Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Proud Boys Turn on Trump

Oh, the schadenfreude:

After the presidential election last year, the Proud Boys, a far-right group, declared its undying loyalty to President Trump. . . .

But by this week, the group’s attitude toward Mr. Trump had changed. “Trump will go down as a total failure,” the Proud Boys said in the same Telegram channel on Monday. In dozens of conversations on social media sites like Gab and Telegram, members of the group have begun calling Mr. Trump a “shill” and “extraordinarily weak.”

The Proud Boys staged several demonstrations in support of Trump's post-election lawsuits: 

But when Mr. Trump’s legal efforts failed, the Proud Boys called for him on social media to use his presidential powers to stay in office. Some urged him to declare martial law or take control by force. In the last two weeks of December, they pushed Mr. Trump in their protests and on social media to “Cross the Rubicon.”

“They wanted to arm themselves and start a second civil war and take down the government on Trump’s behalf,” said Marc-André Argentino, a researcher who studies the far right. “But ultimately, he couldn’t be the authoritarian they wanted him to be.” 

As most of us always thought about Trump, in the end he didn't have the stomach for a violent coup. What happened after the Capitol Riot has even more aggrieved the Proud Boys:

After the violence, the Proud Boys expected Mr. Trump — who had earlier told his supporters to “fight much harder” against “bad people” — to champion the mob, according to their social media messages. Instead, Mr. Trump began distancing himself from his remarks and released a video on Jan. 8 denouncing the violence.

The disappointment was immediately palpable. One Proud Boys Telegram channel posted: “It really is important for us all to see how much Trump betrayed his supporters this week. We are nationalists 1st and always. Trump was just a man and as it turns out an extraordinarily weak one at the end.”

Some Proud Boys became furious that Mr. Trump, who was impeached for inciting the insurrection, did not appear interested in issuing presidential pardons for their members who were arrested. In a Telegram post on Friday, they accused Mr. Trump of “instigating” the events at the Capitol, adding that he then “washed his hands of it.”

That Trump has arranged his whole career to leave someone else holding the bag seems to have escaped the notice of these fools. Maybe they have finally learned that lesson, if nothing else.

And the Unrest Goes On

NY Times:

Protesters in the Pacific Northwest smashed windows at a Democratic Party headquarters, marched through the streets and burned an American flag on Wednesday in a strident challenge by antifascist and racial-justice protesters to the new administration of President Biden, whose promised reforms, they declared, “won’t save us.”

In Portland, Ore., lines of federal agents in camouflage — now working under the Biden administration — blanketed streets with tear gas and unleashed volleys of welt-inducing pepper balls as they confronted a crowd that gathered outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement building near downtown. Some in the crowd later burned a Biden-for-President flag in the street.

Another tense protest in Seattle saw dozens of people push their way through the streets, with some breaking windows, spray-painting anarchist insignia and chanting not only about ICE, but the many other issues that roiled America’s streets last year under the administration of former President Donald J. Trump.

“No Cops, Prisons, Borders, Presidents,” said one banner, while another proclaimed that the conflict over racial justice, policing, immigration and corporate influence in the country was “not over” merely because a new president had been inaugurated in Washington, D.C.

“A Democratic administration is not a victory for oppressed people,” said a flier handed out during the demonstrations, during which protesters also smashed windows at a shop often described as the original Starbucks in downtown Seattle.

Of course these people are exactly right: Biden's election will do nothing to create the world they want. But that's because the world they want – “No Cops, Prisons, Borders, Presidents” – is impossible. 

Certain things they want, like abolishing ICE, are possible, but on the other hand are unlikely to get the necessary votes, partly because people like them keep smashing things.

Here's a question: do people like this, pushing for the impossible with low-level violence, have any sort of positive role to play in a democracy? Do they generate any momentum toward their causes, by raising awareness or what have you? Or this just a straight-out loss for the world?

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Paper Samurai by Juho Könkkölä

Finish artist Juho Könkkölä folded this warrior from a single sheet of rice paper. Video here.


Joe Biden:

This is democracy's day. A day of history and hope of renewal and resolve through a crucible for the ages. America has been tested anew and America has risen to the challenge. Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy. The people, the will of the people, has been heard and the will of the people has been heeded. . . .

In another January, on New Year's Day in 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. When he put pen to paper, the president said, and I quote, “if my name ever goes down into history, it'll be for this act. And my whole soul is in it.”

On this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause.

Tom Friedman:

Folks, we just survived something really crazy awful: four years of a president without shame, backed by a party without spine, amplified by a network without integrity, each pumping out conspiracy theories without truth, brought directly to our brains by social networks without ethics — all heated up by a pandemic without mercy.

It’s amazing that our whole system didn’t blow, because the country really had become like a giant overheated steam engine. What we saw in the Capitol last week were the bolts and hinges starting to come loose. The departure of Donald J. Trump from the White House and the depletion of his enablers’ power in the Senate aren’t happening a second too soon.

