An Uncommon Elf

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Wondering who this is? Well it’s Ronnie James Dio and his old band.

…no his REALLY old band.

This was Dio before Black Sabbath, before Rainbow, and well before Satan made his way into the man’s vocals. Heck, the lyrics seem almost normal, even wholesome.

I don’t imagine he would have flashed the hook of horns much during these years.

Nope!

Pay No Attention to the Abe in the Corner!

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One of the most beautiful gifts of the internet is the ability to learn at a glance the wisdom of America’s founding fathers. In fact, one can often find these pearls of wisdom beautifully packaged in nice visuals. They are perfect for a tweet or a quick illustration, and so very informative. Most of all, they are ever so conveniently one quick google away.

Take for instance the warning these men left for us regarding the evils of big government! Thomas Jefferson is particularly valuable in this regard. Why you could almost imagine him to be commenting directly on current affairs couldn’t you? Isn’t Tom just swell?

(You may as usual click to embiggen any of these quotations)

Thomas Jefferson was particularly keen on the importance of political dissent.

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Thinking along similar lines, our founding fathers spoke directly to the issue of gun control. Check it out!

More than that! Our great founders were no friends of the nanny state. They were quite clear that people shouldn’t expect too much from government. It’s there to give everyone a chance, but folks really shouldn’t expect any more than that.

James Madison wouldn’t have any truck with this notion of a living constitution. He’d school the modern liberals right quick about that nonsense.

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On religion, let me tell you, the founders of our great nation were clear about the importance of the christian faith!

Oddly, the founders were also pretty damned clear about the evils of Christianity. It’s just a little strange.

I know this is getting to be a tiresome theme in this post, but the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson is not to be outdone. At times, he could almost seem to be a motivational speaker. Watch out Tony Robbins!

Not to be outdone, George Washington even carved his legacy into this little gem about taking responsibility for one’s personal mistakes.

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Honestly, the wisdom of the founding fathers would seem to be amazing at times. Sometimes their prescience is uncanny. It’s an amazing thing to see just how well-suited their statements can be to present-day matters. Luckily, that wisdom was not limited to the original founders. It was around in the civil war era too. Could anyone possibly be more on the mark than Abraham Lincoln?

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Seriously!

Listen to Abe folks.

Paul Newman IS Homo Economicus: A Spoiler-Filled Review of Hud.

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51YVV4PKWJLSo, I finally got around to watching Hud for the first time. It was about a month or so back that I popped a copy into the disk player. I didn’t know what to expect really, but I’d heard it described as one of Paul Newman’s rebellious best. So, I sat back and prepared to watch him take on the world for the umpteenth time in my viewing history. He does of course, just as expected.

What I didn’t expect was that this time I’d be rooting for the world.

We meet Hud as he emerges from the house of a married woman, angry to have been interrupted by his nephew, and not the least bit remorseful about where he spent the night, not even when her husband arrives before Hud and his nephew can quit the scene. Not to worry though, Hud lays the blame on his nephew and they hightail it out of there. It’s a pretty damned low move, but just the sort one might expect from a devil-may-care young character Newman has played before. Still unwise to the story that would unfold before me I sat back waiting to see what Hud would do to make us forgive him for such flaws. To be sure, this character had the usual mixture of charm and seemingly forgivable flaws you might expect from such a role. I couldn’t wait to see where the plot would take him.

Make no mistake, however, this is not a film about redemption, reform, or freedom from convention. Quite the contrary.

So what is the story here?

Hud stands to inherit a ranch from his father, but a likely outbreak of hoof&mouth disease creates a dilemma for the family and their ranch-hands. Hud wants to sell the cattle before the veterinarian can diagnose it. His father (Homer) won’t hear of it. It isn’t simply that the two men disagree; they genuinely don’t like each other and their conflict over the cattle considerably widens the rift between them. Hud believes his father’s distrust to be the result of an accident resulting in the death of his brother (Homer’s other son). Hud had been driving, and yes, liquor had been involved. But Hud’s father tells us that wasn’t the source of the problem. Something about Hud had always bothered him, something about the way Hud treated others. Hud’s response to this new crisis served only to make Homer that much more uncomfortable with his remaining son, and with the prospects of his own legacy, the ranch.

