Monthly Archives: October 2008

Autumn watch

Thursday was the last day of our neighborhood farmers market. It was sunny, windy, and cold. The farmers from Mattapoisett weren’t there; “They said they had nothing to sell,” said Mary, the farmer from Dartmouth. Mary told me about the cafe she’s going to open in Fall River, where she’ll sell her baked goods. “Will you sell produce and eggs?” I asked. “Well, maybe some eggs,” she said. Carol and I bought apples, turnips, squash, and eggs from her. We said goodbye to Mary until July, and then we walked home in the bright sun, talking sadly about how we will miss the farmers market.

Although the farmers market has gone for the year, some of the winter residents have finally begun to return to New Bedford harbor. As I was walking to Fairhaven today along Route 6, I noticed there were some four dozen Brant along with the usual flock of gulls and Mallards that feed where a big culvert drains into the harbor. I stood there in the sun for a while, ignoring the four lanes of traffic rushing along behind me, watching those four dozen small geese who had finally arrived at their winter residence from wherever they spent the breeding season.

For the love of numbers

The latest New York Times/ CBS poll has some interesting things buried down deep in the full report. On page 29, we see that only 22% of those polled consider themselves politically liberal; 38% call themselves moderate; 33% conservative; and 7% didn’t give an answer. On page 27, we discover that 38% of those polled claim they attend religious services every week or almost every week, while 23% never attend. According to page 9 George W. Bush gets a lowly 22% approval rating, while page 17 reveals that Congress gets a dismal 15% approval rating.

One thing I love about the Web is that you don’t have to rely on the dumbed-down “stories” in which journalists “interpret” polls for us — you can look at the actual questions and responses — geek heaven! Link to the report.

Paper no longer

Dan Kennedy reports that the Christian Science Monitor will move to a Web-based publication in a few months. They’ll still produce a weekly paper version for them that wants to pay for it, but the main publication will be online only. Why the switch? If you don’t have to sell ads, Web publishing is cheaper.

Over here in Unitarian Universalist land, I fully expect that UU World magazine will be primarily Web-based within a few years. Given the state of the economy, and the probably drop in income from this year’s Annual Fund, the person we elect as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association in June, 2009, might choose to make that switch sooner rather than later.

Minor presidential candidate news

If you’re still interested in voting for a third-party candidate, the following news factoids might be of interest to you…

Paris Hilton, who is apparently running a write-in campaign for president, has come out in favor of ratifying Kyoto. She also states that the official presidential vehicle (should she get elected) will be a pink hybrid SUV. She also says that “if you’re going to put lipstick on a pig, make sure it matches her skin tone.” I have to say that Paris is conducting her campaign at a higher level than some Main Stream Candidates. Alas, according to Wikipedia, Paris was born in 1981, and so is nearly twenty years too young to meet the constitutional age requirements for president. Let’s hope she runs again in 2028. [Thanks, Jean, for the link to the video.]

In other minor candidate news, the Elder God Party has announced a comprehensive plan for preventing the kind of financial crisis that is now engulfing the world. In a recent press release, C’thulhu and Shoggoth state that they will personally devour presidents and other executives of banks that have failed since the crisis began. According to their press release, Shoggoth has stated, “Richard Fuld doesn’t expect us to feel sorry for him, so we will eat him.” Fuld is the former president of the failed Lehman Borthers bank, who testified before Congress this fall that he didn’t expect anyone to feel sorry for him.

Tony Hillerman dies

Mystery author Tony Hillerman died yesterday. New York Times obit is pretty good. Hillerman set many of his mystery books on the Navajo reservation, and his main characters were Navajos; there are a number of scenes dealing with navajo religious events.

From a religious point of view, Hillerman’s books are of particular interest because his characters deal with the tension between traditional religion and contemporary life. One of his characters, Jim Chee, adheres to the traditional Navajo religion, but as (what I would term) a religious liberal; that is, Chee figures out ways to adapt and accommodate religious traditions to contemporary realities. There are other Navajo characters in Hillerman’s books who either reject religion completely, or cling to traditional religion in a fundamentalist way, or reject their traditional religion in favor of more attractive religions that come from the dominant superculture around the Navajo microculture. Each of these religious options — religious liberalism, rejecting religion completely, fundamentalism, conversion to another religious tradition — face each one of us today. Few of us have to confront with the problem that also confronts Navajo people:– to what extent is traditional religion an essential part of their ethnic and cultural identity, and how far can they change that religion before the change leads to cultural extinction and complete assimilation into the dominant Anglo culture?

While Hillerman’s books are “just mysteries,” and therefore suspect from the point of view of “high art,” I have found them to be some of the most thoughtful meditations on the role of religion in contemporary life. For that reason, and for his memorable characters and good storytelling, I’m going to miss Tony Hillerman.

At night

In the middle of the night, a crash of rain on the skylight awakened me. It sounded so loud and harsh that, dazed by sleep, I was sure the glass in the skylight would break and the water would come pouring in; half-dreaming, I thought about where I’d get plywood to cover the open skylight, and would the landlord repair the glass quickly? Somehow it never occurred to me that if the skylight broke there would be little bits of tempered glass all over the floor: all I could think about was how we would clean up the water that was sure to pour in. The rain squall was soon over, and slowly I calmed down and drifted back to sleep.

Monty Python and cultural commentary on American politics

Seesmic, the video microblogging site, has decided to move into political commentary — sort of. Well, really we should call it cultural commentary.

