A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Friday, April 29, 2005

"Well, There Ain't No Use In Turnin' On Your Light Babe, I'm On The Dark Side Of The Road."

Nostalgia is the strongest and most lasting emotion among the over-civilized. It takes the place of the blues among those who have little simplicity of heart. The difference between the pain in blues tunes and the pain in most rock-and-roll tunes lies just here. "What might have been" clings tightest to those who have the strongest ambitions. Blues is but heartache, nostalgia is heartache trimmed with the lace of regret.

The best music is what happens. This old Irish saying has more wisdom, if not more knowledge, than the best of encyclopedias. There is nowhere we are going, except to our graves. This, ultimately, is the source of the blues and an unavoidable portion of sadness to all of our lives. But ambition, and the nostalgia it makes, is a cheat; it is like drinking salt water--the more you drink, the more you thirst.

Fulfill an ambition, and you contend with post-partum depression from the loss of anticipation. Fail to fulfill it, and the depression comes from displaced anger and chagrin. Let ambition cloud your judgment and everything else worthwhile you have can vanish while your back is turned. All you are left with in any of these cases is nostalgia.

The longer the term for the ambition, the more problematic it can be. Mrs. Claus got an AARP subscription for us both, to support their stand against Social Security privatization. With the membership cards came a flyer with the picture of a chic and good looking woman d'un certain age, who looked so happy being old that you could hardly stand it.

I watched the progress of my parents' quite comfortable old age and I know that, at its best, it was no where near the extacy of going to Orlando, Florida (or wherever) in your customized travel van, with the swiveling captain's chairs, that our ambitions and our dreams of retirement promise.

Mrs. Claus has many medical problems and is totally disabled from working. I, also, am creakier than I used to be, and mentally ill in the bargain--my slide began with my first colonoscopy and polyp removal at the age of 50. So we are already locked in to the endless round of doctor appointments I remember from my parents' "golden years".

Socially, we have the advantage over them. My parents were far too deferential to medical professionals. This got them into trouble several times, including one outrageous incident where my mother, for no real reason, ended up confined in a psychiatric ward for three days of observation.

Mrs. Claus and I are far less deferential, and more definite personalities in the bargain. Her tatoos might have something to do with this. She got them long before they became widely fashionable, on areas of her body where they do not play peek-a-boo, like those of most young women today. She is quite vividly and openly illustrated. She also retains a certain degree of verbal forthrightness from her younger days when she dated a Philadelphia cop. Combine this with a rolling walker, an electrical lineman's bag for a purse, and a midsize political badge reading, "The United States has the best health care no one can afford," and you have someone who will make a definite impression wherever they travel.

Then, again, my prose persona here is not all that exaggerated from how I am in person. I test high on temerity, irony, and assertiveness even when I'm not hiding behind my CPU on the net. Not to put too fine a point on it, I am a tart tongued and icy nerved old fart. So we also like to think of ourselves as medical professionals--professional patients--in the same way that our doctors are medical professionals. We try to meet them on even terms and engage them as human beings rather than authorities in uniform. Doing so definitely improves the quality of our medical care.

Mrs. Claus has a vital need to do this. With around 20 different medications to take a day, she has to watch far more carefully than any doctor can, while being constantly bombarded with new drugs, for black box warnings of side effects or drug interactions from anything new added to her exotic chemical mix. And even then medication changes are a form of Russian Roulette for her.

In any event, the dreams of endless pleasurable leisure after 40 years of labor are a chimera. What true happiness can be found from abandoning such ambitions and retaining contact with your present moment, which is the only moment you will ever have. All the rest is memory or fantasy.

I have done many things to make a living and have accomplished little in the way of growing wealth of cultivating fame. I occasionally have the blues, but I am rarely tormented by nostalgia or might-have-beens, because I never let ambition for the future dictate my decisions in the present. I am like the Irish boxer who, when the priest asked him to forgive his enemies as part of Extreme Unction, replied, "Father, I have none. I whipped them all."

I ain't sayin' you treated me unkind,
You could have done better,
But I don't mind.
You just sort of wasted
My precious time.
But don't think twice,
It's all right.

Bob Dylan

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Bamboo Redux

A while back I wrote about my bamboo grove. Two weeks ago I clear cut it. On the day I clear cut it, the first new shoot popped through the ground. Today there are dozens of new shoots between eight and twenty inches high all over the clear-cut grove. By mid-June the tallest of them will top out at about 12 feet.

I am still wrestling with the cut poles. I am recycling them into trellises, fences, and plant stakes. Mrs. Claus and I are fond of climbing flowers: clematis, cardinal flowers, datura, sweet peas, morning glories, porcelain berry, climbing roses, and so forth. So a trellis campaign this year will pay many dividends.

Next year I may take the advice of my Chinese-American doctor, from whom I got the original bamboo starts 5 years ago for a grove now 20 feet in circumference. Dr. Lin wants me to call in the local zoo to cut my grove next spring. They have pandas to feed, so she thinks they will do it for free. She might be right.

I am also going to let the grove expand a little. Many bamboos expand aggressively through running rhizomes, and my yellow groove variety is no exception. One way to control it, useful if you are using it as a living privacy screen, is to plant it next to a wide sidewalk or driveway. The rhizomes are limited in expansion by the capacity to throw viable shoots. Such shoots cannot push through concrete or blacktop.

Another way to control it is to simply mow the soft shoots regularly around the edge. This requires your grove to be open on all sides, but it works. In my climate, the first shoots break the ground about mid-April and the shooting cycle lasts until about mid-June. Regular mowing through this period is quite effective. Bamboo is, after all, a grass.

If you want to use it as a living privacy fence on the edge of the property, for which it is very useful, you can buy lengths of impenetrable barrier that you can bury in the ground on both sides of your fence. This will force shooting rhizomes to emerge above ground to conquer the barrier, where they can be regularly trimmed by hand.

As a fence, it is better to let the canes grow over from year to year, without cutting, for total privacy and an impenetrable barrier. The uncut canes will grow as close together as 2-3 inches. As a wall of mature bamboo, in a fence three or four feet wide, nothing short of 20 minutes cutting with a lopping shears would allow anyone on foot to cross it.

The only other alternative would be to drive a car through it at a fairly high rate of speed. It will even baffle any animal larger than a rabbit.

But a fully wild grove is not nearly as beautiful as one which is clear cut every year just before shooting. With maximum sunlight and no competition, the yellow groove shoots grow tall, straight, and elegant, about 6-12 inches apart and 12-15 feet high. This allows them to bend gracefully in the breezes, display their delicately splayed leaves to maximum effect, and carry winter snow magnificently.

Yellow groove also has an interesting quirk. A few canes at random will develop a 120 degree kink about 6-8 inches above ground. After that, the cane grows straight.

As I say, an interesting quirk, kind of like the guy who grows them and is goofy enough to blog about them.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Joys of Spring in Columbus

Spring in Ohio is in Fast Forward. Is has been for some years now. Of course, this has nothing to do with global warming, global warming doesn’t exist, so I presume we must explain it in terms of God’s will. Just like the fact that we use so much hydrocarbon fuel because we have suckled better mother’s milk than every other mother’s son else on the planet. And we can abrogate the process of cause and effect in the bargain.

Once upon a time, the forsythia was the first flowering bush to bloom in Ohio, followed by the star magnolias, the weeping cherries, and the true magnolias. Usually the magnolias would get frosted off by the freeze 3-4 weeks after the first forsythia bloom. The white crabapples and Bartlett pears would follow, then the pink crabapples, the purple leaf sand cherries, the regular apples, and, finally, the dogwoods and lilacs. All the while the yellowish, crisp lettuce, fresh spring green leaves on the trees would slowly mature into the darker summer shades. At least 3 freezes would occur, usually knocking off the early tulips, and one or the other of the later flowering bushes.

No more. I watched last week as the first lilacs opened while the last forsythias faded. We finally had one very mild freeze and snow last weekend (a record snow for Central Ohio this late in April), the dogwoods are just beginning to drop their petals, and the spring green is already slightly, but significantly, darkening.

I first began to really notice this four or five years ago when, one year, every flowering tree and bush in Columbus bloomed within the space of three days to either side of my birthday, and were completely gone by May. The results were incredible, of course, like the finale of your local Fourth of July fireworks display; boom following boom amid the multiple whistles of the skyrockets, the deafening and eye searing explosions in short bursts like a machine gun, and the trails of colored gunpowder flowering red, blue, green, and gold before dropping in a shower of falling stars.

You might even compare it to the Arizona fireworks display which I remember reading about almost thirty years ago, immediately after the Bicentenial Fourth of 1976. A tiny town had planned the biggest fireworks display Cochise County had ever seen. They got it. The first rocket fired, reversed course, fell back immediately, exploded in the fireworks pit, and detonated everything else in it. The show was short and a little close to the hair-dos of the audience. But it was unquestionably entertaining and commanded everyone’s undivided attention.

So do the flowering trees in Central Ohio. But there was something to be said for the long, slow, majestic roll of spring in my youth. As there was for the first serious dusting of snow and the final termination of blooms on Thanksgiving Day, which also occurs no longer. The roses now routinely keep blooming until early to mid-December.

