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Archive for May, 2011

Problems With Novels, and Problem Novels

with 3 comments

So, I was looking over the comments last night, and there are just a few things…

The first is that I don’t think it’s quite fair to saddle Anne Perry with whatever is going on on  modern university campuses, since she never went to university.  However it is Perry decided on her moral and political commitments, it didn’t come from being lectured by her RA during Diversity Week.

But something else bothers me about ascribing the particular issues here–a concern to see women treated like adult human beings (and not just “equals”)–as coming from that source.  It makes it sound as if that issue were something faddish, taken seriously only by a minority of insular intellectuals locked away in an ivory tower.

But the Victorian fad–and it was a Victorian fad–for treating women like mental defectives had its critics even among the Victorians, and is now almost universally acknowledged to have been a bad idea.   I’d bet that there were more dissenters from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionism than there are–at least in the US and Britain these days–from the stand Perry takes in her books.

As for the novels various people have suggested–I haven’t read most of them.  I have, however, read Ellis Peters, and I can say with some certainty that she does not (at least while she’s writing those) “live in” the Middle Ages. 

She writes modern mystery novels in fancy dress, which is what most of the writers of “period” mysteries do, almost necessarily.    If you want to see a mystery novel written by somebody “living in” the Middle Ages while he’s doing it, the book is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. 

Peters is a lot of fun, and she writes well, but she is in no sense giving us–or even trying to give us–books that “live in” the Middle Ages.

And there’s nothing particularly wrong with that.   Books like that can be a lot of fun.  And most of us would not really have much fun with books that actually “lived in” the middle ages, or ancient Rome.  They were not, in general, places we would find it congenial to live.

But Robert said this:

>>>But it seemed to me that every crime I ever read about in an Anne Perry Victorian came about, not through the eternal motivations of greed, lust, envy and wrath, but because of specific laws and customs corrected on the modern university campus. (BREACH OF PROMISE is a particular case in point, by the way.)<<<

And that brings up two things.

First is the simple fact that if I’m  dealing with an historical period, I should hope that my mystery would in some way involve “specific laws and customs” whether those are corrected on the modern university campus or not. 

I’d think it was inevitable that greed and lust and envy would express themselves differently in different periods, and be a danger (or not) during different periods,  because of the different laws and customs of that period. 

Think of what vast differences there are between the way we now treat charges of rape than in the way it was treated even in the 1950s.    What would be a strong enough motive for murder now (for self-protection, given the chance of 45 years on the sex offender registry) would have made very little sense in 1840.

I agree that the Victorians had their virtues as well as their vices, but I think Anne Perry pays them tribute on almost every page. 

I also think she’s writing what is in fact a recognizable kind of Victorian novel–the “problem novel.”    For that, you can find George Eliot (and writing on the same problem, too) as well as Thomas Hardy in England, Dreisser and James T. Farrell in the US, and Ibsen writing plays over in Scandanavia. 

The clash of the basic human drives and weaknesses with the social customs and laws of the time is what I find so marvellously wonderful about A Breach of Promise.  Neither Keelin Melville nor Delphine Lambert would have to do, now, what they have to do then to pursue their ambitions…but the ambitions themselves are timeless.

I don’t think Perry “disapproves” of Victorian society any more than George Eliot did, or Hardy, or even Dickens.  In fact, she often disapproves less. 

And I don’t think the issue Perry is most concerned with is something modern that shouldn’t be projected back to the Victorian era.  The issue was, in fact, one of the hot topics of that era.  If it hadn’t been, there would have been no Married Women’s Property Act, and no eventual female suffrage.

But you can take it back a lot further than that.  You can find protests against the way women are perceived and treated going all the way back to the Middle Ages in Britain, and probably farther back than that. 

I’ll stick to my guns–I think A Breach of Promise is a really wonderful book. 

And I don’t think it’s preachy, faddish, or an exercise in fashionable politics or self-congratulation.

Written by janeh

May 18th, 2011 at 8:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

So Hacked

with 4 comments

I’ve been having one of those days that are kind of like emotional whiplash–first good, then bad, then good, then…

And all of this, of course, accompanied by the kind of weather that makes you think that if God exists, He must be schizophrenic.

The good was that the last unresolved problem with Greg’s surgeries seems to be pretty much over, and he’ll even be off all the eye drops as of Friday morning.

I am  more than ever convinced that I was right to kick and scream and annoy insurance companies until they let me have the doctor I wanted, and Greg looks very cute in his new reading glasses.

That having been said, however, I’d like to point out to you that I checked my e-mail on my phone just before we went into the doctor’s office this morning, and sometimes between then and an hour and a half later when we came out, that e-mail account had been hacked.

I know this because I checked that account on my phone again when I came through, and found nearly 30 mailer-daemon messages along with frantic e-mails from several friends and my editor saying that the spam was hitting them in waves.

This resulted first in my cancelling my debit card so that nobody could use it–actually, Matt’s, because his was on the AOL account–and then trying desperately to reset my password.

This was damned near impossible, of course, because I had no idea what the answers to any of my security questions were. 

And that, in turned, got me locked out of my AOL account for 24 hours. 

It shouldn’t have–there’s an alternate security question that is supposed to pop up before that happens–but it didn’t pop up, so there we were, calling AOL tech support to try to get me back online.

By now, a gerbil should be able to figure out where this is going, and that is, in fact, where it went.

I do have to admit that the AOL tech support people were very polite.  They were a lot more polite than Matt, who took over the conversation and ordered me to go back to the cave and play with my rocks.

At any rate, rude or not, they did get me back online, and so here I am.

I still seem to be having problems with my AOL mail on my phone, but I’ll worry about that later.

In the meantime–I’ve been reading Anne Perry’s A Breach of Promise

It’s the first of the Monks that I’ve read, although I have read several of the Pitts.

And on this score, I have several comments to make.

First is that it is an absolutely wonderful book on almost every level that matters to me.    It is ferociously well written,  intricately plotted, and solidly anchored in its characters.

