Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

All Hallows Eve

Halloween, and the weather just did an Oklahoma on us and turned cold and windy after a lovely weekend. Well our boy is going to another Halloween party tonight so we'll just have to dress warmly.

My wife has come to enjoy American-style Halloween quite a lot. In Poland, and the rest of Europe, it is celebrated quite differently. The eve of All Saints Day, called the Day of the Dead, is a time when families in Poland go to their family graves, sweep them, clean them up and put lots of candles on them. At night, which is usually crisp and cold, the cemeteries are quite beautiful, glowing with the light of thousands of candles.

A Polish academic who lived in America once told me that American Halloween just shows that Americans turn everything into a party - even death.

A friend remarked, "So why not? It's going to happen anyway whatever you do, so why not party?"

Sadly, the custom of Trick or Treating appears to be dying out. Though there has never been a single authenticated case of poisoned treats, or apples with razor blades, or any of the other Halloween urban legends, nonetheless people have become paranoid to the point that they'd rather take the kids to a supervised party.

Observinging something like the European tradition would also be nice, but who in America keeps family gravesites where generations of relatives are buried? Because my father and grandmother had an interest in geneology I was able to look at quite extensive family history charts, and I noticed something that astonishes Europeans. For over three hundred years, almost nobody in my ancestral line was buried in the same place he was born and seldom are two generations born in the same place. I imagine that's probably quite typical of Americans.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Iraq is not Vietnam

Comparisons between the Iraq war and Vietnam abound, on both sides of the argument. Opponents of the war, and subsequent occupation and reconstruction of Iraq have been shouting “quagmire, just like Vietnam” since the first week of the war. Proponents have been bringing up the specter of “betrayal on the eve of victory, just like Vietnam”.

There are indeed some similarities between the two situations, which may yet bring us to another foreign policy disaster, and these deserve thoughtful consideration. But in almost all important respects Iraq is not Vietnam, and the differences may give cause for cautious optimism.

First we ought to consider how Iraq is like Vietnam. To begin with, the rationales, both for and against, were never well articulated. But in the absence of a strong and compelling argument for going to war, any argument against going to war carries more weight.

“Bush lied, thousands died.” the elusive weapons of mass destruction. Arguments continue about whether Saddam did or did not continue his program to obtain chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. It is certain that he did at one time have chemical weapons, which he used on the rebellious Kurds, and had been seeking biological and nuclear weapons, but no clear cut evidence has surfaced that he continued to pursue these programs after the cease fire following the first invasion of Iraq. The Iraqis certainly acted as if they were conducting hidden programs, but that may have been a bluff, in which case they have limited claim to sympathy for their plight. Or it may very well have been a case of the dictator demanding his people produce unbeatable secret weapons and being assured by his fearful subordinates, “Yes Boss, we’re right on it! Any day now.” (Note Hitler's constant assurances that secret weapons would be fielded any day to reverse the tide of WWII.)

The salient fact remains that legally speaking we did not go to war with Iraq – because we had not been at peace with Iraq since the first Gulf War. There was a ceasefire in place, which Saddam was in violation of every single day. (By the way - this also apples to North Korea.) All arguments about the legality of the second invasion of Iraq must first address the first set of hostilities under George Bush Sr. There was never a lack of a cassus belli under the accepted standards of international law, just not very exciting ones to present to the public. Fine points of law are not very rousing when you are asking your citizens to commit to something as serious as a war.

Contrariwise the rational, well-considered argument that invading a country and dealing with the subsequent insurrection/ civil war was not in our national interest got lost in the hysterical America-hating rhetoric of the American and European Left and the overheated anti-statism of the isolationist libertarian Right. Like Vietnam, the voice of a patriotic and principled opposition to the war (which included a number of top military officers in both cases) was lost in the shouting of a movement whose hatred was of America, not war.

The movement whose basic motivation was America-hatred found the national interest argument unappealing, precisely because they care nothing for America’s national interest, and were therefore reduced to claiming that Iraq was a better place under Saddam and that American forces were responsible for more innocent deaths than Saddam’s evil regime a la Michael Moore.

Where the anti-war movement did succeed was in framing the debate as “pro-war” versus “anti-war”. Nobody but a Nietzschean lunatic is “for” war. The questions rational men must ask themselves are, “Do we have a choice and is war the worst alternative?”

Generations of post-World War II recriminations have lamented that the West failed to deal with Hitler until it was almost too late, and paid a terrible price in lives, treasure and a devil's bargain with the Soviet Union that delivered another two generations of Eastern Europeans into serfdom.

Which brings us to the most obvious similarity between Iraq and Vietnam, or between any wars - the fact that they are expensive.

Iraq though, has been remarkably cheap in terms of lives lost. (If you can ever count lives lost as “cheap”. For every death, the world has ended for someone and is irretrievably damaged for others.) The insurrection has so far produced fewer American and coalition casualties than a good month or a bad day of any of our previous large-scale wars, while inflicting massive losses on the enemy. Ongoing civilians casualties (“collateral damage” in that detestable military euphemism) are arguably less than Saddam inflicted on his own people while in power - so far, and indeed more casualities are inflicted deliberately by Jihadist terrorists than accidentally by coalition forces. (Even the highly questionable John Hopkins study held that 2/3 of all deaths are Jihadists killing Iraqi civilians.)

However, the technological and training expertise that has produced this one-sided kill ratio must be paid for in other ways. To put it bluntly, the enemy spends lives they hold cheap while we spend money to preserve lives we hold dear – both ours and those of innocent civilians. That may look like a good trade but the legitimate question arises of how long we can keep this up before our economy suffers seriously, and with it our military capability? Particularly when the political realities are such that we cannot cut government services in other areas to compensate for military expenditures.

And there is disturbing evidence that Osama bin Ladin and his cohorts are well aware of this and counting on it.

Iraq is not like Vietnam

The most important difference is, there is no draft. Morally, this matters to those of us who believe passionately that our lives belong to us alone. Personally, it matters to those of us who are deeply insulted by the arrogant assumption by politicians of their right to arbitrarily dispose of our lives as they choose. Practically, it matters in that it deprives the America-hating movement of an army of foot soldiers.

Woven into the fabric of the very concept of consensual government is the principle that not only do we get to help choose it, we get to decide on a very personal level whether it’s worth dying to preserve. Those who made the war in Vietnam, in their arrogance forgot that part of the American national character described by Baron Von Steuben, who trained Washington’s army at the founding of our nation. In a moment of exasperation he exclaimed, “It’s not enough to give an American an order, you have to tell him why!”

Dissent in this war is tolerated to an extraordinary degree. During the Vietnam War, anti-war dissenters were spied on and harassed by all legal and many illegal means. Today their opinions are taken seriously, as dissenting opinions should be in a free society. On university campuses the opposition is not against the Establishment, nowadays they are the establishment and have no fear for their jobs in expressing anti-government opinions, often quite the opposite. Today students and faculty with pro-administration opinions are harassed, ridiculed, rejected for tenure, and increasingly, threatened with physical assault.

In this war, it is consensual government our soldiers are being asked to fight for. Those of us who came of military age during Vietnam remember watching power change hands in a coup and assassinations, followed by almost half a dozen coups before a military strongman emerged, who held power unopposed until the fall of Vietnam. Does anyone seriously wonder why American youths were less than enthusiastic about being told, not asked, to risk death to support that regime?

In Iraq the first order of business was to get an elected government with a written constitution in place. There are many perceived flaws in the process and it could still go horribly wrong, but Vietnam taught us the cost of waiting until “later” to get that job done. The sight of all those dyed fingers lifted defiantly in the air was inspiring to all who sincerely love liberty and wish the people of Iraq well. By now even those Iraqis who quite understandably resent the occupation of their country by a foreign power, must begin to realize that instead of fighting to eject American forces from their country, they can work to establish a stable government of their own choosing, and tell them to leave – if they still want them to.

A plebiscite held to ask them if they want the coalition to stay or leave, may (and I stress may) satisfy Arab conceptions of honor - as well as providng us with a graceful exit that is nor perceived as a rout.

Critics argue that the administration is making the unfounded assumption that everyone actually wants a democratic government, and this is a serious consideration. Our free institutions are based on legal and cultural traditions thousands of years old, which flat do not exist in most of the world. However while many have no strong desire for, or even understanding of free, consensual government it does not follow that they prefer living under one that terrorizes, tortures and murders its citizens at will.

In terms of geopolitics, the situation in Iraq is far different from Vietnam. Vietnam was a minor client state of a rival superpower that the U.S. could not afford to confront directly. Iraq was a major player among hostile Arab nations who resent and fear American world hegemony but cannot confront it directly and can only work covertly against American interests. Vietnam’s patron superpower had less interest in outright victory than they had in keeping the United States engaged in a protracted and expensive war that sapped its strength, created domestic chaos and distracted it from their main interest in Europe.

Iraq is in the geographical center of the struggle against Jihadism. The patrons of fanatical Jihadism are vitally concerned with Iraq and rightfully fearful that a stable, even semi-democratic Iraq would be the beginning of the end of their tyranny and autocracy throughout the Middle East.

Once France was chased out of Vietnam, the European powers could express moral disdain for America’s presence there, but had no financial interest threatened by it. Their realistic concern was that America would be distracted in a theater peripheral to Europe and our will to resist the Soviet’s plans to eventually absorb Western Europe into their empire destroyed.

With Iraq the situation is more complicated. France and Germany’s ox certainly got gored when their cozy financial arrangements with Saddam were trashed. However, in the long-term, a nuclear Iraq or Iran would be a greater threat to them than to America and they are in a far worse position to deal with the threat without the U.S.

Organized opposition to the Vietnam War in America was early on co-opted by a Hard Left cadre who made common cause with Soviet/ Vietnamese communism, which was portrayed as being on the side of workers, women, freethinkers, minorities, homosexuals and whoever else’s cause it was convenient for them to espouse. To this day, the survivors often remain visibly nostalgic about their days in the Movement, which were the most meaningful of their lives. As opposed to the foot soldiers of the Movement who basically just breathed a sigh of relief and got on with their lives once the draft was discontinued.

