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Two Years Before the Mast

“A Clipper at Sunset,” Edward Moran, 1829-1901.

Whenever I have one of my fits of despair that writers can’t write anymore, I look for a classic to read. This led me to Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast.

My main interest in this book was Dana’s account of sailing around the Horn from Boston to California and back. I had been looking at my globe and marveling at what a long and treacherous trip that had to be. That made me think of Dana’s book, so I got a copy for my Kindle. I confess that I skipped most of the parts about coastal California, having been there and done that. But Dana’s time at sea is thrilling. I’d suggest keeping a schematic of a sailing ship handy when reading this book, because Dana uses a sailor’s language in discussing the parts of the ship and how it was sailed.

Many have noted that Dana was, at heart, a poet. His California travelogues are descriptive and more journalistic. But sometimes he sings:

Every rope-yarn seemed stretched to the utmost, and every thread of canvas; and with this sail added to her, the ship sprang through the water like a thing possessed. The sail being nearly all forward, it lifted her out of the water, and she seemed actually to jump from sea to sea. From the time her keel was laid, she had never been so driven; and had it been life or death with every one of us, she could not have borne another stitch of canvas.

Finding that she would bear the sail, the hands were sent below, and our watch remained on deck. Two men at the wheel had as much as they could do to keep her within three points of her course, for she steered as wild as a young colt. The mate walked the deck, looking at the sails, and then over the side to see the foam fly by her,— slapping his hands upon his thighs and talking to the ship,— “Hurrah, you jade, you’ve got the scent!— you know where you’re going!” And when she leaped over the seas, and almost out of the water, and trembled to her very keel, the spars and masts snapping and creaking,— “There she goes!— There she goes,— handsomely?— As long as she cracks she holds!”— while we stood with the rigging laid down fair for letting go, and ready to take in sail and clear away, if anything went. At four bells we hove the log, and she was going eleven knots fairly; and had it not been for the sea from aft which sent the chip home, and threw her continually off her course, the log would have shown her to have been going somewhat faster. I went to the wheel with a young fellow from the Kennebec, Jack Stewart, who was a good helmsman, and for two hours we had our hands full. A few minutes showed us that our monkey-jackets must come off; and, cold as it was, we stood in our shirt-sleeves in a perspiration, and were glad enough to have it eight bells, and the wheel relieved. We turned-in and slept as well as we could, though the sea made a constant roar under her bows, and washed over the forecastle like a small cataract.

Dana’s ship, the Pilgrim, sank off the North Carolina coast after a fire at sea in 1856. A replica of the Pilgrim, built in 1925, was berthed in California for many years and was maintained by the Ocean Institute. I was saddened to learn that this replica of the Pilgrim keeled over and sank in its berth just a few months ago — March 2020. The ship could not be salvaged.

June 6, 8:30 a.m.

First day lilies

First cabbage to go to the kitchen

How the South Won the Civil War

How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. Heather Cox Richardson, Oxford University Press, April 1, 2020. 240 pages.

This book was published only 60 days ago. Every day since then, its premise has gotten more and more true. In the U.S., we’re now seeing the most serious riots since 1968. One can’t help but wonder whether this ongoing civil war is now moving into the streets.

This book’s message will come as no surprise to those of us who know some history, who have lived through several decades of that history, and who have seen the escalating American slide toward oligarchy. It surprises me a bit, actually, that the Oxford press saw the need for a book that tells us what we already know. Still, it’s nice to — in a virtual sense — sit together around a tribal fire and hear the story told again by a very good storyteller.

It’s exciting how quickly Heather Cox Richardson has risen to prominence as a public intellectual. For some months now, she has been writing, on Facebook, a concise and incisive daily summary of the first draft of history. This is important, because it seems pretty certain that what we are living through right now will become one of the hot spots in history, and maybe one of the turning points, for better or worse. If you’re not already following Heather Cox Richardson on Facebook, just search for her name.

Richardson recounts the many times in American history when battles broke out between oligarchy and democracy. But she believes that the current situation is the most dangerous since the Civil War. And she wrote this book even before a pandemic, a depression, and street riots started. I’m afraid that the next few months of this unfolding history are not going to be easy to live through.

Jonathan Haidt

White House photo

A couple of days ago, The Atlantic published a flattering portrait of Jonathan Haidt: Jonathan Haidt Is Trying to Heal America’s Divisions. “Over the past decade,” wrote Peter Wehner, “no one has added more to my understanding of how we think about, discuss, and debate politics and religion than Jonathan Haidt.”

Haidt is an oracle to centrists, for whom it is axiomatic that wisdom always lies in the middle, between two extremes. To centrists, we’d all get along if only we’d just listen to each other, respect each other’s points of view, and meet somewhere in the middle.

Centrist thinking is very pretty. But it’s also very wrong.

