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Archive for July, 2013

Sadists, Masochists, and Proofs of the Existence of God

with 2 comments

So, it’s just past the middle of July, and my left eye has done its usual trick for the summer. 

I don’t know what it is, but I get some kind of allergic reaction thing in it.  I would go into the details, but they get fairly disgusting, so just leave it at the fact that I start out the day with this thing sort of halfway all right.  Then by the time I get to the evening, I basically can’t see.

I mean, I can see.  I just can’t see well enough to read.  And it’s unpleasant.  And I’m miserable.

I assume that this must be something in the air.  It always comes at the same time every year.  It always does the same thing to me.

If I could figure out what the thing was, I’d go out and make it extinct.

All this is by way of saying that I’ve been like this for the last two days, and today it looks like I’m getting to the end of  it.  This is obviously good news, but I’m still favoring the eye a bit, so what follows may or may not actually be finished today.

Then I’m going to go lie down with an ice cube wrapped in a paper towel on my eye, because that is what makes it feel better.

Let me start out by saying that the reactions to my last post were more or less what I expected them to be.

We are all, very naturally,  more worried about the harridans, as Mique called them, than we are about the tortured inward looking people who only beat up themselves.

Let us call those people the Sadists, and they are, throughout history, the most dangerous people alive.

They’re far more dangerous to your ordinary everyday thug, intellectual or physical.  Thugs know they are thugs.  They even know, at the very least, that what they are doing is at least considered morally wrong by everybody around them.  They think it’s rank idiocy to care, but that’s another issue.

Sadists are something else.  They are convinced–absolutely, unshakably convinced–that they are righteous while the rest of us are  not.  And, what’s more, they are convinced that their righteousness gives them the absolute right to whip other people into shape, and by any means necessary.

The man who wrote the Paula Deen article I posted a while back is a Sadist in this sense. 

His principle interest is in enforcing his definition of good and evil on everybody else, and to cause as much damage as possible when he thinks anybody has gotten out of line.

And he’ll have ample chances to find people out of line.  In fact, it would be almost impossible for any of us to escape being added to the “evil” column, since his standard of right and wrong is not about behavior, but about thoughts and ideas and feelings.

You can control your behavior, if you work at it.  You can almost certainly not control your thoughts and ideas and emotions. 

And Sadists almost assuredly know it.

The woman who wrote the article about her experience with the Latino man and his racially charged attitudes was not a Sadist.

She was not interesting in imposing her ideas about right and wrong on anybody else.  She was only interested in other people’s behavior to the extent that it demanded a response from her.

It was  herself and her own responses that she was worried about.  It was her own deepseated evil she was looking to expunge, while at the same time admitting that that evil never could be expunged.

She, too, defines “being moral” as a matter of thoughts and ideas and emotions, and in so doing she is stuck in the place where  nothing she can ever do will ever wipe out that guilt, or give her absolution for (supposed) crimes.

She is, in other words, a Masochist.

And about that I wanted to say three things.

First is that Masochists outnumber sadists in any more movement by a good ten or twenty to one.

Second is that Sadists could not get themselves into positions of power without Masochists.  Masochists provide the ballast without which Sadists could never get any traction. 

Your average ordinary person does not think like either a Sadist or a Masochist.  If Sadists show up and there are no Masochists to follow them, their entire movement falls apart, because it has to. 

But the third and most important thing is this–I think that the Masochist orientation is inborn and ineradicable.

It’s not something we’re taught.  It’s not the result of a childhood of abuse.  It’s not a artefact of Christianity or Islam or even B.F. Skinner’s imfamous box.

It’s a temperament, and inborn “way of being” that nothing will ever change.  

If you’re born that way, the only real question is which set of moral rules you’ll land on to express your utter and unbearable unworthiness.

This particular type of personality has been recognized almost everywhere, and in Christianity it became one of the casual proofs of the existence of God.

We know God exists, the Medieval sermons said, because we recognize in ourselves those deepseated feelings of guilt that tell us that we have transgressed the moral law.

We have those feelings of guilt even when we don’t know the moral law, or when we know one–not Christian, and therefore not true–that we t hink we’re following perfectly.

Christianity at least has a response to this dilemma.  It says that we’re right not to feel worthy, and right to feel that nothing we can do will ever make us worthy.  But in the end, that doesn’t  matter.  Christ is worthy, and Christ died to pay the debts incurred by our unworthiness, and to make us clean.

The  young woman who wrote that second piece on her encounter with the Latino man has, unfortunately for her, fallen into a moral system that provides no such out. 

The best she can hope for is to spend the rest of her life in an agony of guilt that can never be alleviated, never mind forgiven. 

But if you look a little beyond this, you will see that there is another effect–

She may spend her life in an agony of guilt and self flagellation–but it will be a life that concentrates forever and always on herself.

No  matter how much she talks about “listening” to “marginalized” people, she is never actually listening to anything but her own internal drama.

She is the star of this movie, and nothing and nobody will ever dethrone her from the central importance in that particular narrative.

The Masochistic temperament is, first and foremost, the very ultimate in solipsism.

And maybe that’s the point.

I’d better go put an ice cube on this eye.

Written by janeh

July 19th, 2013 at 8:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Mea Maxima Culpa

with 4 comments

From my sophomore year, I attended a private Catholic girls school some  miles from my home.  It was a place run by nuns still in full habit (the “change” wouldn’t come until graduation week my senior year) and filled with girls who were trying to be good.

I can remember how odd I thought that last thing was, even at the time, and I’ve thought of it on and off over the years since.  What brought it up this time was this

