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Pity the poor witches

A Facebook meme

The day before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, there were stories in the media about an effort in the Scottish Parliament to pardon the thousands of witches who were burned at the stake in Scotland between between 1563 and 1736.

Earlier this year, Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, had given a speech in which she said the victims were “accused and killed because they were poor, different, vulnerable or in many cases just because they were women.”

There are some interesting — and I think revealing — elements in the history of witch executions in Scotland. For one, there is evidence that Scotland executed five times as many witches per capita as other parts of Europe. For two, most of the witch-burnings occurred in the Lowlands of Scotland, not in the Highlands. Why might that be?

King James VI of Scotland (1566-1625) considered himself an expert on witchcraft. He wrote a book, Daemonologie. According to Wikipedia, “James personally supervised the torture of women accused of being witches.” Thus it was largely James VI who stirred up the witchcraft hysteria in Scotland. (James VI of Scotland later became James I of England. It is for this monster of a man for whom the King James translation of the Bible is named. They never tell the whole story in church.)

It was in the Lowlands of Scotland (Edinburgh and to the south of Edinburgh) where English-speaking Anglo-Saxons were concentrated, along with — of course — the influence of the church. But the Scottish Highlands remained largely pagan and Gaelic, and thus “witches” were respected — and needed — in the Highlands as wisewomen, herbalists, and healers.

This is yet another example of the moral differences between pagans and the people of the church. Because of the church’s claim to a patent on the moral high ground — one of the greatest frauds of Western civilization — the abiding superior wisdom of the pagans sometimes takes centuries to be acknowledged, which is why the Scottish Parliament is taking up the issue of witchcraft in the year 2022.

Even worse, though, than the church’s lack of moral wisdom — still with us today no less than in 1566 — is its eagerness for persecution and domination, even to the point of genocide. In the past I have written often about early Christianity’s genocides against the pagans of Europe. Canada today, and to a lesser degree the United States, is dealing with the church-state collusion and cruelty toward Native American children in the boarding schools that attempted to strip the children of their native culture — cultural genocide. Many children died in those schools. The Christian religion, like Islam, is a proselytizing religion that believes it has a mandate from God for domination of the world and of everyone in it. There is much we still don’t know about what Christian missionaries have done to powerless poor people all over the world.

There is a straight line, centuries long, from James VI of Scotland to the morally defective church people of today, especially those who are able to acquire and wield the power of the state in the service of their religion. Their purpose, still, is punishment and domination — for example, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett of the U.S. Supreme Court. Anyone who has seen the hatred and depravity flashing in the eyes of Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh, or the almost soulless emptiness and stuntedness in the eyes of Amy Coney Barrett, can see that a concern for the unborn is not what motivates them. It is their lust for domination that motivates them. Or, to use Nicola Sturgeon’s words, their hatred for the poor, the different, and the vulnerable.

Much has changed over the centuries as the arc of justice moves on. To say that we don’t burn witches anymore is one of the ways we shed light on the idea of the arc of justice. But the minds of morally defective church people have not changed. They are authoritarians, and they continue to crave the legal right to be the cause of domination and punishment in whatever form they can get it. Donald Trump — their King Donald — emboldened them, empowered them, and let them loose. They are on our backs again. As always, women, children, and anyone who is different will pay most heavily. It remains to be seen how long it will take to throw them off our backs, especially given that the U.S. Constitution is so easily weaponized to block human progress.

My claim here is radical, but I believe it to be true. My claim is that authoritarians are not merely benignly different, with different views about what is good and what is wrong. My claim is that they are morally defective, and that they do vast harm and cause great misery in whatever century they live. They fight against the arc of justice because, in a just world, their lust for domination and persecution is thwarted.

“Visit to the Witch,” Edward Frederick Brewtnall, 1882

No basil yet, but pesto season begins

Romaine pesto with walnuts

After weeding the garden this morning and telling the young basil to grow, grow, grow, I couldn’t get pesto out of my head. So I made pesto from Romaine, because Romaine was what I had.

That means that the pesto was still what I would consider a winter pesto. Though the Romaine was surprisingly good, only a basil pesto made from just-cut basil at the height of summer is a proper pesto, to my lights.

