28 March 2006

A Brief Update

I am in the midst of grading, writing lectures, advising, and in general trying to hide from my students. It may be a while before I can write much here. I have just finished reading Don Quixote and yes, it really is as great as its reputation. I am planning a long post on Don Quixote and the Muslims, a fascinating exploration - at least to me.

24 March 2006

Gibbon and Christianity

Gibbon had a sardonic sense of humor, and a bad attitude about religion - at least in its Roman guise. His work has countless examples of this. Here is one I read today. Gibbon is talking about Theodoric the Goth, king of Italy. He was an Arian Christian, that is, an heretic according to the Roman Orthodox. He went to considerable pains trying to recouncile his Catholic subjects to rule by an Arian king and army.

Even the religious toleration that Theodoric had the glory of introducing into the Christian world, was painful and offensive to the orthodox zeal of the Italians. They respected the armed heresy of the Goths; but their pious rage was safely pointed against the rich and defenceless Jews, who had formed their establishments in Naples, Rome, Ravenna, Milan, and Genoa, for the benefit of trade, and under the sanction of the laws. Their persons were insulted, their effects were pillaged, and their synagogues were burnt by the mad populace of Ravenna and Rome, inflamed, as it should seem, by the most frivolous or extravagant pretences. The government which could neglect, would have deserved such an outrage. A legal enquiry was instantly directed; and as the authors of the tumult had escaped in the crowd, the whole community was condemned to repair the damage; and the obstinate bigots who refused their contributions, were whipped through the streets by the hand of the executioner. This simple act of justice exasperated the discontent of the Catholics, who applauded the merit and patience of these holy confessors; three
hundred pulpits deplored the persecution of the church. [Decline and Fall, chap xxxix, p 549]

George Bush on Global Warning

There is always a fine line between inspired satire and mundane truth.
Check this out:

or cut and paste:

Ben Franklin on Muslims (and Evangelicals)

We seem to be having some difficulty as a society understanding the implications of a pluralistic society, especially when it comes to religion. So let's take a look at something one of our founding fathers, Ben Frankin, said when the English preacher George Whitefield came to Philadelphia. Whitefield was an early Evangelical and he and his followers were strongly resisted by local government and clergy. Ben took direct action, even though he was a Diest and disagreed with Whitefield on key points.

When local clergy stopped giving Whitefield a place to speak, Franklin helped build a new hall for him -- and for clergy of any other religion. Franklin boasted that it was "expressly for the use of any preacher who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia; the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service." For Franklin, evangelicals represented the democratic spirit railing against authority and insular institutions.

[quote from Steven Waldman, "The Framers and the Faithful" in Washington Monthly]

23 March 2006

Rescuing the Bible

There is a blog that I have been reading for some time called Radical Bible. [bad link for http://radicalbible.blogspot.com/] It's great. The author knows the Bible thoroughly and uses quotes, sometimes with commentary, to show that the Bible does not in fact justify a conservative political stance: in fact it is a very 'progressive' document. He argues that Progressives who are also Christians need to rescue the Bible, and their religion, from the right wind.

Anyway, it's worth a look as a corrective to that last post if nothing else. Enjoy.

Update: Elliot (aka Claw of the Conciliator) reports that the above link doesn't work. So here it is again: Radical Bible.

A Self-defining moment at "National Review"

"One doesn't want to be accused of inhuman callousness; but I am willing to confess, and believe I speak for a lot of ["To-Hell-With-Them-Hawks"] (and a lot of other Americans, too) that the spectacle of Middle Eastern Muslims slaughtering each other is one that I find I can contemplate with calm composure," - John Derbyshire, National Review.

I suppose this must mean that Derbyshire is another conservative pundit who is turning on George Bush, who, at the moment at least, seems rather concerned about Muslims slaughtering each other. Or perhaps he is suggesting that we should simply declare a plague on all their houses, and go home. Or just maybe he really is displaying "inhuman callousness". Any suggestions?

15 March 2006

Slobo, Srebenica, and remembrance

Not so many years ago in Srebenica a Dutch military force sent to protect non-combatants in Bosnia sat and watched while Serbian forces hauled 7 or 8 thousand Bosnians out and slaughtered them. It was the biggest European mass murder in, oh, fifty years. I understand that some of the poor soldiers are still receiving counseling to help them get over the sense of responsibility and guilt. It was enough to give pacifism a bad name.

Now the man responsible for all that is dead, perhaps by his own doing. As his nation welcomes him home to be buried in his back yard, beneath a shade tree where he and his wife would sit and talk, you should read this little retrospecitve.

