Speaking of Women and Jews...

...which we were doing both in the last post and in the recent post on Medieval Islamic poetry, Haaretz reports on Jewish prayer from 1471. Just to keep the accounting clear, though both are "medieval" these prayers are several hundred years later than the period in Spanish history in which female Jewish poets were absent (it's also 246 years after Magna Carta, which is to say, a little longer than America has existed as a nation):
According to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the 600-year-old siddur replaces the traditional prayer recited by women, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Master of Universe for Creating me According to your Will”, with “Blessed Are You Lord our God, Master of the Universe, For You made Me a Woman and Not a Man.” 
The prayer offered by the 1471 siddur stands as a clear counterpart to the morning prayer recited daily by observant Jewish men: "Blessed are You For Not Creating Me a Woman".
The article runs with this in several directions, but let me offer something from a thinker -- who happens to have been both a woman and of Jewish extraction -- whose approach to this question strikes me as the right one. I'm speaking of Hannah Arendt, who wrote quite a bit about the differences that define us. She has a pretty sophisticated approach, so bear with me as I try to explain it, because I may not convey it quite right the first time.

In her better-known writings, Arendt speaks sharply against those who allow themselves to be defined by others, and brightly of those who seize upon the categories of their birth and use them to construct an identity that is theirs alone.  Thus, in The Origins of Totalitarianism (pp 81-5 in this edition), she has hard words for "inverts" (i.e., homosexuals) and "Jewish" men who hid in salons; but very high praise for Proust and Disraeli, who each took one of those qualities and constructed something worthy of a true individual.  In Disraeli's case, for example, he was in no way satisfied with being 'Jew-ish' -- he insisted on being a Jew, and in a way that was his very own.

Her position thus guards against the ravages of our modern identity politics, in which people are taught to think of themselves as members of a group -- she wants you to take whatever your genetic or cultural identity happens to be, and find a way to do something new and unique.  The quality of being Jewish or an invert, she says in OT, is "meaningless" when it is a way of putting people into groups:  it can only be valuable if it flourishes as a part of the character of an individual of worth.

That isn't the limit of her insight, however.  In her letters, she expressed a profound sense of gratitude for every kind of human difference that is truly, genuinely impossible to bridge.  It is my belief that you can find her reasoning for this in her horror at the Nazi movement -- which she encountered first hand, arrested by the Gestapo and later spending time in a concentration camp in France.  She writes of how Hitler was so proud of the SS for turning a thousand men into 'examples of the same type.'  That there are differences we cannot bridge is therefore something to be grateful for:  they provide sources of resistance to tyranny.

More than that, though, such differences also provide a unique perspective.  This is crucial to our ability to believe in our own perceptions of the world -- after all, our sense perceptions are often wrong.  Our eyes may fail us, or we may not be sure we heard correctly.  It is in hearing or seeing our perceptions confirmed by an independent observer, another person, that we gain confidence in our impressions.  The more independent the observer -- that is, the more genuine and deep the differences between them and us -- the more confidence we can have from their confirmation of our thoughts and impressions.

For that reason, it is right to feel gratitude for being a woman and not a man, and it is right to feel gratitude for being a man and not a woman.  It is right to feel gratitude for any difference given to us that cannot be bridged.  These things make us stronger, in that they give us access to parts of the world that our own perspective does not, and in that they can help us know how much weight it is safe to place on our own perceptions.

This -- Arendt calls it "plurality" -- is a strength that arises from human nature.  Therefore, it is a virtue:  one of the absolute ones.  It is a virtue for anyone, and a weakness in those who will not have it.

And Here I Thought I Was Old-Fashioned

 House Bill 1580 is the product of such a brainstorming session this summer between three freshman House Republicans: Bob Kingsbury of Laconia, Tim Twombly of Nashua and Lucien Vita of Middleton. The eyebrow-raiser, set to be introduced when the Legislature reconvenes next month, requires legislation to find its origin in an English document crafted in 1215. 
"All members of the general court proposing bills and resolutions addressing individual rights or liberties shall include a direct quote from the Magna Carta which sets forth the article from which the individual right or liberty is derived," is the bill's one sentence.
Can we start with getting them to cite the Constitution?