Today, the Hard Left opposition has made common cause with the Islamists who openly advocate and practice: chattel slavery, the brutal subjection of women, religious persecution, the murder of homosexuals, the extermination of Jews and who despise the multiculturalism of Western intellectuals. To say the least, this casts doubts on the sincerity of their patriotism and concern for human rights and seriously damages their credibility in the eyes of ordinary people with common sense - and even many intellectuals.

The Vietnam War was inarticulately justified, strategically confused and fought by soldiers who, though as valiant as any America ever fielded, could be compelled to serve no more than a one-year tour of duty, which forced the military to fight with a large percentage of inexperienced troops at any given time.

However, the loss of Vietnam forced the military into a radical rethinking of the way free nations conduct warfare. And the evidence indicates that the learning curve is even steeper than before. The modern all-volunteer military is highly competent, flexible, adaptive, forward thinking, and in spite of well-publicized abuses, far less likely to take out rage and frustration on civilians. The My Lai massacre took years of dedicated effort by a few brave individuals to bring to light. The far less serious abuses at Abu Ghraib were brought to light almost immediately by the Army itself and the individuals responsible tried and punished.

All of this justifies cautious optimism, but there are also reasons to be concerned. Precisely because the hysterical anti-American faction of the opposition has drowned out rational voices concerned about Iraq, these serious concerns may not be given the hearing they deserve.

Next: Iraq could be worse than Vietnam.

Friday, October 27, 2006


I've been thinking about a title for the random thoughts posts. "Random thoughts of the day" was derivative of Thomas Sowell's columns "Random Thoughts" and I feel a bit presumptuous treading in that man's footsteps.

Then I remembered an English lesson I used to teach for fun in Eastern Europe; all the words in English meaning different kinds of thinking: cogitating, mullling, musing, pondering, reflecting, etc - and ruminating.

The literal meaning of ruminating is what a cow is doing when chewing the cud. A pretty stupid animal, nonetheless it looks like it is thinking deeply when it stands and chews. There - I've just given people who don't like my opinions a great straight line!

Nevertheless, Ruminations it is.

P.S. I also taught fun lessons on words for different ways to laugh: snicker, titter, giggle, chortle, guffaw, bray, etc, and cry: weep, snivel, sob, whimper, etc.
It was a lot of fun because you can show the meaning by acting it out.

English is a language unusually rich in words for highly specific things. I had occasion to explain the play on words involved in the movie Widows Peak (Joan Plowright, Mia Farrow, Natasha Richardson - quite funny) to a class in Warsaw. One lady looked at me with an amused expression and said, "English is a funny language, it would never occur to us to have a word just for the shape of your hairline!"


The other day my wife took the baby with her to see her best friend, a Mexican woman, and a few of her friends and relatives. We have the youngest baby in the group, so of course I knew it was going to be all about the ladies passing the baby around, taking turns holding and making a fuss over her. It's a woman thing.

I was chuckling at the thought (there's another laugh list item!) when I remembered what a former professor of mine had mentioned in an Osteology class. (Osteology is the study of bones, living or fossil. In Anthropology it includes the study of the comparative skeletal anatomy of the primates.)

At any rate, he mentioned once that humans are the only primates who adopt. There are other animals who can be made to imprint on young not their own - and even on young not of their own species. But that goes on at a level rather below conscious thought, the great apes are just too smart to be fooled that way. So not only do they not adopt, they are often a danger to the young of other mothers in their bands when the environment is under stress, as Jane Goodall first found out observing chimps in Africa.

Only humans go beyond the needs of kin survival and act to insure the survival of the most helpless members of the human community, whether related or not. That's pretty marvelous to think about.

It's also pretty sickening to think about some godawful countries who prevent the adoption of children in unbelievably miserable circumstances by well-off Westerners because they are embarrassed by it.

The West: summing up so far

“How… can people like Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore tally the sum of people killed in all the conflicts since the end of WWII and lay all of them at the feet of America? Why else could people blandly watch Bowling for Columbine total hundreds and thousands and millions dead, all hung around the neck of America, without so much as a mention, not a hint, not a peep of the words Soviet Union? Oh, and give it an Academy Award, and claim it is “the greatest documentary ever made.”

How, in the name of God, is such a thing possible?”

Blogger Bill Whittle: Eject, Eject, Eject

“We live in the first civilization known to history in which a systematic assault on the core values of that civilization is institutionalized in the leading sectors of society. Quite apart from our enemies, we are at war with ourselves. This is true in everything that counts: religion, culture, economics, politics, demographics, law.”

John Derbyshire, Ten Unpleasant Truths about the World (NRO)

“As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Abraham Lincoln, Address to the Young Men’s Liceum at Springfield 1851

As I hoped, these essays on Western Civilization and its Discontents have generated some good comments and discussion. Several have taken me to task for focusing on the US rather than the West as a whole. Thanks for your patience, we're getting to this. I'll go into this in more detail, but I believe that the US is both the most extreme exemplar of what is unique and valuable about the West - and of what ails it. Besides, I couldn't resist the play on words from Freud.

A great many commentators have detailed and condemned with indignation, incomprehension and sick horror the phenomenon consideration in these essays, to a far greater extent than I have patience for. This is an attempt to understand the root causes of a phenomenon that must seem incomprehensible to any truly objective observer, the hypothetical “anthropologist from Mars”, to answer the above question.

I believe I've addressed it with a fair degree of objectivity. This is definitely not to say that I am non-evaluative or morally neutral. One of the underlying assumptions is that there has been a fatal confusion between “objective” and “non-evaluative” in the social sciences. Nor will I pretend to represent a multicultural, non-Western perspective because in fact, the intellectual tools necessary to achieve any kind of genuine objectivity are specifically Western inventions.

The first step to objectivity is describing the thing under discussion without false or overgeneralization, in clear, simple language without appeal to emotion. (Perhaps easier said than done.)

To begin with some definitions and premises:

By civilization I mean a group of different nations and cultures sharing common roots and a set of values and assumptions that set them apart from other collections of nations, i.e. Western Civilization vs. Islamic, Asian/ Confucian etc, for our purpose specifically those expressed in their political/ legal institutions and their notions of justice. Civilizations can often be pragmatically defined as the set of speakers of a family of related languages.

Western Civilization can for practical puroses be defined as the collection of nations and cultures represented by: the speakers of the Teutonic and Romance family of languages, some of the Slavic languages and a collections of smaller linguistic groupss such as the Greeks, Baltics and Finns, and the Celtic peoples (who, though very numerous, have almost all become speakers of English, French and Spanish).

The twin roots of Western Civilization lie in the histories of two small cultures living on the margins of far greater, now disappeared civilizations: the Greeks and the Hebrews. From these came a collection of concepts about the value and worth of the individual human being, freedom, justice, tolerance, rationality, equality, reciprocity of rights and obligation, the dignity of labor etc. that came to be honored with at least lip service, by all Western cultures. (These terms all carry an emotional freight that often make them difficult to discuss, or even define in a way acceptable to all. However the point is that our civilization considers them good things – by no means a universally shared assumption. Nor is this to discount the contribution of ancient Germanic and Celtic concepts of law.)

That the implementation of these values in the political and cultural institutions of various peoples is distributed differently among the Western nations, roughly on geographical lines, running more strongly to the Northwest of Europe and North America– hence the term “Western” Civilization.

Nota Bene: It is worth noting that in the callow youth of our civilization, the self-definition of the “West” was in reference to far more powerful, sophisticated and influential civilizations lying to our East.

Caveat: To enumerate certain values as Western (freedom, individualism etc) is not to claim that they do not exist in other cultures. “Freedom is the most universal of human aspirations” (Eric Hoffer). Rather, that Western cultures have had the most success embedding these values in their political, legal and cultural institutions.

That the greatest degree of implementation of these concepts in the political, legal and cultural institutions of our nations is within the subset of Western European cultures that are the English-speaking peoples (whether by origin or adoption), and that the fullest implementation of these concepts in our institutions (on a large scale at least) is in the United States.

That a large segment of the intellectual community of the West in general and America in particular, is vocally unhappy with Western Civilization and America, more than can be explained by a just and reasoned criticism of its admitted faults and weaknesses, and earnestly desires its destruction – or a change of its basic institutions so fundamental that it amounts to the same thing.

Corollary: Though there are a lot of European and American Europhile intellectuals who despise America and exalt Europe (or parts thereof), what they hate about America is that which was derived and distilled from the most characteristic elements of European culture. Ergo, we are talking about the same thing; America-hatred is part of the same phenomenon as hatred of Western Civilization.

That this phenomenon exists mostly, but by no means exclusively, on the political Left, and overwhelmingly among the most affluent, best educated classes in Europe and America.

Stated baldly, this seems seriously weird. The arguably most fortunate people in the history of the human race, who claim to have the highest concern for the welfare of their fellow human beings, are in revolt against the institutions that made them the best off human beings on the planet and stand the best chance of spreading these benefits universally.

These essays explore possible explanations for this phenomenon and pose certain questions about its consequences.

What were are exploring is the self-hating American or member of Western civilization who loudly and conspicuously trumpets his hatred of the civilization that nurtured him and enabled him and anyone of comparatively modest means to enjoy a standard of living beyond the reach of kings a mere century ago. We may understand and even sympathize with the feelings of a member of a despised and persecuted group who wishes he were not what he was born, but what are we to make of someone who claims to fiercely resent being born favored by fortune?

What are we to make of tenured professors at prestigious universities, with lavish salaries and low work loads, who accuse the society that rewarded them thusly with being oppressive, criminal and worthy of destruction? Who openly cheer attacks on their country and the murder of their countrymen? Who though maintaining a tight hold on their position as gatekeepers to their profession, welcome into their ranks former radical terrorists who spent years as fugitives from justice for bombings, bank robberies and murder? What can explain best selling writers who condemn the culture of the society that buys their books? Movie producers and actors who portray the economic system that enriched them as irredeemably corrupt? Wealthy capitalists who admire Socialism and love to hobnob with dictators who, were it in their power, would confiscate all of their wealth and send them to gulags or to death?