As Hud takes ever greater liberties with those around him, I couldn’t help but side with his father. In time, all the more decent characters will leave Hud. His father dies’ a prospective love interest leaves town (for damned good reason!); the ranch workers are let go because there is nothing for them to do; and finally Hud’s nephew abandons him in the final scenes. I couldn’t help but cheer for each of them that got away, and in the final scene, as Hud slams the doorway of the ranch-house leaving us outside, I couldn’t help but feel a trace of relief to finally get away from him myself.

It was an awesome performance.

This is a film about conflicting values. Hud sees his many years working on the ranch as an investment, and he expects a return on that invest in the form of an economically viable property. The outbreak of disease now threatens that return, and his father’s moral scruples aren’t helping much in his view.

Over the course of the film it becomes ever more clear just how little Hud sees in that ranch besides the money it may one day provide him. His failure to find any meaning in the work he does for the ranch itself is matched by his failure to connect with those around him. Hud has his moments of course. Here and there, we could almost hope to think him human, but this character was made to disappoint us at every turn. It’s only fitting that he should end up with the ranch and nothing else. no cattle, no family, no friends, nothing living around him. There is little doubt that he will somehow make the ranch work, and still less that he will do so utter alone. In the end, that is the choice Hud has made, and he seems quite content with the results.

I can’t help but see in Hud a perfect avatar of homo economicus as libertarians seem to understand him, a perfectly functioning rational agent out to maximize his pleasures and minimize his pains. He sees in work nothing but the exchange value of his products and in other people only the chance to cash in those values for direct personal pleasure. The bottom line in his thought is pure profit, nothing more.

And so, he’s a villain, so what? Who today could possibly oppose such an approach to a business venture? Who but a communist? …or worse, a liberal!

…or Hud’s father, a cultural conservative in his own right. Hud’s father, Homer, isn’t looking to redistribute wealth, but he understands the value of work itself, something not entirely reducible to the dollar value of its products. Homer understands that in working men also produce themselves and their communities, and that this has a value, one that cannot be reduced to profits. The issue becomes most clear when someone raises the prospect of drilling for oil. We’ll let Homer speak for himself:

Hud Bannon: My daddy thinks oil is something you stick in your salad dressing.

Homer Bannon: If there’s oil down there, you can get it sucked up after I’m under there with it. There’ll be no holes punched in this land while I’m here. They ain’t gonna come in and grade no roads so the wind can blow me away. What’s oil to me? What can I do with a bunch of oil wells? I can’t ride out every day and prowl amongst ‘em like I can my cattle. I can’t breed ‘em or tend ‘em or rope ‘em or chase ‘em or nothing. I can’t feel a smidgen of pride in ‘em ’cause they ain’t none of my doing.

Hud Bannon: There’s money in it.

Homer Bannon: I don’t want that kind of money. I want mine to come from something that keeps a man doing for himself.

 

So, I watch this film and I see in Homer a vision of generations that seem well past in the present day political landscape, generations who say capitalism as it is practiced to day as a threat their own way of life, a force that would destroy the conditions under which they would work and earn a living. It has been far too easy for far too long to assume that the opponents of capitalism have always been communists. What too many people seem to miss is that moment in history when the juggernaut of modern corporatism first threatens to take away the livelihood of those content with free markets, a moment in history when some at least might have known the difference.

Irony of ironies!

It seems many of the film’s viewers didn’t see the difference themselves. Apparently, in 1963. Apparently, a good portion of the American audience saw Hud just as I had expected to. They loved him. they saw in Hud precisely the rebellious hero that i had hoped to, and not the merciless villain I felt the film had actually shown me. Film critic Pauline Kael even went so far as to argue that the audience was wiser than the film-makers insofar as they rejected its critique of capitalism and celebrated the villain as if he were a hero. That’s one way to look at it. Another would be to take that as a measure of just how much modern America and its sensibilities had in 1963 already been shaped by men such as Hud.