Some version of this concept might be a very good idea, although if you were going to pick one document the Magna Carta is probably not it.  A large number of its provisions pertain to issues like scutage, dowries, and feudal relief payments.  In general these no longer pertain to how we organize society (although perhaps we should reconsider the feudal system, which at least required that all recipients of government support provide the government with clear public services in return).   There are also some disabilities for women and Jews that force us not to consider the Magna Carta as the be-all, end-all of our rights.

On the other hand, there's something wholesome about the idea of requiring the government to prove its claims.  Rights language has been abused by those who favor an expansive government role (e.g., 'education is a right!', 'decent housing is a right!', 'health care is a right!', etc).  If the Magna Carta is not sufficient by itself, it might serve as one of a list of documents that show a given liberty or right to be well-recognized and of long standing.  The protection of rights and liberties of that sort ought to be one of our chief concerns.

For example, provisions 38-9 would be problematic for the administration's current policy toward assassination or indefinite detention of US citizens without trial:

In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.

These Are The Worst Pirates We've Ever Seen

Rear Adm. Craig S. Faller, who commands the carrier strike group, looked at the chart and radar images of the Sunshine’s location with something like disbelief. The Sunshine and the Stennis were only a few miles apart. “These might be the dumbest pirates ever,” he said.
It proved a chance to rescue some Iranian fishermen -- a good deed freely rendered to a people who have probably been told to expect no such from us.

Santayana wrote of England at her height as the "sweet, just, boyish master," and -- though there were times and places when England was fierce, and her justice was administered without remorse -- there are many examples that prove his point.  Much of what was said in honest praise then can be said in honest praise now, not of England alone, but of our combined navies operating to keep the sea lanes safe and free.

Mama Grizzly

Shelob vs. the Sandworm

And glowing red eyes, to boot. Well, they're not actually huge (yet), but they are genetically modified hybrids of silkworms with spider genes added to make their silk stronger. I think the GM engineers added the glowing red eyes just to freak us out.

Some commenters to this "Not Exactly Rocket Science" article raised the specter of escaped silkworm super-hybrids wreaking havoc in the natural world, only to be reassured that silkworms have been domesticated for so long they can't survive in the wild. Oh, sure: that's what they said about the lysine contingency.

We have some friends who raised silkworms long ago in California. They haven't tried it here in Texas; something about the food supply or the climate. Anyway, it sounds at least as wonderful as beekeeping, another seductive hobby. But now it seems my attention is to be diverted by the spiders, and I'm going to have to put my hands on Leslie Brunetta's "Spider Silk," which offers information about the fascinating proteins that make up this amazing substance. (Ha! It's available on Kindle, and I can have it instantly! -- as if I didn't already have a high enough pile of books to read.)

It was a touch of genius to get the silkworms to start spinning spider silk, because they produce their fibers in the more useful form of long, continuous strands wrapped around a cocoon, unlike the tangles favored by most spiders. Someone is even working on worm genes that will impregnate the modified silk with bacteriocides, so that it will make a better wound suture. Can elf-cloaks be far behind? Beanstalks?

Abortion Restrictions Up Substantially in 2011

It's interesting to me that the states continue to push this point, since SCOTUS has so often attempted to assert that almost no restrictions are acceptable.  Nevertheless, I suppose every time you pass a law, someone has to go to the trouble of challenging it in court; perhaps over time they expect to convince the federal courts that an unrestricted access to abortion is not acceptable to the people of many states within the United States.

