Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Archive for October, 2010

Marketing Meatballs

with one comment

I told you.  I’m just making up titles for a while here.

But seriously, it’s Sunday. And I did actually get to sleep in this morning, meaning I didn’t get up until half past five.

But it’s not the usual calm day, because I’ve got a lot of running around to do.  And then tomorrow I’ve got even more, including a guest appearance in the class of somebody who is teaching creative writing to regular (rather than remedial) admits.

Yesterday was the writers’ conference, which was held on the campus of a local private school.  The campus was really gorgeous, and the conference’s organizers solved the problem of the fact that I still had a cold and was getting tired out easily by driving me if there was anywhere I had to go.

And the food was incredible. 

I ended up being, perhaps inadvertantly, something of the star of the enterprise, in spite of the fact that I was not the main/keynote speaker, largely because I was the only “real deal,” as one of the participants put it.

That is, although I wasn’t the only writer on the panel who had had real books published by real publishers, I was the only one who was or ever had been actually making a living at writing. 

That meant that my “workshop” was the best attended of the day, and quickly turned into a “business of being a writer” fest, with lots of discussions about agents, editors, marketing, sales, you name it. 

I was happy to oblige.  In fact, given the way I was feeling, I was a lot more effective doing that than I would have been doing a regular writing workshop with everybody reading from little scraps of paper where they’d written done exercises.

That being said, the real difference I noticed between myself and all the other speakers was my approach to writing–and a couple of the participants noted it, too.

That has to do with the way in which people described their experiences actually doing the writing.   Everybody else besides me talked long and in detail about how difficult writing was, how painfully they had to work and rework, how they had to clear themselves off all distractions.  I think one woman compared writing to the kind of labor that produces a baby.

Well, I remember labor.

If my writing felt like that, I wouldn’t do it.

The fact is, I don’t find writing hard.  I love doing it.  I do it for money, and I do it when I’m not getting paid money. I just do it.  I’ve always done it. 

Writing is a really happy thing for me.  I probably started when I was about six.  I know I had started by the time I was eight, because I’ve still got the yellowing sheets of paper with my plans for the Susan Derringer Mystery Series on them.  I’ve even got a few papers of an actual Susan Derringer mystery novel.

And, you know, the whole thing signed with my name and my grade and the universe on it, and that kind of thing.

I’ve been at other writers’ conferences where people spoke like this, and I’ve been trying to remember if this is because what these things were were conferences, and therefore largely academic. 

Since Bill died, I don’t go to big conventions like Bouchercon, so it’s probably been 15 years since I was on a panel at one of those, but I don’t remember those discussions centering so heavily on the painful difficulty of writing.

I really don’t remember many people saying that writers make practically no money and you therefore have to go into it for the…what?  exactly.  Hobby aspect?  Self expression?

That, I didn’t get at all.

What’s more, all the writing-as-agony stuff sounded a little unreal–as if it were the Standard Emotional Expectation rather than something that anybody was really feeling or doing.  And yet I know some of the people who were speaking there, and they are not in general ungenuine in their emotions or their expressions.

Maybe this is why I will never be Hemingway.  I just don’t understand the whole idea of writing as a recreation of the myth of Sisyphus.

I will say that what all this stuff reminded me of is the way people write for my college “alumnae and alumni” magazine–you get the same sort of earnestness, the same emphasis on “painful” whatever (change, in the case of the magazine). 

Every time I’m in the middle of that kind of thing, I find myself thinking that, to the extent that I know about it–and it’s often quite a significant extent–I have had an objectively more painful life than most of the people talking, more early deaths and that kind of thing, than the people talking or writing, and yet I do not feel that way about living.

And Vassar was certainly a time of growth and change, as everybody says, but I found neither particularly painful.  In fact, I had a very good time, and although I was a bit disappointed–I think what I really wanted out of a college education was the kind of thing I could only have gotten if I’d gone back in a time machine to about 1700, and been a boy–I did manage to get some of what I was looking for.  There is a Western tradition out there, and in those days Vassar taught it.

Ah, well, maybe I’m nitpicking about nothing.  I finished the P.D. James novel I was reading an, searching through the stacks for something nonfiction and maybe polemical, I landed on a collection of short essays by “young conservative writers” edited by Jacob Sullum.  I think it’s called Glad to be Right, or something like that.  It’s in the other room.

The essays are, you know, okay.  They’re not particularly extreme in any direction.  They cover the ground from religious conservatives to libertarians.

They’re just not very well written in the way that it matters to me that something is well written.

They’re the kind of thing all those creative writing teachers–and probably most of the speakers on the panel yesterday–would have really liked.  The prose is grammatical and clean.  The ideas are clearly and logically expressed.

It’s the old so-what factor that’s the problem.  A professor I had in graduate school explained that as the difference between a B and an A.  If the essay was perfect but he was left at the end of it saying “so what?”  then you got a B. 

For me, writing, to be good, has to sting.  It’s got to glow in the dark.  There’s got to be some there, there.

And in these things, even when I agree with them–maybe about a quarter of the time–they’re something of a yawn.

