Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Holmes

Just ordered. Sidney Paget was another great illustrator. A purchase place was hard to find online and the book is rather expensive but I'm very much looking forward to browsing through it. Michael Dirda in The Washington Post on this book:
Edited by the eminent English Sherlockian Nicholas Utechin, The Complete Paget Portfolio (Gasogene) showcases — in the words of its subtitle — “Every Sherlock Holmes Illustration by Sidney Paget Reproduced Directly from The Strand Magazine, Including the Surviving Original Artwork.”

These early depictions of Holmes are nearly as iconic as Dr. Watson’s accounts of his investigations. The lean face, aquiline nose, piercing eyes — all are here from the beginning. Sidney Paget reportedly modeled the detective after his brother Walter and a photograph of the latter, reproduced here, makes that a near certainty. As it happens, both Pagets were artists — I own an edition of “Robinson Crusoe” beautifully illustrated by Walter Paget — and Sidney apparently got the Holmes commission through a mix-up: The Strand initially wanted Walter to do the art.

If you were to ask members of any Sherlockian sodality — perhaps the Six Napoleons of Baltimore or Ellicott City, Md.’s Watson’s Tin Box — odds are the second-most popular choice would be the double-portrait, from “Silver Blaze,” in which Holmes, sporting a deerstalker and Inverness cape, talks with a bowler-hatted Watson in a roomy railway car. The winner, though, would be Paget’s depiction of the climactic moment, in “The Final Problem,” when Holmes grapples with Professor James Moriarty on a mountain path high above the swirling waters of the Reichenbach Falls.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

A different Tolkien

Upon discovering that one of the mystery authors who set their plots in Oxford was a grandson of JRR Tolkien I decided to read at least one of his books. The first in a series of three came this morning. From its flyleaf:
When a famed Oxford historian is found dead in his study one night, all the evidence points to his son, Stephen. About to be disinherited from the family fortune, Stephen has returned home after a long estrangement—and it happens to be the night his father is shot to death. When his fingerprints are found on the murder weapon, Stephen's guilt seems undeniable. But there were five other people in the manor house at the time, and as their stories slowly emerge—along with the revelation that the deceased man was involved in a deadly hunt for a priceless relic in Northern France at the end of World War II—the case begins to unravel.

Everyone has a motive, and no one is telling the truth.

Unwilling to sit by and watch the biased judge condemn Stephen to death, an aging police inspector decides to travel from England to France to find out what really happened in that small French village in 1945—and what artifact could be so valuable it would be worth killing for. ....
From two reviews of the book:
A deft combination of Agatha Christie manor-house whodunit, Erle Stanley Gardner courtroom drama, and Dan Brown thriller, The Inheritance is nonetheless unique to its creator. And Tolkien, with this compelling read, proves himself worthy—and then some—of his literary pedigree. Richmond Times-Dispatch

Display[s] a narrative skill that the author of The Lord of the Rings would surely have recognized and admired. The Philadelphia Inquirer
I think I'll take the book outside and find out whether it holds my attention.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Is civility a Christian virtue?

I think the question [of whether civility is a Christian virtue] hinges on whether “civility” is a useful shorthand proxy for a series of traits that certainly are Christian virtues: patience, forbearance, kindness, generosity, turning the other cheek, blessing those who spitefully use you, etc.
And it should incorporate those things.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Thy will be done



The entire prayer delivered by FDR on D-Day, June 6, 1944:
My Fellow Americans:

Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our Allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.

And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:

Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.

Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.

They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.

They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest — until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men's souls will be shaken with the violences of war.

For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and goodwill among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.

Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.

And for us at home — fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas, whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them — help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.

Many people have urged that I call the nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.

Give us strength, too — strength in our daily tasks, to redouble the contributions we make in the physical and the material support of our armed forces.

And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.

And, O Lord, give us faith. Give us faith in Thee; faith in our sons; faith in each other; faith in our united crusade. Let not the keeness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment — let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.

With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogances. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace — a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.

Thy will be done, Almighty God.

Amen.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

A peculiar people

The Epistle to Diognetus is a second-century letter, a brief work of Christian apologetics. In the fifth section of the letter, the author talks about what sets Christians apart from other peoples in the Roman world. Christians are peculiar, he admits that. To be sure, they live with everyone else, and in many ways they live like everyone else: they work in the same kinds of jobs, they wear the same kinds of clothes.

