their minds. Even death is seen as preferable and fear of death is often really fear of oblivion or mindlessness. Keyes is very good at expressing Charlie’s dread and fear as he sinks back into subnormal intelligence.

Flowers for Algernon, then, is a book well worth rereading, or reading for the first time if you have somehow managed to avoid it all these years. The novel was published in 1966 and was an expansion of a short story Keyes wrote in 1958 so it may be somewhat dated. One hopes that people like Charlie Gordon are somewhat better treated today, though substitution intellectually challenged for retarded is not really an improvement if the people saying intellectually challenged still regard them as subhuman. These dated parts do not detract in the enjoyment of the book and are scarcely noticeable in a book surely to become a classic.

 

The Life and Death of Lenin

August 24, 2015

I am a fan of Isaac Asimov‘s science fiction stories, particularly of his Foundation series. In this series of books, a mathematician named Hari Seldon invents a way to predict the future through the mathematics of probability, which he calls Psychohistory.  It is not possible to predict the future actions of an individual person or even small groups of people. Psychohistory only works which large populations, entire worlds and nations. By using psychohistory Seldon learns  that the Galactic Empire, which has existed for thousands of years, is falling and the galaxy will enter into a dark age lasting for many millennia if nothing is done. It is too late to avert the fall of the Empire, but Seldon hopes to shorten the interregnum between the First and Second Galactic Empires to merely a thousand years by setting up two Foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy that will preserve the scientific knowledge that would otherwise be lost and to lead the way to the reunification of the galaxy.

Could there really be such a method of calculating the future as Isaac Asimov’s psychohistory? In order for something like that to work, history would have to be determined by great economic and social forces and the choices of individuals, even great generals and kings, would have to be inconsequential. Carlyle’s Great Man Theory would have to give way to Spencer’s theory that even great men are mere products of their environment.

For my part, I do not believe that psychohistory could really be possible. I think that great men, and women, really do alter the course of history. There are just so many ways in which history could have turned out very differently, if the personalities of the persons involved has been different. Imagine the American Revolution without George Washington or Germany after the First World War without a Hitler. Then too, there ware the completely unpredictable workings of nature. Climate change has had a greater effect on the rise and fall of empires than is generally recognized. Diseases like the Black Death can appear due to chance mutations of a virus or bacteria and kill half the population of a continent with little warning.

I could give many examples, but the one that I would like to consider is the life and death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founder of the Bolshevik Party and the first leader of the USSR. Before the Russian Revolutions of 1917, there were many socialist factions seeking reform or revolution in Russia, some Marxist, some not. Among all these parties, Lenin’s party, the Bolsheviks were the most radically Marxist and the most given to violence and terrorism. Lenin and his lieutenants had no use for the kind of parliamentary reforms that more moderate groups wanted to bring to Russia, nor did he care for reforms to improve the conditions of the masses. Lenin and the Bolsheviks wanted revolution.When the Czar was overthrown in February, 1917 and a republican Provisional  Government set up, the Bolsheviks played almost no role in the great affairs. Lenin was still in exile and wanted his party to have no part in bourgeoisie elections. The party would seize power in a Communist revolution.

It is important to understand that this decision to seize power was entirely Lenin’s. None of the other leading Bolsheviks thought it was a good idea and properly speaking, as good Marxists, the Bolsheviks ought not to have led a revolution at all. Marx has very definite ideas on how Communism was supposed to come about. He believed that every society moved through stages, from the primitive socialism of savages to the great slave states of the ancient world, to feudalism,  capitalism, socialism, and finally communism. Since Russia was still emerging from feudalism into capitalism, Lenin ought to have waited until capitalism was fully developed in Russia before leading the revolution. Lenin, however, realized that the Bolsheviks would never have a better chance for power than while the Russian government and economy were in a state of collapse.

lenin

Lenin

Lenin’s rule as the first leader of the Soviet Union was a disaster for the Russian people. All of the totalitarian aspects of the communist regime that are usually attributed to Joseph Stalin’s tyranny had their beginnings with Lenin. Lenin was the one who setup the Checka, the secret police and it was Lenin who established the Gulags and the use of terror to subdue the population. Yet, despotic as Lenin was, Stalin was far worse and it was doubly unfortunate for the Russian people that Lenin’s premature death in 1924 led to the assumption of power by Stalin.

joseph-stalin-and-vladimir-lenin

In the year before his death, Lenin was increasingly uneasy over events in the Soviet Union. The great revolution did not seem to be leading to a communist utopia but had exchanged the tyranny of the Czar with the tyranny of the commissar. Lenin began to consider ways of making the Soviet state more representative of the workers it purported to serve. Lenin was also becoming aware that Stalin, while a good man to have around in a revolution, was wholly unsuited to wielding power after the revolution. Lenin decided that Stalin had to be relieved of his powerful position of Party General Secretary. If Lenin had lived a normal lifespan, it is likely that he would have succeeded in unseating Stalin.  It is less likely that he would have made the Soviet regime in any sense democratic. Lenin’s own autocratic personality prevented him from ever really seeing that the cause of the increasingly oppressive regime was his own reluctance to allow anyone outside the Communist Party from gaining any real independence from the rule of the Party. Still, if Lenin had not died, the rule of the Communist Party, while still despotic, would not have reached the insane level of repression as it did under Stalin. The history of the twentieth century might have been very different, depending on whether Lenin lived or died.

Lenin was only 53 when he died following a series of strokes over the previous year which progressively weakened him. After his death, an autopsy showed that he had advanced arteriosclerosis in his brain with some blood vessels completely calcified. The arteriosclerosis was far worse than might be expected in a man of Lenin’s age, especially as he had none of the risk factors that might be associated with the disease. Lenin did not smoke, was moderate in his diet, and exercised regularly. He was under a considerable amount of stress as leader of a nation in a civil war and which had to be rebuilt almost from the ground up. Still, such an advanced case of arteriosclerosis at Lenin’s age is unusual, particularly considering that the worst buildup of plaque was in the blood vessels of his brain. The blood vessels in the rest of Lenin’s body were no more afflicted by the disease than might be expected by a man of his age and habits. Something strange was going on.

