Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Archive for June, 2013

Following Up

with 4 comments

Well, let me start by trying to answer Mary F’s question first.  She says that it would be hard to deprivilege schools, because the trend to insisting on college degrees for jobs that don’t need them occurred more or less spontaneously.  It wasn’t legislated.  Private actors just decided to do that.

But that isn’t exactly what happened.

Private employers increasingly insist on college degrees for work that doesn’t require them for two reasons:

1) to try to insure they get the basic skills levels they need to do the work in a time when high school graduation no longer certifies that an applicant can reading with a high level of comprehension, write clearly and grammatically, and do basic arithmatic


2) to try to bullet proof t hemselves from EEOC enforcement actions.

It’s the second thing that’s the problem, not the first.

And it’s definitely been legislated.

One of the ways in which we privelege schools is in what we don’t do to them–we don’t hold them to the disparate impact rule.

If you devise requirements for a position that eliminate significantly more minority applicants than white applicants, you will get investigated by the EEOC to determine if those requirements are illegal and constitute racial discrimination.

To get out from under that, you must be able to prove that the requirements are essential for the performance of the job for which you are hiring. 

And since you’re dealing with lawyers and judges who do not work in blue collar trades or lower middle class business positions, you’re facing a group of people who basically don’t think that ANYTHING is required to do that kind of job.  That’s loser work, right?  That’s work ANYBODY can do.

Finding an alternative way to hire is the easy part. 

You devise a test, or set up a industry-run training system, to make sure you get the skills you want.

Plenty of private businesses are doing this now, especially in computer and digital work.

The problem is that all such alternative methods of evaluation inevitably  produce a disparate impact on racial groups. 

They don’t do this because minority students are stupid. They’re not.

By and large, my minority students are just as bright as my white students, and in a few specific cases they’ve been spectacularly brighter.

What they also are, however, is disproportionately the graduates of inner city high schools where standards are–well, to say “inadequate” is to understate the case so  much it’s ridiculous. 

Most of the kids from inner city schools who enter my deep remedial classrooms are ready at no better than a third or fourth year level and are writing at less than that. 

The amount of time and trouble it would take to fix that problem would be vast.  Nobody is the least interested in doing it, and at that stage it may be impossible to do. 

But, like I said, we  privelege schools.  Your school can produce graduates this unprepared, it can flunk out sixty percent of the students who walk through your doors, the impact can be so disparate it can resemble some kind of science fiction, and it doesn’t matter.

If your skills test eliminates a disproportionate number of minority applicants, you’ll be in trouble.

But if the local high school and community college does that–everything’s fine. 

Schools are automatically considered to be a “legitimate” sifting device. 

When it comes time to ask if you’re requirements for the job have a racially disparate impact on applicants, they don’t ask “what percentage of minority applicants for this job are rejected relative to the percentage of white applicants?”

They ask, instead, “what  percentage of minority applicants WHO HAVE THESE EDUCATIONAL CREDENTIALS are rejected relative to the same percentage of what candidates.”

And that makes an enormous difference.  If they asked the same question in the same way about your skills test–what percentage of minority applicants WHO CAN PASS THIS SKILLS TEST are rejected relative to the percentage of whites?”–you’d have no problem with the disparate impact rule. 

After all, demanding a college degree, or even “some college,” has an ENORMOUSLY disparate impact by race–we’ve just decided to call it “legitimate.”

In fact, such a requirement probably has a much higher disparate impact than  your skills test would, because your skills test would pick up skilled  males who don’t do well in the highly feminized regime in most schools.

But something is going to have to give somewhere.

And I still say the way to start is to insist on recognizing that schools are NOT teaching the skills they claim to be teaching, and that they therefore should not be allowed to claim they have before they’ve presented proof.


Written by janeh

June 16th, 2013 at 9:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Equality On The Second Round

with 2 comments

Okay, let  me see if I can straighten out a few things, FYI, so to speak.

First, the public education systems in the US–and it is multiple systems–are such a wreck in most places routinely require at least some college, and often a college degree, for even mundane entry level positions.

These include jobs like secretaries and typists, who in my day would have taken the “business course” in high school and gone right to work. 

And all even relatively high level positions now require a college degree, and anything having to do with management.  It is no longer possible for someone to come out of high school, get an entry level minimum wage job, and work his way into the white collar workforce.

No degree–no promotion.  Period. 

(This also  has something to do with the way our antidiscrimination law works.)

But if you’d asked me what was the cause of the growing connection between eventual career paths and class status,  it wouldn’t be most of the things the writer of that essay talked about.  It would be just this insistance that “everybody” has to go to “college” to get any kind of job at all, beyond things like working at a fast food restaurant.