If I’m going to read conservatives, I’d prefer a P.J. O’Rourke, or a William F. Buckley.

Or, hell, in contrast to this, an Ann Coulter.

I virtually never agree with Ann Coulter. I find myself yelling at her a lot when I read anything she’s written.

But I damned well remember it.

I’m going to go finish tea and then go running around some more.

I tellmyself that, eventually, all the work will get done, but I’ve got a feeling that that’s not how it works.

Written by janeh

October 17th, 2010 at 6:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Equity for Actors

with 5 comments

I’m having one of those days when part of me wants to write just to write, and part of me wants to take the tea into the living room and read something, even though I have nothing in particular to read.

I mean, I have stuff.  But nothing…oh, you know what I mean.

Anyway, I thought I’d through in something that puzzles me, and since Robert brought it up it’s been on my mind.

I first heard of Rich Iott Keith Olbermann’s Countdown program on MSNBC.    We tend to like Olbermann at my house, not necessarily because we agree with everything he says–there are moments, and then there are other moments–but because, when he’s going good, he can be very funny.

Greg, who wants Jon Stewart’s job when he grows all the way up, even owns the Olbermann bobblehead.

Olbermann took time in the program one day to spotlight Iott wearing a Nazi uniform, making the inference–the first of many–that Iott was wearing the uniform because he likes Nazis and wishes he could have been one.

Once the story got underway, it became clear that what had actually happened was that someone had gotten a picture of Iott in the middle of a war reenactment.  In war reenactments, people take the roles of various soldiers and others in a battle and then try to replay the battle on the ground.

There are war reenactment groups for almost every war out there.  Robert would know better than I would how they choose which battles to reenact–well, okay, reenacting Gettysburg seems rather obvious–but the fact is that what we’re dealing with here is an interest in military history.

Good reenactments have to be well researched and the people who take part in them have to know what they’re doing. 

What should also be obvious here is that in such reenactments, there must be reenactors on both sides of the conflict.  If you’re going to reenact a WWII battle, you’re going to have to have some people play Nazis.

Now, maybe it’s just because I’m the daughter of a man who knew the blood types of every soldier who fought at Gettysburg, but there never seemed to me to be anything bizarre or sinister about these things. 

On their weakest level, they’re a little silly.  On their strongest, they show an admirable interest in hands-on understanding of history.

But Olbermann is hardly the first person I’ve heard treat re-enacting as prima facie evidence of the re-enactors’ facism/racism/whatever.

There was, for a while, a woman who commented on this blog who seemed to think that everybody taking part in Civil War reenactments really wanted a return of the slave state antebellum South, and that all black people who took part in them were self-hating and themselves racists.

If you google Iott’s name, you’ll find a lot of bloggers and commentors on the net making the same kind of assumptions about Iott, and if you read through a few of those you’ll find that most of them are from people who had virtually never heard of re-enactments before.

And yet the concept is not difficult.  War re-enactors take the process more seriously than the kind of person who likes to re-enact Medieval jousts, but the principle is the same, and we don’t tend to assume that the guy playing the Evil Black Knight menacing the damsel is really an Evil Black Knight in real life, or that he wants to be.

I do, as I said, like Olbermann quite a lot, and my guess is that my politics are closer to his than they are to Iotts.

But this looks depressingly like an all’s fair in war situation–a place where the decision has been made that defeating conservatives for Congress justifies any kind of bad faith, smearing, and outright falsehood. 

If Olbermann honestly doesn’t know what re-enactments and re-enactors are, and why they do what they do, he had an obligation to find out before starting this thing.

If he does know, then he’s engaging in an elaborate form of lying.

And I have to run off and speak at a writer’s conference.

Written by janeh

October 16th, 2010 at 5:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Letting The Grass Grow

with 4 comments

Don’t ask me where I get these titles.  More than half the time, I don’t know.  Sometimes I think the most difficult thing about writing this blog is figuring out what to call posts.  And that’s especially true in the morning.

I am actually feeling a little better this morning, although I’m at that stage where I’m so tired I could just go back to bed.  That’s too bad, in a way, because tomorrow I’m due to speak at a writer’s conference.   I’ve been looking forward to it for some time.  Now I’m worried I’m going to sound fuzzy and flat.

And I never sound fuzzy and flat.  I make a point of it.

And I’m almost finished with the P.D. James novel–The Private Patient–that I started about the time this whole cold thing started.  And I’m not too sure what to say about it.

On the one hand, it’s beautifully written and constructed.  Everything James does is beautifully written and constructed.  I hope I can do half as well when I reach nearly ninety.

I hope I reach nearly ninety.

On the other hand, the book has brought back to me something I often feel about James’s work, and something that is to an extent true of Ruth Rendell’s work, too, or at least her work as Barbara Vine.

All the people in James’s work are isolated in a way and to an extent that I find highly unusual in real life.

I don’t mean that the books sound unrealistic, because they don’t.  They sound very realistic indeed.

