The Norwegian Association for the Blind is an even funnier group than their name might suggest

A couple of years ago, Believer1 embedded a short video here from the Norwegian Association for the Blind.  It was hilarious, as is this video, produced around the same time, making it clear why people shouldn’t bother service dogs while they’re on the job:

The Believer’s service dog is an important part of our family; when the three of us are out on the town, people sometimes ask me when it’s appropriate to pet him.  I tell them, first, that the key thing is to ask her permission before paying any attention to her dog.  I then compare him to a dentist.  If a dentist was drilling your teeth, you wouldn’t want someone to wander into the room and start rubbing your dentist’s head and shoulders, exclaiming “What a good dentist!”  If you can understand why it would be wrong to do that, you should be able to understand why it is wrong to interrupt a service dog on the job.

“Great Universities” and “Great Cities”

The other day, I made a long comment on a post at the blog commonly known as “Gelman.”  The original post is by the blog’s namesake, Professor Andrew Gelman.  Gelman referred to a newspaper piece by Professor Edward Glaeser on the idea of developing an applied sciences center in New York City.  Glaeser makes some rather strong claims for the power of universities to promote economic development in the cities to which they are attached.  Blogger Joseph Delaney had put something up in which he expressed doubts about Glaeser’s general claims, challenging those who would defend them to explain why New Haven, Connecticut, home of Yale University, is such a dump.

Gelman is impressed by Delaney’s post.  He also picks up on a paragraph in Glaeser’s piece that includes a quote from New York’s late US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York is often credited with saying that the way to create a great city is to “create a great university and wait 200 years,” and the body of evidence on the role that universities play in generating urban growth continues to grow.

Gelman doesn’t dwell on Moynihan’s words; he makes it clear in the comments (here and here) that what really interests him is the question of the economic impact of universities on their urban environments in the (moderately) long run.  Many other commenters (for example, this person) expressed doubt as to whether any answer to the question could be tested quantitatively, considering how few “great universities” and “great cities” there are at any point in time.  In my comment, I suggest that if we take Moynihan’s words literally (admittedly, a rather silly thing to do) we might be able to develop a quantitative test of his hypothesis:

Well, if we take Moynihan’s claim literally, what we need are two lists: a list of “the great universities” as of year n, and a list of “the great cities” as of year n + 200. Of course we wouldn’t want to top-of-the-head either of those lists, so as to avoid some kind of Clever Hans effect.

I haven’t looked for any list that anyone has put forward of “the great universities” as of any particular year, but it sounds like the sort of thing many historians would be fond of producing. And lots of people like to make lists of “the great cities.” Once we have a list, however subjectively it was generated, we can look over the items, try to find quantifiable characteristics that most or all items on it share, and having found such characteristics we can refine the list by adding other items that share them or deleting items that don’t share them. So we can try to work backward to foundations.

As for Yale, I doubt very much that you could find any reasonable criterion by which it either was or had been a “great university” in 1811. Nowadays, sure, but in its first centuries it was a backwater. Would any American university have qualified as “great” in 1811? The faculty of the College of New Jersey, later renamed Princeton University, had been home to quite a few distinguished scholars from Edinburgh in the late eighteenth century, and Columbia had produced a lot of impressive alumni by 1811. Still, it would seem a bit much to call either of them a “great university” at that early date.

Other commenters, such as universally beloved public figure Steve Sailer,  have brought up the idea that it isn’t great universities that make the cities attached to them great, but great cities that make the universities attached to them great.  Here again, I’d ask to see two lists: the world’s “great cities” as of year n, and the world’s “great universities” as of year n + whatever number you like. New Haven continues to be a counterexample; while Yale may never have been on any list of the world’s “great universities” until the middle of the twentieth century, it undeniably has a place on any such list today.  Yet New Haven has never been anyone’s idea of a “great city.”  How many seats of the “great universities” have been?

Of course, one challenge in analyzing such lists would be deciding which universities are attached to which cities.  It may not be controversial to say that Cambridge, Massachusetts is part of Boston, and so to give Harvard as an example of a (currently) great university located in (what I’d call) a great city; but what about San Francisco and the two great universities in the Bay Area?  Is Berkeley really part of San Francisco?  You go through Oakland to get from one to the other, and Oakland is most definitely not part of San Francisco.  Is Palo Alto part of San Francisco?  The relationship between Stanford University and San Francisco is often cited as one of the things that makes that city great, but Palo Alto is in fact 35 miles from San Francisco at their closest points, and Stanford’s campus is further than that.  San Jose, a very different city, is only half as far, and it’s southward to and beyond San Jose that Stanford-based tech entrepreneurs have usually gone.