Julie Wronski:

When Americans are divided on simple facts, and live in two different realities, we are not a governable people. To put it another way, when two people playing a game cannot agree on the basic rules and layout of the game, they cannot play. When groups within American society believe in two different sets of rules on how to play the game of democracy, it cannot be played and we become ungovernable.

Harold James:

Biden is the anti-Trump, with a personality that is soothing, healing, not combative, but having said that, it is the reality of the performance, in the short run on combating the pandemic, in the longer perspective on building better access to resources rather than the benign nature of the personality that will dictate the character of the legacy.

Charles Blow:

Whenever I hear politicians appealing for unity, I am befuddled. What do they mean by “unity”? What does “unity” mean to America? . . . 

Many people frame the ideas of division and unity around political polarization, which has grown in recent years. As the Pew Research Center pointed out in November:

“A month before the election, roughly eight in 10 registered voters in both camps said their differences with the other side were about core American values, and roughly nine in 10 — again in both camps — worried that a victory by the other would lead to ‘lasting harm’ to the United States.”

But this seems understandable to me. . . . I don’t object to this form of division at all. I don’t want to be unified with anyone who could openly cheer my oppression or sit silently while I endure it.

Nicholas Kristoff:

Coverage of Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan has understandably focused on the $1,400 payments to individuals, the increased unemployment benefits, the assistance to local governments, the support for accelerated vaccine rollout and the investments to get children back in schools. But there is so much more: food assistance, policies to keep families from becoming homeless, child care support, a $15 federal minimum wage and an expansion of the earned-income tax credit to fight poverty.

To me, the single most exciting element of the Biden proposal is one that has garnered little attention: a pathbreaking plan that would drastically cut child poverty. . . . it’s exhilarating that Biden included in his plan a temporary expansion (I hope it will be made permanent) of the child tax credit in a way that would do more than any other single policy to reduce child poverty and make America more truly a land of opportunity. In effect, Biden is turning the child credit into something like the child allowances that are used around the world, from Canada to Australia, to reduce child poverty.

David Harsanyi:

Moment after Donald Trump was sworn it back in 2017, it started to rain. Moments after Joe Biden was sworn in today, the sky cleared and the sun came out.

Dan McLaughlin:

After Nixon's departure, some came to him for advice, none for endorsement. Trump will probably be the opposite.

And from the Bench:

A federal appellate court on Thursday scrapped a Trump administration rule that eased limits on carbon dioxide emissions from coal- and natural-gas-fired power plants, and it effectively revived the Obama administration’s tougher Clean Power Plan.

Praise the Lord He's Gone

Now what? I feel optimistic, but not entirely so.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Olbian Gold

Gold artifacts from the Greek colonies in the Crimea, dating to between 300 and 150 BC. This design element is known as a Herakles Knot.

Gold bracelet with onyx goats.

And a famous diadem, excavated near Kerch, now in Germany.

We're Going to Have a Revolution, and Then. . . .

Sad story by Vivian Yee in the Times today about political unrest in Tunisia, the only place the Arab Spring led to a new democratic government. Tunisian democracy has endured for a decade, and the nation has the Arab world's freest press. But many Tunisians feel that the right to complain about their bad condition is the only thing they got:

Tunisia’s dictatorship is long gone. Its president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country in January 2011 after a brutal 23-year rule. Ten years later, Tunisians have built a democracy, however dysfunctional, complete with elections and — that rarest of Arab commodities — the right to free speech.

So it is that the protests, strikes and sit-ins seem to almost never stop. Graffiti gleefully denounces the police. Bloggers and citizen journalists howl about official mismanagement, heap scorn on political opponents and lob corruption allegations against government officials high and low, their Facebook posts then shared and amplified by thousands of fellow Tunisians.

But none of it has righted an economy heading for shipwreck. Nearly a third of young people are jobless, public services are foundering and corruption has increasingly infiltrated daily life. Opportunities for most people have become so scant, especially in Tunisia’s impoverished interior, that least 13,000 Tunisian migrants gambled their lives crossing to Italy by boat just in the last year. . . .

“Why did we revolt?” said Ines Jebali, 23, a sociology student. “Everything changed for the worse.”

Yet another people learns that the Revolution is just step one on a long, long road toward a decent and prosperous society. Habits of corruption die hard, and no government can magic a modern economy into being. 

One of the issues in Tunisia is government instability; they have had a dozen since they elected their first free Parliament. No party can establish stable control because the country is so closely divided between the mainly rural people who want the nation to be founded on Islam and those, mainly urban, who want a more western, liberal society. (Sounds familiar, no?) Plus, both parties are full of corrupt rent-seekers because, honestly, the whole country is full of corrupt rent-seekers.

Another issue is the belief that the only thing keeping ordinary people from earning decent livings is corruption. Tunisia certainly has a problem with corruption. But that is not the fundamental problem many Tunisians seem to believe it is. Even if corruption could be eliminated Tunisia would still be a struggling middle-income country with nothing special to sell the world. 