Also, some of these "restrictions" are just restrictions on who has to pay for abortions.  Given the deep moral issues involved, it is surely reasonable to say that no one should be forced to contribute to abortion against their will.  That means no taxpayer funding, and it also means that conscience exceptions ought to be thought reasonable.  We often hear from the pro-choice party that a woman's right to make a decision on the morality of abortion for herself ought to be respected; but surely we ought also to respect the moral choices of others who are horrified by the practice, and not force them to enable, participate in, or fund what they regard as a killing of an innocent.

Of course, it's also problematic to suggest that a woman's right to choose should be unilateral; it runs up against the common sense notion that it is not wise to allow someone to be the judge in their own case.  It is not that people mean to be unfair, or even think that they are judging unfairly; it is just that we all have unconscious tendencies to over-emphasize our interests when we are judging in our own cases.  This is a well-known fact of human nature that applies to all people at all times; naturally it applies here as well.

Thus, even though I am sure that most women who go through this decision believe they are carefully judging the matter, it should neither be surprising nor controversial to suggest that these sub-conscious processes lead them to judge their own interests above those of the father or those of the child.  The father may or may not want the child, but the child's interest will surely often be best served by being born even if it is then given up for adoption.  Sadly, we find that all these new restrictions occur in a context in which too often abortion numbers remain at near record highs, and adoption referrals decline.

Britain Looks Abroad

Since we were thinking the other day about inviting the UK into NAFTA -- or possibly even forming a wider Anglosphere alliance that was both economic and military -- these remarks from the British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs may be of interest.  They are from the Bangkok Post, and intended for audiences in Asia, which is also where our own administration appears to believe our future focus should be located.

Our commercial relationships in the region are strongest with our Commonwealth partners, Singapore and Malaysia who between them account for a commanding majority of our bilateral trade in goods. While continuing to strengthen these important relationships we should also be looking for opportunities in Thailand, Vietnam and elsewhere. We also need to continue to work with EU partners to secure free trade agreements with Asean countries which will open up markets and boost trade. 
And lastly we need to do more to promote two-way investment. The UK offers attractive investment opportunities for emerging economies. International institutions regularly rate the UK as the easiest place to do business in Europe, with the strongest business environment on the continent and the lowest barriers to entrepreneurship in the world. 
Our relationship, however, is about more than trade and investment. We have shared interests in maintaining security in a region which straddles some of the world's most important shipping routes and to tackling together common threats such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, cyber-crime and climate change. 
The UK therefore maintains a stake in regional security and defence cooperation through our 40-year commitment to the "Five Power Defence Arrangements". This agreement between the five Commonwealth partners of UK, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand is unique for East Asia and enables our countries to undertake joint exercises and to share information on issues from piracy to illegal fishing.  There are a number of separatist or other domestic conflicts within Asean and tensions remain in the South China Sea. The UK has experience which we are keen to share to help promote stability and we are already part of a small group of countries formally supporting the Philippine government and Mindanao groups in their efforts to end conflict in the south of that country.
Externally, the voices of Asean leaders will be increasingly influential in regional and global affairs. Indonesia's impressive democratisation and Malaysia's strong stand against violent extremism are examples of where the experiences of countries in the region can be of great value to the international community.
This may be the way that the future looks, especially as we ourselves are apparently going to cut hundreds of thousands of ground forces and hundreds of billions of dollars from our security posture.  That means we need to make sure that the economic interests of our security partners align with our own -- otherwise, they won't play in a game we no longer can play on our own.

Structuring an alliance that is designed to enrich as well as empower an ally suggests being careful to pick allies with broadly aligned cultures and values, as well.  The UK is clearly thinking along those lines already; so must we.

