Monday, December 12, 2011

'Tis the season to be prudent

My ex and I overspent considerably for Christmas of ’83 (it was mostly my fault) and were miserable when the bills arrived. We resolved ever after to faithfully save for Christmas club and spend not a penny more than we had accumulated for the year. The first year, we saved $404, and we increased it by about a hundred dollars each year.

By 1989, we had saved $900 for the year, and when we learned that good friends at church would have to choose between buying winter coats for their three growing boys or buying them Christmas gifts, we looked at each other and easily decided to give the family $100 out of our Christmas fund. Our friends bought gifts for their boys, along with the winter coats, wrapped them, and put them under their tree. While they were gone to Nashville to visit grandma, someone broke into their house and stole all the gifts.

On the other hand, I recall that in 1988, we spent a grand total of $50 to buy seven gifts for our 2-year-old daughter, and she was perfectly happy with what she got. (And we learned that while you are busy assembling the drum set for which you paid a pretty penny at Toys ’R’ Us, your kid has forgotten all about it and is busy playing with the box it came in.)

Has anyone noticed that no one ever gives Thanksgiving gifts (even though, in a way, it would seem to go naturally with the theme of that day) or, usually, even sends Thanksgiving cards? Attempts have been made to promote gift-giving and card exchange for Thanksgiving, but they have mostly fallen flat. Apparently, the prospect of good food and good fellowship are enough for most people. What if there were a change in our culture such that something similar happened at Christmas?

I’m not necessarily arguing for a culture of radical frugality. I am well aware that retailers make about half their yearly revenue in the Christmas shopping season. There are still small mom-and-pop businesses whose owners sit up at night wondering if they will last for another year or even make payroll this month, to support their families and contribute to the local economy, and I have no wish to see them go under. And even in the large retail chains, there are people reporting to work for their $9 an hour jobs for whom this is their only prospect of employment and their only chance to buy anything at all for their own kids or even pay the bills.

The point of Christmas as it exists now, sadly, is that one experiences either wild relief that he is not impoverished and humiliated, or equally wild despair that he is.

Still, I’m not out to persuade people to stop shopping. I do wonder, though, what it would be like if our culture changed so that the crowds at Black Friday were there to snap up the most popular toys—but for the purpose of donating them to the local orphanage—where clothes flew off the rack at stores, but so that you could give a sweater or a pair of slippers to your elderly neighbor or give new sneakers to the kids down the block whose parents were unemployed. What if each person wished only for a token gift for himself—some note paper, or a paperback book, or a CD—but was really excited by the prospect of how much he could buy for others who had no prospect of reciprocating?

Of course I know that even wise parents, not caught up in the mad rush for the latest fad toy, get a good deal of genuine pleasure in giving to their own children for Christmas. My parents would sit up until 2 a.m. wrapping many more gifts for my brothers and me than they could afford and give each other perhaps two small gifts apiece.

On the other hand, I’ll never forget when I took my daughter along—again, she was 2 at the time—while I put a frayed dress shirt in the Goodwill repository and told her I was giving a shirt to the poor people because that was what God wanted us to do. She beamed and gave me a big hug, and the next time a guest entered our house, she blurted out “Daddy gave a shirt to the poor people!” I still wonder if it isn't possible to generalize such a reaction throughout our society. Sales need not fall or cash registers stop ringing, but I can’t help but think there would be a subtly different flavor in a line full of people with their shopping carts piled high, most of whom were standing there to buy one or two things for themselves and the rest of their huge pile of goods for those who had nothing. I think it would really start deserving the name of “Christmas” shopping once more.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Notable birthdays on St. Andrew's Day

Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables books, were all born on this date—Churchill and Montgomery on the very same day, in 1874. As one gets older, he may be uncomfortably reminded of these lines from "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift," written in 1731:
"Plies you with stories o'er and o'er
He told them fifty times before
How does he think that we can sit
To hear his out of fashion wit?

"But he takes up with younger folks
Who, for his wine, will bear his jokes
Faith, he must make his stories shorter
Or change his comrades once a quarter!"

When I was a boy, my mother read Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer aloud to my brothers and me, chapter by chapter. Later, at 13, I read Huckleberry Finn and Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and was very taken by both, though too young at the time to fully understand Twain's satire on the King and the Duke in Huck Finn. Years later, to my surprise, I learned that Connecticut Yankee was the first exposure to Arthurian lore for the young C.S. Lewis, whose outlook was about as incompatible with Twain's as it was possible to be. Just as improbably, Twain and his wife, Livy, turn out to have been very good friends with the Scots Christian mystic and author George MacDonald, author of Phantastes, which Lewis credited with having quickened the whole supernatural world to him as a young man.

Twain thought little of the young Churchill and his imperialist enthusiasms; another who took a similarly unenthusiastic view was American actress Ethel Barrymore, 5 years Churchill's junior, who refused his courtship with the observation that she could not tell that he would ever amount to anything. Tellingly, the woman Churchill eventually married, Clementine Hozier, was another statuesque beauty whose appearance strongly reminded others of Barrymore.

Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote the Anne of Green Gables books with an uplifting message though, sadly, Montgomery herself suffered from severe depression, and it is possible that her death in 1942 was actually a suicide instead of death from heart disease, was was officially reported. In a final improbability, Montgomery seems to have modeled the face of her heroine on a photograph of a "Gibson girl," New York ingenue Evelyn Nesbit, the sometime mistress of famous architect Stanford White; when White was shot to death in 1906 by Nesbit's madly jealous husband, Harry K. Thaw, Nesbit became a star witness in Thaw's sensational murder trial.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The real spirit of Thanksgiving as practiced in the land of plenty

Taken near my apartment just now.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Muslim to fit western tastes?

I'm not sure if Boeing wanted to reassure western travelers that Muslims were not only safe, but glamorous, just like our own best images of ourselves; or to suggest to Muslims that flying Boeing's new 747-8 Intercontinental would make them glamorous (and, thus, less likely to be summarily removed from airline flights, like poor Irum Abbasi), but from anything I think I know about Muslims, Boeing has laid an egg with the photo in their new ad campaign.

What in Allah's name were they thinking of? Muslim women don't wear the hijab gaping oh-so-slightly open to reveal a tantalizing hint of hair, and no self-respecting Muslim woman would be caught dead in a pose that suggested that (a) she was intrigued by the non-believing male behind her and that (b) she was perhaps subsconsciously inclined to loosen the hijab just a little bit more, to attract his notice.

Are these people cracked? Do they think they are in some way doing Muslims a favor by portraying them this way? I for one tend to take a pretty dim view of the way Islam affects women, but aside from that, chastity seems to be something that the advertising industry just doesn't get.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Absolutely, positively, pointless

For years, employment at FedEx was the technical writer's dream. It was like lifetime employment at the Postal Service, but with self-respect and an aura of glamour. I did a contract stint there in '87, helped edit their Line Haul Ops manuals for an FAA Audit, wrote policies and procedures for their Information and Telecommunications Division, and actually met Fred Smith; I wanted to get on permanently, but that was the year of the stock market crash, and they imposed a hiring freeze.

It's a fine company that enjoys well-deserved success, but like any large corporation, suffers from a large volume of communication that appears to have been written by a nervous mid-level manager, struggling to inflate his words to sound important and with an anxious eye cast over his shoulder at the Vice-President who might be reading it. This morning, a job ad apparently written by one such manager appeared in my e-mail inbox, titled "Project Management Principle." (In this case, it's supposed to be Principal, meaning "the chief person involved.")

It begins by telling me what everyone knows: that FedEx is a dynamic and growing company. It continues with the following glut of pointless and misleading verbiage as to what a project management "Principle" does:
This position is part of the Corporate Initiatives Program Management team. The team supports strategic programs of FedEx Corporation by facilitating and executing on programs that are critical to the long term success of the Corporation. The position supports the implementation of Project Renewal across the operating companies and Services by facilitating various work- streams, creating and implementing departmental program management processes, tools and techniques. Leads projects to enable realization of benefits for the programs, ensures best practices are used, and provides visibility to senior management on the current status of programs. Provides mentoring for the development of those in less senior positions.
Position Information:

Translation: The Corporate Initiatives Program Management Team manages projects, ensuring good results by using best practices and mentoring less-senior employees.

