Archive for January 2010
A while ago, Wickersham’s Conscience was at Gulliver’s Books in College, Alaska to get Jack Coghill to sign my copy of his fine, new autobiography. Jack and WC go back a ways – at least by WC’s time scale – and while Wickersham’s Conscience and Jack Coghill disagree on a great many political issues, we get along well. (Unlike Wickersham’s Conscience, by the way, Jack Coghill actually knew James Wickersham.)
As Jack was signing WC’s book, Sean Parnell, Alaska’s Governor by Default, formerly Governor Lite, came in to the store. A mutual acquaintance introduced us, we shook hands and then Governor Parnell, clearly a man in a hurry, and cutting in front of at least 15 people, asked Jack Coghill if he could have a photo of the two of them. Parnell, had, of course, brought a photographer along.
Jack Coghill was a member of the Alaska Constitutional Convention (one of two surviving delegates). He’s been a territorial representative, a mayor, a state senator, a lieutenant governor, a father, grandfather and great-grandfather. He was active in politics long before Parnell’s parents met, possibly before they were born. He was a state senator before Parnell was born. He’s a walking history of the Territory and State of Alaska. He has donated his time to countless charities. But he is, above all, a consummate gentleman. He’s a man who has had far more than his share of tragedy, but is unfailingly cheerful and helpful. He’s a class act in a political party where class acts are an endangered species.
So he said yes, he’d agree to the photo, although in this hasty shot, taken with WC’s cell phone camera, his discomfort is fairly obvious. But he is trying to be courteous to someone who might be a little short on courtesy. A more polite, thoughtful and respectful politician might have contacted Jack Coghill privately, to see if a photo was alright, rather than cornering Jack in public. Especially for one of the senior most members of his party. But then, such a politician wouldn’t leave the chairmanship of the Alaska Senate Finance Committee to become a lobbyist for one of the big oil companies who are the primary taxpayers regulated by that Finance Committee. And while WC has a grudging admiration for Parnell for his decision to run against Don “Pottymouth” Young, WC notes he did so from the safety of the Lt. Governor’s seat, that he chose to do so when Young was at his most politically vulnerable, and still managed to lose.
Opportunism isn’t fatal in a politician, but it’s an unfortunate condition even so. Governor Parnell is likely too far advanced in his political career to develop manners, but we can hope.
We are getting slightly more light, so that something other than shutter speeds measured in seconds is at least possible. The bird selection is a little weak, but during a cold snap earlier this month there were at least Common Redpolls around. This little guy gave me a nice pose.
All birds have strategies for coping with the long, cold nights. Many are different. But they all share the ability to pileoerect, to puff themselves up like this. The photo shows the insulation is good enough to keep snow from melting on the tips of the feathers.
ABC News broke the story that the primary manufacturer of rifle sights for the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps has been putting biblical inscriptions in those sights. The inscriptions are only slightly encoded: “JN8:12″ refers to the Book of John, Chapter 8, verse 12: “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” In a rifle sight. Used to kill people.
WC is not particularly religious. But the hypocrisy of using the words of the Prince of Peace in night sights appalls him. Quite apart from the effect it must have on the countries we are trying to pacify, which are not Christian, and do not care to be. Inexcusable quasi-Christian arrogance. Why not simply volunteer to recruit more Muslims to al Qaeda? Why not donate money to the Taliban? No surprise here: some right wing bloggers can’t keep their eyes on the prize and applaud the scofflaws.
Let us now all bow our heads for Mark Twain’s “War Prayer“
O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it — for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.
Amen indeed, Mr. Clemens.
Sometimes I wonder if the advertising agents who dream up these slogans ever talk to the folks that actually deliver the services. It’s too much to hope that the ad agencies are developing a sense of irony. A case in point.
State Farm’s official tag is that “State Farm Will Always Be There for You.” The truth turns out to be a little different.
CK runs a nonprofit dog rescue service. She takes selected dogs from the pound – saving them from death – rehabs and trains them, and then places them with a family. All the dogs are neutered and spayed. Her house is surrounded by a six foot chain link fence. She had a simple homeowner’s policy. Some soulless actuary in Bloomington, Illinois, where the State Farm mothership is located, decided CK’s dogs were an unacceptable risk, and gave her notice of nonrenewal. Never mind that the dogs are spayed and neutered. That the home and dog yard are surrounded by a six foot chain link fence. After a great deal of work, and some significant support from her State Farm agent, she struck a compromise: State Farm would leave her fire, casualty and theft coverage in place, but only if she obtained a separate liability insurance policy from somewhere else. Not much of a compromise, contracting out of the risk that scared them, but a suggestion of responsiveness, anyway.