Libertarians and marriage

I’ve fallen far behind my usual pace in sharing my “Periodicals Notes“; that pesky offline part of the world keeps distracting me with things like work, family, etc etc.  There’s a great deal of work I ought to be doing right now, as a matter of fact, but I can’t resist taking time to note a couple of pieces in the latest issue of The American Conservative. As you can see from the cover illustration, the magazine’s contributors generally oppose official recognition of homosexual unions, holding that marriage is an institution that must be reserved for one elephant and one statue, and solemnized by a self-certified ophthalmologist.

I’ve long been puzzled by the low quality of arguments offered against same-sex marriage.  Opponents have had a great deal of time to come up with reasons why only opposite sex couples should be allowed to marry.  Their position is broadly popular, and they have at their disposal the resources of major religious organizations, conservative think-tanks, and much of the press.  You’d think that with all that on their side, they would be able to produce an argument that would be at least superficially plausible.  Yet, when asked to defend their position, supporters of the status quo trot out arguments that are so feeble they inspire, not even laughter, but sheer pity.  At the outset of his article in this issue, “Stonewalling Marriage,*” Justin Raimondo describes the situation with admirable clarity:

Opponents of same-sex marriage have marshaled all sorts of arguments to make their case, from the rather alarmist view that it would de-sanctify and ultimately destroy heterosexual marriage to the assertion that it would logically lead to polygamy and the downfall of Western civilization. None of these arguments—to my mind, at least—make the least amount of sense, and they have all been singularly ineffective in beating back the rising tide of sentiment in favor of allowing same-sex couples the “right” to marry.

Raimondo goes on to offer what the cover advertises as “A Libertarian Case Against Gay Marriage.”  Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a statement more typical of libertarianism than these paragraphs:

Of course, we already have gay marriages.  Just as heterosexual marriage, as an institution, preceded the invention of the state, so the homosexual version existed long before anyone thought to give it legal sanction. Extending the authority of the state into territory previously untouched by its tender ministrations, legalizing relationships that had developed and been found rewarding entirely without this imprimatur, would wreak havoc where harmony once prevailed.  Imagine a relationship of some duration in which one partner, the breadwinner, had supported his or her partner without much thought about the economics of the matter: one had stayed home and tended the house, while the other had been in the workforce, bringing home the bacon. This division of labor had prevailed for many years, not requiring any written contract or threat of legal action to enforce its provisions.

Then, suddenly, they are legally married— or, in certain states, considered married under the common law. This changes the relationship, and not for the better. For now the property of the breadwinner is not his or her own: half of it belongs to the stay-at-home. Before when they argued, money was never an issue: now, when the going gets rough, the threat of divorce—and the specter of alimony—hangs over the relationship, and the mere possibility casts its dark shadow over what had once been a sunlit field.

Who finds libertarianism appealing?  This passage might suggest two groups.  First, there are people who have known many couples who lived together for a long time, then married, only to go through a calamitous divorce shortly afterward.  I suppose most Americans under the age of 60 could name at least a dozen such couples among their personal acquaintances.   When I’ve seen the sequence long cohabitation/ brief marriage/ bitter divorce, I’ve always tended to explain the marriage as a desperate attempt to put some life back into a failing relationship.

But some might look at the sequence differently, and wonder whether the relationships would have continued had the partners not ventured into the dread precincts of matrimony.  Elsewhere in the issue, a piece* is built around the observation that young Americans tend to take many Libertarian ideas for granted; perhaps the changes in family structure that have shaped the lives of so many in recent generations have been part of the reason for this intellectual climate. Second, there are people who hold power in their relationships with others because they control economic resources on which those others depend.  Some such people acknowledge the responsibilities that come with such power.  Others not only refuse to accept those responsibilities, but do not like even to admit that they are in a position of power at all.  For them, “money was never an issue,” when the other parties in their relationships simply submitted to their will as regards it.  Once those parties gain a share in the control of those resources as a matter of right, suddenly the terms of the relationship must be negotiated, not decreed by the “breadwinner.”  From the viewpoint of the deposed “breadwinner,” this development might very well look like a departure from a “sunlit field”  of liberty to the “dark shadow” of conflict, but the newly empowered “stay-at-home” may see matters quite differently.