If a member of this team ever joins the ranks of the unemployed and becomes desperate, instead of standing at an interstate ramp with a sign that says "Homeless and hungry, please help, God bless you," it may say something like this:
The bearer of this display is part of a growing constituency of American stakeholders seeking to restore equity and maximize individual well-being by soliciting targeted placement of discrete amounts of capital, with the goal of leveraging such voluntary disbursements to realize enhanced synergies with the market economy and move toward full parity with other stakeholders. Investors are invited to review opportunities in this sector and consider what commitment level will most effectively align their own goals with those of this segment of the economy.

For now, at least, the writer of the job description is still employed, and he finally gets around to saying what this position actually is, and does:
Responsible for assigning security and creating profiles for new users in Primavera P6. Maintaining P6 Global dictionaries and administrating services. Maintaining P6 P6 Documentation, with the assistance of IT Technical writers, including but limited to, Configuration documentation, Oracle services agreement, and External interface documentation. Responsibilities will also include development and adherence to, P6 standard administration guidelines and change control process. Responsible for development and use of reports to assist administration activities. Responsible for verifying data population and interface operation to ensure data integrity, trough reporting and error logging software. Will provide a single point of contact with IT support personnel and a primary point contact to all Renewal Purple Core users.

Translation: sets up users to use a software package called Primavera, assigning passwords, creating user profiles, etc. Works with tech writers to make sure Primavera-related terms are clearly defined and written down somewhere, so they can be explained to anyone who needs to know, and that instructions for using the software are available. Keeps tabs on how many people are using the system. Keeps the system running through (not trough) staying on top of other software that flags errors and problems. Acts as the go-to person for Primavera for the rest of the computer division and key business users.

In other words: it's not a Project Management Principle (or Principal) position at all, or even a tech writing position: it's basically an administrative position of the type that, had computers been more widely used in my dad's day, might have been done by someone who had had 2 years at community college.

And the qualifications for this job include...? You probably know already. "Master's degree preferred." Absolutely, positively, unnecessary.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Mission accomplished?

I love my country and want to see it reclaim its former greatness, which is why I grieve to see how far wrong we went in response to 9/11. On that day, the whole world was with us. In response to the events of that day, our then-President urged everyone to go out and shop, insisted on finding a non-existent link between 9/11 and Saddam, initiated a war in Iraq that eventually brought Al Qaeda to Iraq where it had not been previously, bungled the chance to capture Osama at Tora Bora, eventually involved us in two wars which he refused to raise taxes to fund, squandered our entire budget surplus, illegally bypassed his government's own FISA courts to engage in warrantless wiretapping on American citizens, countenanced waterboarding, a practice for which we had court-martialed American officers in the Phillippines War of 1900 and had hanged Japanese officers as war criminals after WWII; and, finally, multiplied a security state apparatus so that the many agencies, and the number of people holding top secret clearances, are larger than Al Qaeda itself, while airline passengers submit to invasions of their personal dignity that would have outraged the Founding Fathers.

All this happened, in part, because the Bush Administration could not be bothered to pay attention to warnings about Al Qaeda in intelligence briefings (and even a warning of the risk of attacks on tall buildings via airplane) before the event and even allowed some of the 9/11 hijackers to board flights, although they were listed on "no fly" lists, because government personnel didn't check the lists.

We fought two wars not only without paying for them but without reinstituting a draft, staffing the whole endeavor by sending family men and women from the National Guard and blue-collar kids who saw this as their only chance to get a college degree. We sent them into Iraq without adequately reinforced vehicles or adequate body armor, sending them home as shattered wrecks while the government sought to cut veterans' benefits and had to dismiss the commandant of its own Walter Reed Medical Center over the scandal of poor care. We sent enlistees into multiple tours of duty through "stop loss" orders. Our military is overstretched, while the recently departed Secretary of Defense had to fight his own bureaucracy to cancel ridiculously expensive weapons systems that didn't even work, and a quarter of the money spent on military contracts for the past 10 years turns out to have been wasted.

Today, we no longer have the respect of the world. It hesitates to follow us on military undertakings, doubts the continuing soundness of our currency as a worldwide reserve currency, looks on aghast as a small faction of yahoos and know-nothings holds the United States Congress hostage, resisting the control of its own party leadership and all but bringing government to a halt over the issue of raising the debt ceiling, which had already happened 87 times since World War II (mostly under Republican administrations!). The country we delivered from Saddam is now moving steadily into the orbit of Iran, while in Afghanistan, soldiers of that country's army are deserting in droves. Meanwhile, the world beats a path to China's door to seek its friendship, while fewer people in the United States are employed than were in the work force on 9/11, middle-class wages have actually decreased, in real terms, since 1970, and Warren Buffett pays less in taxes than does his secretary.

Is this why people died on 9/11? So that we could present a face to the world as a once-great country steadily being ruined by clowns and thugs, bankrupt of principles and proudly indifferent to ideas?

We elected a man 3 years ago as leader of the free world who seems, in retrospect, to have been chiefly interested in showing how balanced and adult he was. He inanely proclaimed that his advent would mark the moment when the rise of the oceans began to decrease, but had to go to the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change empty-handed. He personally traveled to Europe to seek the endorsement of Chicago for the Olympics, but faced with toxic, hostage-taking political tactics from his opposition, he continually gives in. His self-esteem is perhaps intact, but he is not functioning as a leader, and more's the pity, considering his high intelligence. Meanwhile, among the most intelligent candidates for his office from the opposition, all but one had affirmed a monumentally stupid pledge to refuse a budget arrangement that would have included only a dollar in tax increases for nine dollars in reductions. One of his most likely opponents governs a state where the largest segment of workers holds minimum wage jobs and touts this as an economic miracle, and denies that climate science is settled, while wildfires rage unchecked throughout his state, the worst in recorded history, exacerbated by conditions whose origin he refuses to acknowledge.

This is not the America I grew up in. We are badly in need of a course correction. We need to recognize that actions (including the actions of man toward the environment) have consequences, that wars must be paid for, that social burdens should be shared, that the debt ceiling is merely the way we pay for programs that have *already* been passed, and not a new referendum on them, that the way to fight terrorism is not through an undeclared "war" against no sovereign state with no boundaries and no foreseeable end, that turns our nation into a "security state" that would not seem unfamiliar to residents of constitutionally oppressive regimes and that has government agents forcing women to remove breast prostheses and adult diapers at airports; that our crumbling infrastructure of roads, bridges, and tunnels is a national danger and a scandal in the rest of the developed world; that we spend twice as much per capita as the rest of the developed world on medical care while having health outcomes that lag behind theirs, and that we rank 44th in the world, behind Turkey, in public acceptance of biological evolution, while candidates for the office of President feel obligated to show up at a venue like Saddleback Church and prove their good character to the likes of Rick Warren.

Have we lost our minds?

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Promise is not performance

What is the point of staking your business's reputation on something that, in the nature of the case, you can't possibly control?

I am thinking of the new billboard ad for Kroger that promises "faster checkout," as well as the ad for Walgreen's that I just heard on AOL Radio saying that a customer went to Walgreen's and "with no lines, he was in and out in a flash." (Never mind that that seems to imply that people have stopped shopping there, which is one of the only reasons that there would be no lines.)

I have shopped at both Walgreen's and Kroger for over 35 years now, and speed is not among the virtues of either. Indeed, as I have pointed out to a Walgreen's manager, it is my experience that, even if I am there at 2:00 in the morning and with no other customers in the store, I will have to wait. Walgreen's clerks dawdle, and it seems to make little or no difference how much or how little customer traffic there is at a given hour.

I won't say that Kroger cashiers are *as* bad, but they aren't much better. Even when one of them tries his or her best, the store's equipment may malfunction; the cashier who checked out my entire order this past Sunday had to call another employee to help her figure out why the scanner would handle everything but the bunch of bananas I was trying to buy.