 

An Uncommon Sky

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(Clickinate to embiggerize!)

People often ask me about the northern lights. As it happens, Barrow isn’t really the best place to see them. It’s too bright in town, and we are a bit North for the most brilliant displays. I suppose that’s one measure of excessive northitude. …when you are too far north for the northern lights.

Just the same. The sky up here certainly does have its moments.

Black Hats and White Hats, Boomerang Bills, and Homeless Pets

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Auto-Kitty approves this message.

“Are you a no-kill shelter?” the woman asked as she readied a $20.00 bill for the donation box? The honest answer was ‘no,’ and my explanation didn’t help matters much, …at all really. With one corner already inside the box that twenty dollar bill did a U-Turn and headed straight back to the woman’s purse. Our consolation prize was a $5.00 bill.

And I thanked her.

…the bitch!

I’m writing that now, because I sure as Hell wasn’t going to say it the, and yes I do feel better. That wasn’t the only irritating moment that I recall from the year and a half I worked at a local Humane Association, but I suppose this is to be expected.  There is indeed something terrible about a conventional will-kill shelter. Looking at it from the perspective of the lady above, I had effectively told her that the organization I worked for killed perfectly healthy kittens and puppies, …and that I wanted money so that we could continue doing so. Under the circumstances, I suppose I should have been damned thankful to get a five.

Seriously, what a bastard!

It’s tough to find a sound patch of middle ground on some issues and this is one of them.

I had that job for about a year and a half, and this was hardly the first time I’d taken grief from someone in favor of no-kill shelters. There was the volunteer who wouldn’t step foot in our shelter. There were the interviews that ALWAYS raised questions about euthanasia, even when that was clearly not the issue at hand. And then there were the phone calls, the ones that went something like this; “I don’t want to bring him to you, but no-one else will take him, what do I do?” And of course there were countless times I heard people describe themselves as rescuing an animal from us, often one we had been at great pains to keep alive.

But this was all pretty minor stuff really. All in a day’s work.

I have to admit that it got a little under my skin the day that a volunteer from the local low-kill shelter told me with a smile that she heard her own shelter had just saved 12 cats from us. See, the problem was that we had plenty of room at the time, and none of these animals were in danger. In fact, giving them 12 cats had left our own cat kennels near to empty. We had given the cats to the other shelter because they were suddenly short felines, and I knew damn well the reason they were suddenly short. It wasn’t a pretty story.  I wanted desperately to tell the volunteer that her shelter hadn’t saved any animals by taking them off our hands on that day. Not at all.

Ah well!

This young lady doesn’t get called a name. She didn’t know. And anyhow I don’t feel as cranky as I did 3 or 4 paragraphs back. Still that was a bitter pill to swallow. Suffice to say I thought for a time there that a companion animal stood a better chance at our own will-kill shelter than they did with our low-kill counterpart. If I am hearing right lately, it sounds like the latter has cleaned up its act and both shelters are working together more lately. That’s a very good thing.

What bothers me about no-kill shelters is not the way they actually work, when they actually work at any rate; it is that their rhetoric tends to work just as well regardless of the details on the ground so to speak. If that woman with her twenty dollar bill really understood how our shelter worked and decided we weren’t a worthy recipient for her money, I would have been fine with that decision. But she didn’t. What she knew was one thing; we were the bad guys and that was about all there was to it.

I also remember a day that we ran out of room in our dog kennels and the local low-kill had been among the organizations that took a few off our hands. They took two, a pit bull and one other dog. I had been so relieved, because all of us loved that pit bull, even though she had been with us 6 months. At last she was safe, …except she wasn’t. Both of those animals ended up getting put down. And I never called the low-kill shelter again, not to help us keep one of our animals alive at any rate.