Of course, it isn’t only in the relationship between income-earners and their non-employed partners that one holding economic power may deny the existence of that power and see only the prospect of conflict when a subordinate acquires an independent standing.  Employers often pretend that they are on an equal footing with their employees, and denounce trades unions as monstrous powers which bring disharmony into what would otherwise be an idyll of brotherhood.  A fine example of this sort of thing can be found in this issue, in Peter Brimelow’s “Less Perfect Unions,” which denounces American schoolteachers for organizing their profession.

When Raimondo reaches the heart of his argument against same-sex marriage, he presents a case that will be familiar to anyone who has followed the arguments gay liberationists have made over the years.  Same-sexers, he argues, simply do not need “to entangle themselves in a regulatory web and risk getting into legal disputes over divorce, alimony, and the division of property.”  Opposite sex couples may believe that their shared interest in any children they may produce justifies such “entanglement”; Raimondo doesn’t agree with them, but in deference to their assessment of their needs he stops short of the gay liberationist cry of “Smash the Family!  Smash the State!,” and does not call for the end of official recognition of opposite sex unions.

He does take a page from the gay liberationist handbook, though, when he argues that same-sex marriage threatens to “take the gayness out of homosexuality.”  “By superimposing the legal and social constraints of heterosexual marriage on gay relationships, we will succeed only in de-eroticizing them.”  Raimondo extols the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s for its anti-state focus, and insists that the lack of official sanction and the formalization that goes with it have made homosexuality itself a force to resist the modern state.  Same-sex marriage, Raimondo argues, would rob homosexual relations of their anarchic character, and reconstitute them as a pillar of the established order. Why, then, has the demand for gender-neutral marriage become central to the role of same-sexers in US politics?  Raimondo has a theory:

The homosexual agenda of today has little relevance to the way gay people actually live their lives.

But the legislative agenda of the modern gay-rights movement is not meant to be useful to the gay person in the street: it is meant to garner support from heterosexual liberals and others with access to power. It is meant to assure the careers of aspiring gay politicos and boost the fortunes of the left wing of the Democratic Party. The gay marriage campaign is the culmination of this distancing trend, the reductio ad absurdum of the civil rights paradigm.

The modern gay-rights movement is all about securing the symbols of societal acceptance. It is a defensive strategy, one that attempts to define homosexuals as an officially sanctioned victim group afflicted with an inherent disability, a disadvantage that must be compensated for legislatively. But if “gay pride” means anything, it means not wanting, needing, or seeking any sort of acceptance but self acceptance.  Marriage is a social institution designed by heterosexuals for heterosexuals: why should gay people settle for their cast-off hand-me-downs?**

It seems a bit indecent to quibble with the content of so impassioned a peroration, especially considering that the issue is a more personal one for a same-sexer like Raimondo than it is for me.  However, I would point out that he is shifting his ground here.  Earlier, he had claimed that marriage evolved spontaneously among heterosexuals, who improvised various means of ensuring their interest in their children would be recognized.  To the extent that the institution was “designed,” that design came after the state intervened in this evolution and hijacked it to serve its own purposes.  Now, he implies that marriage is suitable for heterosexuals after all, but not for homosexuals.  This shift is important, because it shows him backing away from liberationism and its implication that people should discard the labels they wear, band together, and create a world free of the old restrictions.  It leaves him all too much at home under the banner of “American Conservative.”

*Sorry, subscribers only

**UPDATED: Paragraph breaks inserted here after publication

Number 1000

This blog has been around since July 2007; this is the 1000th post.  When we started in 2007, it was supposed to be a way for three old friends to keep in touch.  It didn’t occur to any of us that anyone we didn’t know would ever read it.  As it gradually attracted a readership, we marked some of the early posts that gave away personal information about the contributors as private.  So if you were to scroll through the whole thing, you’d find only 991 postings.  You can take my word for it that you aren’t missing anything by not seeing the other nine.

In what God did Irving Babbitt disbelieve?

Irving Babbitt, late in life

Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) often made remarks to the effect that religion was a good thing, though he never endorsed any particular religion, and certainly never joined any.  Such scholars as Claes G. Ryn have argued that Babbitt, despite his personal irreligion, is a powerful intellectual ally for believers.  After Babbitt’s death, his closest friend, Paul Elmer More, wrote that one day when they were students together at Harvard, Babbitt pointed to a church and cried out “There is the enemy!  There is the thing I hate!”  More acknowledged that this youthful exclamation was not typical of Babbitt even in his early twenties, but was issued in a moment of personal irritation that More himself had provoked by insisting over and again that those who would lead a truly moral life must embrace Christianity.  Far more typical of Babbitt is the opening of his great study Democracy and Leadership (1924):

According to Mr Lloyd George, the future will be even more exclusively taken up than is the present with the economic problem, especially with relations between capital and labor.  In that case, one is tempted to say, the future will be very superficial.  When studied with any degree of thoroughness, the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem, the political problem in turn run into the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.