Seesmic did an interview with John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, during which they asked him his opinion of Sarah Palin. You don’t have to be a member of Seesmic to watch — they’ve posted it on Youtube. Cleese is not an acute political observer, and it’s clear that because he doesn’t agree with her politics he gives her no credit whatsoever. But this interview isn’t political commentary, it’s cultural commentary. By listening to Cleese in this interview you get a sense of what a skilled professional actor sees when he looks at an American politician. Here’s a transcript of the relevant portion of the interview:

“People watching her [Sarah Palin] on television, can they not see that she’s basically learned certain speeches? And she does them very well, she’s got a very good memory. But it’s like a nice-looking parrot. The parrot speaks beautifully, and kinda says ‘Aw, shucks,’ every now and again, but doesn’t really have any understanding of the meaning of the words it is producing, even though it’s producing them very accurately. And she’s been in these training sessions with Cheney’s pals, and she’s learned these speeches, and the extraordinary thing is that so many people are taken in by it.”

Once you remove the ad hominem bits and his obvious political bias, Cleese’s cultural critique of Palin is quite interesting. He’s basically saying that she’s very good at making her hearers feel that she knows what she’s talking about. But Cleese forgets that this is exactly what every politician does, and has been doing for thousands of years; this is simply the nature of political rhetoric, and has been at least since the time of Aristotle. Here’s some of what Aristotle has to say about political rhetoric:

“Since rhetoric exists to affect the giving of decisions — the hearers decide between one political speaker and another… — the orator must not only try to make the argument of his speech demonstrative and worthy of belief; he must also make his own character look right and put his hearers, who are to decide, into the right frame of mind. Particularly in political oratory, but also in lawsuits, it adds much to an orator’s influence that his own character should look right and that he should be thought to entertain the right feelings toward his hearers; and also that his hearers should be in the right frame of mind. That the orator’s own character should look right is particularly important in political speaking…. When people are feeling friendly and placable, they think one sort of thing; when they are feeling angry or hostile, they think either something totally different or the same thing with a different intensity….” [The Rhetoric, Bk. 2, ch. 1, 1377b21-1378a1, trans. Richard McKeon]

So a deepeer cultural commentary on contemporary American political discourse has to take into account that all the tricks used by today’s politicians are really thousands of years old. Political rhetoric is used to sway the emotions, in order to cause people to make decisions. Today politicians use mass meida to reach more people, but the basic principles remain the same. Reading through Aristotle’s Rhetoric has been making me calmer in this very stressful presidential election season — I can see that politics is not much different now than it was in ancient Greece.

Human nature is weak

My friend Elizabeth, whom I met in college and who now works for the Department of labor in Washington, visited us today. “Well,” said Elizabeth, “we could either go to the beach, or go to bookstores in Cambridge.” We looked at each other. It was a beautiful fall day, a perfect day for a walk on the beach. We drove to Cambridge.

We started in Central Square. Pandemonium Books had Doris Lessing’s new novel Cleft in paperback. “I always liked her science fiction better than her mainstream novels,” said Elizabeth. So I bought it, along with a magazine and a game and a Terry Pratchet book.

We walked up to Harvard Square and stopped at Revolution Books. I was hoping to find a used paperback copy of Marx’s Kapital because my old copy has started to smell moldy, but they only had the first volume. I got the latest copy of a communist newspaper instead; I figured they’d offer a perspective on the global financial crisis utterly different from the Republicrats (or is it the Demolicans? anyway, the party that has the purple elephant and donkey as their symbols).

Next stop was Harvard Book Store. I found a 1962 paperback edition of a Perry Mason mystery novel, The Case of the Duplicate Daughter, with an outrageous pink cover showing two young blonde women — the cover alone was worth the two bucks I paid for the book. I also got some books for work: Rethinking the Gospels: From Proto-Mark to Mark, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism, and a couple of others.

From there we walked to McIntyre and Moore Booksellers in Porter Square, which I still think is the absolute best bookstore for used scholarly books in the country. I didn’t get much — just The Crisis of the Standing Order: Clerical Intellectuals and Cultural Authority in Massachusetts, 1780-1833 (another book for work), and a book on subcultural music. Elizabeth, however, bought a lot of books, including an early Beat novel, two books on Quakerism, and a book that traced the intellectual effect of yoga on English-language literature.

“That’s how I first learned about yoga, through literature,” she said to the nice man who rang up her purchases and arranged to ship the books to Washington for her. “I would never find a book like this in Washington, the anti-intellectual capital of the world. What other city could I find a book like this?”

“Maybe Berkeley,” I said. “Cambridge, or Berkeley.”

Having struck our blow against anti-intellectualism in America, we left McIntyre and Moore Booksellers and walked to the subway station. I staggered a bit under the weight of all the books I was now carrying in my canvas bag — human nature may be weak in bookstores, but your arms have to be strong.

Fat cat

And no, the fat cat to whom I’m referring is not Richard Fuld, the former president of Lehman Brothers who received obscene amounts of money for driving that bank into bankruptcy. I mean a literal fat cat, who goes by the name of Mosby. Mosby is trying to lose weight, and he is keeping a blog of his progress.

Well, actually, he’s keeping a blog of his lack of progress because he can no more resist eating kitty treats than Richard Fuld could resist taking home tens of millions of dollars in spite of incompetent performance. The URI of Mosby’s blog is — and yes,Mosby does indeed look like a walking ottoman.