The Age of Arthur

A military historian blogger I discovered on St. Patrick's Day has begun a series of posts on the historical Arthur.  It's easy reading, and a good general introduction for those of you who are interested in a survey; the author tends to elide over points of historical debate, but that's necessary when writing for a general audience.  The discussion on Arthur tends to get way out in the weeds if you follow the intricate aspects of the debate.  (For those interested in that, you should join ARTHURNET; another excellent but more general resource is this online Arthurian encyclopedia.)

These may also be of interest to those of you who undertook reading the novel I sent out to volunteers a few weeks ago.  The encyclopedia is thorough enough to mention Moren, who before the book appears only in one line of one story, the Welsh Culwhch and Owen.

St. Patrick's Day

In deference to Lars Walker's report from Beyond, let us start with something appropriate.  "St. Patrick's Breastplate" is a famous hymn that survives to us from the Old Irish.

And then something else genuinely Irish:

Can't be anything more Irish than this:

By this point, most Americans will have exhausted their ability to tell the Irish from anything generally Celtic.

'Hey, I think I remember this song is Irish...'

...after which they'll stumble on this one, and be disappointed to realize that it's about an actual brigade.  It's Irish, though!  And American!

(The "Fighting 69th" went on to serve in World War I as part of the "Rainbow Division."  Yes, really.)

Right... so, Australian is kind of Irish, yeah?  And there's bagpipes, which are totally Irish.

What could be more Irish than a song about an Irish ship?

Perhaps even that isn't as wholly Irish as it could be:  here's the greatest of Irish bands singing a song by a Scot named Ewan MacColl.  It's a fine song, all the same.

Happy St. Patrick's Day.

"America's Real War On Women"

Peggy Noonan has an excellent column today.  As you know, I refuse to give attention to those who behave in this way, because it is such attention that has generally allowed such people to thrive and to rise to public notice.  These days, notorious and famous are no longer obviously distinct categories:  the coin of the realm is attention.

This should not be surprising.  Some years ago the Defense Science Board -- since we are speaking of these things as a "war" -- conducted a study of military strategic communication.  I take its key findings to be these:
Information saturation means attention, not information, becomes a scarce resource.
Power flows to credible messengers. 
Asymmetrical credibility matters.
The first point is independent; the second two are related.  Attention is the scarce resource:  thus, the speaker who can command attention is the minter of the coin of the realm.

Now take the second and third points together.  What this means is that credible voices are more likely to be powerful and effective, but that what makes someone credible isn't an even game.  In the case of these bad actors, what makes them credible is that they are voicing deeply felt feelings that echo in many people's hearts.  Thus, even when they make the most incredible statements as points of fact, they are asymmetrically quite highly credible.  Thus, insofar as their message gains attention, they will gain power.

The current disruption of Mr. Limbaugh's revenue stream may be an exception to this general rule; but it also may not.  He is quite wealthy enough to survive a temporary disruption of revenue stream, and appears to have settled on a strategy (and a very wise one) of using the opportunity to retrench his financial support among groups who will not be susceptible to future disruptions of this sort.  He is punishing those who abandoned him, and helping those who are willing to stand by him:  this will strengthen his position.  It is the general approach of the USMC, when it advises, "No better friend; no worse enemy."

A strategy to defeat these messengers -- right or left -- must be based around denying them the attention that they command.  Their credibility probably cannot be undermined, because it is not based on the factual accuracy of their remarks.  It is asymmetric credibility.

What is needed is to forward the idea of a general principle of shunning anyone who speaks this way of women.  It needs to be applied even-handedly, but it also needs to avoid the error of demanding that political allies of the speaker condemn their remarks after the fact.  To condemn the remark is to rebroadcast it, which brings it to new attention among those whose hearts agree with it.

For those who happen to be actually present at the time, of course, it is proper to condemn the remarks and the man making them, if he does not apologize and reform himself.  Any gentleman who happens to be present ought to insist upon such an apology with all appropriate force.