Several weeks ago, I posted here about  Babbitt’s analysis of Ernest Renan’s theories.  Babbitt saw in Renan’s thought an effort to develop an ideology that Renan could use to release himself from the influence of the Roman Catholic tradition in which he was raised.  As an American of a Protestant cultural background, Babbitt was struck by the similarities between Renan’s ostensibly anti-Roman Catholic ideology on the one hand and the distinctive mental habits of Roman Catholicism on the other.  To quote again the passage of Babbitt’s essay on Renan that I cited in that earlier post:

Renan has evidently carried over to science all the mental habits of Catholicism.  As Sainte-Beuve remarks, “In France we shall remain Catholics long after we have ceased to be Christians.”  Renan, indeed, may be best defined as a scientist and positivist with a Catholic imagination.  For instance, he arrives at a conception of scientific dogma, of an infallible scientific papacy, of a scientific Hell and inquisition, of resurrection and immortality through science, of scientific martyrs…  He promises us that if we imitate him we may hope to be, like himself, sanctified through science: “If all were as cultivated as I, all would be, like me, incapable of wrongdoing.  Then it would be true to say: ye are gods and sons of the Most High.”

It might not be surprising that Renan, beginning his intellectual life as a Roman Catholic surrounded by Roman Catholics, should continue to think in the terms familiar to him after he ceased to identify himself with that tradition, and that the ideology he developed to use in ridding himself of Catholicism would have many formal similarities to Catholicism.   Indeed, it might not be too much to say that Renan’s ideas, while atheistic, are in fact a phase of Roman Catholicism.   They represent something that can happen to Catholicism when belief in God is subtracted and insistence that there is no God is put in its place.  I use the word “phase” because it suggests chronological development; an ideology like Renan’s could appeal only to someone who had already had experience with Catholicism or a tradition very much like it, who had found great power in that tradition, and had begun to look for a way to escape from its influence.  Another advantage of the word “phase” is that it suggests a stage of development that is not permanent.  An ideology like Renan’s might seem very satisfactory to a person who finds the questions Catholicism asks to be most compelling, but who rejects the answers it offers.  If such a person should cease to find the questions compelling, or should find a new strength in the answers, then s/he would not find such appeal in a view like Renan’s.  S/he would look for an ideology to succeed Renan’s, perhaps another form of atheism, perhaps another theistic belief system, perhaps a new understanding of Catholicism.

In that original post, I went on from my noting of Babbitt’s remarks about Renan to wonder  whether every atheism can be analyzed as a phase of a particular religion, as something that happens to the religion that most shaped the atheist’s cultural background when you subtract belief in God or gods from it.  I might of course have gone in the opposite direction, and wondered about the extent to which atheism has shaped the theistic belief systems of the modern world.  Certainly the urgent importance many believers place on particular arguments for the existence of God, especially the Argument from Design, would suggest a constant awareness that atheists exist and that atheism is a live option for modern people.  Believers often seem more than a little bit desperate to have something to say when atheists challenge their beliefs.

After I put that post up, I wondered what religion Irving Babbitt’s own (godless!) theories exemplified.  I think there are some religious traditions which Babbitt seems to have worked at rejecting.

Irving Babbitt’s father, Edwin Dwight Babbitt, seems to have invented a sort of religion that had something to do with magnets and the healing power of color.  Edwin Dwight Babbitt has some followers today, in fact; several books of his can be found online, among them the stupendously titled The Principles of Light and Color: Including Among Other Things the Harmonic Laws of the Universe, The Etherio-Atomic Philosophy of Force, Chromo Chemistry, Chromo Therapeutics, and the General Philosophy of the Fine Forces, Together with Numerous Discoveries and Practical Applications.  Advocates of “color therapy” cite him as a pioneer in their field.