The anticipation, and the excruciating worry (Would the magnolias make it? Would the tulips?) provided hours of entertaining conversation. The spring lettuce comes earlier now, the fall tomatoes linger later and mostly all ripen, on the windowsill, if not on the vine, and there is seldom need any longer to batter and fry them green.

The fauna are responding, too. I remember the seagulls arriving thirty years ago in Central Ohio. I thought I was hallucinating when I first heard the sound of their cry overhead, which I knew from the beaches of the Atlantic. These days they are extremely big on McDonalds French Fries, dropped in the parking lot near the drive thru. You see them in such places constantly, digging in the open dumpsters, and, as we all know, we’ve all gotten extremely big on McDonalds French Fries, ourselves: Supersize Fries, Supersize People, Supersize Gulls.

The Canada Geese now winter over, and nest here in the suburbs, on the green belts with ponds, surrounding the large indoor shopping mall parking lots, and the silvered, light industrial, or technological, multi-story office buildings. Since King George was enthroned, more and more of these malls and buildings here have For Lease signs inside them or in front of them, so maybe the geese will move in.

I constantly contend with hopscotch between putrid green geese droppings in the parking lot and entryway of my mental health agency. Mrs. Claus uses a rolling walker, so it is even harder for her to wend her way forward there.

One very enterprising goose even built a nest in the ground cover on one side of the entryway, and sat, while the gander prowled and surveyed the territory on the small grassy rampart which surrounds the parking lot. The local transportation department has had to put up special Geese Crossing signs all over town, in the International Style, with a black goose and a line of imprinted goslings on a yellow diamond.

Mrs. Claus and I live in a large-yard-and-lawn-mower section of Columbus proper, now over 60 years old. We rent our 50 year old ranch house now. We were forced to sell it to a good friend and ex-landlord to meet our bills last year. With the city’s growth pattern, we are almost in the dead center of the heavily populated part of the Metro Area. Where once, when my deceased parents owned our house, the sighting of a hawk dive bombing the bird feeders was a rare and precious thing, now it occurs perhaps 3 times weekly. Possums live in the storm sewers, and I recently had to alert a neighbor that one of the local raccoons was wintering over in the back of the detached screened in porch in his backyard.

The Red-wing Blackbirds first moved from the wetlands, as they diminished, and took up residence in the corn and soybean fields, and this year, for the first time, a pair is nesting in the towering Colorado Blue Spruce, behind the Bamboo grove in my back yard.

Just last week we went to the grove of trees between our local hospital and the huge processing center of a large, locally prominent, but nationally owned, bank, to put binoculars on the two chicks of a pair of Great Horned Owls nesting there. It was quite a tableau: little knots of birders behind the yellow police caution tape rubbernecking the owls from the processing center parking lot.

In the exurbs you can now hear coyotes howl at dusk, and on the grounds by the town recreation center of one of them, I was treated to the sight of two grounded Great Blue Herons, from a distance of no more than 50 feet, while they looked me over thoroughly before they flew on.

The local Large Midwestern University—you know it for football and we know it for it’s constant publicity puffs about how it is “pursuing Excellence”—has built an artificial wetland in the middle of the city, with all the trimmings from mosquitos on up, which the locals here call LMU’s Swamp of Excellence.

Or, rather, The Large Midwestern University’s Swamp of Excellence, since the administrators of that august institution always insist on the preceeding definite article. There is, after all, no other large midwestern univeristy of any consequence.

All of this means that it is a far pleasanter climate here, generally, since the officially non-existent Global Warming started. The nights, particularly, have gotten warmer, and nothing remotely resembling the Great Blizzard of 1977, where temperatures stayed far below freezing for nearly the entire winter, or the broiling Little Dust Bowl of 1987, where room air conditioners simply ceased to even dent the heat gain, and I was driven out of my apartment and back to my parents' whole house cooling system in mid-July, appears to be ready to return. Rains and weather move through even in the months that used to be dry as a bone.

The dog day weeks of brutal heat have turned into work weeks instead of calendar weeks and, in some seasons, to work weeks with long holiday weekends. The Alberta Clippers clip through faster, with fewer freight cars attached, leaving us with fewer deep azure winter skies, and, now, ozone inversion alerts occur even in January.

We are not plagued, like Florida, with pool table swamps likely to be rimmed with prime ocean front property as the century progresses. We drained our Great Black Swamp long ago, before swamps became “wetlands”, and it nurses our truck garden farms, which are picked by migrants, and whose growing seasons are lengthening. Nor need we fear any increase in coastal hurricanes as the climatic warming proceeds.

Our Outer Banks are insured by the FDIC, and are not at risk, like those of North Carolina. And we still will be here, unlike the funny little countries in Micronesia who will someday have a population without a land area.

Nor will Akron, Canton, or Massilon face the prospect that Manhattan might just become two islands instead of one. And we have already begun to protect the Great Lakes, here in the Midwest, against the rapacious thirst of the Pacific Coast and the Rocky Mountain West for ever more fresh water, as the world’s supplies dry up.

So in Columbus, we are sitting rather pretty as we face the new century and the new millennium, at least as far as the climate is concerned.

Best of all, we know Crawford, Texas isn’t.

Even well before last century, an old Ohio boy, General Phillip Sheridan, while on patrol in Texas, was heard to remark that if he owned both Texas and Hell, he’d rent out Texas and move to Hell. If it struck him so then, just imagine what it will be like in the future!

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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Joe Claus' Reading List

The little game proposed by Methuselah's Daughter, which I played a couple of posts down, got me to thinking about books and book genres, so I'll indulge my self-esteem and list my favorite books in the genres that have meant the most to me.

Yes, I know I've said before that Buddhists don't believe in a "self", but that doesn't mean we don't esteem it, even if it isn't really there, just like everybody else. We merely recognize that esteeming a non-existent self is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

This list is not my proposed selection for the best books or stories in the world, but the items on it are significant turning points in my history as a reader, making some definite change or other in my point of view on the world. The books below are far more numinous to me than they might be to you, but they should illuminate to any of my readers part of the emotional grounds within me for the things I write here. These emotional grounds are not wholly conscious to me, so I cannot characterize them directly in my own prose, I can only point to them in an indirect way such as this.

Then, again, I am a great disbeliever in literary class consciousness--claims that certain books or genres are somehow inherently more "important" (beyond abstract literary merits) than others are greatly exaggerated. I don't think there is anything on this list to be ashamed of reading, so the reader may use it as a guide to new morsels of pleasure to be explored by flipping through the pages, if they haven't yet encountered all of the works below.

The Ten Novels:

  1. Bleak House--Charles Dickens
  2. Ada--Vladimir Nabokov
  3. The Tale of Genji--Murasaki Shibitsu
  4. Gravity's Rainbow--Thomas Pynchon
  5. Ulysses--James Joyce
  6. The Sea of Fertility Tetrology--Yukio Mishima
  7. The Count of Monte Cristo--Alexandre Dumas
  8. The Tropic of Cancer--Henry Miller
  9. The Master of Go--Yasunari Kawabata
  10. One Hundred Years of Solitude--Gabriel Garcia Marques

The Ten Plays:

  1. Measure For Measure--Shakespeare
  2. Macbeth--Shakespeare
  3. Hipollytus Veiled--Euripides
  4. Oeidipus At Colonus--Sophocles
  5. Mrs. Warren's Profession--George Bernard Shaw
  6. The Cherry Orchard--Anton Chekov
  7. Arms And The Man--George Bernard Shaw
  8. Baccae--Euripides
  9. A Midsummer Night's Dream--Shakespeare
  10. Henry IV--Shakespeare

The Five Autobiographies:

  1. Autobiographies--W.B.Yeats
  2. Memories, Dreams, Reflections--Carl Jung
  3. Walden--Henry David Thoreau
  4. The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton
  5. The Path To Rome--Hillaire Belloc

The Five Books of Literary Criticism:

  1. The Dyer's Hand--W.H. Auden
  2. Selected Essays--T.S. Eliot
  3. ABC of Reading--Ezra Pound
  4. The Poetics of Music--Igor Stravinsky
  5. Inside the Whale & Other Essays--George Orwell

The Five Books of Poetry:

  1. Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats
  2. Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens
  3. Collected Shorter Poems--W.H. Auden
  4. Collected Poems--Dylan Thomas
  5. Collected Poems--H.D.

