Texas Crazy

Contrary to the poster for this 2008 film, none of the witnesses from the 19th century said the Wild Man hurt them

A few days ago, it turned up in the news that in Norway, “Texas” is slang for “crazy.”  According to Anne Ekern, an official of the Norwegian consulate in Houston whom National Public Radio talked with, the use of “Texas” as an expression meaning something wild, exciting, or out of control “goes back to Norwegians watching cowboy movies” and was familiar to her in as a phrase adults used when she was a child in Norway in the 1970’s.

US left-wingers, among them most of the people I see on social media, love this story, and have been gleefully sharing as fact the theory that it stems from the Lone Star State’s often ultra-conservative politics.  I started wondering about this when I noticed that Norwegian friends of mine were mentioning that they’ve only heard “Texas” used to mean crazy in the sense of wild or unpredictable, not mentally unwell.

That, combined with the explanation Ms Ekern offered, reminded me of a memory I had as a child in the 1970s, not in Norway, but in the USA.  My older brother showed up at a family function with a long, unkempt beard.  Our grandmother, who’d last seen him clean-shaved, laughed and said that he looked like the Texas Wild Man.  I’d often heard people of her generation (she was born in 1905) use the phrase “Texas Wild Man” to refer to eccentric people, and I was curious where it came from.  So I asked her.  She said she didn’t know where it came from, but that it was a familiar expression when she was growing up.  The younger adults assured her that it was still in common use, and I told her that I had heard it before.  We all speculated for a few minutes as to what its origin might be.  I don’t remember what our hypotheses were; I’m sure the longtime popularity of cowboy movies must have figured in some of them, as it does in Ms Ekern’s theory about the Norwegian use of “Texas.”

Another kind of Texas Wild Man

However, when I finally got round to googling “Texas Wild Man” yesterday, I found out that cowboy movies had nothing to do with it.  “The Texas Wild Man,” also known as “The Texas Wild Woman” and “The Wild Man of the Navidad,” was a half-human, half-ape creature of whom various people in and around Lavaca County, Texas reported catching glimpses from 1834 until 1851.  A number of anomalous footprints and other bits of evidence lent credence to the testimonies of a large and diverse array of witnesses.  The people held in slavery in that area called the creature whom they saw by moonlight “The Thing That Comes.”  In the 1830s not many people were in a position to know what or who might be living in the wilds of southeast Texas; the mystery of the half-man, half-ape “Thing That Comes” made its way around the world, keeping the phrase “Texas Wild Man” alive in US slang well into the 1970s, and perhaps keeping an echo of it ringing even in Norway.

On 21 February 1986, a column appeared in the Victoria, Texas Advocate (also available here) putting forward an explanation as to what exactly was behind the sightings of the Wild Man of the Navidad.  Columnist Henry Wolff, Jr read an article from the Texas Historical Quarterly of October 1900.  In that article, Mr Wolff found the recollections of “Mrs Dilue Harris, who was the wife of Ira S. Harris, an early Colorado County sheriff.”  Mrs Harris explained that the Wild Man was one of a group of Africans held in slavery on a plantation near the town of Columbus, a plantation belonging to a man named Ben Fort Smith.  The Wild Man had escaped from Smith’s plantation, fled to the Navidad river, and remained at liberty for quite some time.  Mrs Harris, relying on her memory to recount events of more than half a century before, apparently said that the Wild Man was captured in 1846; however, Mr Wolff cites a scholar named Brownson Malsch who found a newspaper article published on 7 August 1851 reporting that the Wild Man had been captured a few days before, that on 1 August he had been sold back into slavery at an auction where a man named Payton Bickford paid $207 for him, and that within hours of that sale the Wild Man had escaped from Payton Bickford and was now in jail along with three other men.  Evidently the Wild Man’s name was revealed in this article to be Jimbo.

Mr Wolff quotes a source telling us that when Jimbo was sent back to Payton Bickford after this escape, Bickford “turned him into the cornfield to fatten previous to closing his contract with Barnum for the sale of Jimbo.”  That Bickford was in negotiations with P. T. Barnum, already a world-famous impresario in 1851, for custody of Jimbo shows just how much publicity the Texas Wild Man must have attracted.  Something must have convinced Barnum that Jimbo would not bring him a triumph to match those he had enjoyed exhibiting various disabled and enslaved people as freaks, however, as Payton Bickford ultimately sold Jimbo, not as a public attraction, but as a field hand.  A Victoria County planter named Zebriam Lewis paid Bickford for Jimbo, and Jimbo was still in service to Lewis when slavery was abolished in 1865.  In 1865, Jimbo left the Lewis ranch for another ranch, belonging to someone called Carlos, and there he stayed until he died in 1884.  Mr Wolff quotes someone who knew Jimbo as saying “He was perfectly harmless, and never learned to speak English, talking in broken Spanish which could hardly be understood.”

