"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Archive for December, 2011

Daniel Manus Pinkwater again

5 Novels, as you might guess, contains five novels.  My last post dealt with the second one, Slaves of Spiegel.  The first one, Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, is very different.  To be sure, both deal with teenage boys in working-class New Jersey towns who, along with a close friend, have an adventure with space aliens.  That’s where the similarites end, however.

Slaves of Spiegel is really and extended short story built around one funny concept.  Alan Mendelsohn is a novel in truth, 250 pages long.  It is a coming-of-age story, beginning with cliche of a boy who moves to a new school where he doesn’t fit it, but then befriends the school’s other loner.  Things come to a head when, while they’re out of school for different and equally hilarious reasons, they explore a dusty used bookshop downtown and come away with a book that’s supposed to teach them how to read minds.  It does … sort of.  To say anything more about it would be to deprive you of the pleasure of reading it yourself.

One thing I will note, which puts Alan Mendelsohn at odds with typical science fiction writing.  In many science fiction novels, particularly the dumb ones, there’s a character who dispenses perfect wisdom.  The most famous and obvious example is the novels of Robert Heinlein.  Almost every one has some old dude who lectures the younger characters about politics, philosophy, ethics, history, and so forth, always dispensing wisdom in small and witty bursts.  It’s no secret that these characters all represented Heinlein himself, and that he used them to fantasize about having everyone else worship his superior intelligence.  Thus no one should be surprised when the younger characters in a Heinlein novel give the elderly dude their complete trust and turn out the better for it.  A similar pattern can be seen in lots of other crap novels such as those of Terry Goodkind and Robert Newcomb.

In Alan Mendelsohn there is no elderly character to offer perfect wisdom to the two young protagonists.  There are parents, but they are ineffective and get little screen time.  Then there’s a parade of other adults, each of them bizarre and slightly suspicious in hiw own way.  None of these characters comes onstage stamped with the label “good guy” or “bad guy”.  Rather, it’s up to the two boys to figure out who is trustworthy and who isn’t and who lies somewhere in the middle.  Just like real life.

Daniel Manus Pinkwater

I’ve recently returned to an author that I haven’t encountered for quite a while, via this book:

Daniel Manus Pinkwater (Is that a great name for an author or what?) writes nominal children’s books.  Like most of today’s children’s books, his are better than typical adults’ books.  Pinkwater’s books are all science fiction novels.  The main character is nearly always a young boy who has a bizarre adventure with something extremely out-of-the-ordinary.  Slaves of Spiegel, the second novel in this collection, is no exception.

It begins on the planet Spiegel, where the race of fat men are holding a junk food feast to celebrate their successful plundering of the universe.  They have collected the fattiest, greasiest, and most sugary confections from every planet and galaxy and brought them back to Spiegel to celebrate.  But in the middle of the feast, their king Sargon becomes suddenly dissatisfied.  Instead of simply hogging potato pancakes, he wants to search the universe for the most satisfying junk food.  Thus begins a series of events that will lead to The Magic Moscow, a fast food stand in Hoboken, New Jersey, being abducted along with its chef Steve and his young assistant.

Slaves of Spiegel is a sequel to Fat Men from Space and maintains the wry wit of the first book.  It also continues Pinkwater’s fine tradition of sending up science fiction cliches.  Science fiction is full of planets or societies serving as wish-fulfillment vehicles, ranging from Heinlein’s libertarian utopias to Clarke’s sorta’ Hindu mystical fulfillment in Childhood’s End to Jack Vance’s nature preserve planet in Araminta Station to scores of others, some of them quite frightening.  The planet Spiegel is very much in that tradition, complete with an all-powerful king and a fleet of starships and so forth.  But as Pinkwater points out, the wish that most folks spend more time wanting fulfilled is for lots and lots of good-tasting food.  Fat Men from Space  and Slaves of Spiegel are thus likely to remain timely and relevant for longer than the fantasy utopias of from the supposed greats of sci fi.

Chesterton on Mormonism

With the topic of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism erupting on my blog and elsewhere, it seemed worthwhile to ask G. K. Chesterton whether he had any thoughts on the topic.  He did, not surprisingly.  (Is there any topic on which Chesterton didn’t have thoughts?)  Here they are.

THERE is inevitably something comic (comic in the broad and vulgar style which all men ought to appreciate in its place) about the panic aroused by the presence of the Mormons and their supposed polygamous campaign in this country.

It calls up the absurd image of an enormous omnibus, packed inside with captive English ladies, with an Elder on the box, controlling his horses with the same patriarchal gravity as his wives, and another Elder as conductor calling out “Higher up,” with an exalted and allegorical intonation. And there is something highly fantastic to the ordinary healthy mind in the idea of any precaution being proposed; in the idea of locking the Duchess in the boudoir and the governess in the nursery, lest they should make a dash for Utah, and become the ninety-third Mrs. Abraham Nye, or the hundredth Mrs. Hiram Boke.