In their study of Babbitt in Twayne’s United States Author Series,  Stephen Yarbrough and Stephen C. Brennan pointed out that as a young man, Irving Babbitt was intensely ashamed of his father, and take many of the angrier passages in Irving Babbitt’s writing as denunciations of Edwin Dwight Babbitt.  This reading does clear up one of the more puzzling aspects of Irving Babbitt’s writing.  When Irving Babbitt attacks Rousseau for exalting unrestrained emotion, his superheated fervor is bewilderingly out of place next to his acknowledgment of the complexity of Rousseau’s thought and works.   When he attacks Francis Bacon on the grounds that his philosophy of science treats empirical research not as a project with scope and limits, but as an all-powerful deity, he again displays a ferocious rage that is startling coming on the heels of his learned discussion of Bacon’s place in the history of philosophy.   Read as indictments of the chicanery of Edwin Dwight Babbitt, with Rousseau and Bacon as stand-ins for the author’s hopelessly inadequate, infinitely embarrassing father, these passages make a great deal more sense.

If we see Irving Babbitt’s thought as a phase in his revolt against his father’s ideology, we might expect it to appeal to readers who grew up among the sort of “New Age” enthusiasts who continue to keep Edwin Dwight Babbitt’s name alive today.  How, then, can we account for the fact that Irving Babbitt attracted a sizable following in his own day, and continues to maintain a  readership today, among people whose backgrounds have nothing in them of “the Philosophy of the Fine Forces”?  Can we find another, more widespread tradition against which Irving Babbitt may have been rebelling?

Perhaps we can.  I suspect that Irving Babbitt’s thought may represent a post-theistic version of radical Protestantism, perhaps of Quakerism in particular.  Like the Quakers, Irving Babbitt emphasized the inward mystical experience of the individual, asserting that individuals have equal and immediate access to supernatural knowledge.  Asserting this equal access, he rejected both religious hierarchies and national particularity.  Again, Quakers do the same, denying that priests have any special connection to the divine or that there is any chosen people who have a unique relationship to the divine.  Here too, he is in step with his father, whose wrote a book called Religion as Revealed by the Material and Spiritual Universe and promoted it as a critique of “Christianity, or rather Churchianity,” including as it does chapters denouncing “The Churchianic Conception of Hell” (which reduces Creation to a “grand blunder”) and “Churchianic Infallibility” (which “leads to Hierarchical Power, crushes out individuality, and causes men to lean upon leaders or authority rather than upon principle and their own manhood.”)

Irving Babbitt breaks from the Quakers, and from his father, not only in his lack of any belief in God, but also in declaring that tradition and authority are vital to a good society.  Irving Babbitt was pugnacious about these declarations, pugnacious enough that it’s clear he was making them as a way of rebelling against someone or other.  Still, he never submits himself to any actual tradition or any recognizable authority.  What tradition did Irving Babbitt value?  All of them, apparently; his “humanism” involves a pastiche of his own very wide reading, in the course of which he read famous books written in each of a great many countries and found elements of his own ideas in each of them.  This procedure fits in with Irving Babbitt’s idea of universal equal access to supernatural knowledge, but it makes absolute hash of his claim to value tradition.  Babbitt’s idea of the Buddhist tradition, for example, consists of his interpretation of the Pali scriptures that he could read in the original, of Chinese works he’d read in translation, and of brief conversations he’d had with some students from China who took his classes.  That’s hardly the kind of thing people are talking about when they say that Buddhist traditions have shaped the lives of many people in Asia.

Indeed, Irving Babbitt’s use of the word “tradition” was the target of withering criticism in his own day (see for example Allen Tate’s essay in The Critique of Humanism,) as it isn’t clear what if anything he means by it.  Again, this fits with the idea that his theories were an atheistic phase of Quakerism.  By presenting himself as a defender of “tradition,” whatever that may mean, Babbitt was defying the Quakers, placing himself outside and against their communion.  As a specimen of Quakerism himself, however, Babbitt had inherited a theology that so thoroughly abhorred tradition that he could develop a usable concept only after confronting that theology directly and renouncing his inheritance of it.  Since Babbitt never gave any thought to that inheritance, he could not renounce it.  His thought remained Quakerly in form even when its content was most stridently anti-Quaker.

