What is a calendar?

Monday’s xkcd made an interesting point:

I’ve sometimes asked people to imagine that they had an expandable ruler.  If an object measured as longer than they expected, they could add a centimeter or two to the ruler to match their expectations.

Such a ruler would not be much of a measuring device.  Likewise, the calendar, with its expandable and contractible bits, its subdivision into the week, which is not commensurable with the other major subdivisions of the calendar, its months of varying lengths, etc, is not particularly satisfactory as a measuring device.  Indeed, if its chief purpose were to serve as a measuring device, it would have been replaced long ago.

What a calendar chiefly is, is a series of commands.  Many of these commands are tied to specific events in nature, and so we resort to leap days and the like to ensure that they come up at reasonable times.  That today is 22 April means, in much of the world, “Observe Earth Day!”*  That yesterday was 21 April meant, to Latin teachers, that it was Foundation of Rome Day, and so they have to organize some cheesy kind of classroom activity, possibly involving togas.**  That tomorrow is 23 April means, to Christians in certain categories, that it will be Saint George’s Day and so they ought to do whatever it is they do to commemorate Saint George.***

*xkcd fans will understand me when I say that my first reaction to this command is to resolve that I will not be going to space today.

**I am a Latin teacher, but I teach in a college, and I don’t have language classes on Tuesdays.  So I got out of it.

***I recently assigned myself in one of those categories, and I value Saint George for various reasons.  First. as a soldier who was put to death for refusing an unjust command, his memory should give courage to others whose consciences urge them to say no when it might be easier to join in atrocities, such as Albert Battel or Hugh Thompson.  Second, as a saint revered in all the major communions of the East and also in parts of the West, George is a potent symbol of Christian unity.  Third, the particular category of Christian I’ve ended up in is Anglicanism, and that’s one of the Western churches where Saint George has played a special role.  And fourth, my grandmother was born on 23 April, so I like to make a fuss about something on of that day.

My guesses about the upcoming UK general election

Might look slightly different in a few weeks.

Brian Barder, a retired diplomat who has been Britain’s senior representative in five countries (as Ambassador in Ethiopia, Poland, and Benin, and High Commissioner in the Commonwealth nations of Nigeria and Australia,) maintains a blog on which he has recently been sharing his thoughts about the general election that will be held in the United Kingdom on the seventh of May.  A while ago, he gave his opinion that the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party (or SNP, as it is known) were likely to form an agreement after this election under which Labour would conduct a minority government with the SNP lending its support when needed to pass relatively controversial legislation.  In two posts (here and here,) Ambassador Barder* recommended that Labour and the SNP should negotiate the terms of this agreement before the election, ideally in public, so that the electorate would know what it was being offered.

I believe that such public negotiations would be unwise.  At election time, parties ask activists to volunteer a great deal of time, do a lot of hard work, and present themselves to the public at a considerable risk of rejection and abuse, all without monetary compensation.  Their motivation is their belief in their party’s destiny and the opposing parties’ wickedness,  Public negotiations based on the premise that Labour will not win a majority, but will do a deal with one of its fiercest opponents, would demoralize Labour’s activists and energize supporters of the other parties.  Here is the first comment I offered in response to one of Ambassador Barder’s posts on this topic:

Surely if substantive conversations are going on between Labour and SNP, we won’t know about them for many years. No political party would be well-advised to publicly concede, prior to an election, that it does not expect to win a majority and is planning to govern in concert with a party whose chief commitment is deeply at odds with its whole outlook and tradition.

“To empty chair” is indeed an awkward construction.** “To graveyard whistle” has at least the benefit of being intransitive, so it doesn’t drop a direct object thudding onto the end of the phrase. And I do suspect you are engaging in a bit of graveyard-whistling in this post. If Scootland (sic) does vote as overwhelmingly for SNP as now seems likely, and if as a result of that vote SNP becomes a powerbroker at Westminster, the Scottish branches of the other parties will likely go the way of their counterparts in Northern Ireland. A Scotland where politics is a contest between the SNP and two or three Scottish Unionist parties without formal affiliations south of the border may not lead to the breakup of the UK, but it’s hard to see how it doesn’t advance the ghettoization of Scotland in the same way that such a party system has contributed to the ghettoization of Northern Ireland.

Ambassador Barder responded to this as he customarily does, with unfailing promptness and consideration.  He enlarged on his idea that Britain has entered a period of “New Politics,” in which an honest admission that multiparty politics have come to stay is likelier to help a party than to hurt it.