Yee's article ends on an optimistic note, focusing on political agitation among Tunisia's young city dwellers. I wish them well. But I am not optimistic that they or anyone else can cure the pain Tunisians experience from being torn between Islam and the west, and from being a not-rich country just across the Mediterranean from much richer lands.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Salvator Rosa, "Allegory of Fortune", 1658-59

 The Getty:

A personification of Fortune bestows symbols of wealth, status, and power on dumb animals who neither need nor deserve them. Fortune is usually represented with a blindfold, but Salvator Rosa showed her fully aware of her favors. Similarly, the cornucopia is usually shown facing upward; by depicting it overturned, Rosa expressed reckless extravagance.

The beasts, portrayed with stark realism, trample the attributes of art and learning, including books and a palette. Draped in the cardinal red of the Catholic Church, an ass shields an owl, the symbol for wisdom, from the light. Bitter over his exclusion from papal patronage, Rosa included personal references: a book bearing his monogram and a pig stepping on a rose, which alludes to his name.

As a satire of Pope Alexander VII's nepotistic artistic patronage, this painting nearly sent Rosa to prison. After showing it privately in his studio, he flagrantly disregarded all advice and exhibited it publicly in the Pantheon in 1659. Allegory of Fortune aroused such a furor that only intervention by the pope's brother saved him.

Gosh, I can't imagine why the Pope didn't want to sponsor him. But if you're a good enough painter, your sour grapes may one day end up hanging in a major museum. And yes, Rosa was an interesting character. 

Here is a painting titled "Philosophy" which is actually a self-portrait.

The Getty again:

Despite living three hundred years before the Romantic movement, Rosa--a poet, satirist, composer, etcher, and painter--epitomized the Romantic rebel. He refused to paint on commission or to agree on a price beforehand, and he chose his own subjects. He painted in order "to be carried away by the transports of enthusiasm and use my brushes only when I feel myself rapt." Rosa studied in Naples, where Jusepe Ribera's realism influenced him. Encouraged by Giovanni Lanfranco, Rosa went to Rome in 1635. A bout with malaria drove him back to Naples, but he returned in 1639, resolving "to have his name on everybody's lips." His amateur theatrical group lampooned the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, prompting Rosa's quick departure. In Florence he enjoyed Medici patronage and founded the Accademia dei Percossi (Academy of the Afflicted), a crossroads for literati and artists. Rosa considered his innovative, rugged landscapes as mere recreation; in his mind only religious or historical subjects constituted "High Art." In 1649 he settled in Rome to work toward success as a history painter.

His place in art history is all about these landscapes, which people call "proto-Romantic." But maybe he should instead be known as one of the first famous artists to prize the authenticity of his own vision over the need for patronage and then complain bitterly that he couldn't get patronage. It is, after all, a long and noble artistic tradition.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

A Roman Child Burial in Central France, with Puppy

Infant burials are very rare in pre-Christian Europe. We don't know what happened to the babies and young children who died, but they weren't put in cemeteries. A few infants were buried under houses, but most have simply vanished. So this very elaborate Gallo-Roman burial of a 1- to 2-year-old child is a very interesting find. 

The child was buried with a puppy. The puppy was wearing a bronze collar with a bell, so it was certainly a household pet.

Another view. More (in French) at INRAP.

Neo-Byzantine: The Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky, Bulgaria

The cathedral of Alexander Nevsky in Sofia, Bulgaria, is one of the greatest works of Neo-Byzantine architecture, which was to eastern Europe what Neo-Gothic was to the west.

Construction began in 1882 to honor the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, as a result of which Bulgaria was liberated from Ottoman rule. It occupies a prominent site in the center of the city, its gold domes visible from all around.

The interior does have a very Byzantine look, with domes looming up into the dimness, gold shining wherever light falls.

Interior details.

What caught my attention is the wonderful mosaics. Above, St. Eudoxia.

Alexander Nevsky. Nevsky (1221-1263) was a Prince of Novgorod who won several victories against German and Swedish invaders but then bent the knee to the Mongols, making Russia for a century a vassal state of the Golden Horde. He got his name at the age of 19 when he led a Russian force to defeat the Swedes on the banks of the River Neva. Other mosaics below.

Michael Hunter, "The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment"

The persecution of "witches" in western Europe peaked between 1590 and 1650. Thousands were burned, whole villages depopulated. Then, mysteriously, the persecution petered out. By 1670 burnings were rare, by 1690 almost unheard of. A handful of cases were prosecuted into the 1720s, but these usually involved accusations of poisoning or religious heresy as well as simple witchcraft.

Why? Despite 300 years of scholarship – the first history of the rise and fall of witch burnings in England was published in 1718 – there is no agreement. Which I suppose is not really surprising, since we are equally in the dark about why the persecution began in the 1400s.

One is tempted, of course, to credit science. But actually science had nothing to say about the matter, at least not directly. In England the Royal Society was several times invited to investigate particular cases of witchcraft or other demonic visitations, and once a petition was got up to have them investigate witchcraft in toto, but they refused to get involved. Scientists were anyway divided on the question. One of England's top scientists, Robert Boyle, was a great defender of the reality of witchcraft, and while Isaac Newton was dismissive of village witchcraft he devoted years of his life to unraveling Biblical prophecy.