This year I have the smallest garden I’ve ever had here at the abbey. My reasoning is that, this year, a nearby farm is going to be selling summer vegetables, all varieties $1.50 a pound, with discounts when you buy in canning quantities. The vegetables will be picked the morning they’re sold from fields within sight of the farm stand. Each morning on Facebook, the farm puts up a post to say what they have that day, and how much of it. Within the next couple of weeks I’ll have photos of my garden and of the farm stand. I’m going to eat well again this summer, and I’ll do some canning, too.

Avoiding (and detecting) fallacies

The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy. Albert O. Hirschman. Harvard University Press, 1991. 198 pages.

Political discourse is a minefield of fallacy. Whether we are considering the arguments of others, or framing an argument of our own, an undetected fallacy may lead us badly astray. Those who argue in good faith work hard to avoid fallacy. Those who argue in bad faith — and there are a great many of them — knowingly employ fallacy and try to sneak it past us. Sometimes they even seem to believe what they say.

Everyone who is exposed to what we call “the marketplace of ideas” should be familiar with the categories of fallacy. Wikipedia has an excellent and concise list of them: List of fallacies.

Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction is an exploration — partly historical and partly rhetorical — about three categories of fallacy that have repeatedly been employed to block human progress.

The perversity fallacy claims that any attempt to improve the common good will inevitably end up doing the exact opposite of what was intended. An example is the claim that aid to the poor will only make them poorer and further entrap them in poverty.

The futility fallacy claims that any attempt to improve the common good is inevitably useless and will have no effect. An example is the claim that allowing more people to vote (former slaves, say, or women) will not really change anything, because there is some sort of natural law that dictates that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

The jeopardy fallacy is even sneakier. The jeopardy fallacy claims that any attempt at new progress will inevitably destroy previous progress. An example is the claim that democracy will destroy liberty.

Hirshman includes a quote from a Briton, Sir Henry Maine, who was arguing in the 19th Century that democracy would destroy economic progress:

“Universal suffrage, which today excludes Free Trade from the United States, would certainly have prohibited the spinning jenny and the power loom; it would certainly have forbidden the threshing machine.”

Historically, the same arguments against progress have been used over and over again. The enemies of progress keep on being wrong, and human progress has been steady, though slow, for hundreds of years.1

Do progressives ever make fallacious arguments? Of course they do. Hirschman even has a chapter about that. I am going to make a fallacious claim here as an example. That claim is that conservatives are inevitably much more wrong than progressives because of the “arc of justice.” That is, human progress is inevitable, though gradual, and thus attempts to block progress inevitably and eventually fail, ensuring that conservatives are wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

What is the fallacy in that claim? It’s the proposition that progress is inevitable and the proposition that something we could call the “arc of justice” actually exists. There is a great deal of evidence for the arc of justice. We don’t burn witches anymore; we don’t allow people to own slaves anymore; we don’t put gay people in prison anymore. But despite the evidence for ongoing progress, I cannot prove the existence of an arc of justice any more than an argument from futility can prove that things never really change. Still, I can modify that claim and have a better chance of being right. Here is a modified claim: If there is such a thing as the arc of justice, then the opponents of progress are doomed to almost always being wrong.

I have tried to avoid polemic here, because Hirschman’s book is certainly not a polemic. He does say, though, in his final chapter, that conservatives have effectively used ridicule and a mocking attitude against progressives, while progressives have remained “mired in earnestness.” So here I will indulge in a bit of un-earnest ridicule: Show me a conservative, and I will show you a mean, wrong, wrongheaded person who knows next to nothing but thinks he knows quite a lot. It may be possible to prove me wrong, but it may not be easy.

1. Thomas Piketty, A Brief History of Equality.

Fountain pens

What was I thinking? I don’t think I had owned a fountain pen since high school. I used to always have a fountain pen, though it always was an inexpensive one. Strangely enough, it was a practical rather than an aesthetic matter that led me to buy a fountain pen. It was that my roller-ball pens generally refuse to write when I try to sign a typewritten letter on good paper.

When I checked Amazon for fountain pens, I was greatly surprised to see a pen that looked quite decent for $12.99. It’s a Beiluner pen with a stainless steel body and gold nib. It can use either ink cartridges (it comes with six), or a reservoir that you can fill yourself from an ink bottle. It writes — no joke — more smoothly than the roller-ball pens I’ve been using. And those roller-ball pens aren’t cheap.