All of this had already happened on that day when a twenty climbed back into that woman’s purse and sent a five to take its place. I couldn’t help but wonder if the lady knew where people took their pets when the low-kill ran out of space? I also wondered if she knew just how many animals did get put down over there? Or if she could wrap her mind around just how many more animals we took care of on a fraction of their budget, all without the privilege of selective admissions. I’m guessing she didn’t. To her, I was a black hat. The other fifteen bucks were presumably looking to make their home with a white hat.

Circumstances vary from one community to the next, but in that community at that particular time there were exactly two-shelters in the area; one low-kill and one will-kill. The low-kill had begun with aspirations of no-kill policies and still maintained enough ties with the no-kill movement benefit from its reputation. We were open to any animal someone wanted to bring in; they could and did turn problem animals down. When they filled up, we got the overflow. When we filled up, first we turned to the phones, then we turned to the needles.

What so few of the local no-kill advocates in town seemed to realize was that when we were putting animals down it really was a community affair. If we were putting healthy animals down, odds were high that both shelters were full and all the fosters in town were overflowing. Hell, by then more than a few kind-hearted people had already taken more home than they could afford to feed. It really wasn’t a decision made in a vacuum, and when an adoptable animal went down it was literally because we couldn’t find anyone with the will and the resources to care for it.

By the time I left the shelter I had long since come to think of the total impact of the two shelters in terms of the total animal population for the region. Were were in competition for resources and public support, but both shelters contributed to the overall care of animals throughout the region. Our shelter was more efficient, but they could offer a reasonably higher guarantee of survival for any animal successfully placed with them.

…at least they could when they had their act in gear.

In some ways the competition between our shelters may have improved the odds of survival for the unwanted animals of the town. The no-kill movement was a positive force at our own shelter and I knew it. It was one of the reasons we partnered with Petsmart and Petco, went to countless adoption events, advertised adoptions widely, and even began working with Foster agencies. No-kill advocates had developed a lot of the techniques we used to help adopt out our animals, and pressure from such advocates had helped to ensure we used them. In that respect at least, no kill had a very positive impact on our own shelter. Still, some of its advocates could prove damned clueless about the details of animal welfare.

If anyone really wanted to help the animals in our region, a dollar in our donation box was at least as good as it was in that of the local low-kill shelter.

Arguably better at the time.

But you can’t tell some people that. I mean you really can’t.

An Uncommon Tree

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Many people don’t realize this, but we have palm trees here in Barrow. That’s right. Palm trees. Case in point, these beautiful specimens right here. They can be found in a fish camp just North of the college.

Now you may be wondering how palm trees ended up here in the arctic?

Well, I could tell you, but…

Reza Aslan and New Atheists Who Really are Atheists After All

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r.-aslanThe ongoing feud between Reza Aslan and the so-called “New Atheists” continues to shed more heat than light. The latest round of this race to the bottom of the intellectual barrel comes to us in the form of a Salon piece written by Aslan. It presently carries the provocative title, “Reza Aslan: Sam Harris and “New Atheists” aren’t new, aren’t even atheists.” This is certainly a provocative enough title. I expect I wasn’t the only person to open the page wondering just how he was going to make the case that Dawkins and company aren’t atheists.

Score one for the god of misleading headlines. This article gets its provocative angle compliments of a rather weak bit of semantics:

In fact, not only is the New Atheism not representative of atheism. It isn’t even mere atheism (and it certainly is not “new”). What Harris, Dawkins and their ilk are preaching is a polemic that has been around since the 18th century – one properly termed, anti-theism.

Apparently, the New Atheists aren’t really Atheists because they aren’t merely Atheists. So, if you aren’t ‘merely’ a thing you aren’t that thing at all, at least in the mind of whoever wrote the title of that Salon piece. And if you’re also a thing+ or possess an extra helping of thingatude, then well, no, you’re not even a thing at all.

Out of generosity, I’ll assume it wasn’t Aslan that chose that title.

The larger point of Aslan’s piece is actually to differentiate the ‘New Atheism’ from its predecessors, and apparently to embed that differentiation in a narrative that does as much as possible to discredit new atheism. The resulting sleight of hand is definitely Aslan’s doing. It is admittedly more clever than the title fiasco.