(Sadly, those aren't the only issues. As long as their shelves are fully stocked, all is well, but ask for a product that you normally buy there that you couldn't find on this visit, and you are wasting your time—indeed, in my observation, employees and management of both places seem bewildered and unaware of the product you are describing there to begin with, even when it is their store brand!)

If I were a Walgreen's or Kroger manager, I might, indeed, privately hand a token to two or three customers each day and tell them that if they weren't checked out in 5 minutes, their order would be free, and I would then use that as a tool to improve the quality of service. But even the very best business should expect, as a result of its success, to have more traffic, which means more and longer lines. For a business whose service isn't even very good to begin with, to advertise itself as though it offered better service than other places is absurd.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Chacun a son date

It's too intriguing not to look into, so I'll definitely log on to, a free dating site for bibliophiles, based on the idea that "you can tell a lot about a person by looking at his or her books" (well, more precisely, by asking someone to list the books that he or she has actually read). As I said to my son, a devout Eastern Orthodox Christian of a scholarly turn, "When you meet a woman, be sure to ask her how many volumes of the Church Fathers she's read, so she'll be in no doubt as to what kind of man she is dealing with." Fortunately, he's aware of my sense of humor.

My only caveat will be what I have already encountered: those who are well read also tend to be pro-choice absolutists and to assume that all conservatives are mentally deficient, which tends to make for brief conversations. Perhaps I'll be pleasantly surprised.

On the other hand, if someone started a site called, he would confer a tremendous benefit on those of us who stop reading dating ads at the point where the other says she likes "quite" evenings at home. brings Apple fans together, arguing that they match well because they "tend to have creative professions, a similar sense of style, and an appetite for technology." Yup, that's pretty much what I thought—I'll run the other way. matches lovers of pot. Nuff said. (I could start a site called matches virgins. I truly respect chastity and am disgusted by the lax modern ethos that seems to hold that reserving oneself for marriage is somehow morbid; as I said to one of my kids once, "There's only one first time." Having said that, something about this site's name and self-advertisement strikes me as being as creepy as the religious family therapist I heard once who suggested, quite sincerely, that a dad give his daughter a bouquet of flowers when she has her first period. I'm not kidding.

In any case, I too waited—until I found the wrong one (but then, so did she), whereupon I resolutely set to work. I am truly happy for those who wait and have their prudence rewarded in a blissful union with a truly compatible mate; I have to question whether focusing primarily on that criterion is likely to help seekers achieve that goal.

Honestly, after getting into the habit of rising at 4 a.m. to walk 3 miles before breakfast and recalling the appreciation that I silently extend to other similarly dedicated souls that I happen to see out walking or jogging at the same time, I'm rather inclined to start a site called Like the one about virginity, it would certainly disclose something important about those who responded.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

I should have stayed home and listened to the Brandenburg Concertos

We all have to make a living, but Liam Neeson's latest action thriller, Unknown, which I saw this evening, should really be titled "Forget It." Neeson is OK, I suppose, though Bruno Ganz was more interesting, and if cab drivers in Berlin look like Diane Kruger, I will definitely plan a visit and see if I can find one to give me a ride.

Basically, the film is The Bourne Identity for AARP members, and of course I'm glad to see Neeson, who is three months younger than I, proving that people our age can still kick butt over something more important than a parking space. Still, the basic existential issue here is whether a man our age can attract and hold the interest of January Jones, to which, alas, the answer is "Not unless you look like Jon Hamm—sorry." (Which reminds me: if Neeson's character had just spent his time doing what Barry Pepper did to January Jones in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, he wouldn't have bothered with car chases and knife fights.)

If you want to see two good films that amount to pretty much the same thing as this one, watch Roman Polanski's (yes, I know, but watch this anyway) 1988 film Frantic, with Harrison Ford and Emmanuelle Seigner, or the better-known The Fugitive, from 1993.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Mecca can wait

Life is a matter of choices, as every adult knows. You choose one thing and give up someting else. Safoorah Khan and the Obama Justice Department are having a hard time getting their heads around this. After just 9 months teaching middle school math, Ms. Khan wanted 19 days' leave to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Nothing wrong with doing her religious duty. Meanwhile, there is the small matter of the school kids who actually need a teacher, pilgrimage or no pilgrimage. Ms. Khan was refused her leave, resigned, and made the pilgrimage anyway. The Justice Department is suing on her behalf for religious discrimination.

I am one who welcomes attempts to incorporate peace-loving Muslim citizens into our national life. A Muslim may be your doctor, accountant, the engineer at a local plant, or the hard-working business analyst who occupied the cubicle across the aisle from me for several months. I am disgusted by yahoos who think all Muslims are secret agents of terror and want to harass and intimidate people who merely want to build secure and prosperous lives for themselves and their families in the United States.

Having said that, I wonder if 19 days of leave after only 9 months would have been expected by an adherent of any other religion: a Christian wanting to spend Easter week in the Holy Land, a Buddhist wanting to honor the Buddha at one of the venerable shrines of Japan or Cambodia, a Wiccan wanting to visit Stonehenge. I think not.

“This was a profoundly personal request by a person of faith," said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, who compared the case to protecting "the religious liberty that our forefathers came to this country for.” Thomas, please. It was a profoundly inconsiderate request by a person who can see only one side of her faith—a particular duty, which doesn't have to be performed in your first 9 months on a job—while overlooking the larger context of that faith, which includes a strong teaching on alms-giving and our duty to those in need. Which, for a schoolteacher, would include children. Funny that someone should overlook something so obvious.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Remember that thou art but mortal

Caesar died on this day in 44 BCE; Nicholas II of Russia, whose title, Czar, derived from Caesar's name, was forced to abdicate the same day 94 years ago. Both were gruesomely murdered, Caesar by those who feared both the man and his power; Nicholas and his family, by those who despised or perhaps even pitied the man but feared the use that powerful nations might make of him. The remains of Nicholas and his family have been exhumed and venerated; Caesar's mortal remains are immaterial to his legend. Caesar, like Madonna and Jackie, needs only one name to be immediately known; Nicholas briefly achieved nearly that degree of fame some years ago, with the publication of Robert K. Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra, later made into a film.

Caesar was about 6 years older, at the time of his death, than Nicholas at the time of his, though decades older in ruthlessness and cunning. Nicholas was too uxorious for his own good, while Caesar boldly displayed the masks of his first wife's Marian ancestors at her funeral though, like almost everything else he did, it was a calculated bid for power. Derided as "that boy in petticoats" by a scornful instructor when he was a military cadet, Caesar witnessed, firsthand, the savage conflict between the populist forces of his uncle, Gaius Marius, and Marius's opponent, one of the few men who matched or exceeded Caesar's own ruthlessness, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who ordered one of his men to bring him the teenaged Caesar's heart, when Caesar defied Sulla's order to divorce his wife. Like John F. Kennedy as a young man, Caesar was underestimated by many around him and thought a youth of slender promise.

Captured by pirates in his youth, Caesar charmed them with his charisma and ransomed himself but promised to find the pirate band and crucify them, which he did. As a young soldier, Caesar was entitled to an ovation whenever he entered the Senate, for having saved a Roman legion by his courage.

The men who murdered Czar Nicholas were those who would never have been admitted to his presence at all except on saints' days, while Caesar's murderers were led by a man of his own class and, indeed, possibly his own illegitimate son. Caesar and Brutus were both descended from the ancient Roman nobility, though neither family had seen a member occupy the consular chair for centuries. In America, it would be as if a Winthrop, having been elected President and reaching for unconstitutional powers, had been dispatched by a Cabot. The murder did not take place in the Capitol or, indeed, in the Forum at all, but in Pompey's Theatre, where Caesar fell, wounded, at the feet of a statue of his former partner and son-in-law, later rival. His wounds might not have been fatal but for the fact that his partisans fled, leaving their leader to bleed to death over a period of 2 hours on the floor. If he had sufficient presence of mind while dying, Caesar may have remembered the words whispered in the ears of every Roman conqueror in his triumphal parade, by a slave standing immediately behind him in his chariot, "Remember that thou art but mortal."

Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed a film adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in 1953, with an amazing cast that included James Mason, Sir John Gielgud, Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr, and a 29-year-old Marlon Brando as Marc Antony, as well as Alan Napier, later to achieve fame as Batman's butler, Alfred, in a cameo role as Cicero. The film's producer was John Houseman, who made every penny of the budget count, filming several scenes on the abandoned set of the 1951 epic, Quo Vadis, which had also featured Kerr. For the mob that alternately cries out for Brutus and then for Antony, Houseman had only a small group of extras, but he backed them up with a tape mixed of sounds that included a jet engine and the roar of a crowd at a Whitesox game. In one of his several entertaining memoirs, Houseman recalled walking the set on the day they were to film the scene of Caesar's triumph, and an assistant director, seeking to pump up the crowd of extras, cried, "OK, kids! It's hot! It's Rome! And here comes Caesar!"

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Girl, interrupted, by the Golden Horde

Alexandra Wallace, a student at UCLA, laments on YouTube© that she is dismayed by the multitude of Asians at her school. Whether at the sight of Asian students' large and attentive families coming around dormitories on weekends to cook, clean, and shop, or at the sound of the students themselves enthusiastically chattering on their cell phones in the library in their native tongues, either to catch up with friends or to discover whether their families survived the tsunami, Ms. Wallace considers herself aggrieved. Her Asian fellow students' library behavior is particularly annoying, she says, because they tend to interrupt her epiphanies.

Ms. Wallace certainly puts me in mind of a library in one respect, since her own natural endowments are at least as impressive as the twin volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary sitting on my shelf and don't even require the aid of the magnifying glass thoughtfully provided with the dictionary, to appreciate. I am at least as gratified to see the word "epiphany" occur in the unscripted conversation of a modern college student. And I certainly second her desire for silence in the temple of learning, believing, with Gibbon, that "Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius."

Ms. Wallace, who criticizes the Asians for not adopting "American manners" may not realize just how rare she is. She has apparently lived all 20 years or so of her admittedly brief life without being aware that loud, heedless discussions of purely private matters inflicted on bystanders in public places via cell phone are American manners. The poor Japanese, known for their alacrity in copying, and seeking to improve, the best of American inventions, may simply be trying to fit in. As for Ms. Wallace, perhaps she was raised among the Amish, though her speech doesn't suggest it and her mode of dress would indicate that if that is her origin, she seems to have discarded that group's dress code with abandon.

If Ms. Wallace has, indeed, lived this long and remained so little aware of real American manners as to find public cell phone conversations peculiarly Asian, she has certainly achieved a kind of distinction; indeed, it occurs to me to wonder if her obliviousness arises from having read a Zen text and become lost in contemplation of the Diamond Sutra or something. I too detest loud, public cell phone conversations though admittedly, hearing one in an oriental tongue would at least spare me the litany of "I was like...he was like...whatever, dude!"

Perhaps Ms. Wallace is like the woman I once worked with, some years ago, who went to Hong Kong for a week with her husband. When she returned, the rest of us asked her how she liked it. With a gesture of distaste, she said, "It was OK, I guess--but good God, all those Orientals!"

In any case, I must admit that I, too, have misgivings about Asians in libraries—they have an unsettling tendency to show up the rest of us.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 14, 2011

All things to all people, and nothing definite to anyone

In thinking about "Campaigning as All Things to All Republicans," the article about former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty's nascent Republican presidential candidacy in today's New York Times, one should be heartened, first, by the fact that it occurred to anyone at the Times to make a Biblical reference, even obliquely, by invoking a phrase from St. Paul's first Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 9, verse 22. Indeed, I imagine that the article was written by someone about my age, who may have been quizzed by a younger copy editor: "Interesting turn of phrase--where did you come up with it?"

Pawlenty is amiable and intelligent and is who I thought Senator McCain would choose before McCain began to demonstrate, rather embarrassingly, the truth of the adage that hope deferred makes the heart sick, and made some embarrassing choices.

Pawlenty's own choices this electoral season are not easy ones, though he should realize the extent to which he sounded a cautionary note for his own candidacy when he uttered this home truth:
“I think the people who get tossed around in this process are people who don’t have their compass set, who don’t have their feet firmly planted on the ground. And then they start to just grab for the wind and they flop around."


And granted that Pawlenty doesn't have a Michael Bloomberg fortune, his visits to New Hampshire were not thought experiments or philosophical exercises but, presumably, early tests of strategies to garner votes. Accordingly, as the Times tells us:
"At a recent Tea Party Patriots rally, he pronounced, 'The government’s too damn big!' To an evangelical audience, he declared, 'The Constitution was designed to protect people of faith from government, not to protect government from people of faith.' And to Republicans in New Hampshire, he closed with a gentle plea: 'Please leave with hope and optimism.'”

Nothing wrong with making potential supporters feel at home, I suppose. But I can't help but wonder if the estimable former governor might be on more solid ground—philosophically, at least—if he had something like the following to his respective constituencies:

To the Tea Party: "At some point, you need to make up your mind if you want the central government provided by the United States Constitution or the toothless mockery of national government that existed under the Articles of Confederation. The Founding Fathers understood the difference. Do you?"

To Evangelicals: "The first instrument of government in North America did, indeed, begin with the words 'In the name of God, amen.' It was the Mayflower Compact. It was sufficient to organize a small settlement in a day when men literally believed in witches; it was not a suitable foundation on which to build an entire nation made up of people of many widely varying beliefs. Our Constitution is a product of the age of the Enlightenment, not the age of Jonathan Edwards or Cotton Mather. It is important to know the difference and act on it."

To the New Hampshire Republicans: "Please leave with hope and optimism, but only after realizing that the only sound basis of such is to reject the know-nothingness that threatens to hijack the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt."

Now that would make for an interesting candidacy, even though, in today's political climate, it might well be over almost before it started. And then Mr. Pawlenty could go home and read Albert J. Beveridge's biography of John Marshall or Marshall's biography of Washington.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Listen, my children, and we shall sing, of the ignorance of Peter King

Is Deroy Murdock rehearsing for April Fool's Day? The National Review contributor called New York Republican Congressman Peter King a "modern Paul Revere" for his nonsensical and time-wasting hearings on Islamic radicalization. A closer description might be H.L. Mencken's memorial summation of William Jennings Bryan: "A charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without sense or dignity."

Never mind the fact that King has loudly defended Irish Republican Army terror in Northern Ireland and compared the slippery Gerry Adams to George Washington(!) Begosh and begorra, if the damn'd Mooslims would just hoist a glass or two and act as if they longed to return to auld sod, they might find a soft spot in the Congressman's heart and he'd forget the whole thing. But it at least makes you wonder how the man decides who his enemies are.

Does Islamic radicalism exist among some middle-class westerners and is it preached by some irresponsible imams? Yes and hell yes. Nothing has amazed and exasperated me more, in frequenting message boards and chat rooms peopled by atheists and agnostics, than to discover a certain type of skeptic of religion who, when he loudly objects to God, really means Christianity: Buddhism is enlightened, Hinduism is exotic, Taoism is nonjudgmental, and as to violent manifestations of Islam, well, who are we to judge—anyway, ever heard of the Crusades? As long as no one in their neighborhood is being beaten, stoned, or beheaded, they don't want to talk about it. That kind of two-facedness disgusts me.

Yes, there is Islamic radicalism, and I would say it has certainly shown its problematic face in Britain and other parts of Europe, though not so much here. (The Times Square bombing attempt, Ft. Hood shooting, and attempted "underwear bombing" were reprehensible incidents so far isolated, in the U.S.; in Britain, there is more of a trend.) King says that Eric Holder and Janet Napolitano lie awake nights worrying about it, and insofar as the nature of their assignments is to anticipate events and head off terror before it could happen, I don't blame them. When I worked at Memphis's City Hall and was in the anteroom of the Mayor's office one day, I was amazed at the fact that we were in the direct line of sight of any sniper wannabe who cared to park himself on the walkway to Mud Island, but it never occurred to me to try to get the Mayor to convene hearings on the risk of psychos posing as tourists. Holder and Napolitano have their quite valid concerns, which include wondering about the next Anwar Al-Awlaki or Nidal Malik Hasan, while King has his tawdry search for the limelight, which includes exploiting an aggrieved dad from Memphis who mourns for the son who became radicalized and is now dead. His grief for his son is as real as was the tragedy, but isolated instances do not make a trend, and King has shown nothing to prove otherwise.

