Protective Coloration, and its Reverse

Schlock Mercenary creator Howard Tayler writes a good review of 47 Ronin. The movie poster is largely misleading. In fact, it wasn't at all what it appeared to be from trailers and advertising:
I sat down and braced myself for a completely plotless swords-and-sorcery romp with a bit of Asian flair. What I got was a retelling of the story of the Forty-seven Ronin.

I'm happy with that.
I had honestly planned to avoid the film just because of those "extra" elements Hollywood apparently thought it necessary to include. The story of the Forty-seven Ronin is one of the great tales of Japan. It needs, and can be aided by, no ornament beyond what those men did.

The studio didn't think you'd like it, so they pretended it was "a completely plotless sword-and-sorcery romp with a bit of Asian flair." They thought you'd only want to see one of their empty formula pictures, so even when they made a decent film they marketed it as if it were just another of their usual crop. That worked well, I see.

On the other side of this, the marketing for the new Hobbit movie almost convinced me to go and see it in spite of my suspicions. As you will recall, I detest Peter Jackson's treatment of Tolkien so much that I could barely sit through the Fellowship movie, let alone the others. When I learned that he was going to treat the Hobbit, a far shorter work intended for children, as a trilogy of movies... well, let's say I expected this:

But the promotional materials suggested that there was hope for it. I became interested in how they would handle the dragon and Laketown. I almost went to see it...

...until I read this piece. That the studio felt it necessary to include an elvish Xena-Warrior-Princess character in a work of Tolkien's is one thing. What is really unforgivable is that the studio decided to introduce an elvish warrior-princess involved in a love triangle with a dwarf.

I might yet go see 47 Ronin.

A Lecture on Theology delivered by a self-declared "Southern Lady," against "White Trash."

I was suspicious at first, I have to admit: usually people who take up against "white trash" end up painting themselves into a very bad position. However, having considered the argument, I think the lady has something to say.

Wren Day

If you've been around here a while, you know the story about St. Stephen's Day. I won't bore you with it again. It's a grand day for merry-making.

But there's this too:

Merry Christmas

The peace of the Hall to all people of good will. Merry Christmas to you all.

The Star of Bethlehem

If you didn't see it elsewhere, here is an argument from an astronomer that the Star of Bethlehem may have been Jupiter. It's fascinating to me that we have computer programs that can reproduce the sky as it would have been on a night two thousand years ago. In principle, there's no reason you shouldn't be able to calculate the positions of various stars and planets a long time ago, assuming we correctly understand their motions today and nothing occurred that would significantly disturb the regularity of those movements. It would take a pretty major event to change the position of Jupiter, certainly.

What I like about the argument is the idea that no one but the highest-placed stargazers of the the day would have recognized it as significant. It is true that Babylonian civilization had astrologers who were even more accurate than the ancient Greeks, for reasons Tex will appreciate: because the Greeks took their data and tried to make models to explain them, which led to occasional inaccuracies in future predictions, while the Babylonians skipped models and simply figured from empirical data. The idea that this famous star may have been one seen as significant only to those steeped in the arcane traditions of the East is rather plausible.

In any event, it's a charming story for the holiday.

Christmas in Afghanistan

Santa delivers.

Good luck, Marines. May your future Christmases be spent with family as well as friends.

Autonomy and community

That might as well be the title to everything I post, so thoroughly does the conflict preoccupy me.  Anyway, I like Jonah Goldberg's take on two fathers of modern liberalism, Burke and Paine:
The Burkean believes government is there to give all of the institutions of society room to thrive and discover what is good through trial and error.  The Paineian sees progress as a society-wide movement, led by government, with no safe harbors from the Cause.  This is why Paine was one of the earliest advocates of a welfare state — funded by a massive inheritance tax — that would intervene to empower every individual. 
President Obama's second inaugural was a thoroughly Paineian document.  In his telling, America is made up of individuals and a government with nary anything in between.  And because "no single person" can do the things that need to be done, "we must do these things together, as one nation." 
The debate over homosexuality and gay marriage is part of a much larger debate that includes everything from Obamacare — particularly its hostility to religious exemptions — to school vouchers, federalism and the "wars" on women, Christmas, trans fats and inequality. 
The children of Burke form the philosophical core of what was called the "leave me alone coalition," a broad group of institutions and individuals who rightly, and occasionally wrongly, rejected a top-down effort to impose a one-size-fits-all vision of society.  The children of Paine, empowered by their sense of cosmic justice, want all of society's oars to pull as one.  And if you don't pull your oar to the beat of their drum, prepare for their wrath.

