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1 The Beginning of the End

with 5 comments

I have spent considerable time over the last few weeks trying to make up my mind whether to restart this blog.

I finally decided that I would restart it, but that I wouldn’t advertise the restart. If you’re one of those people who check this space  periodically to see if I’ve  decided to say something, you’ll catch it, and you can tell anyone you like.

In the meantime, I will write what I want to write and say what I want to say, and whoever reads it can think what they want to think.

So what is it that I want to say?

Well, first, to cut to the chase, a couple of months ago I was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer and told that, assuming I can be treated at all, I had about 2 years left to go.

The actual situation is considerably more complicated than that, and in many ways worse—it’s truly astounding the numbers of medications I have bad side effect reactions to—but I don’t understand enough about medical things to explain it.

It also sort of bores me silly. Doctors may be interested in why I can’t handle Letrozole. I’m only interested in the fact that I can’t.

But I am interested in other things, and the other things are why I have restarted this blog.

Some of those things are essentially petty. I saw my late husband through terminal cancer, and I can tell you that the process is a war, and not just in the ways you think.

Yes, the money and the resources are constantly draining. You run out of cash and food and God only knows what else.

But the emotional stuff is far worse. It is completely astounding to me how many people in the “helping professions” will lie straight to your face, will pull every passive-aggressive manipulation in the book, will outright bully knowing that you’re too emotionally (and often physically) weak to fight back.

So, okay. There may be some stuff about what’s in that last paragraph.

I sometimes get beaten down and then, when I have a chance to collect myself, absolutely furious.

But some of the things I’ve been thinking about are not so petty.

We all know, from the beginning, that life will end eventually. I don’t know why it takes a time limit to make that feel real.

But it does. Or at least it does for me.

So part of what I want to talk about is that kind of thing. God, maybe. Meaning, if there is any such thing. Why the easiest way to get me angry is to tell me everything happens for a reason.

I’ll get to it. I’ll try to number each of the blog posts in this series.

Well see what I wander into.

Written by janeh

April 17th, 2018 at 3:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

An experiment and a little thing about Facebook

without comments

This is the latest project: https://www.gofundme.com/a-mystery-writers-experiment

Now as to Facebook, I have an official Facebook page!


It’s over here at https://www.facebook.com/Jane-Haddam-316337472104866/

Written by janeh

February 1st, 2018 at 3:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A new Jane Haddam Mystery!

with 2 comments

This is an experiment, and only for Kindle. A new series, female sleuth, cozy but not twee, and it’s got a dog! I really wanna hear what you think of it.

Written by janeh

January 15th, 2018 at 12:52 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Another Dead Republican

with 82 comments

It’s Monday, and I’m sitting in the office eating yogurt and otherwise doing nothing, since I’ve already taken care of all of my actual work, but it’s office hours, so…

Anyway, the title of this post is the title of a book by Mark Zubro.

If you’re reading me on FB as well as here, you already know that I gave this book a strong recommendation, and I’m going to stand by it here.  It’s very well written.  It’s very well plotted.  The narrator and his partner–the two main characters of the series–are very attractive as characters, and I would definitely read other books in this series.

And that’s about as good as it gets for a recommendation, at least from me.

And it doesn’t really bother me that the narrator and the book are highly partison Democratic.  I read lots of highly partisan books from lots of different points of view.

But I did have a problem with this book that is at least partly a result of the partisanship, so let me see if I can explain it.

All the Republicans in this book are highly stereotypical–the problem is that they’re a conglomerate of four or five different stereotypes all mashed into one.

There is the murder victim, Edgar Grum, who manages to be racist, sexist, homophobic, fat, stupid, vile, obsessed by guns and ridiculously rich all at the same time.

At least I think he was supposed to be ridiculously rich.  The thing about the money kept going in and out of focus.  On the one had, his family is the Great Power in the fictional county in Wisconsin where the book is set, capable of controlling everybody’s life and employment.

These days, that takes A LOT of money, and Zubro indicates several times that they have it.

But body weight follows social class, not political ideology.  Rich right wing Republicans tend to be thin, not fat, and not even Rush Limbaugh let himself get the kind of obese that would make it difficult for him to move around a room.   Your average fatso Republican is lower middle class, not rolling in dough.

And Edgar is the stupidest (but not the fattest) of the lot, but the rest of his family isn’t much in the brains department, either.

And that poses another problem.

You really just can’t sit on your ass and get or stay rich.  The Grums have a family trust.  The idea is that they must have inherited what they had.  And that’s fine, except that if you’re dumb enough, you can lose it all damned fast.

And Edgar was dumb enough.  He was losing millions on a nearly daily basis and sucking at least one of the brothers into the vortex with him.  If these people aren’t depleting their assets at a rapid rate, we’re back to assuming that we have the kind of money that would virtually guarantee that they would weigh what they do.

And then there are the motivations, which are opaque, and not just on the part of the Republicans.

To begin with, there’s Veronica, the victim’s wife and the sister of the narrator.  The narrator and his partner are gay men.  Their families, including Veronica, are fine with this.  Veronica herself is fine with this.  Edgar acts like she’s a two year old in a Victorian novel, not letting her work, have her own bank account or know anything about the money.

And she married this guy, why?


And she stayed with this guy, why?


