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

Archive for April, 2012

Who’s gonna win

After a bruising and amusing primary season, the Republicans have finally chosen Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate.  That leaves us with the following matchup: Obama vs. Romney.

In 1945, most professional baseball players were in the military, and the World Series featured a mediocre matchup of the Cubs and the Tigers.  Sportswriter Walter Brown said, “I don’t think either of them can win.”  This race can’t help but remind me of that comment.  These candidates are so weak that it’s hard to imagine either emerging victorious.

One thing is clear at least.  Neither major party has much trust in their candidates ability to rally the crowds, motivate his supporters, and cruise to victory.  Both sides clearly believe that the only way to win is to play dirty, and the below-the-belt hits have already begun.  With the existence of Superpacs , there will be a lot more money in this race than any previous one, and thus a lot more advertisements.  Those of you with televisions–I have none–may wish to preemptively take a sledgehammer and break your screens now, rather than risk letting all that bile spill into your living room.

Lastly, even in the ’45 series, somebody did manage to win.  (It was the Tigers.)  So I suppose one of these two guys will stumble into the White House next January, and I might as well give my prediction.  Here it is: Obama wins by between one and two percent.  You heard it here first.

Chesterton on gender roles

This is an excerpt from the essay Cockneys and their Jokes in the collection All Things Considered.  (No relation to the NPR program of the same name.)  Chesterton begins by discussing humor, and asserts that humor holds truth some of the time.  It’s the plain and vulgar jokes that tell the truth; the hoity-toity humor of intellectual satirists does not.  Then he delves into the following examples.

As a matter of fact, it will be generally found that the popular joke is not true to the letter, but it is true to the spirit. The vulgar joke is generally in the oddest way the truth and yet not the fact. For instance, it is not in the least true that mothers-in-law are as a class oppressive and intolerable; most of them are both devoted and useful.  All the mothers-in-law I have ever had were admirable. Yet the legend of the comic papers is profoundly true. It draws attention to the fact that it is much harder to be a nice mother-in-law than to be nice in any other conceivable relation of life. The caricatures have drawn the worst mother-in-law a monster, by way of expressing the fact that the best mother-in-law is a problem. The same is true of the perpetual jokes in comic papers about shrewish wives and henpecked husbands.  It is all a frantic exaggeration, but it is an exaggeration of a truth; whereas all the modern mouthings about oppressed women are the exaggerations of a falsehood. If you read even the best of the intellectuals of to-day you will find them saying that in the mass of the democracy the woman is the chattel of her lord, like his bath or his bed. But if you read the comic literature of the democracy you will find that the lord hides under the bed to escape the wrath of his chattel. This is not the fact, but it is much nearer the truth. Every man who is married knows quite well, not only that he does not regard his wife as a chattel, but that no man can conceivably ever have done so. The joke stands for an ultimate truth, and that is a subtle truth.  It is not very easy to state correctly. It can, perhaps, be most correctly stated by saying that, even if the man is the head of the house, he knows he is the figure-head.

But the vulgar comic papers are so subtle and true that they are even prophetic. If you really want to know what is going to happen to the future of our democracy, do not read the modern sociological prophecies, do not read even Mr. Wells’s Utopias for this purpose, though you should certainly read them if you are fond of good honesty and good English.  If you want to know what will happen, study the pages of SNAPS or PATCHY BITS as if they were the dark tablets graven with the oracles of the gods.  For, mean and gross as they are, in all seriousness, they contain what is entirely absent from all Utopias and all the sociological conjectures of our time: they contain some hint of the actual habits and manifest desires of the English people. If we are really to find out what the democracy will ultimately do with itself, we shall surely find it, not in the literature which studies the people, but in the literature which the people studies.

Sweden attacks gender

Once in a while one reads about a claim or movement so outlandish that one wonders whether the people involved are really having a jolly good spoof.  When the movement in question involves an entire nation, that possibility can be ruled out.  So it is with the recent Swedish attempt to “entirely erase traditional gender roles and stereotypes at even the most mundane levels”.

Here’s a link to an article, for those who haven’t heard.  It is not about any single change or agency in Sweden doing this, but rather about many minor demands and choices from many parts of Swedish society.  Among the highlights:

A Swedish children’s clothes company has removed the “boys” and “girls” sections in its stores, and the idea of dressing children in a gender-neutral manner has been widely discussed on parenting blogs. A Swedish toy catalog recently decided to switch things around, showing a boy in a Spider-Man costume pushing a pink pram, while a girl in denim rides a yellow tractor.