Nothing on the box or the printed material in the box says where the pen was made. Some sources say that Beiluner pens are made in Germany. I am skeptical that German pens of such quality can be sold so cheaply.

Typewriters and fountain pens are a natural (or at least retro) dyad.

Speaking of typewriters, here are some recent photos of Tom Hanks visiting a typewriter shop in Nashville.

Update: I retrieved the box from the recycling bin. The box (as opposed to the display case) clearly says that the pen was made in China.

The justice we’ve been waiting for

For years, our televisions brought us the horror story that was Donald Trump. Last night, our televisions brought us something completely different: an end to the despair that Trump and the Republican Party would inevitably get away with everything. It should now be clear to all that Donald Trump and many others are going to prison. There will be many charges from the U.S. Department of Justice, the most damning of which will be seditious conspiracy.

I believe that Liz Cheney was speaking to history when she said this:

“Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.” To decent human beings, it is appalling that the Republican Party even continues to exist.

On Fox News last night, Tucker Carlson said, “They are lying, and we will not let them do it.” There is not much that we can do for those who still believe Tucker Carlson. But they are a minority, not more than 25 to 30 percent of the voting population. They do not have the power to prevent justice from being done. The events of January 6, 2021, were their Hail Mary effort to retain that power. That effort not only failed, it also made things much worse for them. The lies of Fox News cannot prevent the justice that is coming. More lies will only darken the stain that they carry into history. Among other things, the hearings will make sure that history has the full story of what happened during the Trump administration and on January 6, 2021.

The greatest danger now is that Republicans could regain a majority in the U.S. House or Senate after the November election. If they do, they will do everything possible to throw the country back into chaos. But, without control of the U.S. Department of Justice, which is out of Republican reach until January 2025, there is nothing that Republicans can do to stop Donald Trump and those who aided him from being put on trial.

If the Republican Party can raise up a whole new set of dangerous people who did not commit crimes for Trump and thus won’t go down with him, then we are not out of the woods. But Trump himself, and those who aided him, are history. They now have no power other than the power of their lies. The danger to the American republic now is not Donald Trump. It is the Republican Party.

A surprising new study on older drinkers

This is — no lie — the first martini I’ve ever made. Wine and ale suit me better.

Several European newspapers have had stories this week about a new German study which says that older people who are “heavy drinkers” are leaner, healthier, and have a better quality of life. Here’s a version of the story in a Scottish newspaper: “Heavy drinking over-60s have a better quality of life says new study.”

Is this too good to be true? This also comes along during a time in which I’ve been making an effort to drink less because of my age.

My guess is that — as doctors point out in the story — it’s not a causal relationship. That is, it’s not that drinking more causes older people to be leaner, healthier, and to have a better quality of life. Rather, it seems more likely that older people who are healthy, more sociable, and who are not fussbudget old prudes are likely to drink more, and it does them no harm. The story quotes the author of the study: “One explanation may be that higher alcohol consumption may lead to elevated mood, enhanced sociability and reduced stress.”

That makes a lot of sense to me. Now I think I’ll go make the first margarita I’ve ever made in my life, if that can be done with gin.

Update: Gin, lemon juice, and Cointreau, because that’s what I had. I don’t know if it was a margarita, but it was good.

The long, long culture war

Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity. Darrin M. McMahon. Oxford University Press, 2001. 262 pages.

Merely reading about the violent history of France is enough to get a case of PTSD. France, already damaged by the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century, lurched from monarchy to revolution and then back again to monarchy. Though most of us are at least somewhat familiar with that history, what most of is did not know is that it was one long culture war, the very same culture war that we are still fighting today.

This culture war was between the Enlightenment — which then was new — and the mortal enemies of the Enlightenment, people on the right who have been with us since the Enlightenment’s beginnings. On the left was a new humanist philosophy that made no claim to being a divine revelation. Its roots were in reason. It was a European project, but this book limits itself to France, where the chief luminaries of the Enlightenment were men such as Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau.