This is a blog post, related to (but not directly concerned with) the Zimmerman trial.  It’s not a blog I read.  I found it because it was posted on FB and I followed the link.
Before you go off to read the thing, let me give you a couple of warnings.
The big one is that this thing is very, very long, and much longer than it ought to be.  Any decent editor would have cut at least a third of it.  The woman is manifestly distraught, and she lets that lead her into repetitions and loops that make the reader want to go “all right, already, I’ve GOT it.”
The other warning is that it would be easy to misread this as another example of the kind of thing I posted the link to a while back, that flagrantly self-righteous essay on Paula Deen.
This isn’t that, although this woman, like the man writing on Paula Deen, erects an absolutely impossible moral standard on matters of race–in fact, a moral standard that’s impossible not only because it’s too strict, but because it is, in several places, self-contradictory.
What this is, instead, is the writing of somebody who, in my day, would have belonged to the Sodality.
If you are a Roman Catholic, the word “Sodality” probably has some meaning for you. 
I was not brought up a Catholic, so the word has a very specific meaning to me related to the Sodality society in my school.  Your experience of Sodality may be very different from mine.  If it is–and if it’s nicer–then I apologize for the fact that my head keeps generalizing it.
In my school, the Sodality was an organization, like a school club, run by a nun and dedicated in honor of the Virgin Mary. 
The girls who belonged to it were known throughout the school to be “very religious.”  All the girls I knew who joined religious orders when they left high school belonged to the Sodality.  The Sodality  met to say novenas, attend masses, make the Stations of the Cross in season, do special penance for Advent and Lent.  They may also have done some charitable work,  but that wasn’t something I knew anything about.
What got to me about the girls in the Sodality, or some of them, was the way in which they were religious.
These were girls who had a deep inner conviction of their own sinfulness.  They tried very hard to be good, but there was never a moment when they were unaware that they were falling short.  They worked every day for perfection, but all it got them was a clearer and clearer understanding of their deep and ineradicable faults.
If I’d read The Imitation of Christ at that point in my life, I’d have recognized this as a perennial response to Christianity. 
And I’ll admit it hasn’t surprised me in the years since that so many of the Sodality girls ended up leaving Catholicism for various forms of evangelical Protestantism or giving up religion altogether.
And I  have to give the Catholic Church credit where credit is due. It has seen this particular phenomenon often and it knows how corrosive it is, not only to faith but to everything else in the person’s life.  The Church calls it “scrupulosity,” and calls it a mortal sin.
For a long time, I thought scrupulosity was a specifically Christian issue.  I thought it arose out of the emphasis in some Christian traditions of the utter  unworthiness of man for salvation.
I’ve been around a little longer now, and I no longer think this is the case. 
I think that this is, most probably, a very standard issue type of human temperament.  I think some people are simply born feeling this way about the world–or rather, born with the tendency to respond to ANY moral instruction by feeling this way about themselves.
I’m sure the psychiatrists have noticed this by now and turned it into some sort of syndrome or disorder or whatever, but what’s important to me here is this:  if your mind works this way, what happens to you if you do not believe in religion?
I think that what happens is this.  You find a handy moral code in the swirling confusion of relativism around you, and you attach your scrupulosity to that.
I am not denying that there are lots of people like like the author of the Paula Deen post who are into various fashionable moralisms because it gives them a chance to be self righteous without work, or because it provides a base of power over other people through socially validated bullying.
But I think there are even more  people who take up those  moralism who are like this–people w ho have to attach their deep sense of unworthiness to something, people who have to obsessively examine their consciences and find themselves wanting, people who need to do penance day after day after day.
In fact, I’ll go farther than that.
I think the practitioners of scrupulosity are absolutely necessary for any moral code to gain traction in a society. 
Without the legions of the unworthy crying out for absolution and never really being able to get it, or accept it, a moralism will never become fashionable, and a Savonarola is just some jerk who won’t shut up.
And I think that’s what we’re seeing here–not an overall attempt to replace Christian morality, or even nineteenth century morality, with this new set of things.
I think that what we’re seeing is people who have lost the ability to believe in those things but who still desperately insistantly need something to attatch these feelings to. 
I think it’s no accident that the grand shaming-and-naming guilt rituals of left liberal moral exhibitionism are so  much like–all that stuff they  made the witches and the heretics do.
I think it’s so much the same because the issue isn’t the content of the moral code, but the need for a good hefty chunk of human beings to deal with internal and unbudgable convictions of personal guilt.
And yes, this DOES have something to do with Socrates.
I’m getting there.

Written by janeh

July 18th, 2013 at 9:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Optical Illusions

with 3 comments

Okay, I’m going to try something of a tricky maneuver here.  It’s tricky mostly because I want to start in what is probably going to seem like left field, make an enormous loop around a couple of millennia of history, and end up–well, we’ll end up where we end up.

Let’s start with this

         m) Xenophon.  “Apology: Socrates’ Defense To The Jury.”

For those of you who don’t know, Xenophon was a writer, thinker, politician, and military professional who lived in Greece at the same time Socrates did, and who was at least an acquaintance and probably a friend of the more famous man.

I knew of Xenophon for the same reason most people of my age or older would know of him–and, okay, because my brother and one of my uncles were named Xenophon.

Leaving out the family connection, though, the thing about Xenophon is that he wrote a long treatise on a war, called, I think, the Anabasis.

The war was not a particularly glorious or famous one, and my guess has always been that the Anabasis would have retreated into the world of forever to be forgotten books, if it wasn’t for one thing.

For close to two centuries, the Anabasis was the text used for translation in first-year textbooks meant to teach British  public schoolboys how to read Greek.

The reason that mattered to me was because American classics programs used those same textbooks to teach American college students to read Greek.

I have no idea if this was true in the days when American colleges and universities required Greek and Latin for admission, but it was certainly true when they got to me.

I think the people who wrote the textbooks for English schoolboys probably thought  that translating a work about fighting and battles would be less boring to eight year olds–and yes, they went to school at eight–than Plato or Aristotle, and they were probably right.

Not being a British schoolboy and having no interest whatsoever in battles of any kind, anywhere, the thing bored me senseless.

And since Xenophon never came up in any other course I ever took–not in philosophy, not even in later Greek courses–I dismissed Xenophon as “the guy who wrote that boring war thing” and left it at that.

At least, I left it at that until a short while ago, when two things happened very close together:  I got a copy of Xenophon from the Loeb Editions as a present, and I got into a discussion about what had really happened in the death of Socrates.

Now, here’s the thing about the death of Socrates.

There is no getting around the fact that the decision of the Athenians in 399 BCE to put to death their most famous citizen is a seminal event in Western civilization, the sine qua non of vast strains of Western intellectual history.

A book I read a few years ago–and I can’t, for the life of me, remember either the title or the author–argued that Western civilization as we know it is founded on two deaths and the ways in which we understand and interpret them:  the death of Socrates, and the death of Jesus Christ.

I think the author made a very valid case. 

But the event as an event was never something I found very interesting.

When I was younger and reading philosophy on my own and without guidance, the whole thing seemed to be an exercise in stupidity.

The Athenians did not actually mean, I thought, to actually put Socrates to death.  That  had to be the reason why, after he was condemned, they seemed to be bending over backwards to give him opportunities to escape.

What’s more, Socrates had plenty of friends who were more than willing to help him escape and who had the means to make sure he got somewhere safe and was reasonably set  up.

When I finally got to college and broached this interpretion to a professor, I got vigorously and indignantly refuted.  And I am willing to stipulate that I probably got it wrong.

And I will also admit that, as I got older, the central argument of the Socrates of Plato–that he owed his life and soul to the Polis and that it would be wrong to obey her only when it suited his interest–seemed less fatuous to me than it did when I was 14.

Still, even now, reading through the material again, I get the same impression.  Socrates is sitting there waiting to drink hemlock, and I’m going: leave already.  Go.  You’re being an idiot.

Okay, let’s face it.  I’m never going to be the heroine of an epic poem.

Xenophon’s account of Socrates’s reasons for drinking the hemlock disagree fundamentally from Plato’s, although the two accounts are not mutually exclusive.

Xenophon’s Socrates does not die because of any noble reasoning about what he owes to the Polis, what all citizens owe to their socieities.

Xenophon’s Socrates dies because he thinks that such a death is preferable to suffering through the defeats and indignaties of old age.

We all get to a point where our powers fail, he says, and then it’s all misery and unhappiness and (maybe worse) a loss of stature and dignity. Dying now would be the equivalent of quitting while he was ahead.

This is an argument that is alive and well today.  I’ve heard many people voice it, and I’ve known a few who have acted on it.  It was the reason Carolyn Heilbron (scholar, activist, Columbia  professor and author as Amanda Cross of a series of mysteries) gave her friends for her suicide at the age of 77.

It is not an argument that appeals to me, or that I find convincing. But I am a good libertarian in this as in most things.  I think if it’s the choice  you want to make, you ought to be left alone to make it.

What I am looking at here is that a Socrates who made this argument about why he didn’t run away when he could have run is a different exemplar than the Socrates who spoke of the duties a citizens owes to his Polis.