But these frankly vulgar jokes, like most vulgar jokes, cover a popular prejudice which is but the bristly hide of a living principle. Elder Ward, recently speaking at Nottingham, strongly protested against these rumours, and asserted absolutely that polygamy had never been practised with the consent of the Mormon Church since 1890. I think it only just that this disclaimer should be circulated; but though it is most probably sincere, I do not find it very soothing. The year 1890 is not very long ago, and a society that could have practised so recently a custom so alien to Christendom must surely have a moral attitude which might be repellent to use in many other respects. Moreover, the phrase about the consent of the Church (if correctly reported) has a little the air of an official repudiating responsibility for unofficial excesses. It sounds almost as if Mr. Abraham Nye might, on his own account, come into church with a hundred and fourteen wives, but people were supposed not to notice them. It might amount to little more than this, that the Chief Elder may allow the hundred and fourteen wives to walk down the street like a girls’ school, but he is not officially expected to take off his hat to each of them in turn. Seriously speaking, however, I have little doubt that Elder Ward speaks the substantial truth, and that polygamy is dying, or has died, among the Mormons. My reason for thinking this is simple; it is that polygamy always tends to die out. Even in the east I believe that, counting heads, it is by this time the exception rather than the rule. Like slavery, it is always being started, because of its obvious conveniences. It has only one small inconvenience, which is that it is intolerable.

Our real error in such a case is that we do not know or care about the creed itself, from which a people’s customs, good or bad, will necessarily flow. We talk much about “respecting” this or that person’s religion; but the way to respect a religion is to treat it as a religion: to ask what are its tenets and what are their consequences. But modern tolerance is deafer than intolerance. The old religious authorities, at least, defined a heresy before they condemned it, and read a book before they burned it. But we are always saying to a Mormon or a Moslem–”Never mind about your religion, come to my arms.” To which he naturally replies–”But I do mind about my religion, and I advise you to mind your eye.”

About half the history now taught in schools and colleges is made windy and barren by this narrow notion of leaving out the theological theories. The wars and Parliaments of the Puritans made absolutely no sense if we leave out the fact that Calvinism appeared to them to be the absolute metaphysical truth, unanswerable, unreplaceable, and the only thing worth having in the world. The Crusades and dynastic quarrels of the Norman and Angevin Kings make absolutely no sense if we leave out the fact that these men (with all their vices) were enthusiastic for the doctrine, discipline, and endowment of Catholicism. Yet I have read a history of the Puritans by a modern Nonconformist in which the name of Calvin was not even mentioned, which is like writing a history of the Jews without mentioning either Abraham or Moses. And I have never read any popular or educational history of England that gave the slightest hint of the motives in the human mind that covered England with abbeys and Palestine with banners. Historians seem to have completely forgotten the two facts– first, that men act from ideas; and second, that it might, therefore, be as well to discover which ideas. The medievals did not believe primarily in “chivalry,” but in Catholicism, as producing chivalry among other things. The Puritans did not believe primarily in “righteousness,” but in Calvinism, as producing righteousness among other things. It was the creed that held the coarse or cunning men of the world at both epochs. William the Conqueror was in some ways a cynical and brutal soldier, but he did attach importance to the fact that the Church upheld his enterprise; that Harold had sworn falsely on the bones of saints, and that the banner above his own lances had been blessed by the Pope. Cromwell was in some ways a cynical and brutal soldier; but he did attach importance to the fact that he had gained assurance from on high in the Calvinistic scheme; that the Bible seemed to support him– in short, the most important moment in his own life, for him, was not when Charles I lost his head, but when Oliver Cromwell did not lose his soul. If you leave these things out of the story, you are leaving out the story itself. If William Rufus was only a red-haired man who liked hunting, why did he force Anselm’s head under a mitre, instead of forcing his head under a headsman’s axe? If John Bunyan only cared for “righteousness,” why was he in terror of being damned, when he knew he was rationally righteous? We shall never make anything of moral and religious movements in history until we begin to look at their theory as well as their practice. For their practice (as in the case of the Mormons) is often so unfamiliar and frantic that it is quite unintelligible without their theory.

I have not the space, even if I had the knowledge, to describe the fundamental theories of Mormonism about the universe. But they are extraordinarily interesting; and a proper understanding of them would certainly enable us to see daylight through the more perplexing or menacing customs of this community; and therefore to judge how far polygamy was in their scheme a permanent and self-renewing principle or (as is quite probably) a personal and unscrupulous accident. The basic Mormon belief is one that comes out of the morning of the earth, from the most primitive and even infantile attitude. Their chief dogma is that God is material, not that He was materialized once, as all Christians believe; nor that He is materialized specially, as all Catholics believe; but that He was materially embodied from all time; that He has a local habitation as well as a name. Under the influence of this barbaric but violently vivid conception, these people crossed a great desert with their guns and oxen, patiently, persistently, and courageously, as if they were following a vast and visible giant who was striding across the plains. In other words this strange sect, by soaking itself solely in the Hebrew Scriptures, had really managed to reproduce the atmosphere of those Scriptures as they are felt by Hebrews rather than by Christians. A number of dull, earnest, ignorant, black-coated men with chimney-pot hats, chin beards or mutton-chop whiskers, managed to reproduce in their own souls the richness and the peril of an ancient Oriental experience. If we think from this end we may possibly guess how it was that they added polygamy.