Who were these mortal enemies of the Enlightenment? That can be answered accurately with a few words: the church and the authoritarian elite, but mostly the church. Most of the anti-philosophes, as this book calls them, were abbots and theologians. They saw Enlightenment philosophy as an evil conspiracy out to put an end to royalty and religion. In their minds, royalty and religion were the only forces capable of holding a society together. In France, their anti-Enlightenment evidence for this was the Reign of Terror after the 1789 revolution. These anti-philosophes were organized, and they produced a blizzard of books, tracts, and pamphlets to try to counteract the writings of the Enlightenment philosophes.

This old culture war, which raged white-hot from before the Revolution until the beginning of the Third Republic in 1870, was remarkably similar to the culture war through which we are living today. We could call it MFGA — Make France Great Again:

“…[T]he effort [was] to cleanse France of all trace of the Enlightenment and of the Revolution and to invest its inhabitants with a spiritual piety more intense than the eighteenth century had ever known. On the surface, this was a journey to the mythic past. But in truth the world that the men and women of the far Right aimed to create was not that of the ancien regime, the former regime. The world to which they hoped to return existed only in their minds.”

This book is above all a history of France, and McMahon has little to say about parallels with the present, which are obvious. He has little to say about the rest of Europe. I would venture to say that Britain handled the Enlightenment far better than France for two reasons: Henry VIII had conveniently gotten rid of the Catholic Church centuries before; and England’s royalty was more humane than France’s. McMahon does write, though, in describing how the enemies of the Enlightenment demonized their enemies: “Bequeathing an image of its enemy that long outlived it, the French Counter-Enlightenment, too, passed on a structure of opposition and a set of recurrent themes that would resurface in right-wing thought even to the present day.”

In America, the Enlightenment provided the basis for a new government and a new Constitution. But there were those in high places who hated the Enlightenment. McMahon mentions the Reverend Timothy Dwight, president of Yale from 1795 to 1817, who preached a sermon “in which he denounced the orchestrated plot, hatched by Voltaire, Frederick II, the Encyclopedists, and the Society of the Illuminati to destroy the Christian religion and the French monarchy.” That’s a conspiracy theory — from the president of Yale! According to Wikipedia, “Dwight was the leader of the evangelical New Divinity faction of Congregationalism — a group closely identified with Connecticut’s emerging commercial elite.”

Is there a traceable paper trail from then to now? I would say no. Rather, it’s that authoritarians and religionists never change. Their thought was just as ossified in the 18th Century as it is today. McMahon does mention, in his notes, a book from 1991 that I will read next: The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy, which deals with how conservative forces have tried to prevent progress. McMahon also mentions the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), whom I first encountered during my student days and who is now back on my reading list.

McMahon quotes Whitehead: “The major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur.” Why that is so is easy enough to see. Those who abhor the ideas of reason, equality, and democracy will fight like hell against progress. They are baffled by how anyone could possibly want a world ruled by anyone other than preachers and kings.

The theater of intimidation

The U.S.S. Nimitz under the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Fleet Week, 2006. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

We all want to be as aware as possible of the political environment that we are immersed in. An important element to watch for is: Who is trying to intimidate us? How? Why? Are they trying to intimidate us with real power? Or are they bluffing? Intimidation is a key part of the right-wing playbook.

Consider what Madison Cawthorn wrote in an Instagram Post after he was defeated in a primary election on May 17: “The time for gentile [sic] politics as usual has come to an end. It’s time for the rise of the new right, it’s time for Dark MAGA to truly take command. We have an enemy to defeat, but we will never be able to defeat them until we defeat the cowardly and weak members of our own party. Their days are numbered.”

Cawthorn is a clueless amateur. His threats will appeal to other clueless amateurs, but Cawthorn has no power to make good on his threats. But intimidation may also come from real power, from those who are pros at the theater of intimidation.

Fleet Week is an annual event in San Francisco. Once I actually joined the crowd on the Golden Gate Bridge to watch an aircraft carrier loom up out of the fog over the Pacific and pass under the bridge, with its crew in dress whites standing at attention and lining the decks. The display of power was stunning and, I admit, even beautiful. I quickly recognized that it was theater. Part of the job of the U.S. Navy, during peacetime, is to display American naval power to the world. American naval power is certainly true power, but there is still an element of bluffing, as American military adventures in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan show. Vladimir Putin has true power. But he also got caught bluffing when his army encountered the power of Ukraine.