So, the man who put the crazy in Texas, at least in “Texas” as a slang term, may not have been a far-right politician, but an African who refused to be enslaved.  Der ist helt Texas, indeed!

“Woman” vs “Female”

Here’s something I saw on twitter this morning:

That prompted a question from me:

I suspect that “Woman Trouble” (meaning, difficulties someone is having with a female romantic partner) and “Female Trouble” (meaning, ailments for which one might seek aid from a gynecologist) are both fairly problematic phrases, and I never use either.  In fact, I can’t think of anyone I know who uses them, except ironically and in the company of people who get the joke.  (And I know some people whose speech habits are pretty thoroughly untouched by feminism.)  That one has “woman” and the other has “female” doesn’t seem to matter much.

Anyway, poster Kait the Great then put up this clarification, perhaps not in response to me specifically:

Though I do still wonder about my original question.  Phrases like “Female Trouble” vs “Woman Trouble,” whatever else may be wrong with them, don’t suggest that “woman” and “female” are interchangeable.  If the problem with, say, “woman driver” as opposed to “female driver” comes from such a suggestion, then that might explain why “Female Trouble” and “Woman Trouble” are equally awkward.

Halloween logic

Saul and the Witch of Endor, by Washington Allston

A few days ago, Rod Dreher posted some thoughts about séances, mediums, and the like.  This prompted me to arrange some thoughts about the topic as a formal argument.

  1. Either disembodied spirits operate in the world, or they do not.
  2. If they do not, we ought not to do business with mediums, as they would not be able to deliver the service which they advertise.
    1. Moreover, any good we might incidentally receive in the course of our dealings with mediums would be, on the one hand, offset by the harm we would be doing by supporting a fraudulent business, and, on the other hand, would likely be available in other forms, offered by trustworthy psychotherapists or other honest dealers.
  3. If disembodied spirits do operate in the world, either they have intentions concerning our well-being, or they do not.
  4. If they do not have intentions concerning our well-being, we ought not to do business with mediums, as they would in such a case have no messages to convey to us.
  5. If they do have intentions concerning our well-being, either those intentions are all alike, or they are not all alike.
  6. If they are all alike, either all of them are friendly, or all of them are hostile.
  7. If all the intentions disembodied spirits have concerning our well-being are friendly, the degree of suffering and injustice humans endure in the world suffices to prove that those spirits are of little consequence in the world.
  8. If all the intentions disembodied spirits have concerning our well-being are hostile, the degree of prosperity and good feeling humans enjoy in the world suffices to prove that those spirits are of little consequence in the world.
  9. If disembodied spirits are of little consequence in the world, we ought not to do business with mediums, as the information they offer is of insufficient practical value to justify the investment, not only of money, but of intellectual attention and emotional energy, which they demand.
  10. If disembodied spirits exist, have intentions concerning our well-being, and are of great consequence in the world, points 7 and 8 above show that some of them must be friendly towards us, while others are hostile.
  11. There is not now and likely will never be an empirical test to determine whether a particular disembodied spirit is friendly or hostile in its intentions concerning our well-being.
  12. Either there are mediums who can facilitate communication between us and disembodied spirits, or there are not.
  13. If there are not, then we ought not to do business with mediums, for the same reasons explained under point 2 above.
  14. If there are, then we ought not to do business with mediums, as we would have no empirical test to determine whether the spirit communicating with us through the medium was a friendly spirit providing information that would lead us to good, or a hostile spirit providing information that would lead to our destruction.
    1. Even if a friendly spirit did provide us with information that would benefit us, the success of that act of communication would likely bring us back to the medium for further consultations.  Since there is no test to distinguish friendly spirits from hostile ones, each further consultation would represent another opportunity for a hostile spirit to approach us.
  15. Therefore, we ought not under any circumstances do business with mediums.

I rather wonder what the relationship is between a logical construction like this and the sorts of games fortune-tellers play.  Games such as the Tarot, the I Ching, the Ouija board, etc.

Once, when I was in a logic class in college, the professor said something he usually had occasion to say at least once a week, “A valid argument is one where, if you accept that the premises are true, you must accept that the conclusion is also true.”  What made this occasion different was what he said next: “You may wonder where that ‘must’ comes from.  Who says you ‘must’ accept the conclusion of a valid argument if its premises are true? That would appear to be an ethical statement.  In that sense logic is a subfield of ethics.”  This remark was particularly striking coming as it did from a professor who taught only logic, metaphysics, and the philosophy of mathematics.  He never taught ethics or anything too obviously derivative of ethics.  But it did seem unavoidable to him that logic was ultimately rooted in the moral sense.