Centrists like to say that Haidt is just doing objective social psychology, and that he stops short of saying that the moral values of conservatives and the moral values of liberals are equally valid. But I don’t see it that way at all. Haidt bends over backwards to accord respect to conservative values, and he always works in a slam against liberal values (identity politics, usually), as though there is a moral symmetry between left and right, with equal foible on each side and sound ground in the middle.

In the Atlantic piece, Haidt says that, while in India, he “really tried to understand a culture very different from my own, and in the process, for the first time, I was able to look at evangelical and conservative Christianity not as a force hostile to me as an atheist, a cosmopolitan, and a Jew, but as a moral community striving for certain virtues — and I could understand those virtues and I could respect those virtues. It was that combination that really drained me of my anger and hostility and, I think, helped me to just listen to people and try to map out what [they are] aiming for. What are the virtues they’re trying to instill? What is the vision of the good that they are pursuing?”

I find Haidt’s wrongness very frustrating, because I lack the credentials to shoot him down the way he deserves to be shot down. Mere bloggers like me are not supposed to dabble in moral and political philosophy. But there are other ways of answering Haidt’s centrism.

I’m halfway through Heather Cox Richardson’s How the South Won the Civil War. I’ll have a review soon. Her account of American history is extremely ugly. Clearly, in the final chapters, she is going to make the case that the politics that is tearing America apart today is the same politics that has been tearing American apart since its founding and over which we once fought a civil war. It’s the struggle between those who want equality and democracy versus those who actively oppose equality and democracy. It’s oligarchy that they want, and there is always racism, cruelty, gross injustice, self-serving religion, and attempts to rewrite history. “Prosperity gospel” and dominionism are the new Manifest Destiny. Richardson makes clear that Trumpism and Trumper-types have a long and continuous history in America. Richardson traces that history starting in the 18th Century, through the Civil War, through the near extermination of native Americans, to the present.

The Atlantic piece does say that Haidt votes for Democrats “because he thinks the Republican Party has been in a state of moral and philosophical decline for many years.” In other words, Haidt gets it. But he nevertheless wants us to listen to and respect as virtuous the ideas and “moral striving” of people who have been in a state of moral and philosophical decline for many years (centuries, according to Richardson).

I decline. Ugly religions, ugly philosophies, and ugly politics are not to be coddled, compromised with, and allowed to rule. They are to be called out, condemned, and pushed into the powerless margins where they belong.

Ken in the Washington Post

Ken on the Scottish isle of Ulva, September 2018

Ken has an op-ed in today’s Washington Post on the right to roam and why we need it now more than ever:

America may be opening back up, but most of our land is still off-limits. Let’s change that.

Scary new predictions from Nouriel Roubini

Scheduled air traffic, 2009. Wikipedia.

I owe a great deal to Nouriel Roubini. I had been a liberal prepper since 9/11. I was preparing for retirement as the Bush-Cheney financial bubble grew — and grew and grew. If you believed the horsewash and the noise in the media, it was a fine time to borrow money against your house and live it up — new cars, dream vacations, and granite countertops bought with borrowed money. I did not believe the horsewash, and I did the opposite. I got out of the stock market before it blew up. I carefully moved my retirement money out of tax-sheltered accounts, duly paid the taxes on it, and converted most of my assets into usable land and a paid-for house. I actually benefited from the financial crash, because I built Acorn Abbey during the trough of a recession, when materials prices were low and when people were hungry for work and bid low.

But my point is not just that we should be contrarians. Rather, it’s about the importance of beating the bushes for reliable information, especially in uncertain times. Much of the noise in the media comes from people who have lots of opinions, but not a lot of information. And, these days, the Republican Party and its propaganda organs just make up whatever information suits their agenda. Many people haven’t caught on to how their politics and religion can be used to take advantage of them.

But back to Nouriel Roubini. The fact that he was right about the financial crash of 2008 (and that his model was predicting it before 2006) does not necessarily mean that his current predictions will be accurate. But it does mean that he has a good model, and it does mean that we’d be wise to take his predictions seriously. His predictions are very, very scary — a global depression, a period of inflation, and even food riots.

Here’s a link to an interview in New York Magazine: Why Our Economy May Be Headed for a Decade of Depression.

One of the things we need to be trying to model right now is how this pandemic is going to permanently change the way we live. We need to be on the lookout for reliable information about what people are starting to do differently. And we need to pay attention to people like Nouriel Roubini, whose views are based on actual data and whose models are constantly updated. Data from the economic shock from Covid-19 obviously required that Roubini update his economic model. The New York Magazine piece, as far as I know, is the first piece available to the public on Roubini’s post-pandemic model.

Note the comparison to Germany in the New York Magazine piece. More than ever, we need competent government to get through what we’re probably facing.