Wickersham’s Conscience wasn’t so lucky. WC’s spouse keeps educational birds, too injured to be released into the wild. She takes the birds to schools and other venues and teaches folks a little bit about them. The last few years, the birds have been owls, a Great Grey and a Great Horned. They live in a mew down the hill from the house. The State Farm actuary got loose on our property, too, and gave notice of nonrenewal of the umbrella policy because of the “unacceptable risks presented by these dangerous birds.”
WC wrote a couple of calm, reasonable letters to the Mothership, copying his local agent. WC pointed out he had a total of seven different policies at State Farm. And got a stony refusal by SF to even consider a change of position. Never mind that short of someone breaking into the mew and attacking a bird, it was impossible that these birds would hurt someone on our property. And the agent? Refused to return telephone calls, respond to letters, or even acknowledge the problem existed.
So WC voted with his wallet, and found coverage elsewhere. Even when WC’s new agent contacted the State Farm agent to cancel all seven policies, the State Farm agent did absolutely nothing. The annoying part is that the State Farm agent was someone I would have called a friend. He’s someone to whom I have paid tens of thousands of dollars in premiums over the course of more than 25 years. Another State Farm tag line, “Find out what a State Farm agent can do for you.” Heh.
The lesson from all this is that State Farm and it will always be there for you, ready to take your premiums. Anything else, not so much.
It remains cold here. Not the brutal cold that’s easily possible, but cold enough that it’s hard on the critters, including the birds. We had Gray Jays on our feeders this morning. Photography was difficult in the low light, even at high ISO, but this shot does capture one technique the species uses to keep warm: pileoerection. This guy was fluffed up to a ball shape. It makes this big-headed bird look a bit like a pinhead.
Gray Jays are famously adaptable, habituate to people well and are very successful scavengers. But the bird still looks cold to me.
Fundamentalist preacher and bigot Marion Gordon “Pat” Robertson has announced the tragedy in Haiti is the consequence of a pact between the Haitian slaves revolting against their French slavemasters and the Devil. This is the same pious demagogue who linked 9/11 and Katrina to the sins of the United States, characterizing them as “divine retribution.”
Some commenters have been able to laugh it off as the perverse ramblings of a loony old man. Lily Coyle’s amusing letter from Satan to Pat does a nice turn on C.S. Lewis. I’m not so ready to shrug it off.
First, Robertson has his history badly muddled. After the French Revolution in 1794, the 500,000 African slaves brought to Haiti were freed by decree. Not until 1802 did the new French Emperor Napoleon (not Napoleon III, his grandson, who wasn’t born yet) attempt to re-enslave them. Toussaint L’ouverture, a second generation slave whose master, Count de Breda, had educated him, led the slaves’ revolution. L’ouverture had read French enlightenment and revolutionary writers Mirabeau and Voltaire. The slave revolt was based on the values and ideals of the French revolution. Wrong French emperor, wrong chronology, and wrong motivation, my dear reverend.
Second, the myth of the “deal with the devil” seems to have originated with other slave owners, who were horrified at the idea of a slave revolt. Those slave owners included, of course, citizens of the slave states of our very own country. Those slave owners even successfully organized a boycott of Haiti, which helped plunge the country into poverty. Robertson is repeating the lies told by slavers for evidence of God’s hand.
Conspiracies by God against humanity are only a part of Marion’s problems. He wrote, in his New World Order at page 177, that a conspiracy has existed in the world working through Freemasonry and a secret Order of the Illuminati, a group combining Masons and Jewish Bankers. This is Hitler stuff. This is someone not taking their medications.
He’s a billionaire who pretends to modest means. He’s a child of privilege – the son of a powerful U.S. Senator – who apes commonness. He flunked the bar exam and entered the ministry as a second career choice. He spews this sort of vileness in a kind of unconscious, unthinking antithesis of Jesus’s teachings. False miracles and bogus prophecies follow him like a sulphurous cloud. His God is a hateful blackmailer. And yet True Believers still send money to this charlatan. It’s a free country – although it might not be if Pat had been elected president – but you have to shake your head.
But what bothers me most about this latter-day Elmer Gantry is his willingness to use human misery to his advantage. He uses disasters as marketing opportunities, finding in them God’s will and a way to inspire fear and increased donations from his followers. In that sense, he is no different than the parasites who try to trick you into donating money to bogus Haitian charitable relief scams. They, too, are trying to deceive you into giving them money. Despicable.
