Monday, March 19, 2018

Frozen Re-Explained

Just a browse from 2015. Toldja I had it right. I know my myths.Half a year ago, I had a major complaint about the script of Frozen, centered on the complete lack of buildup to Hans suddenly turning on Anna.  Not a hint throughout the film, and in fact, he makes a rather selfless gesture not long before.  It's just bad myth-making, bad narrative.  One might not see a turn to evil the first time, but on repeated viewings there should be hints along the way.

Apparently there were hints, and more, but they never made it to the script because of other plot considerations.  There's a fascinating explanation of those changes in this Weekly Standard article by Jonathan V. Last. Short version;  Hans was not originally evil in the script, but when the plot changed, someone had to set the last rescue scene on the ice in motion, and nothing else was ready to hand. So Prince Hans, contrary to his good nature so carefully built up in the first 90% of the movie, had to be called into service as the villain, because there was no one else there.

Friday, March 16, 2018

William James Sidis

This kept coming up over at Quora, so I am linking to my several posts about William Sidis, from 2011.  Many of you are in the comments, and James figures prominently. As this is multiple posts, I will let it cover a few days.

I no longer get notifications from Quora, and I am relieved.  I kept nibbling back in, even though I told myself I was going to quit.  I think I marked their email notification as spam by mistake, and haven't heard from them since.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Did I Get This Right?

Prediction from 2009. The ACA was collapsing, but is now being neutered instead. Up until Trump took office, was this true? Only sort, I think.

I doubt that I’m the first across the finish line with this, but I did want to get my predictions in early. When health care reform doesn’t work, it won’t be Obama or the Democrats’ fault. Whether it will be fault of some industry, such as insurance, or of conservatives, or of Congressional Republicans – that I can’t tell you. I think that could vary according to political circumstances.

There will also be a considerable number of people (I can think of several off the top of my head), who will be certain that health care in America is nonetheless better than it was, impervious to any actual data. Their impression that we are at last a “good country” will trump any health outcomes.

Regarding this last matter, I wonder if the desire to be thought of as a good country by some social standard is related to the deep insult non-believers feel at the suggestion that religious people don’t believe they also can be moral.* There is a touching, perhaps even childlike wish to “be good.”

*Answer: It depends entirely on how one defines one’s terms. Any individual unreligious person can be more generous or honest than many or even most religious people. They don’t tend to be so, but it certainly isn’t impossible. That tendency is unlikely to be accidental, but diverse explanations are possible. At great extremity, when the costs are very high, do religious people tend to behave better? Well, no one does very well, frankly, so no one should be bragging. But the few who behave morally even under duress tend even more strongly to be religious people. Yet caution must be applied in interpreting this. It may be that their religion makes them more able. It may also be that those of determined morality are more likely to seek out congenial religious systems. Egg. Chicken. As to the question of whether religious or nonreligious people are more moral by the definition of having warm feelings toward others, I consider this uninteresting.

Okay, that was three subjects in three paragraphs and a footnote. I’m displaying some lack of focus on this post.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Evangelicals and Catholics

I touched down in 2009 and grabbed this. James made the point that reprising older posts is n ot strictly being conversational, and he is absolutely right. I'm doing it anyway. I will do it all week, because I will be watching the Iditarod mushers come in.

Evangelicals lack knowledge about the European churches which they spring from. Christian school history books will reference some high points of the Reformation, with particular emphasis on translating the Bible into the language of the people, but religious history for them very nearly ends at 100AD and picks up again at 1600AD in colonial America. This is changing, but remains largely true. Exceptions to this run along ethnic lines, as each group does tend to preserve something from its ancestral faith even into the New World.

This seems odd, but it is partially true of every religious group in America. Even Catholics, Jews, and the Orthodox, which have abundant histories in many times and places, tend to focus on the foreign context which immediately preceded their ancestors coming to America. The evangelicals are just more pronounced in this. The fundamentalists are more pronounced still - I will get to them later.