I cannot say that I was convinced by this argument, admirably though Ambassador Barder stated it.  I did raise another concern in this followup comment:

“enough LibDems and some other fence-sitters might be tempted, or bribed, to vote for the status quo to rob Labour of its opportunity to take office.” Difficult as it is to predict first-past-the-post races where the polls show so many parties receiving 5-10% support, I can’t really imagine the LibDems winning enough seats this year to hold the balance of power. They have enough strongholds now that they are unlikely to be wiped out completely, but they look to be headed for disaster.

Be that as it may, my greater concern is not so much with the Westminster parliament beginning this year as with subsequent parliaments in Westminster and Holyrood. If SNP comes close to the level of success the polls are now predicting, it will be very difficult for any ambitious Unionist politician in Scotland to support Scotland’s current party system. A party that represents none but Scottish interests and that can point to a time when the UK government depended on its support for its continued existence will have a credibility that no local branch of an all-UK party will be able to claim. To compete with that kind of appeal, Scots Unionists will have to form their own party, matching the SNP’s independence from London and erasing divisions among the old parties. That would be a new politics, all right, but the experience of Northern Ireland shows that it would likely be a dead end that would leave the UK longing for the old politics.

I must also say that you seem to have made rather a damaging admission when you say that “there isn’t necessarily anything substantive” for Labour and the SNP to discuss. If all the agreement that’s needed is on the sort of points that can be settled with a smile and a nod, then what is the need for these Labour-SNP talks you keep proposing? As for the pig-in-a-poke argument, who doubts that if Labour and SNP combine for a majority of seats they will arrive at just such a confidence and supply arrangement as you propose? And if they don’t combine for a majority, well, who cares what the eventual losers planned to do had they won an election?

Ambassador Barder added his reply to these concerns as a note within the original comment, saying that SNP would not actually have much power were it to enter a confidence and supply arrangement with Labour, since its supporters so hate the Tory Party (also known as the Conservatives) that they could not credibly threaten to throw their support to it.  This made me wonder why SNP would enter an arrangement that did not give them new power.  They are a political party, after all, power is their business.  But I did not want to drag the discussion out, so I left it there.

A few days ago, Ambassador Barder posted his reflections on the televised debate held last week among the leaders of the seven parties contesting multiple seats in Britain.***  Ambassador Barder indicated his overall assessment of the debate with the title “Ten Depressing Things About the Seven-Leader Election Debate Last Night.”  Several of the depressing things had to do with Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s not-very aggressive approach to his Tory counterpart, British premier David Cameron; another had to do with Liberal Democratic Party leader Nicholas Clegg’s focus on deficit reduction.  The non-depressing things were to be found in the fine performances of the three women on stage, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, and Plaid Cymru (viz, Welsh nationalist) leader Leanne Wood.****

In the weeks since that earlier post, I’d thought more about the election, and Mr Miliband’s behavior in the debate, like Ms Sturgeon’s and Mr Clegg’s, seemed to be quite reasonable.  In a comment, I began to explain:

I’m beginning to suspect that the likeliest outcome is a grand coalition. I know that all the insiders keep saying that the SNP vote won’t be nearly as high on the night as the polls are suggesting, and they may be right, but there is still likely to be a parliament in which SNP, plus either Labour or the Tories, would have a majority. I can’t imagine Labour doing anything that would help SNP present itself to Scottish voters as a serious force in national politics, and Tory backbenchers are all going to be such in a cold sweat if the UKIP vote swings even a dozen seats from Conservative to Labour that any leader who wanted to make a deal with SNP would be ousted immediately. So that leaves a grand coalition as the only available outcome. Unless, of course, the SNP vote collapses more dramatically than anyone is predicting while UKIP surges more dramatically than anyone is predicting, in which case Labour may squeak in with a narrow majority,

So perhaps what we saw in the Miliband-Cameron exchanges was a phase in what you’ve been calling for, a semi-public discussion between potential coalition partners, and not a debate between opponents at all.

Ambassador Barder’s response to this was rather incredulous.  I quote it in full:

I don’t believe that a ‘grand coalition’ of the Conservatives with Labour is conceivable or desirable. I can’t imagine that Ed Miliband, brought up from infancy in the heart of the Labour party, would consider it for a second: I’m convinced that he would resign as leader without hesitation in the unlikely event that his party colleagues tried to steer him into it. It would split the party in a way that would make the defection of the Gang of Four seem like a minor disagreement among friends. The echoes of Ramsay MacDonald, the great betrayer, would be defeaning. A huge proportion of Labour party members (certainly including me!) would resign from the party in anger and disgust if the Labour leadership were to go into a partnership with the most reactionary, anti-social, inhumane, chauvinist and incompetent Conservative party of our lifetimes. Conflicting attitudes to Europe and to the welfare state alone make any such collaboration unthinkable. I guess that the Conservatives would be equally deeply split. It’s not as if the country faces the kind of existential threat that made an all-party national government essential in 1939-40: we face grave problems but there are clear remedies for most of them readily available — and almost no consensus between the two major parties about what the remedies should be. And, finally, it’s unnecessary. As experience in Scotland and continental Europe has demonstrated, a minority government can function quite satisfactorily in a multi-party parliament provided that it can forge temporary ad hoc alliances on specific issues at different times to enable it to win parliamentary support for at least some of its programme.