Aslan’s essay includes a rather sweeping narrative about the history of non-belief, touching on a number of things well worth thinking about. Aslan comes to the main point with a fairly specific passage in which he ties the New Atheism with the atrocities of state communism. To get to that point, he first introduces the notion that anti-theism is an intellectual tradition in its own right, one of many twists an turns in the history of unbelief. As strident opposition to religion is what folks like Dawkins, Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens do, Aslan assures us they are themselves clearly part of the intellectual movement of anti-theism rather than simply part of the traditions of atheism.

I’m not entirely sold on the historicism here, but as far as this goes, it’s probably fair enough to describe these folks as anti-theists. The problem here is what Aslan does with this point. While he works hard to distinguish anti-theism from mere unbelief, Aslan works equally hard to ensure that we do not distinguish intellectual opposition to religion from the slaughter of innocents.

It wasn’t atheism that motivated Stalin and Mao to demolish or expropriate houses of worship, to slaughter tens of thousands of priests, nuns and monks, and to prohibit the publication and dissemination of religious material. It was anti-theism that motivated them to do so. After all, if you truly believe that religion is “one of the world’s great evils” – as bad as smallpox and worse than rape; if you believe religion is a form of child abuse; that it is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children” – if you honestly believed this about religion, then what lengths would you not go through to rid society of it?

For an historian of religion this is an inexcusable bit of misdirection. Aslan moves seamlessly from a narrative about the work of Marx and the rise of state communism to a series of direct references to his present intellectual opponents in the New Atheism movement. In fact, he uses the views of today’s New Atheists as a direct argument regarding the motivations of Stalin and Mao.

…actually, I should say he uses some of their more outrageous quotes. This isn’t really a consideration of their views so much as a bit of quote-mining masquerading as an intellectual criticism, but still the main point is, the man is explaining the actions of communist dictators with random comments from people who weren’t yet a gleam in their fathers’ eyes when Stalin was starving his peasants and Mao was waging his war on sparrows.

In effect, Aslan turns Harris and company into the present-day spokesmen for some of history’s most horrific genocides. This is anachronism at its worst, and Aslan uses it to advance the notion that anti-theism is responsible for the tragic abuses of state communism.

So, there it is. According to Aslan, the Stalinist purges and those of Mao can be understood as a direct reflection of an anti-theistic world view. We needn’t consider the politics of either nation, it’s economic complexities, or any alternative explanations behind these histories. We need only look at what New Atheists have to say today in order to know that this is what the New Atheists is capable of.

…and perhaps to shudder at the prospect.

Ironically, Aslan’s critique of New Atheism smacks of the very inattention to social complexities that many (including Aslan) see in the approach Dawkins and Harris have taken to Islam. It’s an approach that treats doctrines as if they themselves were the driving engines of history, and it in doing so it reduces historical knowledge to the needs of present-day polemics. This view of history sees little in the complexities of human conflict that one can’t fit into a well-written tweet (or perhaps a pithy and misleading title). Aslan has often advocated a nuanced view of the relationship between religion and violence, but with this piece, that nuance might as well be a nine-pound hammer.

Frankly, I’m a bit tired of the battle between Aslan and Harris, et. al. The dialog is increasingly more personal points, and that just isn’t the best role that a public intellectual could play. This a duel between two simplistic views of history, each of them equally myopic. If the rest of us are supposed to chose a side, then count me out.

 

 

 

An Uncommon Request

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I could never tell what tune it was that my mother wanted me to play. For years she would ask me to play “the song.” Asked what song she wanted me to play, Mom would say “the one that goes doodoodoDoodoodoDoodoo…”

…I had no idea what she was talking about.

I would scan my albums of Heart (and later my disks), but Mom seemed to know the Heart tunes. If she wanted, she could ask me to play one of them by name. I would play some of Van Halen’s guitar solos, which she often liked, but no, none of those turned out to be the golden tune. She said I played the song all the time but she could never remember to tell me when I had it on, and I could never figure out what it was when Mom asked for it out of the clear blue.

