Archive for December 2012

Enough With The Guns, Already. Time For Death By Cosmic Walls of Fire

December 21, 2012

I’ve been detecting just a bit of battle-weariness on the intertubes today.  I’ve got a bunch more gun posts up my sleeve, but I can see how a diet of lead, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, might wear a little thin.  So here’s an olive-branch — something to feed your head, completely sorrow free.

My science writing buddy Jennifer Ouellette (my interview with her here) has a really excellent piece up at ScientificAmerican.com on a new puzzle roiling theoretical physics.  She writes about a paradox raised by a re-examination of an idea in black-hole physics long thought settled.

The question that prompted the latest discussion is what happens when you have a couple — people for now, by convention Bob and Alice — wandering through the cosmos.  But then, as Jennifer writes:

The adventurous, rather reckless Alice jumps into a very large black hole, leaving a presumably forlorn Bob outside the event horizon — a black hole’s point of no return, beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape.

Conventionally, physicists have assumed that if the black hole is large enough, Alice won’t notice anything unusual as she crosses the horizon. In this scenario, colorfully dubbed “No Drama,” the gravitational forces won’t become extreme until she approaches a point inside the black hole called the singularity. There, the gravitational pull will be so much stronger on her feet than on her head that Alice will be “spaghettified.”

Now a new hypothesis is giving poor Alice even more drama than she bargained for. If this alternative is correct, as the unsuspecting Alice crosses the event horizon, she will encounter a massive wall of fire that will incinerate her on the spot. As unfair as this seems for Alice, the scenario would also mean that at least one of three cherished notions in theoretical physics must be wrong.

From that pyrotechnic foundation, Jennifer then tells a fascinating story that both gives an account of the confusion and excitement this line of thought has produced — and along the way, provides a nice insight into the style of thought that (some) theoreticians use to pursue ideas far into the deep.

So, if you’ve had enough of murder and mayhem here on this vale of tears, here’s a chance to take yourself quite a good way out of the everyday.

Now, no post like this would be complete without (a) the appropriate sound track, and (b) given that I’ve invited you into the hairy realm of quantum mechanics, a cat picture:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This one illustrates why I feel a moral obligation not to fold laundry prematurely.

GOPsters Fighting The War On Science Have Blood On Their Hands

December 21, 2012

First, consider this, from Nate Silver:

An American child grows up in a married household in the suburbs. What are the chances that his family keeps a gun in their home?

…the odds vary significantly based on the political identity of the child’s parents. If they identify as Democratic voters, the chances are only about one in four, or 25 percent, that they have a gun in their home. But the chances are more than twice that, almost 60 percent, if they are Republicans.Whether someone owns a gun is a more powerful predictor of a person’s political party than her gender, whether she identifies as gay or lesbian, whether she is Hispanic, whether she lives in the South or a number of other demographic characteristics.

Now take note of this piece by Alex Seitz-Wald, published in Salon back in July.  (h/t Maggie Koerth-Baker at BoingBoing)

Over the past two decades, the NRA has not only been able to stop gun control laws, but even debate on the subject. The Centers for Disease Control funds research into the causes of death in the United States, including firearms — or at least it used to. In 1996, after various studies funded by the agency found that guns can be dangerous, the gun lobby mobilized to punish the agency. First, Republicans tried to eliminate entirely the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, the bureau responsible for the research. When that failed, Rep. Jay Dickey, a Republican from Arkansas, successfully pushed through an amendment that stripped $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget (the amount it had spent on gun research in the previous year) and outlawed research on gun control with a provision that reads: “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

David Satcher, the then-director of the CDC, wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post in November of 1995 warning that the NRA’s “shotgun assault” on the CDC was dangerous both for public health and for our democracy:

“What ought to be of wider concern, is the second argument advanced by the NRA — that firearms research funded by the CDC is so biased against gun ownership that all such funding ought to cease. Here is a prescription for inaction on a major cause of death and disability. Here is a charge that not only casts doubt on the ability of scientists to conduct research involving controversial issues but also raises basic questions about the ability, fundamental to any democracy, to have honest, searching public discussions of such issues.”

Exactly so.