Another area where Irving Babbitt seemed to devote a great deal of energy to rebelling against radical Protestantism in general and, perhaps,  Quakerism in particular was in the question of what the imagination is.   Babbitt was a great fan of Aristotle’s theory of the imagination as an adjunct of memory, and talked about creativity in just these terms.  Aristotle’s theory that imagination as a faculty that rearranges the raw material provided by memory is the main theme of two of Babbitt’s books, The New Laokoon (1910)  and On Being Creative (1932.)  Babbitt constantly recurs to this idea in his other books as well.  For example, in his magnum opus, Rousseau and Romanticism (1919,) Babbitt carries out a comprehensive attack on the belief that imagination brings entirely new information into the world.  Quakers and other radical Protestants often say that the holy spirit acts within the soul of the Christian to bring entirely new things into the world, that in moments of mystical communion the Christian soul is the point where God breaks into the world.  So you hear phrases like “Genesis moment,” meaning moments when a person experiences a psychological change that is as profoundly novel as the creation of the world described in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.  If the Romantics and their cult of genius represented a secular version of this theological doctrine, as Babbitt indeed says they did, then Babbitt’s own decades-long campaign against the concept of imagination as a faculty that creates information ex nihilo represents a rebellion against the same doctrine.  That Babbitt could slash away at the concept for so many years, deploying so much erudition, and finding so little influence outside his own circle of followers shows that the religious roots of this concept were still providing it with a powerful source of life.  That he never gave up the fight shows that it was a matter of personal urgency to him.

Some notable webcomics

Lucy Knisly has “always been taught that to have less- to economize and prune- is better, and allows us to focus on the intangible and immaterial things.”* (Stop Paying Attention)

“The proverb should be : A bird in the hand is worth a bird in the hand.” (Doghouse Diaries)

How images can distort our perceptions of the world around us. (Ferd’nand**)

“Specialness is not a conserved quantity.” (Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal)

Disgust is to violence as respect is to thought. (Indexed)

“As you can see, our company has a long history of not hiring minorities.”  (Partially Clips)

*I’ve always been taught that as well, and this strip makes me wonder if it really is true.

**I know Ferd’nand isn’t technically a webcomic, since it appears in newspapers, and it doesn’t have the ethos of a webcomic, since it isn’t crudely drawn and doesn’t trade on its readers’ sense of intellectual superiority.  But I read it online, and this installment is clever, so by my standards it qualifies.

Quotable remarks from right-wing commentators

From Heather Mac Donald:

I haven’t subjected myself to much right-wing talk radio and TV recently, so I don’t know whether the Obama-haters have made the predictable flip-flop.  Having opposed Obama’s ultimate verbal support for the Egyptian protesters (an opposition not based on any a priori principle regarding the proper deference due to Middle Eastern dictators, but simply on the rule: whatever Obama does is wrong), the right-wing media, if they were suddenly to become guided by reason, should now be supporting Obama’s caution towards Libya.  Because such backing for Obama’s Libyan diplomacy would represent principle and consistency, I can only suppose that the right is now blasting him for not siccing the American military on Libya. (Secular Right)

From James Matthew Wilson:

According to [T. S.] Eliot, Stoicism is a trans-historical phenomenon that emerges when persons become so alienated from all community that they become incapable of fulfilling their political natures and feel thrown back upon themselves.  Lacking the communal resources to pursue a good life in this world or the next, they conceive of the private reason as the only place where happiness might be “made.”  Pierre Hadot describes this ancient Stoic condition with elegant simplicity.  For the Stoic, the Cosmos consists of an already realized and determined rational order.  Morality consists simply in the assent of reason to that order; one is good if one’s reason accepts that order’s course.  The logical exercises of Stoic life consist in a constant disciplining of the reason, a training to see the rational order of things as they are and to accept them.  This involves stripping away all possible projections from one’s own mind to see the bare order of things.  Hadot cites Marcus Aurelius, for instance, who trained himself to conceive of the act of making love as the simple brushing and bumping of bodily parts.  Stripped of all “anthropomorphic” or “subjective” “sentiment,” one sees things for what they are and accepts them.  This, for the Stoic, is “happiness.” (Front Porch Republic)

From Jim Goad:

I feel sorry for you if you aren’t entertained by people who say things such as Jews “hate God and worship the rectum,” the Catholic Church is “the largest, most well-funded and organized pedophile group in the history of man,” and that “Mohammed was a demon-possessed whoremonger and pedophile who contrived a 300-page work of Satanic fiction.” I find it so funny, I paused to laugh while typing it. If you can make it from 2:35-3:20 of this video without so much as a titter, I’ll pray to the Lord to give you a funny bone. (Taki’s Magazine)


Why do people have opinions about homosexuality?

When did you most recently look at someone and hope that s/he would express an opinion about homosexuality?  I’m guessing the answer is “never.”  If you have hoped to hear that, then my guess is that you felt isolated and embattled by people who disagreed with your opinion, and you were hoping for someone to  support your views.  Have you ever actually been curious to know what a person thought about homosexuality, or wanted to hear an argument about it that might lead you to change your mind?