But they are also different in significant ways: they are sexually chaste, they don’t kill unwanted children, they are generous and committed to sharing both within their churches and with people outside those churches; and, above all, they refuse to worship the Roman gods. For these differences they are hated, and hated the more the kinder they are.

And there’s one more thing that sets the Christians apart: when they are attacked, when they are persecuted, they don’t reply in kind. Others say to the Christians, “You are my enemy”; Christians say to the others, “You are my neighbor.”

Were they wrong to live this way? ....

Monday, June 3, 2019

Gervase Fen

At CrimeReads, "The Many Mysteries of Oxford," about authors who used that city and/or its University as settings for detective stories. Among the authors are Colin Dexter (Inspector Morse), Dorothy L. Sayers (Wimsey), "Simon Tolkien (Trinity College, Oxford), a barrister and grandson of JRR Tolkien"(!) and Edmund Crispin. Years ago I read and enjoyed all of the Crispins. From the blog post:
Edmund Crispin was the pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery (St. John’s College, Oxford) who wrote nine detective novels and two collections of short stories featuring the slightly eccentric Oxford don Gervase Fen, Professor of English at (the fictional) St. Christopher’s College (which bears more than a passing resemblance to St John’s). The books are complex whodunits, often with locked room mysteries, and break the usual convention of the fourth wall [by having] Gervase Fen often directly addressing the reader. The best known of Crispin’s Oxford novels is The Moving Toyshop (1946) where a visiting poet (based on Crispin’s own Oxford contemporary at St. John’s, the English poet Philip Larkin) discovers a dead body in a toyshop before being knocked out and waking up the next morning to find the body gone and the toyshop now a greengrocers. It does have a lot of insider Oxford jokes but years of undergraduate study there is not required to enjoy the novel, which PD James (herself Oxford born) described as one of her top five crime novels. (the brackets indicate a modification of the original text)
There is an Inklings reference in one of the Crispin mysteries. From Chapter Four of Swan Song:
'Oh, for a beakerful of the cold north,' said Fen, gulping at his Burton. 'Impossible murders, for the present, must wait their turn.'

They were sitting before a blazing and hospitable fire in the small front parlour of the 'Bird and Baby'. Mudge had parted from them, with notable reluctance, at the door, in order to pursue his duties in less congenial circumstances; and Adam, Elizabeth, Sir Richard Freeman, and Fen were now toasting themselves to a comfortable glow. Outside, it was still attempting to snow, but with only partial success. ....

'There goes C.S. Lewis,' said Fen suddenly. 'It must be Tuesday.'

'It is Tuesday.' Sir Richard struck a match and puffed doggedly at his pipe. ....
The "Bird and Baby" is, of course, the pub named The Eagle and Child where the Inklings regularly met on Tuesdays in the 1930s and '40s.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Crusoe

Michael Dirda on a three hundred year old classic:
.... Robinson Crusoe, though, remains something truly special: It belongs in that small category of classics — others are The Odyssey and Don Quixote — that we feel we’ve read even if we haven’t. Retellings for children and illustrations, like those by N.C. Wyeth, have made its key scenes universally recognizable. Stranded on a desert island, Crusoe strips his wrecked ship of everything useful, builds a fortified cave-retreat, acquires goats and a pet parrot, plants barley and corn, learns to fashion clothes out of animal skins. The most dramatic moment of all occurs without preamble or fanfare:
It happened one Day about Noon going towards my Boat, I was exceedingly surpriz’d with the Print of a Man’s naked Foot on the Shore, which was very plain to be seen in the Sand; I stood like one Thunder-struck, or as I had seen an Apparition; I listen’d, I look’d round me, I could hear nothing, nor see any Thing; I went up to a rising Ground to look farther; I went up the Shore and down the Shore, but it was all one, I could see no other Impression but that one.
Much later, Crusoe discovers an orgiastic cannibal feast and helps rescue a captive to whom he gives the name Friday. Later still, mutineers land on the island, but Crusoe and Friday, through force of arms and subterfuge, restore command to the ship’s rightful captain. Many editions of the novel then close with these abrupt words:
In this vessel, after a long voyage, I arrived in England this 11th of June, in the year 1687, having been thirty and five years absent.
.... As many scholars have noted, Defoe’s castaway isn’t a back-to-nature primitivist, but rather an enterprising capitalist, eager to transform raw nature into useful goods while keeping careful inventories of what he owns, makes and reaps. He regularly likens himself to a king, has Friday call him “Master,” and later assumes the title of governor.