I just mean that most people I have known, myself included, are not so irretrievably locked into the bubble of their aloneness as virtually everybody is in a novel by P.D. James.

This includes her detectives as well as her subjects.  No matter whose point of view the story is being told from at any moment, that person is emotionally isolated from everything and everybody around her.  Or him.

And nobody is happy.  Every once in a while you’ll find somebody who expresses “contentment,” but that person will be content precisely in being shut off from other people.  They’ll take pleasure in art or books or work, but mostly what they’ll take pleasure in is their own solitude.

I am sure that there are people like this in the world.  I’m even sure I’ve met a few.  What I don’t think is that most people are like this in the world.

I even wonder if P.D. James is this sort of person in the world.  I’ve been introduced to her a few times over the years, at conferences and awards dinners and that kind of thing, and she’s always seemed to me to be a rather happy and outgoing person.

In other words, not like somebody living in an emotional bubble.

Of course, I’ve never actually known her, never mind known her well, so I may be missing something.

But the fact is that I find myself oddly put off, this time, but so many isolated people.  Dalgleish is about to get married, and even in the descriptions of his relationship with Emma, both he and she seem very isolated indeed.

Okay, Emma a little less so, although you don’t get anything from her point of view in this book, and I don’t remember the sections from her point of view in the earlier book. 

But then, Emma comes off as a little weak and overemotional and childish.  It’s a relationship in which AD is the grown up, and his work is off limits as a topic of conversation, never mind confidence.

Ack.  It’s one of those days, if you know what I mean.  Even the tea isn’t helping.

But it comes down to this:  I’ve never felt that way about my life, not even when I was much younger and had a harder time connecting with people, or finding people to connect with.

I certainly don’t feel that way about my life now. 

And I find I’m getting slightly impatient with people who do feel that way about their lives–with characters who feel that way, I should say, because it’s like I said before.

Although I’ve known people who are like this, I haven’t known all that many.

There is something too easy about a life lived in such splendid solitude–and I feel that way even about characters who are suffering in their experience of it.

I’d better go do something sensible before I run out of steam on this day.   My guess is that wouldn’t be too hard to do the way I feel know.

But in this book I’m working on, nobody lives in emotional isolation, splendid or otherwise.

Murder seems a lot more likely to me among people who are far too connected to each other, rather than too little.

Written by janeh

October 15th, 2010 at 5:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

We’ve Got A Cold, Oh Yes!

with 4 comments

Never mind.  I’m really out of it at the moment.  I don’t know if I’m making any sense at all.

But I thought I’d check in, and say the following:

It’s true enough that we in the West are past the point where we ever could be proud of imperialism or colonialism–but have you noticed, we’re the only ones?  Even the old USSR made no apologies for expansionism, and most of the Asian and Arabic worlds just think we’re all lying when we say we think it’s  a bad thing.

And that’s interesting too, if you think about it.  Robert, I think it was, said that our distaste for imperialism and colonialism could be tied to Christianity.  Or maybe I’m remembering that wrongly.

But I never thought that former Empires justified their existence by how much good they did their conquered peoples.  Of course they didn’t.  Why would they bother?  They thought empire was a good thing in and of itself. 

I was just pointing out that Empires had, in history, done a fair amount of good in the long run, good we tend to pretend didn’t happen, as we equally pretend that things like the rule of law and the rights of citizens would have evolved on their own no matter what the environment.

The other thing is that I got an e-mail from a woman who read Living Witness in a library book discussion group, and found it upsetting, because, she says, she found it too realistic.

And that’s such a compliment that I should leave it alone.

But she also said that she and other readers were taken aback because the murder in the book is not motivated by the creation/evolution controversy that’s tearing up the town, and that gave me pause.

I suppose, at base, I don’t think the book would have been realistic if  the murder had been so motivated–I don’t think we kill each other over things like creation/evolution much.

Love, money and revenge–definitely the three I’d go with.

And now I’m so dizzy I need to lie down before class.

I want more tea.

Written by janeh

October 14th, 2010 at 10:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Cold in October

with 4 comments

This is going to be short and incoherent.  I-think-I’m-getting-a-cold has changed to I-definitely-have-one.  I came home from class yesterday feeling half dead.  And I arrived a bit with sweet tea and dinner, but not much.

This morning I just feel like my head is full of cotton wool.

I just wanted to point out that:

First, I was not justifying colonialism.  Nor was I suggesting we should go back there.

I was just pointing out that our attitude to colonialism (and imperialism) is an historical anomaly. 

We wouldn’t have felt this way about either if we had lived a couple of hundred years ago.  Many societies on this planet right now do not feel this way about these things, at least as long as the colonialism and imperialism are their own and not imposed on them by others.

And we wouldn’t have tried to justify ourselves by saying that we were doing “more good than harm,” although I’m willing to bet all Empires did in fact think they were.   It would have been a perfectly acceptable reason that Empire gave us a lot in terms of resources and higher standards or living. 

My point was that our present attitude to colonialism and imperialism is no less one sided and shallow than the old one.  We stare so long at the wrong we do here that we don’t notice the wrong being done there. 