The Ten Short Story Collections:

  1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
  2. Beasts and Super Beasts--Saki
  3. The Great White Way--Damon Runyon
  4. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary--M.R. James
  5. The Father Brown Omnibus--G.K. Chesterton
  6. Collected Fictions--Jorge Luis Borges
  7. The Continental Op--Dashiell Hammett
  8. The Big Knockover--Dashiell Hammett
  9. Nightwebs--Cornell Woolrich
  10. Best Ghost Stories--J.S. LeFanu

The Five Books of Fantasy:

  1. The Lord of the Rings--J.R.R. Tolkein
  2. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland/Through The Looking Glass--Lewis Carrol (Get the Annotated Alice, if at all possible. The pleasure in it increases tremendously.)
  3. Mists of Avalon--Marian Zimmer Bradley
  4. That Hideous Strength--C.S. Lewis
  5. Many Dimensions--Charles Williams

The Five Farces:

  1. The Code of the Woosters--P.G. Wodehouse
  2. The Blind Barber--John Dickson Carr
  3. Uncle Fred in the Springtime--P.G. Wodehouse
  4. Animal Crackers--The Marx Brothers (Yes, I know it isn't a book. So what?)
  5. The Importance of Being Ernest--Oscar Wilde

The Five Traditional Detective Stories:

  1. Over My Dead Body--Rex Stout
  2. The Three Coffins--John Dickson Carr
  3. The Sign Of The Four--Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  4. Devil Take The Blue Tail Fly--John Franklin Bardin
  5. The Golden Spiders--Rex Stout

The Five "Hard Boiled" Detective Stories:

  1. Lady In The Lake--Raymond Chandler
  2. Red Harvest--Dashiell Hammett
  3. Farewell My Lovely--Raymond Chandler
  4. The Glass Key--Dashiell Hammett
  5. The Friends of Eddie Coyle--John V. Higgins

The Five Spy Stories:

  1. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold--John LeCarre
  2. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy--John LeCarre
  3. The Third Man--Graham Greene
  4. The Human Factor--Graham Greene
  5. Journey Into Fear--Eric Ambler

The Five Science Fiction Novels or Story Collections:

  1. Dune--Frank Herbert
  2. Vintage Season--C.L. Moore & Harry Kuttner
  3. I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream--Harlan Ellison
  4. I Sing The Body Electric--Ray Bradbury
  5. Time Enough For Love--Robert Heinlein

The Five Horror Stories:

  1. Turn Of The Screw--Henry James
  2. The Specialty Of The House--Stanley Ellin
  3. The Room In The Tower--E.F.Benson
  4. A Cask of Ammontiado--Edgar Allen Poe
  5. The Shadow Over Innsmouth--H. P. Lovecraft

The Five Books of Social/Economic/Political Criticism:

  1. Illuminations--Walter Benjamin
  2. A Treatise On Money--John Maynard Keynes
  3. Mythologies--Roland Barthes
  4. The Painting of Modern Life--T.J. Clarke
  5. Beyond Good and Evil--Friedrich Nietzsche

The Five Books of Philosophy:

  1. The Problems Of Philosophy--Bertrand Russell
  2. Progressive Meditation on the Stages of Emptiness--Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso
  3. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus--Ludwig Wittgenstein
  4. The Birth of Tragedy From The Spirit of Music--Friedrich Nietzsche
  5. The Grundgrisse--Karl Marx

The Five Personal Religious Narratives:

  1. The Life Of Milarepa
  2. Orthodoxy--G.K. Chesterton
  3. The Book of Eziekiel
  4. Black Elk Speaks
  5. The Book of Job

The Five Travel Narratives:

  1. The Cruise of the Nona--Hillaire Belloc
  2. The Japanese Inn--Oliver Statler
  3. A Small Town In Provence--M.F.K. Fisher
  4. The American Scene--Henry James
  5. Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan--Lafcadio Hearn

The Five Books on the Occult:

  1. The Sea Priestess--Dion Fortune
  2. Moon Magic--Dion Fortune
  3. Magick in Theory and Practice--Aliester Crowley
  4. Rosa Alchemica/The Tables Of The Law--W.B. Yeats
  5. Pictorial Key To The Tarot--A.E. Waite

The Ten Unclassifiable Books:

  1. The Gentle Art of Making Enemies--James MacNeil Whistler
  2. Acting: The First Six Lessons--Richard Boleslavsky
  3. The Book of Tea--Okakura Kakuso
  4. Aion--Carl Jung
  5. I Ching--Richard Willhelm/Cary Baynes tr.
  6. The White Goddess--Robert Graves
  7. Tales of Power--Carlos Castenada
  8. The Way of The Shaman--Michael Harner
  9. The Reader Over Your Shoulder--Robert Graves and Alan Hodges
  10. A Prosody Handbook--Karl Shapiro

"Works of art are sometimes unjustly forgotten, but no work of art is unjustly remembered."--W. H. Auden

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Saturday, April 23, 2005

The Mind Of Benedict XVI

Of course, nobody yet knows His Holiness' mind. For it will certainly have to be significantly rearranged to cope with the duties of his elevation, and his contact with those duties is barely a week old. But, since, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he had a reputation among the cognoscenti as being quite a theologian, I thought I would dip into some of his more pointed writings simply to get intellectually acquainted with him.

Following the lead of Matthew Yglesias, I have been reading the written text of Relativism: The Central Problem for Faith Today, which the good Cardinal gave as an address in Guadalajara in May of 1996. I was very pleased to find that the future Benedict had the kind of razor sharp intellect, and incisive powers of analysis, which always appeal to me. He is very different in temper and character, if not in actual content, than John Paul II, whose prose had a naturally orotund and oratorical flourish, fine in itself, but less to my taste for sharp, strong, and spicy flavors.

Much of his discussion, of course, is beyond my ken and my depth, involving Christian authors whom I have not read about theological issues that have not commanded my attention. But he does occasionally make remarks about things which I do know or have read, so I will indulge in a little intellectual criticism of his characterization of them. He's big enough to stand it, I suspect, and I think he would agree with me that the keenest intellect in the world is of no use if it is operating on faulty premises or inadequate information. Thus Cardinal Ratzinger:

Marxism had been the last attempt to provide a universally valid formula for the right configuration of historical action. Marxism believed it knew the structure of world history, and from there it tried to show how history could be led definitively along the right path. The fact that the presumption was based on what was apparently a strictly scientific method that totally substituted faith with science and made science the praxis gave it a strong appeal. All the unfulfilled promises of religions seemed attainable through a scientifically based political praxis.

The nonfulfillment of this hope brought a great disillusionment with it which is still far from being assimilated. Therefore, it seems probable to me that new forms of the Marxist conception of the world will appear in the future. For the moment, we cannot be but perplexed: The failure of the only scientifically based system for solving human problems could only justify nihilism or, in any case, total relativism....

We can start right here. First of all, in the works of Marx and Engels, at least, there is considerably less direction about how to make a world revolution happen than there is philosophical (and not scientific) hypothesis about how a world revolution would happen whether we tried to make it or not. The basis of that hypothesis is the "materialist conception of history".

So the first thing to point out is the absence of the name Lenin in the good Cardinal's analysis. What collapsed in 1989 was the Leninist program and blueprint to make a world revolution happen before it's time.

Why is the absence of this understanding by the Cardinal an intellectual flaw, and, in some respects, a disingenuous one? Because by refusing to acknowledge the contribution and importance of Lenin to 20th century Communism, everybody and anybody can avoid an honest philosophical confrontation with Marx, who supposedly stands "refuted" by the failure of a governmental system he never even lived to see. He is no more "refuted" by it than the doctrines of the Catholic Church are "refuted" by the recent sexual scandals among American priests.

The constant intellectual dishonesty which surrounds Marx among most of his non-Marxist critics subsists right there. Why is the refusal to look at the "materialist conception of history" and engage it philosophically on it's own terms--rather than merely implicitly labeling it "wrong science"--intellectually dishonest? Because it is a way of avoiding the reason Marx and Engels developed the notion of historical materialism.

That reason is called Capitalism.

The overwhelming bulk of Marx's work is about Capitalism, not Communism. Marx and Engels were attempting a rational and reasonable explanation of the facts of Capitalism and their relation to politics. From our vantage point, their explanation is probably not complete and possibly in error, but most of their critics are simply content to pretend that Capitalism is like ozone in the air, a set of facts completely independent from the problems of politics.

We can note that, as far as the good Cardinal is concerned, Capitalism doesn't even exist as a term in the political equasion:

In turn, relativism appears to be the philosophical foundation of democracy. Democracy in fact is supposedly built on the basis that no one can presume to know the true way, and it is enriched by the fact that all roads are mutually recognized as fragments of the effort toward that which is better. Therefore, all roads seek something common in dialogue, and they also compete regarding knowledge that cannot be compatible in one common form. A system of freedom ought to be essentially a system of positions that are connected with one another because they are relative as well as being dependent on historical situations open to new developments. Therefore, a liberal society would be a relativist society: Only with that condition could it continue to be free and open to the future.

In the area of politics, this concept is considerably right. There is no one correct political opinion. What is relative-the building up of liberally ordained coexistence between people--cannot be something absolute. Thinking in this way was precisely the error of Marxism and the political theologies.....

What we see here is the commonly held pretence among most non-Marxist critics of Marx, that nothing in the material world that has happened since about 1789 makes any real difference to our politics or our lives.

Well, Capitalism has clearly made an overwhelming difference to, say, the architecture of Manhattan. And if I were to pretend that the current architectural state of St. Peter's Basilica had nothing to with the economic mercantilism of the European Renaissance and its transformation into the strong, and economically competitive, royal nation states of the European Baroque, I'm certain that most of my readers would find this attitude to be quite odd.

So is the Cardinal's. So is the attitude of almost every non-Marxist critic toward Marx.

Marx and Engels proposed the most extreme answer possible to the philosophical question of, How does Capitalism mesh with our politics?. They say that our politics are totally determined by Capitalism. This may or may not be true. But once they raise the question it is incumbent upon any honest person to acknowledge the question and try to reach a different answer to it if the Marxist answer is wrong. Merely pretending that the question doesn't exist, has somehow already been answered, or is irrelevant to the problem of establishing a just society, as the good Cardinal appears to do, won't do.