But hey, maybe the ban didn’t matter.  After all, it’s not “advocating” gun control to do simple epidemiology.  Right?

Dickey’s clause, which remains in effect today, has had a chilling effect on all scientific research into gun safety, as gun rights advocates view “advocacy” as any research that notices that guns are dangerous. Stephen Teret, who co-directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told Salon: “They sent a message and the message was heard loud and clear. People [at the CDC], then and now, know that if they start going down that road, their budget is going to be vulnerable. And the way public agencies work, they know how this works and they’re not going to stick their necks out.”

In January, the New York Times reported that the CDC goes so far as to “ask researchers it finances to give it a heads-up anytime they are publishing studies that have anything to do with firearms. The agency, in turn, relays this information to the NRA as a courtesy.”

The anti-science commitment by the GOP is not a mistake.  It’s not a clash of world-views.  It’s not that faith sincerely experienced renders the conclusions of science irrelevant.  Rather, the GOP, at least at the level where power can be wielded, is all about the ability to assert authority regardless of knowledge that contradicts belief.

Ghent_Altarpiece_D_-_Popes_-_detail

We know how this song goes.  Anti-science is an old strand in human experience.  The determination to block independent assessments of reality you see here is the same thing the Church asserted when it confronted Galileo.    When  Galileo said, as he did in his famous letter to the Medici Grand Duchess Christina,  “I think that in discussions of physical problems we ought to begin not from the authority of scriptural passages, but from sense-experiences and necessary demonstrations…” Galileo, in all piety was making the claim that interpreters of the Bible must accomodate whatever it is that science demonstrates to be true about the world.  At the same time, he knew that the church, or elements within it could not risk acknowledging to the idea of autonomous expertise.*  Hence, Galileo told Christina, his antagonists

…make a shield of their hypocritical zeal for religion. They go about invoking the Bible, which they would have minister to their deceitful purposes. Contrary to the sense of the Bible and the intention of the holy Fathers, if I am not mistaken, they would extend such authorities until even in purely physical matters—where faith is not involved—they would have us altogether abandon reason and the evidence of our senses in favor of some biblical passage, though under the surface meaning of its words this passage may contain a different sense

As it was, so it is.

The Republican Party, taken over by extremists over a decades-long campaign (see the history laid out in the Mark Ames piece Anne Laurie linked to yesterday), has a broad resume when it comes to fighting science to avoid the necessity of confronting the basic facts of real life.  And it is this, to me, that makes the GOP not just wrong about almost everything, but unacceptably dangerous, a political force to be destroyed.

To return to the latest confrontation between the reality of gun violence, and the determination of the GOP not to know what it is inconvenient to understand:  legally enforced ignorance of the implications of the effectively unregulated presence of powerful weaponry throughout the country contributes to events like the Newtown massacre.

To anticipate an objection:  just as you can never tie a specific cigarette to a particular cancer, I cannot say that had we spent more effort really trying to analyze what happens when guns and the accessories that make them yet more deadly are so easily available we would have been able to stop that particular tragedy.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t discover epidemiological truths:  we know that smoking leads directly to an excess burden of cancer deaths among smokers.  You work out the rest…

The only hopeful thing I see is that the latest horrific events have forced more and more people to notice that the gun lobby and the worst wings of the worst political party I’ve ever seen in a half-century of living in America are one and the same.  Right now it’s important to press the case as hard as we can:  gun nuts aren’t defending freedom and long-established constitutional principles.  They’re preserving the profits of gun makers and serving the political ends of the party of the oligarchs.  We have a moment of advvantage in the fight against such forces.  If you take Silver’s argument seriously, the same demographics that propelled Obama to his second term put the gun lobby at risk.

But in the meantime, the suppression of knowledge about the actual human cost of gun ownership — to gun owners as well as the rest of us — is costing lives.  Those Republicans who block the pursuit of knowledge about what our weapons are doing to our country are complicit in the loss of lives by gun violence in the context of our artificially maintained ignorance.

*Which Galileo also knew many of them did not possess, writing, “Possibly because they are disturbed by the known truth of other propositions of mine which differ from those commonly held, and therefore mistrusting their defense so long as they confine themselves to the field of philosophy, these men have resolved to fabricate a shield for their fallacies out of the mantle of pretended religion and the authority of the Bible. These they apply, with little judgment, to the refutation of arguments that they do not understand and have not even listened to.”