Recently, researchers have discovered that a mutation in a single gene can cause a selective buildup of the plaque that causes arteriosclerosis in the legs. Could Lenin have suffered from a similar genetic disorder that caused such a buildup in the brain? Lenin’s father also suffered from cardiovascular disease, dying of heart disease at the age of 54. While it is not yet confirmed that Lenin himself suffered from a genetic defect that specifically targeted the blood vessels of the brain, it is clear that there was some sort of hereditary predisposition for cardiovascular disease.

Getting back to psychohistory, I do not see how any method of predicting the future could account for the life and death of Lenin. It would not be difficult to predict the fall of the Czar many years before it happened. It may not have been too difficult to predict that the most radical faction of the revolutionaries seeking the overthrow of the Czar would end up in control. Other revolutions have seen similar outcomes. But how could anyone predict that a small splinter faction would end up seizing power in a coup? Remember that Lenin was the only Bolshevik who thought such a coup had any chance of success. If Lenin had still been in exile, the October Revolution wouldn’t have happened and either some other Marxist faction would have gained power, or the Provisional Government would have had time to get things settled down enough to establish a more permanent government. Even if it were possible to account for the rise of the Bolsheviks, how could anyone predict in advance that their leader suffered from a genetic defect that would kill him prematurely and pave the way for a psychopath like Stalin to gain power?

I think that it is clear that it is individuals who make history, either by the decisions of the great ones, or the actions of millions of lesser people. The social and economic forces that historians like Spencer believe that drive the course of history are nothing more than the trillions of actions made by billions of people over time with considerable influence brought on by unpredictable natural events. Psychohistory will probably have to stay in the realm of fiction.

Treating Others with Respect

August 17, 2015

These days, most people consider the phase political correctness to have very negative connotations. The phrase evokes images of the Fascist Speech Police enforcing speech codes on college campuses and elsewhere and redefining innocent statements as the vilest hate speech, or of some officious bureaucrat insisting on the most evasive phrasings imaginable so as to avoid offending anyone by any words which might have any real meaning. You don’t have to look very far on the Internet to find examples and complaints about political correctness gone mad, such as banning the word blackboard for racism or referring to Christmas trees as Holiday trees, not to mention near parodies as differently abled instead or handicapped or disabled.

Yet the concept that it is actually possible to insist that everyone be able to go through life without offending anyone intentionally or being offended still has all too many defenders and there are even a few willing to defend the term of political correctness itself without using another, more politically correct term. Such a one is Byron Clark from New Zealand who was frustrated enough by all of the misrepresentations surrounding the words political correctness that he created an extension for Google Chrome which changes the words “political correctness” to “treating others with respect” in order to show the real reason that political correctness has become so reviled in many quarters. I found out about Mr. Clark’s efforts in an editorial in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette that a Facebook friend linked to.

The phrase “political correctness” has always grated because of the implication of the agenda that lies behind it. A newly unveiled Google Chrome extension has laid that agenda bare.

New Zealand resident Byron Clark reconfigured his Web browser so that the phrase “political correctness” automatically was replaced by the phrase “treating others with respect,” according to an article on Fusion.net. Now the extent of the agenda becomes clear.

Consider these reconfigured headlines cited in the Fusion article:

• “NC senator compares treating people with respect to Nazi book burnings”

• “Donald Trump: Treating people with respect is ‘big problem’ in US”

• “The real danger of treating people with respect”

Clark says his extension is free, but he would appreciate if those who download it contribute to a cause such as Black Lives Matter.

Well, that makes it all clear. There are just so many people out there who are opposed to treating others with respect. I suppose that the great majority of these benighted people are conservatives who are all racist, sexist, homophobic bigots who shouldn’t be allowed to state their bigoted opinions in public.

Of course this is just a rhetorical slight of hand by Byron Clark and the writer of this editorial. If political correctness were really matter of simply treating others with respect, the concept would be completely uncontroversial, at least in theory. In fact, if mutual respect were the only thing meant by the words political correctness, than the words political correctness wouldn’t be used in that context, since they imply some measure of coercion. It is the very element of coercion involved that led people to begin to refer to the efforts to impose speech codes and ban hate speech as political correctness. It is this whole idea of some self-righteous authoritarian telling everyone else what they can and cannot say and can and cannot think that is really grating and changing the words to treating others with respect does nothing to change that.

Beyond the matter of the coercion that is inevitably involved in what is called political correctness, another issue is that saying the proper, politically correct words is not the same as treating others with respect. The real core idea behind political correctness is the idea found all too often among people on the left, that virtue is shown not by virtuous acts but by saying the right words and thinking the right thoughts. Saying African-American instead of Black or developmentally disabled instead of retarded is regarded as a sign of superior virtue regardless of how one actually treats Blacks or the retarded. You can be a complete jerk to your employees, sexually harass every woman you meet, treat your Mexican gardener as subhuman, yet still be regarded as a good person provided you have the correct opinions on unions, feminism, or immigration. A murderer who makes the right sort of statements about America’s racist criminal justice statements has to be innocent, or at least his crimes can be forgiven. A terrorist and dictator is a hero, despite his crimes if he happens to be a revolutionary.

Political correctness, then, is not really any sort of real respect for others but a sort of play acting, of muttering the right words to impress others with how respectful you are, instead of really doing respectful actions from the heart. It is a sham, especially if it is something imposed from without. Political correctness is really an offense against truth and real respect and the sooner we can get over the whole thing and really start treating others with respect, and this may include telling them an unpleasant truth, the better.