If, in fact, Cardinal Ratzinger is right and new forms of Marxism will emerge in the future and claim authority in our politics, it will be solely because the whole question of Capitalism and politics has been virtually ignored by everyone else.

Moreover, Cardinal Ratzinger's characterization of political relativism as being the foundation of democracy, and as having "considerable" merit because "no one can know the one true way" in politics, as contrasted with revealed religion, is a prudent elision of the chronic and long term problems the Catholic Church has had in its stance toward democracy, its philosophy, and its institutions.

Like most Catholic thinkers since the rise and fall of European fascism, the Cardinal appears to equivocate greatly about the more definite pronouncements on democratic principles in the Catholic past. For past Catholic thinkers, and past Popes, have not scrupled to apply the certain knowledge of revealed Catholic Christianity to articulate definite, and presumably true, opinions about the proper relation of citizens to the state, and the explicit philosophy behind democratic government.

To get a sense of Ratzinger's dilemma in this matter, we can read the excruciatingly vague and convoluted article on "Catholic Democracy" in the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Such a definition is certainly intensive so that not everything done by Catholics, among the people or for the people, can be technically termed Christian democracy, or popular Catholic action. Action in this definition is taken to mean an organized movement with a definite programme to deal with the pressing problems that come before it. Popular has reference to the people, not inasmuch as they are a nation or collective whole, but as the fourth estate: the plebs, the tenuiores, and the tenuissimi of classical antiquity. Lastly, Catholic (and therefore Christian through and through) signifies that this organized action in favour of the people (plebs) is the work of Catholics as such. Popular Catholic action, therefore, means that the scope mapped out for the activity of the organization is the well-being of the people; and that the movement proceeds along Catholic lines, under the guidance of Catholic leaders.

A far clearer statement on these matters, which is less reassuring, though much more logical and more consistent with the claims of absolutely certain religious knowledge, was made by His Holiness Pope Leo XIII in "On the Origin of Civil Power" of June 29, 1881:

Indeed, very many men of more recent times, walking in the footsteps of those who in a former age assumed to themselves the name of philosophers, say that all power comes from the people; so that those who exercise it in the State do so not as their own, but as delegated to them by the people, and that, by this rule, it can be revoked by the will of the very people by whom it was delegated. But from these, Catholics dissent, who affirm that the right to rule is from God, as from a natural and necessary principle.

I think it reasonable to say that among the philosophers disagreed with would be the names of Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, as well as all the others of that committee of men who drafted the following statement of democratic philosophy:

We the People of the United States of America, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Having drawn the distinction between the "considerably right" notion of relativism in politics and the highly problematic notion of relativism in philosophy and theology, Cardinal Ratzinger proceeds to assert that one of the primary sources of such relativism stems from the religions originating on the Indian subcontinent:

On the one hand, relativism is a typical offshoot of the Western world and its forms of philosophical thought, while on the other it is connected with the philosophical and religious intuitions of Asia especially, and surprisingly, with those of the Indian subcontinent. Contact between these two worlds gives it a particular impulse at the present historical moment.

[In] religious relativism, there is a strange closeness between Europe's post-metaphysical philosophy and Asia's negative theology. For the latter, the divine can never enter unveiled into the world of appearances in which we live; it always manifests itself in relative reflections and remains beyond all worlds and notions in an absolute transcendency.....

The previous history of religion had shown that the religions of India did not have an orthodoxy in general, but rather an orthopraxis. From there the notion probably entered into modern theology. However, in the description of the religions of India this had a very precise meaning: It meant that those religions did not have a general, compulsory catechism, and belonging to them was not defined by the acceptance of a particular creed. On the other hand, those religions have a system of ritual acts which they consider necessary for salvation and which distinguish a "believer" from a "nonbeliever."

In those religions, a believer is not recognized by certain knowledge but by the scrupulous observance of a ritual which embraces the whole of life. The meaning of , i.e. right acting, is determined with great precision: It is a code of rituals.

Now I would have to say that this characterization by Cardinal Ratzinger severely foreshortens both Hinduism and Buddhism, making them appear, in consequence, deficient in intellectual content and merely arbitrary and superstitious ritual activity, with no true knowledge or thought behind it. This is simply not the case. To be a Hindu or a Buddhist does not mean that you believe in nothing and merely do things.

There is an extensive tradition in both Buddhism and Hinduism--corresponding to the analysis of orthodoxy in Christian theology--of intellectual examination of the foundation of religion. The thinkers both of Hinduism and Buddhism have much to say, in quite precise detail, about how the sacred relates to the mundane.

The one I am most familiar with is Nagarjuna's Madhymaka or Middle Way analysis as developed and articulated in the Tibetan monastic colleges. This tradition makes a quite detailed "theological" criticism both of the "eternalist" views held among Christians, Muslims, some Hindus, and even Materialists like Marx, as well as the "nihilist" views held by the various versions of agnosticism and skepticism found in every philosophical tradition, and proposes a correct and true "middle way" between them. I have written my own small and limited understanding of the view of the Madhyamaka, here.

Granted, ordinary Hindu worshipers or Buddhist practicioners are not very well acquainted with this sort of thing. It is a matter for specialists. But how many ordinary Catholics delve deeply into the issues of theological orthodoxy beyond occasional reference to the Catechism? Most of the more devout among them merely take the sacraments and rest content in faith. But that doesn't mean Christian theology doesn't exist. Cardinal Ratzinger is a specialist, just like my friends the monks of the Tibetan colleges.

Hinduism really is more than merely burning ghee in a triangular hearth as a fire puja to Agni, and Buddhism is more than merely offering incense and water to the Buddhas of the Ten Directions and the Three Times.

Now, of course, it is Cardinal Ratzinger's intention to draw the maximum contrast possible between what he calls "orthopraxis" and "orthodoxy" to make a particular point about contravening Christian theologians and New Age pagans. His view of Indic religions is merely incidental. But since this contrast is highly exaggerated, to say the least, in his characterization of Indic religions, I am less than sanguine about its accuracy in describing anyone else.

Beyond this I cannot venture further into Cardinal Ratzinger's arguments with much precision. He appears to be still struggling with the problem of Theological Modernism as derived from Immanuel Kant's view denying the possibility of knowing the truth about God through Pure Reason:

The indigence of philosophy, the indigence to which paralyzed, positivist reason has led itself, has turned into the indigence of our faith. The faith cannot be liberated if reason itself does not open up again. If the door to metaphysical cognition remains closed, if the limits of human knowledge set by Kant are impassable, faith is destined to atrophy: It simply lacks air to breathe....

For human reason is not autonomous in absolute. It is always found in a historical context. The historical context disfigures its vision.... The historical instrument of the faith can liberate reason as such again so that by introducing it to the path, it can see by itself once again. We must make efforts toward a new dialogue of this kind between faith and philosophy because both need one another reciprocally. Reason will not be saved without the faith, but the faith without reason will not be human.

Why, in brief, does the faith still have a chance? I would say the following: because it is in harmony with what man is. Man is something more than what Kant and the various post-Kantian philosophers wanted to see and concede. Kant himself must have recognized this in some way with his postulates.

In man there is an inextinguishable yearning for the infinite. None of the answers attempted are sufficient. Only the God himself who became finite in order to open our finiteness and lead us to the breadth of his infiniteness responds to the question of our being. For this reason, the Christian faith finds man today too. Our task is to serve the faith with a humble spirit and the whole strength of our heart and understanding.

However oratorically heartening for the faithful Ratzinger's conclusion is, I cannot see where merely saying that mankind wants to know the metaphysically infinite is in any way a sufficient refutation of Kant's reasoning that mankind can't know the infinite. Merely because I want something does not make it possible.

Kant, like Marx, must be addressed on his own terms if he is to be validly addressed at all. Kant's plain question, What can I truly know?, cannot be legitimately avoided, once asked, merely by calling it a vision disfigured by it's historical context. It remains a plain, obvious, and sensible question still, a question that ought to have an answer from any vantage point, and reasons to believe that answer.

Perhaps some more direct information about Nagarjuna might be useful to conclude this post:

Nagarjuna did believe that doubt should not be haphazard, it requires a method. This idea that doubt should be methodical, an idea born in early Buddhism, was a revolutionary innovation for philosophy in India. Nagarjuna carries the novelty of this idea even further by suggesting that the method of doubt of choice should not even be one's own, but rather ought to be temporarily borrowed from the very person with whom one is arguing! But in the end, Nagarjuna was convinced that such disciplined, methodical skepticism led somewhere, led namely to the ultimate wisdom which was at the core of the teachings of the Buddha.

I, for one, evaluate my own response to any philosophy not my own by referring to this standard of argument.

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Thursday, April 21, 2005

This Is Morally Corrupt, Not Merely Politically Inexpedient

I reprint here the recent editorial in the online pages of the St. Johnsbury, Vermont Caledonian-Record:

Senator Clinton And The GOP

Tuesday April 19, 2005

Claiming that Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton is running for the White House, New York Republican State Chairman Stephen Minarik has kicked off a national fund-raising campaign ("Stop Hillary Now") to thwart her 2006 Senate re-election bid. "Stopping Hillary Rodham Clinton is the most important thing you and I can do as Republicans," says Minarik.