Will Herberg wrote Protestant, Catholic, Jew in the late 50's, about an era when nearly everyone in America identified with one of those categories - the era we grew up in. He made the observation that not only did most Protestant churches in America seem more like each other than they did like their European origins, but that even Catholics and Jews had a generic Americanism about them, in contrast to their churches across the water. These latter commonalities were not so pronounced, but still observable. Foreign visitors often remarked on it, seldom with approval, and American visitors to Europe were often struck by the difference between Mass in an Italian village or worship in a Lutheran edifice outside Munich and what they experienced at home. Language was certainly a large part of this, and the appearance of the people around them in the old place and the new, but a strain of Americanism seemed to infect all churches.

This is less true now, as the wealthy, dominant, well-attended American churches have influenced the European churches since then. There was an informality at Mass outside Dublin that was different from the world Tracy's great-grandparents left. It is as much a globalization as it is an Americanization of the world's cultures, but we get the credit and the blame as the most recognisable player. (On a side note, McDonald's is often a focus of anger of the world's nations at their disappearing culture. No one here asked for this, I have heard English friends complain. Well sure they did. There was an existing market for beef sandwiches cheap and fast in a consistent setting that included clean restrooms and preparation standards. The fat and calories seldom exceeded the local fare. People have flocked to such places as soon as they've opened - even in Paris and Vienna - because they met a need that already existed. No new values were imposed.)

Thus, Americans tend to highlight the history of the Christian church in America. Catholics, the Orthodox, and the Jews are likely to know something more of their faith's history, but not often a lot - and not always accurate. Evangelicals are an exaggeration of this trend, not an exception.

Modern evangelicals descend from two broad church groups: frontier fundamentalists and those from the mainstream denominations who have disliked the changes of the last decades. The former group was bitterly anti-Catholic (and often anti-Lutheran, Episcopal, and Orthodox as well, because they were too Catholic-seeming). The latter group, not so much. They tended to see Catholics as another mainstream denomination - a bit more separate and hierarchical, but not entirely different. The alliance between Catholics and evangelicals around the issue of abortion, and to a lesser extent around issues of sexual morality, has seriously undermined the anti-Catholic tendencies inherited from the fundies. One can still find it, but it's disappearing. Anti-catholic prejudice among evangelicals now comes more from the ex-Catholics.

Fundamentalism comes from an interesting coincidence of the printing press and frontier culture, including especially architecture and formal education. The Protestant idea of having worship in the language of the people may not have been an accidental coincidence with the invention of the printing press and the general spread of a moderate literacy in Europe. Protestantism has always been very Bible-centered in that way. But this written word emphasis was balanced by the houses of worship themselves in Europe. St. Dennis-by-the-Wey might switch from Catholic to C of E, but it was still dedicated to St. Dennis, still had the same windows and pews, and childhood memories. People might want to throw off Roman rule and structure, but there was never any thought of throwing the whole thing out.

On the American frontier, settled largely by a combination of Scots-Irish Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists, all with a history of independent religious meetings outside of the church building, plus a German/Moravian strain of Pietism that emphasised simplicity and personal devotion. These throve in a region where there were no church buildings, but had constant movement, little formal education but a respect for the written word, and a fierce independence. Me 'n my Bible is all I need. There's God right there, in the book. Portable. Individual. Little wonder that one-time salvationism, rather than community involvement, took off so well. The Scots-Irish moved out from Appalachia and settled southwest, which may be why the beating heart of fundamentalism has always been Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, and west Tennessee. The frontier settlers in the northern half of the US, the Germans, Dutch, and Scandinavians, had similar attitudes, but a bit more connection to history, tradition, and decorative arts in the sanctuary.

The Scots-Irish in particular, because of their historical memory of the Siege of Derry and mutual suspicion of Catholics in Ireland (see Belfast, Glasgow, with equal murder rates to US cities) were anti-Catholic and carried that prejudice long after they had ceased to have much connection with actual Catholics. They were suspicious of Easterners, more suspicious of Europeans, and most suspicious of all of Catholics, which seemed to them the distillation of everything wrong with Europe. So they also disliked Episcopalians and Lutherans for not rejecting Catholicism forcefully enough. Preacher talks straight from the Wordogod. You can look it up yourself.