I’m sorry.  Love is not enough of a motivation.  It really isn’t.  Any woman of the kind Veronica is supposed to have been before her marriage a) would only have married the idiot if she got really drunk one night in Vegas and ended up at the Elvis chapel; b) would have thrown the ass out on his ear three days later; and, c) if he refused to go, would have shot him.

But motivation is missing on the part of most of the Republicans, too.

Why do the Grums despise Tom and Scott?


Why are they always snarling and bullying everyone?


I’m sorry.  Hate is no better than Love as a motivation.

Certainly people do things out of love or hate, but that love or hate has to be in context.  And with the exception of Edgar himself, there is no context here.  The Grums do everything they do out of hate, and they hate because they’re hateful people.

They also treat their employees in ways that would end them up with no decent help in any normal part of the country.  The only people who would put up with the kind of crap they’re supposed to dish out are the kind who have nowhere else to go, and it’s not that hard to move to Milwaukee from the fictional Harrison County.

And then, of course, there’s religion.  Or sort of religion.  The Grums are all loudly and obnoxiously “religious” in the sense that they pray at the top of their lungs at the drop of a hat, but it’s impossible to figure out from that what it is that they actually believe in.  If anything.  My impression is that they don’t believe in anything much.  The religion thing is just another form of bullying.

There are some outliers, of course–a pair of super super super rich brothers, who seem to be based on the Kochs (VERY loosely) and whose motivation is Money–but the partisanship extends to both history and wishful thinking.

Our narrator is willing to accept that the Daley machine rigged the Chicago vote for JFK, but he’s quick to point out that he’s heard they learned how to do this from secret Republican maneuvers that haven’t gotten as much publicity.

And then the book takes place during a recall election in Wisconsin, which is so close that “of course” the Republicans steal it–except that the Scott Walker recall election in Wisconsin, which took place in the same time frame, wasn’t actually close at all, and he had an even bigger majority when he ran for reelection.

I don’t think Mark Zubro knows why people vote Republican, or why they resist the government recognition of same sex marriages, or why they go to church and what they find there.

And I am me, and being me I am unusually sensitive to things like point of view.

But this would have been a better book, and the Democrats would win a lot more elections, if Mark Zubro and his friends would actually listen to their opposition and learn to understand what is actually going on.

Because if you think it’s all about love and hate and greed–yeah, it doesn’t make any sense.



Written by janeh

April 6th, 2015 at 1:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Full Disclosures

with 3 comments

It’s halfway through the term, and students are now comfortable enough with each other and with me that they’ve started doing something I never know how to handle–they’ve started giving out personal (sometimes VERY personal) information about themselves.

The most common personal revelation by far concerns kids coming out to the class as gay.  This is seldom an actual universal revelation.  One student told the class that she was married to the woman she had been partners with for 15 years, meaning that although the class may not have had a clue, pretty much everybody she knows outside of class almost certainly already new.

These are by far the easiest kinds of revelation to handle.  I don’t have to worry that my married student is going to get into any kind of trouble for saying what she’s said about her private life.  Her behavior is entirely legal.  The only thing that’s likely to change in her behavior in the class is that she’ll be more straightforward about te examples she gives when she rights, not trying to disguise the exact nature of them.

What I find a lot less easy to handle are the revelations of things that are illegal.  I start every term off explaining to them that they shouldn’t use English class as a place to confess to felonies, but they do it anyway.

Some of this is about drug use, and that isn’t too bad.  I’m not going to turn them in, and if anybody else tried to the accusation wouldn’t get very far.  You’ve got to actually catch people using or carrying drugs to arrest them, and the chances that somebody else in the room would know enough about any classmate to give the police dates and times and everything else that would be needed is fairly slim.

The category of crime that gets me most jumpy is something else:  immigration status.

School is in a small central Connecticut city with a large Latino population, and like cities with large Latino populations elsewhere, it has a good sized subsection with immigration status problems out the wazoo and back again.  And because of that, the students in my classes are likely to be either the relatives of illegal immigrants, or illegal immigrants themselves.

I am told that this should not be the case, since undocumented imigrants can’t get into schools and colleges, which normally require copies of a birth certificate for admission.  In point of fact, it happened all the time, even before this last year, when the state legislature began issuing drivers’ licenses to undocumented workers and students.

Part of the reason for this is that Connecticut takes a let-’em-all-in attitude to immigration.  We took about 2000 of the children from Central America during the crisis at the border last summer.  The admissions people at the college where I teach tend to approach the problem with the attitude that there has to be some way to allow anybody who wants to attend school to attend, and they’re usually successful.

My ideas on what to do about the immigration problem are screwed around like a pretzel, but none of the pretzel parts gives me any problem with the admissions process here.  One of the things I like about this place is that we take all comers (open admission–only a high school diploma required, and sometimes not even that) and let them all take their shot.   The vast majority of our students flunk out or drift away, but we’ll always welcome them back, and every once in a while we have absolutely huge successes.

The problem is that being in this country illegally is a crime that is very different than other crimes.  In the aggregate, deportions are proportionately rare.  And general enforcement efforts are damned near nonexistent.  Particular enforcement efforts are something else again.  They almost always hinge on information provided by the general public.

And there is where I run into my problem.