It was the least I could do for her, so I thought, to play the occasional tune she actually liked after blasting her and dad without mercy for pretty much all day every day. They must have heard enough hard rock to keep Beavis and Butthead head-banging for a decade. …which is saying something, because neither was really a fan of rock&roll at all. So, when Mom said she liked something in my young metal-head playlist, I couldn’t help but want to meet that request.

But what was the song?

I scanned my Jethro Tull collection countless times, trying desperately to match the tune to Mom’s odd description. It was always the same description, and she could never add any details. Alas! Nothing Ian Anderson and his band ever did met turned out to be the song, though she was always happy to listen to Songs From the Wood.

And then one day she came in to my room waving her hands to get my attention. That was it! The song I had on right at that very moment was the one she always wanted me to play. What was it?

This

…In Mom’s defense, I don’t think she ever really understood the lyrics.

A Rambling Little Bit About the Consolations of Free Market Fundamentalism

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hqdefaultAt what point does hope of success in world of rigged economic competition become indistinguishable from belief in the rewards of heaven? At what point does hope for a better life in this world become no more meaningful than hope for a better life in the next?

We’ve all heard the old historical narratives about medieval peasants living in the hope of an afterlife. The point of that narrative is usually some sort of contrast with a more open society, one in which upward social mobility is actually possible in THIS life. It’s a tidy narrative, perhaps a bit to tidy.

How many Americans, I wonder, will live their entire lives in trailer courts and small apartments, all the while counting themselves so much better off than those peasants?

Because opportunity!

Hell! Who could fault anyone for living with hope? Assuming of course that hope doesn’t interfere with their sense of reality, I sure wouldn’t. Unfortunately, the American dream is slipping further and further from our grasp. Ironically, the more distant that dream gets the harder some people fight to hold on to the illusion that it’s still a viable prospect in our current social order.

Heaven forbid a national healthcare system! Damn the welfare queens! The Hell with minimum wage, and let’s privatize Social Security!

I get why some of the economic elites would make such noises, but the every day believer in the free market is often a mystery to me? It seems that such people don’t just want success; they want it on terms which make it incredibly unlikely to ever happen. And in the meantime they reject all manner of public assistance, much of it critical to their own health and welfare. It isn’t even enough to survive; one must survive under the present terms.

In this religion, ‘socialism’ is the Devil, and one of its magic powers is an ever broadening semantic domain. It is increasingly the root evil behind social institutions that have stabilized the American economy for nearly a century. But what makes this rather a-historical devil so powerful in the minds of the average trailer-court republican? I can’t help thinking it’s in some sense an affront to the just world hypothesis, that vague sense that the world is basically good. If that world is good, then any righteous American ought to be able to make it on his own, so the thinking appears to go. In the end it’s the promise of a certain type of success these folks cling to so desperately, one which is no less fantastic than all any waiting beyond the Pearly Gates. The success they hope for is not just paid bills and a good meal on the table; it’s a success that vouches for their own moral superiority, and it is a success promised only in a world that will separate the righteous from the unworthy. It is a success held in the minds of the faithful with all the power and desperation that one could ever find amongst the faithful of any church. Only a dark force would suggest that this wasn’t going to happen, and only such a dark force could be blamed for the reason it hasn’t so far. And so people falling further and further behind the contest they believe in so much work ever so hard to remove one more piece of the safety net that keeps them in the game at all.

…and in some instances, keeps them alive.

What has me thinking about this was a recent reminder that ‘Democracy’ was one of the great fears plaguing some of our nation’s founding fathers. The fear that the masses would, if given the chance, vote away the privileges of the wealthy and redistribute that very wealth was quite real for the likes of John Adams or even James Madison. I wonder if these men could ever have envisioned a nation of people so content to wait for their boat to come in, so pleased to work away their lives in the hope that the labor would somehow return far more than it ever had before.

If and when the ‘job makers’ ever deem it the right time!

It’s no small wonder that so many who believe in the promise of eternal heaven would also believe in that of Free Markets. It seems that the gods of each work in mysterious ways.

But one day!

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