The words and deeds of anti-American Americans and anti-Western Europeans have been well-documented. What hasn’t been addressed objectively so far is the question, for God’s sake why?

Specifically, why is it that a fair number of people who can be counted among the most fortunate in the history of the human race, in terms of easy access to both the necessities of life and an unparalleled array of luxuries plus fame, status and positions of the highest prestige, proclaim their loathing of the institutions that placed them in this apparently enviable position? And in many cases, not only proclaim their hatred of their country and civilization, but actively work for its downfall.

Like all non-trivial questions, this leads to a number of further questions before any real answers can be suggested. To begin with, is this phenomenon really confined to our civilization or does it occur in one form or another in every civilization advanced enough to produce a leisured intellectual class? Is this simply one of civilization’s discontents?

Secondly, is this a single phenomenon or a number of different phenomena with similar characteristics? Among the critics of America and all things American are: Europhile intellectuals who profess a snobbish distaste for American culture, or deny that there is such a thing; intellectuals who despise all things Western and America in particular as the greatest exemplar of Western civilization; and at the furthest extreme, intellectuals who hate, in order, the human species, industrial civilization as a despoiler of nature and oppressor of other, more worthy species, the West in particular as the creator of industrial civilization and America as the most industrialized of modern nations.

Further, if all of these are different expressions of a single phenomenon, does it proceed from a single source, or are the motives as varied as their expression?

And ultimately, does it matter? Do the fulminations of a small class of intellectuals have any real and lasting effect on the larger culture at all? If so, how much? And is it necessarily entirely negative or can it be seen as an extreme form of the self-criticism necessary for a healthy dynamic culture? Or is it a strong indication of cultural decline, perhaps even the death rattle of a dying culture? If so, is this a fatal flaw in human nature and are we are doomed to destroy every attempt to rise above barbarism?

These and future essays attempt to deal with these questions. The speculations offered herein are just that, speculations. The 19th and 20th centuries were plagued by pseudo-scientific attempts to reduce human behavior to a set of easily described principles. I make no such claim. The difference between pseudo-science and real science is, that the former is an organized system of answers for everything while the latter is a mechanism for generating meaningful questions. We may wind up with more questions than answers.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Western Civilization and Its Discontents: Part 3

Self-hating Americans: Unsatisfactory Explanations

Liberal Guilt

Probably the most common explanation for Left radicalism, and its program to overturn and level American society, is “Liberal guilt”. Though this attitude has had a lot of brilliant and witty fun poked at it, it at least concedes the good intentions of the bearer.

The thesis is that the fortunate children of wealth and privilege, upon encountering the reality of the poor, unprivileged and oppressed, feel guilty at their unearned fortune and embrace redistributionist and leveling ideologies, even if they are ineffective or downright counterproductive.

This model doesn’t really work for me, based on an impression that cannot be empirically verified but also on behavior, which can.

The impression I get from these people is not guilt, but smug. A condescending, patronizing, self-satisfied, holier-than-thou attitude that just grates on the nerves.

On the Left this is exemplified by one of the most irritating bumper sticker I have ever seen; “Democrats care” – with it’s implied self-righteous moralizing that you don’t, because you disagree with their obviously pure and holy plans to set the world to rights.

What’s odd is that they don’t see that their attitude is the exact equivalent of the more obnoxious elements of the Religious Right, who like to introduce themselves at the earliest opportunity with, “I’m a Christian.” - implying that you are obviously not. The difference is that you are scarcely going to be offended if you are in fact not a Christian.

Clearly, most people do not see it that way. The majority of African-Americans for example, do not seem to agree with my impression that they are being talked down to and patronized by White Leftists who see them as incapable of achieving better things by their own efforts without massive intervention on their behalf by their (White) betters. To me these ideologues possess much the same attitude as the pre Civil War slave owners who professed to believe that their “peculiar institution” was actually for the benefit of their childlike charges.

Questions of motive are always speculative. What is not speculative is behavior. Wealthy leftists are not known for redistributing their own personal fortunes but for voting to redistribute those of others. Nor are they less likely to take advantage of the many perfectly legal loopholes in the tax code to avoid paying any more tax than they have to. Writers who profess a loathing for American culture and foreign policy have yet to organize a boycott of US government grant money for the arts.

Where their private, voluntary charity mostly seems to go, aside from funding institutions dedicated to promoting their political and social agenda (which means in effect, paying the salaries of intellectuals of their own kind), is to the traditional pursuits of elites throughout history: funding high culture and scholarship that is of little immediate interest or benefit to the struggling masses, except insofar as it goes to the worthy end of finding and helping gifted artists and scholars from the lower classes. This is a not inconsiderable contribution to the overall welfare of society but I've seen no evidence that this behavior correlates with political opinion, (If there were, it surely would have been trumpeted from the housetops by now, the fact that it has not might make it worthwhile to look into whether there is a negative correlation.)

Historically, members of elites distressed by the conditions at the bottom of society would follow the tradition of a life of service. In England surplus sons of the aristocracy often found meaningful work in the civil service, army or ministry, working at socially useful but low-paid employment. For Catholics a more rigorous life could be found in monasteries and convents dedicated to good works. In America well-off people with a social conscience have at various times staffed voluntary organizations dedicated to social work in the slums, educating newly-freed slaves, doing Ethnographic recording among American Indians etc.

Modern American elites who profess a dedication to service to humanity do their good works from corner offices, not monastic cells or Settlement Houses. There is rarely if ever, any permanent sacrifice of comfort and lifestyle perks. One sees condescension without a trace of noblesse oblige, conspicuous professions of concern for the lower orders without any attempt to make the actual acquaintance of any of them.(1)

The Disappointed Idealist Explanation

“The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naive and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.”
H.L. Mencken

Most of us of my generation who have worn the “radical” label, at some point in their lives have had a disillusionment experience. That is, after being taught in school what a great country this is, they discover that the reality does not live up to the ideal.

This is the disappointed idealist explanation, that the shock of finding out about the reality of poverty, ongoing injustice, abuse of power, corruption in the institutions etc, enrages the youth and transforms him into a radical.

This explanation may have been useful in Mencken’s time, but it fails on several points in ours. In the first part of the 20th century there was far more of a broad-based working class radicalism. We can trace how it faded as economic conditions improved and as foreign radicals, such as gravitated to the Wobblies (2), became naturalized and discovered that they could vote their convictions.

And among those of us who experienced that shock, the resentment against the culture that bred us was usually short-lived, fading with age and experience as we developed a tolerance for human nature and its imperfections.

Francis Bacon observed that “A little study of philosophy inclineth a young man towards Atheism, but deep study inclineth him back towards Religion.” Likewise, a little study of American history may repel a young person with its stories of slavery, intolerance, bigotry and war, but a deep study of world history puts it into perspective and shows how much progress has been made in comparison with what has passed elsewhere.

However, Left radicalism among the intellectuals persists, no matter how much economic and social conditions have improved in America, no matter how murderous attempts to create the good society turned out abroad and even seems to have become more and more hysterically high-strung.

Most people grow out of the shock of finding that the people and institutions they revere have feet of clay and come to a mature acceptance that judgment must be based on what people and institutions are on balance, taken as a whole over time, with due appreciation for the weaknesses of human nature.

Further, at the core of the America-hating Left are a group of “red diaper babies” who grew up in households steeped in Marxist thought. America-hating is not rebellion at all in this group, but rigid conformity to the subculture they were raised in which has far stronger social sanctions against deviance than exist in Middle American society(3). The true rebels among them are people such as the “Second Thoughts” group who have re-examined their experience of America and found it better than any alternative available.

Furthermore, today public education more often teaches a view of America as a seriously flawed country (as opposed to the view of a great country with serious flaws that prevailed a generation ago) even to the grade school level. Anti-American Americans of this generation are not rebels but the thoroughly indoctrinated.

And the notion that American schools and institutions previously portrayed America through rose-colored glasses was always an oversimplification. There were indeed history textbooks that gave a Margaret Mitchell “happy darkies” view of slavery for sure, I remember them – but there was also Huckleberry Finn in every English class with its vivid portrayal of the anguish of a man reduced to a state of property. (For that matter, I read Langston Hughs in grade school, only nobody thought to point out that he was a Negro. I didn’t even realize this until years later.)

Furthermore, the disappointed idealist model cannot explain why someone distressed by the failures of America would embrace the vilest bloody-handed tyrannies as a better alternative and deny, excuse or actively justify their crimes against humanity. It does not explain Xenophilia.

Nor can it explain why, if nobody would think it strange that a Russian could love his country, it’s history, literature and art, while loathing communism and the anguish it brought to his country, that an American should condemn his country as irretrievably base because of crimes that are certainly not worse than those of the Soviet Union or Maoist China.

Thomas Jefferson loved America passionately, while being acutely aware of its crimes and injustice. “When I know that there is a just God, I tremble for my country.” is inscribed on his monument opposite the Declaration of Independence.

With all due respect to a great writer, this explanation fails for me on several counts, an important one being the example of Mencken himself. On seeing the dark underside of America close-up, he did not become a radical he became a cynic.


1) Example abound in history: There is no evidence that Karl Marx ever visited an actual factory, in spite of repeated invitations from his partner and patron Engels to visit some of his properties. Jane Fonda went on record claiming widespread local starvation on a visit to Louisiana, without ever having had a look at the area she was describing, or for that matter offering to help set up a soup kitchen.