To which I responded:

The makeup of the next government all depends on what the state of parties is after the election, of course. If, let’s say, Labour win enough seats that they can put together a majority by agreement with either the LDP or SNP or a combination of other small parties, then there will be a chance of a government based on “temporary ad hoc alliances on specific issues at different times.” If, however, it turns out that Labour and the Tories are each separated from an overall majority by fewer seats than SNP hold, that will be impossible.

Granted Labour voters are deeply hostile to the Tories, and would hate a Grand Coalition almost as much in 2015 as they did when Ramsey Macdonald tried it in 1931. But that does not mean that a party split would be on the cards, as it was then, if Ed Miliband were to form such a coalition as a way of keeping SNP on the fringes of UK politics. Labour politicians may share some measure of their supporters’ antipathy to the Tories, but in the SNP they see a direct threat to their own personal ambitions. A Labour-SNP pact would risk putting the SNP in a position of dominance in Scotland in decades to come comparable to that which the Ulster Unionist Party held in Northern Ireland half a century ago, and no Labour politician can fail to see how dramatically that outcome would reduce his or her chances of ever being a senior figure in government. And if no Labour MPs bolt the party, there can be no party split, no matter how unhappy the rank-and-file may be.

An historical comparison that comes to mind is the aftermath of the February 1974 General Election. After his meeting with Ted Heath, Jeremy Thorpe announced to the press “He offered us nothing.” Well, of course Heath offered Thorpe nothing. Moderate, pro-Common Market, anti-Powellite Tory MPs- precisely that faction of his party who formed the core of Heath’s support- tended to represent moderate, pro-Common Market, anti-Powellite constituencies which were the most responsive to Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberal Party, and so those MPs saw in the Liberals an immediate threat to their ability to hold their seats. By approving a deal that would have made the Liberals a serious party of government those MPs would have been signing their own political death warrants. Far better to let Harold Wilson form another government and to oppose that government than to make a bargain that involves the end of one’s own career.

Continuing with the scenario in which SNP could provide a majority to either Labour or the Tories, we can rather safely rule out the idea that one of the major parties might carry on for more than a few months as a minority government with a confidence and supply arrangement with the other. That arrangement would give the official opposition all the power and none of the responsibility in the policy-making process. Assuming neither Labour nor the Tories want to call a second election before the year is out, that means a Grand Coalition.

Again, that is only one possible scenario. I notice that 538 dot com is now***** predicting that the new parliament will be made up of 287 Tories, 271 Labour, 42 SNP, 27 LDP, 17 from the Northern Ireland parties, and 6 others. If that comes true, there would be almost as little prospect of a Labour government sustaining itself by the sort of shifting alliances you describe as there would be if (let’s say) Labour and the Tories tied at 287 with SNP holding 42 seats and a majority for either. Labour would need the SNP and virtually everyone else any time they faced Tory opposition, a situation that could well require the party not only to give up on Scotland but to write off seats wherever the LDP or Plaid Cymru were strong. Even if Ed Miliband’s upbringing had instilled in him a genuinely fanatical hatred of the Tories, he would have to match that hatred with an equal hatred of the Labour Party to try that course.

As for the Tories, under the 538 dot com scenario they too would be stuck with a Grand Coalition. As I mentioned in my first comment, UKIP doesn’t have to win a single seat to scare Tory backbenchers into demanding that their party turn further to the right. They just have to receive, in a handful of constituencies, more votes than separated the Tory candidate from the winning candidate. That will tell Tory backbenchers that if they do not appease UKIP voters they might lose their seats. So a Tory deal with SNP would not only be unpopular in Scotland, it would be a non-starter in the parliamentary Tory party. Likewise a renewed pact with the LDP, even if the LDP had the votes to give the Tories a majority. The only government the Tories could enter, on 538 dot com’s projection, would be a Grand Coalition, as indeed the only government Labour could enter on that projection would be a Grand Coalition.