I’m not sure, however, that it can be called a murder mystery, although it is one.   Sort of.


There is a murder.    There is a mystery.  There is a lot of detection.  And the solution is ingenious as hell.

But–well, it’s hard to explain.  Structurally, it doesn’t read as a murder mystery, and the publishers have labeled it simply “a novel.”  I don’t know where the bookstores file it on the shelves.

I want to say that this is an excellent historical novel about a crime, which it is, but too many of you hear me say “maintream” and think I mean “literary.”

And you think “literary” and think I mean “contemporary novels of upper middle class angst.”

But mainstream is Gone With The Wind.  Literary is Catcher in the Rye.  Mainstream is Peyton Place.  Literary is Chilly Scenes of Winter.

So I’ll just say this is a really wonderful mainstream novel about a crime.

But it brings up an issue, and I don’t have an answer to it, exactly.  There are solid reasons why I don’t write historicals.

A friend of mine says he gave up reading Anne Perry’s novels because she seemed to be continuously disapproving of the fact that the Victorians did not have the same values as the contemporary university left,  and after five or six times when the “paterfamilias” was portrayed as either evil or incompetent or both, he let the rest of the series slide.

Let me say to start that I have never noticed any particular attitude about the “paterfamilias” in Perry’s work, but I have noticed a decided disapproval of the customary restrictions placed on middle class women and girls in Victorian society.

The restrictions she describes–and the attitudes of “society” that went with them–are, as far as I know, accurate enough. 

And they were not the province of men alone–it wasn’t a matter of men keeping women down, but of an entire social atmosphere that defined women as a “haven” from the real world, to be kept pure and innocent (meaning childlike and ignorant) so as to provide their husbands with a respite from reality.

I remember being very surprised the first time I encountered this attitude towards women in my reading, but it is at odds not just with modernity but with the Middle Ages and the Elizabethan era. 

Middle class women in the Middle Ages had not only much more social freedom than middle class women in the Victorian era, but more rights in law, too, not the least of which was the right to run their own businesses in their own right, even if they were married. 

So describing that particular reality seems to me to be justified by the fact that it was the truth.

And at least in this book I’ve just read, it’s an attitude ascribed as much to women as to men–women are just as likely to demand that other women be ignorant and childlike (as their “duty” and the only “decency” any woman could be expected to show) as men are.

There is, in fact, nobody I could accurately call a paterfamilias in this book.  The closest it comes is with a character named Athol, who is the brother of a military man who has just survived the Indian Mutiny with loss of limb and terrible disfigurement. 

Athol gallumphs around the place trying to run the lives of the young couple, insisting that the young wife not be told anything about the Mutiny because it will destroy all her value for her husband–etc, etc, etc.  Until the young couple are almost ruined by it, and then aren’t.

But in there there’s the wife of one of the military man’s fellow officers who has much the same attitude, and throwing her out of the house is the young wife’s first act of self assertion.

But here’s what counts as an issue to me–is it really necessary for the writer of an historical novel to approve of the social arrangements of the historical period she is writing about?

If I decide to write a novel about the anteBellum South, is it political hectoring if I do not approve of slavery, and it shows in my story? 

I do not approve of middle class Victorian attitudes towards women.  In fact, I think that such attitudes were and are destructive. 

This is a book more than anything about such attitudes and what they could do to people. 

And it’s a really great book.

But I still don’t know if I think it’s wrong to write about an era some of whose customs and attitudes you reject as a matter of principle.

If that makes any sense.

Written by janeh

May 17th, 2011 at 4:34 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

School. Uh. Huh. What Is It–Damn, That Doesn’t Rhyme

with 3 comments

Okay.  I slept in.  I made it all the way to six thirty.

My first instinct here is to start nitpicking, because, well, because I’m me.  I nitpick. 

And in nitpicking, I want to say that I never told anybody, Robert included, that people shouldn’t be able to major in history without taking “dance.”  Specifically “dance.”  I did say that nobody should be able to major in history without also knowing the history of art and ideas in the period they’re studying, but I feel the same way about literature–you shouldn’t major in literature without also knowing the history of ideas and events.

Dance is an unresolved issue for me.  The problem is that it is, like acting, a performance art.  And before the digital age, once the performance was completed, there was very little possibility to hold onto it.  You can have a history of painting because the paintings stand around for you to compare and contrast and put in order and classify.  Dance just goes away. 

I don’t think a history major needs to take courses in dance any more than I think he needs to take courses in painting.  The point of intellectual history is not to leap around a room or put oil paint on canvas.  It’s to see history from every possible perspective, not just the history of events.

The problem is, of course, that this is not just nitpicking, it’s beside the point.

To get back to the point:  Mary says she thinks it would be worthwhile for engineers to have a liberal arts background, and I agree.  I think it would be worthwhile for everybody to have a liberal arts background.

But I wasn’t talking about engineers, who tend to be already at a high academic level.

I was talking about people who want to be auto mechanics, radiologists, dental assistants–kids wanting to enter low-level practical fields of all kinds that, twenty years ago, required no time in college at all.

Why, exactly, are we requiring such people to get a “degree” and struggle their way through three semesters of English Lit, three semesters of “humanities,” etc, down the line? 

I do not agree with Robert that we should demand that some majors be required to prove first that they have a trust fund or a job before they can study.

I DO think that we should be upfront about what a liberal arts education–an actual college education–is. 

And that is not vocational.

The problem Sowell identifies exists not because we are producing a lot of pseudo-educated people with useless degrees, but because we have told those people that the degrees will be useful in a specific way:  in getting and keeping employment, and, what’s more, employment that is better than, and better paid than, what they could have gotten otherwise.

They feel entitled because we have told them to feel entitled.  We have said to them, “go to ‘college’ and you’ll have a career, you’ll be a success.'”

They don’t know what a college education is for, they don’t know why anybody actually studies the things an actual college education would make them study, they only know they are being put through a series of very expensive hoops on the promise that, at the end of it, they’ll get a “good” job.