Even weirder, when I was living in Sofia, Bulgaria there was (and I believe still is) a problem with large numbers of wild dogs that roam around the city in packs, begging at outdoor cafes and raiding trash cans. I was told there that a woman had been elected mayor of the city on the platform that she would establish an animal control department which would catch the female dogs and sterilize them by injection – a process cheaper and easier than surgical sterilization, but inherently more dangerous for the animal. According to my informants, Jane Fonda somehow got wind of this and mounted a protest against the “cruelty” of this measure, ultimately pressuring them to drop the plan leaving Sofia with it’s dog problem unsolved, all without ever having visited the country or witnessed the inconvenience of living with its problem.

I was told though that, "The problem was a lot better when we had all the Vietnamese workers living here." (For a short-lived plan to build a subway.)

2) IWW or Industrial Workers of the World, a largely Anarcho-syndicalist organization.

3) In 1992 in then-Czechoslovakia I met a Slovakian immigrant to the United States who told me the story of his wife, an American-born “red-diaper baby” raised in a Communist household. Upon graduation from college her family gave her a graduation present, a trip to the Soviet Union. Within two weeks she realized that the USSR was anything but the “workers’ paradise” and attempted to tell her family this when she returned. They cut her cold and have not spoken to her to this day.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Random thoughts of the day

Last night we visited some of my oldest friends, a mother and her daughter who I've known literally since she was born. We went over to introduce them to our new baby.

Obviously men and women see the beauty of their own sex differently. As we were driving home, my wife remarked that the daughter was "so beautiful, she has such lovely skin and she's so funny and witty". Of course, what I was thinking was that she'd grown up so beautiful and had such a great figure, like the proverbial brick $%*^house. For the record though, I also think she's funny and witty. So is my wife, and I really like that in a woman.


I have noticed a thing. If you take sides in an argument people really feel passionately about, half of the people will wind up hating you. However, if you try to be objective about it, likely all of them will.


I have a university email account here, which I use as little as possible and will close down as soon as I'm out of here. A growing majority of the emails I get are ads for, 1) viagra-type medications, followed by 2) fake Rolexes, followed by 3) stock tips. What the hell does that say about the present college generation? Not a rhetorical question, I wish I knew.

I've just been told that the university IT sevice spam filter screens out more than a million such messages a day. What we're gettting is what gets through, and recently the email has been malfuncioning (attachments not attaching etc) and often shuts down altogether.


Yesterday we kept our 5-year-old home from preschool because he was coughing and had a runny nose. He complained, "But I WANT to go to school!" I wonder how long that is going to last?


Every now and then I really wonder what my wife and I have in common. (Not often, mostly I just thank my lucky stars she sees something in me she likes.) We come from different countries, different languages and different generations. Best I can figure out is that to begin with we are both military brats. That seems to give us something in common that transcends the specifics of which military. Our children have grandfathers who were military officers on opposite sides of the Cold War and we both appreciate the irony of that. More importantly, we both have a tragic sense of life which gets reflected in our tastes in literature and sense of humor.

Maybe it really is true, women love a man who makes them laugh.


Last night we stayed up later than we should have to watch the old black and white movie, Captains Courageous, from the book by Rudyard Kipling, with Freddy Bartholemew, Spencer Tracy (who got an Oscar for his role), John Carradine and Mickey Rooney. Very early on my wife said, "Oh I get it, he (spoiled rich kid) is going to get picked up by the fishermen who'll straighten him out." Predictable of course. Enjoyable just the same.

Now I'll really have to reread the book, but it struck me that there were some significant differences. The movie was mostly about the relationship between Tracy's Portugese fisherman and the boy. I recall the book as being more about the relationship between the two boys. The movie portrayed the boy as a spoiled sissy, I believe the book made him out to be more thuggish.

The movie father (Melvin Douglas) was rich and sophisticated, the father in the book was a rough, uneducated man who had made himself rich by his own efforts. Though Melvin Douglas played his part really well, there was a point lost about how deeply the father felt his lack of education and polish and knew that the people around him scorned him behind his back. What was nicely played was how when the father complained to the school authorities about the boy's thrashing at the hands of a schoolmate, they gently straightened him out and told him that the kid had it coming - and he agreed. Dare I say you wouldn't see that in a movie today? And would anyone believe that a private school would take that line with a rich benefactor today?

Alll in all though, it was a great movie. It's strange to realize that it was made only a year or so from the date of Kipling's death.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Western Civilization and its Discontents: Part 2

The Founders

“Many clever men like you have trusted to civilization. Many clever Babylonians, many clever Egyptians, many clever men at the end of Rome. Can you tell me, in a world that is flagrant with the failures of civilization, what there is particularly immortal about yours?”
G K Chesterton

Every country and every culture has a role of founders, historical or mythological, that to a great degree defines the sense of identity of the group. A living, written language generally has writers who are recognized as the founders of its literature, religious sects have their founding prophets, preachers or demigods and a nation has historical or mythological founders who are recognized for the establishment of a dynasty, their country’s borders or of its political institutions.

If the new order proves stable, if the language settles into a form that is comprehensible to subsequent generations, if a religion maintains a consistent central dogma over time or the political institutions of a country keep operating in a tolerably smooth manner, succeeding generations have reason to be grateful. Founders are revered because they create islands of stability in the turbulent sea of history, lengths of time in which generations can raise their children reasonably secure from the worst that history can throw at them.

These founders occupy the highest places of honor in a nation for its entire subsequent history. But as Lincoln points out, once the nation has been founded and its institutions put on a stable footing, those places are occupied forever - until the nation falls and a new one founded.

A slightly lesser position of honor is occupied by the “second founders”, great reformers and codifiers of the law. Again, how many times can this happen in the lifetime of a nation or culture? How could people conduct their affairs with laws in a constant, or even frequent, state of flux? As Friedrik Von Hayek pointed out, beyond a certain minimum, consistency and stability in the laws is more important than that they be perfectly just.

There is a story that the Emperor Justinian, determined to go down in history as Justinian the Great (which in fact, he did) actually studied the history of the various Greats and determined that what caused rulers to be so called were, 1) great reforms of religion and the laws, 2) massive and conspicuous public works and monuments and 3) wars of conquest. He determined to undertake all three and both bankrupted the state and destroyed a couple of promising nations in Carthage and the Gothic Kingdom of Italy. (For a modern example one might reflect on Lyndon Johnson and his massive “War on Poverty” project and his attempts to personally manage the war in Vietnam.)

Today we see a massive assault on our historical identity by an intellectual establishment through the educational system that was created to socialize our children and the children of new Americans with the values, traditions and national mythology that make up a common American identity. An assault that goes far beyond a judicious criticism of the wrongs done in the history of our nation and its failures to live up to the ideals of our founding.

If we accept that America is at least no worse than other nations (though many claim that it is), what is the problem with it? The conclusion seems inescapable that for many what they hate about America’s institutions is that they did not create them.

Looked at from this perspective, assaults on our literary heritage, begin to make sense. The condemnation of the traditional Western canon as the work of “dead White males” for example. In the two centuries between the time of Chaucer and Shakespeare the English language changed more than it has in the four centuries since Shakespeare. The creation of a body of literature in the plays, and perhaps the King James Bible, seems to have set a standard for the language from which it has not deviated into incomprehensibility. That is to say, Shakespeare was the Founder of a commonwealth of literature and occupies a pinnacle that none can aspire to. To approach those heights, Shakespeare must be deposed (or “deconstructed”) – or the language must be changed beyond mutual intelligibility with that of his time. If Mark Twain was the founder of American literature (as Ernest Hemmingway stated) then no one will ever challenge his place. Great writers will continue to emerge in every generation, but America as we know it will never be young again.

The United States, in spite of Old World condescension, is as nation-states go, quite an old one in terms of the continuity of its institutions. Consider that there has never been a national election cancelled, a coup d’etat, or an interruption in the orderly succession of offices in our entire history, then ask how many other countries can make that claim?

Religious reform is not an option for greatness in America. New religions and sects are established often, and almost never achieve more than cult status. (The last notable major exception being the establishment of the Mormon church and its founding of the state of Utah as a virtual sectarian fief within the United States. Note how quickly it was absorbed into the political structure of the Union and mainstream American culture.) Reform of the mainstream religions (in the direction of tolerance for what were previously considered anathemas: women priests, homosexual marriage and clergy etc) proceeds apace – as does the wholesale abandonment of those reforming churches. Without an established religion or even strong social pressure to be, or at least appear religious, the highest distinction a religious leader can aspire to is that of media evangelist, providing a kind of religious entertainment with a social influence about on par with a pop star.

Massive public works are another outlet for seekers of high distinction and there are a lot of highways, parks, buildings etc with the names of public officials one them. However distinction here suffers from the sheer number of such projects, the fact that private enterprise regularly produces such, and after all, it’s hard to top such accomplishments as the Panama Canal or the moon landings.

Military command does not seem attractive to those of towering ambition in our society. Democratic societies generally do not war on one another and do not seem to have the patience for prolonged occupation and exploitation of conquered peoples. (The remarkable thing about the British Empire in historical context is not how extensive it was, or how quickly it was built, but how quickly the British divested themselves of it when given the excuse.) Military command has been successfully divorced from political power in America and most of the West and generals seldom become presidents of the United States. And our political leaders never wear uniforms while in public office, even if they have reserve commissions.

The fact is, that in spite of Leftist/ populist rhetoric, America is the paradise of the common man - but hell on earth for those whose ambition yearns for the status of Founders, demigods and Greats.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Western Civilization and its Discontents: Part 1

As I indicated in my last post, the fact that a great many of the most privileged members of our country and our civilization hate and resent it is beyond dispute. Their words and, more importantly, their actions give them away no matter how much they protest. An observer from the hypothetical "man from Mars" point of view would have to consider this seriously weird, if not insane.

Why on earth would people who are arguably the luckiest individuals in the history of the human race, hate and resent their good fortune?

High-minded explanations have been advanced, usually involving guilt for the quality and comfort of their lives in the face of the poverty and misery of so many others on earth, the crimes of America in particular and the West in general, etc. None of these explanations are satisfactory and I will deal with them in another place.

Two men, living centuries apart, may have foreseen the course of our civilization. Francis Bacon defined the scale of honors available to men as members of a society and Abraham Lincoln foresaw what the thirst for those honors would do to it.