By about 1800 you see the emergence of fanatically anti-Catholic sects, such as the Seventh Day Adventists. The reputed antisemitism of these groups is more mixed. They were very ambivalent on this score, some even being philosemites. Their only history was Bible history, but they counted it as their own, and, well, despite the natural animosity that all human groups seem to feel for one another, and despite all the inherited stories about Jews killing Jesus, these were people who took their Bible stories very seriously. They saw themselves in those stiff-necked Jews. If that tribe had rejected their own Jesus, well, brother, you 'n I might not have done any better. The lives and beliefs of their actual ancestors or institutional ancestors faded into the mist.

As the frontier was settled, buildings built, and people grew up in towns they stayed in, the usual irony occurred: they became deeply conservative about the times of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers. The historical impulse will not be denied, I think. The fundamentalists identified strongly with the lives of their immediate ancestors, even if they had forgotten most of what had been five to twenty generations before. The King James Bible itself became a part of the faith. (I don't know if you ever run across that, but there are still fundamentalists who believe the KJV, derived from the textus receptus, is the only reliable translation. A weird guy who developed an interest in my two Romanian sons tried to convince them of that - an amazing denseness when you think of it. The Bible that God uses - his return address stickers actually say that.)

Hey, I kinda like this essay. I think I'm going to post it.

So, completely lost in the whole understanding of Catholicism and its symbols and rituals is the idea those people couldn't read. They needed that. And the best of them devoted their lives to expressing the great truths of the faith artistically. What would you do? And as for keeping a great deal of Latin in the Mass, it was not only an expression of Vatican dominance and intentional mysteriousness. It also communicated the transnational, universal nature of the church against the tribal and nationalist urges of human beings in general.

In a related matter, this is why American evangelicals do not hesitate to evangelise Jews - which annoys the heck out of Jews who are aware of their history in Europe among the Christians. But to the evangelical, all that history seems to have nothing to do with them. They are related biologically only in the most distant way. They are related institutionally only indirectly. They repudiated the European churches two- three hundred years ago. There has been prejudice here, but no pogroms, no holocausts.

Until very recently, I sided with the Jews on that. I am a bit of a philosemite. But after getting into an online argument with a Jewish woman who regarded even modest modifications to the idea of Christian perfidy as mere evasions, I have looked at this differently. How many centuries is enough before the American experience of Jews outweighs what our seventh cousins did? As a medievalist, I felt quite connected and sorrowful about the Christian persecutions. But in the argument, I started to question my premises. My institutional and biological ancestors were Swedish Lutherans, Puritans from the south of England, Scots-Irish Presbyterians. For what reason should I feel an identification with any persecutors of Jews? If Christian doctrine leads so readily to antisemitism, why did it not infect my people as well?

In 500AD the Mediterranean had culture and civilization, China had culture and civilization, Persia and India had culture and civilization. Europe had violent, 99% illiterate, barbaric pagan torturers. Enter Christianity, very irregularly and incompletely, and the whole world slowly changes. It is fashionable to accuse Christianity, especially Catholicism, of all the ills of the Dark Ages and Middle Ages. What if the opposite is true? What if the crimes are mainly the crimes of all human tribes everywhere, killing outsiders and having no values above tribal loyalty? Except that monks kept good records, and the desire for virtue preceded virtue itself, so we have an ample catalogue of Christian sins.

The Puritans get the rap and reputation for witch-burning for a one-off incident in a notoriously unreligious seaport in Massachusetts. In Europe, the farther east you went, the more witches got burned, especially in the less religious areas.