This is a disaster in all kinds of ways for all kinds of people.  Not only is it expensive, but it forces into marginality a lot of people (most of them male)  who just don’t fit in an academic environment, but are perfectly comfortable in lots of work environments that didn’t used to require them to sit in classrooms for years but now do.

The second thing  has to do with scholarships and financial aid for students who  do want to go to college.

Almost all our top colleges and universities are private, and they’re VERY generously endowed.

Not only that, they all have what are called “need blind” admissions.  That means they don’t check to see if you want financial aid before deciding to admit you, and they commit themselves to making sure you get enough  money to attend, no matter what you need.

And those packages can mean that a very poor but academically talented student leaves campus with NO debt at all.  None.  Harvard, for instance, charges NOTHING in tuition for students whose families earn $60,000 or less a year.  Granted the kid still  has to deal with room and board and books and other expenses, that’s the majority of the tab completely wiped out for families reasonably well up in the middle class.

The problem isn’t that Harvard isn’t expensive, the problem is that most top-performing students with families who are not already part of the educated upper middle class don’t ever apply.

And this includes students whose families make six figures but who are not part of the culture for that particular class.

They won’t know about the financial aid packages, they won’t know that the sticker price has little or nothing to do with what they’ll actually end up  paying.

What’s more, they may not even know that it matters–that Local State University isn’t “just as good” as Harvard, in the sense of giving you just as much of a kick start when you go out to work.

But even if they do know all these things, it won’t necessarily help, because they won’t be doing all the things (remember those summer camps, unpaid  internships, founding their  own charities things) that have no become necessary to get admitted to a university where there are 30 applicants for every opening.

But the kids at the very bottom are in the very worst shape, because they  have no idea what’s going on.

To them, all “college” is “college.”  And “college” is nothing more than a continuation of what they’ve been used to, and what they’ve been used to are standards that wouldn’t  have been acceptable to pass fourth grade when I was a student.

If they manage to get themselves onto a campus, they are seldom able to read written text longer than one or two pages long, and when asked to turn in a term paper they hand in a single typed page or not much more, no documentation, nothing.

What’s more, they’re almost always coming from environments–family and neighborhood–that either actively discourage academic work or hold it as less important than other things, like family responsibilities or solidarity with friends and neighborhoods.

Their big shock comes when they disappear from class for two weeks, come back and tell their teachers that their grandmother was dying or their brother was going to jail, and find that their teachers don’t care.  Classwork comes first.  Everything else comes second.  If they don’t do their classwork, no matter the reason, they just fail.

I’ve been in those situations more than  once, and I can tell you that these students are absolutely dumbfounded to find out what the policy  is.  They honestly just don’t get it.  They’ve never even met a person who put work or school ahead of family.

Unlike the writer, I don’t think there is anything any government can do to change attitudes like this.  I certainly don’t think there is anything any government SHOULD do.

But there is one thing going on here that I do think is very wrong, and also very bad for us–

And that’s the metamorphosis of the admissions process into a kind of MAD scramble.

MAD as in “mutually assured destruction.”

We’ve gotten to the point now that a successful applicant to an Ivy League school must not  only have first class grades and board scores, but a lot of other things besides–THINK of those parents who help their kids start their own charities, or of kids who can talk about how they spent their summer vacation helping to save the rain forest while actually  living on the Amazon.

The problem is not that middle class kids from families with less impressive means can’t afford to do this.

The problem is that such a selection process targets a very narrow segment of the adolescent population and selects OUT for everybody else.

And since both Republicans AND Democrats want their candidates and their CEOs and their federal judges and whatever to come from the top tier, we end up with virtually everybody in positions of influence and power being more or less the same sort of personality. 

And that personality does not have a whole lot in common with the rest of the country.

But it also seems to me that there is only one solution to this dilemma, and it starts with:  stop priveleging schools.

End the tacit requirement that “everybody” must go to college if they want to work, deconstruct the credentialing, stop insisting that Supreme Court justices, candidates for management in corporations, Congressmen and everybody else go to the top tier.

The problem is not lack of government “investment” or any of the rest of it.

It’s the fact that the path to success of any kind  has narrowed to a single rope, and if you’re not a rope climber, you’re likely about to get screwed.

Written by janeh

June 15th, 2013 at 10:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Equal Or Something

with 6 comments


I know I’ve been out of the loop for a few days, but I have been Writing Things, and Writing Things takes precedence over the blog.

Of course, the blog is also Writing Things, but it’s a different kind of Writing Things.

And that’s how I end up getting confused.

I want to present the following link:


It’s from the American Prospect, which is a liberal magazine, so you should know going in that what you’re going to get is a liberal perspective.