Where capitalism flourishes, can the Protestant ethic be far behind? Crusoe’s near-death from fever leads to spiritual awakening and repentance. He recognizes disobedience to his father as his Original Sin, learns to trust in Providence and totes up his blessings on a balance sheet. .... (more, probably behind a pay wall)

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Abortion and eugenics

Justice Clarence Thomas today (pdf), responding to the Court's decision not to consider an appeals court ruling overturning an Indiana abortion law (I have removed references):
I write separately to address the other aspect of Indiana law at issue here—the "Sex Selective and Disability Abortion Ban." This statute makes it illegal for an abortion provider to perform an abortion in Indiana when the provider knows that the mother is seeking the abortion solely because of the child's race, sex, diagnosis of Down syndrome, disability, or related characteristics. (excluding "lethal fetal anomal[ies]" from the definition of disability). The law requires that the mother be advised of this restriction and given information about financial assistance and adoption alternatives, but it imposes liability only on the provider. Each of the immutable characteristics protected by this law can be known relatively early in a pregnancy, and the law prevents them from becoming the sole criterion for deciding whether the child will live or die. Put differently, this law and other laws like it promote a State's compelling interest in preventing abortion from becoming a tool of modern-day eugenics.

The use of abortion to achieve eugenic goals is not merely hypothetical. The foundations for legalizing abortion in America were laid during the early 20th-century birth-control movement. That movement developed alongside the American eugenics movement. And significantly, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger recognized the eugenic potential of her cause. She emphasized and embraced the notion that birth control "opens the way to the eugenist." Sanger, "Birth Control and Racial Betterment." As a means of reducing the "ever increasing, unceasingly spawning class of human beings who never should have been born at all," Sanger argued that "Birth Control...is really the greatest and most truly eugenic method" of "human generation." In her view, birth control had been "accepted by the most clear thinking and far seeing of the Eugenists themselves as the most constructive and necessary of the means to racial health."

It is true that Sanger was not referring to abortion when she made these statements, at least not directly. She recognized a moral difference between "contraceptives" and other, more "extreme" ways for "women to limit their families," such as "the horrors of abortion and infanticide." But Sanger's arguments about the eugenic value of birth control in securing "the elimination of the unfit," apply with even greater force to abortion, making it significantly more effective as a tool of eugenics. Whereas Sanger believed that birth control could prevent "unfit" people from reproducing, abortion can prevent them from being born in the first place. Many eugenicists therefore supported legalizing abortion, and abortion advocates—including future Planned Parenthood President Alan Guttmacher endorsed the use of abortion for eugenic reasons. Technological advances have only heightened the eugenic potential for abortion, as abortion can now be used to eliminate children with unwanted characteristics, such as a particular sex or disability.

Given the potential for abortion to become a tool of eugenic manipulation, the Court will soon need to confront the constitutionality of laws like Indiana's. But because further percolation may assist our review of this issue of first impression, I join the Court in declining to take up the issue now. (more, pdf)

Monday, May 27, 2019

Indebted

Why do we have a Memorial Day? Re-posted:


Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass in "Take Time to Remember":
.... Memorial Day, once called Decoration Day, is a post-Civil War holiday. It was first instituted by the Grand Army of the Republic on May 30, 1868, “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.” If the Fourth of July renews the memory of the birth of the nation, Decoration Day renewed the memory of those who gave their lives “that that nation might live,” or again in Lincoln’s words, that this nation would have a new birth of freedom.

On Decoration Day, May 30, 1871, at Arlington National Cemetery, it was an ex-slave named Frederick Douglass who delivered the memorial address near the monument to the “Unknown Loyal Dead,” before a gathering that included President Grant, his cabinet, and many other distinguished people. “Dark and sad,” Douglass began, “will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors.” Giving eloquent expression to that homage, he concluded: “If today we have a country not boiling in the agony of blood, like France, if now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage...if the star-spangled banner floats only over free American citizens in every quarter of the land, and our country has before it a long and glorious career of justice, liberty, and civilization, we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.”