Image: Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, detail of Popes from the lower central panel, completed 1432.

Some Days, It’s Enough That I Don’t Have To Cop To Having Gone To Yale…

December 19, 2012

…because if I had, I’d have to pull up my hoodie and duck my head low to avoid association with this:

this “spring,” Brooks will be bringing his famed self and his less-well-known teaching credentials (?) to our very own campus.

And what’s he teaching? It would only make sense for this course to be called “Humility.” Brooks is not only a real big name in general but also kind of an expert on the topic—a quick Google search reveals that he’s written on it in the NYT and discussed it at the Aspen Ideas Festival—so we can pretty much agree that this is fitting. As if the irony weren’t already enough, this class is also a Global Affairs seminar, so, like, humility, guys. Perfect. Especially recommended if you were tempted by Grand Strategy but really just don’t have the ego for it.

That was in the Yale Bullblog.  The story then was picked up by New York Magazine’s Joe Coscarelli, who noted that the course promises to explore:

“The premise that human beings are blessed with many talents but are also burdened by sinfulness, ignorance, and weakness,” as demonstrated by men such as Moses, Homer, and others,” like maybe Paul Krugman.

It would, perhaps, be unkind for me to note that Mr. Brooks is in fact more qualified to teach this course than it might at first seem. After all, he does have much to be humble about.

Trophime_Bigot_Allegory_Vanity

(Apologies to the apocryphal Winston Churchill, and, I suppose, even more to the real Clement Atlee, who deserves better than to have Brooks mentioned in the same breath.)

But I should surrender pride of place to the invaluable Mr. Charles Pierce, who first led me to this little gem, and to whom I’ll give the last word:

I swear I’d almost pay someone to audit this mess.

Hell, Charlie! Pass the hat.   I’d chip in.

That’s all I got tonight.  The sun is over the yardarm somewhere, so raise a glass to the vision of Yale’s latest adjunct holding forth with all due (overdue) humility.

Image: Trophime Bigot, Allegory of Vanity, before 1650

Self Aggrandizement Alert + Some Kitchen Goodness In Aid Of A Friend

December 18, 2012

First — a head’s up to another one of my internet-radio conversations.  Tomorrow at 6 p.m EST I’ll be talking (live!) to David George Haskell.  David is a biologist teaching at the University of the South.  He blogs here, but the proximate reason for the interview is the publication of his book, The Forest Unseen.

The Forest Unseen is simply one of the best natural history cum science books I’ve read in years.  David’s concept — in less adept hands it would have been a conceit — was to take a single meter-in-diameter patch of old growth forest and visit it over the course of a year.

Paul_Cézanne_-_Interior_of_a_forest_-_Google_Art_Project

From those visits to what he called “the mandala” he drew essay after essay, pretty much all of them built on the idea of making a practice out of observation.  Most of the chapters in the book begin with a single point of entry into the life of the mandala, and then Haskell’s writing flows and leaps as he finds his veins of connection.  Along the way, quite gently, he leads his readers into an increasingly sophisticated understanding both of natural history side of things:  what’s there, what’s happening in that patch of forest (and through that one little scrap of land into the beyond, of course); and of the science involved, ideas from biology and ecology.  You learn a lot — I did — and it’s not until much later that you (I) realize just what a rich lode of fact and concept we’ve just taken on.

In all, a really worthwhile book — not a bad choice, if  I dare say it, to stick in somebody’s stocking in a few days.  (BTW — for more on the project, check out Jim Gorman’s article from October, published in the Grey Lady.)

Now to the kitchen goodness.  Fair warning:  what follows is a plug for something a good friend of mine is trying to do.  If you aren’t into knives, kitchens, or cooking, and/or don’t want to read about what is at bottom (and top, actually) an attempt at business, then please, get off the bus now.

OK?

So, back at the dawn of time, my friend Adam — Adam Simha — graduated from MIT rather at loose ends.   He found himself more interested in craft than formal science or engineering.  He bounced around some kitchens in town, and then found himself really looking at the tools chefs use, and then figuring out that he might have some skills and knowledge and sheer desire to see what he could do in that arena.