Ursula Le Guin is the daughter of Alfred Kroeber, an anthropologist, and Theodora Kroeber, a psychologist and writer. It’s easy and accurate to say that her parents’ interests inform her brilliant writing, and that cultural anthrpology and Jungian psychology are at the core of her writing. Those writings are too extensive for a single article; instead, I’ll focus on just one set of novels, the Earthsea Series.
The series opens with Wizard of Earthsea. It is a study in Jungian psychology. But the book isn’t a treatise. It’s a wonderful, well-told story of a young man, Ged, coming of age in a world where words can have the power of magic and dragons are as real as earthquakes. There is nothing didactic about this story; Le Guin’s writing is compelling and her characters are vivid: Ogion, the Mage of Silence, whose word had stilled an earthquake; Vetch, who helps Ged on a deadly quest for no reason but friendship; Murre, Vetch’s sister; Yevaud, the dragon of Pendor; and Skiorh, possessed by a gebbeth.
Earthsea doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Le Guin constructs a deep and textured history, and her characters act in ways that are consistent with that world. She manages the trick of writing a mythic tale without falling into the traps and foibles of sounding like you are trying.
The climax is straight from Carl Jung, but you don’t need to know Carl Jung from Steve Young to appreciate it. From time to time, religious groups call for this book to be banned from school libraries, claiming it promotes witchcraft. Nonsense. This is a book every teenager should read. It speaks to self-understanding, nothing more. And some feminists criticize Le Guin because Ged is a male character. Again, nonsense, Ged is an archetype, and his gender matters not at all.
The second book in the series is The Tombs of Atuan. Sparrowhawk, the protagonist of “Wizard of Earthsea,” the first book of the trilogy, is a secondary character here; important but not the focus. This is the story of Tenar, a young priestess at the Tombs of Atuan.
Earthsea has places where there are elder powers present. Readers of “Wizard of Earthsea” will have encountered one in the Terrenon. Tenar, as an infant, is given to the elder power of the Tombs. Her name is taken from her and she becomes Arha, “the eaten one.” She serves as a priestess to a nearly forgotten religion that treats the power of the Tombs as a god. But everything Tenar has been told is twice a lie; her religion is almost forgotten and the Power is anything but a god.
This is the story of how Tenar came to understand that her life, all of what she had been and most of what she believed was a lie. Le Guin makes it utterly convincing, in a spare, terse way that is stark and persuasive. Sparrowhawk plays a crucial role in all this, but he is not the protagonist. Sparrowhawk may have been the catalyst for Tenar’s changes, but like a catalyst he is mostly unchanged by the process. It is Tenar who is changed. This is Tenar’s tale.
Can you imagine how devastating it must have been for Tenar? How many of us could accept and understand that what we had been taught was evil or, worse still, utterly meaningless? Could you do as well if, say, Christianity were revealed to be an utter fraud? Le Guin makes it vivid. Any thoughtful reader is left in awe of Tenar’s strength and resilience. And in awe of Le Guin’s writing.
Le Guin’s third book, The Farthest Shore, is her most ambitious. Her thesis: you can only become whole by facing and accepting death, the darkest shadow. Lifted straight from Jungian psychology, this is the hardest and the important part of being whole. Sparrowhawk knows most of this truth already: remember the climax to Wizard of Earthsea. Arren, the young prince who accompanies Sparrowhawk on the epic voyages of this third book, has not yet learned this harsh lesson.
You don’t need to know anything about Carl Jung to read and enjoy this book. At one level, this is a children’s tale. But this book has many levels. Consider: the last king, Maharrion, had prophesied that there would be no king to succeed him until one appeared who had crossed the farthest shore. I’m not giving anything away by telling you that the farthest shore is physical – the western shore of the westernmost isle of Earthsea – and metaphysical – death. And readers of earlier books know that for the wizards of Earthsea, there is a low stone fence that separates the living from the dead.
There is another wizard – humiliated by a younger Sparrowhawk – who has both great power and a terror of death. And he has worked a spell that will devastate the world, by denying and avoiding death. But by denying death, he has denied life, and magic, song, joy, reason and even life are draining out of the world. That spell must be undone before it is too late. And that task falls to Sparrowhawk and Arren. Prince Arren must learn to understand and accept that death is necessary. Not just in the abstract but personally. He must cross that low stonewall with no hope of returning. He must cross the final shore.
This story has dragons, despair, joy, loss, discovery and marvelous surprises. Like all of the Earthsea books, it is sparely but beautifully told. The deepest of the first three books, it is an absolute joy. And for a thoughtful, reflecting reader, it might be even more. This is a book that can change a reader’s life.