When so many voters are leaning to minor parties, polls are particularly tricky to evaluate, so it is certainly possible that one of the major parties could emerge with a majority, or that LDP might bounce back and be in a position to give Labour a majority, or that multiple small parties will break through and it will become possible to have the a government by ad hoc, informal agreements. At the moment, however, the likeliest outcome of next month’s general election would seem to be a Grand Coalition. Mr Miliband’s debate performance, the aspects of it that puzzled you, might then be best understood as a stage in the negotiations to set that coalition in place. For that matter, both Ms Sturgeon’s glittering performance in the debate and the peculiar controversy that has sprung up about her since then might be evidence that she too expects such a coalition to emerge, and is taking advantage of the freedom it gives her to attack both Labour and the Tories as the tactical exigencies of the moment may require.

As this comment was already quite unreasonably long, I did not add that Mr Clegg’s focus in the unpromising topic of fiscal rectitude might make quite a bit of sense if he expected his party to be in opposition to a grand coalition in the next parliament.  Before they became a party of government by entering the present ruling coalition with the Tories, the Liberal Democrats tended to be something of a clean government lobby, hectoring whichever party was in power about administrative irregularities and, especially, about cloudy statements from the Treasury.  Perhaps Mr Clegg is preparing the Liberal Democrats for a return to this role.

Ambassador Barder, in his reply to this, expressed admiration for my “ability to marshal such a weight of argument and evidence in support of such an inherently improbable proposition.”  He went on to defend his view that a grand coalition is still overwhelmingly unlikely to be the result of the election, pointing out that the manifestos of SNP, the Greens, and Plaid Cymru are so much closer to what Labour voters want than are the policies of Labour’s own leadership that Labour would be risking a massive revolt if it did not strive to make a deal with them.  He closed with “We shall see!,” a nice way of asking for respite.

My reply started with a pleasantry, to assure Ambassador Barder that I appreciated his time and efforts, and proceeded to another bland remark that I hoped would allow us to part in good spirits:

Thanks very much for your replies. You are not only consistently informative and thought-provoking, but may well be the most courteous blogger on the web.

Certainly, in view of Labour’s history, a grand coalition is an “inherently improbable proposition.” But the very thing that makes politics so fascinating is that yesterday’s inherently improbable proposition can occasionally become today’s sole viable alternative, and tomorrow’s tediously settled reality. Who knows, perhaps the next parliament will feature something even harder to imagine than a Labour-Tory coalition. Indeed, we shall see!

*Brian Barder would more properly be referred to as “Sir Brian,” since he is a Knight Commander of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George.  Those sorts of titles strike me as impossibly silly, however.  Since he is an extremely polite person, I will not call him simply “Barder.”  So “Ambassador Barder” it is.

**In that same post, Ambassador Barder had complained about this ungainly neologism.

***Leaders of parties contesting seats only in Northern Ireland were not included, nor were leaders whose parties were not likely to keep their deposits in more than one constituency race.

****Nigel Farage of the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) struck Ambassador Barder as “the most shameless,” an unsurprising assessment given Mr Farage’s low opinion of the institutions to which Ambassador Barder has devoted his life’s work.

*****That’s what 538 was predicting when I wrote that comment.  It’s adjusted the prediction a bit in the hours since.  Now, Labour are down to 270 and SNP are up to 43.

Indiana becomes the center of the universe, for a little while

This is where Indiana is, in case you’ve been wondering.

Last week the state of Indiana made the national news by passing a law whose sponsors named it “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Opponents of the claim that this name is misleading, both because it does little to promote religious freedom and because it is significantly different from the US federal law known by the same name and from the laws modeled on that federal law that are on the books in many other states.  Because the law is expected to protect businesses that refuse to serve members of sexual minority groups, advocates of the rights of such groups have protested vigorously against it.

The two things about this controversy I’ve read that I’ve found most helpful are an essay posted on Facebook by lawyer Carolyn Homer Thomas and a blog post by Eve Tushnet.  As the weeks pass, I’ll probably see good things in print, but for now the story is fresh enough that the internet is the richest source.

Carolyn Homer Thomas writes that Indiana’s law differs from the federal law in two key ways:

First, SB 101 expressly recognizes that for-profit businesses which “exercise practices that are compelled or limited by a system of religious belief held by…the individuals…who have control and substantial ownership of the entity” qualify for religious exemptions. This means that there is NO Indiana regulation that a business cannot theoretically trump by saying their religion forbids compliance. What’s rightfully getting the most attention (because of the gay rights movement) is the risk that businesses will try to trump non-discrimination and employment laws. This is because, until the Hobby Lobby case, most people had understood the earlier federal and state RFRAs to only protect individuals or non-profit religious institutions, like churches and charities. But the Indiana RFRA now allows even for-profit corporations to exercise religion.