But that's another story. I get irked about the misreporting of the Crusades and the Inquisition, too. People have a narrative that is congenial to their desires, and cherry pick the historical data to suit that.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Finding A Church On Vacation

Yawkey Way

There has been a move afoot for some time to rename Yawkey Way, the street outside Fenway Park named for Tom and Jean Yawkey, who owned the team for many years. It seems to be coming to pass. Tom Yawkey was racist - the Red Sox were the last team to integrate when they brought in Pumpsie Green* in 1959, and of course brought in another black player, Earl Wilson, because who would Pumpsie room with on the road? - and people in the Commonwealth don't want him honored in that way. The Yawkey Foundations, the charitable organisation the Yawkeys started decades ago is upset, because they believe the focus on a few acts is an unfair misunderstanding of a man who did a great deal of good.

I agree with the renaming, but for reasons that I think are different than most advocates for the change. The change is largely symbolic, which is appropriate because Yawkey's racism was mostly symbolic. He was of a type which used to exist but has vanished from the landscape. He generally treated African-Americans well.  He owned black baseball teams back in South Carolina where he came from, and paid those players better than average. He was kind and respectful to the black people he knew, though with that constant condescension that quietly stung.  His charitable endeavors supporting health, education, and cultural events for the poor likely benefited poor black people more than white. He just didn't think the races should be all that much together, particularly on baseball fields. Credible reports claim that he ended a Willie Mays (and others) tryout with the Red Sox by saying "get those niggers out of here." That pretty clearly racist, and not by some exaggerated modern sensibilities.

Yet look at this whole integration-of-baseball phenomenon at the time. It was symbolically huge that Jackie Robinson got to play in the major leagues. It drove a tentpeg into the ground about what America was going to be like going forward. Yet as a practical matter, what happened is that several hundred black people got to play in the major leagues over the next decades, and several hundred more got to play in the minors.  This represented higher salary, better conditions, and more recognition than black professional ballplayers had in the Negro Leagues and on barnstorming teams. (Minor league conditions were grim and insecure, but still a step up for most black players.) It was actually a loss for some of the non-stars on black baseball teams of the 40's and 50's, which soon went out of business.

Symbolically huge.  Not so much practically.

So Yawkey's long delay - the Red Sox had black players in the minors but none on the main club until 1959 - affected millions symbolically but maybe only a few dozen as a practical matter. This fits just about exactly with the renaming of a street.  It is a large symbolic gesture with very little practical effect. The bad press may indeed reduce the contributions to the Yawkey Foundations - that would be a bad practical effect.

*I had not known until today that Cornell Green, the cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys, was his brother.

Harming the Opponent

As you may know, I have two sons from Romania, both of whom spent time in a state orphanage (read:Mouth of Hell) before going to a private Christian orphanage and then here. Both were well able to fight. Fortunately little of that happened here.  Didn't need to.  Chris did describe for me once what the preferred strategy is when one is outnumbered, outclassed, or otherwise has no hope of winning: Hurt the opponent as badly as you can, whatever it costs you.  It does nothing for your chances of victory, but reduces the chance they will pick on you again.  My grandfather described something similar about a school bully when he was a boy. Tired of being beaten up every week or so, he resolved to attack him from behind or by surprise every day until it stopped. He was beaten mercilessly the first three days, but on the fourth day he warned the other boy in the morning it would happen again until he agreed to stop. The bully shrugged in mild agreement, but never picked on him again.

Trump did something like that during the election.  He would do things that everyone assured us would doom his chances of being nominated, but he eliminated his rivals one at a time by hurting them, regardless of the cost to himself.  It worked.

David Brooks's editorial about progressivess winning the culture war drew a lot of criticism, and there is much to disagree with in it.  Yet he makes the solid point that progressives are using exactly this tactic in a few places.  They cannot win anything other than minor tweaks on gun control at present, and perhaps not ever. Many conservatives have pointed out the number of legislative victories they would have to win at the state and federal level to change things, and noted that massive gun confiscation, including African-American neighborhoods, is going to be very costly in more than one way. Yet this may not be the point. The ability to call people nazis and child-killers may in fact be the point. (There is a mirrored point of virtue signalling as well, but lets leave that out for the moment.) Looking back over the last few decades, painting gun owners as paranoid, violent, and ignorant may have represented as much of the strategy as any cosmetic legislative victories.