The Swedish Bowling Association has announced plans to merge male and female bowling tournaments in order to make the sport gender-neutral. Social Democrat politicians have proposed installing gender-neutral restrooms so that members of the public will not be compelled to categorize themselves as either ladies or gents. Several preschools have banished references to pupils’ genders, instead referring to children by their first names or as “buddies.” So, a teacher would say “good morning, buddies” or “good morning, Lisa, Tom, and Jack” rather than, “good morning, boys and girls.” They believe this fulfills the national curriculum’s guideline that preschools should “counteract traditional gender patterns and gender roles” and give girls and boys “the same opportunities to test and develop abilities and interests without being limited by stereotypical gender roles.”

So what to make of all this?  One might first look at previous examples of nations or groups who have tried to wipe out gender.  That approach would run into a roadblock: no nation in history has ever done such a thing, as far as I know.  There have been fringe groups such as the Shakers that have tried to radically redefine gender roles, but they did not go as far as trying to wipe out all distinctions between genders in terms of housing, clothing, language and so forth.  So Sweden is embarking on something entirely new here.

It’s new, but is it good?  I say the answer is no.  If humans have always had gender roles and they’ve always stayed within certain parameters–and anthropologists tell us this is the case–there’s probably a reason for that.  It’s probably because there actually is such a thing as human nature, and gender roles are part of that nature.  It’s probably because, when given the choice, virtually everyone will choose to follow a certain gender role.  To accomplish what the Swedes want to accomplish it will require a lot of strong-arming, a lot of convincing people to act against their natural instincts, and a lot of brow-beating and isolating people who don’t cooperate.

But will it work?  That is the question, as Shakespeare might say.  In my opinion it won’t.  All available evidence suggests that an ordinary person cannot be convinced to take up a gender role different than the one he or she was born to.  For instance there’s the tragic case of David Reimer.  He was born a boy but had his you-know-what cut off in an accident.  Afterwards his parents, acting on advice from doctors, attempted to raise him as a girl, complete with appropriate clothes, toys, and pronouns.  It didn’t work, and David rebelled against it.  The attempt to feminize him most likely contributed to depression and other mental illnesses that David suffered throughout his life, until he committed suicide in 2004 at age 38.  This story and others like it ought to give pause to anyone who tries to flip a child’s gender away from the norm, particularly to anyone who wants to do it on a national scale.


I first heard of John Derbyshire over a decade ago, when, as columnist for the National Review, he said that Chelsea Clinton should be killed.  Now, a scant eleven years later, the National Review has finally sacked Derb.  Not, it should be noted, because of residual guilt about the ‘kill Chelsea’ piece.  Not because of residual guilt about anything that the man wrote for NR.  Rather because of this article published elsewhere.

I will summarize Derb’s point for you.  (And I did read the entire thing, so I’m qualified to do so.)  It’s phrased as advice for white children.  Derb says that blacks are not all bad, but on average they’re less intelligent and more likely to be criminal than average.  Consequently he offers up advice such as “do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks” and “stay out of heavily black neighborhoods”.  Not surprisingly, Derb no longer has a job at the National Review, and probably won’t be seen in any mainstream magazines for a while.

The article itself is a stupid mess.  Not for nothing did Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, say it “lurches from the politically incorrect to the nasty and indefensible” and “is so outlandish it constitutes a kind of letter of resignation”.  Derb brags ferociously about having data on his side.  His column is stuffed with hyperlinks, but few of those hyperlinks lead to reliable data.  Most lead to annecdotes.  One particle about one black person commiting murder supposedly proves that all “beaches and amusement parks” should be avoided if black people are in attendance.  One city where the mayor is corrupt proves that all black politicans ruin their respective cities.  And so forth.  In at least one case, Derb actually linked to an article which argues the opposite of what he seems to think it argues.

What on earth was Derb thinking?  As others have remarked, he’s smart enough that he ought to have known what would result from publishing this piece.  We all have our ‘stupid moments’.  It might be that Derb just wrote and posted this in a minute of over-emotion or hysteria, but one would think he’d have pulled it and apologized if that were the case.  The only other possibility that I can come up with is this.  Derb currently publishes at National Review and in the more obscure outlet that carried the racist piece, called Taki’s Magazine.  He’s now lost the ability to write for the National Review, but he’s brought in tremendous publicity for Taki’s.  In the modern internet world there really isn’t any such thing as bad publicity, inasmuch as that any sort of publicity brings in readers.  I’ve now heard of Taki’s Magazine, and I never would have heard of it if not for Derb’s racist rant.  Thus, in a certain sense, the man has won the publicity campaign while losing the popularity contest.