What’s more, the Socrates who dies because it’s better than enduring the indignities of old age is not a man whose death becomes a foundational moment in the rise of Western, or any other, civilization.

The question becomes, for me, whether it matters which of the two versions is true, assuming only one of them is.

Even if Plato invented all of his accounts of the death of Socrates, nothing can change the fact that they have been accepted as true for over two thousand years.

And having been accepted as true, those accounts have established a standard of courage and  integrity that  has been integral to Western ideas of the best of what a human being can be.

Those ideas are embedded in our lives now to an such a significant extent and in so many different ways that there would be little point in debunking the event unless your sole purpose was to provide  people with an excuse when they wanted to behave badly.

(Nah, I’m not going to do THAT.   You know all that stuff about Socrates?  It’s a lie.)

But of course, people often do have as their motive giving themselves and other people an excuse to behave badly,  and not only the death of Socrates can be “debunked.”

The scare quotes are intentional.

This brings an end to the left field.

I’ll get to the loop next time.

Written by janeh

July 16th, 2013 at 9:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Presumed Innocent

with 32 comments

The title of t his post is also the title of a very good book by Scott Turow, and I personally think you should all go read it if you haven’t yet.  It’s good enough so that I read it, in spite of the fact that it’s a novel about somebody falsely accused, which is the kind of story I can barely handle at the best of times.

But the title of this post is what it is, of course, because sometime overnight the  jury came in in the Zimmerman case and acquitted the man on all counts in the death of Trayvon Martin.

This is the second Florida trial I’ve watched closely, and like the first one it’s left some side questions about  how t hings work in Florida–the courts work on Sunday? and Saturday? and all night?  and only six jurors?

But these really are side issues, and matter for another time–although I do think juries would probably return verdicts faster if they weren’t allowed to leave or rest until they delivered one.  Sort of like cardinals shut up in the Vatican until they name a new Pope.

There are also other confusions related specifically to this trial.  I Googled “racial composition of Zimmerman jury” and got, not the racial composition of the Zimmerman jury, but the information that the court was not releasing the racial composition of the Zimmerman jury.

I’m not even sure how this was possible.  Weren’t reporters allowed in the courtroom?  Weren’t spectators?  Was the jury kept out of sight?  How is it possible nobody looked at the jury and said, “Oh, five white women and one Trobriand Islander”?

The other Florida trial I watched closely was, of course, the Casey Anthony case.

That trial and this one had a lot in common, of course, and they both had at least one thing in common with the O.J. trial–all three were trials in which “everyone” “just knew” the defendant was guilty.

I am on record here in about a million places as being FAR happier with a guilty defendant going free than I am with an innocent one being convicted.

I’m also on record as thinking that  it’s far MORE likely that innocent people will be convicted than that guilty ones would be set free.

Outcomes like that of the Zimmerman trial and the Casey Anthony trial and the O.J. trial don’t make me angry, and they don’t make me despairing.  They give me hope that the legal process isn’t hopelessly biased against defendants.

They give me hope that, at least every once in a while, the  presumption of innocense works. 

FWIW, here’s my take on all three.

1) When the glove didn’t fit, the O.J. jury HAD to acquit.  They really did.  Given with what they were allowed to know, and given the prosecutions absolutely idiotic handling of that evidence, they were pretty much stuck letting the guy off.

On the day the prosecution righteously demanded that OJ. don the glove and then–oops, the man couldn’t get it over his hand–the case was over.

That was prosecutorial error, not inevitability, but once the error was made, they were stuck with it.

And it would have killed them even if the jury was  made up entirely of white people.

2) The Casey Anthony case is harder to read, and the best I can make of it is  prosecutorial overreach.

I would  think the State could have easily gotten a conviction on a neglect charge, or an endangerment charge, or something along those lines.  As far as I know, nobody, not even the defense,  ever disputed the claim that Anthony left her child home alone while she went out to party.

With  or without the use of cholorform, that would have been enough.

The attitude of the prosecution seemed to be that that wasn’t good enough, and they spent so much time trying to paint Anthony as an Avatar of Evil that they ended up with  nothing at all.

In a way, that was too bad, because Casey Anthony may actually be an Avatar of Evil.  She gives every evidence of being a first class sociopath.

What she almost certainly wasn’t, however, was somebody who deliberately set out to murder her child.

Given everything we know about her now, I wouldn’t be shocked if she showed up ten or fifteen years from now having deliberately  murdered another child, but you can only charge a person with crimes already committed.

3) As for George Zimmerman, the one  really  major difference is the fact that not everybody in the country thought he ought to be convicted.

In this case, there were real, honest to God sides.

And there were certainly real, honest to God issues.

The real issue, though, was almost certainly that tape and what was or was not on it.

Both Trayvon Martin’s mother and George Zimmerman’s mother testified that they were “positive” that the voice heard screaming in agony belonged to her son.

If there really was no way to positively identify the voice on that tape, then I don’t see how the jury could have done anything but what they did.

The craziness has already started,  of course.

The Reverend Al Sharpton is calling for the Feds to file charges so that somebody can get Zimmerman on something, and double jeopardy be damned.

I’ll just note for the record that this is exactly the kind of case the Framers were thinking of when they outlawed double jeopardy to begin with.

The scarier stuff is going on on Twitter and FB with people posting what they claim to be Zimmerman’s address in the hopes that somebody will go get him.

It’s tempting to explain this by the racial aspects of the case, except the same thing happened after the Casey Anthony trial, and there were no racial  overtones there.

It’s useless to say that the racial overtones don’t matter, because they do, and they will.  That’s why I’m very  nervous that we do n’t know the racial composition  of that jury  up front. 

But even beyond the tendentious and deliberately inflammatory stuff, there are actual practical  issues in a trial of this kind.  If one of the main points is whether or not Zimmerman had a credible case for self defense, then one of the things jurors will do is to ask themselves that if they found THEMSELVES in the same situation, they would feel justifiably in danger of their lives.

And it’s almost certain that men and women, blacks and w hites and Latinos and Asians, would have distinctively different answers to that question.

I wish the  jury hadn’t been all female.  I hope the jury was not all white.

But in the end, if I had been on that jury, the only thing that would have mattered would have been the fact that we could not positively identify the voice screaming on that tape.

If the voice belonged to George Zimmerman, he had every right to fire in self defense.

If the voice belonged to Trayvon Martin, then Zimmerman murdered him.

Written by janeh

July 14th, 2013 at 9:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 6 comments

So, it’s the 13th of July, and that means it’s my birthday. 

I’m not in general very fond of my birthday.  It has tended to be a day on which Bad Things happen, and if they don’t  happen on the day, they happen near the day.

This year has been no exception, but there’s no point in going into all that, because on this year my sons and my friends are going out of their way to beat the jinx.

And that helps, it really does. 

But what I want to comment on here is the now week or two long conspiracy between  my two sons to get me a cake.

Now, I really like cake on my birthday.  In fact, I mostly really like cake.  Costco has this multilayered chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and chocolate shavings that’s about the size of Iowa that I’m very fond of, although I don’t get it too often, because it’s so large that it tends to stale before it gets eaten.

Unless Greg gets to it, in which case it’s gone in a day.

I remember being 19 and able to eat anything and everything and still not being able to gain weight.  Or even maintain it.