When that turns out not to be the case, they of course resent it.  Why wouldn’t they?  Why shouldn’t they?

If we made clear that no such straightforward vocational link exists, we would have people–yes, even people without trust funds!–who want to learn what the liberal arts teach going to learn it and not worrying about whether or not it would be “practical” in the long run,  because the employment practicality of it would not be the reason they learned it to begin with.

Okay, that was a truly awful sentence.

And we could stop requiring people who want to do work that at most requires a short term of vocational training to get “degrees” that make no sense at all.

For what it’s worth:  Cheryl, in the US, the “proprietary schools” (the for-profits) mostly DO give degrees, usually BAs and BSs in things like business management, etc.

It’s our local community colleges that are giving out courses of study in things like auto mechanics and radiology.

There are a few for-profit vocational schools around–the oldest and largest are the secretarial schools–but by and large, in my part of the US, that kind of thing is the province of the local “community and technical colleges,” which are state-run.

My point, though, remains–somebody who wants to be an auto mechanic or a radiologist or a nursing aid or even a nurse shouldn’t be required to spend four years past high school in classes covering a smidge and smattering of philosophy and literature because they have to do that because…

Because it keeps the seats filled, and makes some institutions lots of money.

And as for the Sowell–no, of course I don’t agree with him.  But that was the point.

Tomorrow:  equality.

Or maybe tomorrow.

I have to go give a talk tonight.

Written by janeh

May 12th, 2011 at 7:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

I Know, I Know

with 4 comments

I disappear for a week, then I post twice in one day, then…

But this


is Thomas Sowell’s column on Townhall this morning.

I’d be interested in reactions…

Written by janeh

May 11th, 2011 at 9:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Ding, Dong…

with 11 comments

Okay, I wasn’t intending to write a post today, or at least not this early in the morning.  That’s because I’m sitting in a classroom that has a very good Internet connection, but that’s about all.  The teacher’s desk is very high and meant to be used with one of those chairs that can have its height adjusted.  Unfortunately, all such chairs have wheels on them, and me in a chair with wheels is a disaster wating to happen.  So I’m sitting in a chair without them and having to throw my neck all the way back to see the screen.

In spite of all that, I’m doing this–because there is nothing else to do.  It’s the very last day of the term I am waiting for students to bring in copies of their final exams and talk about their grades.  Most of them will opt out of the exam, since taking it is optional, so I’m not even going to have a lot of correcting to do.  All my paperwork is done.  Once the last student has come in, I can take off, stop at the pharmacy, and try to chill before I do my talk tomorrow night.

So, a few notes.

There was some merit in having a term with such a light teaching load.  I didn’t have all that much to complain about, I didn’t feel overwhelmed by sheer hassle, and advanced level students meant a lot less of the stuff that drives me crazy.

At the same time, I am ever more convinced of the following:

1) That we need to separate vocational education from the rest of “college,” because real college is drowning under it.  I wish public universities and community colleges would offer the option of a liberal education, instead of trying to shoehorn a few liberal arts courses into essentially vocational curricula.  It is rapidly becoming the case that a real university education is available only to the exceptionally talented or the already rich,  because so many of the public colleges and universities no longer offer it. 

2) We need a vocational education sector that is nothing but and unashamed of it.  Here, I think the best option is going to be the new private for-profits.  The downside of the for-profits is that the underlying imperative–keep the paying customers in the seats–tends to compromise academic standards.  You’re not going to keep butts in th seats if they keep flunking out.   The upside, though, is also due to that underlying imperative.  It means they have to listen to their customers and provide what those customers want–training for nursing, training for whatever. 

3) We really, really, really need to reform the high schools so that they’re actually providing a high school educati0n.  The biggest barrier to doing that is emotional–but we’ll flunk out so many people!  we’ll have a 30% graduation rate!

But here’s the thing–we have a 30% graduation rate now.  We just pretend we don’t by handing out diplomas to people who have really only completed about a 7th grade skill level and declaring them “graduated.”  It would be more efficient to start judging our success or failure rate not by who graduates, but by who has reached defined skill levels, and to offer those levels in high school classes. 

Maybe we could make some accommodation for older students, people who dropped out, or who take six or seven years to finish what other students might finish in four. 

But what I want us to do is to offer an actual high school education in high schools, which do not charge out of pocket.  Now, you can always get what I got in high school, but for too many students, it’s expensive as hell. And my kids–even my advanced kids–don’t have any.

4) No matter how much I may groan about the relative preparation and ignorance of my students, I do have to say that I am impressed as hell with many of them.  They’ve got no money.  They work fifty or sixty hours a week.  Some of them have been thrown out of their homes.  I’m fairly sure a couple this semester were living in their cars.  And a lot of them fall by the wayside.

But you’d be surprised at how many don’t.  And how many are willing to take a course, fail it, take it again, fail it again, three or four times until they make it happen.   And, all the while, finding the money to pay for it.

Which is another good reason to make sure high schools actually provide high school educations, and we put an end to this “everybody has to have a degree to get a job” nonsense.

We only think everybody has to have a degree because nobody has a high school education before.

Then there are the talks I keep getting asked to give.

That started maybe a couple of years ago, and I really like doing them.  Did I ever tell you I love libraries?   I love libraries.  Bookstores may not know how to sell books to their customers, but libraries know how to find books for their members.   I spoke at South Windsor Monday night.  I’m speaking in Guilford tomorrow.  I go knowing that there will be actual people there, many of whom have read my books, and a fair number of whom will buy some. 

One thing that worries me a little is the age of the crowd, which seems to consist mostly of people over forty.

That may just be because I’m me, and those are the people who like what I do, but I have a sinking feeling that library membership, like a lot of other things I love, is aging out. 

I am not a Luddite.  I’ve never been afraid of change per se.  But I do think something is lost when there’s nowhere to go to just look through the books and read a line or two and decide if it’s what you want.