Sen. Clinton is anything but our choice for president. But we think Republicans would do well to remember a statement John Kennedy made in the '50s about the opponent he would later face in a presidential election. The then Massachusetts Senator said Democrats could not win in 1960 by waging a negative campaign against Richard Nixon.

In this vein, we don't think a 21st century hate Hillary campaign will be enough to stop her in New York or the nation. Republicans must demonstrate why their candidate and program is better than Clinton - or any Democrat for that matter. We think the Grand Old Party can do that. We also think North Country Republicans should pay careful attention to the presidential contenders - and choose the right Republican - in the 2008 New Hampshire primary.

I have quoted it all because, in a matter so vital, it is well to have all the evidence on the table. In that vein, I must, in all fairness, also link to another editorial where this newspaper condemned the Vermont GOP attempt to jam Democratic phone lines in a get-out-the-vote-campaign.

I think that the hearts of these editors are in the right place, but their heads, like so many of their ilk, are simply not screwed on straight.

The reason that a 21st century hate campaign should not be directed against Hillary Clinton is because it is morally wrong to do this, not because it is inexpedient to win an election. It is morally wrong to treat any human being as a mere Judy to be whacked constantly by your Punch.

There is absolutely no reason not to disagree with Hillary Clinton's opinions or criticize Hillary Clinton's actions, if you are so inclined. But the demonizing of any human being, whatever their politics, is the total dehumanization of both the target and the perpetrators. And, the refusal to see or acknowledge the moral turpitude of it, is the first step in that same dehumanization in the bystanders.

Such hate campaigns are also corrosive to American life and American government. The only thing they furthers is partisan political advantage.

For, first of all, hate campaigns are not inexpedient to win elections. That is why a hate campaign against Hillary Clinton is being attempted in the first place. More often than not, vicious, third party, smears against opposing candidates work. We know, as clearly as we know anything in politics, that they work. We saw them work in the last Presidential election, where the third parties were the Swift Boat Veterans.

The only time they do not generally work is where absolutely irrefutable evidence exists refuting the smears, whether it is the evidence of the typewriters in the Bush National Guard smear of the President, or evidence of the authenticity of the Schiavo Talking Points Memo in the Powerline/Michelle Malkin smear of the Democratic Congressional Staff.

As long as any doubt, no matter how small, as in the case of John Kerry, can be raised and sustained by the smears, the smears will prevail. Rush Limbaugh has built a following and a private fortune on this fact, pouring out smear after smear so fast that no one can keep track long enough to refute him, and he now has many imitators.

To parade out the stale cliches that negative campaigning is ineffective, merely because politicians of The Greatest Generation were far more gentlemanly 50 years ago, than those of the Baby Boom & Generation X, today, is plain absurdity.

It is a refusal to open one's eyes to the facts of the 21st Century in America.

Not that it is surprising that any of the Republican persuasion can only deal with our current politics by closing their eyes to plain facts. At this late date--and after half a decade of Republican rule (and I mean "rule", not "government")--to state something like this:

Republicans must demonstrate why their candidate and program is better than Clinton - or any Democrat for that matter. We think the Grand Old Party can do that.

is not only to wear the old fashioned blinkers they put on horses, but also to transform yourself into the part of the horse that doesn't need the blinkers.

No one with eyes, as well as fairness and objectivity of mind, would state that our foreign policy, and its "War Against Terror", has been anything but partially successful in realistic terms. Two corrupt regimes have been destroyed and a good attempt has been made to put something better in their place, but it is still an attempt only, whose success remains in the balance.

No more than this has occurred. Period.

And none of the other problems facing the world, and America in it, have been even addressed, let alone solved.

If we then turn to the domestic and economic scene, we have but to quote former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker:

Altogether the circumstances seem to me as dangerous and intractable as any I can remember, and I can remember quite a lot. What really concerns me is that there seems to be so little willingness or capacity to do much about it.....As a nation we are consuming and investing about 6 percent more than we are producing.

What holds it all together is a massive and growing flow of capital from abroad, running to more than $2 billion every working day, and growing. There is no sense of strain....The difficulty is that this seemingly comfortable pattern can't go on indefinitely. I don't know of any country that has managed to consume and invest 6 percent more than it produces for long. The United States is absorbing about 80 percent of the net flow of international capital. And at some point, both central banks and private institutions will have their fill of dollars....

I don't know whether change will come with a bang or a whimper, whether sooner or later. But as things stand, it is more likely than not that it will be financial crises rather than policy foresight that will force the change....But can we, with any degree of confidence today, look forward to any one of these policies being put in place any time soon, much less a combination of all?

The answer is no. So I think we are skating on increasingly thin ice.

This situation has been entirely manufactured by George W. Bush and Alan Greenspan between them. It was not present on January 20, 2000, and it is clear and unequivocal that the policies of this administration and the Federal Reserve have made this happen. They have done this in everything from a tax policy that systematically cuts government revenue; resulting in insane deficit spending; combined with refusal to support the dollar; as well as refusal to address oil price volatility; and, finally, virtually soliciting the entire country to take on unsustainable private debt through propping up this economic house of cards with historically low interest rates.

But, if a genuine collapse comes, I doubt very seriously that the Caledonian-Record will have the wit to see the most blatant relations of economic cause and effect since Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression. I doubt very seriously that a large number of Americans will have the wit to see it. Though we can always hope that the numbers of the American voting public who do have the wit to see it will finally be larger than 48%. If so, we might be able to get the mess straightened out.

But, to return to hate campaigns, one of the most important ways our moral perceptiveness can rot through from the inside is the persistent refusal to face facts. Good judgment in matters of intellect and fact is no different from judgment in the matter of moral conduct. To abandon one is to lose the other.

I greatly fear that the rotting of such moral perceptiveness is terminal among far too many of my fellow citizens.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Benedict XVI

We now have a new pope. Because of the enormous presence of John Paul II as an ambassador of peace and goodwill throughout the world since his elevation in 1978, the media scrutiny of the election of his successor has been excruciatingly complete. As well, the buzz over what it will mean for the one in six of us who are Catholic has been intense. As always, my devout Catholic fellow blogger The Anchoress, is a bellwether for the conservative opinion on Benedict and this rather overheated treatment on Daily Kos is the more intemperate form of the liberal opinion.

I frankly can't see what all the fuss is about. There is really no break in opinion or interpretation of Catholic doctrine between John Paul II and the pronouncements of the former Cardinal Ratzinger before his elevation. Presumably, the College Of Cardinals wanted to preserve that continuity as the best course for the Church in an ever more worldly world.

The only real question, as far as I can see, is whether Benedict XVI can sustain the global presence of the Papacy that 28 years of John Paul II built up. Since John Paul II was only 58, as opposed to Benedict's 78, I don't think that very likely. I rather think that the new pope will bear the same relation to his predecessor as Paul VI did to John XXIII, who was but a pale shadow to that very great Pope.

My only personal reservation comes from the report that, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he took a dim view of the willingness of bishops in Asia to regard the religions of their non-Christian neighbors as "a part of God's plan". Since I practice one of them, I would prefer a more open view of them than Benedict seems to have. But even this is not that important. We Buddhists, believing as we do in karma, cause, and effect, have plenty of room for patience and forbearance toward all but the most extreme attitudes toward us, and tolerance even for these.

But one thing we generally do agree on with the new Pope are the remarks below which he made a couple of years back as Cardinal Ratzinger:

There were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq. To say nothing of the fact that, given the new weapons that make possible destructions that go beyond the combatant groups, today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a 'just war.'

If his elevation will propagate that message effectively among the one in six who are his flock, and thereby penetrate to the rest of the world, I, for one, will rest quite content in his Papacy.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Methuselah's Daughter Is Curious

As well she should be, for the writer is pretty damn curious, too, a puzzle to himself, in fact, if not to others. So, to probe my depths, she sent a series of questions about books and reading, a subject which, as you will see below is a matter of some personal nostalgia and regret.

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

The Tale of Genji, the world's first novel, written by a deft, fastidious woman, Murasaki Shibitsu, and still one of the best books in the world. Genji was always her truest lover, and she makes you wish that you were Genji, not only because he was the handsomest and most cultivated man in the world, but also because he was the lover to Murasaki. If you read it yourself, get the Modern Library version translated by Arthur Waley.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Plenty. Crushes-R-Us. Let's run down the media.

In film, the first shot of Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca melted my heart, as it has melted many a man's. She was also scrumptious as the leading character in Notorious, flabbergasting Carry Grant in public at the races with, "And then I slept with him," in reference to her new husband, the Nazi spy, Claude Rains, the marriage having been stage managed by Grant himself as an American intelligence ploy. And, of course, Rita Hayworth in Gilda.

Two Weimar girls were also my crushes in film: Marlene Deitrich's Lola in The Blue Angel--whatever Lola wants, Lola gets--and Lisa Minelli as Fraulein Sally Bowes in Cabaret: "Zee girls are beaudiful, zee music is beaudiful, even zee band is beaudiful!"