The Female Glories of Islamic Spain

In an article on poets from Al Andalus, an interesting lesson:  Muslim but not Jewish women wrote significant poetry. Another, then:  women were among the great poets of Islam at the period when it was at its height.
What is surprising is that during this period, there were numerous Muslim women whose poetry has been preserved. Although Muslims refer to the Jews as ahl al-kitab or “people of the book,” Muslim women seem to have been more successful in creating lasting poetic works. 
It is rather difficult to account for this discrepancy, for it seems odd to imagine that Muslim women in medieval Spain were far more educated than their Jewish counterparts. Arabic became the lingua franca following the Muslim conquest of the country in 711. When Jewish poets began to compose in Arabic and later in Hebrew, were the women entirely excluded? 
There are very few extant poems written by Jewish women dating to this period. Although only a fraction of all poems from that time have survived, this does not mean more were not written. The poems that are available are of a high quality, but the problem of quantity cannot be ignored. 
Kasmunah (“little charming one” or “one with a beautiful face”) of Andalusia in southern Spain was the daughter of Isma’il ibn Bagdala “the Jew.” Her Arabic verses were included in a 15th-century anthology of women’s verses (compiled by an Egyptian). Little is known about her; there are debates as to whether she lived in the 11th or 12th century. Some of those favoring the earlier date contend that she was none other than the daughter of Samuel Hanagid, who was also known as ibn Nagrella (he indeed had a daughter). The assumption is that Bagdala and Nagrella are similar enough to have been confused. 
At any rate, Kasmunah’s father taught her by means of intellectually creative collaboration. He composed two lines; she needed to respond in kind. 
The style he chose is known as muwwashah, a rather difficult genre of poetry in which both he and his protégé excelled. Reading her verses reveals a tremendous originality and expertise in Arabic poetry, as well as the gentleness of this cultured woman. 
The wife of Dunash ibn Labrat lived at the end of the 10th century; very little is known about her. Her husband was born in Fez, studied in Baghdad with Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon and spent time in Cordoba in the court of the eminent diplomat Hasdai ibn Shaprut. Her name is not recorded anywhere, but this does not detract from the fact that her erudition and expertise in Hebrew poetry are astounding. 
In truth, the scholars of medieval Hebrew poetry, such as Haim Shirman and Ezra Fleischer, were convinced that this was a field entirely reserved for men. However, a series of discoveries of fragments from three different collections in the Cairo Geniza produced evidence to the contrary. 
In 1947, a fragment of a poem was found and published by Nehemia Allony, who surmised that it dealt with a bride and groom, or possibly a separation. In 1971, the tables turned when a complete copy of this poem appeared (albeit with the lines in the incorrect order); the missing lines revealed that it referred to a couple and their child. The husband had left his beloved wife and child behind in Spain, and their future was unclear. A third discovery solved the mystery of the poem’s authorship because of its header: “from the wife of Dunash ibn Labrat to him.” This fragment included a second poem written by the absentee husband, defending himself and professing his love to “an erudite woman like you” (see Ezra Fleischer, “About Dunash Ibn Labrat and his wife and son,” Jerusalem Studies in Hebrew Literature, 5 (1984) in Hebrew). 
This detective work revealed beautiful poetry and the correct identity of the sources; it reflected the talents of the eminent poet’s wife as well as that of her husband. Mr. and Mrs. ibn Labrat, although separated, and Kasmunah were creative and impressive poets who made important contributions to the medieval Spanish literary heritage.
Medieval Islamic Spain seems to me to hold much that we ought to try to recover.  Modern Islam would find in it much native pride, as it represents the height of their religion's worldwide civilization.  The rest of the world would find it a means of helping guide their Islamic neighbors onto a more wholesome course than is sometimes the case.

These End is Nigh

These boys -- with one noteworthy exception, all boys -- are good for morale.  If I believed any of this was true, I'd be feeling pretty good about the future.

Unfortunately, I have trouble buying it.  They are taking counsel from their fears, not from wisdom; I do not believe that the danger is nearly as great as they say.  More's the pity!

SSgt Reckless

Bthun sends the story of a war hero who is right up our alley.

There's a website for her, now.

Hip-Hop Music in the Age of Our Current President

Ya'll may remember the author better from a '90s hit that is still in current play during sporting events.

Same guy.  New era.  It's gotta be hard for the President, seeing the hip-hop demographic turn on him.