We had an interesting discussion in South Windsor, about why people read the books they read, and specifically why people read the mysteries they read.  I was told that if I’m not cozy, I’m at least “genteel,” which I found rather astonishing.   I’ve had people in play by play sex scenes, dogs eviscerated on lawns, I don’t know what else.  For some reason, it just doesn’t come across as “graphic,” no matter how graphic it really is.

It reminds me of what an editor said to Bill’s agent, after reading the partial for Cronus, which included its first fifty pages, in which graphic torture and graphic death result in a body count better suited to a natural disaster.  “Of course, everything Bill writes is hilarious…”

At any rate, I’ve got another hour and forty minutes to go, because I know the last little clutch of people will rush in in the final four minutes.

I’m going to finish the Peter Kreeft book and go home to Harlan Coben.

Written by janeh

May 11th, 2011 at 9:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Double Bollix

with 9 comments

And thanks to Robert for telling me how to spell it.

Okay, let’s start here:  I had a sister in law, dead now, who was profoundly Catholic, and she sent me books.  I’ve read most of them over the years, but I had another one sitting on my coffee table for about a year and a half that I hadn’t looked into yet. 

It was the Shadia Drury article I talked about yesterday that made me decide I ought to read this book, as a kind of equal and opposite counterweight to the silliness Drury puts out. 

(Oh, and by the way–I’m not the only one who thinks she’s an idiot.  The Wikipedia page was very interesting on that score.)

Anyway, the book I picked up to read was called Handbook of Catholic Apologetics, and it was written by Peter Kreeft and Robert Tacelli.

And all I can say is, what Shadia Drury is to the Middle Ages, these two are to evolution. 

But the three of them could be blood brothers (and sisters?) when it comes to elementary logic.

Before I go on, however, I’d like to point out that I generally enjoy Peter Kreeft’s work.  He’s clear.  He’s unpretentious.  He usually knows what he’s talking about. 

I’m always looking for books I can give to the other side of the debate–books on evolution and secularism I can give to my very Catholic friends, books on Catholicism I can give to my secular friends.

I have the deep and abiding conviction that we’d all be better off if the people on both sides actually knew what they were talking about when they criticized the other.  I get fairly crazy about the endless straw man arguments that dominant this entire debate.

After a couple of days with texts like these, however, I begin to wonder if I’m the only one.

So, on to evolution.

Most of what I’m going to be complaining about is the usual–there are no transitional fossils!  it’s only a theory! the jury is out!  species appear suddenly!

At this point, I figure that what I’m looking at is what Robert and Cathy were talking about–people who just decide to be ignorant because it accords with what they want to believe.

Kreeft and Tacelli refer to the works of Philip Johnson, and that is, indeed how you end up spouting this nonsense.

It bugs me for two reasons.

First is that I cannot give a book that gets evolution factually wrong to any of my secular or atheist friends, nor can I recommend it generally to secular people trying to actually know what they’re doing when they talk about Christianity.   Once they get to all that stuff above, they will assume that the writer is either too ignorant to take seriously or deliberately lying and therefore untrustworthy on every level.

Second is that this is a Catholic book by Catholic writers, and Catholics do not need to be stupid about evolution.   There is nothing in the Catholic understanding of Christianity that requires it, or prevents a Catholic from accepting evolution as a fact. 

And it is a fact.

Here’s something else I’d like to see:  something that clearly spells out the fact of evolution (the fossil record that shows forms changing over time, the experimental work that does the same) and the theory of evolution (things like natural selection to explain the changes over time).

Yes, there are transitional forms.  Tens of thousands of them.  When biologists talk about species appearing “suddenly,” they mean after a hundred thousand years or so.  No, the jury is not out, and evolution is not “a theory in crisis.”  The entire field of modern biology is based on evolution, and the consensus for the fact of evolution is stronger than the consensus for gravity.   And evolution is not “just a theory,” it IS a theory.  Theory in science is a fully articulated and factually supported explanation for a phenomenon or set a phenomena.  It is not a guess.  A guess, in science, is called an “hypothesis.”

Yes, okay.  All the usual stuff.  All the greatest hits. 

But the thing that really got me, the thing that is on the same level as Drury’s claim that Christianity invented Purgatory to deal with small sins (while Hell deals with big ones)–that was this, from page 232:

“The scientific problems include…the total absence of any empirical evidence for the inheritance of environmentally acquired characteristics, except within a species (e.g. Darwin’s finches).”


Of course there isn’t “any empirical evidence for the inheritance of environmentally acquired traits.” 

It doesn’t happen. 

That’s an exploded theory called Lamarckism. 

It was never part of Darwin’s theory, nor was it ever part of evolutionary theory. 

I think that what has happened here is a profound misunderstanding of the mechanism of evolution, coupled by an inability to see the obvious–small traits making small changes will, over time, make big ones.

The mention of Darwin’s finches makes me think that what Kreeft and Tacelli actually meant was not “environmentally acquired traits” but “traits selected for (genetically) in response to environment.”

But since that’s not what they said, I can’t know.

Part of me wonders if what is going on here is an attempt to fudge the issue–the fact that Catholics do not believe anything an acceptance of evolution would disprove–in an attempt to maintain the recent alliance of Catholics and evangelicals on a number of issues. 

Unfortunately, the problems don’t begin or end with the silliness about evolution.

There’s the wholesale resort to logical fallacies, especially the ad populam fallacy–which Kreeft, who teaches Philosophy at Boston College, ought to know better than to do. 

Ack.  As I said, I’ve recommended several of Kreeft’s books in the past, because they clearly explain one aspect or another of Catholic doctrine that people on the secular side.

This one, though, is such an enormous, unbelievable mess, a ten year old could figure out what was wrong with it.

Written by janeh

May 8th, 2011 at 9:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Bolluxed. Or, You Know, However It’s Spelled

with 2 comments

So here we are, on Saturday of Mother’s Day week-end, which is always a rather bad time. 

I have a terrible feeling that my sons’ idea of what would be the best thing to do for me tomorrow involves multiple DVDs of Marvel superheroes in live action car chases ending in explosions.

In the meantime, however, I’ve been trying to get stuff done, and in doing that I’ve been distracting myself with reading.