“This means that there is NO Indiana regulation that a business cannot theoretically trump by saying their religion forbids compliance.”  A statute that, interpreted by its plain language, would dismantle the entire civil law system of one of the fifty states would seem to pose a threat to every law-abiding citizen of that state.  I can see that members of sexual minority groups are among those who are especially vulnerable that threat, and so it is reasonable that they should be among the major focuses of attention as Hoosiers* try to figure out how to get themselves out of the mess their state legislature and governor have landed them in.

Carolyn Homer Thomas goes on to identify another major problem with the Indiana statute:

Second – this is the most fascinating aspect of the whole thing to me as a religion law geek – SB 101 only protects a business who is actively “exercising” a practice that is “compelled or limited by” religious belief. This means that the religious belief cannot just be a preference — it has to be theologically mandated. So, a business who suddenly changes course, or comes up with a fairly weak theological reason for its action? That is a ground in court to reject their exemption. By contrast, SB 101 protects ANY “exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief” for individuals and non-profits. So it will be harder for businesses to get exemptions than individuals. Indiana will require a much higher showing of religious conflict before it will protect businesses. (I am going to bracket the fact that this difference presents its own Constitutional problems – courts aren’t supposed to, under the Establishment Clause, evaluate theology.)

Giving state courts the power to decide what does and does not count as a worthwhile religious belief would seem to be a pretty big drawback in something called “the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

Eve Tushnet, as a conservative Roman Catholic and an out (albeit celibate) lesbian, has a unique perspective on this issue.  Because of her religious beliefs, she understands the scruples of those whose consciences won’t allow them to participate in same-sex weddings:

1. Cooking is an art, cakes are art, compelled creation of beauty is compelled speech. I feel like the denial that cakery is/should be expressive, that food bears meaning, is somehow Gnostic and class-biased (or sexist? if your grandma could do it, it must not be art?), but maybe that’s self-parody on my part. Anyway beauty + meaning, to me, pretty clearly = art. And photography is even more obviously art, right?

At the same time, because of her sexuality, she also understands dimensions of the issue to which other social conservatives are blind:

2. Still… I wonder how different this debate would look if more gay people felt confident that Christians know how common discrimination, harassment, and violence are in our lives. I mean I didn’t really know this myself for a long time. I was very sheltered. The past few years, in which I’ve gotten to know lots of gay people from different backgrounds (mostly Christian, mostly celibate, it turns out this doesn’t protect you–not that any of my friends asked it to), have been eye-opening for me.

And quite often I find straight people are even more surprised than I was to hear about the frequency and sordid creativity of anti-gay acts. I hope I’m remembering this right, but at a retreat I was at, the leader asked how many of the non-straight participants had either experienced violence as a result of sexual orientation ourselves, or had close friends who had experienced this violence. And I think all of us had. (Close friends, in my case.) And the straight people were shocked. When I tell this story now, people’s eyes widen–I mean, straight people’s eyes widen.

The support major corporations and prominent media figures have given to the protests against Indiana’s law has convinced social conservatives like Rod Dreher that America’s power elite is solidly in favor of the rights of sexual minorities, and that he and his fellow dissenters are headed for a future on the margins of society.  Mr Dreher writes, “On this issue, the left has the media, the academy, much of the legal profession, and corporate America on its side. That’s a powerful coalition. It is the Establishment. And you will not escape its view.”  At The Federalist, Robert Tracinski goes even further, declaring that “The Left Has No Concept of Freedom,” and that those leading the charge against the Indiana law portends a “law of the state [that will] expand so much that it leaves the individual no space in which he may determine his own private principles of action.”

Ms Tushnet has a response ready for Messrs Dreher and Tracinski:

We have a sharply bifurcated culture, where like Glee is on tv and Tim Cook is a gazillionaire, and yet countless kids are being harassed, berated, and thrown out of their homes for being gay.

I am not convinced most straight people know that stuff, and think it’s awful. I am definitely not convinced that most gay people trust that our heterosexual brethren know and reject that stuff. That’s some of what you’re hearing in the “slippery slope” arguments, Can they refuse to carry us in the ambulance? Can they kick our family out of the restaurant?

Those slippery slope arguments are pretty hard to forget when you think about small towns and rural areas of a sort that do exist in Indiana, places where public space consists of a handful of businesses, a few fundamentalist churches, and a couple of government offices.  If you live in one of those areas and the people running those businesses decide that it isn’t worth their while to be seen with the likes of you, your life could become very tightly circumscribed very quickly.