Sorry, Ma'am

I wanted her to do well.  She brought it on herself, but she also made some solid points in the many debates, and advanced some strong arguments on how to think about the Constitution.  It's a loss to all of us that she couldn't carry the good parts home.

"Those Hands Dug Freedom For Me"

A pretty good speech, from last night's real winner.

It'll be a miracle if he manages to overcome the weight of the establishment, and the wealth, that is ranked against him.  But he believes in miracles; I suppose it's part of his job.

Rivals in Archaeology

A little less flamboyant than the Indiana Jones / Belloc feud, but it's close to home.

Thornton declares that an area near Brasstown Bald is “possibly the site of the fabled city of Yupaha, which Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto failed to find in 1540, and (is) certainly one of the most important archaeological discoveries in recent times.” 
Thornton uses Williams’ research on Indian mounds and the studies of archaeologist Johannes Loubser, who excavated the north Georgia site, to bolster his claims. 
Williams couldn’t disagree more. “This is total and complete bunk,” Williams wrote on Facebook. “There is no evidence of Maya in Georgia. Move along now.” 
Williams’ reaction brought forth legions of bloggers and Internet experts calling him “arrogant” and “dismissive.”
It was certainly the latter!

There are some very interesting prehistoric sites in Georgia, but this is the first time I've ever heard it floated that they might be Mayan.  I'd wager that Dr. Williams is right:  this sounds more like cashing in on the 2012 Maya-mania than a highly probable theory.  Nevertheless, here's the article; the author claims he'll answer questions on his website.  Maybe I'll ride up there sometime soon and take a look.

Almost There

A young Oklahoma mother shot and killed an intruder to protect her 3-month-old baby on New Year's Eve, less than a week after the baby's father died of cancer. Sarah McKinley says that a week earlier a man named Justin Martin dropped by on the day of her husband's funeral, claiming that he was a neighbor who wanted to say hello. The 18-year-old Oklahoma City area woman did not let him into her home that day.

On New Year's Eve Martin returned with another man, Dustin Stewart, and this time was armed with a 12-inch hunting knife. The two soon began trying to break into McKinley's home. As one of the men was going from door to door outside her home trying to gain entry, McKinley called 911 and grabbed her 12-gauge shotgun.

McKinley told ABC News Oklahoma City affiliate KOCO that she quickly got her 12 gauge, went into her bedroom and got a pistol, put the bottle in the baby's mouth and called 911. "I've got two guns in my hand -- is it okay to shoot him if he comes in this door?" the young mother asked the 911 dispatcher. "I'm here by myself with my infant baby, can I please get a dispatcher out here immediately?"

The 911 dispatcher confirmed with McKinley that the doors to her home were locked as she asked again if it was okay to shoot the intruder if he were to come through her door.

"I can't tell you that you can do that but you do what you have to do to protect your baby," the dispatcher told her. McKinley was on the phone with 911 for a total of 21 minutes.

When Martin kicked in the door and came after her with the knife, the teen mom shot and killed the 24-year-old. Police are calling the shooting justified.

"You're allowed to shoot an unauthorized person that is in your home. The law provides you the remedy, and sanctions the use of deadly force," Det. Dan Huff of the Blanchard police said.

The only thing left is to convince the dispatchers that they can tell her it's OK to shoot. Twenty-one minutes isn't unreasonable for a police response time, all things considered. We should work that reality into how we train people to think about cases of home invasion, and how we train 911 dispatchers to advise people to react.

Stradivari v. The Moderns

This survey itself is not that interesting, but there are two minor points that caught my eye.