When did you most recently hear someone express an opinion about homosexuality?  I’m guessing the answer involves a story about being trapped with some terrible bore.  If it doesn’t involve that, then my guess is that it was some intensely personal encounter.  Have you ever actually found homosexuality a suitable topic for abstract discussion?

When did you most recently express an opinion about homosexuality?  I’m guessing the answer is “when I was being an asshole.”  If not, then my guess is that you were trying to stop the people around you from denouncing those they disagreed with by showing them that you were one of those they are denouncing, and relying on their regard for you as a person to prompt them to behave themselves.  Has anyone ever actually been impressed by the logic of an argument you have presented in support of your opinion about homosexuality?

I mean these questions seriously.  Some friends of mine are currently at odds with each other because they disagree about whether homosexuality is moral.  Mrs Acilius and I were talking about this group the other day, and said that the reason their trouble had come to a desperate pass was that they refused to sit down together and talk about their differences.  If only they could discuss the matter, we agreed, surely they would find a way to go on together, even if they didn’t have the same views.  With a taboo over such a prominent matter, their friendship seemed to be doomed.

Shortly after, we turned on the television and looked for something to watch.  As we flipped, we heard an announcer saying “And now, we take your calls on the question of the day: What should Christians believe about homosexuality?”  We nearly fell off the couch as we raced to change the channel.

If you don’t want to hear anyone else’s opinion about homosexuality and no one wants to hear yours, why bother forming, holding, and expressing such opinions at all?  Granted, there are public policy questions that come before the voters in most democracies nowadays that call for opinions about homosexuality.  But if people didn’t harbor such opinions, would those questions continue to exist?

Granta 114

Issue 114 of Granta is titled “Aliens,” though it really should have been called “Running Water.”  There are two detailed descriptions of bathroom sinks; Philip Oltermann’s memoir of the years when he was an adolescent and his family relocated from their native Germany to the UK includes this:

Either way, the toilet wasn’t the real centrepiece of the English bathroom; the sink was.  There were two taps: one for hot water and one for cold.  The cold water was freezing; the hot water boiling.  Right here was a puritan manifesto against the luxuries of modern living: the invention of the mixer tap had been stubbornly shunned.  It took me years to internalize the handwashing routine I can now perform in my sleep- criss-crossing my soapy hands between the two jets of water while regulating the water pressure with my wrist.

The bathroom sink in the apartment where I lived when I first met the lady who would become Mrs Acilius operated in precisely the same fashion; when I read the paragraph above aloud to her it brought vivid memories to us both.  Though, fortunately, we never had “an awkward encounter with a plumber who spent a week trying to fix a burst pipe before breaking down in tears and admitting that he didn’t have a clue what he was doing.”

The second description of a sink is in Chris Dennis’ “Here’s What You Do,” a short story in the second person, a description of American prison life addressed to the convict living it:

Your cell has a toilet with a sink attached.  The sink is attached to the top of the toilet where you think the tank should be.  At first this made you uncomfortable about washing your hands.  You’re used to it now.  You have to straddle the toilet facing the tank or stand to the side of it when you brush your teeth, or wash, or get a drink.  You push a button above the faucet and the water comes.

The main character of Madeleine Thien’s “James” is also a prisoner for much of the story, though he does not have plumbing in his cell.  He is held captive by the Khmer Rouges during their time in power in Cambodia.

With the blindfold on, he felt absurdly safe.  They surrounded him: bare feet on the thirsty ground, rifles smartly reloaded, the smell of the campfire.  He heard someone getting a haircut, the scissors stuttering like a solitary cricket.  He heard a fire starting and water boiling, he ate mushy gruel with his hands, he itched all over from the ants in the dirt, his tongue felt cracked.  Night and day, his feet were shackled, he had to piss into a foul bamboo container, he was constipated.  Everything hurt.  He couldn’t believe it was possible to be scared so long.

A few lines down we read that James’ fear “made him feel temporary, like an insect clinging to a drain.”  He was in a boat on a river when he was taken prisoner; he takes refuge in childhood memories of his brother, of being beside the sea with him, of feeling the rain with him.

Nami Mun’s “The Anniversary” is a tale of an unhappy marriage, set during a driving rain; at the climactic moment, the main character fears that “Everything in her life- her baby, her marriage, herself- would sink slowly under water.”