I’ll conclude with a very clever tweet from Michael Brendan Dougherty.  Mr Dougherty, who has taken a rightist stand in this debate, posted this:

Well of course they do.  That’s why mainstream political discussion had so little room for the rights of sexual minorities until recent times; most people can’t really imagine themselves wanting to exercise the right to form a same-sex relationship, or to be transgender, or to live any of the other lives that we now group together under the LGBTQI banner.  And it’s also why every other minority group, including religious minority groups, has a hard time finding a hearing from the general public.   I consider this tweet to be very clever because, in a single rhetorical move, it creates a category into which both the same-sexer who has to wonder whether the paramedics will refuse to put her in the ambulance and the photographer who has to wonder she’ll be sued out of business if she declines to take pictures at a same-sex wedding naturally fall.  So he, like Ms Tushnet and Ms Thomas, manages to open a space in the debate for a human voice.

*That’s what people from Indiana are called, “Hoosiers.”  No one knows why, though there is some evidence supporting a theory connecting it with an early-nineteenth century slang term from Yorkshire, “howzher,” which meant “oaf.”  Anyway, though the word may have originated as an insult, people from Indiana insist on being identified as “Hoosiers,” and if you call them “Indianans” they genuinely do not understand what you mean.

This can’t be true, can it?

I picked up a used book a few days ago and was just leafing through it.  The book is the Wordsworth Reference 1993 paperback of James George Frazer’s 1922 abridgment of his massive work of comparative religion, The Golden Bough.  On virtually every page, I find something which moves me to exclaim “Interesting, if true!”  I’m pretty sure that 99% of Frazer’s factual claims are total bullshit, as for example this story, chosen entirely at random, alleged to be a description of the practices of traditional healers among the indigenous people of British Columbia:

The Indians of the Nass river, in British Columbia, are impressed with a belief that a physician may swallow his patient’s soul by mistake.  A doctor who is believed to have done so is made by the other members of the faculty to stand over the patient, while one of them thrusts his fingers down the doctor’s throat, another kneads him in the stomach with his knuckles, and a third slaps him on the back.  If the soul is not in him after all, and if the same process has been repeated upon all the medical men without success, it is concluded that the soul must be in the head-doctor’s box.  A party of doctors, therefore, waits upon him at his house and requests him to produce his box.  When he has done so and arranged its contents on a new mat, they take the votary of Aesculapius and hold him up by the heels with his head in a hole in the floor.  In this position they wash his head, and “any water remaining from the ablution is taken and poured upon the sick man’s head.”  No doubt the lost soul is in the water.

I take it the characters in this tale of Frazer’s are supposed to be the Nisga’a people of the Nass river valley; if any Nisga’a are reading these, please use the comments to tell me whether you think Frazer may by some odd chance be telling the truth about what your ancestors did a hundred years ago.

When I was typing the passage above up, I realized something about it seemed familiar.  Then I remembered Star Trek 3, a 1984 movie in which the ship’s surgeon has somehow ingested the soul of one of his patients.  It is by no means impossible that this passage may have inspired that story.  Comparative mythology was very much in vogue in Hollywood in those days, especially in the person of Joseph Campbell, and Frazer is a small step from Campbell.

The Rite to Remain Silent

There was also a nun, a prioress, who in her smiling modest was and coy, and her greatest oath was but “By Saint Eloy!”

In 2002, I took in a dog.  He’d lived in my neighbors’ backyard, and they couldn’t take care of him any more.  For those first few weeks, training him to live in my apartment kept me from getting much sleep.

Something else that was new to me at about that time was cable television.  Since I was now up at all hours, I started turning on the TV at all hours, looking for something to watch. I quickly found that there were always reruns of Law & Order on some channel or other.  I’d never seen the show, and was soon hooked on it.  When the announcer started in with, “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups,” I would turn to to the dog and say “While the dogs aren’t represented at all!  That’s not fair, is it, boy?”  He never expressed an opinion.*

Anyway, I kept watching reruns of Law & Order long after the dog was housebroken.  I wondered why, and formed a theory.  Each episode starts with a very small group of people, usually two, sometimes more, minding their own business when they stumble upon a murdered corpse.  They make these opening sequences evocative of as many aspects of ordinary life on the island of Manhattan as possible, creating the impression that Manhattan is a place where you might find a murdered corpse at any moment.  Then they go on to explore the relationships the murdered person had with people still living; any relationship, between spouses, lovers, friends, relatives, business associates, anything, is established as a potential prelude to murder.  Having thus painted Manhattan as Hell, as the ultimate disorder, they move on through the police and courtroom procedural to culminate in a jury verdict, a symbol of Order.  So it’s a ritual that dramatizes the survival of order in a world of disorder.  As such, it can function as a substitute for a conventional religion.