Can a single Al-Awlaki exercise a dangerous influence? Certainly. Could 50 Al-Awlakis sow the seeds for hundreds of Fort Hood shootings? I have no doubt of it. Does King have any evidence that such vipers are being nurtured in American mosques? Thus far, as the Washington Post noted today, there is a large ratio of drama in his hearings to real substance.

Meanwhile, the likely effect of his hearings is to needlessly demonize the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who live peaceful productive lives in the United States and are as horrified by bombings, female genital mutilation, and the like, as you or I. Does King have facts and figures to show that the other kind of Muslim is somehow in the ascendant in our country? If so, let him cite them. If not, let him remember the lamentable example of a certain United States Senator of 50 years ago who went down to everlasting and richly deserved disgrace.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Forgetting Miss Daisy

Memphis's Victorian Village exists today mainly because one determined old woman was too stubborn to move out.

In the 1880s, Adams Avenue was known as "Millionaire's Row." James Columbus Neely, a wholesale grocer, bought an imposing pile at 652 Adams in 1883 for $45,000 and made it still more grand, adding a third storey, hand-painted wallpaper, faux wood grain on the cypress doors, and, later, Tiffany-inspired stained glass bought at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. His oldest daughter, Pearl, married a son of the former Mayor of Atlanta in the house in 1890, in front of 400 guests. A replica of Canova's sculpture "The Kiss," purchased by the Neelys, was so heavy that the parlor floor under it had to be reinforced by a brick column built in the basement. Neely lighted his parlor with some of Memphis's first electric lights and was buried from it when he died at 75 on the same day as Queen Victoria, in 1901.

His second daughter, Frances, known as Daisy, entered the house as a girl of 12 in 1883 and died upstairs in her half-tester bed 10 days before the first Apollo Moon landing in 1969. Too frail to ascend the steep stairs in her 80s, she had one of Memphis's first non-commercial elevators installed.

By the '20s, Memphis society no longer dwelt on Adams, some of whose houses stood vacant or were used as boarding houses or, in the case of one of the decaying mansions, as an art school. Daisy refused to leave the house where her parents had lived and died and from which she buried her own husband, Barton Lee Mallory, in 1938; the house where she had raised three children and where she lived with memories of her oldest son, Bill, a decorated soldier of the Second World War, who died a few days before the end of the conflict in an aviation accident. She had hired Annie Cartwright Bess as a nanny for her children in 1907; she moved Annie into the room next to hers when both were in old age.

Her uncle's equally imposing mansion next door, for which the Tennessee State Legislature and Supreme Court had suspended sessions to attend the housewarming, was torn down to make way for the Juvenile Court; stone dogs that once adorned the front steps still keep watch in front of the court building. Had Daisy moved out, as did her neighbors the Fontaines, around 1929, the house would have been sold and eventually demolished, to be replaced eventually by a housing project or a parking lot. But Daisy refused to leave. A local paper says of her that, participating in a fox hunt around 1897, she caught up to the fox, being mauled by the hounds, dismounted her horse, drove the dogs off, and cradled the dying fox in her arms as she rode back to rejoin the hunt. The same determination informed her treatment of the imposing old place where she had engaged in tableaux vivantes at the turn of the century and where her book club, inspired by an idea that occurred to her and her friends on a tennis court one day in 1895, had gathered to improve their minds.

She willed the house to the Daughters of the American Revolution, who first operated it as a museum in the 1970s, but its maintenance proved too much for their slender resources, and they sold it to the City of Memphis around 1987. The city operated it as a house museum, a nationally recognized example of the Italianate Gothic style and late Victorian decorative art (the carriage house behind the mansion contains a 1988 doctoral dissertation of 800 pages on nothing but the house and its contents).

I volunteered as a docent there in 2003 and 2004, after spending years taking my children there when they were small, to give them a sense of history. My daughter thought it was the natural fate of a house to become a museum after the death of its occupants and, when we went home, took me to her bedroom and showed me where she wanted the silk ropes placed a century from now.

The Fontaine House, two doors away, abandoned by the 1960s, was magnificently refurbished and is now operated by the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities. A mansion across the street from it, built as a wedding gift for a Fontaine daughter, is an upscale lounge. Up the street, the 1859 Greek Revival Pillow-McIntyre house contains law offices. Next door to the Fontaine House, the Goyer-Lee Mansion is the periodic beneficiary of enthusiastic corporate volunteers who spend a day refurbishing it and non-profit organizations who propose to develop it for community use, and those plans generally come to nothing.

Daisy's house was closed by the city in 2004 for lack of funding to maintain it, and its reopening is perpetually postponed. Following an agreement between the city and the federal government in 2005 to make all city facilities ADA-compliant, the house must await that necessary work, as well as $268,000 in repairs to the roof and refurbishing of a third of its 70 windows, at $4,000 apiece.

Meanwhile, if someone would only lend me a key, I would gladly go there on weekends and continue to give tours, as I once did.

If, as we read, the Pompeiian ruins are crumbling away from sheer neglect and the Renaissance palazzos of Venice are sinking into the sea, one must be philsophical about the deterioration of a single house not 200 years old; if, as a friend assured me yesterday, a part of our city's continuing financial troubles is the fact that city employees received no raises for 3 years, we must rate the urgent needs of the present over the stained glass and hand-stencilled wallpaper of those long dead.

Still, the likes of the Mallory-Neely house is something we can ill-afford to lose. More than faded wallpaper and forgotten fashions, such houses are a link to an era, the understanding of which is moving away from us as rapidly as galaxies recede from each other while the universe forever expands. In these houses, the telephone was kept in a closet and answered by the butler; bathrooms were a luxurious innovation that no one was ever seen entering because they were concealed in small hallways; husbands and wives slept in adjoining rooms and "kept each other company" by invitation and agreement; the disposition of a visiting card spoke volumes, eloquent in their silence. Men welcomed the discharge of factory smoke as the harbinger of a modern age and studied new and more advanced weapons as devices to forever keep barbarism at bay. A single financier saved the United States from catastrophe in the panic of 1903, and more modern thinkers who proudly called themselves "Progressives" fervently hoped that the 20th century would herald a new era of peace and prosperity.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Numbered and swiped

My e-mail brings me an offer of a photo-personalized check card from my bank. If it makes it easier to retrieve it in case of loss, well and good; my father's first Mastercard©, issued in the 1970s, bore his photo for identification.

But that does not seem to be all my bank means; because businesses are reduced, nowadays, to proffering a degree of fulsome flattery to John and Jane Doe that, one hopes, would have embarrassed the vainest Renaissance cardinal, I understand that my bank intends to convey the promise of a sort of apotheosis in this life if I consent to adorn my check card with my 58-year-old face. "Show off your image every time you make a purchase!" it says, encouragingly. Frankly, I can think of purchasing some personal necessaries where a public display would not be the first thing I would want, rather like asking the clerk at the drug store for the restroom key and then listening to her announce over the store's public address system, "Restroom key to register 1!"

Offers like this tempt me to use a photo in which my back is turned to the camera or, better yet, I am lying in a casket. What, I wondered, would the Man in the Iron Mask, or Young Goodman Brown, or the Lone Ranger have made of this? Life is a balance of self-disclosure and private reserve; the second seems to be vanishing away.

But even before I thought of the mischievous photo possibilities, I considered the e-mail in the light of interpreting the offer quite literally: your check card is your personality; that is, we are reduced, for purposes of modern living, to the status of a piece of plastic, so thin as to be barely 3-dimensional, bearing a stripe (and not the healing sort) that contains all the information about us that anyone feels he needs to know, numbered, security-coded, and capable of enduring a confirming swipe between two restraining metal lips, that confirms our identity and give us leave to function another day, until our expiration date. All else is ephemera. And perhaps that's why, as the canny bank marketers anticipate, we need to compensate by posting our faces on these pieces of plastic, to reassure ourselves and all others that we are in fact more than the light and disposable tokens to which we seem to have been reduced.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

February 27, 1926

My grandparents, Rayford and Phoebe Huggins, were married on this day in 1926. He was 19; she was 17. Rayford was two hours late for the wedding, having forgotten the appointment while shooting pool with friends. Phoebe sat crying in her wedding dress, while customers of the lunch counter her parents ran out of their home on Mallory Avenue in South Memphis jeered at her and told her to change, because her groom would never show. Eventually, there was a knock on the door and Rayford stood there sheepishly, with his hands in his pockets and the question, "Well, do you still feel like getting married?"

They were together 61 years, until his death two days after Christmas, 1987. They raised three boys and had 6 grandchildren, but many more became their "children" through the concern they showed to the unfortunate. Papaw was a carpenter, while Phoebe was a Pentecostal preacher. Neither of them had more than an 8th grade education, but each had plenty of practical wisdom. Those who were down on their luck found a temporary home at Phoebe and Papaw's house, and many received gifts of food, clothing, and other help from them.

Temperamentally, they were quite different. Phoebe was a firecracker, and if you happened to differ with her on any point of scripture, she would preach a summary of the whole Bible to you right then and there, from Genesis through Revelations. Papaw sat quietly in his armchair and smoked his pipe. Phoebe didn't care much for his pipe (which he eventually gave up) but once, trying to be helpful, she washed all his pipes in dishwater and proudly presented his "cleaned" pipes to him when he came home from work.

Other surprises were even less convenient. Tired of urging him to remodel their kitchen, she simply tore out the back wall of the house one day while he was at work, and when he came home that night and entered the kitchen, he found himself looking into his own back yard. The kitchen was redone in short order.

They kept working into old age and were still accepting house painting jobs into their 70s. A ladder collapsed out from under Papaw and he took even this in stride, maintaining his balance and landing on his feet, unhurt. Phoebe and I climbed the steps of a fire ranger's observation tower once, when she was 65 and I was 21. I was the one who was out of breath; when I reached the top, she was standing there happily chatting with the ranger.

She frequented a senior citizens' center in her 70s, though not as a customer, but as a volunteer. It never occured to her that she was supposed to be elderly. I asked her once if they were coming to Memphis for Thanksgiving (they had moved to Heber Springs) and she said "Honey, I'd like to, but if I don't stay here, there's be no one to pay attention to the poor old senior citizens, so I need to stay and help."

After Papaw's death, Phoebe lingered until January 14, 1996, and would have lived longer but for a tumor that she purposely left untreated because she felt it showed a lack of faith in God to seek medical help. She let herself be taken to a hospital exactly once in her life (her three sons were delivered at home by midwives); about 3 months before her death, at 87, she was a patient for a couple of days at Methodist Hospital North. She couldn't get it through her head that she was supposed to lie quietly and let herself be cared for; she was constantly up and about, trying to help the nurses take care of others. Shortly, the staff realized that she couldn't be made to fit any model of convalescence they knew of and released her.

She saved everything and died still having among her possessions a paper container of peanuts and candy from my parents' wedding in 1951, the dress she had worn to their wedding, her diaries from the 1950s, and a parents' day program from Cummings School in 1940.

In 1958, she had bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder and left behind many recordings of family evenings including singalongs. My brother Tim found a machine of that type on eBay 10 years ago and made 2 CDs of family performances, for which I supplied names and dates. Today, I can hear Phoebe and Papaw, along with their three sons--my dad and his two brothers--and my great-grandmother, Amy Huggins, singing "If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again," recorded one night in 1966, as well as my own voice at age 5, sounding like Alfalfa on "The Little Rascals," singing "Put Your Hand Into the Hand of God," and my brother David learning to talk. I can hear Phoebe preaching and playing "Under the Double Eagle" on her accordion. I can hear Phoebe and Papaw singing "When He Reached Down His Hand for Me." I can remember them driving my brothers and me to the little one-room church they pastored in St. Francis County, Arkansas, in a converted 1940s ambulance, with nothing so unnecessary as a seat belt. I can taste the salt pork that Phoebe would fry for breakfast and the pork neckbones that she prepared for supper.

Above all, I can hear her saying about some scoundrel, "He meant well." After their deaths, this became a standing joke in our family, and to this day, if we reflect on someone whose behavior seems particularly discreditable, someone will chime in with "Well, he meant well."

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Theodicy and the Epicurean Paradox

The "Epicurean Paradox" is expressed in these words:
"Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?"

I posted the following last summer to an online message board in which another poster asked if anyone had a response to this argument:
I doubt that there could be one that is compelling.

Certainly, we should stipulate that if there were a God, by which we mean a Being of Infinite Wisdom (or at least much smarter than us) and given that we can't know the reasons for everything, it would be logically possible for God to commit acts or allow them that looked monstrous to us but that turned out, unknown to us, to be justified.

If I were walking down the street with small children and saw someone who, unknown to to the children, had a partly concealed weapon, and if I could know the person was about to assault us with deadly force, and if I attacked the other person instead and killed him, the children might well think they had witnessed an unprovoked and monstrous attack on an innocent bystander, but they would be mistaken.

Having said all that—which I suppose must be the best one can say for such an argument—it remains true that the gap between the supposedly benevolent and omnipotent God and the world we see, is simply too great for us to rest an attribution of justice and power to Him on anything but blind faith.

Someone has mentioned C.S. Lewis, whom I respect as an able reasoner on some questions, and Alvin Plantinga, a Christian philosopher whom, as I understand, many professional philosophers take very seriously indeed, including some who are atheists and agnostics. I feel that I owe it to myself to read Plantinga at some point, though I haven't done so yet.

Plantinga and Lewis argue along the lines of saying that the world we have may be the best that any power could have created, if we were to have anything but a fantasy world that changed at any moment. Lewis develops this at some length in his The Problem of Pain. The same firmness that makes wood suitable for building a house, he says, also means I can use it as a club to bludgeon my neighbor. If God took it upon himself to suddenly make the wood harmless if used for assault, He may as well go the whole way and make my mind so that it could not frame such an intention to begin with, but then, we would not be human.

All that is very well, as far as it goes, but it strikes me as odd, for people so concerned to stress human free will as a constraint on God (not to mention that invoking human free will still doesn't answer the issue of why there are earthquakes, floods, and plagues), that it never seems to occur to them to wonder why God would not have offered everyone the courtesy of the ultimate in "free will"—asking them if they cared to be incarnated into such a world in the first place.

It is not impossible to imagine a Deity creating conscious but disembodied "souls" and making a speech to them something like the following:

"I will give you a very basic choice. You may remain as you are and know me through mental pleasures, contemplating my splendor and majesty through the ages, unchanged from what you are at this moment.

"Or you may elect to be placed in a world where you may experience hunger, pain, disease, or worse. There are too many variables even for me to make it the undifferentiatedly happy place I might wish. You may, it is true, be born with good genes, loving parents, in a good climate, in a comfortable household; you may find a loving mate, pursue a worthy career, beget loving children who are a credit to you, and die, after a long lifetime of illustrious achievement, mourned by all who know you.

"You may, on the other hand, be born into a place called Darfur, see your father cut down by outlaw militia, see your mother savagely used by the same people, watch your little brother die of starvation, and be sold into slavery.

"You may opt for one or the other, but if you choose the physical life, once you're in, you're in. There is no panic button to push that lets you out, and whatever hideous tortures, mental or physical, you may happen to suffer, you will do so knowing that you unfortunately happened to draw the short straw in a world that simply couldn't be made pleasant for everyone.

"Now choose."

Now if a Deity offered such a choice, however stern and extreme we might think it was, everyone would at least know what they were dealing with.