Transcending Politics

August 13, 2015

I have to confess that I have been making fun of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner. I do not have any particular animosity towards either him (He hasn’t had any surgery yet, not that that would really make a difference) or his choices in life. The reason I have found Caitlyn to be a legitimate target is because he is a celebrity in the public eye, and because of the inherent silliness of a sixty-five year old man claiming that he is now and always has been a woman, despite exterior appearances. Still, I ought not to be too harsh on Jenner. Except for his gender confusion and marriage into the Kardashian family, he does appear to have his head on straight. Consider this story I found posted at the Media Research Center.

Caitlyn Jenner, who famously came out as a Republican and a Christian, is now having his position as a spokesperson for the transgender community questioned after voicing criticism of the welfare state.

In a clip from last Sunday’s episode of “I am Cait,” Jenner stunned friends when discussing social welfare programs. In a conversation about providing entry-level jobs to struggling transgender people, Jenner asked, “Don’t a lot of times, they can make more [money] not working with social programs than they actually can with an entry-level job?”

“I’d say the great majority of people who are getting help, are getting help because they need help,” one of Jenner’s friends asserted.

“But you don’t want people to get totally dependent on it. That’s when they get in trouble. ‘Why should I work? I got a few bucks. I got my room paid for,’” Jenner responded.

These remarks made Jenner’s friends appear physically uncomfortable.

Jenny Boylan, a transgender activist, told the camera, “Now I am worried. Caitlyn has every right to be just as conservative as she chooses, but many transgender men and women need social programs to survive. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Living in the bubble is an impediment to understanding other people. If Cait’s going to be a spokesperson for the community, this is something she’s going to have to understand.”

I find it curious that there is an expectation that a person who is transgendered must also be a political liberal who supports the welfare state. Why? What possible connection could there be between the issues of gender identity and economic liberty? One would expect the same diversity of opinion on political issues among the transgendered as among any other particular group with varying economic circumstances and past experiences. The idea seems to be that if you belong to X group, you must have the same political outlook as everyone else in group X and usually this political outlook is assumed to be left-wing, or at least in support of the Democratic Party. Why is this? Thus, Blacks like Clarence Thomas and Thomas Sowell or women like Sarah Palin or LGBT like Caitlyn Jenner who identify as conservative are considered to be traitors to their race, sex, and sexual orientation respectively. Besides that, there is the expectation that lower income people who vote Republican are somehow voting against their own interests.

Why is this? One would expect as great a diversity of opinion within each of these, and similar, groups as there is in race, religion, gender, sexual orientation between them. Yet the expectation is that the members of each group must march in lockstep, all supporting the same sorts of policies that they perceive to be best for their particular group. It is as if each person is not really an individual with his or her unique thoughts and feelings but simply a representative of a particular group. Come to think of it, haven’t leftists and socialists always spoken of the masses or the workers and never of individual people. Marx believe you are what your class is. The Fascists said you are what your race is. The modern progressive seems to share this general viewpoint. If Caitlyn Jenner is transgendered, he must have the same thoughts as every other transgendered person.

Well, I am glad that Mr. Jenner has wandered off the reservation, though I am afraid that his credentials as a spokesperson for the transgendered community is in serious jeopardy. But then, perhaps we need fewer spokespersons and more thoughtful individuals.

The Demon Whisperer

August 10, 2015

They really don’t make popes like they used to. It is true that many of the Medieval and Renaissance Popes were very bad men and some were actually criminals. The Roman Catholic Church is fortunate that the general character of its popes seems to have improved considerably over the last few centuries. Modern popes may not be as interesting to read about as some of the more notorious popes of earlier ages, but they are perhaps more reliable in performing their pastoral and administrative duties. Still, if there are no remarkably bad popes in the present age, there are also no especially good popes either. Popes today are a rather bland lot compared to their predecessors. If there are no more Borgia Popes who assassinate their rivals or Great Schisms between rival popes, there are also no popes like Julius II who personally led armies into battle, Leo I who faced down Attila the Hun and convinced him not to sack Rome, or Gregory VII who made the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV stand in the snow for three days before granting him absolution. Popes were far tougher in the past.

The toughest of these medieval popes had to have been Pope Honorius III. He was not content to vanquish mere earthly foes but, according to legend, he actually summoned demons from Hell in order to battle with them and send them back. Even better, he wrote a book, or Grimoire, on summoning, controlling and banishing demons for the benefit of clergymen who might need such knowledge in their work.  Pope Honorius III was the Demon Whisperer, at least according to legend.

The Demon Whisperer

The Demon Whisperer

The sober facts about the life and papacy of Honorius III are impressive enough even without bringing in fantastic tales of his wrestling with demons to keep in spiritual shape. He was born Cencio Savelli in Rome in 1150. Savelli began his priestly career as canon of the Church of Sainta Maria Maggiore. In January 1188, he was made Camerlengo, or Chamberlain, of the Holy Roman Church. This post put Savelli in charge of Papal lands and finances and was perhaps a sign that he was considered honest and trustworthy. In February 1193, Savelli was made Cardinal Deacon of Santa Lucia and was acting Vice-Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church from 1194 until 1198. Savelli was dismissed from his post as Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church in 1198 and given the post of Camerlengo of the Sacred College of Cardinals, making him the treasurer of the College of Cardinals. In 1200, Pope Innocent III raiused Savelli to Cardinal Priest. Meanwhile, in 1197,  Savelli also managed to gain the post of tutor to the future Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.

On July 16, 1216, Savelli’s predecessor Innocent III died. Innocent III had been one of the most powerful and active popes of the Middle Ages and his reign would be a tough act to follow. Because of the unsettled political conditions in Italy, the College of Cardinals wanted to select a new pope quickly and they met only two days after the death of Innocent III, on July 18 at the city of Perugia. The College decided on Cencio Savelli as a compromise candidate acceptable to every faction and Savelli, somewhat reluctantly, was consecrated Pope Honorius III on July 24.