I was quite sure from the beginning that this insight was not new with me, but was recently jolted when I saw a movie I’d heard about for many years and saw that it was already so familiar that it was the topic of a filmed spoof as long ago as 1979.   The movie was Mr Mike’s Mondo Video.  The police procedural in the sketch isn’t Law & Order; in 1979, Law & Order was still eleven years from its debut.**   Instead, it was Hawaii Five-O.  In the sketch, there is a religious group that worships Jack Lord, star of Hawaii Five-O.  The sketch goes on too long; if they’d cut after the singer finishes the first line of the hymn “Were You There When They Crucified Jack Lord,” it would have been a lot better.  Still makes the point, though:

*The dog is still around, and I still say that to him whenever I happen on the opening of Law & Order.  He still isn’t talking.

**Eleven years is less time than has passed since 2002 and now, and less time than passed between the debut of the show in 1990 and 2002.

Goodbye, Girls With Slingshots!

Danielle Corsetto has announced that yesterday’s installment of Girls With Slingshots is the final one.  It will be missed.

Does anyone know who the cartoonist is?

I’ve seen this cartoon several places, but nowhere have I seen an attribution.  Searching for it on Google just pulls up more unattributed copies.  So, does anyone know who did it?

“The author’s intent” and the pronunciations /dʒɪf/ and /ɡɪf/

Recently there’s been a flareup of interest in that great question of our age, the correct pronunciation of the acronym “gif.”

An abbreviation for “graphics interface format,” some people pronounce this acronym /dʒɪf/ (as if it were spelled “jiff,”) while others say /ɡɪf/ (as if it were spelled, um, “gif.”)

Here’s a remark from Rachel Larimore, prompted by RuPaul’s declaration in favor of the pronunciation /dʒɪf/ (“jiff”):

One of the flashpoints in this weighty debate is the fact that the inventor of the gif format, Steve Wilhite, prefers to pronounce it as /dʒɪf/, while most other people pronounce it /ɡɪf/.   For my part, whatever authority Mr Wilhite might want to claim in this matter because of his role in creating the format is seriously undercut by the fact that he at least consented to, and possibly suggested, the acronym “gif.”  If he’d wanted us to say /dʒɪf/, the time to take that stand was when the acronym was being chosen.  The abbreviation “G.P.” on American military vehicles in the late 1930’s combined with the name of a character in Popeye comics gave rise to the pronunciation /dʒiːp/ and eventually to the word “jeep”; abbreviating “graphics interface format” as “gf” would likely have started people saying either /dʒɪf/ or /dʒiːf/ (“jeef,” as if it were the singular of “Jeeves.”) Once Mr Wilhite agreed to the abbreviation “gif,” it would be as silly for him to get upset with people for saying /ɡɪf/ as it would for the inventors of Play-Doh to be upset that their product is now used as something other than wallpaper cleaner.

I think that a lot of the emotional heat in this argument comes from a sense of unease about something basic to communication that is strangely difficult to put into words.  It is generally taken for granted that there is a relationship between the interpretation we ought to put on a message and the interpretation that the author of that message would have wanted us to put on it.  But when we set out to explain exactly what that relationship is, and how it applies to different kinds of messages, and how far it restricts the proper use of material objects created for the purpose of sending messages, and how exactly we came to have this moral obligation to recreate the author’s intended message inside our heads, and what the proper penalty is for failing to do so, and who counts as the author of what, and which of the various ideas that might have been in a particular person’s mind at various points in time count as authorial intent, the whole thing gets very slippery very fast. It’s one of those things like “time” or “truth” or “love” which we are all quite sure exists and makes demands on us, but which no one can satisfactorily explain. If authorial intent can’t settle a question as basic as the pronunciation of a three letter word, then it begins to seem as if we won’t be able to hold onto the concept of authorial intent at all. Without such a concept, it is by no means obvious how any form of communication would be possible.

On the other hand, it is also obvious that a work of art always says more than its creator intended it to say.  D. H. Lawrence (almost) said* “Never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and that is wise advice.  If that were not so, not only would it be impossible for any work of art to outlive the cultural moment in which it was produced; it would also be necessary for artists to go around continually explaining the meaning of each of their works to each person encountering that work.  If you’ve ever written a work of fiction, you know how this goes; you set to work thinking you’re going to tell one story, then find another story telling itself. After the writing is done, your readers start asking you questions about what you had intended by various things you put in the story, and half your challenge is coming up with non-embarrassing ways to admit that you hadn’t realized you put those things in until the reader pointed them out to you.