The role that water, or rather, the effects of water, plays in shaping the topography of a desperately dry land is at the heart of Robert MacFarlane’s “Walking on the West Bank.”  MacFarlane accompanies a man named Raja Shehadeh on the strolls he has been taking through the countryside around his hometown of Ramallah regularly for most of his sixty years.  Shehadeh,  a lawyer who began his education at the Quaker school in Ramallah, has become quite well known for his insistence on continuing what was once the most ordinary of Palestinian habits.   He has developed an appreciation for the landscape of the West Bank that is among the most valuable of the possessions the Israeli occupation has stripped from that tiny region’s inhabitants:

Raja is a good route-finder.  Over decades of sarha [roaming,] he has gained, as he puts it, “an eye for the ancient tracks that criss-cross the hills, like catwalks.”  Near the qasr [small tower,] he picks up an obviously old path which leads down to the floor of the valley, the dry wadi bed.  There, the path merges with the wadi, following the natural line in the landscape for both walkers and water.  We pass coils of barbed wire, snaking out of the silt on the wadi floor.  More bullet casings.  Reminders that this valley was fought over in 1967; that Ramallah was besieged and bombarded as recently as  2003.

One of Shehadeh’s very few fellow-roamers is a German geologist named Clemens Messerschmid.  The day after a rainstorm, Shehadeh, MacFarlane, and Messerschmid wander about the area near Ras Karkar.  Messerschmid reviews some basic points of hydrogeology:

He explains that geologists describe the solvent action of rainwater on limestone as the creation of “preferential pathways.”  With each shower of rain, drops of water are sent wandering across the surface of the limestone, etching the track of their passage with acid as they go.  These first traverses create tiny shallow channels, which in turn attract the flow of subsequent water, such that they become more deeply scored into the rock.  Through the action of water, a hairline crack over time becomes a runnel, which becomes a fracture site, which becomes an escarpment edge.

In a landscape where limestone is a significant surface formation, these larger-scale fissures are often decisive in the development of terracing and of footpaths.  Humans and animals, seeking a route, are guided by the preconfigured habits of the terrain.  These walkers create preferential pathways, which in turn attract the flow of subsequent walkers, all of whom etch the track of their passage with their feet as they go.  In this way the chance path of a raindrop hundreds of thousands of years previously determines the route of a contemporary walker.

It may determine the route of contemporary walkers like Shehadeh and Messerschmid, but of course very few such walkers still dare to roam about the West Bank.  Messerschmid has produced a study, not mentioned in MacFarlane’s piece or available in English, in which he shows how the disruptions the Israeli security forces have imposed on the natural flow of traffic through the West Bank have created an artificial shortage of water there.

Two narratives set in Africa contain little water, but a great deal of beer.  Mark Gevisser’s “Edenvale” begins with a recollection of his own wedding to his male partner in a government office outside Johannesburg, then spends most of its space remembering two gay men of the generation before his, a Zulu named Edgar and a Xhosa named Phil, who were very close friends though not lovers.  Coming of age in South Africa in the 1950s and 60s, Phil and Edgar led the same-sex parts of their lives as “After-Nines,” men who stayed in bars until the other patrons were either gone or too drunk to notice what was going on around them.  The open homosexuality of the new South Africa is something Phil and Edgar can admire, though it came too late for either of them to imagine coming out of the closet.

Binyavanga Wainaina’s “One Day I Will Write About This Place” tells the hilarious story of a Kenyan government official sent to a remote part of the country to encourage cotton planting, and meeting a charismatic local chief who mocks the stodgy demeanor of the official and his fellow Kikuyu.  His ethnic pride injured, the official responds by getting liquored up and dancing the dombolo.  He never does get around to telling them about the advantages of cotton.

The issue also contains a series of reminiscences by Paul Theroux of the time when he lived in the UK, from 1971 to 1990.  The only water in this piece are the Atlantic waves into which Robert Maxwell flung himself.  There is a great deal of blood, especially the blood of slaughtered police officers Yvonne Fletcher and Keith Blakelock, of Lady Lucan (who sought refuge from her murderous husband in a pub called The Plumbers’ Arms,) of the victims of the Yorkshire Ripper.  The most Theroux-like line in the whole issue is Philip Oltermann’s bit about the plumber bursting into tears as he admits his incompetence; I still can’t believe it wasn’t from Theroux’ piece.


Conway’s Glass of Coke

A Conway Life animation by Manfredas Zabarauskas

Last year, I posted here about Conway’s Game of Life, a cellular automaton that simulates certain complex processes.

A few minutes ago, I poured a glass of Coke and noticed that the bubbles were moving in patterns that vaguely reminded me of Conway Life.  So I took a video of it with my cellphone and posted it on YouTube: