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

Archive for December, 2014

What I’m Reading: The First Betrayal, by Patricia Bray

When I was younger, I slogged through quite a lot of mediocre fantasy novels.  Like many young folks, I had somehow picked up the idea that I should always finish a book once I’d started it.  Except for a few of the most truly atrocious ones, I reached the end of every single book.

The First Betrayal, by Patricia Bray, is the quintessence of mediocrity.  We have two main characters.  Josan is a monk who’s assigned to keep a lighthouse on a lonely island.  Ysobel is a diplomat assigned to ferment a rebellion against the Empress in the city of Karystos.  The two meet briefly at the start of the book and then separate.  Josan remains at his lighthouse.  He has a mysterious past and only fragmentary memories from childhood.  Then an assassin shows up and Josan is forced to flee for his life.  Meanwhile, Ysobel manages the intrigues of life among rebellious nobles.

Everything in the book follows a predictable, paint-by-numbers scheme.  Characters, plot, and world-building all proceed along a dull, monotonous path towards a destination that’s just not worth caring about.  The high point, or perhaps low point, is around the two thirds mark of the book, where we finally learn the secret of Josan’s mysterious past.  The only problem is, any intelligent reader will have guessed the secret hundreds of pages earlier, making the whole thing anti-climactic.

I would mention one other problem.  Bray’s prose isn’t terrible.  It’s pretty much the definition of ‘workmanlike’.  But it’s boring for a clear reason: there’s no humor.  None.  I don’t expect every book to be comedy gold, but has there ever been a decent book that didn’t include at least a little bit of humor?


While I was in grad school, before I became a Christian, I read Julian May’s novel Magnificat.  While I liked the novel, I didn’t have the slightest idea what the title meant.  This is a perfect demonstration of my intellectual situation during that period of my life.  I had already received one degree from a top-rated academic institution and was on my way to earning another.  On paper, by secular standards, my education looked excellent.  At the same time, I knew virtually nothing about most of the major texts that had shaped the civilization in which I lived, or about theology, philosophy, or numerous other topics of supreme importance.  This is what our educational system does to young minds.

But onwards to the topic of the post.  The Magnificat is a poem from the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke.  It is the words attributed to the Blessed Virgin Mary after she visits hers kinswoman Elizabeth:

The Magnificat in English

While there are those like my grad school self who have never heard of it, there are also many people who may have the opposite problem.  Any text that one reads and hears too many times can become too familiar, until one loses sight of its meaning and power.  After we’ve encountered this particular prayer hundreds of times, we may lose sight of its revolutionary character.

Let us try to put ourselves back into the time and place where this passage originated.  Mary was peasant woman in a small village in an insignificant province at the fringes of the Roman Empire.  Neither she nor any of her family or friends had any power.  They were constantly pushed around.  A whim of the Emperor, such as a desire to take a census, could uproot them and force them to travel great distances at considerable inconvenience.

Faced with this situation, Mary was neither despairing, nor angry, for bitter.  Instead she made a triumphant statement of confidence.  God is watching over each of us, God knows our sufferings and needs, God will protect us always.  Chesterton once said that it is not meek to say that the meek shall inherit the earth.  Similarly it is not humble to insist that kings will be toppled from their thrones and the humble will be exalted.

In our day and age, when questions of power structures and authority swirl around us in countless forms, we need the simple and powerful faith expressed in the Magnificat more than ever.


Brief update on the hoax at UVA

Robby Soave, the first prominent journalist to suggest that the entire Rolling Stone story was a hoax, has an update at Hit & Run.  There are more details from the three friends: Ryan Duffin, Alex Stock, and Kathryn Hendley.  Recall that in the original story, Jackie aggressively slandered these three, saying that after she showed up injured and bleeding and told them about being gang raped, they refused to contact the police and were only concerned about guarding their reputation and being loyal to their own frats.  The truth turned out to be the exact opposite.  When Jackie claimed that she had been forced to perform oral sex on a group of five men, the friends wanted to take her to the hospital and report it to the police; it was Jackie herself who refused to do so.

Anyhoo, the latest revelation is this: we now know the name that Jackie gave for the junior chem major boyfriend who supposedly lead the gang rape: Haven Monahan.  The Washington Post has confirmed that no such person ever existed, either at UVA or anywhere else.  Investigation of the text messages and emails that ‘Monahan’ supposedly sent to the three friends show that they come from fake phone numbers.  Jackie used a readily available website that allowed her to send messages from non-existent phone accounts.  So that would seem to wrap things up for the bogus claim that any sexual assault at all occurred on the night of September 28th, 2012.  The entire account was entirely fictional.

Meanwhile, over at Poynter, the Rolling Stone story has won the award for “Error of the Year”.  That’s just one of many awards that they give.  I highly recommend clicking the link and reading about all of them.  The funniest ones are the candidates for ‘Correction of the Year’.  Some samples:

In yesterday’s “Chillin’ Wit” column, a fond farewell to former Daily News editor Zack Stallberg as he heads west to New Mexico, stall berg was misquoted as using the term “horse manure.” He responded: “I demand a correction. Does anyone really think I would use the word ‘manure’?” No. Stall berg actually said, “horse s—.” And that’s no bull manure.

In a leader last month (Of bongs and bureaucrats, January 11th) we said that The Economist first proposed legalising drugs in 1993. In fact we argued for it in a cover story in 1988. Who says drug use doesn’t damage long-term memory?

An earlier version of this story erroneously said that Joaquín Guzmán was found in bed with his secretary. He was found with his wife. This version has been corrected.

An earlier version of this article described bald eagles and ospreys incorrectly. They eat fish, and their poop is white; they do not eat berries and excrete purple feces. (Other birds, like American robins, Eurasian starlings and cedar waxwings, do.)

So there’s some kind of movie opening today

Today would have been a great day in my life if it was twelve years earlier, or if I were twelve years younger.

Let me explain.

I had the privilege of being in college when the original Lord of the Rings movies were released.  Fellowship was released in December of 2001, when I was a sophomore.  The Two Towers arrived my junior year, and The Return of the King during my senior year.

And it was a big deal, let me tell you.

Back then, I knew the names of all nine members of the fellowship.  I could pronounce Maedhros correctly.  I could discuss the merits of Book 4 relative to Book 3.  This made me a moderate LotR fan.  (The serious LotR fans were able to name Thorin’s ancestors for seventeen generations and conjugate Elvish verbs.)

Back then, at college, the movies were big events.  I’d guess that on the night each one was released, about two thirds of the student body showed up at the nearest theater for the midnight screening.  It was the social event of the season.

Why?  Can’t really say.  When I was nineteen or twenty years old, there was something immeasurably cool about watching vast armies chopping each other to pieces.  The fact that the armies were entirely digital, with no physical existence to speak, did not reduce the coolness of it.  It was cool.  It was awesome.  It was amazing.

Thirteen years later, it’s no longer cool or awesome or amazing to me.  I would venture to say that if someone rounded up those hundreds of Harvey Mudd students who sat is lines outside the theater for six hours in December of 2002, most of the them would express similar feelings.  Hence I’ve not bothered to see any of the Hobbit movies.

Why is a particular movie–or anything, for that matter–cool at one stage of life and uninspiring at a later stage?  I don’t know.  Somebody should investigate that question.

Chesterton on False Accusations

False reports have been a bit on my mind lately for obvious reasons (hey, there was another major hoax exposed in the press today), false reports of crimes doubly so.  As it happens, Chesterton was kind of big into that topic.  He wrote almost a hundred detective stories, most of which followed the standard outline.  A crime is committed, the facts appear to point to either a clear suspect or one of several, but then the detective cleverly unravels the mystery and puts the blame squarely on someone who was never suspected.  In that category, my favorite would probably be The Mirror of the Magistrate.

But not all of his stories follow that outline.  In some we begin with evidence or detailed accounts of a crime, and end up learning that there is no crime at all.  One of the best Father Brown stories fits that pattern: The Absence of Mr. Glass.  Also in that category: The Tremendous Adventures of Major BrownThe Awful Reason of the Vicar’s Visit, and of course the entire novel The Man Who Was Thursday.

But if we’re going to talk about instances where everyone’s sure that there’s a crime, and then it turns out there isn’t, the most relevant work is surely Four Faultless Felons. The title is direct enough: four stories about men who did something terrible, only it turns out that they didn’t.  Here’s how it starts:

Mr. Asa Lee Pinion, of the Chicago Comet had crossed half of America, the whole of the Atlantic, and eventually even Piccadilly Circus, in pursuit of the notable, if not notorious figure of Count Raoul de Marillac. Mr. Pinion wanted to get what is called “a story”; a story to put in his paper. He did get a story, but he did not put it in his paper. It was too tall a story, even for the Comet.  Perhaps the metaphor is true in more ways than one, and the fable was tall like a church-spire or a tower among the stars: beyond comprehension as well as belief. Anyhow, Mr. Pinion decided not to risk his readers’ comments. But that is no reason why the present writer, writing for more exalted, spiritual and divinely credulous readers, should imitate his silence.

A bit later we get this:

“Well, we are four men with a common bond at least. We have all had occasion, like Marillac, to look rather worse than we were.”

“Yes,” grunted the large man rather sourly, “we’ve all been Misunderstood. Like Mrs. Prague.”

“The Club of Men Misunderstood is rather more cheerful than that, however,” continued his friend. “We are all pretty jolly here, considering that our reputations have been blasted by black and revolting crimes. The truth is we have devoted ourselves to a new sort of detective story–or detective service if you like. We do not hunt for crimes but for concealed virtues. Sometimes, as in Marillac’s case, they are very artfully concealed. As you will doubtless be justified in retorting, we conceal our own virtues with brilliant success.”

The journalist’s head began to go round a little, though he thought himself pretty well accustomed both to crazy and criminal surroundings. “But I thought you said,” he objected, “that your reputations were blasted with crime. What sort of crime?”

“Well, mine was murder,” said the man next to him. “The people who blasted me did it because they disapproved of murder, apparently. It’s true I was rather a failure at murder, as at everything else.”

Pinion’s gaze wandered in some bewilderment to the next man who answered cheerfully:

“Mine was only a common fraud. A professional fraud, too, the sort that gets you kicked out of your profession sometimes. Rather like Dr. Cook’s sham discovery of the North Pole.”

“What does all this mean?” asked Pinion; and he looked inquiringly at the man opposite, who had done so much of the explaining so far.

“Oh, theft,” said the man opposite, indifferently; “the charge on which I was actually arrested was petty larceny.”

There was a profound silence, which seemed to settle in a mysterious manner, like a gathering cloud, on the figure of the fourth member, who had not spoken so far a single word. He sat erect in his rather stiff, foreign fashion; his wooden, handsome face was unchanged and his lips had never moved even for so much as a murmur. But now, when the sudden and deep silence seemed to challenge him, his face seemed to harden from wood to stone and when he spoke at last, his foreign accent seemed something more than alien, as if it were almost inhuman.

“I have committed the Unpardonable Sin,” he said. “For what sin did Dante reserve the last and lowest hell; the Circle of Ice?”

Still no one spoke; and he answered his own question in the same hollow tone:

“Treason. I betrayed the four companions of my party, and gave them up to the Government for a bribe.”

Something turned cold inside the sensitive stranger, and for the first time he really felt the air around him sinister and strange. The stillness continued for another half minute, and then all the four men burst out into a great uproar of laughter.

I highly recommend reading and enjoying the whole thing.

“Do the Left Thing”: Stand up for free speech.

Here’s another on-campus story that’s not at all shocking, at least for anyone who follows life in the academic world.  A conservative student at the University of Michigan, Omar Mahmood, wrote a satirical column entitled ‘Do the Left Thing’, mocking the bizarre worldview of campus leftists.  He published it in one newspaper, the Michigan Review, and in response he lost his job at the mainstream campus newspaper, the Michigan Daily.  And then, in the least shocking development of all, four female students decided to post insults, threats, profanity, and racial slurs on his dorm room door and throw rotten eggs and hot dogs at it.

Here’s another unsurprising development.  The four enterprising progressives decided to disguise their identities by putting on hoodies.  They decided to don these hoodies right in front of a security camera, making it easy for campus security to identify them.  Read all about it here.

Of course the best way to respond to censorship is by reading whatever the bad guys are trying to censor.  So click here to read the offending column, and while you’re at it, drop by The Michigan Review as well.

Chesterton on Torture

An excerpt from his classic essay, On Ending and Mending Things:

A certain politician (whom I would not discuss here on any account) once said of a certain institution (which wild horses shall not induce me to name) that “It must be mended or ended.” Few people who use this useful phrase about reform notice the important thing about it. The important thing about it is that the two methods described here are not similar but opposite; between mending and ending that is not a difference of degree but of vital antagonism of kind. Mending is based upon the idea that the original nature of a thing is good; ending is based upon the idea that the original nature of a thing is bad or at least, has lost all power of being good.

If I “mend” an armchair it is because I want an armchair. I mend the armchair because I wish to restore it to a state of more complete armchairishness. My objection to the armchair in its unmended state is that its defects prevent it from being in the fullest sense an armchair at all. If (let us say) the back has come off and three of the legs have disappeared, I realize, in looking at it, not merely that it presents a sense of general irregularity to the eye; I realize that in such and such respects it does definitely fall short of the Divine and Archetypal Armchair, which, as Plato would have pointed out, exists in heaven.

But it is possible that I might possess among my drawing room furniture some object, let us say a rack or a thumbscrew, of which the nature and raison d’être was repellent to my moral feelings. If my thumbscrew fell into slight disrepair, I should not mend it at all; because the more I mended my thumbscrew the more thumbscrewy it would be. If my private rack were out of order, I should be in no way disturbed; for my private code of ethics prevents me from racking anyone, and the more it was out of order the less likely it would be that any casual passer-by could get racked on it.

This was a man with clear moral principles.  When he needed an example of something that was obviously evil, and that everyone would agree was evil, he chose torture devices.

Torture once again

A great deal has been written about the torture report by people much better and smarter than myself.  I feel that I have very little to add.  Torture is always wrong, has always been wrong, and will always be wrong.  All decent people accept these facts.  How could the United States go so wrong?  Whatever happened to our moral principles?

That’s the sort of question that needs to get asked at a time like this.  Unfortunately, the United States doesn’t do very well at asking questions at the moment.  Of course you can pick up any newspaper and read some doofus blathering about the need for “a national conversation” on something or other, or making an urgent demand for “soul searching”.  All of which means nothing.  Let me take the opportunity to recommend this article: National Conversations Are Worthless:


Luckily there is a little bit of good news from Daniel Larison here:


Fighting back against the claim that an large and growing majority of Americans are okay with torture, he notes that 81% oppose electric shock, at least 58% percent oppose waterboarding, and at least 84% oppose sexual humiliation.  It’s easier for a moral weakling to support ‘torture’ in the abstract than to actually approve of specific, horrible actions against our fellow human beings.  For those of us who hold the morally right position on this issue, we need to remember this and use it wisely whenever we’re having any sort of discussion of the matter.

One last post on the UVA case

I’ve written a great deal about this case because it means a lot to me, for reasons I’ve explained before.  Nonetheless I’m trying to avoid going overboard on this one issue.  Hence this will be my last post on the case, at least until something important arrives, such as a police investigation.

Okay, first topic: what’s the response from Sabrina Erdely and Rolling Stone?  Answer: almost none.  Erdely seems to have gone into hiding; it’s been almost two weeks since anyone heard from her.  Rolling Stone, meanwhile, has altered its initial statement after widespread complaints that it was trying to put the blame on Jackie.  Other than that, nothing.  As Richard Bradley and many others have been saying, these people are cowards.  They should be coming forward and admitting fault.

Of course both Erdely and everyone else at Rolling Stone has good reason to hide.  They’ve committed the biggest journalistic fraud since Dan Rather and his phony memos.  They’re going to be infamous for years to come.  Erdely’s name will forever be listed next to Stephen Glass as a notorious liar and fabricator who fooled major publications.