Was there, perhaps, some argument among philosophers, in which the believers were gradually beaten down by skeptics like Thomas Hobbes and Robert Hooke? Actually, no. There was next to no skeptical publication about witchcraft before the 1690s, after the trials had essentially ceased. The only prominent writer to take up the skeptical side was Thomas Hobbes, who devoted a single chapter of Leviathan (1651) to dismissing the whole business in terms so vague that orthodox divines found nothing in it to argue against. A writer of the 1670s who tried to defend the orthodox Christian position on Satan and demons found only three skeptical books in English to refute, compared to many hundreds of demonologies. The most prominent of those works, Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft, had been published in 1584, before the worst of the persecution even got going, and really no skeptical author had found any additional arguments since Scot's time. The printed arguments for and against witchcraft did not change at all between 1500 and 1700, and the pro-witchcraft books always massively outnumbered those by skeptics. Somehow, though, the arguments of the demonologists ceased to persuade.

Back in 1971, English historian Keith Thomas published Religion and the Decline of Magic. This is one of my favorite academic books, a marvelous look at all the things English people believed in the 16th and 17th centuries. But when it came to the "decline" part, Thomas had little to say. Nobody found that part of the book in any way convincing. Thomas' own work showing how deeply belief in witches, demons, faeries, astrology, oracles and so on were woven into European society made the problem even more difficult.

The mystery of witchcraft's decline, highlighted by Thomas, inspired a generation of British historians to take up the question. Until this week I would have said they had not made much progress, but I am happy to report that Michael Hunter's The Decline of Magic (2020) changes that. The Decline of Magic is not an elegant or charming book; Hunter explains in the introduction that it was cobbled together from a series of articles and talks, and rather than trying to smooth over the breaks he keeps calling attention to them. Despite being only 180 pages long it repeats itself to an irritating degree. Really Hunter has only one thing to say, but it is such a fascinating and important thing that I happily forgive him the foibles of this book.

Hunter says there was a great argument over the reality of witchcraft, in which the defenders of witchcraft were routed and the skeptics emerged triumphant. It does not appear in books because the whole argument was carried on orally. It was within the oral culture of the English elite, at the court of Charles II, in the coffee houses, and among chattering lawyers at the Inns of Court, that witchcraft accusations were made ridiculous and demons ceased to be taken seriously.

Here we encounter one of the great challenges facing any historian: most of what matters in history is spoken, and few of history's major actors have been book-writing people. We have to reconstruct the culture within which history happened from the bits and pieces that chanced to be written down. Hunter does this in a very impressive way. He starts from the many books written by ministers and philosophers arguing for the reality of witchcraft. Since there were hardly any skeptical books, who were they arguing against? Fortunately, they tell us. They write, over and over, that England is plagued by "wits and scoffers" who deny the reality of magic and demons and come perilously close to denying God. They tell us, over and over, that these wits and scoffers are to be found at court, in the coffee houses, and at the Inns of Court.

The later 17th century is the first period from which private letters survive in quantity, and Hunter makes great use of these. In these letters some of the coffee house scoffers and wits are named, and we are told about the skeptical things they said. Others of their breed appear in Pepys' diary. We also meet them in Restoration drama and occasionally in verse. They are, once Hunter started looking for them, everywhere. He even has first-hand accounts of dinner parties at which these matters were argued out, the believers against the scoffers. By 1705 we have doctors like Sir John Sloane arguing that anyone who sees spirits or hears their voices is suffering from a mental disease.

Hunter seals his argument with an amazingly detailed analysis of a single case, a poltergeist known as the Drummer of Tedworth. This famous case of mysterious drumming and other odd phenomena in a grand country house, in the years 1671-1673, was reported on and debated all over Britain. A memorandum on the case even appears in the papers of the Privy Council, and it eventually showed up in a comedic play by Addison. Hunter has dug up dozens of mentions of the case in letters, books, broadsheets, even a printed ballad. He shows that the believers who used the case to argue for the reality of spirits were mocked at every turn by "wits and scoffers" who thought the whole thing was faked by the servants to get revenge on a bad employer. At least two churchmen whose letters survive found themselves embroiled in arguments over it with coffee house skeptics. Two noble friends of the king (Lords Sandwich and Chesterfield) went to Tedworth and reported back in mocking terms to the court. They seem to have treated the whole thing as a lark, an amusing way to get out of London for a few days of ribaldry on the road.

So the question of why the English stopped trying people for witchcraft when it was still a capital crime, and most of the common people still believed in it, and most of the books published on the subject still argued for it, has this answer: because any lawyer or judge who involved himself in such a case risked being laughed at by all the other lawyers, and jeered out of his favorite coffee house. As John Wesley later wrote in his diary, "the infidels have hooted witchcraft out of the world." Plus, any English capital case could in theory be appealed to the king, who would hear it in his privy council, stock full of wits and scoffers like Lords Sandwich and Chesterfield. This actually happened in 1712, when one of England's last convicted witches received a royal pardon.