"The true marshalling of the degrees of sovereign honor, are these: In the first place are conditores imperiorum, founders of states and commonwealths; such as were Romulus, Cyrus, Caesar, Ottoman, Ismael. In the second place are legislatores, lawgivers; which are also called second founders, or perpetui principes, because they govern by their ordinances after they are gone; such were Lycurgus, Solon, Justinian, Eadgar, Alphonsus of Castile, the Wise, that made the Siete Partidas. In the third place are liberatores, or salvatores, such as compound the long miseries of civil wars, or deliver their countries from servitude of strangers or tyrants; as Augustus Caesar, Vespasianus, Aurelianus, Theodoricus, King Henry the Seventh of England, King Henry the Fourth of France. In the fourth place are propagatores or propugnatores imperii; such as in honorable wars enlarge their territories, or make noble defence against invaders. And in the last place are patres patriae; which reign justly, and make the times good wherein they live. Both which last kinds need no examples, they are in such number."

Francis Bacon; On Honor

"That our government should have been maintained in its original form from its establishment until now, is not much to be wondered at. It had many props to support it through that period, which now are decayed, and crumbled away. Through that period, it was felt by all, to be an undecided experiment; now, it is understood to be a successful one. Then, all that sought celebrity and fame, and distinction expected to find them in the success of that experiment. Their all was staked upon it: - their destiny was inseparably linked with it. Their ambition aspired to display before an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better, than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves. If they succeeded, they were to be immortalized; their names were to be transferred to counties and cities, and rivers and mountains; and to be revered and sung, and toasted through all time. If they failed, they were to be called knaves and fools, and fanatics for a fleeting hour; then to sink and be forgotten. They succeeded. The experiment is successful: and thousands have won their deathless names in making it so. But the game is caught; and I believe it is true, that with the catching, end the pleasures of the chase. This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! Think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon? Never! Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen."

Abraham Lincoln, Address to the Young Men’s Liceum of Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838

Any deep study of world history shows that Western Civilization is indeed exceptional, and that America is the most extreme exemplar of what is unique in that civilization. No one seriously disputes this. There are those who say that America is uniquely guilty and destructive but no one says that America is overrated and made too much of, whether for good or ill.

That very uniqueness raises a disturbing question, is it stable in the long run? Civilization is about ten thousand years old, but industrial-technological civilization is only centuries old. Free, open and democratic civilization, as opposed to the “brute simplicity of Caesarism”, seems to both foster it and be dependant on it for any great degree of population. It cannot yet be taken for granted that this kind of civilization can maintain itself as long as earlier forms have.

A lot of space in The Federalist Papers is devoted to explaining why Montesquie’s contention that a republic can only be stable on a small scale did not apply to the proposed United States of America. While the experiment has succeeded to a degree even the Founders may not have anticipated, we have now arrived at point where we have a more-or-less republican form of government and a population of about three hundred million. This is without precedent in history and there is nothing to indicate that this state is stable in the long run.

So given the unprecedented bounty of wealth and freedom of our civilization, and the uncertainty of its permanence, why is it hated by the people who most benefit from it?

The answer seems to be, because they did not create it themselves.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Radical chic is in style this year

Attorney Lynne Stewart got 28 months for relaying instructions from her client, the "Blind Sheik" to his followers. That's a lot less than corporate executives routinely get for financial malfeasance. And it's a hell of a lot less than she'd have gotten if her client had been merely a mobster rather than a terrorist.

She has however, been disbarred. Poor woman will have to live off the lecture circuit, at least until some university offers her a nice high-pay low-work chairmanship in "social justice something-or-other".

The judge (whom everyone on the Right has gleefully pointed out was a Clinton appointee) cited her recent cancer and previous good works. Another Clinton appointee went to bat for her at her sentencing hearing. George Soros contributed a reported $20,000 for her defense.

Are we beginning to see a pattern here?

The Left, from Hard to just that side of Moderate, obviously sees America as broken beyond the capacity of reform to fix it. The Right sees it as imperfect but fixable. Libertarians are predictably, split between the extremes. (There is an America-hating Right sect though. As they say, extremes meet around the other end of the circle.)

The Right wraps itself in the flag, the Left reacts indignantly to the charge that they are not patriotic and hate America. Well damn it, if you spend time ridiculing the symbols of patriotism and embracing people and causes dedicated to the destruction of quaint American institutions such as say, the Constitution, you've got to expect that kind of thing.

BTW, "quaint" describes rather well the attitude towards the Constitution of a fair number of young people I've talked to. Not a hostility so much as a, "Well, it was a really good idea at the time but don't you think it's a bit old-fashioned and out of date these days?" attitude. I have no idea how common that attitude is among the current college-age generation - and I'm afraid to ask.

We've all heard the expression "self-hating Jew" and someone who is "ashamed they are Black", usually used to dismiss the opinions of someone who is perceived as being outside the mainstream of their demographic group. (And it really cracks me up to see middle-class WASPs applying these kind of labels, but I digress.) Why don't we hear about the "self-hating American" or "self-hating WASP"? A far more common phenomenon.

(WASP is by the way, the last nasty racial slur it is socially acceptable to use. And for the record, I'm not one. I'm an Anglo-Celt (with a few exotic touches) and get indignant when you can't see the difference. Maybe I'll even sue you for it.)

It has been well-documented that native Americans who hate America tend strongly to come from privileged classes. Even the 30s generation of "red diaper babies" raised in immigrant families benefited enormously from American society, however close to the bottom they started. Likewise, Jihadist terrorists come largely from affluent families and are pretty intimately familiar with Western culture - or how else could they operate in our countries?

The question that should automatically occur to any observer is, for God's sake why?

Well, I believe that two men, living centuries apart, both saw why and warned us about it and I'll deal with this in a future post.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Weird America

By now I suppose it's no secret that I'm an unabashed Western Civilization loyalist and do not regard the label "American" conjoined with "patriot" as a disgrace. I've written about criticism of America and Americans that I think is dumb, but there are things you can say about America that are not so stupid.

Here http://www.commondreams.org/views06/1013-31.htm you can find a view of America from a European viewpoint. Full disclosure, my wife and I know and like Brigitte Schön, my wife laughed her ass off and said, "I agree with everything she says!" Birgitte asks some embarrassing questions about Americans, such as:

"What is wrong about natural air in a home?

"What strikes every European in a mostly negative way is the constant and ubiquitous use of air conditioning in America. The outside temperature has become completely irrelevant for the use of AC, it seems. It is simply used ALL THE TIME.

"This leads to highly irritating situations. I have to take along a jacket or a sweater when going to restaurants or the movies in places where the outside temperature is 100° and more in order to avoid a cold."

"What's wrong about being in touch with nature?

"America has a spectacular nature, and lots of it, since it is – by the standards of the rest of the world – sparsely populated, with the exception of the coasts. It is sad to watch how little Americans seem to want to have any interaction with this great wealth."

My wife just woke up and I had to break the news to her that the University housing administration left a notice that they are going to cut down some of the lovely tall cedar trees around our apartment. Apparently they've been identified as a "potential fire hazard" and dare I guess that it's a liability issue?

"Oh darn it, what an American thing to do!" she exclaimed indignantly.

Showing my wife and family around this country has made me see it with new eyes. I'd heard about the controversy over SUVs. We both think they're pretty cool ourselves. "But," Monika asked. "why is every one we see spotlessly clean? I thought they were supposed to be for off-road? And why is it that every time I see one, the driver is talking on his or her cell phone?" I dunno, beats me.

Then there was the time in Wall-Mart around Halloween when we passed a woman with a boy. The boy was asking why they couldn't have Halloween and the mother shouted, "Cause that's the DEVIL'S holiday!" She still repeats that and cracks up from time to time.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Life in the past lane

Yesterday I finally took my family to a Society for Creative Anachronism event. I'd promised Monika I would since we first went to the Norman, Oklahoma Medieval Fair.

I hadn't played SCA in about twenty years, since I got serious about my Masters degree study then went to live in Poland after I got it. It was a great chance to look up some old friends, and old is no idle adjective these days! We bought Monika a very nice period dress for cheap and got Jerzy a costume too. I went in a Kendo/ Kenjutsu outfit complete with Samurai sword.

The nice thing about "Anachronism" is that with my Celtic persona I just had to explain, "I've been traveling."

There are actually quite a few medieval recreation groups in Poland and some of Monika's friends were involved in them. However, so far they don't form a nationwide organization but are mostly local and sometimes cooperate to put on large-scale events like the yearly recreation of the Battle of Grunwald (1410, Poles and Lithuanians versus the Teutonic Knights). Polish groups also do worthy projects like adopting a castle or national historical site and work on their preservation and upkeep.

Great fun was had by all. The baby got fussed over a lot. (Old-timers would expect to meet Malcolm with a beautiful girl on his arm, and were not disappointed, though this was not quite what they expected!) The boy found a plastic sword and a friend with one who enjoyed whacking them together and playing pirates. My wife was delighted, "He gets to be himself for a change!" Nobody gets irritated when kids are rambunctious at SCA events. As well as old friends, I got to meet the children of old friends. Playing SCA is a family tradition for many.

There are drawbacks of course. SCA is a very time-consuming hobby, I probably won't ever get back to the level of activity I had in younger days. And for some, SCA is a substitute for upward socio-economic mobility, their ambition is absorbed in their hobby circle. A friend of mine once remarked that this was probably the largest collection of above-average-bright underemployed people you could find. Though that seems less evident these days and the level of maturity seems markedly higher than I remember - perhaps a function of age, both the organization's and the populace's.

But, it has a lot of things to recommend it, such as:

- People making their own entertainment, rather than sitting in front of the box and waiting to be entertained. There's lots of crafts activity and things like period dancing.

- Large events are usually at campsites where kids can run free with other kids, while everybody keeps half an eye on them. Strangers stand out because they are not in costume.