This time, the reading began as a look at the new (April/May 2011) issue of Free Inquiry.  

For those of you who don’t know, FI is the magazine put out by the Council for Secular Humanism, which may now be called the Centers for Inquiry.  The organization has been expanding rapidly over the last fifteen years or so, and I sometimes get lost in the title changes and restructurings and all that kind of thing.

For what it’s worth, FI is the best in the very small field of publications.  The Council was founded by Paul Kurtz, who also established Prometheus Press, which publishes books on atheist, skeptical and magic-debunking topics.   It’s been successful enough to be called, now, a mid-sized rather than a small publisher.

I don’t have a subscription to FI anymore.  I used to, but I gave it up when they took on Peter Singer as a regular columnist.   I still read it, though.  It’s partially online, and Barnes and Noble stores have that neat thing where you can sit down a read a bit of something even if you’re not going to buy it.  Most of the time, I manage not to pay for Singer.

Of course, he doesn’t appear in every issue, so there’s that.

What I do make a point of reading every time I see it are the columns of a Canadian academic named Shadia Drury. 

Any of you who read this blog on a regular basis know, by know,  the absolute fascination I have with this woman’s work–a woman who claims to be an “expert” on things like Thomas Aquinas and the Middle Ages and who seems to know about as much about both as I know about soccer. 

I’m also, quite frankly,  still willing to bet the farm that the woman does not read Latin.  

I don’t know.  Maybe she reads it but reads it badly, which could explain why she continues to get poor St. Thomas so thoroughly wrong.

The article by Drury in this issue of FI, however, was the first I’ve ever read that made me wonder if what I was dealing with was not misunderstanding but dishonesty.  Call “Is Islam the Heir of Christianity?”, it is in some ways nothing more than a first rate example of cliched silliness about how Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular produce sheep-like automatons so afraid of going to hell that they’ll do anything the Pope tells them. 

I am, apparently, the only atheist on the planet who has managed to notice the obvious–which is that you can’t get here from there.

But what made me wonder about the dishonesty in this particular article has to do with two prominent figures in Christian theological history–Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius.

Augustine of Hippo was a saint.  Pelagius was declared a heretic for denying the doctrine of original sin.

So far so good, but the issue is far more complicated than that.  Augustine was a saint, but he was also a man who veered very close to the doctrine of predestination, the idea that God decides from all time who will be saved and who will not and that our free will has nothing to do with it, because we don’t really have free will.

I say Augustine only “veered” in that direction, for a good reason.  The doctrine of predestination is heresy in the Catholic Church.   It is just as much heresy as denying the doctrine of original sin.  It’s just heresy in the other direction.

Augustine knew this, and you can find passage after passage in City of God where he tries to reconcile his strong feelings in favor of predestination with what he knew the Church actually taught. 

Just because a man is declared a saint, or because his works have been influential with members of the Church, doesn’t mean that everything he ever wrote is actual Catholic doctrine.

And Augustine wasn’t the only “influential” theologian of the time or after, either.  Plenty of others–including Thomas Aquinas, about whom Drury wrote a book–not only come much closer to actually accepting Church doctrine, but are acknowledged by the Church itself to be using the right concepts and formulations.

The reason I started to wonder about dishonesty was this:  Drury sets up a dichotomy between Augustine and Pelagius, as if those two were the only viewpoints that existed–and she continually talks about how Augustine promoted the idea that man was born in “bondage to sin” and therefore couldn’t choose to be good, whereas Pelagius rejected “bondage to sin” and said that human beings could so choose.

And this is, really, very, very slick.

Let’s dispense with one thing right from the start.  In Catholic theology, nothing–not a stone–can do anything without God sustaining it.  If God got distracted one day, the entire universe would fall apart.   Existence exists because God wills it into existence, and will cease to exist if God no longer wills it.

I bring this up to get it out of the way.  To Catholicism, God will existence to exist, and that becomes a given.   It holds the same status in what comes afterwards as saying “the universe just is, it always existed and always will.” 

That is, after all, what modern science assumes–that what is here is here, it’s a brute fact. 

I bring this up because Drury spends a lot of time in this article sort of skimming over this concept and giving the impression that it means that human beings can’t be free to choose anything (have free will) because God is sustaining them in existence. 

She also spends a lot of time in this article skimming over the doctrine of original sin and implying that that means human beings can’t be free to choose, either, because they’re in “bondage to sin,” which makes them always automatically choose the wrong thing.

In other words, she spends a lot of time deliberately confusing the concepts of predestination and original sin. 

I’ve always thought that original sin was a very good metaphor for the way people actually behave–we know we should diet, but we eat the pecan pie anyway; we know smoking is bad for us, that we shouldn’t cheat on our spouses, that it’s wrong to take all those supplies home from the office–but the natural urge is there, and we tell ourselves we “can’t help ourselves.”

But metaphor or actuality, what should be obvious is that although the natural urge is there, plenty of us decide to refuse it.  We do it all the time.  If we didn’t, civilization wouldn’t exist. 

To be “in bondage to sin” in Catholicism is the equivalent of being “in bondage to natural desires” in secular thought–it’s not an absolute, just a statement of fact about lived human experience.

And the difference between this and predestination should be obvious–obvious enough so that I don’t really believe Drury could have honestly mistaken it.

Her purpose was to “prove” that our present concepts of human freedom could not have developed out of Christian thought, or been prefigured in it–they sprang, she says, from the Enlightenment.

I don’t know how she thinks the Enlightenment happened–apparently, it emerged, sui generis, all by itself and miraculously, without having to evolve out of the intellectual history that preceded it.

Quite frankly, I’d find that more miraculous than a virgin birth. 

And, of course, Locke and his contemporaries, the people who first formulated political freedom as the American founders understood it, did indeed develop out of a specific Christian tradition, that of the free will strain of Protestantism that emphasized the individual’s direct relationship with God and the primacy of the individual conscience over all forms of authority, religious and secular both.

But I can believe that Drury simply understands nothing about intellectual history.