A less respectful view of Dr. Fritz’s study is offered by the violinist Earl Carlyss, a longtime member of the Juilliard String Quartet. “It’s a totally inappropriate way of finding out the quality of these instruments,” he said. The auditions, he noted, took place in a hotel room, but violinists always need to assess how an instrument will project in a concert hall. He likened the test to trying to compare a Ford and a Ferrari in a Walmart parking lot. 
“The modern instruments are very easy to play and sound good to your ear, but what made the old instruments great was their power in a hall,” he said.
The anti-Walmart snobbery aside, that's a good point. However, I am reminded of Eric Blair's remarks that it is recording -- and not concert halls -- that offer us the real power of music in our current age. Just in the last two weeks, we've listened to recordings of songs that we might not ever have heard before the internet age; now, they're free for exploration. Thus, the "power in a hall" standard may need to be rethought, even by concert musicians. The question may become "How optimized is it for our best current recording and playback techniques?" The other remark that I found amusing was this defense by the study's author:
Dr. Fritz acknowledged that her study used few violins. But it is quite difficult, she noted, to get owners to lend out their million-dollar instruments to be played by blindfolded strangers.
That surely must be true. It must be doubly true that it is hard to get such loans when the purpose of the study is to undermine the legend on which the value of their million-dollar investment is based!

Addendum on National Myths

I've been away from here for a few days, but was glad to see Grim raising that topic of perennial importance: national myths. The highly successful (the Chinese have one of the most successful national myths in the world; and their beastly treatment of the Uighurs and Tibetans comes along with it), the once successful (for I can dimly remember a time when public schools in this country taught an American national myth, and I've read enough old things to know it was once very strong), and the decidedly troubled.

Now, what Grim's saying in these discussions, and especially in the second one, I entirely agree with. In fact, if I had to pick a single factor that really makes a recognizable "people," a national myth is that factor. A common language helps; a common government helps; a common religion helps; but it is the national myth (that may well be bound up with all these things) that really does the trick.

Michael Totten has two recent posts, highly apropos. To the first. In this and comments, he discusses Newt Gingrich's characterization of the Palestinians as an "invented" people. And he links to this article by Lee Smith, who opines:

"The real question, then, is not whether Palestinian nationalism is 'authentic,' but whether this particular national fiction is useful."

And I think he is on the right track. Smith however concludes that the Palestinian myth is not "strong enough" because their leadership is unwilling to accept a limited state that coexists with its Israeli neighbors. But I think that is not a sign of the myth's weakness, but simply its character. For better or worse, and mainly for worse, the Palestinians have indeed become a people because they have got a national myth. It's just a barren and ugly one. It is of recent vintage - that is the kernel of truth in Mr. Gingrich's statement (which I used to agree with) - but that doesn't invalidate it. All national myths have got to start somewhere.

In his post and especially in comments, Mr. Totten goes further in opposing the notion of the Arabs as a "people" - which Mr. Gingrich accepts in rejecting the Palestinians as an "invented" subset. And in my view, he's right there, insofar as the Pan-Arab ideologies (Ba'athism, and whatever-you-call-it that was supposed to create the overarching UAR) - didn't catch on; they were unsuccessful myths, and given the character of the regimes that used them, that is probably just as well. Mr. Totten, however, declares the idea not only pernicious ("National Socialism for Arabs") but simply false:
If Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese, etc, stopping viewing the Palestinians as part of some great Arab “mass,” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would instantly become localized and would eventually become solvable. The minute Lebanese people, etc, insist the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is somebody else’s problem, we’ll be 80 percent of the way to where we need to be...Arab nationalism is built on a lie and must die.
And there he misses the mark (as Mr. Smith does not) - the idea that the Arabs should see themselves, and attempt to act, as one people is simply a myth that didn't catch on. (And would, I suppose, have been as perniciously used as Panslavism, if it had.) The preamble to the current Iraqi Constitution is a deliberate effort to foster a national myth in that country - if Mr. Totten's reports in this book still hold, the Kurds are not buying it at all just now.

Anyway, it isn't hard to see that for a country with any kind of consensual government, a national myth is a precious possession - hence the second post, on Claire Berlinski's determination to violate a Turkish law by referring to the Armenian genocide as "genocide," and a French law by denying it was genocide. In these places, I think, and especially the first, the governments are trying to defend the national myths in their current forms, and are curtailing free speech to do it. (Which is what Ms. Berlinski is opposing, and by referring to a French figure of mythic proportions.)