Honorius was a popular pope, at least in Rome where the Romans were pleased to have a local as pope. He was also known for his kindness and generosity which endeared him to the people of Rome. Like Innocent III, Honorius III was ambitious for the Papacy to play a leading role in European politics, but he proved to be less inclined to use coercion against the princes of Christendom, preferring to use persuasion. It may be that Honorius was too ambitious and tried to get too much done during his reign. He wanted to recover the Holy Land for Christendom and promoted the Fifth Crusade. This crusade involved a campaign against Egypt from 1218-1221 and ended in failure. Most of the rulers of Europe had their own difficulties at home and were not able or willing to leave their lands for any length of time. Honorius’s former pupil Frederick II became Holy Roman Emperor in 1220 and was an obvious choice to lead a crusade. Although he promised Honorius that he would go crusading in the Holy Land, Frederick II kept putting off and delaying his departure until after Honorius was dead.

In addition to promoting the crusades against the Infidel, Honorius also continued the French crusade against the Albigensians or Cathars begun by Innocent III. He supported the Reconquista of Spain from the Moors and missionary activity to convert the Baltic peoples, the last pagan holdouts in Europe. On a more positive note, Honorius endeavored to promote the spiritual reform of the Church. Honorius approved the Dominican, Franciscan and Carmelite orders and supported their reforming efforts. Honorius was a man of learning and strongly encouraged standards of education among the clergy, going so far as to dismiss illiterate bishops. He granted privileges to the Universities of Paris and Bologna and ordered arrangements made for talented young men who lived far from any universities to be taken to them and learn theology for the purpose of teaching in their own dioceses. Honorius himself wrote many books, including biographies of Popes Celestine III and Gregory VII as well as an guide to Papal finances. Even without the legends of wrestling with the supernatural, Honorius comes across as one of the more impressive figures to assume the Papal tiara.

Summoning Demons for Dummies

Summoning Demons for Dummies

It may have been Honorius III’s reputation as an author and scholar that gave rise to the legend that he wrote a grimoire and summoned demons in his spare time. Naturally, modern historians do not give any credence to such legends. The educated in our secular age reject outright any suggestion of the supernatural, especially stories of witchcraft and demon summoning and few are inclined to suppose there can be any truth to such legends. Aside from that, experts on the history and theology of the Roman Catholic Church point out that any work of witchcraft or magic, including the act of summoning demons, is and always has been strictly prohibited by canon law and it seems unlikely that a pope such as Honorius III, who was at pains to promote Catholic teachings would go against those teachings. Still, the idea of a pope relaxing by summoning demons and then sending them back to Hell is a strangely  appealing one, and I’d like to see one of these wimpy modern popes try to fight a demon.

One of Honorius's demons would chew him up and spit him out.

One of Honorius’s demons would chew him up and spit him out.

The Return of the King

August 6, 2015

By the end of the Return of the King, the quest of the Ring Bearer is completed. The One Ring is destroyed and the Realm of Sauron and all his works are destroyed. The King returns to the Reunited Kingdom of Arnor and Gondor and his rule is established throughout the West of Middle Earth. Good is victorious, yet the victory is bittersweet, for with the passing of Sauron, the end of the Third Age has come and the beginning of the Fourth Age and the dominion of Man. The Eldar, High Elves, have lost all interest in remaining in Middle Earth and will pass back into their home in the West. For a time the Hobbits will prosper in the Shire. The Dwarves will found a new colony in the caverns of Helm’s Deep and perhaps will reconquer their old home, Moria. The lesser wood Elves will remain in Mirkwood and Legolas will bring some of his people to the woods of Ithilien. But it will not last. The Hobbits and Dwarves will diminish in stature and numbers. The Elves will fade away to be forgotten to pass into the West. Even the works of Men may not last. While walking the streets of Minas Tirith, Legolas predicts that the works of men will outlast those of the Elves and Dwarves. To that, Gimli replies that they may come to nothing but might-have-beens. To that, according to Legolas, even the Elves know not the answer, and if the Elves do not know it, presumably no one does.

Elves_leaving_Middle-earth

The Return of the King, then, returns to the theme of loss, found in the first two volumes of the Lord of the Rings. Even in victory, the world will never return to what it was before the coming of Sauron and much that was fair and worthy in Middle Earth must forever pass away. Even the Hobbits are not unmarked by their experiences. Frodo is wounded and will not find healing in Middle Earth. The other Hobbits are not so unfortunate, but they have grown to become worthy of sitting with the mightiest heroes of Middle Earth. They are no longer the light-hearted, carefree Hobbits who set out with Frodo at the beginning of the quest.

Speaking of the Hobbits, once again, Tolkien shows that the small and the humble can do what the proud and the strong cannot. The armies of Rohan and Gondor can do no more than knock on the gates of Mordor while Frodo and Sam can creep through the defenses of Mordor undetected. The Dark Lord’s greatest captain, the Witch-King and Lord of the Nazgul cannot be defeated by the hand of man and even Gandalf feared encountering him, yet he was slain by a Hobbit and a woman who was little more than a girl. The proud Denethor and Saruman dare to look into the palantirs, knowing that Sauron dominates them with the palantir he has captured and Saruman is corrupted into serving Sauron while Denethor is driven mad with despair. Aragorn also dares to look into the palantir. As the heir of Elendil he has the right to use what belonged to Elendil, yet he acknowledges that he barely had the strength to wrest control from Sauron. Aragorn is among the powerful, yet he shows himself to be humble enough to understand his limits. The humble Faramir also understands his limits in a way his proud brother Boromir and his father Denethor do not. Faramir, at least, is not so proud that he imagines he can master the Ring and so he does not fall into the temptation that Boromir fell into.

Don't look into it!

Don’t look into it!