The fourth book is the most difficult. Tehanu was written a 18 years after “The Farthest Shore.” Every character in it has suffered loss and tragedy; each must somehow move on. Because we have seen two of those characters as heroic, it makes a difficult read.
Tenar was the triumphant White Lady at the end of “The Tombs of Atuan.” When “Tenahu” starts, about 25 years later, she is a widowed farm wife who has suffered the death of two persons very important to her: first her husband, and then Ogion, the Mage of Silence.
Sparrowhawk returns from the events of “The Farthest Shore” and, despite his brave words, faces life after the loss of the power of magic that has defined him and made him the greatest archmage since Erreth-Akbe. And Tenahu herself, raped and maimed, burnt, discarded and scarred has even less trust and joy than Tenar and Sparrowhawk.
Le Guin tells that story of how these characters interact among themselves and with their few neighbors, and how they react when great danger from Sparrowhawk’s past threatens to destroy them. Unlike the first three novels, there is no magic here; or rather, the only magic is evil and is used to attack Sparrowhawk and Tenar, who are incapable of defending themselves. Only Tenahu, the mysterious and maimed one, can act. Will she? How can she?
This is as dark-toned a fantasy novel as you may find. Those who want swords and sorcery, fur jock straps or light sabers should go elsewhere. This is a minutely observed, carefully developed story of how you cope with loss, grief and helplessness. I think many of the very negative reviews here come from misplaced expectations. Le Guin had said this was the last Earthsea novel. Happily, she was wrong.
Eleven years after “Tehanu,” Le Guin published Tales of Earthsea. In this collection of short stories, Le Guin develops other themes and characters from the past and present of Earthsea. The tales are evocative, resonant and at once mythological and personal in tone. The reader will have an image of a Le Guin, with a larger volume in her lap, telling you the stories that catch her eye. You will sense there are many, many more stories to be told.
While it’s not required, you won’t thoroughly understand the references to the Ring of Erreth-Akbe unless you have read the earlier books. The last short story, “Dragonfly,” may bewilder you unless you have read “Tehanu.”
At the end of the stories, there is a summary of the peoples, languages and history of Earthsea, modelled loosely on the famous Appendices to “The Lord of the Rings.” I suppose the history consists of the stories that will never be told as novels or short stories, which is really too bad. The dry narrative of Erreth-Akbe, the greatest of Earthsea’s heros, would have made a wonderful tale.
I was struck by Le Guin’s subtle touches. The small cabin that was the summer home of Otter in the first tale, when the school of wizardry at Roke was founded, becomes the temporary home of Irian in the last story, which is set immediately following “The Farthest Shore.” Roke Knoll, which always reveals things to be what they truly are, plays a role in the first and last tales, too.
In her delightful foreword, Le Guin warns us, “Authors and wizards are not always to be trusted: nobody can explain a dragon.” Perhaps, but you can always trust Le Guin to entertain and enrich a thoughtful reader. And if anyone can satisfactorily explain a dragon, it would be Le Guin.
And in the final Earthsea novel (at least so far) The Other Wind, Le Guin does explain dragons. This novel is special. Have you ever read a book that was so well crafted that at the end of a chapter, instead of charging into the next one, you paused and reflected on what you have read? Have you ever read a book where you were at the edge of laughter and tears on the same page? You can with this novel. Le Guin has taken the loose ends of the four earlier Earthsea novels and short stories, combined those loose ends and your favorite characters from them with some serious thinking on the life and death, and created the finest Earthsea story to date.
Alder is a “mender,” a repairer of broken pots, a mere sorcerer, one who should never see the low wall that only wizards know, the wall that separates the living from the dead. Yet the wall and the dead torment his sleep. The dead call to him, asking to be set free and, most shockingly of all, his dead wife has kissed him across the wall of stones, something unknown in the history of Earthsea. The Patterner, one of the eight great wizards of Roke, the wizard’s isle, has sent Alder to Ged. And while Ged may have lost his power of wizardry and be done with doing, his heart goes out to the tormented young man. He counsels him, finds him a temporary solution to his nightmares, and sends him to Havnor, to the King Lebannen. For Ged thinks that Alder may herald a change for Earthsea, one even greater than those Ged wrought.
Alder meets other characters in his quest. Some are old friends of the reader: Tenar, from “The Tombs of Atuan” and “Tehanu;” Tehanu herself, who is somehow the daughter of Kalessin, the eldest dragon; Lebannen, the young king from “The Farthest Shore.” Some are acquaintances from “Tales from Earthsea,” most notably Irian, now Orm Irian. Others are new but no less wonderful: the young princess of the Kargish lands and, of course, Alder himself.