Or cut and paste http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,6-2084190,00.html

A Day on the Mountainside

Years ago, when I was a young man in my twenties, there was a terrible plane crash not far from where I grew up. It was in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Mt Weather. Mt Weather had been hollowed out all the way down to create some super secret installation to protect the government in case the Russians attacked. Aunt Maidie's son Randolph worked way down inside it as a fireman. There were firestations and stores and everything down there. He told us later that the night the plane went down the area was hit by the worst storm he had ever heard. He worked so far underground that they never heard the weather, but he said they heard that storm.

Somewhere in the storm the crew of a passenger jet with nearly 100 people on board got confused and, flying too low, flew straight into the side of the mountain at full speed. There were no survivors.

Months later I was driving around the mountains with my cousins. They suddenly said stop the car, this is where the plane crashed. We got out and looked up the ridge on one side of the road. The was a huge rock jutting up out of the ground. They told me that the plane had actually come to a halt when it hit that rock. Then I turned back and looked down slop across the road. All the trees were there, reaching up to the sky, except for one spot directly in line with the rock. Every tree was sheared off as if with a buzz saw.

The belly of the plane most have been about where my head was as I stood in the middle of the road. Now I love the mountains in this part of Virginia. They are always beautiful no matter how ugly the weather. They speak to me about my birth and my life. But not that day, not in that spot. There was a wicked electric feel to the place that made my skin crawl. I am convinced I would have known that something horrible had happened there if I were blindfolded. We quietly left and never went back.

14 March 2006

A Slave in the family

One of the stories Aunt Maidie would tell me of her mother was of the slave her family owned. They were modest farmers, but owned one man, whom they kept chained up at night out in the barn. God knows what that was like. The barn couldn't have been much (I've seen what was left of the farmhouse and it was no great shakes itself), and it gets cold in Northern Virginia in the winter time. ("The snows of Virginia are deep," as Ashley Wilkes says in Gone with the Wind).
At any rate, like most slaves, he took off as soon as the Union army was near. Most slaves liberated themselves, and did not wait for Mr Lincoln.

I've always felt as if I were related in some strange way. I was told his name and thought that if I could remember it he might really exist in a way he won't now that I have long forgotten it. I visited Aunt Maidie years later when she was dying. I wanted to ask her if she could remember the man my family kept chained in the barn, but there were other matters to discuss. I still don't remember his name.

A little story of the Civil War

My greatgrandmother was a young girl during the civil war. She and her family livied in a farmhouse in Loudun Country Virginia, up against the Blue Ridge. Years later she would tell her children stories about growing up then. Two of them, my grandmother Virginia and her sister Maidie, would tell me the stories as they drove me all over the county when I was a child. Loudun was the first county you come to if you cross over the Potomac from Harper's Ferry, or the last county you pass through on your way north - which Lee and the army of Northern Virginia did several times during the war. The Union usually controlled the northern half, Confederate partisans the southern. Sometimes it was called 'Mosby's Confederacy.'

Not far from the old farmhouse, which still existed back then, was an odd little bend in the road that grandmother told me was called 'Dead Man's Corner.' It was called that because after one particularly bad battle in the neighborhood a number of Union dead were buried there in a hurry. My greatgrandmother would go down the lane after a heavy rain and find parts of bodies sticking up through the mud. She would pat fresh dirt into place to cover them up.

There was one evening when she could watch the shells from dueling artillary firing from one mountain ridge across to another blazing across the sky over her house. At one point Union cavalry raided the area and burnt so many barns and hay ricks that the chickens went to roost thinking it was night from all the smoke.

At some point her father went across the Potomac into Maryland and was supposedly interned as a dangerous alien. I always heard that he died from illness in the prison, but my brother claims he pops up on a census in Virginia after the war. Maidie always claimed her granddad probably "just went over there to get away from his children." Also heard that he was a member of Mosby's raiders, but we cannot find his name for sure among the troops listed. There were, however, several of Mosby's men who were from the same familly as his.

Back in those days the conflict was simply called 'the war.' I like that. No false causes, no grand statements. Just a never ending misery that worked its way out in their fields over four years.

13 March 2006

Battle of Ball's Bluff

At the Battle of Ball's Bluff, just a few miles north of where I was born, a US Senator was killed fighting with the Union troops.

Don't you wish Senators had the courage of their convictions to lead the troops in combat today? Or ever serve in the military?

12 March 2006

Books on the American Civil War

Elliott asked an interesting question: what are some good introducions to American Civil War history for a Canadian (he has the flattering but unfounded opinion that Americans actually know something about their own history!).

When I was a teenager I was fascinated by the Civil War. We lived in Northern Virginia, an area that saw much of the fighting in the East. Our family would go out for day trips to the great battlefields, and some of the not so great (ever hear of Ball's Bluff?). Actually, almost every place I visited during the course of an average day was the scene of action at one time or another. My grandmother would tell me stories her mother told her about growing up in that period. I grew up saluting the Confederate flag and whistling Dixie. Later my views changed. A bad war for a bad cause. It's still fascinating, but as the descendent of slave owners on both sides of the family it is hard to have the same feelings about The Cause I once did.