Hunter is writing only about Britain, but I feel certain that all of this applies to France and Holland as well. Charles II's court was after all modeled on the French court, and the French Parlements were equally stocked with worldly lawyers, the salons with scoffing wits. Meanwhile the Dutch led the world in both coffee house culture and philosophical skepticism. 

As to why the European elite turned toward deism and against demonology, that is a very grand question. One could point to a reaction against the religious enthusiasm of the 1500-1650 period, and the wars it spawned. But certainly skepticism about witchcraft fits perfectly with the whole elite culture of the eighteenth century: neoclassical architecture, the great arc of Baroque and classical music that runs from Bach to Mozart, the obsession with the Roman world, the cult of Reason. 

What is great about The Decline of Magic is that Hunter ties the cessation of witchcraft trials to those big cultural changes without any hand-waving. He shows us the places, the people, sometimes the very words by which the change was made. Where other authors have given us vague assertions about the influence of science, or the philosophical triumph of deism, Hunter shows us the men, the conversations, the jokes that made this change happen. It is a remarkable work of scholarship.

I think Hunter's point about the great difference between print culture and oral culture has much wider application. For example there have lately been several major books about the survival of "superstition" in the eighteenth century, with titles like The Dark Side of the Enlightenment. The claim or at least the insinuation of these books is that the Enlightenment was not really so rational, that people continued to believe in demons, witches, and the like, besides dreaming up new false beliefs like racism. All of which is true, to a point. Many people still believe in ghosts and demons. But as Hunter convincingly shows for the 1670s and 1680s, people may be writing books because they have been shouted out of the coffee houses and have no other way to get their ideas out. Consider how many books in our own time were written from their authors' frustration that "you never hear about x." Most people don't write books, and we cannot, ever, assume that those who do publish speak for the rest.

And, I should add, most people who write books are not nearly as smart as Michael Hunter.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Maglev, Washington to Baltimore

The draft environmental impact statement has just been released for the DC to Baltimore leg of a planned DC to NY Maglev train. It is supposed to run at 311 mph (500 kph) should get from Washington to Baltimore in 15 minutes, Washington to New York in an hour.  The project is being pushed by a company called Northeast Maglev, which has raised $5 billion to get started, much of that from Japan. The latest cost estimate for the first leg is actually $13.8 billion to $16.8 billion, depending on the route and some other things.

When I first heard about this scheme I was baffled; how could anyone think this could really be built? and if it could be built, how could it ever make money?

But this project is plowing ahead, as the filing if the EIS shows. I of course think this is a great idea, although I have one major complaint: it does not connect to Amtrak at either end, so it won't do as much as it might to promote train riding more generally. Right now it runs from a new station at Mount Vernon Square in DC to Camden Yards in Baltimore. I don't think it is supposed to reach Penn Station in New York, either.

One of the big fights yet to come concerns how much of the route will be on the elevated viaduct and how much will be tunneled, because tunneling costs 10 times as much per mile.

I confess to being very much divided over both this project and the California high speed rail system. Both are staggeringly expensive and don't integrate well into other rail or subway systems, so they are not really what I would design, and I doubt either will ever either be finished or operate profitably. The route of the California system was transparently designed to get key legislators to vote for it, and frankly makes no sense. Public transit advocates keep pointing out that you could help a lot more people by investing all that money in regular bus and subway service.

On the other hand, improving local bus service fails the Daniel Burnham test:  

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men`s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever- growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us.

We need big ideas to get people excited about the future. And if we can tap into all those trillions of dollars sloshing around our stock and bond markets, desperately seeking profitable investment, why not?

More at Baltimore Magazine and the Washington Post

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Links 15 December 2021

John Singleton Copley, portrait of Frances Montresor, 1778

Charles Blow, who recently moved from New York to Atlanta, calls on black Americans to make a reverse Great Migration back to southern states where they make up enough of the population to wield real political power. (NY Times)

There isn't any good way to measure whether feelings of victimhood are rising or falling, but Kevin Drum says the data he can find show little change over the past 20 years, and maybe a small decline.

American painter Erin Hanson, an impressionist I wrote about in 2018, is featured in a MyModernMet "Top Artist" podcast. Imagine, someone who paints pretty pictures I like hailed in New York as a top artist. What has happened to the modern world?

Kevin Drum explains how Fox News can turn anything into a scary story about liberal threats to white people.

List of 30 famous missing "treasures", from the Ark of the Covenant to the first hour-long feature film. Uneven but better than you are thinking from the clickbait title, and all on one page.

NY Times: "The interviews with Trump voters suggest that even his assault on the most bedrock norm of American democracy — the peaceful transition of power — may still not bring about mass defections."

Crazy room of lighted glass by Claudia Bueno, at Meow Wolf in Las Vegas. More on the Meow Wolf art collective here.

Vox looks into which health care workers are refusing the Covid-19 vaccine and why.

A detailed theory of what happened on January 6, from Trump's planning to the Capitol falling.