Even people who start discussions of the dispute between /dʒɪf/ and /ɡɪf/ by joking about the insignificance of the issue, and who never, in their conscious minds, accept the proposition that it matters very much which pronunciation becomes and remains most widespread, do often become quite passionate about their preferred pronunciation.  I think they do that because they have an uneasy feeling that, while the author’s intent matters, it is not the only thing that matters as we interpret a text.  The feeling is uneasy because it isn’t attached to a clear explanation of why and in what sense it is so.

That in turn gives us another example of the difficulty of using “authorial intent” as a standard of interpretation.  On the one hand, very few people would agree with the proposition that much is at stake in a debate about the pronunciations /dʒɪf/ and /ɡɪf/.  Even fewer are moved by such debates to write essays about the role of authorial intent in interpretation of text.  On the other hand, a great many people raise their voices, spend time contributing vitriolic posts to online forums, and take other actions that strongly suggest that they do believe that something important is hanging in the balance.  This raises the question of levels of intentionality.  At the level of willingness to assent to particular propositions, the authors of these passionate messages have no intention to send the message that it matters which pronunciation catches on.  At the level of behavior and affect, that is precisely the message they are sending.

*Lawrence actually said “Never trust the artist, trust the tale,” which is not only less memorable than the common misquotation, but is also confusing.  Is he saying that we should look for narrative content even in artworks that don’t seem to have it, and cast a leery eye on artists who don’t seem to be telling stories?  I’m sure it wasn’t his chief conscious intent to do so, but something like that may have been in the back of his mind somewhere.  Whether or not some such idea was rumbling around in Lawrence’s mind when he crafted the aphorism, it distracts from the point which “Never trust the teller, trust the tale” makes so pungently.

Want to buy some real estate on Venus?

I just saw this video on io9:

I’ve recently been rereading some of Arthur Clarke’s science fiction stories, so I was primed and ready for this topic.  Here’s the comment I offered on the post:

Step one would be to establish orbiting stations around Venus, with artificial gravity produced in centrifuges.  On these stations, we would carry out step two, the genetic engineering and then the deployment of some kind of plant that would take the form of tiny particles that would float in the clouds of Venus. Even if these plants were too small to do much individually, they could be the basis of a future ecosystem if they could temporarily link together to absorb CO2, conduct photosynthesis, and reproduce.  Those linkages would be brief, broken well before their weight caused them to sink very far into the atmosphere.

Step three would be to create and deploy a series of larger creatures that would feed on these microscopic plants, and step four to create and deploy smaller creatures that would be symbiotic with the larger creatures.  From there, the ecosystem of the cloud tops would begin to evolve on its own; in step five, we would supervise and direct that evolution to produce food and other useful products for future floating cities, while also sequestering as much carbon and sulfur as possible in order to expand the habitable regions of the atmosphere.      ​

All of those preliminaries would take generations, probably centuries. And all the while, the orbiting stations would be growing in population and complexity. So by the time we got around to building habitations in the atmosphere, it would be an open question of why we would bother.  You talk about surfacism; decades ago, Gerard K. O’Neill derided planetism, and predicted that “The High Frontier” of human settlement in space would be on stations with artificial gravity, not on planets where gravity is fixed at levels lethal to human life. I suspect O’Neill will turn out to have been right, and that the prime spot for stations will be inside the orbit of Mercury, where solar power is at its most abundant.  But it would still be nice to turn the clouds of Venus into a huge farm of some kind.

So I envision a future in which the majority of the human race will live in a collection of huge, solar-powered cylinders clustered near to the Sun, each spinning at a rate giving it an interior surface gravity equal to that under which their ancestors evolved on Earth.  Presumably the interior surface areas of this collection of cylinders will be vastly greater than that of the Earth.  I’m not at all sure this is a desirable future; if the Earth isn’t enough for humanity, then it’s unlikely that anything larger than the Earth will be.  Rather than the peaceful age of abundance foreseen by Clarke, O’Neill, and others, the settlement of space may well be a new age of conflict among grasping, covetous powers.  But it does seem likelier than settlement of any planetary body, either on its surface or in its atmosphere.

Click Mort

Somehow I had been unaware of artist Click Mort until this morning, when a friend posted a link on a social media site. As a devotee of ViewMaster, I can only wish that a company like Berezin would bring out a set of reels devoted to these intricate little studies in three-dimensional form.

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