A culture might regard a particular divination game as a holy act of obligation.  It is certainly the case that many groups of people defined by religion look on each others’ practices as so much traffic with the spiritual forces of darkness.  Perhaps the rules of logic according to which I constructed the argument above would seem to some or other religious group to be as peculiar and as unwholesome as the rules of a séance would appear to me.

David Morgan-Mar’s “Planet of Hats”

I like the original Star Trek and I like web comics, so it should be no surprise that I like David Morgan-Mar’s “Planet of Hats,” a web comic that recapitulates the original series at the rate of one episode every Wednesday afternoon.

He’s into the third and final season of the show now, and I think he’s a bit unfair to those late episodes.  For example, the one up now is “Plato’s Stepchildren.”  Mr Morgan-Mar draws that one with wax crayons, creating the most childish image possible, and explains in the notes that when he watched the episode in preparation for the strip its childishness was the aspect of it he most wanted to bring out.

I agree there is a lot of childishness in that one, but I think it’s intentional.  The story is that a group of people who devoted themselves to the study of Plato’s works and the re-creation of the material appearance of fourth-century BCE Athens have acquired the power of telekinesis.  Plato’s works are addressed to adults, the re-creation of past times is an extremely challenging project, and if we try to imagine the social system that might develop among beings who had the power of telekinesis we might be surprised at all the ways in which the need to pick things up and move them from one place to another shapes our interactions with one another.

So, when we first hear that premise, we might imagine a story in which highly intellectual people develop unfamiliar powers, try to use Plato’s philosophy to learn how to build a society that will channel those powers in constructive ways, and through those attempts learn a variety of unexpected truths, some of them showing that Plato gave the wrong answers to his questions, some of them showing that there were important questions Plato never thought to ask, and some of them showing that there were questions Plato didn’t have to ask, because everyone in his society, unlike anyone in the world of the story, already knew the answers.

That isn’t the story that the makers of Star Trek chose to tell, however.  In the episode, the Platonians developed their telekinetic powers, along with virtual immortality, thousands of years before the Enterprise came to their planet.  Whatever the difficulties of adjustment may have been in those days, they have left no trace for us to see.  All that is visible to us is the end result of centuries of boredom and decadence, a population that has long since exhausted its creativity and spirit of inquiry and uses its powers to derive easy sadistic pleasures.  Of course their behavior is crude and childish; of course our heroes, subjected to their great powers until the end of the episode, are helpless to respond to the Platonians in any but childish ways.  The contrast between the Platonians’ elegant setting and lofty intellectualism on the one hand, and their dismally crude behavior on the other, is precisely the point of the episode.

Several other episodes of Star Trek develop the theme of beings with great powers who have lost interest in any but sadistic pleasures, and so force our heroes to engage in some crude form of physical violence.  One of these is “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” which Mr Morgan-Mar describes as “like someone took all the other episodes of Star Trek, dumped them in a blender, and hit ‘high’ for 30 seconds.”  A species consisting of three creatures have evolved into nothing but brains collects beings from various parts of the galaxy and pits them against each other in fights to the death.  In an episode Mr Morgan-Mar has not yet got round to summarizing, “The Empath,” creatures with giant heads have tortured two scientists to death and proceed to torture Kirk, Spock, and McCoy nearly to death; at the end the creatures claim that they did not do this for pleasure, but as a test to see if a woman whom they were holding prisoner in the same dungeon would volunteer to undergo torture in order to save others.  Our heroes apparently accept this explanation, but what sticks with us is the fact that hyper-intellectual, super-powered creatures resort to torture as their primary means of gathering information.

I think that this theme is the result of the frustration that writers and producers of Star Trek felt with television as a medium.  Knowing all the great high-minded ways in which television could be used to educate and challenge viewers, they were confronted by the fact that the most popular programs were often the least ambitious intellectually and artistically, that a canned laugh-track or a bare-knuckle brawl would beat a probing drama or an incisive documentary in the ratings every time.  That same frustration comes out in the episodes in which the Enterprise crew, representatives of the high ambitions of the series’ creators, find themselves at the mercy of children, episodes like “Charlie X,” “Miri,” “The Squire of Gothos,” and “And the Children Shall Lead.”  The fact that the first three of those come from early in the first season suggests that the creators of the show initially felt pressure from the studio to direct the show to a preteen audience, pressure which they resented.  Certainly that kind of resentment is at work in the other great masterpiece of 1960s American science-fiction television, The Twilight Zone, most obviously in the episode “It’s a Good Life,” in which a child with telekinetic powers turns a small rural town into an extreme nightmare.  I suppose the makers of a science fiction show on TV, in an era when science was thought of primarily as kids’ stuff, would live in fear that children would change the channel and end their careers.