Further, it’s not just this one story.  Conservative sources have started poking into everything else Erdely has ever written and much of it is clearly fake.  Mollie Hemingway has a good summary of it.  Erdely won’t be writing any journalism anytime soon, but she has a career has a trashy romance novelist waiting for her if she wants it.

Next topic: what actually happened at UVA?  The latest revelations from the Washington Post show that we’re closing in on the an answer.  Our protagonist, “Jackie”, began playing an elaborate prank soon after arriving at UVA for her freshman year.  She told her friends about her super-hot chemistry major boyfriends, even sending false texts and photos.  Then for some reason it morphed into a story about this guy leading a brutal gang rape in a frat house.  Over time Jackie has changed nearly every detail: the name of the boyfriend, the number of attackers, the location, and more.  The three friends also did an interview with ABC news   As Hanna Rosin puts it, we are inching closer to the moment when the entire story becomes an acknowledged hoax.

Next topic: the response.  Ever since the Post first exposed the flaws in the story, many liberals and feminists have been wringing their hands about the possibility that this will perpetuate the stereotype of “the girl who cried rape” and make true victims of sexual assault less likely to come forward.  While such fears aren’t entirely groundless, I think they’re exaggerated.  The actual, factual evidence that women are intimidated into silence is rather thin.

What liberals really fear is obvious and well-grounded.  People will trust the liberal media less as a result of this.  And well they should.  The difference between Erdely’s disaster and a typical political story in The New York Times is one of degree, not kind.  If skepticism about the media goes up, so much the better.

I will say that some amazingly dumb arguments have sprung up as a result of this.  Here, for instance, we have a student making a stunning argument:

If everyone here believed Jackie’s story until yesterday — a story in which she is violently raped by seven men at a fraternity house as part of a planned initiation ritual — should we not still be concerned?  There was something in that story which stuck. And that means something.

Okay, the wording is careful.  That “means something”; no word on what it means exactly, but the implication is clear.  Since people believe that a fraternity would commit organized gang rape in its frat house, then it must happen, even if this particular case is a fabrication.

I don’t think the student who wrote this is taking Logic 101.  If a magazine publishes a phony story and numerous people at UVA and across the country believe it, that doesn’t necessarily mean the story was plausible or that anything like the story has even taken place.  It may simply be that UVA and other places around the country have lots of credulous fools.  (Pardon my bluntness, but someone’s gotta’ say it.)

Final topic: what’s the appropriate response to all this?  How should we feel about the victims?  First, we must remember who the victims are.  They are the men false accused of rape, two that Jackie named and all the members of Phi Kappa Psi.  These people deserve nothing but sympathy.  They also deserve a big cash settlement from Rolling Stone, and they’re nearly certain to get one.

And, a bit more problematically, they deserve a settlement from Jackie.  Obviously Rolling Stone is the bigger, better target.  Nonetheless I find it likely that at least one person or group will sue Jackie herself.  If so, she’ll be forced to testify under oath about what took place and may, financially, lose everything.  On top of that, there’s a police investigation still underway.  If Jackie lied to the Police, she may even end up serving time in jail.

Should we feel sympathy towards her?  Sort of.  She’s a college student who did something stupid.  I was once a college student who did stupid things.  I’m glad that those things didn’t continue to follow me all my life.  I’d imagine most folks would say the same thing.  Jackie happened to take her bad decisions a few steps too far and will be paying for it for a long time.  Perhaps the real lesson to learn from this is that we need to do a better job of teaching our young people about responsibility, honesty, and empathy, and we need to do it at an earlier age.

We need something uplifting.

After all the hard-hitting bad news of the past few weeks, it is worth taking a moment to stop and remember all that is good in this world.

Here is an excellent instrumental version of The First Noel.

No matter what happens, be it in our personal lives or in world events, the fundamental fact of our lives is that God came into this human world, in person, so that he might save and redeem us all.  Let us never forget it.

And on the light-hearted side, a recent offering from Weird Al:

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