I make a point of telling my students not only not to admit to felonies in class, but specifically not to blurt out their own or their relatives’ immigration status.  It doesn’t matter.  Such a revelation surfaces at least once a term, and sometimes it gives impetus to five or six more from other people, as if we were in an encounter group instead of a classroom.

And all it takes is one kid able to Google the proper phone number and make the call.

I have no idea is this has ever happened to any of my students or former students.  If one of their classmates did make the call, it would take long enough before the charge was investigated that they’d be out of my room and I’d know nothing about it.

The situation still bugs me, though, because it can be very dangerous–it is very dangerous.  My students come from every racial, religious, ethnic, and social group you can think of–yes, even from the rich-family went-to-expensive-prep-schools class.  They come with all sorts of different political and social ideas.  A yes, at  least some of them think that all illegal aliens should be rounded up and deported, en masse, right this minute.

So yes.  I’d be very surprised if none of my students ever had made that call.

And the proper course is definitely to discourage such self revelation as much as possible.

Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to see such self revelations coming.  In fact, it almost never is.  Kids rarely tell immigration stories on themselves when we are discussing immigration. In fact, for reasons that should be clear by now, I tend to avoid discussions of immigration.

One way or the other, though, at the end of every term, I find myself wondering if some student hasn’t gotten himself (or his parents or his siblings or his aunts and uncles) into trouble because, in my classroom, he was comfortable with me.

Because that’s the bottom line here, the thing that keeps me jumping around.

If you’re going to teach students who have been largely “unsuccessful” in their previous academic lives, who are the ones who came out of high school convined they were stupid, worthless, losers, who struggled through English and algebra barely understand one out of every four words–

If you’re going to actually teach those people and not just pass them through the meat grinder one more time–

Then the very first thing you have to do is get them to relax.

They walk into your classroom encased in a defensive wall around them that would have been decisive at the Battle of the Bulge.  You’ve got to get that wall down before they’re going to be able to understand you–about to understand even something so minor as “put your name at the very top of the paper.”

That wall doesn’t always come down, but when it does it comes all the way down, ka-thunk.

Once the inhibitions are gone, they’re gone.

And students aren’t thinking of other students in the classroom.  They’re thinking about the teacher, and what the teacher will think.  To students, all but very bad teachers own their classrooms.  It’s the teacher and no one else that they concentrate on.  It’s the teacher’s opinion and no one else’s that they think will matter.

Only sometimes, that turns out not to be true.

If you’re looking for some kind of a grand resolution here, there isn’t one.  I have no idea what to do about any of this.  I don’t even know if anything can be done.

But today, I’m very depressed about it.

Written by janeh

April 1st, 2015 at 12:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 5 comments

I’m coming off a week-end of sheer outraged piss off, which is not really normal for me most of the time, and probably isn’t good for me.

The occasion was the absolute deluge of FB posts about the new Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed in Indiana.  By and large, these posts were by people who had not read the act in question, which is how I got declaration after declaration about how the act would allow EMTs to refuse to treat gay patients and Christian restaurant owners to refuse to serve gay people.

In the way, though, the people who had not read the thing were less disturbing than the people who had, because those people quite obviously had no idea what they were looking at.

So, if you don’t know the history, let me outline it briefly.

The original RFRA was passed by Congress in 1993 under bipartisan auspices (Chuck Schumer was one of the sponsors) and signed by President Clinton.  This happened because of a SCOTUS case in which the justices upheld the conviction under federal drug laws of a Native American who was using peyote in a religious ritual.  Instead of applying the USUAL standard for deciding such cases–the government must prove any law that burdens the free practice of religion addresses a compelling government interest and is the least burdensome way to effect that interest–the Court decided the drug war trumped the Constitution and used a lower and less difficult standard.

The federal RFRA did nothing but require the courts to decide cases where the r ight to the free exercise of religion came in conflict with laws on the ORIGINAL standard.

That’s it.

We went back to doing it the way we had always done it.

Then, in 1997, the Court decided that the federal RFRA applied only to federal law, and several states (including mine, CT) passed their own RFRAs to make sure the original standard was also used in their state courts.  The IN act just passed is not significantly different than any of those, and remains nothing but a standard to be used by courts.  If you have a beef with a state law and think following it violates your right to freedom of religion, you can bring a lawsuit and the court that hears it will be required to apply the compelling government interest/least burdensome method standard when it decides if you have a Constitutional right to be free of that law.

The first thing that really shocked the hell out of me was the fact that so many people thought the IN law was something brand new that was being trotted out so that people could discriminate against gay people.

The second thing that really shocked the hell out of me was that so few people know what a right is.

Okay.  I’ve known for a long time that most people in the US these days have no idea what a right is.  But the display of both ignorance and indignation knocked me off my feet.

Let’s start here:

Rights are not laws.

Rights, under the US Constitution as written, are restraints on government power.

That’s it.  They’re a list of things the government of the US and (through the 14th amendment) the states are not allowed to do.

The people who wrote that Constitution saw government as a necessary evil.  They never forgot that it was necessary, but they also never forgot that it was evil.

They thought of government the way many of us think of nuclear power–get it running right and it’s a boon; let it get out of control and it will lay waste to the landscape.

Rights–especially the rights in the bill of rights–were their attempt to figure out what the necessary controls were, to make sure individuals–and ONLY INDIVIDUALS–had free reign to make decisions about their lives without government interference.

Rights were not expected to make people moral, or to make civil society better and more just and fair, or any of the rest of it.