I just only half believe that she could have gotten the original sin/determinism thing quite so wrong without getting it wrong on purpose.

And now, I’ve written a blog long enough to bore  you all to tears, and I never got to my actual topic, which is a train wreck of a book called Handbook of Catholic Apologetics by Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tancredi.

Maybe I’ll get to it tomorrow.

Written by janeh

May 7th, 2011 at 9:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Once More Into the Breach

with 9 comments

Actually, once more with no time, really.

Three things.

First, I agree with Mike–I’ve never met a child with ADHD.  What I have met, however, is unmedicated children who were later “diagnosed” with ADHD and put on Ritalin.  None of them exhibited the forms of behavior Mike, Robert and Mique have indicated.  Which makes me think that none of the schools who engaged in the wholesale medication of children in the 90s had met a child with ADHD, either.

I also want to point out that I didn’t say that ADD and ADHD didn’t exist.  I said that there was no proof that they existed, and I should have qualified that.  There was no proof–as in a recognized biological abnormality–as late as, say, around Sept 11, 2001, which was when we were going back and forth about whether Greg had it.

He didn’t have it.  He was bored out of his skull, and caught in the ideology–when he got bored he didn’t pay attention, so his grades suffered, so he got bounced out of the honors program, so he got more bored, so…

We may have come up with that biological marker since.  I don’t know.

Second, I wasn’t blaming psychologists for what social workers and psychiatrists do.  I was blaming psychology.  As a field.

Teachers, nurses, and social workers may not be psyc hologists, but they get their ideas about human nature, and about “disorders” like ADD and ADHD, from the courses they take in psychology departments. 

The field bothers me because that business of doing “studies” without adequate controls–with the anatomically correct dolls, with no control group at all–is uncomfortably widespread, and because nobody seems to be interested in checking pronouncements about human nature against actual human nature.

What’s more, the local school psychologist is a psychologist, and she’ll use the DMV-VI (or whereever we are now) as her Bible when she talks to parents.

I know. I was one of those parents.

Whether we like it or not, we have created, over the past fifty or sixty years, a vast interlocking system of policy and regulation that affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, most of them vulnerable. 

There’s a presumption in the US that adults get to make idiots of themselves, and that puts at least something of a break on coercing and medicating them.  But children and, increasingly, old people are defined as “not really competent,” and therefore fare game.

And the profession does not do enough to police itself, nor is it honest about its limitations and failures.

I might feel better about this if one thing had happened:  during the priest pedophilia scandal, I watched everybody on the planet beat the hell out of various archbishops for not protecting the children in the dioceses by removing the offending priests permanently.

But the fact is that, in the 1960s and 1970s, when all this happened, the common psychological advise in these cases was to do exactly what the bishops did.  In fact, most of them were following expert advise that they’d gone out of their way to seek.

The answer?  Making a big public fuss about it would only damage the child.  In cases like this, the child is as likely to be the instigator as not.  Even where the child isn’t, we have a set of therapies that can cure the priest of pedophilia, after which he’ll be perfectly safe to send back into a school.

Nobody is yelling at psychology, as a field, for having made this particular mistake about the nature of pedophilia, or demanding that they face up to that mistake.

When physicists and biologists screw up, they don’t just act like the mistake never happened and expect the public to go on treating them as experts.

The third thing is something to the side here–this was linked to on Arts and Letters Daily this morning:


A lot about scientism, scientific positivism and Sam Harrs, and all of it from the left.

Written by janeh

May 3rd, 2011 at 8:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

More Addenda

with 4 comments

I don’t usually sign in on Mondays, but there were a couple of things overnight, and I’ve got just a few minutes.

1)Lymaree’s problem can be solved if we stop thinking in modern ideas of “sexual orientation” as a singular sort of thing. 

To the extent that any sexual orientation is hardwired, any such orientation that produced no children would fade out if practiced exclusively.

But there’s no reason to believe that most people at most times ever practiced one and only one form of sexuality exclusively–homosexuality in classic Greece, for instance, was almost never practiced exclusively.  You had one sort of sexual relationship with your partner in battle, and another with your wife.

What’s more, to assume that the gold standard for what is sexually “normal” is to whether or not it can at least theoretically produce natural children is to go back to a very old standard of normality indeed, and completely undercuts most arguments for full civil rights for gay people.

I don’t understand why one has to class any form of sexuality as a “disorder.”   Things don’t have to be psychologically diseased to be bad for us.  What is natural is not necessarily good.  Arsenic is natural.  It will still kill you.

The attraction of older men to young girls and young girls to older men is perfectly natural, but there are good reasons why so many societies have worked overtime to discourage and control it–and better reasons for us to do so, living in a world where women are expected to take their places beside men in the professions.

2) I do know that there have been attempts made to reign in the depredations of “expert testimony,” but they don’t go nearly far enough.

My problem is not that some particular clinical psychologist has an abysmal track record at predicting recidivism rates, it’s that all of clinical psychology does.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the extent to which psychological “experts” are embedded into our legal system.  Their pronouncements are the basis for policy not only in criminal courts and on parole boards, but in social services of all kinds. 

And their track record is abysmal on a lot more than recidivism rates.

The book I recommended–Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology–has a long article on the anatomical dolls debacle.

For those of you who don’t know it:  for a long time, one of the methods used to “prove” that child sexual abuse had occurred was to give the child an anatomically correct doll and see what she did with it.  If she pulled at the genitals or otherwise inspected them–well, there it was.  She must have been sexually molested.  No normal child would do that.

This “evidence” was then brought in to court to prove that molestation had occurred, even when the child herself denied it.

In fact, the denial was another “proof” of molestation–the expert advice was that children never lie when they say they have been abused, but will often lie when they have been because they’re ashamed to tell anybody. 

It was a perfect example of circular reasoning–if the child said abuse happened, it happened, because we must believe the children.  If the child said abuse didn’t happen, it happened, because saying it didn’t happen was really a cry for help and a way of saying it did. 