It’s one of those things, though, that seems to wander through  my life with increasing frequency these days.

The analysis isn’t bad so much as woefully incomplete, and the ending recommendations are risible. 

And they’re risible not because Republicans would block their passage in Congress, but because Liberals would.  One thing I can guarantee you will not happen is a law rescinding the tax deduction for contributions to private colleges and universities. 

And,  of course, the recommendations include a lot of the same old/same old, like increasing money for pre school programs.  Never mind the evidence that they don’t increase academic achievement even five years after the fact.

Still, there is something real going on here, even if the writer can’t find it with a flashlight, and it’s something real I think we ought to pay attention to.

So I’m putting out the  link and soliciting comments on the content before I start.


Written by janeh

June 14th, 2013 at 1:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Rain, Not In A Forest

with 3 comments

It’s fairly early on Monday morning, and I’m having a squiffy day.

Squiffy days almost always start with work going badly, and today, yes, work went badly.

One of the things I have  never been able to figure out about writing mysteries is  how to figure out if the solution is going to be obvious to the reader.

Since the solution is obvious to me, I can’t stop  myself from thinking that the solution must be obvious to everybody else, too. 

That way, of course, lies madness, but I’ve never been able to talk myself out of thinking  it.

Lawrence Block once said–famously, by now–that he never knew who the killer was before he started writing.  He figured if he didn’t know, the reader couldn’t know either.

I’ve never been able to write that way, so what I do instead is sit around and brood and change things and brood some more.  All this brooding was a lot more satisfying in the days when I had actual paper to crumple up and throw around the room.

In t he meantime, I’m being squiffy about something else, which doesn’t help.

Tropical Storm Andrea made landfall in Florida on, I think, Friday, and ever since the local news has been full of screaming headlines about how the entire state (and my county in particular) has been issued flood watches, flood warnings, flash flood watches, flash flood warnings.

You name it, and if it  has to do with too much water, we’ve been warned about it. 

And the weather report for every day of the last week end, and for today as well, and tomorrow,  had promised thunderstorms virtually all through the day.

The only problem is, where I live, we’ve seen almost no water at all.  There  have been no thunderstorms when  I’ve been awake to hear them.  There have been no major rainfalls. 

On at least two of the days it was supposed to rain nonstop, it’s been absolutely beautiful, perfect late spring weather, warm without being majorly hot, very sunshiney.

The kind of days people hope for when they want to  have picnics for their birthdays.

Now, I know that weather reports are often inaccurate, but they’re  not usually this inaccurate–and, in another sense, they haven’t been inaccurate at all.

Some parts of the state have, in fact,  had lots of rain and major flooding.  These were, however, largely the parts of the state that had only watches and not warnings.

And the weather report for today and tomorrow is the same–thunderstorms,  lots of water, all kinds of flood warnings.

I’ve got that feeling you get sometimes when tension  has built up until it just has to blow, and then everything calms down for a split second before the whole thing goes kaboom.

It’s the kind of day on which nothing  much gets done.

And, being Monday, it’s the kind of day on which I have a lot to do.

I suppose this ought to be interesting.

It’s even getting overcast.

Written by janeh

June 10th, 2013 at 8:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Thinking Yourself In

with 6 comments

I think there must be some rule of nature that we haven’t discovered yet that explains why bemusing things always seem to come in clusters. 

Weeks, or even months, go by, when nothing  happens that has anything like a quality of the unexpected, and then–there they are.  Six of them.

The first of the tales of the unexpected happened on Tuesday, when the local news was full of a story about animal control, called in to get a bear out of a tree–on Main Street in Danbury.

For those of you w ho know little or nothing about Connecticut, Danbury is not some rural town in the Northwest Hills.  It’s not Colchester or New Hartford or Salisbury, one of those places so small that there isn’t even a local high school and all the kids have to go to a regional to get beyond that eighth grade at all. 

It  isn’t even Winsted or Willimantic, small cities surrounded by tiny rural towns like those.

Danbury  is a small city in Northern Fairfield County, not only densely populated itself, but surrounded by a few densely populated suburbs. 

It’s the kind of place that makes you wonder what the poor thing was thinking. 

At any rate, this was local media and Fairfield County, so nobody wanted to kill it, so the local news stations and web sites spent the entire day billboarding the story–there was the bear, asleep in the tree; there was the bear no longer asleep in the tree and looking panicked; there were the animal control people with the tranquilizer gun…

This story might have been a little less bemusing if it hadn’t happened on the same day as the building collapse in Philadelphia. 

The national media were worried about people dead and mangled in the rubble.  The local media were worried about the bear.

It was one of those times when I sincerely and desperately missed my father.  He grew  up in Danbury.  He would have loved that story.