The archaeology of Caligula's pleasure garden in Rome, the Horti Lamiani. (NY Times)

Murals and figurines from a Tang Dynasty Tomb

The pandemic-related epidemic of broken toes (Washington Post).

Remarkable doll house furniture and objects by Kiyomi.

Writing, Stereotypes, Authenticity, and Social Change

A bit of a storm has blown up in publishing over a book called American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. It tells the story of a Mexican woman whose journalist husband is murdered by a crime boss; she then flees for the US border with her son, cartel hitmen after her the whole way. Many early readers were blown away by it, compared it to John Steinbeck, said it was both a "moral compass" and a thrilling page turner, said it made them empathize with asylum-seekers like never before. Then some actual Mexican-American writers read it, and they hated it.

In her essay titled “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca With Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature,” Gurba criticizes American Dirt for its reliance on “overly ripe” Mexican stereotypes, for its portrayal of characters who are either comically evil or angelically good, for the inaccurate Spanish sprinkled in italics throughout the text, and for the “white gaze” of the authorial perspective, which “positions the United States of America as a magnetic sanctuary.”

Another Latina writer called it

Trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf.

I have never read American Dirt and almost certainly never will, but I am willing to bet that every word of this criticism is true. Also, that it is completely beside the point.

Consider, by way of comparison, another book that made millions sympathize with the oppressed: Uncle Tom's Cabin. I have read about half of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and I can tell you that it is chock full of offensive stereotypes, comically evil and angelically good characters, cringeworthy renderings of black dialect, and the sentimental gaze of a privileged white woman. "Trauma porn" is a perfect description. Many black readers hated it so much that "Uncle Tom" came to be one of the worst slurs black Americans can throw at each other. 

But it worked! It worked commercially, outselling every other American novel of its era. More important here it worked politically, converting hundreds of thousand to the anti-slavery cause. 

I think Uncle Tom's Cabin worked precisely because it was sentimental and bad. It worked because of the stereotypes and the smarmy writing, because of the trauma porn. If it had been a better, more nuanced, more truthful book, it would have sold many fewer copies and had much less political impact. Surely nobody winced at it more than Frederick Douglass, but he nonetheless praised it to the skies because he knew that it was just the sort of schlock that would help the cause.

Some people understood this about American Dirt.

“In my experience,” the agent said, “the books that produce this kind of frenzy take something complicated and simplify it so the book-club reader can find some thread of connection to themselves while at the same time feeling protected and safe.” The fact that it was written by a white woman was part of that appeal, the agent added. “People are tribal,” she said. “White women would rather listen to a white woman tell them about racism.” Cisneros, the Mexican American author who had praised American Dirt, felt the book could reach an audience that her work could not. “The reader,” she said, “is going to be someone who wants to be entertained. The story is going to enter like a Trojan horse and change minds.”

People react to art in ways many more serious artists and critics hate. I had a bad reaction to the "Black Panther" movie, and even more to the hype surrounding it. To me, superhero literature is fascist pretty much by definition, all about the Ubermenschen who can solve problems democracy cannot. So to me, the notion that a movie about black superheroes could strike a blow for social justice is absurd on its face. Plus, it's about a king, and I think Tom Paine said everything it was ever necessary to say on royalty. Plus, the movie trades in visual stereotypes about Africa that I find – well, not offensive, it's very hard to offend me, but at least irritating: leopard-skin shields, spears, etc. There is a big film industry in Africa these days and it uses a completely different aesthetic, and I thought "Black Panther" should have at least nodded in that direction. But for hundreds of thousands of black Americans any hesitation was overwhelmed by the simple thrill of seeing black people presented as heroes or villains with awesome powers.

(Still waiting for a Hollywood movie that would embody my idea of social justice, a mob of common people defeating a fascist superhero.)

"Authenticity" is one of those things that everybody praises in the abstract but hates in practice. Storytellers know, have known since Gilgamesh, and probably for thousands of years before a scribe pressed stylus into clay, that real life makes boring stories. Even the most thrilling real event needs shaping to make a story that will grip readers. Storytelling is done at many different levels, from the cartoonish to the subtle; again, this is thousands of years old. But no successful story is like real life. No successful story even attempts to capture life in its full complexity. First, it would fail, and second, the attempt would be too confusing for any reader or listener to follow.

In our world the question of literary authenticity has gotten tied up with identity politics in ways I think are both false and bad. I think a blow-up like the one over American Dirt is intellectually bankrupt, because it assumes totally false things about writing, books, reading, and publishing, and bad in that the median voter will just roll his or her eyes and say, "those annoying radicals, always telling us we can't enjoy a good story even when it takes their side, we need Reagan back."

There is, I say, no such think as an authentic story. Stories vary in how hard they try to engage with actual human lives, but they all fail – unless they succeed symbolically. It is only as symbol, as a psychological force that enters our minds and burrows in deeply, that art of any sort can "change" us. The best preachers don't work in complicated, subtle stories, but in parables. The most successful activists also trade in symbols. Crafting symbols that will move people is a skill that has nothing to do with authenticity, nothing to do with where the artist grew up. To protest that publishers pay more to white writers is simply to missing the point of what publishers are doing. They are selling myth, and they pay the most to the best myth-makers, not the people who work hardest at telling the truth.