What makes our own myth remarkable is the way it rests on ideas and laws, more than any race or religion. The complaints that led to independence for certain grew out of the British constitution, and its common-law way of developing rights. Let colonists vote for the assemblies that tax them, as Britons vote for the Parliament that taxes them, and they'll pick up the idea that they have a right to it - not in the civil-law sense that someone formally granted it, but in the common-law way, that the unifying theory is to be discerned from the actual decisions made. And our myth certainly relies on the idea of these things as rights - yet is blessedly detached from any continued racial identity. Our national identity is not weakened if we admit that Anglo-Saxons can commit beastly atrocities - the document that started it all is filled with such accusations. More remarkably, if we admit that the ideas are noble, and the men who made them law were doing noble acts, we can admit much more wihtout weakening the myth at all - that they carried flaws with their nobility, as true heroes always do, and that Americans have done many awful things since by not living up to those ideas.

(The Jewish "national myth" of the Old Testament shows some strong parallels - 1 Chronicles and 2 Chronicles recast, often with some pretty heavy shading, the history of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms as a matter of "We did well when we kept the commandments and we did very badly when we didn't.")

To the Turkish government, it seems, if you deny that "the Turkish people, as such, are too noble to have committed genocide," you're striking too hard at an idea bound up with their race and religion (for it certainly precedes their current constitution) that they believe holds them together.

P.S. - Yes, I know, I'm oversimplifying by writing as if there's one unchanging successful myth among each people. I oversimplify to be able to write at all.

A Boy, His Dog, and His Sword

Something else on a lute:

The large number of strings on this lute allows a cascade of notes at a very low tempo and across a wide range, which is an interesting effect.  We are more used to hearing it done on fewer strings, and at a higher tempo, in American bluegrass.

Inside the Myth of Europe

Dr. John Gray echoes Mr. Blair's writings on the dangers of mythology.

[The European Union's founders] were swayed by a myth - a myth of progress in which humanity is converging on a universal set of institutions and values. The process might be slow and faltering and at times go into reverse, but eventually the whole of humankind would live under the same enlightened system of government. 
When you're inside a myth it looks like fact, and for those who were inside the myth of the end of history it seems to have given a kind of peace of mind. Actually history was on the move again. But since it was clearly moving into difficult territory, it was more comfortable to believe that the past no longer mattered.

Those dangers are real; the difference I have with these gentlemen on the point is that I think the danger means that you have to take control of the process.  Myths are indispensable to human consciousness.  We are most vulnerable to the baleful effects just when we -- as the modern Europeans -- think we are disposing of myths and living a new, regulated, scientific life.

We last saw Dr. Gray here writing in response to Dr. Stephen Pinker's new book, which argues a very similar myth:  that humanity is engaged in moral progress that is bringing us to a state of less violence, the world wars notwithstanding.  Here is Timothy Synder at Foreign Affairs rejecting Dr. Pinker (hat tip Arts & Letters Daily):
A principle of the scientific method is to arrange experiments so that one's own prior beliefs can be challenged. Pinker's natural experiment with history generates instead a selective rereading, in which his own commitments become the guiding moral light for past and future. But of course libertarianism, like all other ideologies, involves a normative account of resource distribution: those who have should keep. There is nothing scientific about this, although again, like all other ideologies, libertarianism presents itself simply as a matter of natural reason, or, in Pinker's case, "intelligence." Pinker goes so far as to suggest that libertarianism is equivalent to intelligence, since holding libertarian views correlates with high IQ scores. Since he believes that the need to regularly adjust IQ tests to preserve an average score of 100 means that we are growing more intelligent generation by generation, he deduces that we are becoming more libertarian. Pinker also conflates libertarian ideology with ethics, allowing him to conclude that we are therefore becoming increasingly moral. Each step in this argument is shaky, to say the least. As Pinker might have learned from Kant or Hume or any of the other Enlightenment figures he mentions, one cannot jump from reason to morals in this way. Even if each generation is brighter than the last, as Pinker believes, being smart is not the same thing as being just. To have an account of ethics, one needs to begin from ideas of right and wrong, not simply from mental habits that happen to be widespread in one's own milieu and moment.
My own critique of the whole 'moral progress' argument -- not merely Dr. Pinker's contribution to it -- is along similar lines.  We obtain much of our morality from rubbing against other people, who in turn get theirs from rubbing against the people in their circles.  Thus it should normally be expected to be the case that groups of people closer to each other, in time or in space, will have moral opinions more similar to each others' than groups of people who are further removed from each other.