Tolerance and relativism

Three good posts, all Maggie's Farm links:

The coherency of E.J. Dionne's piece surprised me:
The answer lies in embracing a humility about how imperfectly human beings understand the divine, which is quite different from rejecting God or faith.  This humility defines the chasm between a living religious tradition and a dead traditionalism.  We need to admit how tempted we are to deify whatever commitments we have at a given moment.  And those of us who are Christian need to acknowledge that over the history of the faith, there have been occasions when “a supposedly changeless truth has changed,” as the great church historian and theologian Jaroslav Pelikan put it. 
What distinguishes this view from pure relativism is the insistence that truth itself exists.  The Christian’s obligation is to engage in an ongoing quest for a clearer understanding of what it is.  Robertson would disagree with me, but I’d say that we are going through precisely such an effort when it comes to how we think about homosexuality, much as Christians have done before on such matters as slavery, the role of women and the Earth’s place in the universe.
Matt Walsh is one of the many, many people who have run up against the central argument in C.S. Lewis's "Abolition of Man," which also happens to be a central influence in my views:
Believe it or not, even politically incorrect comments about homosexuality have to be excused if we are to believe that baby killing is a moral act. . . . 
I say all of this because my initial intention was to sit down and write about the couple in Washington who just won a 50 million dollar “wrongful birth” settlement.  Brock and Rhea Wuth sued a hospital because their son was born severely disabled. No, they were not alleging that the hospital caused the disability; they alleged that the hospital (and a lab testing facility) did not run the correct tests that would have detected the genetic defects while the child was still in the womb.  Had they been given the correct tests, they would have known that the baby was “defective,” and then killed it.  Tragically, they were robbed of the opportunity to abort their son, so the hospital must pay for the son’s care — for the rest of his life. 
Oh, but don’t judge them:  they still “love” their child.  They wish he was dead, they wish they had killed him, but they still “love” him.  Make no judgments.  Offer no stern words.  They sued a hospital for not giving them the chance to kill their child, but do not think yourself qualified to condemn such a thing.
And finally, Mark Steyn on making everything mandatory that is not prohibited:
Bob Hope, touring the world in the year or so after the passage of the 1975 Consenting Adult Sex Bill:
“I’ve just flown in from California, where they’ve made homosexuality legal. I thought I’d get out before they make it compulsory.” 
For Hope, this was an oddly profound gag, discerning even at the dawn of the Age of Tolerance that there was something inherently coercive about the enterprise.  Soon it would be insufficient merely to be “tolerant” — warily accepting, blithely indifferent, mildly amused, tepidly supportive, according to taste.  The forces of “tolerance” would become intolerant of anything less than full-blown celebratory approval.

Good advice

I could use all of these tips.

Happiness and Slavery

A Think Progress story on the Robertson drama says:
Conservatives have fervently been defending Robertson’s comments about homosexuality, though they have been noticeably silent about his comments on race and civil rights.
OK, I thought that was curious, so I looked up what he said. Here are those remarks.
“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person," Robertson is quoted in GQ. "Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field.... They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
The article goes on to describe the political subjugation of blacks in the American South at that period of time, which was certainly real. The clear suggestion is that his inability to imagine how unhappy they must have been is clear proof of racism, in spite of his sense of being "white trash" sharing a very similar experience at least on a class level. Indeed, you might even think his class sympathies exacerbate his racial insensitivity: how could he think his experience was in any way like theirs?

I gather from a quick skimming of left-leaning articles on the subject that this is the common opinion. However, I am moved to wonder if it is the right way to think about it. He talks about people being "godly," and it is true that religion and stable families -- both of which were more prevalent in the era -- are often found by studies to be linked with happiness. But that's not really what moves me to wonder. What moves me to wonder is a historical controversy over the slave narratives.

In the Great Depression, the WPA recorded thousands of interviews with then-older Americans who had themselves been slaves before the Civil War. The collection is rightly described as a "peerless" resource, but historians have expressed some suspicion of the views expressed by the slaves in the interviews. The only one that made it into the Wikipedia article is expressed as a concern that having "all white interviewers" may have slanted the depiction of plantation life, making it "too positive." And indeed it is often quite positive as a description of what life was like as a slave.

There are some other theories about why the former slaves had such positive things to say about their lives on the plantation. The one to which I am most inclined is that they were all much older when they gave the interviews, and spoke with the natural nostalgia of the old for the sunny days of youth. Memory paints the memories of those days, in nearly all of us, with rose colors.

But there are other possibilities too. For one thing, economic conditions in the South cratered after the war, so that life after the war was markedly harder for everyone -- especially, as is usual, those on the bottom. The traditional market for Southern cotton was lost, as the English mills had turned to India during the war's blockade. The South's mills were destroyed, so it was relegated to being a producer of raw materials for Northern mills at rates set by Northern banks. The economic system imposed by the North was a brutal colonial-style monoculture built around cotton production, and colonial monocultures are notoriously harsh places to live (here as in Latin America, India, and elsewhere). Until the boll weevil collapsed the cotton economy in the late 1920s, the South was ground down by the usual effects of such economies: the price of the monocultural good (cotton, here) dropped every year, because supply increased every year as those commanding the economy forced ever-greater production of the single cash crop. Under those circumstances, quality of life dropped, again especially for the poorest and those most dependent on agriculture. Naturally those who had been slaves who had only known how to work cotton farms, or who were directly descended of slaves who had, were very likely to be a part of the very lowest agricultural classes tied to the cotton monoculture. They would have endured the worst conditions imposed by the economic system.