The Market is All

A few days ago we had a long conversation about the problems of assuming that markets (and contracts) were good models for handing other social forms (like marriage).  I found this piece from the Atlantic to be an interesting meditation on some of the problems that arise.

The author begins by listing some of the things that are now for sale:
• A prison-cell upgrade: $90 a night. In Santa Ana, California, and some other cities, nonviolent offenders can pay for a clean, quiet jail cell, without any non-paying prisoners to disturb them.
The right to immigrate to the United States: $500,000. Foreigners who invest $500,000 and create at least 10 full-time jobs in an area of high unemployment are eligible for a green card that entitles them to permanent residency.
Why not other things?
When we decide that certain goods may be bought and sold, we decide, at least implicitly, that it is appropriate to treat them as commodities, as instruments of profit and use. But not all goods are properly valued in this way. The most obvious example is human beings. Slavery was appalling because it treated human beings as a commodity, to be bought and sold at auction. Such treatment fails to value human beings as persons, worthy of dignity and respect; it sees them as instruments of gain and objects of use. 
There are some weak points in the overall argument, and some examples that don't strike me as being a strong as the author suggests.  However, his summation seems quite right to me.
In hopes of avoiding sectarian strife, we often insist that citizens leave their moral and spiritual convictions behind when they enter the public square. But the reluctance to admit arguments about the good life into politics has had an unanticipated consequence....  [Market reasoning] empties public life of moral argument. Part of the appeal of markets is that they don’t pass judgment on the preferences they satisfy...  
This nonjudgmental stance toward values lies at the heart of market reasoning, and explains much of its appeal. But our reluctance to engage in moral and spiritual argument, together with our embrace of markets, has exacted a heavy price: it has drained public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics afflicting many societies today. 
A debate about the moral limits of markets would enable us to decide, as a society, where markets serve the public good and where they do not belong. 
This could be seen as anti-conservative, insofar as support for market-based models is a core feature of current conservative thinking.  Or, it could be seen as profoundly conservative, insofar as support for traditional and religious insight into deeper issues of the human condition is a bedrock feature of conservatism.

However we resolve the question of labels for the position, though, the position strikes me as correct.


A related concern:  when we say that the market decides, what we really mean is that the buyer decides.
For centuries, my predecessors and I have been inculcated with what has come to be called the “Hippocratic Ethic.” This tradition holds that I am ethically required to use the best of my knowledge to recommend to my patient what I consider to be in my patient’s best interests—without regard to the interests of the third-party payer, or the government, or anyone else. 
But gradually the medical profession has been forced to give up this approach for what I like to call a “veterinary ethic,” one that places the interests of the payer (or owner) ahead of the patient. For example, when a pet owner is told by a veterinarian that the pet has a very serious medical condition requiring extremely costly surgery or other therapy, the veterinarian presents the pet’s owner with one or more options—from attempt at cure, to palliation, to euthanasia—with the associated costs, and then follows the wishes of the owner.

A General Principle:

When a man with a long grey beard tells you that he's going to teach you a secret about shotguns that he had from his father, it's always worth taking time to listen to what he has to say.

Via LawDog, who has an interesting story to tell about the history of this approach:  it dates to poachers, African safaris and the British Home Guard.

On The Importance of Picking One's Battles

There may be principled objections to the idea behind the Violence Against Women Act -- for example, the assumption it makes that women need to be under the special protection of the Federal government.  It's clear that Maid Marian benefited from her status as a royal ward, but it's not equally clear that all women ought therefore to aspire to an equivalent status.  Nevertheless, in politics as in war, there are times for digging in and dying in place if necessary; and there are times to recognize that you've been outmaneuvered, and preserve your forces for another day.

In this case, though, the Republicans seem to be doing neither the principled thing nor the smart thing.  This is largely a re-approval of a bill that passed with broad bipartisan support before, so it's not clear that the Republicans do have any strong principle at work as a party here.  This isn't a TEA Party stand against the idea of women as wards of the state; the party leadership is wholly OK with the VAWA, except for a couple of changes in the re-approval.