But the scenario I've just described doesn't really seem to appear in many forms of religious belief. Instead, we seem to be meant to assume that we had no choice but to be born into this world, but on the other hand, God can't interfere with our free will! Say again?

Lewis, to his credit, says in one of his books, that if God's justice is so unlike any notion we have of right and wrong that we can scarcely comprehend it, that the whole idea may as well be meaningless, and I think he has hit on the exact problem. Let's return for a moment to the pre-birth scenario and suppose that instead of offering the unborn Darfurian child a choice, God simply says:

"You will be born into starvation, conflict, disease, and misery, live a short life of pain, without dignity or freedom, and finally see your life snuffed out in a miserable and humiliating death. And you have no choice but to be born and go through this.

"Still, on the other side of this miserable interlude is an eternity of dwelling in my presence, in everlasting bliss, and even though your puny mind cannot understand why, the bliss would not have been possible without the intervening horror. I in my infinite wisdom know this, even though you never can or will."

Very well. Could any of us, if we had the power, say this in good conscience to any being? Even one?

The question answers itself. Logically, yes, everything I just said above could be supposed to be true, but the sheer impossibility of knowing it is true, reduces us as much to blind faith as we would be similarly reduced if some maniac locked us in his basement for years and abused us but assured us that it was all for the best. If the kind of faith required here is really necessary to believe in a good and powerful God, it robs us of our humanity as much as the putative loss of free will that occasions Lewis's and Plantinga's caveats about automatons.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Yes, Virginia, there is a Twitter© revolution

I appreciate The Economist sponsoring a debate on whether or not the internet is a net force for democracy. While that may seem too obvious seriously to question, one should not underestimate the malicious uses to which technolgy can be put if a repressive regime has sufficiently talented hackers in its employ. I posted the following to the debate discussion board:
Dear Sir,

It would be interesting to simulate a war game between an internet-equipped Lenin and Trotsky, on the one hand, and a similarly armed Pyotr Rachkovsky, on the other, to see who would win. Pessimists should doubtless be given their full due in this matter: in even not very sophisticated hands, the internet offers countless opportunities for malicious operators to discredit and disrupt forces of reform through planted posts, doctored e-mails and photos, and dishonest chat participants, not to mention more standard tactics such as denial of service attacks, stolen credit card and bank account numbers, and the like.

In the end, as I see it, this comes down to the old saying that the only way to get rid of alligators is to drain the swamp. The manifestation of the internet in modern life is such that the swamp can't be drained. Mubarak turned off the internet once; no one imagines that its proponents are idly sitting around hoping no one thinks to do so again. Safeguards are no doubt already being built. Technology experts polled by a journalist for the website Tech Republic for their views on Joe Lieberman's fantastic proposal to let an American President shut down the net responded that first, it probably couldn't be done and second, the net is so intricately connected with every aspect of modern life that if a western government tried it, the law of unintended consequences would exact its comical revenge.

The net, like Wordsworth's world, is too much with us and, absent a civilization-ending meteor strike, it will never be otherwise. It is true, certainly, that there are virulent pockets on the net even now who deny the holocaust and global warming, doubt our President's citizenship, insist on the deleterious effects of vaccines, and call for the relaxation of the age of consent for reprehensible reasons. Those diseased enclaves also will not go away, or will do so only to be replaced by other things equally as bad.

Having said that, the redoubtable Rachkovsky, were he back in operation, could recruit half the population to harass the other half, and he could still not, finally, overcome the fact that the net provides an unstoppable channel for any view of any description to become accepted worldwide, an opportunity limited only by the rhetorical skills of its advocates. Repression, grievous as it is, is like the Gulf oil spill; eventually, it is dissolved in the sheer volume of the medium in which it is suspended, and the oyster beds are found to have survived. This is no utopian hope but a simple reflection of the countless paths that cross online, and the myriad of opinions that travel them. Each has a hearer and an advocate; none can finally be silenced.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

And who is my brother?

I suspect that Alabama Governor Bob Bentley should discuss his religion in the way the Savior advised his followers to pray: in secret. He has told his fellow Christians what they already believed and thrown secular America into a panic, convinced that new Salem Witch Trials are just around the corner.

At a black church in Birmingham, the not-so-subtle Bob announced that those who did not profess faith in Christ were not his brothers and sisters and, from the reaction I'm seeing online, skeptics everywhere are ready to begin impeachment proceedings.

Everyone take a deep breath.

I'm a lot more alarmed, frankly, by reports that have come out of the Air Force Academy in the last few years about cadets being pressured to be "soldiers of Christ."

The governor's remarks took place, not in the legislative chamber, but in a church. Does he somehow forfeit the right to speak of his faith for no reason than that he holds public office?

The remarks seems to have been made in the course of a clumsy attempt to portray himself as more tolerant (racially). He wanted to make the point that color made no difference to him as to Christian brotherhood, but faith in Jesus did.

In the context of Christian theology, what he said was precisely correct. The sort of Christian who believes in the necessity of being "born again" reserves the terms "brother" and "sister" for those who also profess that experience; they are not meant as expressions of general approbation, as they are for much of society at large.

A poster on one message board speculated on what would have happened had a non-Christian said this, and I agree it's worth examining. If an Orthodox Jewish Mayor had stood in an Orthodox synagogue and said "Anyone who doesn't keep Kosher is not truly my fellow Jew," narrow-minded as that might have been, would anyone conclude from that, that the Mayor was about to impose Kosher dietary laws on the entire city or appoint only fellow Orthodox Jews to important posts?

If a Sunni Muslim city councilman stood in a mosque and said "Only my fellow Sunnis are true servants of the prophet; Shia is a perversion of the faith," would anyone believe he was proclaiming jihad in America?

This was a Christian, speaking in a church, using a term to which his kind of Christian attaches a very precise meaning. He specifically said that those who did not have faith in Jesus were not his brother and sister, meaning that in the theology of what he believes, the matter of their salvation is not settled as he believes his is. And are those of us who wouldn't care to join his club in the first place going to gripe because, though we have no interest in being born again, he doesn't speak of us as if we were?


© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?

Sherwin Nuland's 1994 book, How We Die, records the horrifying story of a young girl butchered on a street in Connecticut in front of her mother by a powerfully built psychotic who had somehow slipped through the cracks of the state's mental health system. Instances like this, the Virginia Tech murders, and, now, the tragedy in Tucson make everyone wonder, "But why doesn't someone do something about those people?"

This needn't imply a judgmental attitude toward those who commit violent acts. Mental illness is just that; several attempts were made on the life of Queen Victoria, but it was obvious that the shooters were insane and, though convicted of treason for attempts on the life of the monarch, they were not executed, even in that harsh age. Sarah Jane Moore, who missed the head of President Gerald Ford by just six inches when she fired at him in 1975, was similarly disturbed and apparently still is; as late as 2009, she said she was glad both that she had failed to kill the President and that she had tried. (Never mind the irony of her having been an FBI informant at the time of the attempt!)

It doesn't matter to the victims that, as an article in The New Republic points out, one's chances of being killed by the mentally ill in a given year are one in 14 million; if you are within range of Seung-Hui Cho in West Ambler Johnston Hall in Blacksburg, Virginia, on the morning of April 16, 2007, the rarity of your predicament is cold comfort. If you are the bereaved survivor of a victim, you are enraged.

My cousin lost his 13-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter to the rage and irrationality of a man who shot them and their mother to death one night 2 years ago; an enterprising reporter tracked down the man's former wife, who said that she had often urged him to seek counseling for the violent thoughts and fantasies that were a continuing part of his mental experience, but he had refused. State government was not aware of his problem and employed him as a park ranger; although it was not required for his work, he legally carried the gun with which he slaughtered his wife and stepchildren.

What should be done? States should look very seriously at adequate funding for mental health programs. As the article in The New Republic points out, some states, such as New York, are setting up structures of outpatient services, combined with assertive efforts to contact those who seem to be in need and encourage them to use the services.

Background checks for gun ownership should be more thorough. In the aftermath of the Tucson tragedy, background checks were sharply on the rise, and that's as it should be.