Rights were supposed to do one thing–protect individual citizens from their government.

Part of the problem here is that, over the years, we’ve come to use the word “rights” to mean a lot of things the word never meant in the 18th century.  We talk about the “right” to education and the “right” to Social Security benefits, for instance.

What these are are actually what are more properly called “rights in law,” benefits resulting from laws we pass that require positive action.

But you can’t have an actual right–see original definition above–to anything anybody has to give you.  You don’t own other people.  You have no absolute claim on their work or time.

And, unlike rights, such things are dependent on the whim of the electorate.  They can disappear tomorrow, and if you were stranded on a desert island you wouldn’t be able to access them at all.

Real (natural, Lockean) rights inhere in the person.  You have them on that desert island.  You have them even when governments violate them.  The are extrapolations from what we know to be true about human nature–if the government does THIS, society is innovative and free; if it does THAT instead, society is constrained and unproductive. Governments can violate rights, but they can’t escape the consequences of the violation.  In the end, the consequences will hurt everybody involved.

It is also sometimes true that rights very often mean that government is not allowed to step in when people are behaving badly.  Sometimes it means that government cannot step in even when people are being evil.

We live with the badness and the evil because it is the LESSER evil–allowing government the control that would (maybe) eliminate that evil ends in a far worse situation than leaving the evil alone and letting the jerks be jerks.

In the middle of one of the discussions I had, somebody accused me of being willing to defend any law as long as it was old, the implication being the the First Amendment, or at least the parts of it guaranteeing the free exercise of religion, was just an outdated piece of biased, bigotted nonsense that we should dump now that things are different.

But that is not why I would defend the First Amendment, and the rest of them, pretty much down to my last breath.  And it’s not why I thank the God I don not believe in that you can’t get rid of that amendment without the agreement of two thirds of both houses of congress and three quarters of the states.

I defend it because I think it is a proper and always necessary restraint on government power.  Government should not be allowed to force our consciences.  It should not be allowed to demand that we act in violation of what we believe.  It should have no power over our decision to live our lives according to our consciences.

The “free exercise of religion” does NOT mean that you get to huddle in your churches with your fellow believers and “believe” together as long as you don’t let out your beliefs in public.

It means that you get to live your life every day, in public and out loud, by the things you believe in, even if those things shock people, or hurt their feelings, or make them angry.

Mind you, this is only a restraint on government power.

Your fellow citizens are perfectly free to denounce you, fire y ou, refuse to hire you, call you names on FB, and all the rest of it.  They too have free exercise rights, meaning the government can’t stop THEM from telling you off.

People now seem shocked that the right to free exercise of religion might mean that some people can legally refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding, for instance, and they think “discrimination” is such an absolute evil that it would should let the government force people to comply with the present Official Moral Position.

But the Official Moral Position today won’t be the Official Moral Position tomorrow, and letting the US government and the governments of the various states erect what are essentially state churches is not going to end discrimination, or prejudice, or bigotry.  It’s just going to set up a situation where the next guy who comes along will have that much more power to coerce us.

And he’ll use it.  And what he’ll use it for–well, I do rather think we’re going to see Republican majorities in both houses of Congress and a Republican President after 2016, and if we can establish an Official Moral Position now, I’ll bet they’ll have a few you really won’t like.

C0ntrary to all the hysteria, there is nothing to say that when the courts hear the cases that are coming, they’ll side with bakers who don’t want to make cakes for gay weddings.

They most definitely will NOT side with anyone (if there is anyone) who wants to refuse service to black people in their restaurant.  The compelling government interest behind the general public accommodations laws were established in case law decades ago.

“All men are created equal,” the Declaration says, “and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  To secure these right, government is instituted among men…”

“To secure these rights.”  That’s what the government is supposed to do.  That’s it’s first job, to protect us from ITSELF.

Real rights are not anything we make them or any law we pass.  They aren’t about making people good or society just or any of the utopian stuff we all want.

They are protecting individuals from government, period.

And if we are not protected against our government, nothing else we get will be of any value, or any use, in the long run.


Written by janeh

March 30th, 2015 at 12:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Ayn Rand, Writer

with 3 comments

This is what happened:  I am working on fiction, at the moment, and because of that I am trying to read only fiction, because that sometimes helps.  Other times, not so much.  But you see what I mean.

What got me started thinking about rereading The Fountainhead was something unrelated to either Rand or the fiction I’m working on that reminded me of a Rand character named Ellsworth Toohey.

This particular Rand character is a villain, which you can sort of tell by the name.  And I’ve always thought that no matter what else Rand did right or wrong, she was pitch-perfect in her villains, and Toohey is a type almost everybody has met somewhere along the line.  In The Fountainhead he is a newspaper journalist.  These days he would almost certainly be an academic.  He’s vile virtually everywhere he’s found, and if you’ve ever met one, you’ll remember.

But the truth is that even though The Fountainhead is a novel, I almost never think of Rand as a writer of fiction.  I got through the novels and on to the nonfiction early enough, and from then on I tended to think of Rand as a writer on ideas.  By the end of her life, she thought of herself as a philosopher.  Her critics didn’t like to accord her the title, but I think she had a point.  I don’t see what else you would call what she did.