So it is possible (indeed it doesn't seem unlikely) that happiness is greatly influenced by economic realities. When the interviews were conducted from 1936-8, the boll weevil had collapsed the cotton economy, and the Great Depression had followed on its heels. While the boll weevil eventually allowed the South to escape the monoculture economy, at first it meant a severe economic depression for the region, which was then followed on by a severe depression worldwide. The former slave speaking in 1937 would be looking back on a life that had, in economic terms, ground ever worse each year of his or her life, capped by ten years' complete economic failure. The pre-war plantations may really have seemed like a better place by comparison to that. They may really have been, if not a better place, a happier place.

I see that Robertson was born in 1946. That means he grew up during the great economic boom that followed the end of World War II. Conditions that had long been terrible would have been improving for as long as his generation could remember, so that they would have grown up among stories of how bad things had been and how much better they were now. Jim Crow, though evil, was at that time a constant: perhaps even lessened in force by the economic success, so that poor whites and poor blacks were not in such cutthroat competition for very limited economic opportunities.

So were people happy? I wasn't there; I don't know. I'm not prepared to say that they weren't, though, because the problem may be our assumption that they couldn't have been. It may be that the slave narratives are really biased by the effect of having white interviewers, in other words; it may be that a very similar effect was causing young Robertson not to see or notice the pain of his black compatriots. I don't dismiss the proposition; but I think we ought to consider carefully whether it isn't possible that economic effects may have been overwhelming for those so close to grinding poverty. It happens to explain both controversies in a way that is consistent with the statements in interviews of the historical figures who were actually there.

Blast Those Christian Radicals

They're clearly behind this atrocity.

MAD About Speech

Everyone understands that the First Amendment restrains only government actions, not social pressures being brought to bear. There is an allied question, however, about those social pressures. The First Amendment uses government itself to restrain government from interfering with free expression. The People, insofar as they are properly thought of as acting through the state, are therefore using an aspect of their common will to restrain itself.

Why shouldn't social pressures be brought to bear against social pressures in the same way? If a group attempts to use social pressure to get someone fired for saying things they find objectionable, shouldn't those people themselves be pursued (and their employers subject to demands that they be fired at once)?

That sounds like a pretty unpleasant place to live. Those calling for civility are doubtless thinking of that. I wonder if the proper analogy, though, isn't to nuclear war. Mutually-Assured Destruction proved an effective restraint, just because a post-war world would have been such an unpleasant place to live.

In the current moment we see not only organizations but ad-hoc movements engaged in a sort of blood-lust, in love with the unrestrained power to destroy. There is no legal recourse against them, because the government only properly restrains the government. It is society that must restrain society.

I yield to none in my respect for courtesy. Certainly I have no desire to live in the kind of world in which our every expression is carefully watched by our ideological enemies in the hope that some public expression of religion, some joke, some interview should produce an opportunity to destroy our lives.

There are only two roads to avoid that world, though, and the first road is to avoid all public expressions of religion, all jokes, or the giving of interviews. The other is to make clear that this is a two-way street, if they insist upon it. Hopefully the cataclysm can be avoided, but clearly it will not be avoided out of the plain goodness of peoples' hearts.

Doctor knows best

Something tells me we're going to be seeing more of this.

That time of year

Time for the "best of the year" lists.  Here are the 30 best quotations from 2013.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The BBC piece is not always good history -- there are a few real howlers in the commentary -- but I suppose that's part of the charm of television.
Þis kyng lay at Camylot vpon Krystmasse
With mony luflych lorde, ledez of þe best,
Rekenly of þe Rounde Table alle þo rich breþer,
With rych reuel oryȝt and rechles merþes.
Þer tournayed tulkes by tymez ful mony,
Justed ful jolilé þise gentyle kniȝtes,
Syþen kayred to þe court caroles to make.
With Old and especially Middle English, you can often work out the meaning approximately by sounding out the word, remembering that "Þ" or "þ" is a "Th-" sound. The poem will sound archaic, but only a few words have passed completely out of the language. One of these is "tulkes," which is translated as "fighting man" or "soldier." Tolkien gives "tulkes" as "knights," but then translated "kniȝtes" as "lords," probably simply so as not to repeat himself. Tolkien appears to me to have adapted "tulkes" for the name of his Valar of might and prowess, Tulkas the Valiant, who laughed in war so that Melkor fled before him.

Read more about "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" as a Christmas poem, if you like.