The second bemusing story is the one that you’ve probably been listening to over the last few days, and it probably only bemuses me because I am ignorant.

That story is the one about the ex Navy Seal and member of the same Team 6 that took out bin Laden, the winner of a purple heart and a Bronze Star for Valor, who came out as transgender and announced his intention to have a sex change operation.

Now, I am not the sort of person who has vapors over gays in the military.  There have been gay men in all militaries, both out and not, and even more men who seemed to be bi, at least in practice.

If the Greeks didn’t have a problem with the only real love, I don’t see why I should. 

My problem with this is not so much a problem as a confusion.

For a few years now, I have been listening very carefully to people trying to explain how it feels and what it means to be transgender,  and I thought I understood.

This does not fit the explanation as I heard it.

Let me start out by saying that I do not believe that “gender” is “socially constructed.”

Masculinity and femininity may be socially constructed, but maleness and femaleness are biological categories, genetically encoded.  And they are, at this point, still immutable.  You may have a sex change operation, but  it is a cosmetic procedure.  Your DNA still codes for the sex you were born with, and you’ll need a rigorous dose of hormones for the rest of your life to keep the appearance of the sex you want to be from being overwhelmed by hormones.

In spite of all that, however, I thought I at least vaguely understood what people meant by being “born in the wrong body.”  Body chemistry is a complex thing, and it’s not implausible that some people are born (or develop later) with a  mix that makes them feel like a member of the opposite sex and  uncomfortable in the sex that nature assigned them.

So far, so good.  But there’s another problem. 

I also accept the scientific validity of the theory of evolution.

And if human behavior is not, at least to SOME extent, biologically determined–then Darwin was wrong.

Actually, this is one of those things our society is largely schizoprhenic about.

New Atheists insist vehemently that “the mind is what the brain does,” and then go on to attempt to prove it by citing studies that s how that when you put electrodes in one part of the brain it does such and such, and when you put them in another it does something different.

But if things like love and hate, anger and ambition are biologically determined, then they are, by definition, not socially constructed.

You can’t have it both ways–if our major traits like ambition, aggressiveness, and timidity–are products of “what the brain does,” then any attempts to “socially construct” something in opposition to those things are doomed to failure.

And before everybody starts yelling, yes, I do think that the actual situation is a lot more complicated than this, and that people are neither biologically determined nor socially constructed.

But the people who argue these positions are not known for making complex arguments. They take their side and they stick to it.

They also don’t talk to each other or read each other’s books or articles.  If they did, they’d have to start taking these things into account, and then the whole thing would just blow up in their faces.

My question about the Navy Seal is this–I wish I understood in what sense he always felt essentially female.

Does he “feel female” in the same sense that I “feel female”?  Or is this another thing altogether?

Certainly not all women feel female in the same way.  There are some ways of “feeling female” that drive me straight up the wall and out the other side.

I think this is not a minor thing.

We tend to talk about these things–social construction, biological determinism, even “gender”–as if their meanings were crystal clear and unambiguous.

And when we DO claim to be recognizing ambiguity, what we’re usually doing is throwing up a big pile of jargon to obscure our absolute terror that we do not know what we’re doing, and that we may be wrong.

It is one of those things–we’re not going to get the answer any time soon, because we’re going to be far too afraid to ask questions.

Written by janeh

June 7th, 2013 at 8:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Reason and Logic

with 6 comments

Well, I walked right into it, so I shouldn’t be surprised.

First, let me  note that the idea that adhering to reason and logic must mean rejecting the supernatural is a very new one.  It first crops up in the 18th century, and it only becomes automatic in the last sixty or seventy years.

And it still isn’t monolithically automatic even in the West.

When I say the Rig Veda–as far as I’ve read it–rejects reason and logic even as an assumption, I don’t mean it has supernatural elements. 

I mean that it will first relate the creation story as something that comes out of the waters and out of which the gods themselves came.  Then it will relate it as a birth out of one of the gods it just said didn’t exist before the creation at all.  Then there will be a few more, with elements that contradict these two–and all of them wll be presented as “what actually  happened.”

But all of them could not have actually happened.  If one of them  happened, then the rest are by definition untrue, because each of them has elements that cannot be true AT THE SAME TIME as elements in the other stories.

As far as I can tell by the notes and introductions, no attempt was ever made to rationalize these contradictions until Western scholars came in and tried to “make sense” of it, because “making sense” is what we do.

Note the difference here between this and Genesis.  There are two creation accounts in Genesis, one detailed (Adam, Ever, etc) and o ne general (“created them male and female”).  But except for the most tendentious eye, there’s nothing contradictory here.  One is the detailed story, the other is just a note of the event.  In the first case we get the play by play.  In the second we’re just told, well, God created everything, and he created human beings, and they were both male and female.

