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

Archive for March, 2012

The Quaker’s new ‘doo.

Today’s blog post concerns the topic of the Quaker Oats icon.  I’m sure you recognize him.

He looks good enough to me, happy and iconic anda decent sort to bear the banner of the only brand of cereal named after a religious denomination.  (At least I’ve never heard of “Coptic Cheerios” or “Presbyterian Fruit Loops”.)  But apparently his owner, Pepsico, is not happy with him, because they’re giving him a face lift.  The new Quaker Oats guy will have a thinner face and shorter hair.

Whatever happens, I hope it’s not as drastic as what happened to the Sun-Maid Raisin woman:

(Before)

(After)

Apparently she got implants.

And Can It Be That I Should Gain?

It’s been awhile since I posted a hymn on my blog.  Here’s another one written by Charles Wesley, which for some reason I only encountered for this first time a few weeks ago.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

The Commerce Clause on my Mind

When I was in eight grade, and again in tenth grade, I learned about the Constitution.  I didn’t learn very much about it, but I did learn about it.  I learned that due to the evident failure of the Articles on Confederation, the founding fathers decided that a new governing document was needed.  That they held a Constitutional Convention with George Washington presiding, James Madison taking notes, and Benjamin Franklin offering free advice.  That they eventually settled on three branches (legislative, executive, and judicial) with checks and balances and so forth.  The the First Amendment protects freedom of religion and speech, the Second contains the right to bear arms, and there are a few amendments that do a few other things, though my memory is rather hazy on that point.  That’s all that I recall learning about the Constitution, the most important document in American history.

This week the Constitution will be center stage as the Supreme Court hears arguments for and against the main part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.  The central question is whether it’s legal for Congress to pass legislation requiring all individuals and employers to purchase health insurance.  Obama and his fans say it is.  Most Republicans say it is not.  The pundits are furiously trying to predict the outcome, with no clear consensus.  What is clear is that Obama’s argument rests on a part of the Constitution that my 8th- and 10th-grade teachers never mentioned: the commerce clause.

They never mentioned that in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, there is a list of eighteen things that Congress can do, and it’s intended to be an exhaustive list.  They never mentioned that to remove all doubt, the framers wrote the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, clearly stating that Congress may not do anything which isn’t listed.  They never mentioned that today the federal government has countless offices, agencies, and entire departments with no firm basis in the Constitution.  And they never mentioned that the official excuse for almost all of them rests on a single clause in Article 1, section 8, which empowers Congress “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;”.  Yes, there’s a lot that my education skipped over.

Nowadays whenever Congress wants to do something that isn’t listed in that section of the Constitution, and whenever they face a court challenge over it, they claim that the commerce clause lets them do it.  The commerce clause allows agricultural subsidies.  The commerce clause allows anti-pollution measures.  The commerce clause allows labor law.  And the Supreme Court invariably accepts these arguments.  In the 2005 case Gonzales vs. Raich, the Supreme Court even ruled that Congress can criminalize growing marijuana on your own property for your own consumption, because that falls under “commerce among the several states”.  According to the Supreme Court’s logic, there doesn’t seem to be any activity that isn’t commerce among the several states.

Some legislation that’s snuck in under the mutant interpretation of the commerce clause is good, such as the Clean Air and Water Act.  Some is bad, such as the marijuana prohibitions.  But very little of it can rationally be classified as interstate commerce.  And that leads us to a strange fact.  Almost everything that the federal government does these days is illegal.  Almost all parts of the federal government are unconstitutional.  And while we constantly here certain parties shrieking about the needed to uphold small parts of the Constitution (The Second Amendment lets us own howitzers!  The First Amendment demands the destruction of war memorials!) we see few people who honestly believe that we should govern the USA according to the entire thing.

So what’s the solution?  I don’t know, but more widespread knowledge about the Constitution would be a good place to start.  I imagine I’m not the only one who was never required to read it during my public school education.  If you’re in that category as well, strike back at ignorance by reading the actual document.  Here’s a link:

http://www.earlyamerica.com/earlyamerica/freedom/constitution/text.html

Chesterton on What to Drink

THE SONG OF RIGHT AND WRONG

Feast on wine or fast on water
And your honour shall stand sure,
God Almighty’s son and daughter
He the valiant, she the pure;
If an angel out of heaven
Brings you other things to drink,
Thank him for his kind attentions,
Go and pour them down the sink.