I was thinking of Rand at all because there are dozens of people on my FB friends list who post the most ridiculous, cartoony nonsense about “Randism,” which I sometimes try to counter, and which I mostly just ignore.  It’s obvious that most of these people have never read Rand, and not only because they’d know better if they had.  You’d be amazed how many of them post absolutely spot on Rand sentiments (stand by your own values and beliefs and don’t be influenced by the crowd!) that they just don’t know are core Rand ideas.

But whatever got me started thinking about this, what I want to take about here are not Rand’s ideas, but her practice as a writer of fiction.  She did, after all, write two of the best selling novels in the history of US publishing, and those novels are still selling in six figures today.  I don’t think there are that many people out there who would be willing to buy novels that don’t work as novels just to get at the ideas.

And, I have to admit up front, on some levels Rand’s novels work very well as novels.  Her plots are intricate, innovative and coherent.  And, as I said once before on this blog, the woman is to narrative drive what Sherman was to marching through Georgia.

But although the plots are outstanding and the portraits of the villains are nearly  perfect, I never liked Rand as a writer of fiction because I never liked her heroes and heroines.

Like John Milton, whose only compelling character in Paradise Lost is Satan,  all the talent Rand had seemed to desert her when it came to writing good guys.  I was interested in what happened to Howard Roark and Hank Reardon because I was conceptually interested in the positions Rand put them in.  Otherwise, I found them all a little tiresome and annoying.

The copy of The Fountainhead I had at home to read was the 25th anniversary edition, and that one started with a special forward by the author, explaining what she had been tying to do with the novel.

That was a help, because it gave me information I hadn’t had before.  First and foremost, it told me that Rand’s purpose in writing fiction was to portray the idea kind of human being, and that she was (deliberately) working in the tradition of Romanticism, and not of naturalism.

If those words make no sense to you, my best guess is that you’ve probably read naturalism most of your fiction-reading life, since naturalism has been the primary mode for fiction for over a hundred years.  Every mystery novel I can think of is an example of naturalism.  So is most science fiction.  So are Dickens, Shaw and Heminway.

There’s a fair amount of fantasy that could be called Romantic in the literary sense–Lord of the Rings is in many aspects.  Interestingly, most Romance novels are not examples of Romanticism in the literary sense, especially not the ones set present day.

If you read a Romantic novel in school, it was probably Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.

And no, Romantic in the literary sense has nothing to do with love stories.

I tend to find Romantic (in the literary sense) novels less congenial than I do naturalistic novels.  That’s not a value judgment but a statement of taste.  I find them less congenial in the same sense I find pork chops less congenial than turkey breasts.

But reading through Rand’s introduction made it possible for me to hone in on some particulars, and here they are.

1) I have nothing against works of fiction (or nonfiction) that try to portray ideal human beings, I just tend to define “ideal” differently than Rand does.  Both Apollo 13 and Band of Brothers each portray at least one ideal human being and I find both of those not only more believable than Rand’s heroes, but more ideal.

I am not talking, here, about the silly notions of what Rand stood for (she wants people to be selfish!  she hates the poor!) that some people substitute for what she actually said.  Both Dick Winters and Jim Lovell could easily be Rand heroes on all the points that mattered to her: having the courage of their convictions; taking responsibility for themselves and their circumstances; having work ethics out the wazoo; basing their decisions on their own ideas, desires, and beliefs and not on whether or not other people will like them.

There’s a difference in tone, though, and the tone really matters to me.

And part of that is due to the fact that I’m an American.

And part of my problem with Rand as a novelist is that Rand  was not.

2) Since all of Rand’s writing is in English and all of it was written here, she’s an “American writer.”

But she isn’t, really.

In tone, style, intellectual orientation and a whole lot of other ways, Rand was and is a Russian writer.

This comes out in two ways in particular.

First, all that talking about ideas in the middle of the novel.  Tolstoy did it.  Dostoyevski did it.  Gorki did it.  Turgenev did it.  Russian novels are novels of ideas.

And if you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend a  Woody Allen movie called Love and Death, in which he sends up the form hilariously.

All writers are strongly affected by the things they read as children and adolescents, and I think that what we have in Rand’s novels is Rand trying to replicate what she admired in the first novels she did admire.  In a similar way, hardboiled detective writers sometimes seem to be trying to channel Chandler and fantasy writers sometimes seem to be trying to channel Tolkein.   I keep trying to channel Hemingway, but I’m not very good at it.

But there is a second way in which Rand is more like a Russian novelist than an American one, and that is in her approach to humor.

It is not only that she has no sense of humor (which she doesn’t), but that she is inherently suspicious of humor.  Like Dostoyevski and Tolstoy before her, she seems incapable of imaging that humor could ever be anything but belittling and antagonistic.  Like all the classic Russian writers, and like Solzhenitsyn as well, humor is never anything but a weapon.

I think this is why I’ve always found Rand’s nonfiction more easy to read than her fiction.  I don’t need funny in an essay about aesthetics or the foundational principles of moral behavior.

But I do prefer funny in books, even in very dark books.  And fiction without it feels cramped and rigid to me.

This is, I suppose, pretty much the way I feel about life.  A day without something to laugh at is not a pleasant day.  A day when I am too pressed down by things to worry about to be able to laugh when I’m given the chance is worse.