Or take the case of the set of  hymns I was just reading, the ones  to the God Viruna. 

Viruna is a god closer in nature to gods as we have understood them in the West.  He is a sky god who looks down on men and women and punishes them for their misdeeds–although the misdeeds seem to be things like not doing the ritual right, and the notes point out that prayers asking to be “free of sin” are asking only to be free of the punishment for sin, not to be made righteous or somehow cleansed, as in the Christian tradition.

And all of that would be fine except for this:  sometime between the writing of these hymns and the coming of the British to India, Vicuna pretty much ceased to exist.  His powers and duties were transferred to Siva and Vishnu.  People just stopped praying to him.

As far as I can tell, no explanation for this was ever offered anywhere in the Hindu religious tradition–and, to this day, no explanation is felt to be needed. 

I can’t imagine a Western religious tradition that would put up with something like this–or a Western religious congregation that would, either.  We would demand to know what happened to the god, why he wasn’t operating any more, where these other gods who took his place came from and why they took his place–and on and on and on in the cascade of rational questions that come from the assumption that it is an absolute necessity that even our religions “make sense.”

And, if our religions don’t make sense–if we find that they are contradictory and irrational on the level of internal logic–we assume that that is proof that they must be untrue.  That is why some secularist organizations spend so much time trying to find and prove contradictions in the Bible.

Western fiction has this same quality, even when it references God or the gods, or supernatural events, or nonexistent space colonies or Hobbit and Elf societies somewhere on earth.

Conventionally real or wholly imaginary, we insist that the elements of our fictional worlds make sense.  The internal logic must cohere.  If  your hero is an orphan found abandoned on a mountaintop on page 6 and the middle of seven brothers growing up happily in a large extended family on page 247, you’d better have a solid, rational and plausible explanation for that before the book is over. 

Western readers aren’t going to put up with “both of those things are equally true at the same time and if you don’t get it,  well, that’s why they’re called mysteries.”

In fact, I think the closest we ever got to that kind of non-explanation was in the Catholic explanation of how the Eucharist could be both bread and wine and the real body and blood of Jesus Christ at the same time. 

The explanation required the use of a set of ideas about the nature of the material world that started with Aristotle and depended on him.  Maybe it’s not entirely a coincidence that what came right before the Reformation was the discarding of just those assumptions by Renaissance scientists with new ideas about the nature of the physical world.

To this day, Catholic explanations about how the Eucharist can be botn bread and wine and body and blood are solidly Aristotelian, through Thomas Aquinas.  They have to be.  Without those categories and assumptions,  it is impossible to make the doctrine make sense.

As to music and art–I don’t know enough about either in any technical sense to address this directly.

But I will note something that I think is more important to my argument than whether Jackson Pollock’s paintings use reason or logic, or whether a Bach sonata does.

No matter how patently illogical or even objectively irrational a work of art may be, it will be accompanied by reams of prose–reviews, explications, textbook sections–that determinedly and sometimes incessantly try to make it make sense. 

These efforts are sometimes good and sometimes bad.  They’re successful and unsuccessful.

They all speak to the Western need to impose logic and order on everything,

It doesn’t matter, either, that sometimes when we try to impose logic and reason we end up imposing bad logic and worse reason.

It’s the imperative–make it logical!  make it rational!–that matters, because not every culture has it.

I think that may be why my first attempt to explain this didn’t entirely succeed.

We’re use to the “must fit logic and reason” imperative that we are to it the way a fish is said to be about water–

It is so much a given, we don’t even know it’s there.

Oh, and as an afternote?

I’m with Mique.  I love Pollock.

Written by janeh

June 5th, 2013 at 9:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Second Attempt

with 4 comments

Well, that sounds portentious enough.

But let me tell you before I start–this morning, the document I’m using for the latest Gregor did something rather dramatic, so that it now only wants to print in teeny tiny letters, and I’ve been unable to fix it.   This pretty much blew up work for the day.

And no, knowing that I almost certainly did something to cause this is no help.  It’s been very frustrating.  I’m going to have to get one of mine to do something about this.  And I’m in No Mood.

But back to the article from yesterday, and the Rig Veda, and how it all hangs together.

Let me start with one of the comments on the Rig Veda post. 

JD said that he thought the religion of the ancient Greeks was like what I was talking about in the Rig Veda, and that Socrates complained of the immoral behavior of the Gods.

I would say that he’s right, probably.

My guess is that the type of religion displayed by the oldest hymns in the Rig Veda translation I have is a very early stage in the evolution of religion. 