- Since the subject material is so broad, everybody can become an acknowledged expert on something. Monika became an expert to a fellow who wanted to create a Slavic persona and needed a name. He was delighted to find that Kazimierz (Casimir) means "disturber of the peace" and together they decided he was Kazimierz Niedzwiedz ("bear").

- People tend to create a persona that is a reflection of their ego ideal. For some, this kind of role-playing can help them become more like the person they want to be. (Of course, there are also some for whom their ego ideal is a creep too.)

- Manly sports for part-timers. Combat sport for young and old with rattan weapons and (a new development since I've been gone) rapier matches with steel rapier foils and dagger, buckler, mailed glove etc. (Something I had been urging for some time, it was once a feature of fencing schools before the First World War but fell into disuse. It's also something women are better able to participate in.) There are tournaments for rank and office, but it still remains something folks do just for the love of a good scrap with friends. It hasn't succumbed to the level of seriousness to the point where it is no longer a game, sportsmanship goes out the window and the older and less fit can't play anymore.

There are lots of choices to make among recreation groups. If we ever live in the Rocky Mountain states, I'd love to get into a Mountain Man group. My father was in a Revolutionary War group and there are very large Civil War groups in quite a few places.

The best thing about all this is, it's a family thing. Kids play an active part in it - and best of all, they learn that fun can be had away from an electical outlet.

I know that this is not just an American institution, but I wonder if there is any historical precendent in the pre-modern age for this kind of entertainment?

Lord Malcolm Wandersfar, aka Malcolm Longsword, aka Malcolm the Morally Handicapped

Saturday, October 14, 2006

American exceptionalism

The other day my wife asked me, "What are the Minutemen?" So I explained that they are a volunteer organization that watches the Mexican-American border and reports illegals entering the US to the Border Patrol. I added that the name of the organization is, perhaps unfortunately, the same as that of a proto-"militia" group that existed for a while in the 60s but that this bunch is going out of their way to avoid a vigilante image. They never go armed for example.

"So why do you ask?" Because she saw an news program about them which derided them as a bunch of racist nuts.

We also saw that an indignant Mexico is thinking about taking the case of the proposed border fence to the UN.

What I'm wondering about is, does anybody see how seriously nutty this fuss is? Every country in the world, without exception, regards their right to control their own borders as a given. Heck, it just about defines what a country is!

Mind you, this is entirely separate from the issue of what you think immigration policy ought to be. My wife is a Polish citizen and her best friends here are Mexican and Kenyan, who are in my humble opinion the kind of people who will make fine Americans.

America, it seems, has to be the exception. According to some, we have no right to ask anyone about their right to be here. Nor do we ask if the policy of their country of origin is reciprocal. Can I just waltz into Mexico, settle down, get a job etc without permission and documentation? (Do I really have to answer that one? OK, the answer is No Way! Furthermore, a foreigner cannot buy real estate outright but only 99 year leases last I looked.)

Reminds me of a conversation I had almost twenty years ago with an Anthro grad student. This fellow was looking for some previously unblamed White folks to indict and came up with the Swedes. "Everybody thinks they're so wonderful and tolerant, but look how they treat the Gypsies!"

"Well," said I, "in a country where people in small towns still habitually leave their doors and windows open to air the house when they go somewhere, they tend to get upset when bands of petty thieves come through."

"How can you say that! How can you call them thieves?"

"Uh, I don't know, give me a hint. Is it because they take things that don't belong to them?"

"Well that's just their culture."

"I realize that, and in our culture we lock people who do that up. The Gypsies understand that, why don't you? And do you know how Gypsies treat their own who steal from other Gypsies? They exile them for life. So why is it that every culture is allowed to defend their ways - except us?"

I thought that was a fair question. I'm still waiting for an answer.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Random thoughts of the day

I had to make the title a little wordy. Thomas Sowell uses "Random Thoughts" and while I don't think he's got a lock on the title, I'd feel a bit presumptuous using it myself. For the record, I'd read the man's laundry lists, which ought to tell you quite a bit about where I'm coming from. And, "ahem", I have signed copies of Basic Economics and The Vision of the Anointed that he sent me after an email exchange.

I highly recommend, A Clash of Visions by Sowell. Reading it was one of those "Ah-ha!" experiences that made an awful lot of things clearer to me. Mostly about why I believe the things I do and where people I disagree with are coming from. An interesting side effect was that I became a bit more compassionate about those I disagree with passionately.

But what made even more of an impression on me was his two-sentence observation that the Law of Diminishing Returns applies to morality. That it is possible to be "too moral". That one set my head spinning. I'll have more to say about that later.


I couldn't help but notice yesterday that alongside the TV news coverage of the North Korean nuclear test was a lot of coverage of a 21-year-old college student in Maine who has gone missing. This kind of news is sometimes derided as sensationalism of the "If it bleeds, it leads" kind of journalism. My own reaction was, what a humane society we have, in spite of everything else you could say about it. A nation of 300 million people or thereabouts, routinely shows its concern about the plight of one individual.


Just had to break and change a diaper and let my wife sleep a little longer. My wife is not a morning person like I am, she doesn't wake as easily or as quickly as I do. A lot of this has to do with being a mother. I do the good male feminist thing and help as much as I can. I believe I change diapers at least as often as she does. (I'm motivated, I know as an older father that this could be my one shot to enjoy my kids, I may not get a second chance with grandkids.) But the irreducible fact is that motherhood is physically hard on women in ways I can do nothing to help with and it shows sometimes.

And yet, is there anything more beautiful than her smile when our five year old comes in to hug her awake, or when I lay the baby down on the pillow next to her?


And speaking of wisdom expressed in brief remarks, has anyone ever defined love better than Robert Heinlein? "Love is when another person's happiness is essential to your own." And the earthy, descriptive corollary, "Love is what goes on when you're not horney."

And Raymond Chandler on manhood; when a woman asks Phillip Marlow, "How can a man who is so tough be so gentle?"

"If I weren't tough, I wouldn't be alive. If I couldn't be gentle, I wouldn't deserve to be alive."

I recently quoted this is a class, and I swear I heard sighing around the room from several women.


Something I noticed recently was that every time I've read someone quoted as having said that the world is a dangerous place (usually in the context of foreign relations), it's done in a sneering, condescending sort of way that strongly implies that the person quoted is provincial (or "ethnocentric" in the Soc. sci. jargon), xenophobic and paranoid.

Well damn it, the world is a dangerous place. We can agree on that while disagreeing about how to deal with it.

It seems to me that the denial of that fact expresses a dangerous kind of cowardice. Running away from danger is not necessarily cowardice, America was populated by a great many people who ran away from tyranny, oppression, war etc. Sometimes running away is the best or only available option. When I teach martial arts, I like to remind my students that military experts regard the highest command skill as the ability to lead a retreat in good order. A retreat from an enemy attacking with overwhelming force too easily turns into a rout.

But denying that a danger is real? That's the kind of cowardice that gets you killed.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

He's gonna get a bomb

First we had the bomb and that was good,
'cause we love peace and brotherhood.
Then Russia got the bomb but that's OK,
'Cause the balance of power's maintained that way.
Who's next?

Well France got the bomb but don't you grieve,
'cause they're our allies - I believe.
Then China got the bomb but have no fears,
'cause they can't wipe us out for at least five years!
Who's next?

Egypt's gonna get one too, just to use on You Know Who.
So Israel's getting tense, wants one in self-defence.
The Lord's our shepherd says the psalm, but just in case -
We're gonna get a bomb!
Who's next?

Well Indonesia said that they, were gonna get one anyday,
South Africa wants two, that's right.
One for the Black and one for the White!
Who's next?

Well Luxembourg is next to go, then who knows maybe Monaco?
We'll try to stay serene and calm....
When Alabama gets the bomb.
Who's next, who's next, who's next, who's next?

Tom Lehrer

Well North Korea has gotten themselves a nuke, and whatever the world decides to do about it, Kim Jr. is being treated like a major player, which seems to be what he wanted all along.

To me it seems like being a small country with one or two nukes is like holding a pistol on a roomful of men armed with machine guns. Sure you could do some damage for a second or two, but...

Now that North Korea has one, does anybody doubt that Iran is not far behind? The most optimistic predictions had an Iranian bomb from 5-10 years off. Now they can just buy/ borrow one.

Still, small countries make convenient targets, i.e. it's not difficult to plaster the whole damn place with comparatively little of the arsenal of any of the Big Three nuclear powers and they know this.

What we've got to wonder about is:

1) Are either of these guys crazy enough to openly use one on us or any friend of ours? Well if either one did, it would likely only happen once. Afterwards there'd be a salutary example that the world would remember for a lo-o-o-ong time.

2) Would either try to funnel some nukes to terrorists with no fixed address, while maintaining deniability? Oh dear, this offers some problems. A response might be to announce in advance that any unexplained nuclear bombing would be followed by the bombing of: Tehran, Damascus, Pyongyang, Paris... (just kidding, sort of).

3) If Kim Jr. and Amenaboo-boo are really crazy or out of touch enough to try something like that, would the people around them let them get away with it? Because a country has a suicidal psycho leader does not necessarily mean that he's surrounded by suicidal psychos.

Well we'll probably wind up trying sanctions for a while. Who knows, if China's on board it might even work. On the other hand, millions more Koreans are going to starve to death because nobody's got the juevos to calculate the "terrible arithmatic" that Lincoln spoke of. And starving men do tend to get desperate.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Can you think?

“Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.”

Karl Popper

I have noticed a thing: everybody I know or have read, no matter how much I respect their intellect, no matter how much I have learned from them, has some beliefs and opinions which are absurd. There is one exception – me.

The funny thing is that there are people, whom I respect for their intellect and insight, who agree with me on many things (obviously prima facie evidence of their intellect and powers of perception) – but don’t except me from that general rule. I am forced to consider the possibility that I may hold beliefs and opinions which are false, even absurdly so, without knowing what they are.

Now let me ask you a question. Can you think?