It is the weakest character of all that plays the pivotal role in the quest, through he could hardly be described as humble. He is Smeagol or Gollum. Smeagol is a pathetic figure throughout the Lord of the Rings. Sly, treacherous and murderous, he is completely dominated by the Ring. Smeagol is weak and wretched. He does not have a sword or any weapon but can only attack from behind and attempt to strangle his enemies. He cannot bear the light of the Sun or Moon or anything made by Elves. Yet without Smeagol’s guidance, the quest would have failed as soon as Frodo and Sam left the Fellowship. Smeagol guides them through the Dead Marshes to the Black Gate and then to Ithilen and Cirith Ungol. After he betrays Frodo and Sam, he makes his way through Mordor, following them without supplies. In the end, it is Smeagol who manages to destroy the Ring, albeit unintentionally and at the cost of his own life. In Smeagol, we see a character who intends evil, but ends up doing good.

The hero of the story

The hero of the story

In some ways, the Lord of the Rings is a pessimistic story because of the theme of loss found throughout the plot, especially towards the end. Yet it really isn’t. Certainly some things must be lost but the good is victorious in the end, even though a price must be paid for the victory. One of the greatest lessons of the Lord of the Rings is that we must not lose hope, even against odds that seem insurmountable. The Dark Lord’s victory seems inevitable and many of the men of Minas Tirith are certain that the fall of the city is at hand. For me, one of the most poignant scenes of the Return of the King is when Frodo and Sam are wandering about the fences of Mordor. While Frodo sleeps, Sam looks up into the sky and sees that through the smokes and clouds of Mordor, a single star can be seen. Sam realizes that no matter how powerful the Shadow might seem, in the end it is only small and passing thing. There is light and beauty forever beyond its reach. This is something to remember in our own dark days.

Deep Green Resistance

August 3, 2015

I had never heard of this extreme left-wing/environmentalist movement calling itself Deep Green Resistance until I saw this video that Tim Blair posted on his blog at the Telegraph.

 

All I can say is that I hope the FBI is monitoring this group and catches them before they manage to commit any violent acts aimed at destroying civilization. It does seem strange to me that a group dedicated to destroying technology and civilization should have a website and YouTube channel. Perhaps they have decided that they need to make some accommodation with modern technology at least long enough to get the message out about the necessity of destroying civilization and returning to the Stone Age.

So, who are the members of Deep Green Resistance and what do they really want? According to their website:

Deep Green Resistance is an analysis, a strategy, and the only organization of its kind. As an analysis, it reveals civilization as the institution that is destroying life on Earth. As a strategy, it offers a concrete plan for how to stop that destruction. As an organization, Deep Green Resistance is implementing that strategy.

The goal of DGR is to deprive the rich of their ability to steal from the poor and the powerful of their ability to destroy the planet. This is a vast undertaking but it needs to be said: it can be done. Industrial civilization can be stopped.

DGR is an aboveground organization that uses direct action in the fight to save our planet. We also argue for the necessity of an underground that can target the strategic infrastructure of industrialization. But these actions alone are never a sufficient strategy for achieving a just outcome. Any strategy aiming for a livable future must include a call to build direct democracies based on human rights and sustainable material cultures.

Which means that the different branches of a resistance movement must work in tandem:the aboveground and belowground, the militants and the nonviolent, the frontline activists and the cultural workers. We need it all.

And we need courage. The word “courage” comes from the same root as coeur, the French word for heart. We need all the courage of which the human heart is capable, forged into both weapon and shield to defend what is left of this planet. And the lifeblood of courage is, of course, love.

So while DGR is about fighting back, in the end this organization is about love. The songbirds and the salmon need your heart, no matter how weary, because even a broken heart is still made of love. They need your heart because they are disappearing, slipping into that longest night of extinction, and the resistance is nowhere in sight. We will have to build that resistance from whatever comes to hand: whispers and prayers, history and dreams, from our bravest words and braver actions. It will be hard, there will be a cost, and in too many implacable dawns it will seem impossible. But we will have to do it anyway. So gather your heart and join with every living being. With love as our First Cause, how can we fail?

Ignore the fact that modern technology and civilization has allowed millions of the poor to rise above a bare sustenance level of semi-starvation.  The next obvious question is, “wouldn’t the collapse of civilization kill millions of people?” Deep Green Resistance has that covered.

No matter what you do, your hands will be blood red. If you participate in the global economy, your hands are blood red because the global economy is murdering humans and non-humans the planet over. A half million children die every year as a direct result of so-called “debt repayment” from non-industrialized nations to industrialized nations. Sixty thousand people die every day from pollution. And what about all the people who are being forced off their land? There are a lot of people dying already. Failing to act in the face of atrocity is no answer.

The grim reality is that both energy descent and biotic collapse will be ever more severe the more the dominant culture continues to destroy the basis for life on this planet. And yet some people will say that those who propose dismantling civilization are, in fact, suggesting genocide on a mass scale.

Polar bears and coho salmon would disagree. Traditional indigenous peoples would disagree. The humans who inherit what is left of this world when the dominant culture finally comes down would disagree.

I disagree.

My definition of dismantling civilization is depriving the rich of their ability to steal from the poor and depriving the powerful of their ability to destroy the planet. Nobody but a capitalist or a sociopath (insofar as there is a difference) could disagree with that.

I think that no one but a lunatic could consider the prospect of destroying millions of lives with so little concern.

I wonder if any of these people have actually tried to live as though they lived in nature or if they have actually talked to any of these indigenous peoples who might possible want a better life for themselves and their children. I had though of contacting Deep Green Resistance and suggesting that they actually live the primitive lifestyle for perhaps a year before setting about destroying civilization. This would involve eating only what they could reasonably be expected to hunt or gather. No grains. No plants or animals indigenous to the local area and perhaps no meat from domesticated animals. Only wear leather and furs, even natural fibers are a product of civilization. Turn off all utilities including electricity, water, sewage, etc. No medicines including prescription medicines. If they are diabetic, do without insulin. No spectacles or hearing aids and no dentistry. That woman who apparently has some sort of dental work should have it removed. It would have done no good to make the suggestion. They wouldn’t have paid any attention to me, and anyway it is a lot easier to make videos and websites condemning our industrial civilization than to actually live a life in complete accord with nature.