I want those days back.

Anyway, the point about the cake for today, it seems, is that it isn’t supposed to be a regular ordinary cake from the supermarket or even a great big superduper enormous cake from Costco.

It is supposed to be some kind of speciality cake from a local baker, made to order, to be picked up somewhere off in town in the middle of the morning somehow.

This sounds to me to be expensive, which is interesting, because I know exactly what money they have this summer and exactly what their bills are.

Leaving that aside, though, there is the immediately larger problem–I am not supposed to know they are doing this, but I do.

I know because my sons are to keeping secrets what Harold Stassen was to winning presidential elections.

THERE’S a cultural reference for you.  I wonder how many of you get it.

Showing my age.  That’s what this is.

Anyway, the boys will be going off to pick this thing up in a little bit, and I’m supposed to sit  here with Beethoven and a book, or a book and Apollo 13, and pretend I don’t know about it.

This includes, I expect, not making jokes about how obvious everything they’re doing is, never mind how obvious their little hastily erected code language is. 

There are better codes in cereal boxes with decoder rings.

I am working very hard to play the game here, but I have to admit that I’m tempted to advise them both NEVER to go in for careers as spies.

It’s not a bad way to spend a birthday, although if I keep biting my tongue like this I’m not going to be able to eat that cake when it gets here.

Still, it’s nothing to complain about, and  I’m not going to complain about their cooking.

I’m  not going to complain about that even though I know that when it gets here, Greg is going to have figure out a way to batter dip and deep fry lettuce.

I’m going to go off and listen to Beethoven’s 9th, which seems to have the right sort of theme for the day.

Written by janeh

July 13th, 2013 at 8:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

I’ve had a lot to do the last few days,  so any progress I’ve made on anything has been slow, but the progress through Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell has not been bad.

The experience has even improved in some ways.  Once Dennett gets going, he tends to forget to use the exclamation points (!!!) and to forget to use the egregious term “bright,” both cases of situational amnesia being all to the good.

Of course, every once in a while he seems to remember that he’s supposed to be employing these devices, and I’m stuck with how brights find all this completely bewildering!

Or some such sentence that makes me want to hurl the book i nto the fireplace.

Don’t worry.  There’s nothing lit in the fireplace.  I don’t want to burn the thing.  I just want to make the man take me seriously.

The book is interesting in a lot of ways, in spite of this kind of thing, and I’ve just finished making my why through a long section about what people actually mean when they say the word “God.”

The exposition is on the light side, and I’d really like to see a serious book about the evolution of the definition of “God” through the ages. 

I’ve seen people in my own life evolve such a definition for themselves, and in both directions.  One of my best friends from high school went from being an intensely devout Catholic to being a fervent evangelical. Her God went from being a highly intellectualized metaconception to be something much  more anthropomorphic and concrete.

Other people I know, while maintaining themselves as Catholics or Methodists or whatever, have made their God so abstract and conceptual, they might as well be Buddhists.

I, of course, have done none of these things, because I never had a conception of God to begin with.

In a country in which most people have been brought up in a religion, this can be very hard to explain to people. 

When I first went looking for fellow atheists–after Bill’s death, when I felt absolutely deluged by Catholics trying to save my soul and eliminate what they were sure was my “despair”–

When I first went looking for fellow atheists, what I almost always found were ex-Christians desperate for confirmation of the rightness of their decision to leave their religion.

I thought then, and I think now, that most of them were not anywhere near as sure as they wanted to be.  That would explain the hysteria, the hyperbole, and the utterly irrational rage if anybody suggested anything that might make a case for atheism seem less than  ironclad.

Mind you, I said seem less than ironclad.  A lot of the things that caused the most upset–maintaining that Jesus was a person who had actually existed in history, say–would not have destroyed the case for atheism at all.

But I never had to break away from a belief and declare myself an atheist, so I feel no guilt about it.

And I have no experience of believing in a particular version of God, either, so I have no need to “evolve” a definition for myself.

Religion was of great interest to me when I was growing up, but it was of interest in the same way that life in Paris and New York, or the history of WWII, were of interest to me.  They were all mostly intellectual exercises.

Religion seemed to me to be sort of fun of a kind I wished I could  have–First Holy Communion with special white dresses and veils with tiaras on them; women speaking directly to apparitions of a Beautiful Lady; rosaries, which were so beautiful in some cases I wanted to have them just to have, and did.  I collected rosaries for almost thirty  years.

God himself, however, was for me just a blank.  When I tried to conceive of him–even when I was very young, and knew only the Christian traditions–he always came up a sort of faceless blank.  Or just a blank.

Faith seemed to me to be an emotional response of some kind of which I was just not capable. 

In the years before Vatican II we would sometimes go to sung masses that were extraordinarily beautiful–but that was all they ever were to me, extraordinarily beautiful.  If I tried to force myself to feel something bigger and more important beyond it all, I got–absolutely nothing.

Over the years, I attended many different kinds of religious services in many different Christian denominations. 

A woman who came in to babysit us when my family was in Florida–half the year, every year, until I was a high school senior–took my brother and myself to African-American tent revival services.  They were literally held in tents,  out in an open marchy flat space that was well out of town and seemed to belong to nobody.

It took only the second trip before I was being slain in the spirit with the best of them, but it was only a performance, and I was incapable of “losing” myself long enough ever to forget it.

At the same time, I never became one of those people who pretends to have faith, on the assumption that faith is something to be encouraged, because it’s good for people who are too weak or undisciplined to run their lives without it.

It wasn’t just that I didn’t like the condescension, although I didn’t, even then.  It was that I lived in a world of nonbelievers, many of whom (especially  my father) seemed to me to be more moral, ethical and upright than most of the religious people I knew.

It was, therefore, obviously true that it was possible to be “good without God,” as the posters say, and equally possible to be bad with him.

In the end, I think I decided two things.

The first was that a strictly metaphysical description of God–neither male nor female; having no body; not answering prayers but just being the essence of being in the universe–while it could never be disproven, also wasn’t much use for anything. 

I didn’t need Daniel Dennett to tell me that such a religious idea rarely garners much in the way of believers, because it was obvious that there wasn’t much point in believing it, even if it was true.

There would be a point in believing in the God of the Christians, or the Jews, or the Muslims, or even the Hindus, if I could convince myself that they were true, but I never could convince myself. 

The whole idea always seemed to me to be pointless and unnecessary.

But in the end, it was more than that.

I can remember the exact moment at which I realized that I would never believe in the Christian story, that I was incapable of believing it, because it was embedded in the vision of a world I not only did not live in, but did not want to live in.

I was watching a cable network called EWTN–Eternal Word Television Network–run by the legendary Mother Angelica and her Poor Clare cloistered, full-habited nuns. The network’s stated mission is to present orthodox Catholic Christianity to the world.

What was on was a movie about the life of Christ, dubbed into English from Spanish. 

I’d watched a number of these movies on EWTN, mostly biopics of specific religious figures.  The movies were amateurish on a technial level, but they were sometimes very interesting.  That was especially the case of the biopic of  St. Teresa of Avila, still my favorite Catholic saint.

But I was sitting there watching this movie, and there came a point where Jesus is leading his disciples over a stony patch of ground while talking to them about the mustard seed, and I suddenly saw the scene as if it were taking place directly in front of me.