And life, and history, are not that simple.

As to the comments–I’ll look back into the Sudan thing when I’m feeling better.  What I had heard was chattel slavery, meaning actual buying and selling, but given the general accuracy of all reporting, that could be anything.

As to the business of lack of immunity to European diseases–the idea that indigenous peoples in the Americas were wiped out wholesale that way was fairly well debunked a decade ago. 

The simple fact is that there was no large scale reduction in the native populations in the Americas after the arrival of the Europeans.  No evidence exists that any such large scale populations ever existed in North America and the Carribean, and in Mexico and South America–where there were actual civilizations or the remnants of them–native populations seem to have expanded after Spanish and Portuguese conquest. 

And yes, I’m sure that there were racists among the early English settlers, and English and American proponents of the idea that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

But that’s a far cry from saying that it was ever the policy–in theory or practice–to attempt to wipe out the Indians wholesale.

Which, again, is not the same thing as saying we treated them well, because we obviously didn’t. 

My interest, here, is in the need of some people to find genocide where none exists, and specifically to attach the crime of genocide to British and American history. 

Once back on RAM I had an argument with a woman–I think she’s actually a fairly well established S/F author–about whether or not some American army officer had ordered a massacre of Indians in the Southwest and said that his officers should just kill them all, because God would know his own.

I pointed out that that was in fact a direct quotation from a Medieval churchman made at the time of the Albigensian heresy.

She retorted that she didn’t care whether the American officer had made up the quote or just quoted it, it was still horrible.

What seemed to never cross her mind was that the whole thing was an urban legend.  No American officer had every said any such thing.  Somebody who knew the quote had simply floated the story, and she believed it because it was the kind of thing she expected to be true about American relations with Indians.

There’s a lot of this sort of thing going on, and if you think about it, it’s very peculiar. 

Robert traces the phenomenon of people taking satisfaction in smearing their own country and civilization to about WWI,  but although that may pinpoint it in time, it doesn’t explain it.

And none of the other explanations I’ve heard seems to me to be strong enough to account for it. 

The closest thing I’ve heard to an explanation that might cover it is the idea that Western culture in general and Anglophone culture in particular tends to the meritocratic, and meritocratic culture is especially hard on the psyche not of people who end up “losers,” but of ambitious and intelligent people who are afraid they’ll end up losers, or who define “loser” rather high on the scale of status.

And that, since they can’t “win” by their own standards or what they think are the standards of society, they retaliate by trying to destroy the credibility of the culture that is (they think) judging them.

Okay, by now it must be obvious that I think this is something of a neurosis.

But that would cover the raging animosity of so many in the chattering classes for everything their civilization stands for, especially at the upper end of the chattering classes. 

That upper end does very well by the standards of, say, working class people in Tuscaloosa, but by the standards of Bill Gates, or Stephen King, not so much.

I am, really, falling over there.  And the tea is nice, but it’s not exactly the elixir of happiness.

Or a cure for the common cold, either.

I’m going to go off and read a little before I have to go in and knock some sense into heads that would really rather be asleep.

Let me say just this:  I am reading, at the moment, P.D. James’s The Private Patient.

I like it quite a lot, but I realized something while I’ve been reading it.

I’ve read too many stories about people who have managed to make a success of their lives after surviving a childhood being beaten to a pulp by an alcoholic parent.

Such people are, in real life, admirable–but they’re getting to be something like a majority in detective fiction. 

And that makes my mind glaze over, to use the paraphrase.

Tea.  School.  Sleep.

Written by janeh

October 13th, 2010 at 5:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Celebrating Genocide

with 4 comments

So it’s the day after Columbus Day, and I would have posted this yesterday, except that the inevitable happened on a three day week-end:  that cold or whatever it is that has been threatening to hit me all week landed on my head.

That, and I had a screaming fight with Matt the night before.  He hung up the phone and went off to play in Philly with his friends.  I couldn’t sleep.

But yesterday being Columbus Day, I had a number of posts on FB urging me “not to celebrate genocide,” almost all of them from people I like, and I figured it’s about time I said this.

Go ahead.  Celebrate Columbus Day.  You won’t be celebrating genocide.  There wasn’t one.

The great “genocide” of indigenous peoples following on the European discovery of the Americas is in the same class as the “burning times” of witches in Medieval Europe and the “genocide” of aborigines in Australia in the late eighteenth-early nineteenth century.

It never happened, and any look at the actual numbers will make that obvious in very little time.  Somewhere in this office I’ve got a book with all the footnotes not only on this one but on the other two, and I’ll post in a day or two.

But in the meantime, I’d like to make a couple of points.

The first is that genocide is a word with a meaning, and it isn’t “killed a lot of people in a war of conquest.”  It means to attempt to eradicate a racial or ethnic group from the face of the planet or, at the very least, from the larger local area. 

It’s not that genocides have never been attempted, or never happened, because they must have.  There was the obvious example–meaning Hitler and the Nazis–but also some other smaller ones here and there. 