Le Guin takes these characters, lets them grow and age, shows us time’s marks upon them, and brings them into Alder’s life and Alder’s quest. And as Alder’s quest grows beyond himself, to involve the living and the dead, indeed all the souls of Earthsea, so does the book’s sense of wonder. Until, like Ged, in the moment just before the climax of the story, we will smile a little because like him we like that pause, “that fearful pause, the moment before things change.”
This is a masterly work, not just because of the clever use of characters or the wonderful plotting, but also because of the depth of the thinking that lies beyond and inside the story. It’s about even more than life or death; it’s also about the things we assume and take for granted because they have always been so, without ever asking if they are truly right. Alder’s love for his dead wife has the power to change the world. What’s no less wonderful is Le Guin’s power to move the reader, to challenge and provoke us.
The Earthsea series is among the finest fantasy written. Brilliantly developed, superbly written, powerful and subtle. If you read no other Le Guin, if you read no other fantasy, read this series. It’s that good.
Of all the silliness argued by opponents of President Obama, surely the silliest are the Birthers, those who claim he was born in Kenya and isn’t an American, and is therefore ineligible to be president. They’ve even offered a laughably clumsy forgery of his birth certificate as “proof.”
In a spirit of fellow inauthenticity, I now offer James Wickersham’s Kenyan birth certificate:
You can make your own. Just go to Kenyan Birth Certificate generator. Enjoy.
In an editorial titled, “How the House Bill Runs Over Grandma,” in Investor’s Business Daily, arguing against a U.S. national health care policy, the editor said,
People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.
Embarrassingly for the Daily, Dr. Hawking has lived his entire life in the U.K., is a professor at Oxford, and has nothing but praise for Britain’s National Health Service. The Daily was caught in an especially stupid lie. Yet the story still is quoted by the ill-informed as an argument against national health care.
Betsy McCaughey, former lieutenant governor of New York state, in an editorial in the New York Post, wrote
One troubling provision of the House bill compels seniors to submit to a counseling session every five years (and more often if they become sick or go into a nursing home) about alternatives for end-of-life care (House bill, p. 425-430).
Caribou Barbie famously seized on this claim, posting it on her Facebook account. Despite AARP, Politifact and many other neutral authorities rejecting the claim as a complete fabrication (Politifact gave it a “Pants on Fire” rating), Caribou Barbie and others continue to repeat it. The lie was repeated so often that the provision was eventually stripped from bill. This despite the provision providing the exact opposite of what McCaughey, Palin and Limbaugh claimed.
This propaganda technique is called “The Big Lie,” and it was named, oddly enough, by one Adolf Hitler, writing in Mein Kamp. He described it as “a lie so ‘colossal’ that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously”. He went on to say,
Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying. Mein Kamp, Chapter 10
The source alone probably tells you enough about the utterly unprincipled character of this fallacy. It is the refuge of the scoundrel, the poltroon and the fraud. Worse, it is poisonous in a democracy, which depends upon truthful free speech. Think for a moment about the terrible consequences of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy‘s use of The Big Lie, “I have in my hand a list of 205 known Communists in the U.S. Department of State.” He was never able to prove it, but he never had to prove it.
Those who use The Big Lie as an argument or part of an argument must be called out. But because of the effect of The Big Lie on listeners, it’s not enough to correct the misstatement. You also have to point out the use of a Big Lie, its roots and what it means. It won’t be an improper use of the ad hominem fallacy, because a Big Lie involves the credibility of the person uttering it. Insist upon facts. Insist on identifying the fallacy for what it is.
For about ten years, I’ve been trying to see a Yellow-billed Magpie. For folks who don’t live on the west coast, it’s a species endemic to the central valley of California. It’s supposed to be easy to find, but you couldn’t prove it by me.
I was in Sacramento for a memorial service this past weekend, and my brother and I snuck away for a bit of birding in North Natamos, along the American River Estuary and the Garden Highway. It’s a pretty amazing birding area, by the way. Finally, after 3.5 hours of pretty intense birding, we saw a long-tailed bird. A yellow bill? Yes! A lifer! Finally!
Oh look, another. Oh, there’s a couple more. Look, there’s a flock. Sixty plus Yellow-billed Magpies later, the shine had kind of worn off the thrill, but here’s documentary proof, shot with my 54mm lens and a 2.0 teleconverter from the top of the levee, cropped about 80%.
The bird gods do have their little jokes, don’t they?