Then there was the plain Gulietta, who turns into a stunning beauty every time the world causes her to flash her radiant smile, in Fellini's Juliet Of The Spirits. Finally, the beautiful, aristocratic, ghost who seduces the peasant potter in Ugetsu.

In television, of course, Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel in The Avengers, whom I fell as hard for as did the intelligent half of all the young boys in America, when the show first got here in the 1960's.

In photographs, (the models are always real, but the characters are always fictional--even when they have the same names as the models) painter Georgia O'Keefe in the photographs of Alfred Stieglitz; Mrs. Herbert Duckworth (Virginia Woolf's mother) photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron; and fashion model Suzy Parker, in the Dior Look, photographed by Richard Avedon.

Then, in painting and printmaking, we have Berthe Morisot as the barmaid in Manet's "Bar At The Follies Begere," as well as her direct, fresh, dressed in black portrait, also by Manet. Toulouse-Lautrec's publicity lithographs of Jane Avril at Le Divan Japonais, as well as many a nameless Degas ballerina. Then there is "Lady Agnew of Locknaw", by Sargent. And, finally, Pablo Picasso's "Girl Before A Mirror".

In books, a sultry redhead, whose name I do not remember, in the short story by Raymond Chandler called Trouble Is My Business, "She didn't look hard, but she looked as if she'd heard all the answers, and remembered the ones she thought she could use sometime." The face I place to her, of course, is that of Lauren Bacall.

Then there is dark, ugly, vivacious, and curvateous Marian Halcombe in Wilkie Collins', A Woman In White. As well as Carmilla, the lesbian subtext vampiress, in Joseph Sheridan LeFanu's short story of the same name. Of course, there is also Ada Veen in Nabokov's Ada, perhaps the most erotic novel, in the true implications of that word, ever written in English, as well as the best science fiction not recognized as science fiction, ever written. And, speaking of science fiction, there is the time-traveling piece of heartbreak (once again the name has vanished) in the C.L. Moore & Harry Kutner story Vintage Season.

The unnamed vixen in e.e. cummings' poem "my girl's tall with hard long eyes", also commanded my attentions. It one of the few such poems which seem to be about a real woman and not about the poet's own crush on a fictional character, like Yeats' on Maud Gonne. The fictional character and poet H.D., who was created by the real woman Hilda Doolittle, broke my heart in poem after poem. She was the Muse incarnate.

Then recorded song. Once again, the singer is always a fictional character who has the same name as the real entertainer: Alberta Hunter with "It Don't Make No Difference After Dark", Edith Piaf crying and laughing on "Milord", Billie Holiday's "I'm A Fool To Want You" on Lady In Satin, Ella Fitzgerald singing "Black Coffee" on The Intimate Ella, Diana Washington covering just about any blues tune, Etta James in the live album Etta Rocks The House, and Miss Peggy Lee pinning me to the wall with "Fever", along with what must be half the world--"Be it farenheit or centigrade!".

Of course there was Janis Joplin belting out "Ball and Chain", "Piece of My Heart", and "Summertime" (an exact literal transcription of soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet's version) on Cheap Thrills, and "Bobby McGee" on Cosmic Blues; Joni Mitchell throughout the entire album Blue and the marvelous single "Coyote Waits"; Linda Ronstadt pouring out syrup and heartache in "I've Been Cheated" and "The Dark End of the Street" on Heart Like a Wheel; and Rickie Lee Jones on her entire debut album, as well as her mischievous duet with Dr. John, covering "Makin' Whoopee" on his album In a Sentimental Mood.

Bonnie Raitt unbuttoning your pants in "Good Enough" and "Are You Ready for the Thing Called Love" on Love In The Nick Of Time: "I ain't no icon carved outta soap, sent here to clean up your reputation."

Steamy Holly Cole with "Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday" and "Je Ne T'aime Pas" on Don't Smoke In Bed, Diana Krall with Nat King Cole's "Frim-Fram Sauce" on All For You, Natalie Merchant doing "Candy Everybody Wants" with 10,000 Maniacs Unplugged, and Suzanne Vega with "Caramel" on Nine Objects of Desire.

Among many others.

The last book you bought is:

Buddhahood Without Meditation, by Dudjom Lingpa, an extraordinary "terma" or revealed teaching on the profound Tantric practice of Dzogchen. I later gave it to a fine lady fellow practicioner, and Vajra sister, at my Dharma Center.

These days I don't buy books and I had to sell 98% of what I owned, to help make ends meet, at the beginning of the 2000 recession. This was about the fourth time I've had to do this in a highly checkered life. I doubt I will ever buy books again.

The last book you read:

Buddhahood Without Mediation, by Dudjom Lingpa

What are you currently reading?

Nothing at the moment. It frankly feels, and has for some years, like I've already read, seen, or listened to everything worthwhile in the world. This is an illusion, I know, but most pleasures, besides religion and contemporary politics, have faded from me. This is the slow consummation of what I have prayed for these past twenty years, in order to prepare for death. These days, I read the news and the palimiset of nature in my town, and my own backyard.

Five books you would take to a desert island.

The Torch of Certainty, by Jamgon Kongtrul the Great

The Life of Marpa the Translator, by Chogyam Trungpa and the Nalanda Translation Committee

The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, by Garma C. C. Chang

History of the Sixteen Karmapas of Tibet, by Karma Thinley

Bardo Teachings, by Lama Lodo

I doubt I'd read much. I'd be too busy taking the wonderful opportunity to be completely free from the world to do more direct meditation.

Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?

Well, Zsallia, I doubt I have three persons to pass it to. You are the third of my three readers. But if The Anchoress, and Dave Schuler over at The Glittering Eye want to take it up, I won't stop them. And anybody else who happens to stumble in can pick it up and leave a follow-up note on my comment page, if they wish.

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Sunday, April 17, 2005

On The Day One Was Born

Today is my birthday. I have virtually no one left to celebrate it with, except Mrs. Claus. My family has gone to their graves and my friends of old have been scattered hither and yon, and are too busy, too married, too elsewhere to "keep in touch", as am I. Besides which, a friendship is not about keeping in touch, it is about being together and sharing times and places. Thus Mrs. Claus, Fleurette, and Flambelle (the two cats of the Claus residence) are, really, my only friends.

The formal names of Fleurette and Flambelle are like most names, merely a guess at the genuine qualities of child or puppy or kitten which are still latent and not manifest. Flambelle acquired her nickname first. Her formal name is bad French, "beautiful flame" is masculine, Flambeau, but inappropriate to a female kitten.

Things like gender in language really matter, for despite the aptness of Beautiful Flame to a equally black and white pied tabby, who never stopped moving and, literally, never slept until she was spayed, the name never really took hold, in part because it is bad French, and feels like it, subliminally, in the ear. She is now known as Peeper, a nickname she acquired from her first vocalizations, which sounded exactly like those of a turtledove.

Fleurette (which is good French) has kept her formal name more surely, though she rapidly expanded from a Little Flower to a large one. We had to bring in the Weight Control catfood before she even reached full maturity. I sometimes call her squeaker, because her vocalization is a plaintive little mouse squeak coming out of a large black mountain.

I like having multiple cats. It gives them a cat life as well as a pet life and makes their characters more interesting. When I met Mrs. Claus, she had a mature black male named Wraith, who grew up with a second cat of Mrs. Claus' and outlived it. Wraith became my buddy, and I use that term exactly, as he moved into his gentlemanly old age.

From close contact with him I learned to read the subtleties of attitude in Felix Domesticus and translate them freely into English. When you do it sounds silly, but it is perfectly apt, and captures nuances of relationship which any cat owner will recognize. To Wraith I was always Big Buddy Man, and he had, unusually for cats, a quite distinct perception of me as not only male, which animals can smell, but as a male "non-cat".

Mrs. Claus, however, was Mommy Female, for though Wraith recognized, and gave his approval, to our intimate companionship as "non-cats", he was weaned too early and remained Mrs. Claus' kitten until his last illness and death. One of Wraith's favorite things all the way into old age was to suckle the collars of Mrs. Claus' t-shirts.

Fleurette and Peeper do not quite have the same sense of human beings as "non-cats". To them I am Big Male, Mrs. Claus is Big Mommy, the three of them together in bed are The Nest, and the four of us are The Pride, and the Littles will not trespass on Big Male's half of The Nest when He is in it.

A group of cats is apparently a Clowder in English, and, perhaps, also a Clutter, but I recognize neither of these words, and I presume you don't either, so The Pride will have to do.

They have unspoken names for each other, as well, in their jealous interrelationship for their food and our affection. For they are Rivals mostly, and only occasionally Littermates. Fleurette is the dominant, from size and temper, and Peeper's name for her is Lazy Bully Fat Lump. Peeper gets the complement returned as Scruffy Runty Rival.

They are also terrified by the penetration of the Territory by Rival Bigs (such as the gas meter reader), though Peeper is quite brave and will actually stay, cautiously, in their presence if Our Bigs are comfortable with the Rivals. Rival Bigs are a threat, because they might capture Our Bigs and take them away. They remember when this actually happened once and Big Rival Mommy kidnapped Our Bigs for several days when she came daily to give them food and water.

It was a very nice trip for Mrs. Claus and I, and her friend Shelby was a trooper for lightly catsitting for us, but the Littles were petrified in the belief that they were defenseless without the Bigs of the Pride.