In the end, I think Rand’s focus was much more on her ideas than on fiction as a form.  And if somebody asks me what they should read of Rand’s, I always recommend either the strictly nonfictional, or the excerpts of those long philosophical tracts from the novels that might as well have been nonfiction.

Even so–the villains are perfect.  And everybody should know them, because they help to recognize the real thing in real life.

And I have finished the reread and gone back to detective novels.


Written by janeh

March 25th, 2015 at 12:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Transitional Phases

with 5 comments

It’s been so long since I logged on to this blog, I thought I’d forgotten the password.  But I hadn’t, which is interesting, since I’m constantly losing the ones for my bank account and that kind of thing, and especially for school.  On the other hand, the blog doesn’t make me change the password every 48 days, so there’s that.

I have been called in the pick up the second half of one of the courses that were being taught by a fellow faculty member who has now gone on medical leave for the rest of the semester.  It’s the same course I taught last term, but with a different book (don’t mind) and a LOT more students.  The faculty member is someone I’ve known for a long time and always liked very much, and also one of the very few people I see around when I’m not in school.  That’s not because we do things together, but because we do the same things and run into each other.

She’s in very bad shape medically, and around my age (more or less), which makes her the third person in the same category I’ve had bad news from or about in the last week and a half.  Ellen Conford, a long time author of children’s books and a long time participant on RAM, died a couple of days ago, after a heart attack.  I heard for the first time that a woman I went to high school with died of breast cancer a couple of months ago.

This business of people I know dying is becoming a little edgy, I think.  I suppose the first time I got the news that somebody had died that I’d known “my whole life,” it was my brother, who was three years younger than I am, which meant I had known him his whole life.  Literally.  I can still remember him coming home from the hospital.

For some reason, that didn’t hit me in the same way the death of the first of my kindergarten class did.  My reaction was made stronger by the fact that this woman was one of the people I was very much aware of when we were in class together.  I didn’t know her well, but I knew of her.  She wasn’t one of the local “popular crowd,” but she was distinctive, and we road the same school bus where she got off a few stops ahead of me.

I don’t think of myself as old, although I probably look it, but there are more and more of these cases these days. This is especially true of catastrophic illnesses, something I got familiar with early.  Bill was only 46 when  he died.  His sister JoAnn was only in her early 50s when she died a few years later, and of the same thing, a type of cancer so rare, there are no known risk factors for it.

But there have been other people, more and more of them, and most of them would not fit into the category of “really old now and what can you expect?”

There seems to have been a kind of staircase effect, staring when all these people were in their mid Forties.

Most of us these days can expect to live at least until we’re 80.  In my family, we’ve done a fair bit of living into our 90s.

But starting around the time the people I knew were 45, there seems to have been a small but steady drumbeat of people dying–and not in accidents, either.  The most common cause has been one or another kind of cancer.  But there have been other things, including early heart attacks, which is what got my brother.

And there isn’t much of the lives of any of these people that would necessarily have predicted what happened.  My brother was notoriously cavalier about not taking care of himself, but Bill and my sister in law did nothing anybody could have used to predict what happened to them.  The women I know who have fallen to breast cancer didn’t have much in the way of risk factors, either.   As to the early heart attacks–in at least two cases, they hit the people you would least expect, the ones who ate right and got a lot of  exercise and never smoked anything.

The whole thing seems so completely random, at the moment, that I’m wondering if the precautions we all take do any good at all.  Maybe they’re like the prayers of atheists who send up pleas for help to something they believe isn’t there.

It’s a thought that runs afoul of “risk factors,” which are instances of correlation we all agree to accept as causation.  It probably feels better than to accept that we’re all at the mercy of chance.

I think, though, that it is getting harder and harder for most of us to believe it–and that’s why we’re all becoming more and more strident at imposing rules.

It’s like a lot of other faith-based initiatives, the ones that real life disproves no matter how much we try to ignore the disproof.  When the first level of control doesn’t change human nature, we pile on another and then another and then another.

First smoking was going to kill us all, and knowing that would make people quit.  When lots of people refused to quit, we raised prices and banned the practice in public and then declared (against all the evidence) that “secondhand” smoke would do as much damage.  When that didn’t stop everybody, we started talking about “thirdhand” smoke.

Under Stalin, the attempts to build the “New Soviet Man” first required “better” education, then “oversight” of the family, then… But you know how that one ends.  These days we have schools where whole swaths of ideas have been declared unthinkable, and it doesn’t occur to anybody that the reason people aren’t turning out the way we want them to is that–they can’t.

Human nature is inborn.  There are some things we cannot make human beings be, or stop them from being.

Apparently, one of those things is being free from early death.

It’s depressing.




Written by janeh

March 23rd, 2015 at 12:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 39 comments

So, it’s Sunday, and because it’s Sunday, I’m spending my morning trying very hard not to think of anything serious, and failing.

I’ve got The Well-Tempered Clavier, performed by Gustav Leonhardt, playing in the background, and Thomas Aquinas talking about Aristotle waiting on the loveseat, and I just–I don’t know.

Let me start by saying that this is going to get back to something contemporary, but first I want to highlight something I noticed in the Aquinas a couple of days ago.

If you go off today and buy a few modern books by modern philosophers talking about ethics and morality, you’ll find volume after volume that concerns itself with WHAT we should consider moral.