So, it isn't principle; and as for smarts, those changes (as Mother Jones points out) were made last year.  Good job picking your moment.

Those changes do touch on hot-button issues.  Nevertheless, one of these policies is totally reasonable if you buy the VAWA as a general principle:  while there are very good reasons to oppose the idea that lesbian relationships can constitute a marriage, there are no reasons to oppose the factually obvious reality that they can be violent.  If you believe that VAWA is an appropriate solution to violence against women, then there's no reason it shouldn't hold for lesbian women as for unmarried girlfriends of bad men.

One certainly could oppose the immigration-visa change, but by itself it's not worth the price of the fight.  It would be wiser to let this one go; there will be better ground for re-fighting that issue on another day.

Rules To Waste The Land:

Three little rules today -- two of them from Health and Human Services, a foreshadowing of the increased importance it will take on in every little aspect of your life from now on.

#1:  The first rule has to do with ensuring that abortions are paid for by, well, you.
The Department of Health and Human Services this month issued a final rule regarding the exchanges required under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). The rule provides for taxpayer funding of insurance coverage that includes elective abortion through a direct abortion subsidy.   
To comply with the accounting requirement, plans will collect a separate $1 abortion surcharge from each premium payer. As described in the rule, the surcharge can only be disclosed to the enrollee at the time of enrollment, and insurance plans may only advertise the total cost of the premiums without disclosing the abortion surcharge.
H/t D29, who also links the actual rule.  My favorite part of it is the part where HHS asked for public comments:
A large number of commenters offered feedback on proposed §156.280... We considered the comments received on this section, and are finalizing the provisions of proposed §156.280 without modification....
Well, naturally.

#2:  'You know what would be really neat?  It'd be neat if we could take your Federal tax dollars, and use them to lobby state and local governments to raise your taxes.  It's like a feedback loop!

'Too bad it appears to be illegal... but that's a temporary problem we will ignore for now.  Perhaps we'll ask some future, compliant Congress to fix the law later... but we may not bother, since we are the ones who decide when to enforce the laws.'

#3:  Remember how, when you were a kid, you used to love to go swimming at the public pool on hot summer days?
On Jan. 31 of this year, DOJ granted the industry's call for a clarification: But it was not the answer they wanted. All 300,000 public pools in the United States must install a permanent fixed lift. The deadline for compliance is tomorrow, March 15....
There is no way all 300,000 pools can install permanent lifts by Thursday. There simply are not enough lifts in existence or enough people who know how to install them, according to industry spokesmen. Plus, each lift costs between $3,000 and $10,000 and installation can add $5,000 to $10,000 to the total. 
So what happens tomorrow when a disabled individual checks into a Holiday Inn and finds no lift at the pool? The Obama DOJ has said it will not be enforcing the new guidelines right away. That means no fines from the government, for now. 
But the ADA also empowered citizens to sue businesses that are not in compliance with DOJ guidelines. The result will be a huge payday for enterprising trial lawyers everywhere.
Officially, the Constitution empowers Congress to issue letters of marque and reprisal.  Maybe we're now issuing them to trial lawyers, for use against American citizens.

Home Work

If you'd like to see how my friend's home-schooled young son is coming along on that great big piano I posted about a while back, here he is playing Chopin's Prelude No. 17 in A-flat major and looking very grown-up in his grandfather's tie. If he can't pick up girls with this kind of performance, he's not half trying.

Fiber-minded women gathered at my friend's house today from all over Texas. The house and various outbuildings are fairly stuffed from one end to the other with spinning wheels and looms, at least ten of each. It's like something out of Hansel and Gretel: everywhere you look there are skeins of homespun hand-dyed yarn, home-woven rugs, drawings, paintings, and carvings. Outside there are cisterns, barns, chickens, bathtubs full of Louisiana irises and lily pads, handmade concrete paving stones set with old pieces of china or license plates, fruit trees, vegetable patches, roses, wildflowers, and a lot of cats and dogs.