It wasn’t an iconic scene about Jesus anymore.  It was just a place and a time and a way of being in the world–sandals instead of shoes, loose robes instead of tailored clothing, the threat of death from unconquerable disease at any moment, no central heating, no proper plumbing, no secure sources of food…

And it just suddenly hit me that the gulf between that way of life and mine was just too vast–it was in many ways a difference in kind and  not just in degree.

The Christian story did not move me to belief because it couldn’t.

I could take good things from it–and there are a lot of good things in Christianity, things we could not do without–but I could only take them as I took good things from Homer.

We  have certainly managed to come up with some very bad things in our pursuit of modernity, including ways of life far worse than that represented by first century Palestine.

But modernity is like anything else in one important way–the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward.

The risk is Stalinism and Nurse Ratched, and that is a very big risk indeed.

The reward is the virtual elimination of death in childbirth and from things like cholera, smallpox and TB.  It’s landing on the moon universal literacy and books and movies and the Internet everywhere and for everyone.  It’s a life of reasonable comfort and spare time spread across entire populations.  It’s–


Here’s the thing.  We have made so much real progress, we have come so far, that  most of the things we argue about would be literally  nonsensical to Christ’s disciples.

And I don’t mean things like gay marriage or women’s rights, either.

We argue about whether or not our fellow citizens have “decent lives” with “decent” defined by a standard the Roman Emperors couldn’t have met on their best days.  Our problem is not what to do about diseases that strike without warning and kill without mercy, but  how to make sure our fellow citizens don’t go bankrupt getting well.

We not only do not think the way the people of Palestine thought, we can’t think the way they thought, and if we’ve got any luck and any brains, we’ll never think that way again.

In spite of the very real downsides, in spite of the colossal risks (Stalin, Pol Pot, Katherine Sebelius), this way of life is better than that way was.  We did make progress.  We made quite a lot of it.

The Christian narrative sounds like mythology to me because it lives in the world where mythology lived, and I don’t live there and never have.

And I don’t want to. 

And I shouldn’t want to.

What’s more, I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one who responds to the Christian narrative this way.

Unlike some people, I don’t imagine that it is impossible for the Christian narrative to accept reality–yes, the world is billions of years old and evolution is a fact and every decently educated Catholic accepts it.

But the fact that Christianity does not need to be stupid in order to be Christianity does not solve the central problem.

Intelligent or otherwise, it envisions a world that is lost, and should be lost, forever.

Intelligent Christianity is very intelligent indeed, and there is a lot that can and should and even must be kept from the ideas that evolved out of that story–things about how we should envision ourselves and our fellow human beings, about the obligations we owe each other as people, about individuality and the nature of guilt and innocence and a lot else.

But the narrative does not ring true to me because it is a narrative of another time, a time that is not only gone but should be gone, because that time was not only different from ours, but lesser.

Written by janeh

July 11th, 2013 at 9:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 9 comments

I’m going to start this post with a proposition:

Once (most) people find out what rights actually are ,  they absolutely hate the idea.

 I bring this up as a way to begin answering Lymaree’s question from yesterday;  why should we put up with people who use faith  healing or won’t vaccinate their children?  We already proscribe all kinds of things families do (she included “hitting,” which is actually not the case).  Don’t I think we should move against “actual abuse?”

Let’s start with a definition.

Rights are restrictions on government power, and that is all they are.

There is a lot of confusion in this country on the matter of “rights,” because we use the words in two distinct and sometimes mutually exclusive ways.

If we pass a law that says all blondes under the age of 25 will receive $100 a month until their 25th birthday, then we tend to say that blondes under the age of 25 have a “right to” $100 a month.

But this not a case of an actual right–it’s a right-in-law, or right-under-the-act.

It is a grant of benefit that can be given or taken away.

Real rights–natural rights, individual rights–can neither be given  nor taken away.  They are not granted to us by the state.  The state cannot make them cease to exist.  The state’s only choice is to recognize rights or to violate them.

Rights are also individual, and never anything else.  Rights inhere in the person, not the family, the tribe, the group, the clan, the…pick  your “community.”

And this means that we can never have an actual right to something somebody else has to give us–to claim we do (you have to pay for my old age pension! you have to treat my sciatica whether you want to or not!) is to declare that at least some human beings have no rights at all, that they are our slaves and exist of our use.

The classic formula of rights is that they consist of “life, liberty and property.”  Thomas Jefferson changed that to “life,  liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution exists as an attempt to codify rights–to limit the scope of government–by proscribing specific government actions. 

In outlining these prohibitions, the first thing the people who wrote the Bill of Rights did was to insure liberty of conscience in the widest sense.

They not only guaranteed that the US Government would not establish any particular religion, or any religion at all.

They guaranteed that the US Government would not be allowed to prohibit the free exercise of religion.

Freedom of conscience does not mean that you will simply be allowed to go off by yourself privately and “believe” things, or gather privately with a few friends to believe them, or even publish them and talk about them.

It means that the government will not be allowed to stop you from actually living by the light of your conscience.

Almost no religious person anywhere–and most nonreligious persons–can live by the light of her conscience.  In fact, in most religious traditions,  one cannot be a practicing member without raising your children in the faith.

Since minor children cannot be recognized to have natural rights until their majority–the actual situation on the ground is a lot more complicated than that, but leave it here–

Since minor children cannot claim natural rights until their majority, the question becomes:  who has the right to raise the child?

The answer to this has always been:  the parents, by the light of whatever they deem right or reasonable.

Traditionally, therefore, government has been prohibited from interfering  in the lives of families except in very, very extreme situations.

The rule has been that parents can make any decision for their children that will not most likely result in permanent and significant physical disability or death.

Note all the qualifiers in that sentence. This is a very difficult standard to meet.  In most cases, families would have absolutely nothing to fear from teachers, emergency rooms, doctors and nurses, social workers, or other “helpers” who might disapprove of the way they are raising their children.

So, am I opposed to moving against “actual abuse”?

Well, no–


a) “abuse” is defined as above


b) anybody accused of abuse has full due process rights before they are convicted of it and before any punishment is meted out because of it


c) it is understood up front that having your child removed from your home is punishment, as is being required to meet with your child only under supervision.

In other words, I’d forbid government from  making most of the regulations it has recently made concerning child abuse and neglect, and I’d require any such charges to be properly adjudicated in regular criminal courts.


Because what we have now is this:

1) complaints can be filed anonymously

2) CPS must respond to such complaints, and BECAUSE such complaints have been made–with no proof, no evidence, no probably cause–

3) They are empowered to enter your home without a warrant

4) to search through  your house, enter all rooms, open all drawers and cabinets, to go through your papers and

5) to access all your child’s medical and educational records, and also the medical and educational records of any other minor in the house

And in the meantime

1) you do NOT have the right to remain silent (this is on its way to the Supreme Court as we speak, but one of the social wo rkers in the case complained that “if we have to give people their Constitutional rights, we couldn’t do our work)

2)  you do NOT have the right to confront your accusers (not only can complaints be filed anonymously, but even if the complainant gave his name, the CPS is not allowed to release it to you or your attorneys)

3) you do NOT have the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures

4) you do NOT have the right to a jury trial (family courts tend to be run by judges alone)

5) and  you only SORT OF have the right to know the charges against  you.  That’s because you may be charged with “abuse” or “neglect,” but the DEFINITIONS of “abuse” or “neglect” amount to “whatever the social worker says it is.” 