If by killing one person we can save five, what is the moral thing to do? If we know that a child we are about to give birth to will be born with severe illness or disability, are we morally obliged to give birth to him and care for him, or to abort him and save him a short life of pain?

These are the kinds of things modern moral philosophers spend their time thinking and writing and teaching about, and this is the kind of thing we think of moral philosophy being about.

This is not, however, what either Aristotle or Aquinas thought moral philosophy was about.

It would not be entirely true to say that Aquinas and Aristotle agreed on all the particulars of what a moral action was.  There are a couple of places in Aquinas’s commentary on the Nichomachean Ethics that are almost funny.  For instance–Aquinas’s attempt to prove that virginity and celibacy are a mean between two vice and not vices in themselves by being an extreme, the “too little” sex as opposed to the “too much,” each less worthy than “the right amount.”

In spite of that, however, neither Aquinas nor Aristotle feels any need to discuss IF some actions are moral and under what circumstances.

The general moral landscape is simply assumed to be everywhere evident to everybody.  One of the reasons it was possible for Aquinas to “baptize” Aristotle is that, with the exception of a few squiffy places on the edges, everybody pretty much “knew” the difference between right and wrong.

And even the squiffy areas around the edges were fairly easily taken care of–if Aristotle and the agents didn’t realize that when they sacrificed to “secondary divine” powers they were worshipping demons, that was because the demonic nature of those entities was one of those things that could not be discovered by reason alone and needed revelation to point out.

Therefore, the ancients, not having access to a revelation that hadn’t yet occurred, could not be faulted for their worship, because they didn’t intend to worship evil but to give glory to God, and acted as best they were able to know.

Yes, I know.  We don’t worry much about this stuff anymore.

My point here, though, is that there is a continuity in Western moral thought, one that lasted certainly well into the 20th century, at least among the vast majority of the people living in every Western culture.

I’m not talking here about specifics like, say, whether we should consider homsexual sex to be morally right or wrong, but about big ticket items like justice and truth, guilt and innocence.

Not only are there virtually no points of contention between Aquinas and Aristotle about these things, there are virtually no points of contention between anybody about these things.  The same standards of justice and truth, guilt and innocence were used to excoriate Nazi behavior as had been used by Aristotle to excoriate the tyrants of his own time.

And even the people who wanted to be allowed to cheat–say, the fellow travelers and other Communists sympathizers of the years after 1917–assumed that the first necessity in their cheating was to hide what the Bolsheviks were actually doing, because everybody (including themselves) knew it was morally wrong.  The fellow travelers had just decided that they needed to do wrong to get what they thought was a greater good.

At the same time, they experienced that cheat as shameful, and did their best to hide the reality of it from the rest of the world.

What is going on now, though, is something very different, and I find it difficult to figure out either how we got here or how anybody can think this way without having their head explode.

In one of the articles I’ve posted over the last few days on the Rolling Stone rape story and the Lena Dunham mess, a student at Oberlin College refused to allow a Breitbart reporter access to the files he needed to corroborate a portion of Dunham’s story by saying that at Oberlin they weren’t “so much into justice” as “supporting the victim.”

I mean, look at that for a minute, and tell me if it even qualifies as linear thought.

If the allegations are not true, there is no victim to support.

How do you “support the victim” unless you know who the victim is, or if there even is one?

This goes well beyond the common modern abomination of simply insisting on believing that all allegations must be true unless they are somehow proved not to be.

This is a declaration that the speaker inhabits an alternative universe where the real has become irrelevant. 

I am fairly sure that the young woman who said these things does not actually believe what she seems to be saying she believes.

My guess is that she’s latched on to the less esoteric doctrine–the idea that all rape allegations must be true. 

That is hardly something to celebrate, but at least its in the realm of the sane.

To declare that somebody is a victim even though they have not in fact been victimized is the sort of thing that makes doctors prescribe heavy duty meds.

Granted that bad thinking drives out good, and that this young woman had not only not be taught “critical thinking” or any other kind–how, exactly, did we get here?

The train of thought is almost instinctually wrongheaded. 

It is not only wrong in a way that I don’t think any other culture has ever been wrong, it’s practically gibberish.

The problem is not that not enough people take rape seriously and so people who do have to insist on ideas and procedures that make it more possible for victims to prevail when they make accusations.

That’s a debatable issue, although the standards these people want are not the ones that anybody with half a brain could support.

The issue is a “moral” construct in which the most virtuous thing to do is to punish people who not only haven’t done anything wrong, but who haven’t done anything.

It’s like a morality made from quantum mechanics–things appear and disappear at random, without rhyme or reason. 

It’s obvious from the text that this young woman thinks she is behaving morally.

In truth, she isn’t even behaving immorally.

It’s like you asked her how far it is to her house and she said,


Written by janeh

December 7th, 2014 at 12:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Explosion

with 2 comments

At the moment, I’m sitting in this office desperately attempting to put the finishing touches on this final exam, so the students can read it beforehand, which they won’t do, even though they all say they want an A.

In the meantime, though, I’ve been watching the whole rape allegations mess, and it has been getting messier by the second.

In case  you haven’t been paying as obsessively close attention to this thing as I have, there are actually three centers to this particular storm:  the UVA thing, the Cosby thing, and this:


If I haven’t said anything about this so far, it’s because Lena Dunham, as a person, leaves me completely befuddled. 