I write about Armenian-Americans, after all, and they’re sincerely concerned with what the Turks did in 1915.  And what the Turks did was systematic enough so that there is at least an arguable case that what was attempted there was genocide.

But the fact is that genocide is actually very rare, and vanishingly rare in literate societies.  That’s what makes the Nazi episode so shocking. 

What’s always makes that episode sound so insane is the simple fact that actual genocide is insane.  It’s insane even if we don’t look at the moral level. On a practical basis, it makes little or no sense. 

In the long history of the world, conquest has been a generally good thing for the conquering countries (and on some levels also sometimes for the conquered), but it would not be if it was carried out by invading a country and then slaughtering every last man, woman and child in it.

Ancient peoples had a much more rational alternative to genocide when they conquered whole peoples:  slavery. 

The second thing is this:  while the “burning times” seem to have been made up out of whole cloth in an collective spasm of orgiastic victim-identity politics, the Columbian and Australian “genocides” were at least based on something that did in fact happen.

What did in fact happen were wars of conquest. 

And here’s where I get really interested, because something really interesting is happening here.

And all the pseudo-historical nonsense about genocide obscures it.

Consider this:  wars of conquest are the rule, not the exception, throughout all of human history, in every single society that ever learned how to read and write.

Virtually all the epic poetry that has come down to us is about “war,” but what it really is about is the attempt of some people to take over others by war.

No society prior to the 19th century ever found this circumstance morally reprehensible. 

In fact, Empire was generally considered a good thing, proof that your nation and people were great. 

And Empires were respected as long as they were strong, even by their own conquered peoples, and even when they were simultaneously resented.  Paul of Tarsus was a Jew who later became a Christian–but he was proud of his Roman citizenship to the day he died, executed by his fellow citizens. 

Paul was willing to give his life for Christ, but it may be a good thing that nobody ever asked him to give up his status as a citizen.

The old adage is “civilization spreads through conquest,” and throughout all that history it was in fact true.  When you did come upon a people who had been isolated by geography from being taken over by others, what you found was not pristine pastoral idylls, or great shining civlizations that practiced peace and tolerance.

You found, in general, what the English found when they got to Australia:  people who had not yet emerged from the stone age, who lived on a level that the lowliest slave in Rome would have considered unacceptable.

What interests me is this:  when, and why, did we stop seeing Empire in that light?

I think it’s tempting to believe that we got so morally sensitive that we were able to think of conquest as evil in and of itself, that we began to understand that every society has a right to self determination whether we like its practices or not.

But there are a couple of problems with this formulation, not the least of which have to do with its practices.

Do we really think that it is better for the people of the Sudan, for instance, to go on practicing slavery, executing homosexuals for their homosexuality, and repressing and murdering their women–than it would be for them to be ruled by someone else who would establish a rule of law and begin to eradicate those things?

Was it really better for India before the British came, when the practice of suttee was widespread?

Does it matter that even the Indians don’t think it was?

The actual practice of imperialism and colonialism was much more complicated than we allow for these days.  The Brits could be first class sons of bitches, but most of the leadership of the Indian generation that sent them packing was educated at Eton and Harrow and Rugby and Winchester and Oxford and Cambridge.

And to this day, Indian standards of education are based on the British public school system you’d think they’d reject and resent as a vestige of “colonialism.”

I’m not, as I said, in favor of a return to colonialism.  But I do think we’ve gotten so knee-jerk to the term that it’s become unuseful as an intellectual category.  Calling a country “colonialist” or “imperialist” is like calling a person “racist.”  All discussion comes to a halt.  The charge is meant not to uphold moral standards, but to strangle even the possibility of debate on a hundred questions and more.

So let’s stipulate that we are none of us in favor of colonialism, or imperialism, or conquest.

Do we have any obligations to the peoples of places like the Sudan?  Does it matter that slavery is practiced there, and in other places, in the 21st century?  Does it matter that homosexuals are executed for their homosexualityor that women are murdered and mutiliated for being raped or on the slimmest charges of adultery? 

In the 19th century, the British–imperialists that they were–went on a crusade to end slavery, everywhere.   They didn’t care if your self-determination meant that you thought you ought to have slaves.  They put their boats out into the ocean and made the slave trade virtually impossible for anybody, anywhere.

That was imperialism.  Was that a bad thing?  Would the world have been a better place if the Brits hadn’t done it?  Would the Brits have been a better people if they hadn’t done it?   Is Africa better or worse off, in the long run, because those same Brits put an end to the kidnapping of one set of tribesmen by another and the selling of the kidnapped to Arab slave traders?

Maybe it’s just that we’ve gotten to the point where we no longer feel confident that any of our standards of morality and civilization are universal and objectively true. 

The British Empire did not think that they were “imposing their values” on anybody.  They thought that at least some values applied to everybody.  Slavery wasn’t “wrong for them.”  It was wrong for everybody.  And therefore they could put an end to it.

We’re not going to go back to colonialism and imperialism any time soon–and there are enough drawbacks to both that that’s a good thing–but there are other ways of spreading civilization these days, and I’m not sure we’re doing that, either.