Before you jump in and say that that isn’t really the definition, the definition is “the best interests of the child,” I’d like to point out that the “best interests of the child” is a dodge, and nothing more.

“The best interests of the child” by what standard?

If you start from the premise that the “best interests of the child” consist of what your social work textbook said in sophomore year, then your determination will be one thing.

If you start from the premise that the “best interests of the child” consist of his following the Word of God so that he doesn’t have to endure a raging torment in Hell for all eternity, then your determination will be something else altogether.

“The best interests of the child” is just pleasant sounding jargon meant to hide the fact that what you’re trying to do is to impose your own subjective opinion on other people’s families, and to enforce it by law.

And if that all isn’t bad enough–

What happens if the complaint was a spite complaint (the estimate is that about a third are) and the worst happens?

Back in the nineties, there was a case in Pennsylania.  Defendant A lived next door to a man with whom he was having long and acrimonious boundary disputes.  This man–Complainant B–called in to CPS and accused Defendant A of sexually abusing his six year old son, Victim C.

In spite of the fact that there was no evidence of any kind that sexual abuse, or any abuse, had occurred,  social workers immediately removed Victim C from Defendant A’s care and put him in foster care.

Several weeks later, Defendant A finally managed to get the family court to admit that a mistake had been made and have Victim C returned to his own home–but it was too late.

Victim C–who, up until the time of the spite complainant, had never known anything but love and kindness and safety–had been raped in foster care, and was HIV positive.

Defendant A tried to sue and was told that Pennsylvania law shielded CPS from lawsuits.

Defendant A then took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, which decided that Pennsylvania had a “compelling state interest” in this system and that therefore the denial of the right to sue must stand.

In other words, CPS can violate every single Constitutional right you thought you had, punish you (and your child) before you’ve been convicted of anything and without any objective evidence whatsoever, destroy your family and finally disable your child for life or even kill him–and you can’t even sue.

(By the way–CPS can also violate your right to free speech and free press.  It’s fairly common, in cases where they are forced to admit that they’ve made a mistake, for the family judge to impose a gag order on the defendants as a condition of return of custody.)

So, yes, I do know we already outlaw all kinds of things in families, and my response is that I don’t think we should. 

I not only want the right of parents to decide for themselves whether to vaccinate or to use faith healing to stand, I want to cut back the state’s ability to regulate most of the child-family behavior they now regulate.

But in this case, the simple fact is that the system is endangering far more children than it is protecting,

And in the cases of faith healing and vaccination, government strong arming would prevent almost no harm at all. 

In most years, the number of children who die because they have not been vaccinated or because their families chose faith healing is zero.

Most unvaccinated children never catch the diseases they have been vaccinated against, and in the few cases where they do, they don’t usually die from them.  What’s more, if YOUR child has been vaccinated, he won’t catch even a very communicable disease from such an unvaccinated child unless the population of the unvaccinated in your area has reached a critical mass that is actually quite high.

The only time I ever heard of that even possibly  happening was in an upscale, high-educational-attainment community in Colorado about ten years ago.  And in that case, in spite of the fact that the critical threshhold was assumed to have been reached, there were no deaths and seem to have been no serious illnesses in children vaccinated or not.

If you think about t his, it only makes sense.  In the early days of vaccination, the chances were good that if you got vaccine at all, you were one of the very few in the community who did so.  If vaccination didn’t work more often than not even under those conditions, we’d have given up the practice as a bad job a couple of centuries ago.

So yes, there is more danger in forbidding these practices, or trying to regulat them, than there is in accepting that every once in a while, an individual will be hurt by them.

We are all of us hurt, and badly hurt, when we give yet another excuse to the people who are out there trying to curtail and deny individual rights–and they are always out there, and they never need much of an excuse.

Accepting rights means accepting the fact that they will protect people who are doing things you think are morally wrong and completely abhorent–and that you have no right to intervene and stop them,  no matter how you feel.

Written by janeh

July 10th, 2013 at 8:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

Over the last couple of days I’ve been reading a book by Daniel Dennett called Breaking the Spell, in which he proposes to give an evolutionary account of the rise and spread of religion.

There’s a lot wrong with this book, in different and interconnected ways.  Not the least of it is the fact that Dennett is self-consciously writing for “a wider audience,” including (he tells u) religious people, and like a lot of academics who set out to do that, he uses lots and lots and lots of exclamation points !!!!!

Okay.  He usually only uses them  one at a time, but you know what I mean.

Then there’s the absolutely cringe-making use of the word “bright” to mean “atheist”–a fad that came and thankfully went several years ago.

I’ve read other Dennett, and he’s usually a first rate writer.  I’d recommend Darwin’s Dangerous Idea to anybody and everybody. 

But he’s a philosopher and not a biologist, and it shows, in both books.  In Breaking the Spell it sometimes just makes him sound addled.

But as much fun as it can  be, at times, to beat up on somebody like Dennett–what is it about the New Atheists that makes them all so damned smug?–what the book has brought to my attention is something else altogether, and I don’t know what to do about it.

I have been, on this blog and elsewhere, as strong an advocate of leaving everybody to  make their own choices, even if their choices are flagrantly and dangerously wrong.

I am, in fact, more and more convinced that this is the only acceptable political stance.  Goverments constructed to save people from themselves always end in totalitarianisms.  There is no place else they can end.

But although I think governments must always and everywhere take stands of neutrality on their citizens decisions about their own lives–that they must let us all go to  hell in our own handbaskets, even if they think they know better–that is not the same thing as saying that I’m a cultural or philosophical or moral relativist.

I do see that some decisions are intrinsically wrong, and that some people are wedded to ignorance the way a Cleveland Browns fan is wedded to disappointment.

That was true of me twenty years ago and it’s true of me now.  What’s changed is this:  I seem to be less and less willing to call out against certain kinds of stupidity.

One of the reasons, I think, is that I get worried that if I deliver one of my once-famous acerbic diatribes against some kinds of idiotic thought or behavior, I will inadvertantly give aid, comfort and empowerment to the “we know best for you and we should get to decide” population.

This situation is more serious than it may seem at first, because one of the reasons I am so convinced that “let people make their own choices” is the best way to go is that I expect the culture at large to provide a large element of push back.

In other words, if you do something, or say something, that is manifestly stupid or wrong, I expect people to tell you it’s stupid or wrong, and in detail.

I’m comfortable with letting you make your own decisions about your finances because I expect  your friends, family,  neighbors and the entirety of Facebook to rip you a new one if you spend your rent money on lottery tickets.  I’m comfortable letting you smoke yourself into oblivion because I expect the nurses to be less than sympathetic when you get lung cancer.  I’m comfortable with letting you decide to get falling down drunk every morning by ten because I expect the people around you to tell you how worthless you are for doing it and the government to refuse  you disability payments because of it.

Okay, we’ll  have to work on that last one.

A world in which you can make your own choices but can’t escape the consequences (social and otherwise) of them is very different from a world that exists to enable them,  even if the enabling only amounts to not telling you what you don’t want to hear so that we don’t hurt your feelings.

But the real mess caused by people not speaking out–for my reason, or for politeness, or whatever–against stupidity and ignorance does not come in encounters with confirmed drunkards and people w ho believe they’re going to get rich w ith the lottery.