It is easier to romanticize a defeated for than an enemy who can still fight. The Romans held the Carthaginians, and especially Hannibal, to be noble adversaries, after Carthage was burned down. They felt differently when he was marching up and down Italy. We tend to revere the Native Americans for their courage and simple, natural lifestyle, when they have been defeated and placed on reservations. Our pioneer ancestors who live in fear of Indian attacks had a different opinion. So it is with nature. We can rhapsodize about the wonders of living with nature precisely because we do not live in nature. The tendency to revere and romanticize nature is in inverse proportion to the actual experience living in nature. We in the modern world have just about completely conquered nature and we have little to fear from it. Primitive peoples do not romanticize nature. They respect the power that nature has to destroy them, but they are not as sentimental about it as moderns. If the members of Deep Green Resistance actually had to live in primitive conditions instead of being pampered children of the modern West, they might have a whole different idea of the value of technology and civilization.

There is much more I could say on this subject, but why bother? These are not really rational people living in what we might call the real world. They are ignorant fools who have no idea how life was nasty, brutish and short before the development of civilization. They profess to want to help the world’s downtrodden, yet oppose the very thing, advancing technology, that would actually help the downtrodden. They are worse than useless.

I sure do hope the FBI is keeping an eye on these loons though.

Defending the Indefensible

July 27, 2015

You wouldn’t think that anyone would be able to defend a practice as grotesque as dismembering babies and selling the parts to cover costs, at least not outside of a Nazi concentration camp or a Planned Parenthood Clinic, although to be fair, I don’t think that even the Nazis went that far. Still, there are some willing to defend what most people would regard as utterly indefensible for political reasons, particularly a certain political party and their supporters at Moveon.org.

Dear MoveOn member,

Breaking news: Reuters reports that Senator Rand Paul is trying to force a vote to block federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has started a “fast-track process” to bring Paul’s legislation to the floor for a vote soon.1

This is just the latest attack against Planned Parenthood since a heavily edited, blatantly misleading video was released attacking Planned Parenthood two weeks ago.2

“The folks behind it are part of the most militant anti-abortion movement,” said Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards today. “This entire effort is a political smear campaign.”3

We’re launching an emergency effort to defend Planned Parenthood, and we have to get going immediately. Will you make a contribution now to help us defend Planned Parenthood?

Yes, I’ll chip in to help defend Planned Parenthood and stop the attacks on abortion rights.

Within days of the video’s release, Republicans in Congress started scheduling votes to defund Planned Parenthood—and preparing even broader attacks on abortion rights.4

Then, another deceiving, doctored video was released, continuing the smear campaign against the largest reproductive health care provider in America.5

And now—today—Sen. Paul announced he’s trying to force a vote to eliminate Planned Parenthood’s federal funding.6

It’s clear we’re facing a highly coordinated attack on reproductive rights. To fight back, we’re recruiting local voices all over the country to speak out in defense of Planned Parenthood—including doctors, women and men who have visited Planned Parenthood clinics, and others.

Planned Parenthood urgently needs people to stand with them now. Will you show your support?

Yes, I’ll chip in to help defend Planned Parenthood and stop the attacks on abortion rights.

The mainstream news media has done a miserable job fact-checking this story, so let’s set the record straight: The claim that Planned Parenthood profits from the sale of fetal tissue is a disgusting lie.

Here’s the truth: When a woman chooses to terminate a pregnancy and donate tissue for medical research, Planned Parenthood honors those wishes. These donations are hugely valuable for research into diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.7

This is 100-percent legal, consistent with medical ethics, and no different than what happens in thousands of other medical situations every day.

Here’s something else you might not have heard in the media: The anti-choice activists behind the video probably broke the law with their secret recording.8 And one of their leaders runs an organization whose members have bombed abortion clinics and assassinated an abortion provider.9

We don’t have much time to fight back—Republicans in Congress are pushing to schedule votes to defund Planned Parenthood as soon as possible.

With your help, we’ll flood Capitol Hill with phone calls and mobilize grassroots voices all over the country to defend Planned Parenthood. Will you chip in $3?

Yes, I’ll chip in to help defend Planned Parenthood and stop the attacks on abortion rights.

Thanks for all you do.

–Victoria, Maria, Matt, Nick, and the rest of the team

P.S. Planned Parenthood is under attack because of its strong advocacy for reproductive rights and abortion services. But the organization is also a health care provider more generally. Over 2.7 million people turn to Planned Parenthood’s nonprofit clinics in the U.S. each year for affordable health care services—including cancer-prevention tests, well-woman visits, and access to birth control.10

This is it. If Sen. Paul’s bill passes and gets sent to President Obama’s desk—or the vote is even close—it’ll lead to even more vicious attacks on Planned Parenthood over the coming months and years. Will you chip in $3 and stand with Planned Parenthood right now in the face of this outrageous smear campaign?

 

I have not seen the videos myself and do not really wish to. It is quite possible that certain statements made in the videos were edited and taken out of context. I have to say however that I cannot imagine a sentence like;

“We’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.”

could ever be said in any context that is not horrific.

Notice that Planned Parenthood’s defenders cannot really bring themselves to state frankly what it is that they are defending. They do not say that dismembering fetuses that are recognizably human is a practice worth defending. Instead they refer to tissues being donated and pregnancies being terminated. It is not the killing of unborn babies but reproductive health. If abortion truly is simply a medical procedure with no real moral issues involved, why can they not talk about it without using euphemisms and circumlocutions.

They cannot defend what is going on, so they bring up side issues in an attempt to divert attention away from the grotesque reality. They note that Planned Parenthood is not profiting from the sale of fetal tissue. The money they collect is only to cover the costs of collecting and delivering the tissue. Well, so what? The Nazis didn’t profit from Auschwitz. The Holocaust was an enormous diversion of resources and the German government didn’t even begin to make any sort of profit from it. Does that make the Holocaust any less of an atrocity? Even if Planned Parenthood were not making a single penny off of their practice of using fetal tissue, it wouldn’t make it any less wrong.