In Sweden, the law enforcement system has begun to turn a blind eye to honor killings among the immigrant Muslim population.  After all, that’s they’re culture, and what right have the Swedes to impose Western culture on these others?

Is that really a more moral course of action than…well, than all kinds of colonialism and imperialism down the ages?

Do you think the women murdered in those honor killings would think so?

Written by janeh

October 12th, 2010 at 6:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Squeaky Saturday

with 3 comments

So, every once in a while there gets to be a day that I look at and don’t know what to do with.  I don’t mean a particularly bad day, or even a particularly good one.  I mean one that’s just sort of sideways.  Yesterday was a day like that.

Let’s start out with the thing that made me feel–not exactly bad, but something. 

Yesterday was 14 years since Bill died.

Every year since then until this one, I’ve called my mother in law to talk, just as I called her to talk on Bill’s birthday.

Yesterday I didn’t, of course, because she died this past summer.  But what bothers me is that I might have forgotten even if she had been alive, because I did forget.

I only remembered this morning because I checked Facebook and saw that it was my sister-in-law’s wedding anniversary.

And, since the two dates are related, the light went off.

I don’t know what it means that that day no longer seems to have the emotional hold on me that it did.  It isn’t as if Bill doesn’t have the hold.  He definitely does, it just kicks in on his birthday.

But it’s odd.

But there were other things odd about yesterday, and that was why I was checking Facebook first thing in the morning.

Yesterday, there arrived in a mail a small package from a place called BlueDot in Philadelphia. 

Or, at least, I thought it was someplace called Blue Dot.  When I checked BlueDot online, it turned out to be a branding thing for energy-saving stuff.

What came in the package marked BlueDot, though, was phone chargers–three of them, one for the wall, one for the car, and one that hooks into the computer.

They’re a really great set.  I like all of them.  The wall charger one works. 

And, since the return address was Philly, I assumed Matt had sent them.  So I sent Matt a text thanking him, and he sent me one–clueless.

He had, in fact, bought me a charger, but only one, for the wall, and he hadn’t mailed it yet. 

Well, I thought, my friends Carol and Richard had been talking about getting me one off E-Bay, maybe that was this.

I e-mailed. They hadn’t.  They didn’t have a clue either.

I then went down the list of people I know who might have done that, trying to pick out clues from the way the package was addressed–an issue, in sending things to me, but I won’t go into it here–and still nothing.

Then I put a thing up on Facebook and asked who sent the chargers.

And as of this morning, nothing.

If this was a murder mystery, very bad things would be about to happen right now.

But it’s not–or at least I don’t think it is–and all I can say (here and on FB) is:  thank you very much, whoever sent these.  They’re great.  I love them. Thank you for thinking of me.

And I do sort of get a kicky out of it being so damned freaky.

But it’s early in the morning–although not as early as usual, thank God–so I’ll make some sense, and then go off and listen to music.

Issues with torture notwithstanding–and I was using the term to mean what it meant in WWII and not what it’s being expanded into now–my problem with hypotheticals is that their use is almost always (at least in classrooms) to only “values clarification” per se, but specifically to convince people that they don’t really have moral objections to using some people to benefit others, and therefore to reduce their resistance to such schemes.

There’s a similar use for the old lifeboat hypothetical–the boat will be swamped if you don’t ditch some people, who do you ditch?

The purpose always seems to me to be to convince students that they really don’t have any objections to treating people as things, to judging some people worthwhile to keep alive and others not. 

And ideas like that can be applied, in the long run, to issues like euthanasia.

Which is not to say that that is what every teacher uses hypotheticals for, or even that hypotheticals can never be used honestly.  But I’d be willing to bet that that is what Singer and his acolytes use them for.

If that makes sense.

Ack.  This is the second time I’ve tried to post this today.  I’ve got the Well-Tempered Clavier (vol 1) on the stereo.  A character is P.D. James’s The Private Patient is listening to my favorite Bach piece (Concerto in D Minor). 

And I’ve finished my tea.

Georgia Xenakis, by the way, is the name of the new detective.  I’ve got a partial pretty much done, the continuing characters (or some of them) all worked out, and a pretty good mystery.

Now all I need is a title, and I can send this thing off and see if something can become of it.

Written by janeh

October 10th, 2010 at 10:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Three Day Weekend

with 2 comments

And I’m doing it again, with the spelling of weekend.

But it is a three day weekend for me, three days when I have no need to get up at any particular time.

These days, that’s how I tend to define “time off.”  There isn’t any day when I do no work at all, except when I’m very sick.  I haven’t been on an actual vacation in–well, okay, it depends on how you define vacation.  But if you mean going somewhere else from home and not working right through your stay, I haven’t done it in years.

Maybe ever.

I got up late this morning, or at least late for me, and found that John Oliver had been to Arts and Letters Daily before me, and been struck by the same article I was to be struck by.