The death of Jesus

The death of Jesus Christ is the central event in Christianity and the defining event for the faith of every Christian.  Everyone has surely seen countless tracts, bumper stickers, and other paraphernalia bearing the two words “Jesus saves”.  Someone had even spray-painted those words on a street light near my house when I was a kid.  It’s a two-word summary of the message of Christianity.  The central fact of the faith of every Christian is salvation, yet not everyone knows what it means.  To some outsiders, it may appear that salvation is simply a feeling, as vaguely defined and wishy-washy as any other.

To understand salvation, one must first understand sin.  My pal Chesterton once called sin “a fact as practical as potatoes”.  You can pick up any newspaper and see evidence of human sin.  Christian dogma begins with the notion of original sin, meaning that all humans are sinners; nobody is perfect.  Moreover, ordinary human beings cannot shake off our sinful nature by ordinary means, such as good behavior, repeated ritual, or anything else.  No matter how hard we try, we continue to do things that we know we should not do.  Hence we carry the burden of sin, the shame of what we have done wrong.  This is not a vague feeling, but rather a well-defined, substantial fact within our psyche.

If the burden of sin is well-defined, then the removal of that burden of sin is well-defined.  Salvation is defined as that event in which the burden of sin is removed.  And all Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant or Eastern Orthodox, are in agreement about the means by which the burden of sin is removed.  It was removed by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross at Calvary, as described in the gospels.

To some, that would raise the question of method.  How does Jesus dying on the cross lead to the burden of sin being removed from everyone who accepts it?  On this question there is not nearly as much agreement among Christians.  There are different viewpoints, which anyone can study is they wish.  The “Ransom” theory holds that Satan had a just claim on human souls because of our sinfulness, and that Christ’s sacrifice paid what was due, thereby eliminating the claim.  The “Penal Substitution” theory holds that intrinsically there must be a punishment for any person’s wrongdoing before the burden of that sin can be removed, and that the punishment which the rest of us deserve was instead applied to Christ.  There are others as well, and plenty of theologians willing to debate them, but most Christians acknowledge an element of divine mystery in the event of salvation via Christ’s death.

One thing should be born in mind, though.  There are many types of sins, in other words many ways in which human beings hurt each other.  Sometimes we inflict physical harm on each other, other times emotional harm, other times we neglect to help people in need.  During the twenty-four hours leading up to his death, Jesus suffered the following: his disciples falling asleep when he needed them; fear about the future so intense it lead to physical anguish; arrest; mob violence; a show trial that made a farce of the justice system; popular hatred; abuse by authorities; physical torture of several kinds; defilement with bodily fluids (spitting); mockery of his situation, his claims, and his social status; abandonment by his own followers; being paraded in front of a large crowd; being stripped almost naked; having his last possessions taken away; and finally being subjected to an extraordinarily painful and humiliating form of execution.  In that sense, it is reasonable to say that Jesus understood the suffering caused by sin–all of it–in a way far beyond anything that any of us could.

A two-day-late Palm Sunday Reflection

Last Sunday was Palm Sunday, also known as Passion Sunday in some traditions.  The Gospel reading, as one might expect, was this passage from Mark:

1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”

 4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,


   “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

The sermon I heard was a fine demonstration of how additional meaning can hide in even the most straightforward passages of the Bible.  I’d certainly read and heard this passage many times in my life, but it never occurred to me to focus on the two things that the crowd did as Jesus approached Jerusalem.  Some of them threw their cloaks on the ground in front of Jesus, while others threw branches.  Mark doesn’t tell us what type of branch, but tradition accepts that they were palm branches.  Other than the fronds of the date palm tree, the locals would not have had many green leaves available at that time of year.

Why cloaks?  Why date palm fronds?  Cloaks were important articles of clothing in that time.  Your cloak was your main protection against the elements and getting a new one was not easy, especially for the poor.  As for the date palms, if you stripped one of its fronds, you wouldn’t get any dates that year.

Thus, when members of the crowd laid cloaks and palm fronds in front of Jesus, they were making a substantial sacrifice of clothing and food, declaring that preparing the way for the coming Kingdom of God is more important than those two physical items.  Interestingly, Mark’s Gospel does not contain the passage in which Jesus advises the crowd to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” rather than food and clothes. [Matthew 6:25-34]  But this scene indicates that the crowd at Jerusalem was familiar with what Jesus has said.  It also tells us that Mark himself was familiar with that teaching, since he otherwise would not have mentioned the cloaks and branches.  Thus it provides us with further confirmation that the different Gospels draw a coherent picture from the life of the real Jesus Christ.

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