But what to read now, to get an overview of the whole thing?

The latest best book seems to be The Battle Cry of Freedom by James Mcpherson. It's big at over 800 pp, but well written by an established scholar.

Of older vintage (I read them when I was young) but still in print and still very readable is Bruce Catton's The Civil War. I remember Catton as being a magnificent stroy teller. He also penned a three volume history of the Army of the Potomac, the Union army given the task of protecting Washington while facing down Robert E Lee. It had some of the worst commanders in American history.

Another oldie is A Short History of the Civil War: Ordeal by Fire by Fletcher Pratt. Pratt is interesting because he also wrote high fantasy novels. And the only book I know of on the Battle of Ball's Bluff!

Shelby Foote did a 3 volume The Civil War: A Narrative which has gotten high marks for its literary quality. He wrote it out by hand, using old fashioned steel nibbed pens you dip in ink. He's the only modern writer I know who would buy his ink by quart bottles.

There are simply thousands of fictional treatments out there, everything from Gone With the Wind (very bad history, but a great story) to Guns of the South (Modern White supremicists time travel to suppy Lee with AK-47's). Most are bad, many are good and a very few are great. The last one I can remember reading that might be in that last catagory was Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels. It's also a sentimental favorite since the Florida State University had him as an instructor in the English Dept, got rid of him, and then asked him back as a visiting scholar so they could fawn over him once his novel won the Pulitzer. It was great fun.

If one is in the mood for a non-reading experience, get hold of Ken Burn's documentary The Civil War which was done for [American] Public Broadcasting. Some people nit and pick at it, but the overall impact is extraordinary. It is the best introduction I could think of.

That's it for now, from an American whose only clear idea of an event in Canadian history is the Louis Riel rebellion.

Blogging from an undisclosed location

Although my wife and I are both still sick, we decided to pack the Lummox up and drive down to an unnamed port city* far to the south of us for my nephew's wedding. We survived the trip, though it took a lot out of us. Got into town just in time to rush to the island beach where the wedding was to be. Nephew, the shyest man I know, was nervous but got through it. My sister married them in a ceremony that lasted 5 minutes! Then we went to the picnic pavillion for 'the feast'. I thought they were joking, but the bride's mother is a caterer and did the cooking herself. It was great.

My family has become very multicultural over the years. When I grew up in the hills of Virginia the only ethnic divisions I was aware of was 'white' and'black', and everyone had pretty much the same accent and the same religion: Protestant Christian. As Episcopalians we were considered a bit exotic. Now at this wedding I came with my Cuban wife, our Vietnamese relatives were all there, along with the bride's Filipino relatives, and Nephew, who is half Vietnamese. This is American now, and in the future.

I must say, the food at our parties has distinctly improved. So has the conversation.

*unnamed lest I vent unfairly about it and offend my lady.

08 March 2006

And now for something different

The coughing has subsided, the chills and fever are gone, only a sore throat and a slight but nasty cough remain. It is late at night, which seems to be the hour when all bloggers get active. I seem to be awake and as alert as I have been for the last few days. So I must blog. It will be a notice to myself that I have survived the dread flu that has been nailing students, parishioners, co-workers, and virtually everyone else this side of the mountains.

I must be on the road to recovery. This evening I finished a book by a friend on one of my favorite historical characters, William Marshal, who rose to be regent of England after serving three Angevin kings, Henry the Young King, Henry II, Richard, and John. Wait! - that's four of the rascals - maybe I am not as recovered as I thought. David, the author, has a great quote that can stand for how I feel about all those from the past whom we try to understand:

Generations of romantically-inclined historians have long overstressed the military element in aristocratic life ... It is as if we judged today's upper class only by their oings at Badminton, Klosters, Henley or on the golflinks. It is arrogant to assume that the twelfth-century aristocracy was less complex than ours, simply because it is so remote from us.

Back to the personal stuff. The last thing I remember well before I got sick was my dear niece Mulan coming down from her mountain top to visit. I took her with me to walk the little lummox along the river trail, out past the dam to the farm where the little chocolate pony lives. He was waiting for us. The lummox wanted to nip at his muzzle like he usually does but contented himself with only gently nipping his long mane. I pulled him away and my niece had a long talk with the pony while feeding it little handfuls of grass he couldn't reach through the fence. They both seemed very content.

03 March 2006

Another good Orwell quote

"We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield,"

- George Orwell, 1946.

01 March 2006

Whew! What a relief

President Bush gave an exclusive interview with ABC today. When the reporter asked him if he agreed with the government report that called the US 'woefully unprepared' to face disasters, he replied:
"I think the US is better prepared than woefully unprepared."

Sleep well tonight.