“Of course I can!” (I hear you say indignantly.) “Whaddaya think I am, dumb?”

That’s not what I asked though. What I asked was whether you can think, i.e. can you examine data presented as fact, assess its reliability and use it to reach conclusions reasonably free of preconception and emotional bias?

“Of course, I’m a rational person after all.”

Do you do it all the time? Trick question, say “Yes.” and I’ll laugh in your face. Nobody does it all the time – nor can we, there are only 24 hours in a day, some of which we must spend sleeping. For most of our day-to-day activity we rely on preconceptions, conditioned responses, early-formed habits, decisions made once and never reassessed (which the marketing industry relies on and the advertising industry fights against) etc. If we subjected all of our ordinary activity to deep cognition we’d be paralyzed by indecision.

So perhaps it would be better to ask, how much and how well do you think – and about what? More to the point, what does it mean “to think” and how do you measure it?

Well, fortunately I’ve come up with a short quiz that ought to give a rough idea of what level your cognitive processes are operating on.

Take this simple test, answering each question as honestly as you can. Each question is worth from 1 to 4 points, scored as follows:

4 points: never
3 points: almost never
2 points: sometimes
1 point: probably not often enough

The questions are:

1) How often have you changed or abandoned a deeply held belief because of either:
a. Personal experience?
b. A persuasive argument backed by compelling evidence?

2) How often have you, after examining the evidence reached a conclusion that was uncomfortable, unsettling or profoundly disturbing to you, i.e. reached a conclusion that you did not like?

3) How often have you admitted honest confusion about an issue that was important to you and decided to defer judgment – or simply live with the uncertainty?

4) How often have you realized while listening to someone speak for a position you agreed with, that it was nonetheless being supported by a weak or invalid argument?

5) How often have you listened to two sides of an issue and concluded that you agreed with someone you disliked and disagreed with someone you liked?


16-20 points: Congratulations, you win! Now go back to sleep.

11-15 points: There’s hope for you yet. Not much though.

6-10 points: You’re definitely thinking at least some of the time. It probably hurts.

1-5 points: You’re thinking enough to make people around you uncomfortable.

OK, obviously I’m making a point here. Nobody thinks rationally all the time and in every case, or perhaps we could put it, nobody thinks all the time, as opposed to reacting to stimuli with responses learned earlier and not though about since.

Nor, when you think of it, is it desirable to think rationally all the time about everything. To begin with, rational cognition is slower than reflex. How often do you think about what you’re doing when you’re driving? If you’re an experienced driver, most of what you’re doing is going on at a level way below articulated thought while you devote your higher attention to planning your route, looking for your destination etc.

And how much time out of our lives do we have to spend doing the research and deep thinking to form rational opinions about things of no immediate importance to us? Not to mention frequently reexamining them in the light of new data. There are things I should be thinking carefully about, and things I really needn’t bother with.

The point, one which sometimes keeps me up at nights, is this: How do I know the difference?

“You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don't know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we're here... I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It doesn't frighten me.”

Richard P. Feynman

We meet PC

Well it finally happened, we met PC in the preschool.

My five-year-old son's preschool teacher asked us, very nicely, to tell him that he's not allowed to make pistol-shaped objects with Leggo blocks and play guns.

I'd heard of this when I was living in Eastern Europe, kids getting suspended in grade school for pointing sticks, or even fingers and going "bang". This wasn't that bad, but then it was only preschool. She did seem a bit embarrassed by it though, as who wouldn't be who knows anything about boys?

In spite of all attemtpts to the contrary, boys go for toy cars, trucks, planes - and guns. When are the PC police going to get over this? And why do they hate human nature so much?

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Gay Marriage - the biggest non-issue today

I see that the California appeals court has upheld a ban on gay marriage and the sky is falling.

On this issue I'm tempted to echo the comedian who remarked, "And this affects me, how?"

Proponents of gay marriage say that all our liberties are trampled on by denying this right (which has never been recognized as a right by any country that I know of, but never mind). Opponents say that they are trying to destroy civilization. Cynics say, let them be miserable like everybody else.

I say, "Permission to divide the question."

The chair recognizes the Honorable Blogger.

Honorable members of the tin-foil-hat parliament. Marriage, as recognized by society and the law, is two things, sacred and profane. On the one hand, it is a sacrament of the church under which two parties swear an oath before God to live together and observe certain obligations towards each other. Including obligations which are not part of the law and cannot be enforced as such. Such as to love, honor and cherish.

On the other hand marriage is a legal contract which confers certain rights to act on another's behalf, make decisions for another in extremis, and entails obligations of support.

Is there anything gender-specific about the second? I'm actually not sure. How is it different, for example, from a legal adoption?

Don't we have something called "separation of church and state" that the Left is always harping on in this country? The way a priest explained it to me, is that every priest/ minister who performs marriages is basically employed as a clerk of the state he lives in, and is empowered to register marriages, for which he gets a quarter or something. I.e. he wears two hats, sacred and secular.

Legal companionate contracts are now legal in a few states, so what's the problem? You want to get married in church? So find one that will do it. You can't? So start your own, it's the American way! (Or at least the California way.)

You want to be recognized by society as a married couple? Sorry guys and gals, that's out of our control. Maybe it'll happen and maybe it won't. I don't personally have a problem with it, but how seriously I'm going to take it depends on how seriously you take your obligations and responsibilities. Is this something you really want or is this just in-your-face-notice-me-dammit! attitude?

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Amish Tragedy

What did the Amish do to deserve what happened to their children this week?

Now if you thought that I meant that in anything but a rhetorical sense you'd condemn me as a moral monster- and you'd be right.

The Amish are one of America's so-called "peculiar peoples" i.e. unassimilated minority cultures that have settled among us. Others include the Hutterites, Gypsies and perhaps Cajuns. One might have included Mormons at one time, though they are now pretty much part of the mainstream in America. After all, what's another new religion in this country?

Amish live amongst us, not entirely separate but keeping to themselves in terms of worship, socializing and marriage. They do business in the mainstream economy, very well in fact. They never bought into the trap of agricultural subsidies and cash monocropping and so they don't seem so vulnerable to agricultural price fluctuations. They eschew modern technology, but not as much as people think. (For example they often keep cellphones for business purposes, usually in an outbuilding - which sometimes sounds like a good idea to me.) They are quite reasonable as concerns legal requirements that their buggies have electric lights for night driving and their requests (you can't say "demand" with the Amish) to be exempted from the common laws concerning education and social security taxes can be accommodated easily without burdening the majority culture - quite the contrary.

As odd as their ways are to us, nobody I know of ever said that they were anything but the best of neighbors. So what did that bastard have against these good people, and why did he kill five of their little girls?

As to motive, I have speculations I'll go into later, but short answer: nothing, and because he could.

He picked the Amish because they were "soft targets", pacifists.

An extreme doctrine tends to attract well, extremes. Pacifists in my experience, tend to be either cowards - or the extremely brave. Quakers for example, refuse to serve in the combat arms of the military but have a tradition of serving as medics and stretcher bearers - a job much more dangerous than being an infantryman if you think about it. A man with a stretcher has to go where the shooting is with nothing to shoot back with, and can't crawl and take cover when he is carrying a wounded man.

It is also known that Quakers are "practical pacifists", i.e. that they can be pushed too far. I've been told that the Quaker saying goes, "I would not harm thee for all the world friend, but thou standest where I am about to shoot."

Can you imagine anything more terrifying that a pacifist who has been pushed to violence? Because by the time he has exhausted every non-violent alternative, he has eaten a lot of s#%t and is really pissed-off!

This is a far different breed than the pacifist who seems to be loudly advertising to the world, "Don't hurt me, I'm not a threat!" You can tell this kind by their hypocrisy. They won't fight you, but they'll sue you. (Using the power of the law for compulsion without dirtying their own hands.) They are the kind that favor all kinds of social legislation, backed by the power of the state to "do good", without considering that all law is enforced with the threat of violence. All law, without exception. A true, consistent pacifist must necessarily be an anarchist. (Though of course, not all anarchists are pacifists.)

There are variations of course. One of them is Pacifism as a Way (Do, Tao in some Asian languages). This is a decision made by one who does not deny the necessity for violence on some occasions, but has made the personal choice to seek peace through friendly persuasion and renouncing the use of force even at the cost of his own life. It's interesting to note how many of this kind have been soldiers at some time in their lives. Gautama the Buddha (born into the warrior caste), Ashoka the Conqueror (who had a "What have I done?" moment on the battlefield and devoted the rest of his reign to spreading Buddhism) and St. Francis of Assisi (called by some, "history's only practicing Christian").

I don't know what the exact position of the Amish is, but I note that at this terrible time they've found some compassion within themselves for the wife and children of their children's murderer. I cannot express how much I admire that - I don't think I could do it.

It reminds me of an interview I once saw with the mother of one of Ted Bundy's victims. The interviewer asked her if she had any thoughts about Bundy's parents. She said, "I'd rather have my daughter than their son." Or Corazon Aquino when asked how she felt about Ferdinand Marcos, i.e. how she felt about the man who ordered her husband's murder. She looked very thoughtful and said, "Somewhere on the road to becoming a great man, Marcos took a wrong turn."

Now having said that, I also wonder how much the Amish realize that the United States is one of the very few places in the world where they could live the way they do? (I suspect they do, they're definitely not stupid.) They can live a pacifist lifestyle because they live in the midst of a benevolent, tolerant and free people who are not pacifists. Note that the way they immediately dealt with the situation was to call the police.

What am I getting at here? I'll have more to say about it, but it comes down to this; a great many people in this rich, happy country of ours think that if somebody hates you, it has to be something you did to them. (Or something your group did.) Repeat after me, does-not-follow. (Or, non sequitur, if you want the Latin name for that logical fallacy.) They cannot imagine that someone could hate you enough to kill you, not for what you did, but for what you are and what you have.

Sometimes it's your wealth, but more often what you have that they hate you for is something they could destroy but cannot steal, your happiness.


Speculations on motive.