It may be that these donations are valuable for medical research. So were many of the experiments performed by doctors in the concentration camps. If dismembering human beings to acquire tissue for medical research is not a violation of the law, that says something about the morality of our laws and how well they accord with the divine law which is the source of man made laws. This practice may be legal. So was slavery. Being legal doesn’t make it right. If it is illegal to expose such heinous practices, than the laws which would conceal them from the public are bad laws and should be abolished. I cannot imagine how these practices could possibly be consistent with current ideas about medical ethics unless such ethics are the ones enunciated by the likes of Dr. Josef Mengele.

Why does Planned Parenthood get any federal funding at all, considering that a large number of tax-payers opposed to what they do? I know that no tax money goes directly into providing abortions, but any tax money received allows them to spend more money on abortion that would otherwise go into other programs. Why should the millions of Americans who oppose abortion have to pay for a practice they consider abhorrent, even indirectly? Planned Parenthood ought to be completely defunded as soon as possible. It ought never to have gotten any federal fund at all.

P.S. Planned Parenthood is not under attack because of its advocacy of reproductive rights. It is under attack because it is an evil organization dedicated to the destruction of human life. It’s founder, Margaret Sanger, started Planned Parenthood in order to decrease the number of people she, and others like her, considered unfit and inferior, especially those dark colored people. Planned Parenthood is the only organization I know of that makes the Nazis look good in comparison.

 

Gay People in Straight Marriages

July 25, 2015

I am tired of the gay marriage debate and ready to move on. I hadn’t intended to write any more on any issue concerning homosexuality for some time, but I came across this article, How I Found Out My Partner Was Gay, at BBC.com and I thought the wider issues raised by the article were worth exploring. This is not really a post on homosexuality but on priorities and the right way to live. Here is the first part of the article.

Recently we told the stories of gay men who had married women. It prompted a strong response from readers who had experienced it from the other side – those whose wives and husbands had come out as gay.

“It feels almost homophobic to say anything about them. To me it’s not brave to spend 10 or 20 years with someone only to destroy and discard them,” says Emma. She found out her husband was gay a year ago.

“They may go on and have a wonderful new life while leaving a crushed wife behind. You just feel like your whole life is wasted and there’s no closure.”

One of the most difficult things for many spouses is watching their former partner being celebrated as brave for coming out, but knowing the damage they’ve left behind.

It is an experience to which Carol, 43, can relate. With her former husband now active in gay rights, she received a message calling him an inspiration and a role model.

“I was disgusted by this, that someone actually considered him to be both of these things when he had spent our entire relationship lying to both himself and myself.

“To me, there is nothing to be proud of – he destroyed our family through his failure to admit that he was in fact gay,” she explains.

They had married in 2003 and have two children – she says she was “very happy and in love”.

But there were signs something wasn’t right, including gay dating profiles on his computer, which he explained away. In 2009 he said he was bisexual but wanted to be with her.

Carol admits she was probably in denial but thought they would find a way through it as he was the man with whom she wanted to spend her life.

A year later it came to a head when he came home, said he was gay, and left.

“I thought my whole world had fallen apart but then he came back and said let’s stay together for the sake of the kids. I didn’t know what to do so we lived a lie for two years. To anyone else we looked like a normal happy couple,” she said.

But it didn’t work and they divorced.

Carol says the difficulty was the shock – he’d had time to get used to it but for her it happened so quickly. He’s now married to a man and she says they get on for the sake of their children.

“It took me a long time to get over it, for me it is a trust issue. How can I trust anyone again? I can’t compete with other men, I’m a woman, but he should have been truthful from the start.

There are a couple of more examples and a sort of supportive summing up at the end, but I think this is enough to go on.

Setting aside any prejudice or personal feeling about homosexuality, I have to wonder what is the difference, in principle, between a man who leaves his wife because he has decided that he is homosexual and cannot live the lie and a man who leaves his wife because he has decided to have an affair with a younger, more attractive female co-worker or a woman he had met through an online dating service. The only difference seems to be that the idea of abandoning one’s spouse to take up with another of the opposite sex is still largely condemned as selfish and  thoughtless, while abandoning one’s spouse for a person of the same sex is now lauded as an inspiration for their bravery in coming out. Either way, they have left behind a betrayed spouse struggling to put their life back together.

The slogan of the is “love wins”. I am not sure that love, or what is commonly called love in our culture, should win, at least not over considerations of honor and integrity. Even if man or woman were to convince him or herself that their feelings for a person other than their spouse was truly love and not simply a matter of infatuation or lust, they would still not be justified in leaving their spouse or abandoning a previously held commitment.

As far as I know, every culture and religion’s wedding vows include the idea that the newly married couple will stay together for life, regardless of how circumstances change. That is certainly the case in the West. When a couple marries, they generally agree to stay together “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death do us part.” They do not generally promise to stay married until one partner finds someone more desirable, no longer feels in love, or decides that they prefer the same sex. The two people have made a commitment to one another, a promise to stand by each other no matter what happens. I realize that this is an ideal and in our imperfect world there are some marriages which are not going to last, even with the best of intentions by both partners. I can also appreciate the additional difficulty that a person struggling with homosexual urges must have in keeping their marriage intact. Concessions often have to be made because of the hardness of our hearts, but they should be recognized as concessions to an imperfect world, not lauded as something brave and inspirational.

This is really a question of how we ought to live our lives, the same sort of questions philosophers have been asking since the time of Plato and Socrates. Is the point of life making oneself happy, even at the expense of others, or should one pursue a path of virtue, even if if means putting other’s happiness before one’s own? Perhaps there should be a balance. I do not really know the answer to such questions but I cannot imagine that I would be very happy knowing that I had caused so much pain to someone I loved. Perhaps others feel differently.