Tea is like the East he grows in,
A great yellow Mandarin
With urbanity of manner
And unconsciousness of sin;
All the women, like a harem,
At his pig-tail troop along;
And, like all the East he grows in,
He is Poison when he’s strong.

Tea, although an Oriental,
Is a gentleman at least;
Cocoa is a cad and coward,
Cocoa is a vulgar beast,
Cocoa is a dull, disloyal,
Lying, crawling cad and clown,
And may very well be grateful
To the fool that takes him down.

As for all the windy waters,
They were rained like tempests down
When good drink had been dishonoured
By the tipplers of the town;
When red wine had brought red ruin
And the death-dance of our times,
Heaven sent us Soda Water
As a torment for our crimes.

– G.K. Chesterton

What I’m reading: The Scar

Yes, it’s time for my monthly confession that I’ve posted nothing about what I’m reading.  I always intend to remember to post about books, and I never do.  Now on with the show.

China Mieville is one of the big names in fantasy to emerge in the last decade.  Needless to say, he remains a complete unknown outside of the fantasy ghetto.  Nobody who reads, writes, or reviews serious literature would have anything to do with him.  But among the hardcore fanboys, few authors command more respect.  He burst on the scene with Perdido Street Station, set in the fictional universe of Bas-Lag, and followed it up with The Scar, set in the sample world but in a very different part of that world.  While Perdido Street Station is set in the vast and teeming but stationary metropolis called New Crobuzon, The Scar is set in the floating city of Armada.

Mieville is the leader of the subgenre known as “urban fantasy”.  Like most genre terms it’s not clearly defined, but it clearly fits what Mieville writes.  In Mieville book’s the main characters are the cities, rather than the people.  In Perdido, New Crobuzon oozes menace and atmosphere.  In The Scar, Armada is carefully established as a physical reality.  One believes in these cities because Mieville plumbs their depths and exposes all the details, because he describes countless neighborhoods in each one and digs into the social, economic, and political fabric.  As far as urban landscapes go, they have no equal in fantasy.

Mieville also stands out for his stunning imagintion as applied to new creatures and races.  While many fantasy authors struggle to come up with a single imaginative concept, Mieville spins out new ones as if he could simply pop them out of a machine.  Perdido gave us walking cactuses, human bodies with big beetle heads, “remade” persons with extra limbs attached as criminal penalties, frog-like Vodyanoi, and more.  The Scar adds in human-sized mosquitoes with insatiable appetites and plenty of other such monstrosities.  Many of these charming add-ons would be worthy of a book of their own, and we can only hope that Mieville will return to them at some future point.

The last good point is that Mieville can actually create a good plot, something which sets him aside from many other urban fantasy practitioners.  In The Scar there are big mysteries to drive the plot forward and adequate explanations for those mysteries.  The pacing is good and there are a decent number of surprises.

Own the downside, The Scar is laced with constant profanity, which is not only unpleasant but often is used as a substitute for characterization.  I wish authors (and screeenwriters) could understand that loading a character’s vocabulary with endless s###’s and f###’s does not make that person gritty, believable, or tough.  Violence is frequent but gore is usually not excessive, though one scene with the aforementioned mosquito people may go a little too far for some people.  Overall, though, Mieville’s imagination and vision win out over those flaws and make The Scar a highly recommended winner.

Four reasons to dislike the Susan G. Komen Foundation

So I’ve decided to write a post trashing the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the gigantic charitable endeavor that fights breast cancer.  “What?!” I hear someone scream.  “Are you pro-breast cancer?”  No, I am not.  I very much hate breast cancer.  I would not want anyone to get it, and would not want to prevent anyone who has it from being cured.  In that regard I would hope that everyone who reads this agrees.

I am going after the Susan G. Komen Foundation because of the way it operates.  There’s been a change in how charity gets done in America over the past generation or so.  The overall amount of charity, relative to the economy, has been fairly constant, but the sociology of how it operates is changing, and Komen is out in front of the negative changes in a big way.  So on to the reasons.