Firstly, let me note that attributions of motive, a favorite arguing tactic of the Left, are always speculative. True motive is the one thing we cannot know, since it resides in peoples' heads, is most often complex and mixed, and is one of the things people are least likely to be honest about. To be credible, speculation of motive must be introspective and ruthlessly honest. That is, you have to take the position of, "I think this may be the motive because I can look inside myself and see it makes sense." This can be terrifying.

So what the hell is going through the head of someone who kills a lot of people at random and then himself? I suspect that you might have someone with a lot of rage who thinks (probably correctly) that if he died nobody would notice or care. "Ah-ha, but I can make them care."

There is a story that King Herod once asked his advisers how he could ensure universal mourning in Israel when he died. All but one said, "Oh great King, all will mourn when you die!" But one brave man said, "Order that at your death, Rabbi Hillel's throat is to be cut." Same logic.

What about his guy? He had a wife and two kids. And if initial accounts are to be believed, they were as surprised and shocked as anyone. He left a note saying he had molested two young relatives 20 years earlier, but the relatives said they don't remember any such thing. Huh? What's going on?

My guess is that this guy was plagued by desires and fantasies of sexually molesting young girls. Desires he could neither suppress nor live with. Finally, I think he decided that he wanted to act them out even if he died. Preliminary reports indicate that he came prepared to rape as well as kill but was interrupted before he could carry out his plan. He killed himself out of self-loathing, he killed his victims as a projection of his self-hatred.

At any rate, that's my five-cent psychiatric evaluation.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Life in Europe: Observing Beggars

One thing an American in Europe finds it hard to get used to, is the multitude of beggars on the streets of some countries. When I went to Poland in 1991 the country had just been invaded by an army of Romanian Gypsies taking advantage of the new looseness in Eastern European border control. They came to a country that was in the forefront of the “recovering socialisms” and had a tradition of alms-giving.

Over the next thirteen years I had a chance to observe the changes in the street population of beggars in Poland and to check out the situation in Sofia, Belgrade, and Bucharest.

In Warsaw ’91 the most visible population of beggars were the Romanian Gypsies with a sprinkling of old-age pensioners whose remittances had been reduced to pennies per month by inflation (NOT a figure of speech) and had become desperate enough to beg for money for bread. Not as many of the latter as you might expect, Poland still has an intact family structure, not many old people are kicked out to starve.

Paradoxically, it may have been the very inefficiency of the communist state in providing social welfare services that kept Poles reliant on kinship networks. During the 80s when food shops were largely empty. lots of people were kept going by the fact that most families have relatives in the countryside.

What was almost ubiquitous in trams, restaurants (until kicked out) and waiting areas, were young, filthy Gypsy kids who would come up to you and start stroking your arm in a gesture of supplication whining “drogi panie” (dear sir). It was a form of extortion actually – give me some money or I’ll touch you some more.

Another grift (technically busking rather than begging) was for Gypsy kids to hop on a train or tram between stations, risking that the ticket checkers would catch them, and play the accordion for spare change. Since the only tune they knew between them appeared to be, “Oh How We Danced on the Night We Were Wed” I used to give them some change and ask them to please learn another tune. A few years later I saw a Gypsy kid with an accordion in Belgrade, playing… guess what.

In the early 90s during one very cold winter, Polish railway authorities in Warsaw let Gypsy families sleep in the large waiting room of the East Station. (Sleeping in stations is tolerated for homeless people.) A year later they were still there, several hundred of them, setting up housekeeping and cooking. Exasperated, the railroad took their room back and the Gypsies moved outside into an open area and set up a shantytown by the Wisla river, apparently not much inconvenienced at all.

What’s interesting now is that the Gypsies are still there (Romanian Gypsies, Polish Gypsies look a bit different) and their women are still hanging around the streets – but they’re not begging as much. Now they offer to tell fortunes. Even the women lying on the sidewalk with children (popularly believed to be drugged, no normal kid is going to lie that still for that long) and begging piteously are far fewer now. In the central Warsaw area, where I live, the beggars now seem to be largely Polish and genuinely handicapped. It makes me wonder what has happened in the Gypsy community? What other sources of income have they found? It’s nearly impossible to find out anything reliable about that closed culture. They will work, if it’s seasonal and doesn’t tie them down for long. They can do anything with horses, many are first-rate mechanics and some are gifted musicians.

In 1996 I moved to Bulgaria for six months, right at the beginning of a megainflation. Bulgaria was (and still is, though it's much better) very much poorer than Poland, however – no beggars. There was some busking, including a lovely white-haired lady who stood in the underground passage near the university and sang classical tunes like an angel but nobody holding up signs with a tale of woe or displaying leg stumps.

There are plenty of Gypsies in Bulgaria, I believe the second highest percentage of population after Rumania, but the ones I saw were working construction not begging. When I asked I was told that “We are a proud people.” and that Bulgarians do not beg. Perhaps as a consequence, Bulgarians are not quite as ready to give alms. I was told that tipping is rather foreign to them as well.

Also interestingly (for those who insist that poverty is the cause of alcoholism): though the country was awash in liquor; perfectly decent wine for a dollar a bottle (even cheaper if you went to street corner kiosks and filled your pop bottles from their barrel), good vodka and rakia, that remained dirt cheap while food was becoming an expensive luxury, I saw precisely one case of public drunkenness in six months. I’m afraid that in Warsaw you’d expect to see that just walking across town.

In fact, now that I recall , at a party once I remember people looking at me funny while I was swilling vodka the way they taught me in Poland.

On the way to Bulgaria I stopped in Bucharest and spent four hours in the general area of the railway station. The experience was enough to make one seriously think about cashing in your ticket and joining a religious order. The place
was full of ragged, filthy children begging, sniffing glue in corners and sometimes displaying hideous orthopedic deformities. All around the station the manhole covers in the streets were missing. The children slept in the tunnels underneath.

I am what I describe as a “luke-warm” opponent of the death penalty, meaning that I seen nothing sacred about the lives of these scumbags, but I get nervous about giving the state the power to commit judicial murder. Now I’ll tell you, I ‘m
GLAD they killed that bastard Ceaucescu, I’m only sorry it took such a short time.

On my last few trips to Bucharest, the child beggars were nowhere in evidence. I like to think they're being cared for somewhere, but...

Belgrade was a different story, they had plenty of beggars but few women (an exception that I remember was a woman with half of her face badly burned) and few children that I recall. The major category of beggars on the street was men with one or two leg amputations. I'm embarrassed to tell you how long it took me to figure out that this was all about land mines.

When I asked my students about them I was told that beggars in Belgrade are organized and have a “king” who extracts a huge percentage of their take.

So what do I do about beggars? Being an American, I at first found it as uncomfortable to give to beggars as to look at them. And once decided to give, how much and to whom? Well, I took a tip from Thomas Jefferson as told in Albert J Nock’s "Mr. Jefferson". Jefferson apparently had never seen quite so many in his life as he did in France. His first response was to hand out money until he was tapped out early every day. He ultimately had to figure a daily alms budget and give it away on a first-come-first-served basis.

Many countries in Europe (and increasingly in the US I've noticed) have what I call an inconveniently valued currency. By that I mean that in a normal day of spending pocket money you tend to wind up with an inconvenient bulk of coins. Beggars benefit from this. Pocket change I dispersed in one and two zloty amounts (about $.25-.50) First choice, amputees, after that women with children – though I try to avoid Gypsies. “What?” you say outraged. “Could this be racial profiling?” Yeah, ‘fraid so. Sorry, I want to help someone who is down on their luck, not support a culture which despises mine and regards me as a mark. Besides, I’ve observed that their kids now have new, store-bought clothes, not castoffs.

So why do I want to? I have a conservative acquaintance who argues that building true civility there requires that they sweep the beggars off the streets. Call it one in the eye for welfare-statist hypocrisy. Voting other people’s money is not generosity any more than sending other men to war is courage. I wonder if it wouldn’t do some people some good to realize that if they REALLY wish the hungry and homeless to be fed, clothed and housed they have to take personal responsibility for a little wealth-transfer, dip into their own pockets and make moral decisions concerning the worthiness of the objects of their all-embracing compassion.

What I’ve observed of beggars in a few different countries over the past decade has led me to this conclusion: the amount of begging found in any country will depend mostly on three things; the local tolerance for beggars, the willingness of the population to give alms, and the depth to which a person will sink before considering begging as a means of survival. (By tolerance, I mean for example, how do people react to having beggars underfoot in public places such as stairways to underground passages beneath major intersections.)

That last one can be tricky. It seems to me that a man too proud to beg might consider trying to take your money before he’ll allow himself to ask for some of it.

The health of the local economy seems to be one of the least important factors. Bulgaria, poorer than Poland by far, had almost no beggars whereas in Poland you can encounter students panhandling money to buy beer*. (This can only be explained by the relative willingness of the local population to give to beggars. Pride may explain why a Bulgarian won’t beg but to a Gypsy, your opinion of him means absolutely nothing. ) In Serbia, beggars have to display pretty obvious deformities to get any sympathy.

Questions arise in my mind. Where do these people live? How much do they really make? (Rumors of rich beggars have been around for a while.) Does anybody who has fallen into begging ever get out? What happens to them when they get old? Why aren’t the Gypsies in Warsaw begging so much anymore?

Once I might have been tempted to make this the subject of fieldwork and it certainly seems like the kind of thing you could talk some liberal institution out of some grant money for, though they might not like what I’ve had to say on the subject. However, right now I’ve got a life to get on with so when I'm in town I just dig out some more of that annoying Polish coinage and thank God it’s not me sitting on the sidewalk there.

* In the Old Town of Warsaw many of them are from the school of theater who busk as clever mimes. My favorite were a student got up as the Tin Woodman who would stand perfectly still, then bow with a creaky groan when you put coins in his cup. My son and other children liked to see this - which was part of the point I guess. Another student used to sit snoozing against a wall with a sign that read, "I am lazy and need money to buy beer."