The result has been a number of years developing himself into an exceptional knife maker.  You can see what he does here — check out the custom knives he’s made for chef-clients, and see also the ready-made line for the rest of us.  After some years of nerving myself up to it, I finally bought one of the latter – the 10″ chefs’ knife with the black rubber (Pedro) handle.  It is, simply, the best knife I’ve ever owned, by far.

How better?  It starts sharper than the decent knives I’ve used for decades; it holds its edge longer; it sharpens more easily, and being made of better steel than any other knife I own (a Wursthof and a Sabatier for chef’s knives), it is thinner, harder, and is easier in my hands to manipulate than any big knife has a right to be.

And yeah, it costs a fair amount.  Not an utterly crazy number for something that, properly cared for, should outlast me  — Adam’s prices for his ready-mades fall in the middle of what a yuppie cooking store charges for its cutlery.  And hell, I’ve been promising myself a really good knife since we first elected Obama, and finally I just decided that this purchase was going to be my victory cigar for the re-election celebration.

An aside:  I’m not a great person with my hands, but I purely love the knowledge and history built into any good tool — plus the fact that better tools make the jobs they’re designed for easier to do.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Still_Life_with_Fish_Scallions_and_Large_Knife_-_Totoya_Hokkei

I learned this first when I started working with good camera-people when I was just getting going as a documentary film-maker.  One of those DPs, an older guy (Bob Elfstrom,* for those of you in the business), took me aside and made sure I understood how and why he used each of the bits and pieces he needed to make his images.  Great training!  Throughout he drummed into me the necessity, the almost religious obligation, to use the best tools to do a job one could possibly acquire.  And he was right, at least in my experience.  It’s because of him that I would hire or buy really good optics when I needed to —  leaving me fewer options on location than I would have liked, sometimes, but better, in ways I could see on screen.  And as I started to cook I found I didn’t like gadgets very much, but I truly valued a good knife.  Those of you who cook (and that’s most of us, I guess) know what it’s like when you get one that fits and balances and that takes and holds an edge without fighting you for it.  That’s the context in which I’ve come to Adam’s knives, and that’s why I am posting this to try and help him realize an ambition.

What Adam’s doing now is to take what he’s developed as he’s built knives for his custom clients to come up with versionss for a larger audience.  There are a fair number of costs that go with that ambition, mostly for a build out of his shop, and he’s launched an Indigogo campaign to try to raise the necessary.  He’s got a video up there that explains what he’s trying to do better than I can.

I’m a little diffident about putting this up.  A buddy of mine is trying to get a new business off the ground, and I’m using this community platform to spread the word.  But I guess the usual answer applies. Don’t bother with all this stuff if you aren’t interested.

But even if you have no time to cook, no money for what is indeed a luxury, or just own every last bit of kitchen gear you, your kids and their kids will ever use, still, if you’d like to get just a sense of what a wonderful obsessive does when unleashed on metal-working shop, check the stuff out; if nothing else it’s fine kitchen porn.

*Among much else, Elfstrom directed and appeared as Jesus in Johnny Cash’s rarely-seen feature film Gospel Road, and he was one of the Maysles brothers’ cameramen at Altamont.  Hell of a guy to take out on the road for one’s very first film.  I’m deeply grateful to him and to John Else (my other first-cameraman) for the generosity with which they made sure I didn’t do anything irrecoverably stupid — all the while teaching me a whole lot of stuff they don’t necessarily cover in film school.  I will say, though that even some jobs later it still came as something of a shock when Al Maysles showed up (unannounced) at the end of a day’s shooting in New York.  It had been a long day, and something of a fraught one, and it was literally the last set up on the final shoot for that particular film.  I was seriously ready for the bar.  But there he was, Mr. Maysles — who, it must be said, understood exactly the state I was in (had been there once or twice himself, I reckon). In the event, he was gentle, encouraging and blessedly brief in his hellos.

Images:  Paul Cezanne, Interior of a Forest, before 1890.