Komen beats up on smaller charities.  The foundation claims that it can use the words “for the cure”, and no one else can.   It would be a violation of trademark, don’t you see?  Yes, the tiny charitable venture known as “Kites for the Cure” that raises money for cancer by letting children fly kites is a mortal danger to the Komen behemoth.  Honestly.  That’s why Komen needs to send big-league lawyers to harass anyone who uses the words “for the cure” in their name.  But what exact threat does any other charity pose by using those words.  Businesses obviously want to beat other businesses, but should a charity seek to beat other charities?

Komen doesn’t spend much on research.  If you only have a casual knowledge of Komen’s activities, you’d think that their primary purpose is to raise money for actual research towards a cure.  Actually it isn’t.  Fundraising and administrative costs take up roughly twenty percent of their budget, including more than half a million in salary for the foundation’s President and ritzy travel expenses for other bigwigs.  That’s not actually very bad; most charities are in the same ballpark.

No, the problem is that the Komen Foundation’s doesn’t actually spend the bulk of its money on research, but rather on education.  There’s nothing wrong with education, of course, as long as it’s actually educational.  Much of Komen’s output is not, as the link above demonstrates.  Which leads us to the third reason.

Conflicts of interest.  The best ways to prevent breast cancer from even forming are the same as the best ways to prevent cancer overall.  Eat a good diet, avoid carcinogenic chemicals, and exercise.  Yet the Komen Foundation doesn’t focus on these things in its advertising, instead emphasizing the need for screening and preventive medical care.  There’s nothing wrong with screening, of course, but a healthy lifestyle should be the primary focus if we really want to cut the disease down to size.  Moreover, Komen either gets money from or invests in companies that make unhealthy products such as packaged meats.

Tackiness and ugliness.  Komen has been remarkably successful at getting its signature pink ribbon and other symbols plastered onto anything and everything, from tents and huge inflatable markers to yogurt and paper products.  Yesterday I bought a can of ordinary table salt and found the ribbon on it, which is what inspired this post.

That, of course, is only the beginning.  The foundation seems to have an obsession with sticking its logo everywhere, much as Nike did with the ‘swoosh’ when I was a kid.  I find this ugly and distasteful.  I find most advertising ugly and distasteful, but few campaigns have been taken to such extremes as the Komen campaign.  Pursuing a cause, even a good cause, does not require that we cover every available square inch with garrish decorations.  Most people, I’m sure, don’t want to say this, lest it look like they value aesthetics above saving lives.  I do not.  Saving lives should come first, of course, but this carpet-bombing with tacky advertising and fundraising does not save anyone’s life.  Komen could be just as effective–perhaps more effective–if they showed some restraint.

Chesterton on the Social Sciences

Now we do talk first about the disease in cases of bodily breakdown; and that for an excellent reason. Because, though there may be doubt about the way in which the body broke down, there is no doubt at all about the shape in which it should be built up again. No doctor proposes to produce a new kind of man, with a new arrangement of eyes or limbs. The hospital, by necessity, may send a man home with one leg less: but it will not (in a creative rapture) send him home with one leg extra. Medical science is content with the normal human body, and only seeks to restore it.

But social science is by no means always content with the normal human soul; it has all sorts of fancy souls for sale. Man as a social idealist will say “I am tired of being a Puritan; I want to be a Pagan,” or “Beyond this dark probation of Individualism I see the shining paradise of Collectivism.” Now in bodily ills there is none of this difference about the ultimate ideal. The patient may or may not want quinine; but he certainly wants health No one says “I am tired of this headache; I want some toothache,” or “The only thing for this Russian influenza is a few German measles,” or “Through this dark probation of catarrh I see the shining paradise of rheumatism.” But exactly the whole difficulty in our public problems is that some men are aiming at cures which other men would regard as worse maladies; are offering ultimate conditions as states of health which others would uncompromisingly call states of disease. Mr. Belloc once said that he would no more part with the idea of property than with his teeth; yet to Mr. Bernard Shaw property is not a tooth, but a toothache. Lord Milner has sincerely attempted to introduce German efficiency; and many of us would as soon welcome German measles. Dr. Saleeby would honestly like to have Eugenics; but I would rather have rheumatics.

– G. K. Chesterton, What is Wrong with the World

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