So those are my friends with whom I celebrate my nativity today, and I am grateful for them. For though we all face Death alone, it is tragic to so face Life. I have also significantly passed the half century mark, which means that what I really have to celebrate in a birthday is that I made it this far. When young, as most do, I never saw the tragedy of solitude and spent more hours, days, and years alone than I spent in the company of family or friends.

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Saturday, April 16, 2005

The Challenge of Eric Rudolph

It is a shame that the entire statement of Eric Rudolph with his guilty plea for bombing the Olympics, bombing two abortion clinics, and bombing a gay & lesbian nightclub was not more widely printed. It should be required reading for every American. Very few media outlets printed any but the smallest fragment of it. And the only pundit who took it seriously appears to be the legal columnist for CBS News, Andrew Cohen, whose column on the subject is also must reading.

Eric Rudolph sees himself, perhaps, as being as significant a figure in American history as abolitionist John Brown. I hope, if he does, he isn't right. For he is definitely quite intelligent and he might well be right. As Cohen points out, the government's plea bargain which spared his life is, abstractly, quite puzzling. It is particularly so since our current President has probably allowed more people to go to the death chamber than any American alive and has openly defended his support of the death penalty as a response to "evil".

Moreover, according to the President, we are supposed to be standing firm in the face of Terrorism, waging a War on it, in fact. A War on Terrorism itself, and, ostensibly, not a war on any variety of Islam. By any definition, and by his own tactics, Rudolph was unquestionably a terrorist, and, as Cohen points out, the plea bargain accomplished no more for the government than trying Rudolph for the death penalty would have. A life sentence was as certain as any trial can be, in any case.

Rudolph's own explanation of why the government did this merits very close attention:

The problem that they had was that a significant minority of the population, especially here in Northern Alabama, regarded what happened these at the abortion facility on that day of January 29, 1998, as morally justified. It is my opinion some of these people were likely to vote not guilty no matter what evidence was presented to them. Their jury questionnaire centered on efforts to discover and exclude those potential jurors who held strong antiabortion beliefs. This is why they approached us they were afraid that in at least one jurisdiction they were going to run into this recalcitrant profile juror who would hang the jury and deliver a political defeat and embarrassment to Washington's efforts to make an example out of the person who assaulted their specially protected policy of child murder. The evidence was sufficiently weak enough for us to talk to this juror, and they were afraid of this, so they offered the deal.

Is he right? He may very well be. And if he is, the implications for our country are disastrous. The decision of Roe v. Wade is not judicially set in stone. The Supreme Court has reversed its own decisions before, but the weight of precedent it sets accumulates every year, and past a certain point even the most conservative court of jurists will not be able to easily undo it.

Yet there is no movement afoot to overturn the decision in the time tested way that other judicial decisions have been overturned: by Constitutional amendment. It could be proposed at any time and would almost certainly make it on the ballot in any state. But no one dares to do this because they are afraid that it would lose.

They are afraid to invoke the only true and sure legal solution to the moral injustice which they condemn. So what, really, is left? Rudolph nails it: covert support of extralegal violence and outlawry--just like in "Bleeding Kansas" immediately before the Civil War. Just like John Brown.

Rudolph has much to say to those who oppose abortion, but will not face that choice, preferring instead to make a constant legal and political guerilla war against the clinics, against the decision, and against the Federal Judiciary itself, while the precedents cementing the decision ever more firmly into case law accumulate:

I ask these peaceful Christian law abiding ProLife citizens, is there any point at which all of the legal remedies will not suffice and you would fight to end the massacre of children? How many decades have to pass, how many millions have to die? 1s there any point when the cries of the children will not go unanswered? I think that your inaction after three decades of slaughter is a sufficient answer to all of these questions.....

No politician in Washington will ever seriously threaten abortion on demand And the fools who listen to them, in their hearts, know this but do not care. You so called "ProLife good Christian people" who point your plastic fingers at me saying that I am a "murderer," that "two wrongs don't make a right," that even though "abortion is murder, those who would use force to stop the murder are morally the same," I say to you that your lies are transparent.

Tell me plastic people, are you not the ones waving the flag in support of the coward Bush's operation in Iraq? Do you not say that Washington's cause justifies the bombing arid shooting of thousands of people? Answer me, is the causes belli of promoting democracy in the Middle East more weighty for waging war than the systematic murder of millions of your own citizens? After all, the unborn are citizens they not? Is not that the basis of your argument for a fight to "life" last guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence and embodied in the Bill of Rights?

He has a point.

And the logic of his position leads only to one place: domestic terrorism. Because, for all the talk of Red & Blue states, the liberal Northeast or West Coast, and the conservative South and West, our politics and our overheated partisanship are completely amalgamated from sea to shining sea. "Secession" is no longer possible. From an unalterable position of moral absolutism, on either side of the issue, the only alternatives are the guerilla war from inside the government against the judges and the courts, or the outlawry of homemade bombs and a covert network of hiding places.

The first we already have, and, if Eric Rudolph is in any way correct in his assessment of his deeds, and of the current government's response to them, we have the strong and growing potential for the second. Kansas, after all, was left to bleed by Senator Stephen Douglas and President James Buchanan between them.

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Liberty And American Martyrdom

Recent events have set me to thinking again about the constant political brouhaha being created by militantly conservative Christians--over gays, over monuments with the Ten Commandments, over Terri Schaivo, over teaching Darwinian biology even at this late date, and over anything whatever except the genuine freedom they have to worship openly, in any way they choose, that is the real consequence of the separation of church and state.

All this in the name of ending American Martyrdom. What is American Martyrdom? Well, if you want to find out about it in depth, the classic author is David Limbaugh, brother to Rush, in his book Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity. Go read some of it, at Amazon.com, if nothing else. At least with the excerpt you will be in far less danger of death while laughing. And after you read that piece of foolishness, you can examine the real legal issues of the separation of church and state in schools here and here.

American Martyrdom is the oppression of having people who don't think like you do disagree with you.

For example, consider the upcoming event where Senate Majority leader Bill Frist will be speaking to the congregation of American Martyrs to cultivate his base for the 2008 Presidency:

The April 24 "Justice Sunday" telecast is sponsored by the Family Research Council. Its president, Tony Perkins, said in a letter to supporters: "We must stop this unprecedented filibuster of people of faith.".... "For years activist courts, aided by liberal interest groups like the ACLU, have been quietly working under the veil of the judiciary, like thieves in the night, to rob us of our Christian heritage and our religious freedoms."

Whose afraid of the Big Bad Fillibuster?

Even more persecuting than having people merely disagree with you, is having people disagree with you longwindedly for hours and hours, while trying to regain the input into the governing process of this country for a majority of its citizens--which they do have a right to even if they are not Christian Martyrs.

Poor babies!

Now real Christian martyrdom is something to command anyone's respect, whether in history or in the news. It certainly commands mine. We just buried the last pope in the same crypt as the first pope, and the first pope was crucified upside down:

Concerning the manner of Peter's death, we possess a tradition--attested to by Tertullian at the end of the second century (see above) and by Origen (in Eusebius, "Hist. Eccl.", II, i)--that he suffered crucifixion. Origen says: "Peter was crucified at Rome with his head downwards, as he himself had desired to suffer". As the place of execution may be accepted with great probability the Neronian Gardens on the Vatican, since there, according to Tacitus, were enacted in general the gruesome scenes of the Neronian persecution; and in this district, in the vicinity of the Via Cornelia and at the foot of the Vatican Hills, the Prince of the Apostles found his burial place.

Other more exotic and equally tortured deaths followed:

St. Ambrose of Milan and the poet Prudentius, give particular details about St. Lawrence's death. Ambrose relates (De officiis min. xxviii) that when St. Lawrence was asked for the treasures of the Church he brought forward the poor, among whom he had divided the treasure, in place of alms; also that when Pope Sixtus II was led away to his death he comforted Lawrence, who wished to share his martyrdom, by saying that he would follow him in three days. The saintly Bishop of Milan also states that St. Lawrence was burned to death on a grid-iron (De offic., xli). In like manner, but with more poetical detail, Prudentius describes the martyrdom of the Roman deacon in his hymn on St. Lawrence.

And this went on with greater or lesser intensity for almost 250 years (!) between the time of Nero and the reign of Constantine.

Those who kept their faith under such conditions were nearly superhuman. Nearly, but not quite, if the evidence of contemporary Christian martyrdom has anything to say about it. The videotape of Gracia Burnham held with her husband Martin, who died in their rescue, by Muslim terrorists in the Phillipines, shows the wrenching face and voice of chronic uncertainty and horror. It is a piteous human spectacle, and a reminder that any martyrdom is a vessel of unendurable fear and mental pain. It was doubtless so for the first martyrs and every one subsequent, despite the promise of Paradise Christ gave to the good thief.

Side by side with this, David Limbaugh, whether in book or website, shrinks to pigmydom. As do Judge Roy Moore and his noisy Alabaman supporters, wailing and caterwauling as the granite Ten Commandments were removed from his courthouse, followed later by the good Judge himself for contempt of the laws of the land. As do Bill Frist, Tony Perkins, and the Family Research Council.