It would be striking, then, if we couldn't read history as an arc leading to our own moral values:  and that will be true whoever we are, and whatever our moral values happen to be!  This is a basic fallacy, an error in logic, that arises from a failure to recognize the fact that human beings learn much of their moral code from each other.

What's much more interesting to me are the counterexamples.  One of the things that amazes in reading Chaucer, or Averroes, or Plato, is the degree to which we can find common ground with people centuries removed.  This points to a small but crucial moral core that doesn't change, but that is accessible to human reason in every generation.  There is no "progress" from this place because it is the destination:  the best we can hope for, in any generation, is to reach it and to remain there for the brief space of our life.  If we can also guide our children to it, and our friends, we have done all that morality can be asked to do for humankind.

Good reason to carry a gun and a knife

. . . In case some guy goes into an icy river with three kids in his car, including one still strapped into a car-seat. Chris Willden, a former cop from a family full of cops, military, and EMTs, shot out one of the windows, cut loose the car-seat, and got all three kids out of the car. Two weren't breathing any more, but bystanders got them going again with CPR, and all are now recovering from hypothermia. Way to go, Chris.

Speaking of being the sort of fellow people would like to have around in an emergency, I've just finished "Extreme Fear," written by the guy who inspired my recent post about the inexplicable Air France disaster. It contains the perfect antidote story: an aerobatics expert whose right wing strut buckled during a strenuous stunt. With seconds to live, he remembered a pilot who popped a damaged wing back into place by flying upside down, so he flipped over. Then his engine cut out. Still flying upside down at low altitude, he coolly carried out the checklist for starting the engine back up. Next he considered whether to land upside-down in the water or in some trees, and instead lit on the idea of flipping his plane back over at the last second and landing on solid ground before the wing could buckle again. He walked away.

Definitely not the deer-in-the-headlights sort. Kudos to those who can keep their heads in situations where I'd be thinking about as clearly as the average lizard.

The Old Year Now Away is Fled...

A gentle version providing some of the verses:

The old year now away is fled,
The new year it is entered;
Then let us all our sins down tread,
    And joyfully all appear.
Let's merry be this holiday,
And let us run with sport and play,
Hang1 sorrow, let's cast care away
    God send us a merry new year!


And now let all the company
In friendly manner all agree,
For we are here welcome all may see
    Unto this jolly good cheer.
I thank the master and his dame,
The which are founders of the same,
To eat, to drink now is no shame:
    God send us a happy new year!

But somehow they skipped my favorite lines:

Come lads and lasses every one,
Jack, Tom, Dick, Bess, Mary and Joan,
Let's cut that meat unto the bone,
    For welcome you need not fear. 
And here for good liquor you shall not lack,
It will whet the brains and strengthen the back; 
This jolly good cheer it must go to wrack:
    God send us a happy new year!

Come, give's more liquor when I do call, 
I'll drink to each one in this hall,
I hope that so loud I must not bawl,
    So unto me lend an ear.
Good fortune to all do send,
And to our dame who is my friend,
Lord bless us all, and so I end:
    God send us a happy new year!

It's early in the morning, and that of a new year: so let's have the Children's Meledy.