The news this week was dominated by yet another school shooting. This one was in Texas, in the little town of Uvalde. The Uvalde police, it seems, at first tried to fudge the truth about their response. It turns out that they never went into the building to confront the shooter because they were afraid they might get shot. Instead, those cowboy Texans waited for federal help, from the U.S. Border Patrol. Two years ago, the Uvalde police department had boasted about its S.W.A.T. team, with a photo of the team in full costume. The boast included a warning to people not to be alarmed at the scary sight of the S.W.A.T. team. After the photo of the S.W.A.T. went viral, more than one person pointed out in social media that the real purpose was not to make Uvalde’s Latin community feel safer, but, rather, to intimidate them.

Whether it’s the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, the MAGA attack on the U.S. Capitol, militia rallies, Trump rallies, the practice of Trumpian politics, or just a dude with a gun on his hip, there is always an element of the theater of intimidation. Even the red MAGA caps are part of the costume in the theater of intimidation. It works. There are many people who still believe that Trump and his co-conspirators will never be brought to justice. I attribute that to the demoralization and intimidation that is such an important element of Trumpian politics. They want us to believe that we’ve already lost. But it’s theater.

In the present political environment, few pundits are willing to acknowledge that Trump and MAGA are in free fall toward the trash heap of history. One of the smartest pieces I’ve seen lately was in the Washington Post, “Why Trump’s 2024 chances are even worse than Georgia suggests.” The author, Jason Willick, quotes Richard Hofstadler: ” … [T]hird parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die.” Trump, having stung, is going down. And, as he goes down, the bluffing will be exposed.

I’m not saying that right-wingers don’t do real harm with every ounce of real power that they can get. But they also use bluffing to augment their power and to do damage that, except for the theater of intimidation, they would not have been able to do. They’re scary. But they’re not as scary as they want to be, and they’re not as scary as they think they are.

Source: Facebook


Obi-Wan Kenobi

I had been eagerly awaiting this new Disney+ series. But after watching the first episode, I was disappointed. Ewan McGregor does his best, but he couldn’t make up for a ho-hum story and a ho-hum script.

Disney, I suspect, needs to try to please kids. That may not work very well for oldies like me who were already older than Luke Skywalker when we saw the first Star Wars film back in 1977. There is a young Princess Leia character in Obi-Wan Kenobi, age around seven, who is extremely annoying — miscast and cockily unaware of how bad her lines are. Maybe that will work for kids. Remember Jar Jar Binks, and the young Anakin and his pod race? The Star Wars franchise has always been weakest when it tried to be kid-friendly.

What we have, I’m afraid, is a first-string cast (Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen), but second-string writing and directing. Still, I’ll keep watching. The visuals on the planet Tattooine are superb. The music (some of which was written by John Williams) is excellent. And it is always fun to return to the Star Wars world, which, after 45 years, has become a kind of parallel universe.

Cooler summer cooking, outside

Even if cooking on the deck didn’t keep the heat out of the kitchen, cooking on the deck would still be worth doing. Cooking outdoors is as much fun as eating outdoors.

I have long used my gas grill for cooking on the deck. But not everything wants to be cooked on a grill. Today I tried out an iron Dutch oven on an induction hot plate. It worked great. The Dutch oven serves perfectly as both an oven or a frying pan, depending upon whether the cover is on it.

I bought the induction hot plate a couple of years ago as an audition for an induction range. I ended up liking it far less than I expected and easily made the decision that an induction range is not for me. Part of the decision was related to the kind of cookware I use. I have several well-loved copper pots, as well as glass cookware. Only steel and iron, of course, will work on induction stoves. So the induction hot plate ended up abandoned, at the bottom of the pantry. As for the Dutch oven, that’s an essential kitchen item. I have a both a glazed and an unglazed Dutch oven, both made by Lodge.

In the photo above, the chicken nuggets are Impossible’s vegan chicken nuggets. You can get them at Trader Joe’s, and they are very good, probably the best of the new fake meats that I’ve tried. Potatoes like nothing better than hot cast iron. The broccoli likes it, too, as long as you give the broccoli some steam during part of its cooking time.

I could have done a better job of regulating the heat. The Dutch oven got much hotter than I expected, even with the induction plate set for 400 degrees or lower. But that’s OK. The slightly burned bits gave everything that mysterious campsite flavor, which I suspect can only be achieved outdoors.