My guess is that this is where religion starts, in what Carl Sagan called a “demon haunted world,” where the gods are many and more like ourselves than not.  They’re more powerful, though, and thoroughly capricious.  People on earth interact with them by trying to curry their favor and get their power for wealth and health and happiness.

If you read, say, Homer, the impression you get of Greek religion is very much like this. Robert called it a demand to maintain their turf, and that will do as much as anything.

The difference lies in the fact that neither the Iliad nor the Odyssey is scripture. 

In fact, as far as I know, no such scripture exists.  We have myths, but the myths we have come down to us as stories, not as sacred books.  And we haven’t a single line of liturgy, or hymns or rites or any other aspect of actual worship.  Homer tells us that somebody or the other prayed or performed a sacred ritual,  but he doesn’t give us the specifics of that ritual or tell us how to perform it ourselves.

By the time we manage to get information about Greek religion, it had already passed through that stage and become mostly a kind of quasi-shorthand for patriotism and civic loyalty.  We see it through the eyes of people who are already several times removed from that passionate, immediate intensity of desperation where simple survival depends on appeasing dark and capricious forces who can snap your life in two any time they feel  like it.

Of course, Hinduism did not remain at this stage of development.  By the time you get to the Upanishads, and even earlier (you can see it starting in the later hymns published in this volume), it is a religion almost obsessed with the moral and the long term consequences of the moral.  It is the religion of karma and of the transmigration of souls.

We probably  have no way of knowing if there was ever any scripture–as we understand the word–in Greek religion, or in the Roman religion that came after it. 

And what we have of other religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and even Buddhism–is also well beyond this stage.

Religion as we know it, not only now but through many long centuries, has been thoroughly ethicized–and where it hasn’t been, it has been discarded as a foundation for moral ideas.

We have Greek moral philosophy because the Greeks did not have religious morality in anything  but the most rudimentary sense. 

And the Greeks, in trying to give morality a secular foundation, found themselves forces to approach those questions through logic and reason. 

And by insisting on logic and reason, they ended up insisting that everything–including religion–make sense.

And it is this, this insisting on logic and reason and sense, that is at the core of the Great Conversation. 

In fact, without it there is no Great Conversation, and no Liberal Arts Education all these many centuries later.

And that brings me back to the Rig Veda

As far as I can tell, the Hindus maintained a policy of never throwing anything out.

Modern secularists complain that there are contradictions in the Bible, that there are two creation accounts in Genesis, say,  or that the reports of the apostles on what happened at the resurrection are not strictly the same.

But although that kind of thing does exist here and there, it is only here and there, and often has to be gone at with a lot of fancy footwork to produce a contradiction at all.  (Hint:  two accounts of an event that are not the same but are also not mutually exclusive do not make a contradiction.)

The Rig Veda, on the other hand, contains myriad contradictory versions of many different myths.  The gods existed before time, or they were born after time began.  This god killed his father, or he killed  his brother.  This other god had a child with his mother, or maybe with his sister.

The mutually exclusive details sit side by side and without explanation or rationalization.  There are commentaries on the Hindu scriptures, but I can find no equivalent of the rationalizing of detail and reconciliation that formed so much of the work of Jewish and Christian scholars from the time of the Roman Empire to the high Middle Ages.

It’s  kind of like Walt Whitman:  you say I contradict myself?  So I contradict myself.   I am large.  I contain multitudes.

The bottom line, however, is that without that rationalizing, without that reconciliation, without that insistance that things make sense, there is not only no Great Conversation, and no canon.

The Western Canon is Western, because it’s the record of human beings using reason and logic to try to answer the essential questions of human life on earth.  It is that even when the work in question is fiction or poetry or drama or even painting and sculpture and music.

And what abandons reason and logic in its totality is not part of the Canon by definition.


Written by janeh

June 4th, 2013 at 8:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

All Knowledge Is Connected…

with 3 comments

Or some other platitude.

We’re about to have another day of thunderstorms.  So I’m going to post this link


which came from Arts and Letters Daily.

And I’m going to note that I’ve been thinking all morning that this connects to the Rig Veda and to classical Greek and Roman religion and to…


And I’ll make the connections later.

Written by janeh

June 3rd, 2013 at 7:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

This morning I find myself with a dilemma, and not the one I thought I was going to have.

Yesterday afternoon, I sat down to read a book, or rather, a very specific edition of a very long book.

The edition is Rig Veda, translated and edited for Penguin Classics by Wendy Doniger.  Doniger is listed as being “professor in the History of Religions” at the University of Chicago’s Divinity school and an expert on South Asian studies.  Since this was her personal translation, we can assume she reads Sanskrit, the language in which the book was written.