We dyed some cotton, wool, and silk fibers and fabrics with indigo. One of our company tried to figure out how to make an old fiber-carding machine work that someone had found. The newbies among us practiced spinning; I discovered the problem I was having on my own wheel (aside from the difficulty in keeping the newest dog from eating it) is that the treadle doesn't function smoothly. Having used my friend's better wheel, I'm inspired to fiddle with mine and improve it. I'm not quite ready to bring a loom into my home, though, a fact that should comfort my husband.

Revolution and Generation

A rather dire warning from a woman who was once an Iranian judge... until the revolution of 1979, after which she found herself promoted to "secretary."

There's no doubt that the Arab Spring movements have much to concern us.  There's also no doubt that, when the existing social contract expires, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun," as Mao Zedong rather rightly noted.

What that means is that we have to sort out who is going to have the guns and convince them that female political power is in their interests.  How to do that?  If it cannot be done, then there will be no rights for women in these societies for a long time to come -- until the new "social treaty" stabilizes, enough for a gentler kind of evolution of thought to take place.  That is the kind of thing that takes generations, not revolutions:  think how many generations were needed here.

Tone Deaf

Let's say that you're outraged by the position of Jesuit universities such as Georgetown with regard to access to birth control.  You'd like to convey the severity of your feelings on the subject to Catholic no-goodsters.

Could you come up with a worse way to try to be impressive than by announcing "a week-long exercise in self-denial"... in the middle of the Lent?

The Offense of Dante

Having seen the destruction of one Medieval masterpiece this week, a self-described "human rights" organization is advocating that we should go for two.  The NGO, Gherush92, explained that Dante's Divine Comedy is -- well, the scope of their complaint embraces every modern heresy.  It's everything that good-hearted people should hate.

Via Media comments that they have a few more suggestions for books that should not be presented to school-age children:
  • The Bible. This deeply problematic tome has incited full-fledged religious wars and been used to justify slavery, anti-semitism, homophobia and countless other injustices. It should be banned posthaste, along with any works which make reference to its contents, such as Paradise Lost, Dr. Faustus and the collected writings of Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Pride and Prejudice. Far from being a harmless romantic tale, Jane Austen’s novel is an offensively heteronormative work that implicitly privileges the so-called traditional family and marriage over alternative social arrangements. (We recommend substituting the morally superior Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on your syllabi.)
  • To Kill A Mockingbird. Promotes cruelty to animals.
  • The Qur’an. Rejects other religions as inferior. Frequently misread by a small but rambunctious minority of readers as a call to wage holy war on modernity and various national landmarks. Has something against pork, threatening livelihoods of many innocent farmers.
  • No Country for Old Men. Ageism.
  • Sherlock Holmes. While ostensibly centering around the exploits of the sleuth of Baker Street, this sinister series in fact promulgates anti-Mormon and anti-Jewish bigotry along the way. Case closed. Permanently.
  • The map of the cosmology, which can be enlarged, was drawn in the 19th century by an Italian scholar and man of letters named Michelangelo Caetani di Sermoneta.  It shows one of the ways in which the Comedy is helpful to students:  it graphically illustrates the Western worldview's dual debt to ancient Greece and the religious tradition.  Plato takes the (apparently eternal) circular movement of the heavens to be evidence of a semi-divine attempt to replicate the unchanging perfection of the Forms.  The "sphere of fixed stars" and the other celestial spheres were a feature of Greek astronomy that was important especially to Aristotle's physics and metaphysics; its central place in Dante's view of reality was shared not only by Christian thinkers like Aquinas, but by Jewish ones like Maimonides and Gersonides, and Islamic thinkers -- especially Avicenna, who made those spheres the mechanism of God's creation and providence.

    Every one of these thinkers is subject to the same complaint as Dante:  each of them is entirely certain of the truth of their faith, and the inferiority of others.  Maimonides' writings, when they touch on race as such, are at least as racist as anything Dante imagined; Avicenna's writings on women will be shockingly offensive to everyone outside of the Islamic world today.