I don't think it has worked as universally as they hoped, but it has been remarkably successful at elite universities and those that hope to imitate the intellectuals, those who are more NPR than PhD. A young friend who recently graduated from Worcester Polytech posted a FB comment that gun control laws "don't work."  I agree, and have said much the same.  Yet if you look at it another way, they work fine.  If your goal was to call your opponents names and show what a caring person you are, they work a treat.

Governor Brown and Refugees

Oh no, I meant other refugees. Thanks to David Foster over at ChicagoBoyz for this.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Cultural Appropriation

I have laughed at people complaining about Cultural Appropriation, as have many others. Maybe I get it after all.  Fantasy fiction, especially Christian fantasy fiction, is not just something I like. It's an important part of my culture.  I had heard that the Disney version of "A Wrinkle In Time" had deemphasised the Christianity of the book. That's hardly surprising these days, yet it might have been merely irritating. Collins's review over at The Ringer suggests it is something far worse than that. The Christianity is not merely deemphasised, it has been replaced by another religion, the more modern empowerment gospel.  I expected them to lean hard on Meg being a Spunky Gal, because that's what Disney has been doing for decades - and Meg actually is something of a spunky gal, though I don't think any serious reader of L'Engle would say it quite that way.

This is like putting communion elements out as part of the buffet at the PTA potluck.

The review above links over to another by Kate Knibbs from the day before, which is perhaps a savable example of everything that is wrong with the current approach to understanding literature - that a book is important because of what the reader thinks it means and helps them turn into whatever they damn well please, even if that is at odds with the actual meaning. The belief that a book has an actual meaning is under assault.  It only has the reader's meaning. As a side note, Knibbs claims it is Seventh Day Adventists who don't believe in giving their children medical treatment, which is the sort of not-even-bothering-to-spend-30-seconds-on-a-search-engine that is probably standard for a woman who thinks that a book and its movie are really about her and her life experience.

We are somewhat used to the Christianity which was part of an historical culture being removed from stories told about it now, sometimes even if they were an important part. One would never know that Downton Abbey takes place in a culture that is C of E, nor that American presidents regularly talked of religious matters in both their formal addresses and everyday conversation. But the Christianity is not just part of the scenery in L'Engle's books, they are central.

Reviews will discuss whether the movie was done well or not. People who like movies qua movies will find some of that interesting.  How were the effects? Is the acting believable? I have no interest. If you replace the lyrics to Handel's "Messiah" with Rod McKuen, I don't much care about how the violinists were doing.

Fashion and Health

We look at old photos and think "How did we ever think that sort of hairstyle was attractive?" While it is most uncomfortable when it is us personally, we also think that of the whole era. The shirts were too tight or too blousy, the patterns too plain or too busy.  The ties are strings or they are small kites. It is not merely our own era, nor only because they are now out of fashion and look so 2017 now. We can see clear fashion problems in the young, who tend more to exaggerating the styles, in most eras. Not that it's all ugly.  Every age does hit upon some things that look nice as well.

Yet what came over us?  How did none of us see the ridiculousness of it?

For openers, it was the youngest, most attractive people who were wearing them. Whatever the prettiest girls and the most handsome boys wear is still going to look darn good. We say that of the especially attractive: "She could wear a potato sack and make it look good." But it's that sector of society where everyone looks good. The worst of them doesn't look so bad - though they don't know it themselves. It is that time of life when clothes really don't make the man. The day will come, and come soon, when the boy will have to leave off being quite right up to the minute and and start leaning toward styles that have a track record over a few decades of being more attractive.  Even that changes and has fashions, but the amplitude is less.

Something similar happens with health and diet fads.  Who are the people who are most concerned with what they put in their mouths?  The people concerned with their appearance, who are already active and keeping their intake steady but moderate. They already look good, and will hold those looks longer than the others.

This sells food fads, supplements, and extreme beliefs.  I mean, just LOOK at her! She's 40 but she looks 28! This stuff must work!

Unattractive researchers who have put years into learning this stuff are nowhere near as convincing.