She apparently has a successful cable TV show about–well, about “girls.”  I haven’t seen it, and the descriptions of it I’ve read  don’t make me want to see it.

She’s also written a memoir for which she received a seven-figure advance.   I have read some excerpts of that, and all I can say is that the damned thing seems bizarre to the point of…I don’t know what.

In one place, she seems to describe a set of incidences that happened when she was a small child and her sister was even smaller, where she performs a set of sexual acts on that sister that, these days, would be unambiguously labeled criminal rape.

It’s possible that I’ve gotten that all out of context, so we’ll leave it be for the moment.  The l ink above concerns another possible incidence of rape, this time the rape of Lena Dunham herself by a college Republican named Barry while they were both at Oberlin College.

And, like the story of “Jackie” at UVA, the story is coming apart at the seams.

By now most of you must know that Rolling Stone has at least partially retracted its story about UVA, hemming and hawing a lot about how it turned out that “Jackie” wasn’t credible.

A number of commentators have pointed out that the fault in the story is not what “Jackie” said, but RS’s handling of it–that the blame falls not on “Jackie” but on the fact that RS’s editorial staff can’t tell the difference between journalism and pumpkin pie.

And that’s true enough–but I think it’s secondary to what is probably going on here.

I think RS is “throwing ‘Jackie’ under the bus’ (as one article put it), but to divert attention from something that is potentially much more series–not that “Jackie” fabricated a rape story, but that the RS reporter fabricated “Jackie.”

Before you start jumping up and down yelling “but people have talked to Jackie! People have talked to Jackie!”–one of the more egregious incidents of the Stephen Glass mess at The New Republic concerned its editor talking to the head of a firm called Jukt Micronics, thereby “corroborating” the story (“Hack Heaven”) that finally brought Glass and his fabrications down.

The problem was that there was no such firm as Jukt Micronics, and the man TNR’s editor was talking to was Stephen Glass’s brother, who had agreed to play pretend to try to save Stephen’s ass.

I think we’re about to see both these stories explode in a very spectacular way.

The Cosby thing I don’t think will work out as well, for Cosby or for us–not because I think the women accusing him are telling the truth, but because that whole thing is about money.  The lawsuits have already started being filed, and that won’t end until they’ve bled the man dry.

Although want to note one thing–am I REALLY the only person who finds something creepy about a black man whose life is being destroyed by a bunch of white women claiming rape? 

And given that that trope has history, shouldn’t we be even more diligent in demanding substantive evidence than we would be otherwise?

But what I always come back to is this–

You could say that people like administrators at colleges and universities or prosecutors or people at the DOE take up these claims because they’re looking for power.

You can’t say that about the people who MAKE the false claims–that is the people who claim to be victims.

And there are a  lot of false claims out there, by no means mostly about rape.

In the last five years or so, there have been a slew of claims of racial hate crimes on college campuses that turned out to have been committed by the complaining “victim” his or herself. 

And then there was the professor in Wisconsin who claimed to have been run off the road and threatened after he’d had a letter published in the local paper about the evils of religion.

By and large, the people who make these false complaints have no chance in hell of attaining power of any sort, and no chance in hell of getting Lena Dunham’s seven figure advance.

And that’s part of the reason why such people are usually taken seriously at the beginning–why would anybody do that if they weren’t going to get money and power from it?

One reason, of course, is that although these people do not get power or money, they do get lots and lots of attention, and it’s wrong to underestimate the need some people have to get other people to notice them.

But I think there are a couple of other things going on here that would make sense to pay attention to.

1) This is a perversion of Christianity, or possibly Christianity and Judaism. 

Most societies do not valorize victims.  Almost everywhere in the world but in the West, to be a victim is to be dishonored and contemptible. 

Even when victims are pitied there’s no relief from the general opprobrium–pity is not a good thing to evoke from other people in societies where it is the stamp of your own failure and worthlessness.

For complicated reasons, we have taught a generation of people–and maybe more than one–that “victim” is a status to be aspired to, especially if you haven’t got much of anything else to offer.

2) Faith based system that rely heavily for their legitimacy on their ability to explain the world engender a lot of panic in their believers when reality refuses to get in line.

One of the reasons why these false accusations fail so often is that one of their underlying assumptions–not the one that says rape and racism exist (they do), but the one that says that the rest of the world is so misogynist and racist it just doesn’t care–is false.

The first thing that happened after the RS article came out was NOT that people started questioning “Jackie”‘s allegations, but that both UVA and the local police launched serious investigations.

It was only AFTER those serious investigations began to turn up not just discrepancies but outright impossibilities that anyone started questioning “Jackie”‘s story.

And once people start questioning the faux victim’s story, it’s all over but the shouting.

3) And that brings up a somewhat depressing point.

More than somewhat, really.

Indoctrination trumps experience.

These things have played out often enough by now that the faux victims OUGHT to have noticed–getting all the attention you want means getting a lot more attention than you want. 

And the play isn’t going to work.

4) But even more depressing than that is the inevitable reactions of so many of the people who were taken in by the hoax.

Instead of realizing that such hoaxes actually CREATE the very indifference that doesn’t now exist, they decide that the truth doesn’t matter at all. 

We’ve just got to keep on believing and supporting the victims.

Even if they aren’t actually victims of anything.


Written by janeh

December 6th, 2014 at 11:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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