Totoya Hokkei, Still Life with Fish, Scallions and Large Knife, c. 1830

Guns Are The Enemy Of Liberty

December 17, 2012

I’m going to be posting a number of shorter (for me) posts on this over the next day or so; I take on board the injunction that general expressions of sorrow and disgust have their place — but are no substitute for specifics.

I’ll have some thoughts about actual measures to be advanced (more invitations to the community to continue to think together).  But here I’d like to start off making an obvious point:

An armed society may be a polite one.  But it’s not one that is free. It is not one in which a civic life in any meaningful sense of the term can take place.

Guns kill liberty.

Édouard_Manet_-_Pertuiset,_le_chasseur_de_lions

That’s what philosopher Firman Debrander argued in this morning’s New York Times, and he is in my ever-humble opinion spot on.  It’s worth the time to read the whole thing, but here’s the core of his case:

…guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.

This becomes clear if only you pry a little more deeply into the N.R.A.’s logic behind an armed society. An armed society is polite, by their thinking, precisely because guns would compel everyone to tamp down eccentric behavior, and refrain from actions that might seem threatening. The suggestion is that guns liberally interspersed throughout society would cause us all to walk gingerly — not make any sudden, unexpected moves — and watch what we say, how we act, whom we might offend.

As our Constitution provides, however, liberty entails precisely the freedom to be reckless, within limits, also the freedom to insult and offend as the case may be. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld our right to experiment in offensive language and ideas, and in some cases, offensive action and speech. Such experimentation is inherent to our freedom as such. But guns by their nature do not mix with this experiment — they don’t mix with taking offense. They are combustible ingredients in assembly and speech.

Exactly so.

Obviously so.

“Smile when you say that, mister,” is great fun from the back row of the movie theater; much less so at arms length, bellied up to the bar.

Gun nuts, the NRA’s official core and all their acolytes and enablers are the enemies of American freedom, of the liberty you and I and everyone should take as our right.  That would be the liberty to walk where we choose, wearing what we want (an “I Reserve The Right To Arm Bears” t-shirt included), to assemble peaceably in protest or at the doors of our kids’ schools every weekday morning.  As Debrander discusses, the openly armed asshole at one of the town meetings during the summer of Obamacare, did not shoot anyone — but no one challenged him; his views echoed in the silence; actual debate was suffocated because no one wanted to piss off a guy who could kill you.  If you can’t have such civil debate, if you can’t even comfortably, free of fear, assemble for politics, or shopping, or a night at the movies, or in kindergarten, you don’t have a democracy in any real sense of the term.  And in that context, tyranny wins.  Debrander again:

After all, a population of privately armed citizens is one that is increasingly fragmented, and vulnerable as a result. Private gun ownership invites retreat into extreme individualism — I heard numerous calls for homeschooling in the wake of the Newtown shootings — and nourishes the illusion that I can be my own police, or military, as the case may be….

As Michel Foucault pointed out in his detailed study of the mechanisms of power, nothing suits power so well as extreme individualism. In fact, he explains, political and corporate interests aim at nothing less than “individualization,” since it is far easier to manipulate a collection of discrete and increasingly independent individuals than a community. Guns undermine just that — community. Their pervasive, open presence would sow apprehension, suspicion, mistrust and fear, all emotions that are corrosive of community and civic cooperation. To that extent, then, guns give license to autocratic government.

Our gun culture promotes a fatal slide into extreme individualism. It fosters a society of atomistic individuals, isolated before power — and one another — and in the aftermath of shootings such as at Newtown, paralyzed with fear. That is not freedom, but quite its opposite. And as the Occupy movement makes clear, also the demonstrators that precipitated regime change in Egypt and Myanmar last year, assembled masses don’t require guns to exercise and secure their freedom, and wield world-changing political force. Arendt and Foucault reveal that power does not lie in armed individuals, but in assembly — and everything conducive to that.

One last thought:  What does such philosophical high mindedness (Foucalt, forsooth!)  have to do with actual change in the way America understands and regulated guns?

Obviously, words don’t stop bullets.  We do need a new, powerful legal framework in which the nitty-gritty of guns and American life are reshaped.  There’s all the stuff we have and will talk about, from regulating the registration of firearms and the licensing of their owners, to restrictions on types of weapons, to insurance and its role in internalizing the social costs of civilian gun ownership and so on.  Others here have already started those lines of thought, and I promise I’ll do so as well.