    Nevertheless, the student will learn more from any one of these thinkers than from the whole corpus produced by "human rights organizations" working today.  Take what you want from them, and leave what you don't; but if you were to make a list of the thousand greatest minds in history, few of these names would be absent from it.  A guide who provides as useful an introduction to this rich landscape as Dante is invaluable.

    The student, in any case, must be trained early to be courageous in the encounter with new ideas, and capable of sorting the good from the bad.  That particular talent, I believe, is called "discrimination."

    The Burning of Krásna Hôrka:

    Krásna Hôrka, a thirteenth century castle in Slovakia, burned this week due to children playing with matches inside of it.  It is a great tragedy, and a rare opportunity to see the danger that fire posed to medieval fortifications.

    The towering flames had now surmounted every obstruction, and rose to the evening skies one huge and burning beacon, seen far and wide through the adjacent country. Tower after tower crashed down, with blazing roof and rafter; and the combatants were driven from the court-yard. The vanquished, of whom very few remained, scattered and escaped into the neighbouring wood. The victors, assembling in large bands, gazed with wonder, not unmixed with fear, upon the flames, in which their own ranks and arms glanced dusky red. 

    -Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe

    Yet fire was not only a siege weapon but a daily tool in such castles:  the main form of heat, and the only form of light beyond the sky.

    (Via, which has far more video from the story.)

    High, the painful mountains,
    Covered with thorny blue pine.
    Mists rise from falls like fountains;
    Under trees, with outstretched spine,
    The sharp spires of fallen cones
    Lie atop grey and aged stones.

    In the smoke there shapes a girl
    Or else in dreams I have with me;
    In the darkening I watch her curl,
    The helmet propping up my knee.
    Too dark to read, with whitened blade,
    I carve a staff in living glade.

    Come morning I shall go, and ride
    The wildr'ness ridge for distant miles;
    Below, the wood is green and wide,
    Above, geese sway in arching files;
    I ride till trees prick sun with lance:
    There in smoke my dream will dance.

    Sometimes I dream she calls to me,
    And reaches out to stroke my face
    In that hot white city beside the sea;
    But morning wakes upon the waste.
    I rise up from my bed of stone,
    Take up my boots, and ride alone.

    Grasping the Nettle

    I thought I'd touched nettles before, but this is a new one on me. Twenty-four hours later, I still felt as though I had electrodes hooked up to my fingers.

    Wikipedia tells me that the stem of the Urtica dioica bears short and long hairs. The long hairs are little needles that inject acetylcholine, histamine, 5-HT (serotonin), moroidin, leukotrienes, and possibly formic acid. (My nettle sting did feel a bit like an ant-bite at first.)

    "Urtication" is the process of flogging with nettles. It's not done only to torment; it is considered a folk remedy for rheumatism. Similarly, a beekeeper of my acquaintance reports that it is common knowledge among his colleagues that beekeepers have no autoimmune diseases, a fact they attribute to being routinely stung in the course of their duties. I have heard reports of people cured of crippling arthritis after a dangerous bout with multiple bee stings. So maybe I should be out there grasping nettles, or annoying bees, but I think I'll pass.

    Nettles lose their sting upon being cooked, and are said to taste like spinach. Late in their season, however, they produce a gritty molecule that can irritate the urinary tract, so harvest them young. They are used to flavor some cheeses, such as Yarg and Gouda. Their stems produce a fiber somewhat like linen, but coarser. Their roots produce a useful yellow dye. Their presence indicates highly fertile soil, and they are excellent sources of nitrogen for compost. They are one of the few plants that can tolerate and even flourish in soils rich in poultry droppings. We certainly have those. Major chicken-poop operation going on here, though I must say that the nettles were growing quite a distance from the chicken coops.

    It's been about 27 hours, and now the effect is finally wearing off.

    Just Live It Right the First Time

    H/t Maggie's Farm, part of a quotation from the 17th-18th-century Shawnee leader Tecumseh as rendered in the recent movie, "Act of Valor":
    When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way.

    The Girl, Getting Bigger:

    You all remember my little girl Avalon, right?  She'll be two this spring.