Public figures should be aware of the need for security in an age of increased risk and plan accordingly. It need not be oppressive or even very obvious; according to one article I read this week, no public figure has been killed in the United States since 1978, while pacifistic Sweden, ironically, has tragically lost two politicians to violence. We don't have to risk another absurd "Don't tase me, Bro!" episode simply to take reasonable steps to protect public servants.

What should not be done? Panic-based broadening of the criteria for commitment. It took 15 years of involuntary and unnecessary confinement of a man locked up in Florida with hardened criminals, subject to daily abuse, though he was no danger to anyone, to get the courts to erect a safe standard to preserve individual integrity in this matter. Not every oddball is a threat. A woman walked around Midtown Memphis for years, approaching strangers for bus fare and loudly cursing those who did not comply, but she was not dangerous. I encountered a man named George wandering the campus of the University of Memphis, wearing a turban, approaching guest lecturers and holding up a crystal to their faces that he claimed enabled him to read their thoughts, until the University forbade him to attend lectures any more. George fantasized that he was the confidant of the world's intelligence agencies and that every woman who smiled at him at a coffee counter was interested. Eventually, he blew his brains out for sheer loneliness. He needed help but was not a danger to anyone else.

If we had geniune psychics walking around like the ones that predicted murders about to happen in the film Minority Report of a few years ago, we could spot the potential Jared Lee Loughners and Seung-Hui Chos and take preventive action. Absent that capability, we can't, and we are at risk for targeting the merely eccentric and constructing a paranoid society so intrusive, so punitive, that it makes airport security groping seem inconsequential by comparison and forces everyone who is strikingly different in some way to hide behind a bland mask. It would have clapped Stonewall Jackson in a confinement ward after enough people noticed Jackson's eccentric tendency to march the streets of Lexington, Virginia with one arm continually raised high in the air to "align his organs." It would isolate the decidedly individualistic and anyone who didn't happen to fit a conventional frame of reference.

My late friend Charles was interviewed by a social worker in a child custody dispute. She spotted his Wild Turkey on the sideboard and his Sons of Confederate Veterans plaque; he voluntarily showed her the licensed pistol he kept in an upstairs closet, unloaded and with the safety on. She wrote up a report portraying him as a whiskey-guzzling, gun waving, yahoo who was a potential danger to his own son. That is one of the outcomes I fear.

I volunteered at a street mission once (to write operations manuals for them in their use of computers); the young man who showed me around later confided that "the Lord" had shown him that I had "put a curse on his head" and that he had to repel the demons. I don't want him locked up, and I don't care to be confined either, at the behest of his fervent fellow believers. I don't want to see mental warrants sworn out by spiteful family members or score-settling neighbors or co-workers. The system we have now is quite imperfect--Sarah Jane Moore had been vetted by the Secret Service before that fateful day in 1975 and labeled not dangerous--but so is the thinking that would have everyone peering into everyone else's hearts and minds in an inclination to see danger, not realizing the extent to which they were seeing the vagaries of their own minds.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A moment’s reflection

I agree with what Emerson wrote in his essay "Social Aims":
“It is an excellent custom of the Quakers, if only for a school of manners—the silent prayer before meals. It has the effect to stop mirth, and introduce a moment of reflection.”

That custom seems in danger of going the way of dinner table conversation and handwritten thank-you notes.

The skeptic may plead that he is aware of no definite Being to whom he could address anything like a prayer. I think something like the following should be suitable:
May we be grateful
For blessings that enrich us through no efforts of our own.
May we be mindful
Of those who spend each day in want through no fault of their own.
May we determine
To seek the good of all and not our private gain alone.
May we discover
Grace, wisdom, strength to aid us facing challenges unknown.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Death on a cold day

Chesterton once wrote that while everyone was seeking to accommodate themselves to the spirit of the age, most progress in history had occurred at the hands of men who refused to accommodate themselves to anything.

William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, died on this day in 1645, on Tower Hill by the headsman's axe, on orders of Parliament. He was 71 and so loathed that only his advanced age had spared him the gruesome evisceration that many wished to inflict on him.

Laud, with Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, had formed the chief support of the detested political and religious policies of Charles I, a painfully well-meaning man and one of the most egregiously unfit ever to occupy the English throne. Laud resisted the Puritans, the Tea Party of their day, suppressing unauthorized pamphlets and having their authors confined to the pillory with their ears sheared off. He walled off the east wall of churches to contain the altar and enforced bowing at the name of Jesus in the Anglican liturgy, as well as the wearing of the surplice. He and Strafford developed a policy they called “Thorough” for upholding the King's edicts that provoked howls of outrage in England and Ireland alike. Execrated by his opponents and laughed at behind his back by his royalist confrères—Queen Henrietta Maria saw him, accurately, as a fussy, pompous little man—he was unyielding in his determination to see things done as his judgment told him was best and wept while attempting to bestow a final benediction on his friend Strafford as the latter was being led to the block in 1641.

Laud was not a lovable man. Peevish, temperamental, self-important, impatient, suspicious—after a dinner party, he counted his silver spoons to make sure the guests had not stolen any—he was mocked even by the King's fool, Archie Moore, who quipped “All glory to God and little Laud to the devil.” His intolerance of opposition and his relentless insistence on a beautiful and orderly liturgy made him so hated that the first and only attempt to introduce his edition of the Book of Common Prayer into Scottish worship at St. Giles' Cathedral in 1637 provoked a riot. Macaulay, the paradigmatic Whig, objected to Laud's fate only because, as he put it, ignoring the deposed prelate would have been the best punishment that his Parliamentary foes could have inflicted on the “ridiculous old bigot.”

Typical of his imperious nature, Laud was a man of contradictions. He was Chancellor of Oxford, where he endowed a professorship of Arabic, but he expelled undergraduates and disciplined faculty who objected to his religious views. Detested as a crypto-Roman Catholic by thousands, he refused the offer of a cardinal's post from the Vatican if he would only convert.

Why remember him? Against all expectations, Laud, who had lived and died by the principle that a church that had “one Lord and one faith should speak with one heart and one mouth” influenced the course of his mother church more than he might have hoped or his enemies feared. Because of him, Anglicanism swerved neither to the right nor the left: it did not turn into a species of Presbyterianism with bare liturgical overtones or, on the other hand, a mere curiosity, a pale echo of the religion of Rome, a forlorn orphan pining for its parent. Anglicanism remained whole and complete, and echoes of Laud's standards and beliefs can be discerned in Anglican worship today; it descended even to the Episcopal Church of the new American nation when, following the Revolutionary War, the first bishop of the American Church, Samuel Seabury, had to be consecrated by Scottish bishops using Laud's prayerbook of 1637. English bishops could not consecrate an American, because their form of worship would have required a swearing of allegiance to the English King.

How ironic that a man so consumed with his own importance, so full of anger and peevishness, so capable of harshness and cruelty, should have been the means through which the spirit of his church was preserved! The Deity does, indeed, work in mysterious ways. Those contemporaries of Laud considered in his day to be among the lights of Christian piety—Lancelot Andrewes, George Herbert, William Juxon—are known today mostly to specialists of that period. Herbert's poems, beautiful as they are, are an assignment for graduate students in English. The figures of speech in Andrewes's sermons are sometimes ridiculously overdone, and his book of private devotions, valuable as it is, is seldom consulted. No one remembers any longer that it was Juxon who accompanied Charles I to his own appointment with the headsman on another January morning, 4 years after Laud's death, so cold that Charles wore two shirts so that onlookers would not think he was trembling from fear.

No, it was neither Herbert, nor Andrewes, nor Jeremy Taylor, nor even later luminaries like Thomas Ken who preserved Anglican worship as something worthy and distinct, but this cranky little man, nearly eaten alive with impatience that the world could not see things his way and that he could no longer whip it into conformity, forced to witness the gleeful dismantling of everything he had fought for, and finally crying out, in a sort of despairing faith, “Lord, I am coming to you as fast as I can,” as his contemptuous jailers came to lead him to the chopping block. In a final moment of uncharacteristic humility, he said this prayer, which is found today in the Book of Common Prayer. It is his best epitaph:
Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.