The anatomically correct doll test was done over and over again and never failed to confirm abuse–and it send dozens of people to jail, ruined hundreds of lives, tore families apart.

The problem was this:  nobody had ever checked to see what a normal, unabused child would do with such dolls.

When people started checking, it turned out that all children of a certain age grabbed at the genitals.  And unless you wanted to claim that all children everywhere had been sexually abused, then pulling at the genitals proved nothing but that the child was a child.

What I want is to delegitimize clinical psychologists as experts in all settings, not just in court testimony.  We should not be making public policy on the basis of “research” that is not only not science, but is often barely voodoo.  We should not be allowing teachers to classify children on that basis, or social workers to classify families, or courts to demand a stint in rehab to addicts.

When the profession gets its act together we can revisit the field to see if it should be installed in government operations, but until then–no.

3) For what it’s worth, in the short run, the medications we give to children diagnosed with ADD and ADHD always work.

They increase concentration and the ability to focus in everybody. 

That’s why parents in upscale neighborhoods often go out of their way to get their children diagnosed–and why a thriving black market in Ritalin exists in every upper middle class suburb in America. 

In my experience, though, what parents are actually looking for is a way out of what has become a terrifying maw of competitiveness.

It’s not 1950 any more.  The difference between graduating from college and not graduating from college is enormous.  Consider the fact that during the last three years, unemployment among college graduates has stayed fairly level at between 4.5% and 6%, but unemployment among people with only a high school diploma has been over 12%.

Granted, the plumbers and the electricians are doing fine, but most people with only a high school diploma won’t be plumbers and electricians.

A middle class parent faced with the fact that one of her offspring is…what shall we call it?–not academically talented can find herself in a real state of crisis. 

Not to be able to get into a “good” university means a dismal prospect for employment for the rest of your life–and the dismalness is worse the higher the parents’ own educational attainment and career success.

In some places on the Connecticut Gold Coast, getting into “only” Bucknell or Vanderbilt is failure.   It’s the Ivies, the Seven Sisters or the Little Three, or you might as well write off your entire life.

Yes, I know.  It’s silly.  But the worry about kids who can’t compete in academics being unable to compete in the job market is not, and parents do what they have to do to get their children what is necessary to succeed in life.

Connecticut was the most highly medicated state not just because the schools pushed it–although they did–but because the parents did, convinced that doing so would give their children an advantage in the race towards college admissions.

4) But here’s the thing:  as nuts as this sort of thing makes me, I’d consider it absolutely none of my business if it weren’t for the fact that it was never a matter of individual choice.

The entire mindset has become entrenched and established as “science” in schools and elsewhere, and that means that anybody who dissents from the orthodoxy is likely to be hit with reprisals, and the reprisals have teeth.

Parents who refused to allow their children to be medicated for ADD and ADHD were, in Connecticut, often threatened with being reported to CPS for “neglect,” since “obviously” they weren’t getting their children the “medical help” they needed.

Others found principles and guidance counselors who refused to provide recommendations for private school and college admissions.

All the families found their children’s records littered with the “conclusions” of “experts,” thereby affecting everything the kid did as long as he stayed in school.

And, like I said, we have absolutely no material evidence that ADD and ADHD actually exist.

5) Clinical psychology as it is now practiced consists mostly of an attempt to create and impose social  norms from above, and to police behavior based on a standard of “normal” that’s actually a standard of perfection.

And now I have to go off and have a sensible dayl.

Written by janeh

May 2nd, 2011 at 5:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Time Has Come, The Walrus Said…

with 4 comments


Obviously, we have come to the time when I get myself in all kinds of trouble again.

So, before we begin, I want to point something out–the last time I took up this topic, a poster to this blog not only signed off for good, but stopped speaking to me. 

At all.


And Lymaree didn’t stop speaking to me (thank God, or Whatever), but she was miffed.

And they weren’t the only two.

So, let me plunge right in.

Clinical psychology as it is largely practiced in institutions–schools, prisons, hospitals, and most social service departments–is largely a prescriptive, not a descriptive field.

That is, unlike science–which would investigate, codify and classify data and only then come to a conclusion about what is “normal”–the clincial psych people tend to assume that the behavior they approve of is “normal,” and everything that deviates from it is a “disorder.”

If you really want an overview of this–especially as it relates to sex offenders, and sex offenses–try getting hold of a book called Science and Pseudoscience in Clincial Psychology, which was written by people in the field who are trying to bring some attention to the worst of the depredations of this sort of thing.

But in the meantime, let me start with one of the less emotionally volatile examples.

We are told that there is something called “ADD” or “ADHD.”  This is “Attention Deficit Disorder” and “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Distorder.” 

These are “disorders” largely found in children, although diagnosing them in adults is becoming increasingly common.

There are certainly children out there whose biochemistry is so severely out of whack that they find it impossible to sit still for even a moment or two, but if those were the only children who were receiving these diagnoses (and the almost inevitable drug-intensive “therapy” to goes with them) there would be a few hundred cases of this a year and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Instead, in some of the schools in the better heeled suburbs of a state like Connecticut, as much as 25% of all boys are being “medicated” for “hyperactivity.” 

The assumption of the “diagnosis” is that it is normal for an eight year old boy to be perfectly comfortable sitting still and focussing on math problems for big swatches of his day, and abnormal –disordered–for him to prefer to daydream, run around on the playground, or just about anything else that’s academically impractical.

In other words, Mark Twain, and Shakespeare, and Dickens were all wrong.  It isn’t normal for little boys to want to play hooky and go fishing.  That’s the “symptom” of a “disorder” and if we just give them this drug here, they’ll be better in a jiffy.

Oh, and when even the drug doesn’t quite do it, well, we’ll give them “accommodations,” like extra time on their tests, so they’re not disadvantaged by their “disability.”

This sort of silliness would be laughable if it didn’t cause a lot of damage, but it does. 

For one thing, over the last twenty years we’ve medicated the hell out of thousands upon thousands of children, basically pumped them full of speed for years on end.   