Sixth Column — Robert A. Heinlein, 1941

Once again, unable to find any new (or newish) science fiction that I wanted to read, I turned to an oldie — Robert A. Heinlein’s Sixth Column, which was first published in 1941.

Of course it’s dated, but part of the fun of old science fiction classics is the nostalgia. It’s recognizably Heinlein, though — snappily and skillfully written, often funny, with lots of good snark that never quite turns into preaching. Old books also remind us moderns that the writers and intellectuals who came long before us often had things figured out that we think weren’t figured out until much later. For example, from a biography of Theodore Parker, I learned that our intellectual predecessors had fully explicated the moral poverty of the Bible and the case against slavery by early in the 19th Century, building on a strong 18th Century base. Or consider the social critiques of Jane Austen, or the prescience of writers such as George Orwell. Voltaire was born in 1694. 1694!

Heinlein, though, was no philosopher. His libertarian notions are tiresome, in my opinion. And though he was once a liberal, Wikipedia says that Heinlein and his wife worked for the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign in 1964. So go figure.

Since I’m a person who wouldn’t give two cents for all the theology that was ever written, I found Sixth Column amusing for its rude treatment of the church. The plot of the novel is that the United States has been taken over and enslaved by Asians, and only six members of the American military survive. To take the country back, these six members create a fake religion. “The average American,” writes Heinlein, “is completely unimpressed by scientific wonders; he expects them, takes them as a matter of course…. But add a certain amount of flubdub and hokum and don’t label it as scientific and he will be impressed.” What befuddles me is that, even though “Amazing Grace” was written in 1772, and even though intellectuals have been shaking their heads at the stupidity and gullibility of the average American for almost as long as there has been an America, we are still surrounded by crackpot religion, crackpot politics, and a technologically amazing global network providing the crackpots with their daily supersized bellyloads of flubdub and hokum, since television — brand new in 1941 — can no longer meet the demand. The master Tweets, and his slaves obey.

Sixth Column is extremely politically incorrect, which is another part of the fun. The book police brats at Goodreads have slammed it for that. A “steaming pile of crap,” one Goodreads reviewer wrote. Though some of the reviewers, I must acknowledge, know how to read old pulp fiction in its historical context. One reviewer even wrote, “When we start telling writers what they can and can’t write about we may as well give up reading.”

The year 1941 was 79 years ago. And yet here we are today, actually governed by crackpot con men and crackpot voters who think that a return to the Dark Ages will make us great again. (The Americans of 1941 had Franklin D. Roosevelt. We are backsliding.) Heinlein writes: “These savages and their false gods! I grow weary of them. Yet they are necessary; the priests and the gods of slaves always fight on the sides of the Masters. It is a rule of nature.”

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood — the soundtrack

Fred and Joanne Rogers, circa 1974. PBS photo.

Last night I watched “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the Tom Hanks film about Mr. Rogers. There’s no need for a review here, and you’ve probably already seen the film. But I did want to comment on the soundtrack, which I thought was extraordinary. It was a lush and varied soundtrack, carefully designed to encourage an emotional response to the film. There is a beautiful — but too short — scene in which Mr. Rogers and his wife, Joanne, are playing a piano duet on separate pianos, in their living room. The scene ended much too quickly, because I wanted to hear the whole piece.

Here’s a link to a YouTube video. The piece is “Bilder aus Osten,” by Robert Schumann.

Maybe it’s because older ears have more difficulty separating signal from noise. But the soundtracks for many movies make movie-watching an unpleasant experience for me (and for Lily, the cat). There is too much noise, everything but the dialogue is too loud, and the dialogue is often hard to follow, because the dialogue gets drowned out in all the noise. It’s such a pleasure to watch a film like “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” with its crystal-clear, well-designed, and ever-so-listenable soundtrack.

Ken writes about Doomsday at the abbey

Ken, who has been a featured author at the Wigtown Book Festival in Scotland for several years, has written a piece for the festival’s web site about being stuck here at the abbey during the Pandemic. Regular readers of this blog will recognize the characters. Please think of it as an interpretation of the American heartland for European readers.

Letter from the Heartland — Ken Ilgunas

What’s happening, May 13

Who will ever be able to forget the spring of 2020 — the Pandemic Spring? Here in this little corner of the world, the strange weather continues. An arctic incursion brought two late frosts. The tomatoes, basil, and squash are hating it (we covered them), but they survived. The cool-weather crops are flourishing. Mustard and kale have been plentiful. Soon there will be cabbage and onions. A building project has kept us very busy for the past week. It’s a much-needed shed up above the garden, with space for the Jeep, the lawn mower, the tiller, and tools. I’ll have photos when it’s done. The news, in my opinion, isn’t getting much better. And everything having to do with Donald Trump is getting worse. But this strange, slow-moving spring is a huge compensation. Now’s the time for scouting the best locations for picking blackberries.