The real mess comes with the spread of the kind of misinformation that is not only wrong but that spreads like wildfire, and that results in demonstrably, and easily preventable, physical harm.

The two things that strike me as fitting this description most clearly come from two different sides of the political aisle, but are still oddly connected.

Those things are faith healing and the anti-vaccination  movement.

I think that it’s more than a little interesting that so many of the areas that lead to significant citizen push-back against experts have to do with medicine.

But these are two areas in which the evidence is crystal clear and widely available.

It’s not just that there is “no evidence” linking vaccinations with autism.  It’s that there’s very good evidence linking vaccinations to lowered levels (much lowered levels) of childhood mortality. 

And not just childhood mortality, either.

 The year Matt was born, there were a  group of mothers in Stamford, CT, who adamantly refused to allow their children to be given the pertussis vaccine.  They were all  highly education women and their fear was of the fact that, in very rare cases, the vaccine  has caused serious illness and sometimes death.

By the end of the season, every single one of their children were dead from whooping cough.

At the moment, it is not possible to require such parents to vaccinate their children. 

And, as far as I’m concerned, the government should not be allowed to require any such thing.

Parents have the natural right to make any decisions for their children that will not result in permanent, significant physical harm or death, and in spite of a few cases like the one I just mentioned, most refusals to vaccinate result in no physical harm at all.

In fact, they so seldom result in  harm that even the one requirement the state is allowed to make–that children cannot attend a school (public or otherwise) is regularly ignored in cases where the parents are adamantly opposed.

This is especially true when the reasons are religious–in fact, most state abuse and neglect laws specifically exempt the choice of faith healing and the rejection of vaccines–but Jenny McCarthy has nothing to fear.  There may be some resistance to her refusal to vaccinate, but her convictions will be accommodated in the end.

The faith  healing cases, when they come up, always sound much more extreme and much less excusable–partially, I think, because so few of us find faith healing credible these days.

It’s one thing, we think, to be worried about the side effects of a vaccine.  We all worry about the side effects of the drugs we take. It’s a judgment call, and any of us might make the wrong judgment call one of these days.

 Faith healing, on the other hand, just sounds completely bizarre.  Most of us cannot imagine a case in which we  had a fever of 105, or our child did, where we would opt to pray instead of calling 911.

We might pray as well as calling 911, but we would most assuredly call 911.

Court cases on faith healing deaths have been all over the map.  Such incidents almost always provoke community outrage–and this is especially true in cases in which whatever t he illness was was something that can reliably cured with standard medical attention.

An organization called CHILD–Children’s Healthcare Is A Legal Duty–was started by a group of (now former) Christian Science parents whose children died in an epidemic of bacterial  meningitis.  It’s a disease fairly easy to cure with a course of antibiotics, but without the course of antibiotics it tends to lead to a prolonged and agonizing death.

The former Christian Science parents are now committed to getting the laws changed that allow parents to reject  standard medical care for their children, but by and large, I would not.

It is simply true that, in the vast majority of cases, such a choice will do no harm.  And in those cases–and maybe even in the most extreme ones–the choice to allow government to  make the requirement will do far more harm, not  just to the individual child and family, but to the community at large.

But none of this works–none of it–if people like me are  holding their tongues instead of jumping into the conversation and making the case for standard medicine.  And vaccinations.  And evolution over “creation science” and “intelligent design.”  And…

You see what I mean.

There’s a lot of stupid out there.  And none of it is being  helped by keeping our mouths shut when it blossoms onto the scene.

If I had to name the single  most destructive thing about the Nurse Ratcheds/Delores Umbrages/Mary Ewings of the world, it would be just this–

That it makes so many of us reluctant to speak up against real evils for fear of giving them an excuse.

Written by janeh

July 9th, 2013 at 9:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 6 comments

Before I start this morning, I have a confession to make.

I do not actually know if the title of this post is correctly spelled.

I tried spell check this morning, and it steadfastly refused to admit that any such word had ever existed, anywhere.

This opens up the possibility that I am mistaken about the word I want, but I don’t think I am.  Exsanguination.  The process of being completely drained of blood.

I expect that if I’m wrong, one of you will tell me, and I’ll looked like an idiot, which isn’t out of the ordinary.

The other thing I need to do before I start is give a warning.

This post is about mystery novels, and along the way it may give one or two spoilers.

It will most definitely give a great whopping spoiler about a Dorothy L. Sayers novel called Have His Carcase.

If you haven’t read this yet and don’t like to read things where  you know the solution, or the means to the solution, ahead of time, you  might want to skip all this.

For those of you who may be new here, I’ll repeat what I’ve said  before.

I truly HATE those set ups where somebody writes SPOILER ALERT! right before they give some kind of information, and I don’t use that format.

So–proceed at your own peril.

But proceed first to this place


That’s the Wikipedia article that gives both the Top 100 Mystery Novel lists, the one produced by the Crime Writers in the UK and the one produced by the Mystery Writers of America.

These are lists produced by professionals, but what got me started was a list by an amateur,  billboarded by somebody on FB and gone now into the mists of time.  At least, I haven’t been able to find it again.

Now, lists being what they are, they will always have drawbacks. 

Even lists produced by professionals will maintain bias, although it’s always interesting to note what people in a field think are solid and lasting achievements.

I tend to feel that the professionals in a field know one important thing that amateurs and laypersons do not:  what is hard to do. 

If you don’t actually have to deal, every day, with the realities of Making Things Work, lots of stuff is going to look effortless that is very difficult in fact.

And what is easy and what is difficult will change over time.  Agatha Christie got a lot of mileage out of the fact that the mystery readers of her time were convinced that they knew the conventions of the genre.  The narrator could not be the murderer.

I was convinced myself the first time I read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, so convinced that when Christie reached about page 10 or 26 or something of my paperback and  positively hit me on the head with a two by four with the solution–I noted the two by four, but I still didn’t get it.

There are, however, other difficulties in all this that are not so easily accounted for, and that brings me to Dorothy L. Sayers’s Have His Carcase.

I read and reread mysteries from the Golden Age a lot.  I like them.  They’re what brought me into the field.  And, often, they’re better constructed than most of what I can get  now.

Yes, including my own.

Have His Carcase, however, was a book I’d read once and never come back to until sometime last week,

I am not the kind of person who gets disappointed in a mystery novel because I figured it out before the revelation, and I have read and reread many mystery novels whose killers were clear to me almost from the opening page.

With Have His Carcase, however, my problem was that the entire mystery is completely transparent from off if you know what the vital clue actually  means, and the entire book is spent with  Lord Peter Wimsey NOT knowing what it means, or anybody else, either, and it always seemed to me that there should have been no real confusion to begin with.

Have His Carcase is the second of Sayers’s mysteries featuring both Wimsey and Harriet Vane.  In the first, Strong Poison, Vane is on trial for murder and Wimsey gets her off.

In Have His Carcase, Vane is on a walking tour when she stumbles on a corpose on a rock in the middle of the wet sand revealed by the low tide. 

The corpse has had its throat cut “from ear to ear,” as they put it, and the blood is still splashing wet and uncoagulated all around the rock.

Some pages later, we discover that the dead man was a naturalized British subject who had come from somewhere in Russia, and that he always hinted to people that he was of noble birth.