– G. K. Chesterton, The Uses of Diversity

Mitt Romney

Amazingly enough, it now seems that either Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee for President.  The idea that Gingrich could win almost 15 years after he resigned from the House in disgrace boggles the mind.  As for Mitt Romney, he’s got no end of problems.  One of those problems is that he’s a Mormon.

This fact has sparked a deal of controversy, dealing less with whether it’s appropriate for a Mormon to be President than with whether it’s appropriate to ask whether it’s appropriate for a Mormon to be President.  Some popular opinion-makers have suggested that it’s not okay to even ask questions about Romney’s religion.  The typical argument goes like this.  Mitt Romney is running for President.  We should judge him by qualities that will affect his performance in that job.  His religious beliefs won’t affect anything he does as President.  Thus we shouldn’t even ask him anything about his religious beliefs.

If you objected to third sentence in that four-sentence argument, then you think about this much as I do.  It’s absurd to suggest that personal religious beliefs don’t affect anyone’s readiness to be President.  Personal religious beliefs are the most important thing to look at when judging someone’s readiness to be President.

Of course it’s important to know where a candidate stands on political issues.  We have many means to find that out, at least for a presidential candidate.  We have campaign speeches, debates, interviews,  books the candidate authored, past political record, and so forth.  While it’s good to peruse such things, they don’t tell us everything.  They are inadequate for two particular reasons.

First, we don’t know what issues a President will have to focus on while in office.  During the 2000 campaign, nobody knew that the winner would have to determine the nation’s response to the biggest terrorist attack in history.  Likewise, no one knows today what major events will occur between 2012 and 2016, and therefore we can’t ask a candidate how he’ll respond to those events.

Second, it’s possible for a candidate to lie.  I know this may be shocking to some, but politicians have been known to say things which aren’t actually true.

So when judging a candidate for office, we need to plunge deeper than merely what they say about political issues.  The best way to do that is to plumb their personal beliefs.  “Personal beliefs” are many in number, but religious beliefs or the absense thereof are certainly primary among them.  And there is no dividing line that separates religious beliefs from important beliefs.  That idea springs from the assumption that religion is trivial, an assumption which does not stand up to scrutiny.

In fact a person’s religion generally shapes that person’s politics.  It is true now and always has been.  My religion determines my values: what I call right and wrong, what I call important and unimportant.  To pretend otherwise is rank foolishness.

So what about Mitt Romney and Mormonism?  I’ve already made plain my feelings about the Mormon religion in this post.  If Mitt Romney truly believes all that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints teaches, then he believes an enormous amount of nutty stuff, which should certainly color our judgment of his readiness for high office.  If he claims to be a Mormon but doesn’t believe that stuff, that also should color our judgment of his readiness for high office.  But, in addition to the silly stuff, there’s also the bad stuff.  For instance, there’s the fact that the LDS Church taught for over a century that black people were morally inferior and banned them from the priesthood based on this.  They reversed course on this issue in 1978, suspiciously close after they learned that they’d lose their tax-exempt status if they didn’t start admitting blacks.  Mitt Romeny claims to be a lifelong Mormon.  How did he feel about this prior to 1977?  We deserve to know.

Newt Gingrich, eh?

When I was a child of roughly twelve years, a funny thing happened.  A man named Newt became the Speaker of the House and the second most powerful person in the world.  This was funny because, when I heard the word ‘newt’, I though of something like this:

However, the new Speaker of the House of Representatives did not look like that.  Instead, he looked more like this:

While the amphibian newts were chiefly notable for laying eggs and leaving a trail of slime wherever they went, the new Newt seemed more inclined towards things like cutting money to disabled children, saying that women can’t fight in the military because they get infections, bringing back orphanages, and getting slightly corrupt book deals from Rupert Murdoch.  I was just beginning to be aware of politics at that point, and over the next four years I watched this Newt lose a showdown with President Clinton over the federal budget, fail to pass a balanced budget amendment, call Hillary Clinton “bitch”, say that Bill Clinton was unfit to govern owning to commiting adultery, commit adultery, and finally resign in disgrace.  Like most people, I heartily approved of the final item on this list.  I did not want to see Newt Gingrich continuing as a powerful politician.

It did not occur to me that thirteen years later, the same Newt Gingrich would be the front-runner for the Republican nomination.  Yet here he is, opening up a 30-point lead of Mitt Romney in Florida, according to the latest polls.  It seems a safe bet that either one or the other of these guys will be the Republican nominee, and the nominee will have a good chance at being the next President.  I say that as long as the GOP is reviving politicians from the 90’s, they should dig up Steve Forbes and have him run for President.  He was highly amusing.

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