The problems I thought I was going to have with this have to do with just what this is a translation of–not the complete Rig Veda, but a selection of about one tenth of the 1082 poems/hymns/prayers in the original.

Selections cause lots of problems. How could I know, for instance, if these selections were indicative of the whole and not tendentiously chosen to  make some kind of political or social point not supported by the entirety of the text?

I tried looking this up on the Net, and found that a translation of the entire Rig Veda is almost impossible to come by.  Such translations exist, but there are very few of them, and they are produced by scholars and for scholars. 

I can read books like that in some fields, but those are fields with which I already have at least a superficial acquaintance, so that I know where to start. 

I have no such acquaintance with Indian religion or philosophy, and certainly not with the earliest phases of Indian religion or philosophy.  India fascinates me.  Indian art fascinates me.  Indian life fascinates me. 

But even after a few years of checking all that out on a semi regular basis, what I do know is scant, and tends to be concentrated on the period from the establishment of the Raj to now.  I could probably give you a decent account of Indian forms of Buddhism, especially modern ones.  What was going on in Hinduism at the dawn of the religion is completely off my radar.

So I started with a selection I had no way to judge, and was heartened by the fact that almost all the hymns are introduced with a few explanatory paragraphs and then  noted for a layperson, and set about to give it a shot.

And what struck me, almost immediately, was–well, okay, startlingly funny.

It started with the opening invocation, asking the gods to take care of the  petitioner and his cows and horses.

It kicked into  high gear when I hit the verse asking a god to “unite with the female frog.”

Now, before I go on here, let me be clear about something.

This is not a post meant to ridicule Hinduism. 

Somebody suggested that my translation might be a bad one, so I went looking for confirmation of that.  I didn’t find it.  Doniger seems to be considered a perfectly adequate translator by experts in the field, and to have consulted a fair number of them about this translation.

So what I’ve arrived at, at the moment, is this:

1) These are the oldest scriptures in the Hindu canon.  They seem to date from a time far older in the history of that religion than we have access to in Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism or Islam.

2) By “older” I do NOT mean chronologically older.  Whatever the date at which the Rig Veda was written–it should be dates, because they were composed over a long period of time–they represent (especially in the oldest ones) an approach to religion that most of us wouldn’t recognize no matter how hard we tried.

The closest description I can come to is what is called “animism.” 

And that isn’t exactly right.  Animism sees everything as spirit–plants have spirits, rocks have spirits, thunderstorms have spirits.

This is not that, but it is as if  all things are participated in by the gods–and I suppose that makes no sense, either. 

Maybe the best way to put it is that this is scripture for a people whose relationship with God or the gods is largely instrumental–it’s about getting the gods to give you sons and good crops and health and a safe passage into the afterlife.

There are, of course, passages like that in the Old Testament, but nowhere near as many of them, and what of them there are tend to be heavily framed by much different concerns. 

Which brings me to:

3) The fact that there is virtually no mention of morality, of right and wrong, of good and evil, anywhere.

I’m only about a third or a quarter of the way through the book, but that’s still a significant a proportion of the book, and I couldn’t get you through the first half of Genesis without running straight into the fact that that Testament assumes that the principle issue in the relationship between God and man is whether man can or will live righteously.

The old testament Jehovah is said to care for us, but it’s not clear what that means.  It certainly does not mean that we will get good things in this world if we pray to Him. 

In fact, we won’t even get good things in this world if we keep his laws and remain righteous and devout.  That’s the entire point of Job.

Certainly later forms of Hinduism are intensely concerned with the ethical. 

Certainly the entire doctrine of the transmigration of souls and the idea of karma at the base of it is intensely concerned with the moral.

It’s just that that focus is not here yet.  And that’s part of why I think it’s an “earlier” (as in evolutionarily earlier) form  of religion.

What I’m hedging around here is that this sometimes does not feel like any kind of religion at all. 

4) After a while, I started wondering about context.

Here and there, Doniger will deliver a  note on the text that says something or the other is a pun, or a double entendre, or a reference, or…

It is difficult for Western readers in the 21st century to understand their own literature without a fair amount of preparation. 

It is difficult for such readers to understand the mental habits of just a hundred years ago–fornication illegal?  girls shunned because they were thought to have  had sex before marriage?  if you go out with him and get drunk,  it’s your own damned fault if  he has his way with you?

 But we in the twenty first century West are far closer to all that kind of thing than we can ever be to the world expressed in the Rig Veda.  We all talk a lot about difference and diversity, but we rarely confront anything that is actually different.

The fights we all have these days about feminism and homosexuality and “reproductive rights” and God in the public schools and immigration and on and on and on and on, all rest on solidly Western assumptions that are not shared by three quarters of the world.