I don’t know if any of you remember a series of posts I did on reading a book by a Peter Singer disciple.  I can’t remember his name any more, but he was taken with Singer’s call that all people in rich countries are morally to blame if they do not strip themselves down to absolutely the bare minimum required for existence and send everything else to the poor countries.

I said at the time that I didn’t think he actually expected anybody to do this.  Instead, he was in search of a way to make people in rich countries feel morally illegitimate, a mental state that makes them much more malleable when other issues come up that might not be to their advantage.

Of course, my younger son knew what was wrong with this idea the first time he heard it:  the rich countries are rich because they have active economies, if everybody stopped buying luxury cars or houses over six hundred square feet or any kind of electronic fun gadget at all, the rich countries would take very little time to become poor countries themselves and then there would be no “resources” for anybody.

I bring all this up because the guy who wrote the book was completely enthralled by an academic philosophical exercise called “the trolley problem,” and it was an article on the trolley problem that was up on A and L Daily this morning.

If you want to know more about the trolley problem in detail, you can go over to


and read the article, which makes some interesting points, although not nearly enough of them.

My issue with all this is more general–it’s with the use of hypotheticals at all.

I do understand that hypotheticals do have a use.  They can be helpful in sorting out issues when you’re not sure what to do next.

But if you take them beyond that narrow function, they’ve got all kinds of problems.  And no matter what some of the people in this article would say, I think Thomas Aquinas–unlike Singer and his Apostles–would have seen what those were.

The problems with hypotheticals are these:

First, obviously, they are not true.  They are not only not situations we would not actually face in the real world, they are situations we could not actually face in the real world. 

In order to devise a hypothetical clear enough to be useful for discussion, it is always necessary to strip away the vast majority of conditions that would prevail if the situation did arise in real time.

Consider one of Michael Levin’s hypotheticals in his essay “The Case for Torture”:  a terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb somewhere in the city of New York.  If you don’t get him to tell you where that bomb is, thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of innocent people will die.  Only by torturing him can you hope to have the information in time.  Do you torture him?

Almost everybody on the planet would answer yes to the question at the end of that hypothetical.  In fact, I would answer yes to that question at the end of that hypothetical–if I knew that the conditions on the ground were what the hypothetical said they were.

But although you might find a scenario approximately like this in the real world, you would find one exactly like it, and for more reasons than one.   The most obvious kink is that statement that “the only way” you could get the information on time was torture. 

There was a guy who tried to plant a bomb–not a nuclear one, but still–in New York City, and not only was torture not the only way to get information out of him, they barely had to arrest him.  He’s been talking damned near nonstop ever since.

But the real problem with Levin’s hypothetical is in its assumptions, and especially its main assumption–that torture could get the truth out of your man at all.

There are all kinds of moral and philosophical objections to torture, but the practical objection is that it tends to make the victim willing to say anything his interrogators want to hear, true or not.   While your guy is making up anything he thinks will satisfy you, you’ll be using valuable time that could have been spent looking for that bomb in other ways, or even interrogating the prisoner in ways less likely to throw up false positives.

The trolley problem, and all its variations, have similar kinks in them, but to me their biggest difficulties are two fold:

First is in the fact that the situations they present are wholly artificial in a way that really matters in real life.  They assume that it is possible for the actor to know and comprehend a wide variety of crises all happening at the same time.

For most of us, seeing a trolley rushing down the track to kill six children tied to the rails, the chances are good that we won’t even notice the single guy tied to the siding who isn’t in danger yet.   Anybody who has ever been in a situation of acute danger (and who hasn’t been trained by something like the Marines) knows that the tendency is to concentrate on the immediate fact, often to the exclusion of everything and anything else.

The world goes still.  Your mind goes completely clear.  You focus on this one point until it is solved.

Then you look up and–oops, the other guy on the other track.

That’s how that would play out in real life. And there may be some serious moral questions here–to what extent should we all be trained to be able to see the larger picture?–but they aren’t the ones the trolley problem throws up.

The bigger issue, for me, is the one Aquinas would have understood from off–the trolley problem, as stated, is not an exercise in moral philosophy, but in values clarification.

It assumes that what we need to do is to find out what we already think about the morality of acting within the hypothetical, not that we might need to change what we already think. 

Or that what we already think is wrong.

There is, however, a bigger issue still:  let’s assume the validity of the trolley problem as a method of moral reasoning.

Now let’s apply it to the issue of what we (or Europe, or the UN, or Israel) should do about the  Iranian nuclear program.

Except that nobody will, because the people who run around worrying about the trolley problem are, in fact, desperately trying to avoid real questions of real morality in real life.

It’s not the point of their exercise.

Written by janeh

October 9th, 2010 at 7:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

An Addendum to Bourgeois

without comments

So, I’ve been thinking about this.

I think it’s really hard to credit just how singular the reaction to Judaism and Jews has been throughout history. 

Yes, of course we resent middlemen and we want to scapegoat ‘the other,” but no other ethnic or religious group has been the subject of repeated calls to wipe them off the planet, to kill every last one of them. 

The Hindu and Muslim populations of East and South Asia want to run the Chinese out of town, they don’t want to slaughter them wholesale and then invade their home country and slaughter them wholesale there. 