But one of the biggest challenges we face is that over the last two decades or so, the NRA and its gun nut allies have captured much of the language of liberty as it applies to guns.  Framing regulation of guns as an infringement of gun rights has seen a drop in support for gun regulation from close to 80% to below 45% in Gallup’s polling of the question.  The ability to assert the “guns everywhere” position as a test of freedom has given the NRA and its running dogs* a huge rhetorical advantage.  We need to take it back.  Arguments like the one Debrander makes can help us do so.  We can amplify that one voice with our own…as in this small way, I hope to do here.

*you can take the China hand out of the business, but you can’t take the China out of the hand.

Image: Édouard Manet, Mister Pertuiset, The Lion Hunter, 1881

Grief is Another Country

December 16, 2012

I have nothing to coherently substantive to say about the Newtown tragedy, at least not yet.

I’ve lost much of today thinking about the parents, which has pretty much frozen my brain in place.

It’s a cliché, but still, absolutely true:  there is no loss like that of a child.  To my great good fortune and deepest fear, that’s a catastrophe I do not know.

Anthony_van_Dyck_-_Family_Portrait_-_WGA07414

But I did see it up close.  Without belaboring personal details (and a story that is not mine alone), my father predeceased my grandmother.  She lasted months only after that calamity, and that’s all I’m going to say about that for now.

But it’s the utter wreck that such a loss wreaks on those it touches that I’ve been turning over in my head all day.  John caught a lot of that with this post, which I read this morning, but that just made me think on it the more.  At some point during the day, it came to me, a stray wisp of memory — some words that I had once encountered that I half recalled to be as close as anything to give voice to something of what parents feel in these circumstances.

Decades ago, some years after we lost my dad, I capped a wholly undistinguished college acting career with a bit part in one of the lesser Shakespeares, King John.  Even Bill’s second tier work has flashes of seemingly impossible insight delivered in otherworldly language.  Act III of King John erupts in such a moment, at the point when Constance, believes her son, Arthur, has been doomed to murder at the order of King John.  I looked it up and here’s what I found:

CARDINAL PANDULPH
Lady, you utter madness, and not sorrow.

CONSTANCE
Thou art not holy to belie me so;
I am not mad: this hair I tear is mine;
My name is Constance; I was Geffrey’s wife;
Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost:
I am not mad: I would to heaven I were!
For then, ’tis like I should forget myself:
O, if I could, what grief should I forget!
Preach some philosophy to make me mad,
And thou shalt be canonized, cardinal;
For being not mad but sensible of grief,
My reasonable part produces reason
How I may be deliver’d of these woes,
And teaches me to kill or hang myself:
If I were mad, I should forget my son,
Or madly think a babe of clouts were he:
I am not mad; too well, too well I feel
The different plague of each calamity.

KING PHILIP
Bind up those tresses. O, what love I note
In the fair multitude of those her hairs!
Where but by chance a silver drop hath fallen,
Even to that drop ten thousand wiry friends
Do glue themselves in sociable grief,
Like true, inseparable, faithful loves,
Sticking together in calamity.

CONSTANCE
To England, if you will.

KING PHILIP
Bind up your hairs.

CONSTANCE
Yes, that I will; and wherefore will I do it?
I tore them from their bonds and cried aloud
‘O that these hands could so redeem my son,
As they have given these hairs their liberty!’
But now I envy at their liberty,
And will again commit them to their bonds,
Because my poor child is a prisoner.
And, father cardinal, I have heard you say
That we shall see and know our friends in heaven:
If that be true, I shall see my boy again;
For since the birth of Cain, the first male child,
To him that did but yesterday suspire,
There was not such a gracious creature born.
But now will canker-sorrow eat my bud
And chase the native beauty from his cheek
And he will look as hollow as a ghost,
As dim and meagre as an ague’s fit,
And so he’ll die; and, rising so again,
When I shall meet him in the court of heaven
I shall not know him: therefore never, never
Must I behold my pretty Arthur more.

CARDINAL PANDULPH
You hold too heinous a respect of grief.

CONSTANCE
He talks to me that never had a son.