Case in point: American Dirt spent 36 weeks on the NY Times best-seller list, and during last summer's unrest it topped several widely circulated lists of book white people could read to better understand the experience of other Americans.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Gustave Doré and Héliodore Pisan, illustrations for Don Quixote

An Anglo-Saxon Charm against Stabbing Pain

Wið færstice is an Anglo-Saxon charm recorded in a single 10th-century manuscript. The name means "against stabbing pain."

They were loud, yes, loud, when they rode over the barrow;
they were fierce when they rode across the land.
Shield yourself now, you can survive this strife.
Out, little spear, if there is one here within.
It slipped behind lime-wood, under the shield,
When those mighty women marshalled their powers
And sent screaming spears.

I will send another back,
a flying arrow swift against enemies.
Out, little spear, if it is here within.

A craftsman sat, forged a knife;
Small the weapon, yet violent the wound.
Out, little spear, if it should be here within.
Six craftsmen sat, wrought slaughter-spears.
Be out, spear, not in, spear.
If there is here within a piece of iron,
the work of witches, it must melt.

If you were shot in the skin, shot in the flesh,
or shot in the red blood,
or shot in the limb, may your life never be harmed.
If it was the shot of ēse or the shot of ælfe
or it was the shot of witch, now I will help you.
This your remedy for the shot of ēse; this for you as a remedy for the shot of ælfe,
this is your remedy for the shot of a witch; I will help you.
Fly around there on the mountain top.
Be healthy, may the Lord help you.
Then take the knife; put it in the brew.

"Ese" seems to be the Old English variant of Aesir, the Norse name for their main gods. But by the tenth century "ese oððe aelfe" seems to have become a formula meaning "whatever sort of magical being."

The word translated "witch" is hægtessan, the meaning of which is disputed. In some contexts it seems to refer to a human witch, but it others it clearly refers to a supernatural being. In one passage it may mean the Fates or Norns. Our word "hag", which must descend from it, is also ambiguous, and in early modern English could refer either to a pathetic old woman or to a dangerous creature of the night. Here it seems to refer back to the "women of power" in the first stanza, riding fiercely over the land. Those night-riding women appear several times in old European lore and scholars have spilled thousands of word over them without coming to any agreement over where they came from or how people imagined them.

This and a couple of other old charms refer to removing a weapon from the sufferer's body; I wonder if practitioners "sucked out" pins or other small iron bits the way some 20th-century faith healers "sucked out" small stones or the like.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Andreas Hetfeld, "Viewpoint"

Dutch sculptor Andreas Hetfeld won a competition to design a new monument for the city of Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Nijmegen is an old Roman town, and Hetfeld's design is a blow-up of a famous Roman cavalry helmet found in the Waal River nearby.

Hetfeld's web site has several pictures of the mask being transported by barge to its riverside site. That would have been interesting to see floating by.

The Last Time a Mob Tried to Keep Congress from Certifying an Election

In February 1861, as Congress gathered to certify the election of Abraham Lincoln, southern sympathizers in both houses tried to hold up the proceedings every way they could. Rumors swirled that the Virginia militia were on their way to blow up to the Capitol. That didn't happen, but an angry mob did gather. They probably would have stormed the building if not for the decisive actions taken by General Winfield Scott, an old man who had been given his first commission by Thomas Jefferson. Fearing trouble, Scott brought two companies of troops to Washington weeks in advance by announcing that he was going to hold a military parade to welcome the new president.

Scott stationed his troops and two canons at the building and threatened to strap the first rioter who tried to enter to the muzzle of a 12-pounder and "manure the hills of Arlington with the fragments of his body." Nobody tried to force his way in.

When Senator Louis Wigfall of Texas asked Scott if he would dare arrest a senator for treason, Scott replied, "No! I would blow him to hell!"

On the one hand, it worked, the certification proceeded without violence, and Lincoln assumed office. On the other, Scott's mailed fist approach was part of the process by which the nation descended into war.

We have seen recently that when the police deploy with the numbers and equipment they think are necessary to guarantee peace, the show of force can be seen by protesters as an act of violence in itself. So I get why various powers in Washington were reluctant to deploy massive force on January 6. In retrospect, they should have, but let's not pretend that would have been cost free.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Ashli Babbitt's Path toward the Bullet

Sign on the door of Ashley Babbitt's pool business

Shelby Foote once wrote that the death of a soldier in battle happened when two paths intersected: the short, straight path of the bullet and the soldier's long, winding path through life that led him to be standing on that spot.

So let's consider the winding path of Ashli Babbitt, killed by a police bullet while storming the Capitol. How did she end up there?

For some people, their politics is just another expression of their personalities. This is certainly true for me; I am a political moderate because I strive to be moderate about everything. You can also see some of this in Ashli Babbit. She became an angry political extremist partly because she had lifelong issues with anger and a fierce certainly that she was right and others were wrong.