These righteous and tormented American Martyrs regularly and inevitably return to a good healthy dinner in a nice private home where no one fears a knock on the door in the night, an apprehension by armed men, and a bloody, tormented death, testing faith to the uttermost extremity.

So let's examine what would relieve David Limbaugh and his cohorts of their persecution and martyrdom, allowing them to re-emerge into the light of day from the metaphorical Christian catacombs to which they have been driven, communing with their dead and carving rough fishes into the limestone walls.

Well, first, of course, and most immediately, the judges who have committed the heinous breach of "good conduct" by interpreting the law in accordance with precedent, statute, and state and federal constitutions, would be summarily impeached. Then they would be replaced by judges who would defer to the higher power of the laws of God to correct the imbalances of the trumpery laws of man, such as the establishment clause of our Constitution.

Perhaps if they succeed in doing so they will magnanimously concede that all religions are equal in their right to exist, even if some are "more equal than others". Perhaps, but don't bet on it. A close reading of the history of European Christianity, or Islamic Radicalism, bids fair to convince you that this is unlikely. And even without that, there are always these fine folks, the Christian Reconstructionists.

After that the power of Senate Fillibuster will be broken.

After that, we'll see.

To put the matter succinctly we can go to the fine and thoughtful recent post by Chris Bowers, which states the facts in a way which I think all Americans would agree with if they give the matter careful thought:

A large faction of America's shrinking white Christian population has coalesced into the dominant political force within the conservative political coalition in our country. As time goes on, they are winning more and more white Christian émigrés from the liberal coalition, a process that shows no signs of slowing. They are using this newfound unity and the power it brings with it to repeatedly declare war on all those who they feel threaten their culture and identity: gays, liberals, seculars, immigrants, Muslims, scholars, entertainers, northeasterners, west coasters, you name it. You know this list of enemies already because you hear them listed, by name, on a regular basis by conservatives in America. They do not shirk from using the identity labels of the identities they despise, and they remember every time when someone uses an identity label as a slur against them. This is because, at least in their idealization, they are fighting a battle of civilizations, a battle in which all of those listed above are the enemies.

So why do the American Martyrs indulge in such breastbeating over their supposed Martyrdom? Because their numbers are shrinking. Because America is becoming, slowly but surely, non-white, non-christian, pluralist, and diverse, and they can't stand the thought of it. Nor can they stop it. The process will be complete within the lifetime of most of us. These next few years are their last chance to seize power and impose their will and their view of life on everyone else.

The American Martyrs must not only be free to worship, they must be given perpetual rule and domination over all the rest of us. That is what the matter is about. It is not about any particular issue, not about abortion, not about gay marriage, not about "intelligent design", not about judges, not about boulders in the courthouse, and most emphaticly not about religious freedom. If it were about any of these, liberty, compromise, truth, and limited and balanced government, with true separation of powers, would be sufficient to adjudicate them. We still have these, and if those of us who are not martyrs have anything to say about it, we will keep them.

They will lose. If not now, then later. America has never been held hostage by any one particular faction, and if all Americans are consulted, it will not be now. In America, if you decide to take no prisoners in government and public discourse, you are sowing the seeds of your own ejection from the political dialog.

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Friday, April 15, 2005

Pen & Prose

Putting a good pen to responsive paper makes ideas come. The pleasure of the nib dragging; the sight of regular black marks appearing out of nowhere, row upon row; and the magic thing that happens in the head when 4 or 5 or 6 of those black marks make a mental picture of things or relations--all of these support a visceral craving for the process to continue and they bestir the brain to make this happen.

The magic gets even more incredible as you age because whole letters in words can (and unfortunately do) disappear into hyperspace as you write. But, despite this, the pictures in the mind generally remain the same. Real ink, smoothly flowing and richly sustaining in its satisfying blackness of thin stroke next to thick, has what they call in wine-tasting mouth-feel, only a better term would be mind-feel.

So let's see what comes out of my calligraphy nib today.

I think the difference between being a writer and merely being someone who writes is an emotional relation to prose periods. Does anyone even use that word anymore to describe the components of a sentence rather than merely for the little dot at the end? A writer strives not only to make the words mean what he wants to say, but also to make the sentences fit the shape and speed of his mind like a well made suit of clothes fits the body. We call this prose style.

My mind, I think, is slower than some, shrewder than many, and chronically self-reflective. It needs space and a stately pace. Which is why any who read this blog regularly should expect a style with long running sentences, of many phrases and clauses, and constant parenthetical remarks to develop the premises of my thought. These are then contrasted with short, simple, and biting declarative sentences to hammer home the conclusions.

I know this makes for a prose not to everyone's taste, since it requires to be read with concentration to be understood. But, then, my premises and conclusions are not to everyone's taste, either.

In my random junk drawer of more than 45 years of extensive reading, I once came across the remark that English doesn't have grammar, it has manners. That may be slightly exaggerated, but, in some sense, it is profoundly true. English is more than the sum of its grammatical parts. Conventions of grammar and usage in English are a particularly arbitrary imposition on a language which is not only living, but rather prone to wild living, fast living, and high living.

Sometimes, to make the sense you need to make in the way you need to make it, you have to return grammar and usage conventions suddenly and without notice. The sentence fragment, the comma splice, the split infinitive, the starting of a sentence with a conjunction, the (very occasional) rude, salty, and vulgar word, and the extension of the meaning of a word beyond its dictionary definition or its derivation, are all resources to be used, with discretion, as long as you preserve good English manners. Of course, we can't tell the schoolchildren this, but when they are out of earshot, we can admit it to ourselves.

The longer sentences necessary for the fit to the peculiar shape of my mind require a more antique punctuation than contemporary style manuals encourage--far more commas to differentiate distinct segments of thought, as well as more liberal use of parenthesis and em-dash.

Finding effective punctuation is one of my greatest writing challenges, which I sometimes do not wholly meet. The difference, for example, in choosing to use the semi-colon in the first paragraph above, and to avoid it for commas two paragraphs back, is superficially inconsistent, but expresses a need to keep the two different lists of things stylistically distinct, with the first list requiring more definite separation of the members than the second.

Also, for the sake of blogging, which is a pioneering virtual prose form where on-screen reading is distinctly more difficult than in the hard copy forms of book or magazine, a different approach to paragraph breaks, closer to newspaper style than book style, is required for maximum clarity. This is particularly true for a style like mine.

Conventionally, paragraphs are supposed to delineate complete thoughts, no matter how long a block of text this requires or how many different aspects of the same thought are being explored.

But, onscreen, such a long and heavy basket weave of text makes very difficult reading, which, as a reader, I find destructive to comprehension; and the scrolling function is no substitute for the ease of re-reading in books or periodicals where the pages move but the paragraphs don't.

Consequently, I insert paragraph breaks liberally almost anywhere that significant variation in the focus of the thought can excuse them.

In a like manner, I find one of the most useful functions in my blog engine is the electronic fold for most posts further down the blogroll. It saves the reader's time in scrolling and presents the very worthy writing challenge of making enough sense on the front end of an essay so the reader can discern, without having to be told, that it continues below the fold, as well as provide enough information to make an intelligent decision whether or not to continue reading. Of course, I don't always meet these challenges either.

But challenges you are not sure of being up to are one of the things that make writing fun. And if it's not fun, why do it?

Finally, there is the matter of gender and number of indefinite personal pronouns. This is, of course, a political correctness minefield. When I write a sentence such as the one above:

...not only to make the words mean what he wants to say, but also to make the sentences fit the shape of his mind...

I am taking a calculated risk that my reader will know, in context, that I am largely, though not exclusively, talking about me, and I use the masculine gender because it is my gender. Thus he or she will not be offended.

The entire issue is one of the most delicate and difficult in the prose graces of contemporary English. Giving offense when you don't intend to is a major breach of manners, thus political correctness, whatever its abstract merits, has a reasonable claim here.

But most of the alternatives are equally suspect as breaches of mannerly prose. Use of the pronoun "one" more than once in a sentence has a pedantic, snobbish, pseudo-British sound. "He/she", or sometimes "he/she/it" is a barbaric American violation of the relations of spoken English to written English. For the only sensible pronunciations of he/she/it, given English vowel length and vowel color, would be "heesheet" in America, "hishit" in Britain, and "heeSHEit" in pretentious American academese, the pronunciation generally favored by the most extreme partisans of political correctness.

"He or she" is also not a politically correct alternative which wears well over the long haul. With the ghost of spoken language always in the ear when the pictures of written language are in the mind, overusing "he or she" makes the writer sound like a braying donkey: heORshe, heORshe, heORshe...

Thus the only sensible and mannerly alternative to meet the problem that I can see is to sacrifice number to gender, substituting the vagueness of number of "you" (since we no longer use "thou" and, if we had it available, we would use the "familiar" form of "thou" in most such contexts) or the inconsistency of number agreement created using "they". Thus:

...not only to make the words mean what you want to say, but also to make the sentences fit the shape of your mind...


...not only to make the words mean what they want to say, but also to make the sentences fit the shape of their mind...

Not the best of choices, but the ones, I think, which are the best mannered.

One thing is certain. I feel very lucky to read and write English, for all its challenges and difficulties, and to see English prose emerge so flowingly for me from my fountain pen.

I hope that he, she, it, one, you, and they do too.

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