We did it without knowing what the long term effects of this sort of thing are–in fact, we still don’t know.   Twenty years further on, we may be looking at long term physioneural damage we’ll have caused all by ourselves.

But that’s not the only thing that’s here.  We’ve also brought up a generation of children who have been encouraged to think of themselves as “disabled,” and to assume that they are both entitled to special treatment in competitions and incapable of competing without that special treatment.

We’ve also got parents who fake symptoms for their children in order to get them the drugs, which in fact do increase the ability to concentrate, and therefore give any kid an edge he wouldn’t have otherwise.

And then we do what we want to do otherwise, because if the kids don’t function well with it, that’s a symptom of their “disorder.”  So–abolish recess for more class time?  You bet!

In the meantime, over in Japan, where virtually nobody is “diagnosed” with ADD or ADHD, they break the class day up with twenty-minute hunks of recess devoted to strenuous physical activity, because, you know, if they don’t do that, the boys get all fidgetty and distracted.

If we want to talk about sex, we could spend the entire day, but just let me try one particular aspect–the tendency of older men to like young girls, say in the 15 to 19 year old stage.

Now, anybody who has spent any time reading classic fiction ought to notice something here–this particular attraction has been going on for millennia.   We can find it in Homer, in Chaucer, in Balzac…you name it. 

In fact, every society on earth up to now has recognized the fact–and it is a fact–that the majority of men are sexually attracted to teen-aged girls. 

And most of those societies have also recognized that the teen-aged girls are often attracted back.

And most of those societies have also recognized that this is not a good thing.

Historically, the social response to this situation has been to limit the access of men to girls, mostly by limiting the options of girls to get out and move around without being watched.

In Crete until very recently–and possibly even still–it was common for mothers to keep their daughters away from their fathers and brothers from the time they turned thirteen until they married.

As late as the days of my adolescence and early young adulthood, it was common to either remove girls from male company–in girls’ schools and women’s colleges–or to give them different and stricter rules than their brothers, and to police their interactions with males as often as possible.

But as time went on, this was increasingly seen to be unjust, and not least because such restrictions hampered the development of independence in at least some girls and therefore made them less capable of participating in the professions as fully as boys.

So we gave that up.

And we invented a fiction.

The fiction says that, on the one hand, it’s a “disorder” when men in their forties are attracted to girls this age, and that even if the girls say they’re just as into the relationship as the men (and even if they actively go after the relationship), it doesn’t matter, because the girls “aren’t capable of consent.”

This is, quite frankly, complete and utter crap.

Men are attracted to girls this age–and, even when they’ve been trained out of it, are attracted to girls whose body type mimics this age–because 150,000 years of human evolution hard wired them to be. 

Think about it–we evolved in a world where fertility was best taken advantage of as soon as possible, because people died young, and women died in childbirth even younger. 

If your biological imperative is to pass along your genes to the next generation, then women would do best if they got to breeding as quickly as they could, and men would do best if they mated with women as young as possible within the framework of fertility.

I am not a biological determinist, and I know that we can in fact learn to control and channel our impulses.

But we live in a very strange world.

For one thing, we don’t feel comfortable telling people to control their impulses, and “social science” is on record as declaring that one’s sexuality is the core of one’s identity.

Therefore, we find it nearly impossible to admit that the attraction is perfectly natural, because if it’s natural we think we have to approve of it.  Hence, a “disorder” is born.

Second, we not only live in a hypersexualized society, but in a society that is hypersexualized precisely to the body type of teen-aged girls.

Go take a look at your latest round of models and young actresses–they’ll almost invariably have large breasts and slender hips, a configuration that is normal to most human females only in adolescence.

And if the model or actress you want to use doesn’t quite fit the look–well, the art director can go at the gels with an Exacto knife and make the picture fit.

Then, of course, we come to the girl, and the disturbing fact that a fair number of them a) dress much older than we are (and we can’t police that–that’s self expression!) precisely in order to attract older men and b) claim to know what they’re doing and want what they’re getting.

But that’s impossible, since young girls going out with older men is Bad Behavior that we know we disapprove of (and, as I said, for good reason).

But then we seem to be in a place where we’re denying the girls the “right” to the expression of their sexuality, which we think is a Bad Thing, since sexuality is the core of one’s identity.

And we’re on record saying that no sex is bad if it takes place with consent.

So–voila!  We invent the fiction that the girls are “incapable” of consenting.

They’re just too young.  They don’t know their own minds.  There’s a “power differential.”

(Which, by the way, is also supposed to be a “disorder”–even though the powerful male and the frail female has been a staple not just of men’s porn but of women’s romance novels, and an entire BDSM industry.)

I’m sorry, but I think you could spend a lifetime trying to figure out if some man who has gone to jail and landed on the sex offender registry for the “statutory rape” of a seventeen year old is going to “offend again,”  because the “science” surrounding the issue has become completely divorced from reality. 

And that’s another example of the harm this sort of thing does.

My parents’ and grandparents’ generations may have done things to protect girls that you and I don’t like–all those girls schools, all those chaperones, all those curfews–but at least they did something that had a chance in hell of succeeding.

What we do doesn’t have a chance in hell of succeeding, because it is based on a false premise:  that such attractions are “disorders,” a kind of disease that needs to be “cured.” 

But since there is no disease and nothing that can be cured, all the treatment in the world won’t get you squat.

The punishment for the offense might–he doesn’t want to go to jail, so next time he’ll be a lot more careful about making sure he sees a valid ID–except that he’ll almost certainly land on the sex offender registtry, which will  make him unemployable.

Which means, the next time, he’ll have a lot less–and maybe nothing at all–to lose.

So at that point, any odds on whether he’s “likely to reoffend” would be better determined by a coin toss than a psych evaluation.

For what it’s worth–we could do a lot to start correcting this mess if we could get the courts to do one thing:  ask for stats on efficacy before accepting expert psych testimony as “science.”

People should not be allowed the status of “experts” whose predictions are less accurate than chance.

Written by janeh

May 1st, 2011 at 4:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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