Ashli Babbit's long Air Force career involved a series of angry confrontations and she was reduced in rank at least once for insubordination. To her this was all about her own dedication to her comrades and refusal to bow down to authority, especially the authority of officers she thought were arbitrary or wrong.

But despite her reputation for being outspoken, she kept herself in check. Then one day, the executive officer slipped new papers into a briefing binder shortly before quizzing service members on its contents.

Babbitt asked for permission to speak freely, the former staff sergeant said, and the executive officer granted it — “which was a huge mistake for that captain.”

For the next several minutes, she “let him have it,” the former staff sergeant said. He and other members of the unit watched, riveted, as Babbitt shouted and gesticulated, warning that the officer — who far outranked her — was sapping morale. Another former airman who served with Babbitt said he also witnessed the interaction.

“She was like a dog with a bone,” the former staff sergeant said. “She could never let go of whatever her attention was on, and she was absolutely unafraid of anything.”

After she left the military her problems got worse:

The same year, [2016] Babbitt spotted her husband Aaron Babbitt’s ex, Celeste Norris, pulling out of a shopping center parking lot in southern Maryland, according to a court petition for a protective order Norris later filed. Babbitt spun her white SUV in a U-turn and began chasing Norris, according to the petition, eventually rear-ending the other woman’s car three times and forcing her to stop.

Babbitt then exited her own car “screaming at me and verbally threatening me,” wrote Norris. Norris filed a second protective order petition in early 2017, saying Babbitt had followed her home from work and called her “all hours of day and night.”

She started a pool business – a popular line for rugged individualists who want to work for themselves but don't have much capital or any special skills – but wasn't very successful and fell deeply into debt.

So she was an angry person, with a tendency to obsession and a lot of personal problems.

But that doesn't explain how she ended up storming the Capitol. People who knew her say she wasn't very political until 2016. She called herself a libertarian and was heard to praise Obama. To cover the last part of her journey we have to look away from her own life and toward other actors, especially Donald Trump. 

Babbitt got onto Twitter in 2016 as a Trump supporter, posting photos of herself with her new MAGA gear and H FOR PRISON sign. It is easy to see why Babbitt and many of her personality type fell for Trump. Like them, he said what he wanted, consequences be damned. Like them, he attacked the system and mocked its authority figures.  Like them, he had zero tolerance for other people's whining. And through Trump, Babbitt entered the world of far-right paranoia. 

Trump has served as a gateway to the right for many people. Trump legitimized their anxieties about decline and focused their inchoate anger on immigrants, minorities and the left. He supported their skepticism about the virus and the police state powers being used to fight it. He convinced them that the real story of America was not the one carried by the Times and CNN, but a different story about immigrant violence, elite corruption, and theft from regular, hardworking folks.

Many commenters on the Capitol riot have said that given America's long, violent history of racial and political conflict, all it took to ignite civil strife was someone like Trump to pour on rhetorical accelerant and light the match. Trump came forward at a time when many Americans were unhappy about the state of the country, worried about immigration, race change, the decline of manufacturing, foreign wars that seemed to drag on forever, and so on. His counter-narrative picked up themes launched by New Gingrich and Fox News and gave them a new vehemence. Above all, he focused those feelings on himself. The rest of the country rolled their eyes at his "only I can fix it" rhetoric, but his followers seized on it. Unable to believe in a party of an ideology, they chose to believe in a man. 

Since Trump is regularly attacked in the mainstream media and his accomplishments disparaged, belief in him necessitated scorn for the public discourse. Nothing you saw in the papers or on TV could be believed, unless it supported Trump. In that frame of mind, people were open to any sort of nonsense, so long as it could be fitted into a narrative of Trump fighting the forces of corruption. Hence QAnon, and all the rest.

And thus to a rally in Washington on January 6, when thousands of people heard that they now had a chance to fight for the man they believed in against the corrupt forces ruining America. Of course they took it. They marched up the Mall and stormed the citadel of corruption, walking the paths that led Ashli Babbitt to the grave, and will lead hundreds of others to prison.

As to what path America will take, that remains to be seen.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Gerhard Munthe: Drawings and Illustrations

Gerhard Munthe (1849-1929) was Norwegian artist, famous in Norway but not so much anywhere else. He came from an accomplished family,  – his father a physician, his sister a novelist, one brother a historian, another a military officer – and never much struggled. Except with his wife, who divorced him after 23 stormy years. 

The Daughters of the Northern Lights, 1895

He had a strange upbringing for an artist, in that he announced that he wanted to go to medical school but his father talked him into studying art instead. He studied in Germany for a few years but otherwise lived in Norway. 

Before the 1890s he focused on painting in the academic style. But then he got interested in the Arts & Crafts movement and shifted to drawing, woodcuts, and illustrations, many of them related to the Icelandic Sagas and other Norse literature.

I just love the little drawings Munthe called "vignettes," and as soon as I saw one (at Dido of Carthage) I knew I had to post about him.

More, and some of his paintings, at the Norwegian national museum.