They require elaborate assumptions about individuality, the freedom of the individual from “arbitrary” groups like nation and family, the rights of individuals to decide for themselves what they will or will not believe–in fact, the entire idea of “rights” at all, any way you want to define it.

The people who wrote the Rig Veda would have found all this utterly incomprehensible. 

In fact, they would have found it incomprehensible in an absolute sense.

What’s in play here is not just a very foreign language that we will find it difficult to learn and to understand.

It’s more like one of us is using language and the other is using mental telepathy and the communications forms don’t intersect at all.

In the end, I suppose,  it really isn’t just that bad.  We did  manage to meet and communicate with the heirs of the  people who wrote the Rig Veda, and ideas from their world and ideas from ours passed across the barriers.

I do wonder, however, how much of that passing through was less passing through than smoothing out–one or the other of us giving up or letting go of the world as we understand it in order to adopt the framework of the other side.

Historically, of course, most of the giving up and letting go has been done by the peoples of the Rig Veda and most of the holding on and staying put  has been done by us.

That is the way that worked whether we wanted it to work that way or not.  The Indians have certainly managed to adopt Western ideas, customs at a truly remarkable speed.

Most of my students whose parents immigrated from India are not just assimilated, but almost  hyper American.

My guess is that they will no better understand the Rig Veda than I do.

My guess is that nobody on earth can really understand it any more at all.

And that makes me wonder just how many civilizations there are out there that are gone in the absolute sense, that we will never be able to penetrate at all.

Human beings are very much alike in many ways across cultures and across time.

But they’re also very different, and when they are different enough, and when none of the ones with the differences are left, they might as well have been invaders from space.

Written by janeh

June 2nd, 2013 at 10:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The May Book List

with one comment

I am having one of those days when everything about me is restless and distracted, which means writing did not go well, which means I’m In No Mood.

This happens to me every once in a while and, as far as I can tell, has no significance of any kind, except that it bodes ill for my mood for the rest of the day, and my children can see it coming.

At any rate, the list:

 28) Marion L. Starkey. The Devil in Massachusetts.

 29) Perry Miller. The New England Mind: From Colony to Province.

        f) H.P Lovecraft. “The Dunwich Horror.”

        g) H.P. Lovecraft. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”

        h) H. P. Lovecraft. “The Colour Out of Space.”

        i) Stephen Jones. “Afterword: A Gentleman of Providence.”

        j) Eric Flint. “Fanatic.”

 30) Catherine Drinker Bowen. Miracle at Philadelphia.

 31) Raymond Chandler. The Big Sleep.

 32) Niall Ferguson. Civilization: The West and the Rest.

I’ve already discussed some of these here, especially the Chandler, so let me just add a few notes.

In my opinion, the Niall Ferguson Civilization:  The West and the Rest isn’t worth the bother.

He gets his facts wrong where I know the facts, and he does some VERY odd things with numbers (a friend who’s also read it called it cheating; what bothers me is that it assumes an innumeracy so vast as to consider his readers to be imbeciles).

But maybe that is, in the end, the point–the whole thing is lightweight and sloppy and feels as if it were written for people whose educations have been either very minimal or very bad. 

He is endlessly and forever stating as truth without qualification the sort of seventh grade social studies conventional wisdom that was exploded long ago.  Maybe it hasn’t been exploded in seventh grade social studies textbooks.

The book was a significant best seller, which is a little depressing.

The Eric Flint short story “Fanatic” is a science fiction thing written by one of the secondary writers of a series one of my sons really loves. 

In spite of being everything I really don’t like about science fiction, it has some things to recommend it.  For one, there’s the title character.  He’s not a point of view character, but he’s very well done.  And he’s an interesting idea for a character, if that makes sense.

There’s also a glancing look at the end of a society called The People’s Republic of Haven.  Which is–how to put this?–something of a pip.

Perry Miller remains one of the best sources out there for the intellectual history of New England.  I read The New England Mind:  From Colony to Province right after I read Starkey’s The Devil in Massachusetts. 

Starkey takes the great witch scare very seriously.  So does Miller, but there are times when everybody involved is behaving like such unalloyed idiots that he just can’t help himself, and in the middle of  unraveling the gross illogic of the witchhunters, he resorts to rapid-fire exclamation points.

I sympathize.  The illogic deserves the exclamation points.

But the virtue of an intellectual history is that it does unravel the illogic, point by point. 

As with the Starkey, I ended up feeling that a lot of it sounded familiar.

And now, I have Stuff To Do.


Written by janeh

June 1st, 2013 at 8:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Bad Behavior has blocked 313 access attempts in the last 7 days.