The Cadaver Synod

July 16, 2015

In the old days, popes were a lot more fun than they generally are nowadays. Twentieth and twenty-first century popes generally make nice speeches about helping the poor, ending war, and occasionally clarifying some bit of Catholic theology, not at all like the times when popes led armies into battle, appointed their relatives to all the top positions in the Church or had sex scandals with scores of mistresses and illegitimate children. The Papacy has become more tame and while that must be of considerable relief to the millions of Catholics who revere the Pope as the Vicar of Christ, it is a little disappointing to those who relish the scandalous or even the bizarre. Perhaps the strangest episode in the history of the Papacy has to be the notorious Cadaver Synod, the posthumous trial of Pope Formosus, in the year 897.

cadaver-synod

The term Dark Age is generally very inaccurate when applied to the entire Medieval Period from 500-1500, but the late ninth and tenth century was indeed a very dark time for Europe, perhaps the darkest period except for the aftermath of the destruction of the Roman Empire in the West in the fifth and sixth centuries. The Empire built by Charlemagne which included much of Western Europe was breaking up, divided between his grandchildren and great-grandchildren wh. fought among themselves incessantly. The all too brief cultural renaissance sponsored by the great king and emperor could not be maintained in a disintegrating empire and the progress made during Charlemagne’s reign was in danger of being reversed. The Carolingian dynasty had devolved from Charles the Great (Charlemagne) to Charles the Bald, Charles the Fat, and finally Charles the Simple. As if internal struggles did not create enough misery for the Europeans, invaders from every direction, the Vikings from the North, Muslims from the South and Magyars from the East, raided across Europe plundering and destroying at will.

berserkers

The Papacy fared no better in this tumultuous time. The popes of this period were little more than the creatures of the nobility of the city of Rome, the Papal tiara being passed back and forth among the various Roman families. Most of the popes of this era were ineffectual, short reigned, decadent and corrupt, far worse than the notorious Renaissance popes who at least had political skill and patronage of the arts and sciences to recommend them. Not for nothing was this period called the “night of the Papacy”.

This was the background in which Formosus became pope. He was born in Ostia perhaps around the year 816. In 864, Formosus was made Cardinal Bishop of Porto, a suburb of Rome, and he was trusted with diplomatic missions to Bulgaria in 866 and the Franks in 869 and 872. He carried out missionary work among the Bulgarians and impressed them enough that they request Pope Nicholas I appoint him archbishop. Pope Nicholas refused since transferring a bishop from one see to another was a violation of canon law. Upon the death of Pope Adrian II, Formosus was a candidate for the Papacy, but John VIII was selected instead. Formosus seems to have had some sort of disagreement with John VIII, since he left his post as Cardinal Bishop and the city of Rome. Pope John order his return to Rome on pain of excommunication of various charges including opposition to the Holy Roman Empire, conspiring to seek the archbishopric of Bulgaria and the Papacy, and abandoning his post as Cardinal Bishop. His excommunication was withdrawn in 878 but he was forbidden to enter Rome or exercise his priestly functions. John’s successor, Marinus I was more favorably disposed towards Formosus and he restored him to his post at Porto in 883.

 

Pope Formosus, while he was still alive.

Pope Formosus, while he was still alive.

Marinus I and his two successors, Hadrian III and Stephen V had short reigns as Pope and by 891 the Papal throne was vacant once more. This time Formosus was elected Pope with no opposition. He would reign from 891 until his death in 896. As pope, Formosus was more involved with political issues, both secular and ecclesiastical, than pastoral matters. He was asked to rule on the status of Eastern Bishops ordained by an ousted Patriarch of Constantinople, and tried to settle a dispute over the crown of West Francia, or France. Formosus did not get along with the Holy Roman Emperor Guy of Spoleto and had to endure an invasion of Italy in 894. As if that wasn’t enough, Formosus had to contend with raiding Saracens ravaging the coasts of Italy.

Pope Formosus died in 896 after a short reign of a little less than five years. He wasn’t one of the more notable popes and it is likely that he would be altogether forgotten if it were not for his macabre posthumous career. Formosus was succeeded by Boniface VI who died after only fifteen days as pope and then Stephen VI who convened the Cadaver Synod. In January 897, Stephen VI had Formosus’s corpse disinterred, dressed in his papal vestments, propped up on a throne and put on trial . The charges were  transmigration of sees, from the Bulgarian affair, perjury, and serving as a bishop while a layman. Since Formosus could hardly be expected to answer these charges verbally, a deacon was appointed to answer for him. According to some accounts, when questions were put to Formosus, this deacon moved his head to indicate yes or no. Naturally, the court found Formosus guilty on all courts. Pope Stephen VI had Formosus stripped of his papal vestments and the three fingers of his right hand that were used for blessings cut off. He then invalidated all Formosus’s ordinations (except for his own ordination as Bishop of Anagni) and annulled all his acts and measures and had the corpse thrown into the Tiber.

You might think this would be the end of this bizarre affair, but Pope Formosus got revenge, of a sort. The strange trial of a cadaver turned public opinion against Stephen VI. Formosus’s body washed up on the banks of the Tiber and rumors began to spread that his body was performing miracles. A mob deposed and imprisoned Stephen VI and by August 897 he found strangled in his cell. Formosus was buried in Saint Peter’s Basilica. In December 897, Pope Theodore II nullified the findings of the Cadaver Synod and future posthumous trials were prohibited.

It is easy to smile at the antics of these Dark Age barbarians. Surely, in our more enlightened time, no one would dig up buried corpses and put them on trial. I am not so sure about that. As I write this, the city council of Memphis, Tennesee has just voted to exhume the corpse of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and move him from the park where he has been buried for the last one hundred and ten years. They also plan to remove his statue from the site and sell it. Forrest was not only a Confederate general, which is bad enough, but also one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan, which makes him one of the most evil men in history, clearly unfit to be buried in a public place. There are no plans yet to put General Forrest on trial for hate crimes, cut off his hand that wielded his cavalry sword, and throw his body into the Mississippi, but in this current climate of anti-Confederate hysteria, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.


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