Then Lord Peter Wimsey shows up, and Wimsey, Vane and the local police run around trying to figure out of this was murder or suicide and running into brick walls everywhere.

Their biggest brick wall is the time of death, which they are convinced must have been no later than 2 o’clock, because if it had been any later, the blood would have at least started to clot.

Beating their heads against the brick wall of this time frame becomes the subject of the rest of a very long and involved book.

For me, it becomes the subject of a very long and interminable book, because of course I know what the answer is before Wimsey ever gets to the scene.

I don’t know who the murderer is until another fifty or so pages in, but I know that the time is wrong right away, and it makes me crazy that  nobody in the book ever seems to.

Russian emmigre.  Noble Blood.

Am I really the only person whose first thought is haemophilia?

For many years, I gave t his book a pass on the assumption that haemophilia is something that’s general knowledge now, but maybe wasn’t then.

This time, I paid some attention to the dates.  The book was written in 1932, which  means that anybody then an adult had lived through the Russian Revolution and the literally thousands of newspaper and magazine stories about the deaths of the Tsar and his family.

This included the death of the Tsar’s son, who was, in fact, a haemophiliac. 

Hemophilia wasn’t a little known condition in 1932, and its connection with the Russian royal family was legendary.

I have a hard time believing that the reading public didn’t catch on just as I did, and I have a really hard time believing Lord Peter Wimsey took that long to get it.

This is, after all, a man who is supposed to have done (and be doing) high level intelligence work in just that part of the world.

The fact that I “got” all this right at the beginning meant that most of the rest of the novel was completely irrelevant for me.  Vane and Wimsey and the local constabulary work out elaborate theory after elaborate theory to explain why this murder could have taken place at 2 o ‘clock, and I yawn because I know there’s no reason why the murder has to take place at 2 o’clock.

While this is going on and on and on, I get no new information that I might  need about the murder. 

The action of the novel is, when I read it, useless in a way that the action of the plot of Who Killed Roger Ackroyd or Murder on the Orient Express is not, because in those last two everything the detective does is in fact necessary to figuring out what went on, even if I know what went on in advance.

Have His Carcase is a weak book in many other ways, not the least of which being  that the whodunnit part is much too elaborate and unbelievable.

But in a way it doesn’t matter, because that time of death thing is what most of that novel is about, and that time of death thing always seems to me to be so obvious, nobody could miss it.

Now, that’s the kind of thing I expect professionals to complain about.

Have fun with the lists.

Written by janeh

July 8th, 2013 at 9:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Creep Factor

with 3 comments

One of the more bemusing thing about living in a largely rural area is watching the vast disconnect between local and national news.

Last week, two tornados touched down in Connecticut.  One of them hit in Greenwich-Stamford, but the other hit just outside Hartford.  The local CBS station, WFSB, is in Hartford.  The tornado became their lead story for days, in spite of the fact that it was an F0, only sporadically reaching an F1, and not much damage was done, and nobody died.

Yesterday, I was looking almost desperately for news about Egypt, never mind about Brazil and Portugal and the eighty other places around the world that seem to be mired in riots and coming apart at the seams.

The big headline on the local news stations was about a man, aged 25, who had been picked up “acting suspiciously” in a local amusement park, and whose camera had later been discovered to have pictures of the chests and rear ends of numerous “teenaged” girls,  some of them more girls than teenaged.  Some of them, in other words, seeming to be about eleven.

I say seeming to be because the incident is even more bizarre than it seems on the surface.

If you want, you can go here and read one of the longer and more detailed news pieces:


There is definitely a creep factor here that is more than the usual sort of thing–hiding in the woods, that camera full of what amounts to child pornography (if soft pornography), the various aliases.

The story itself is, I think, a little confusing. 

The very first headlines out of the case harped insistantly on the picture taking angle, but the story itself seems to indicate that what initially attracted the attention of staff at the park was other behavior entirely. 

Granted, that behavior was equally bizarre, if not equally creepy. And it was certainly exacerbated by the way the man behaved once the police caught up with him.

I’m  not even going to do that thing where I fret about criminalizing this kind of behavior.  Quassy is privately owned and run.  It can admit and retain, or refuse to admit and eject, anybody it wants to.

Given all the reports, if I’d been the Quassy staff, I’d have wanted him out of there, too.

What’s been puzzling me over the last twenty four hours are the charges. 

Granted that my sons are right and the issue, at the time, ws to find something they could use to lock the man up and keep him away from the park and the very young girls while they sorted everything out, the “voyeurism” thing makes no sense to me.

What voyeurism means–or what I thought it meant–is that thing where you drill a hole in the wall behind one of the stalls in the women’s bathroom, or peak through somebody’s windows at night when they’re not aware that you’re there.

In other words, I thought the entire point of voyeurism was that the perpetrator invaded somebody’s private space, a place where the victim had a reasonable expectation of being unobserved.

 But the last place you could have a reasonable expectation of being unobserved is a beach which is open to the public, no  matter how privately owned.

If I was this guy’s lawyer, I’d be all over the “reasonable expectation” thing.  I don’t see how they can make that one stick, and I’m wondering why they’re even bothering to try.

They seem to have even otherwise to hold onto him–forgery, giving false information to a police officer, etc–and they might eventually end up with more.

It looks to me that they’ve  held back from filing child pornography charges because they can’t yet prove that any of the pictures belonged to an actual child.  The one intelligent thing the man seems to have done is not to take pictures of faces.

The one person whose face he did take a picture of seems to have been definitely over the age of eighteen, although if she knew nothing about the video he took of her, that would at least be voyeurism as I’ve always understood it.

Part of the time, I’ve been wondering how else you could structure a law to make this kind of thing illegal, and all I come up with are “solutions” that aren’t really solutions.  To make it illegal to take pictures of people you don’t know and without their permission would not only shut down photojournalism, it would put a lot of completely innocent tourists in jail.

Part of the time, I’ve been thinking about something else.

For centuries–and still, in many parts of the world–women and girls did not leave the house “scantily dressed” precisely because we were worried about who might be watching and with what intent.

We devised and enforced dress codes for children that clearly demarcated children from adults, sort of like big neon signs yelling JAIL BAIT for everyone to see.

The last of those I remember disappeared in the early Sixties, and I remember, at the time, being glad to see them go.  That was the ban on nylon stockings on girls who were not yet out of high school. 

Until you left for college, you were supposed to be restricted to bobby sox and knee socks, and that was that.

Then  Lynn Clark showed up in sixth grade with nylons and ballet flats, and the school did nothing about it.  By the following fall, we were all struggling with garter belts.

I am not in the least bit interesting in going back to that way of life–although I do think panyhose were an invention of the devil–but it continually surprises me that we have so  much changed our underlying understanding of human nature that we’re shocked when things like this happen.

I have a gut feeling that this actually says something good about  us, something about how were are not as decadent or depraved or as sinking into the abyss of destruction as I sometimes think we are.

On some level somewhere, our day to day lives are still mostly well ordered and trustworthy.  Faced with what I would call ordinary scuzz ball behavior, we respond to it as an anomaly.

In the meantime, we’ve managed to lock this guy up where he won’t bother anybody in the immediate future, and I’d be willing to bet we’re going to be able to lock him up long term.



Written by janeh

July 6th, 2013 at 9:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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