KING PHILIP
You are as fond of grief as of your child.

CONSTANCE
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head,
When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows’ cure!
–William Shakespeare, King John, Act III, Scene 4

My thoughts and all sympathy to the families of those now burdened with grief, or, as it is customarily said at such times in my Jewish tradition, “may they be comforted wtih the other mourners of Jerusalem and Zion.”

Image:  Anthony van Dyck, Family Portrait, 1621.

Where Mike Huckabee Needs To Go

December 15, 2012

Mike Huckabee has never been what you might call my favorite person.  But it’s always depressing to see folks with influence plumb new depths.  By now, I’m sure you’ve heard he had to say about the Sandy Hook School shootings:

“We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools,” Huckabee said on Fox News.”Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?”

In other words:  Twenty-eight deaths, including the murder of twenty kids, was the fault not of the shooter, nor of a gun lobby that portrays military weapons as household tools.  Rather, said Huckabee, it was your fault and mine for having failed to appease his angry god by public worship in school.

Saying so is to implicate not just America at large in the crime.  It also adds up to a claim that those involved in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in particular were complicit in this massacre, for the banishment of one deity or another occured in that particular school too.  Lost a kid?  Too bad.  Shoulda prayed harder; shoulda held up a cross; shoulda, coulda, sorry old chum.

I can’t begin to write the rage and disgust I feel for that sanctimonious shit.  (Whether the word “shit” in that sentence applies to the man or the thought I’ll leave it to the reader to decide.) I want to say that it seems to me that there is a special place in hell Mike Huckabee.

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Unfortunately, I don’t think I can say that any more eloquently  than a howl and a “with a rusty pitchfork too!” kind of remark.  Fortunately, there are others who could and did describe exactly the appropriate fate for Mr. Huckabee — from one of whom, with your permission, I will now borrow.

Here’s one possibility that would satisfy my sense of justice:

The sides were crusted over with a mould/Plastered upon them by foul mists that rise,/And both with eyes and nose a contest hold./The bottom is so deep, in vain our eyes/Searched it till further up the bridge we went,/To where the arch o’erhangs what under lies./Ascended there, our eyes we downward bent,/And I saw people in such ordure drowned,/A very cesspool ’twas of excrement./And while I from above am searching round,/One with a head so filth-smeared I picked out,/I knew not if ’twas lay, or tonsure-crowned./‘Why then so eager,’ asked he with a shout, ‘To stare at me of all the filthy crew?’/And I to him: ‘Because I scarce can doubt/That formerly thee dry of hair I knew…

But perhaps that’s not miserable enough.  How’s this?

Then we descended from the bridge’s head,/Where with the eighth bank is its junction wrought/And full beneath me was the Bolgia spread,/And I perceived that hideously ’twas fraught/With serpents; and such monstrous forms they bore,/Even now my blood is curdled at the thought./Henceforth let sandy Libya boast no more!/Though she breed hydra, snake that crawls or flies,/Twy-headed, or fine-speckled, no such store/Of plagues, nor near so cruel, she supplies,/ Though joined to all the land of Ethiop,/And that which by the Red Sea waters lies./’Midst this fell throng and dismal, without hope/A naked people ran, aghast with fear—/No covert for them and no heliotrope/Their hands were bound by serpents at their rear,/Which in their reins for head and tail did get/A holding-place: in front they knotted were./And lo! to one who on our side was set/A serpent darted forward, him to bite/At where the neck is by the shoulders met./Nor O nor I did any ever write/More quickly than he kindled, burst in flame,/And crumbled all to ashes./And when quite He on the earth a wasted heap became/He on the earth a wasted heap became,/The ashes of themselves together rolled,/Resuming suddenly their former frame.

(Dante, Inferno, Canto XVIII, lines 106-121 and Canto XXIV, lines 79-106)

The translation’s a little old-fashioned, I know — but that’s what Gutenberg.org had on hand.

In any event, if I were a believer, I’d be hoping that Dante’s description of the torments of the damned is spot on.  And if it were then I would suggest to Mike Huckabee that he be afraid.  Very, very afraid.

Image: Pieter Huys, The Last Judgement, between 1555 and c. 1560


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