Calls for worldwide and absolute extermination of the Jews go back to Persia, before there was a Christianity of any kind.  The Roman Empire was unusual, relative to any of the civilizations that came before it or after it who had contact with Judaism, in not calling for such extermination.

I don’t think this can be explained by the usual analyses–there is something honestly different going on here. 

And, like I said, I don’t know what.

Written by janeh

October 7th, 2010 at 9:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

AOL is having one of those days when all the connections are slow and tend to bump me off every ten minutes, so I have no idea if this is even getting written.

But let me give it a shot–on bourgeois values, and on Cathy’s question as to whether anti-Semitism is just another instance of hatred of the middleman.

The bourgeois values thing is harder, because it morphs.

For Marx himself–and not just Marx, but aristocrats and peasants going back at least to the middle ages, who felt exactly the same way but didn’t have the word–“bourgeois values” are quintessentially priorities placed on material wealth and comfort, social status, and convention.

The original complaints against the bourgeoisie were leveled not against working people per se–most of them were the proletariat, or the peasants–but against the kind of people we in the US tend to think of as “upper class.” 

That is, against the owners and founders of big businesses, like the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts.

In Europe these people were not “upper class” because they were not aristocracy, and because they made their money instead of simply having it by right of historical possession. 

Along with these people were their just-below-the-surface wannabes, what we in the US call the upper middle class, and exactly the sort of people that get the Tea Party furious–private school and Ivy League educated, six figure jobs in the professions or the arts.

What has happened in the US, however, and in most of the former British colonies, like Canada and Australia, is that the lack of a native aristocracy has pushed the word down the scale. 

Here it’s the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts who are “upper class,” and with them those upper middle class wannabes. 

Bourgeois has come to mean, here, the values of the middle and working class, such as patriotism, loyalty to family over work, religious devotion (at least to the more conservative kinds of Christianity and Judaism), and a stubborn insistance on running their lives and everybody else’s on arbitrary and outdated rules (like that adultery is wrong, or that marriage should be between one man and one woman) and a resistance to “social change.”

In a way, the morphing of that designation–bourgeois–was a neat trick.  In the US today, it now stands for the exact opposite of what it was originally meant to designate, and the people who now fit the original description perfectly have turned that original description into a badge of honor. 

As to how the rest of the world uses the word, I don’t know.  I think that when Europeans and Arabs complain of the bourgeois nature of the US, they’re using the original description.

I’ve also come to think that that description is not necessarily what they’re objecting to.

I don’t mean that such people–dedicated to material things, conventions and social status–don’t exist.  They do.  And they tend to be really annoying and nasty people.

I do mean that I think the actual complaint is about something else–about the representatives of a world that judge all others, and judge them on a basis that the complainers feel they can’t succeed at–and that pointing to the worst products of the system in question makes it possible both to denigrate that system and to do it without exposing oneself in ways one wouldn’t want.

And that was one of those ridiculous sentences.  Maybe I’ll get back to the idea at a later date.

But as to whether anti-Semitism is just the whole thing about the hatred of the middle/man landlord–I don’t think so.

Historically, anti-Semitism has been a very odd commodity. It exists everywhere, not only where Jews act as middlemen or where they actually have money.  It operated in the area now known as Germany a good five hundred years before the fall of the Roman Empire, and the causes seem to have been mostly religious in nature.

But it’s more than that.  Most of the people going nuts about “the Jews” today are not being kept down by Jews as middlemen and landlords, and people who are not Jews but who are middlemen and landlords are not being vilified in the same way.

The standard left-wing American or British academic who is willing to excuse any number of honor killings, executions of women and homosexuals, and officially sanctioned torture and oppression in Arab nations while rushing to call Israel the worst and most evil state in the world is not being driven by a resentment of the middleman/landlord.

He is also not being driven by facts.  If he were, he would be having much bigger fits about slavery in the Sudan, for instance, and the religious police in Iran. 

The same goes for the right wing version of this, people like Pat Buchanon, Robert Novak and Joseph Sobran. 

We can find resentment and even hatred of the middleman/landlord in every part of the world, but in every case except that of the Jews, it’s situation-specific.

The overseas Chinese have incurred the wrath of populations in Muslim nations in Asia for being such middlemen and landlords, but no such resentment in the American west, where that was never their primary status.

The Jews, however, are hated and vilified by anything from solid minorities of all populations to solid majorities of them, and usually on the same grounds–they have all the money (even when they’re dirt poor and have nothing), they run the world (even when they’re forbidden from holding office or participating in government). 

And, of course, they’re vilified for being “bourgeois”–for that love of material wealth and comfort, and convention, and social status.

I have no idea if there is any explanation for what we see in anti-Semitism.  I don’t think we have found one yet, and I don’t think we will.  At least, I don’t think we will find an explanation that is in any way rational. 

I think I’d better go have a day.

Written by janeh

October 7th, 2010 at 6:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Bad Behavior has blocked 317 access attempts in the last 7 days.