On this occasion and for the rest of his life, Douglass was at pains to keep alive through speech the memory and meaning of the deeds of that noble army of men who gave their lives to preserve the Union. ....

After World War I, Decoration Day was expanded to commemorate the lives of all those who have died in service to our country. Later, the name of the holiday was changed to Memorial Day; later still, it lost its fixed date in the calendar, celebrated instead on the last Monday in May. ....
"Take Time to Remember" originally in The Weekly Standard

A Memorial Day Poem


 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1882:


Decoration Day
Sleep, comrades, sleep and rest
On this Field of the Grounded Arms,       
Where foes no more molest,
Nor sentry's shot alarms!
All is repose and peace,
Untrampled lies the sod;
The shouts of battle cease,
It is the Truce of God!
Ye have slept on the ground before,
And started to your feet
At the cannon's sudden roar,
Or the drum's redoubling beat.
Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!
The thoughts of men shall be
As sentinels to keep
Your rest from danger free.
But in this camp of Death
No sound your slumber breaks;
Here is no fevered breath,
No wound that bleeds and aches.
Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.

A Memorial Day Poem by Longfellow, From The Atlantic, June 1882 - The Atlantic

Memorial Day

Re-posted:

Walter Russel Mead on Memorial Day, 2013:
The famous poem by the Canadian John McCrae commemorates the dead from the terrible trench warfare battles of World War One, but it is worth remembering today, as Americans...are putting their lives on the line in another country where poppies bloom.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
What makes this poem so memorable, I think, is that it doesn’t just see the soldiers as victims. Their lives are more than a tragic waste; we have not done our duty by them if we simply bewail their deaths and move on.

These soldiers were there for a reason; like the Americans who fought for the Union in our Civil War, they were fighting for a cause that was bigger than they were, that was worthy of the sacrifice they made. Those who die for freedom, or to protect their homes and families from invaders and aggression cannot be pitied and dismissed as victims. They must be honored and respected as warriors, as men whose service ennobled them and calls forth an answering sense of dedication among the living. ....

Pity and compassion can be noble emotions, but wallowing in these feelings is not what Memorial Day should be about. Our duty to the fallen is not just one of remembrance, or of caring for the wounded or those the warriors left behind. We also owe a debt of emulation: to continue to fight and if necessary to die for the great causes of our time. To fight an ideology of hatred that masks itself as religion is a noble and a generous thing to do; those who give their lives in the fight against this great evil are not victims. They are heroes, and they deserve to be remembered as such. ....

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Marooned

Re-posted from 2007.

Do you remember a story like this? A young man, raised in a godly household, decides to leave home and father and seek adventure. He goes to sea where he is shipwrecked and then rescued. He falls among thieves and is imprisoned. He escapes; is enslaved; freed, he goes to a far land where he finds success as a planter. At sea, he is once again shipwrecked near an island, and, the ship’s crew having deserted during the storm, he is alone… This is the story of Robinson Crusoe written by Daniel Defoe and published in 1719. It was one of the first novels, presented as a travel book because many Christians then thought reading fiction was a waste of time.

Once on the island with only the supplies he had been able to salvage from the wrecked ship, Crusoe begins to make a new life. He is alone and entirely dependent on himself. When he falls ill there is no one to nurse him. He does however have a Bible, which he reads. He begins to see in his calamities the work of Providence. He repents and cries out “Lord, be my help!”

Increasingly, he seeks to bow before the will of God. “I acquiesced in the Dispositions of Providence, which I began now to own, and to believe, ord’d everything for the best.” Then, later: “I began sensibly to feel how much more happy this life was, with all its miserable Circumstances, than the wicked, cursed, abominable Life I led all the past Part of my days.”

Many things ensue: He finds Friday, whom he educates; they rescue Friday’s father and a Spaniard from cannibals; they fight off pirates; and eventually he finds his way back to tell his story.

It’s a great adventure but if you decide to read the book today you may find that the references to faith have been removed – some editors seem to think they are a distraction.

One of the prints hanging on my walls is “Marooned” by the American painter and illustrator Howard Pyle. The marooned sailor in the painting is alone like Crusoe, but with much less hope of physical survival. He has been left on a sandbar waiting for the tide to rise. I chose it because I like Howard Pyle, but also because it is a good representation of those times in life when we feel abandoned, alone, and despairing….

Many theologians have thought Despair the worst of sins. It is the opposite of Hope. When we lose hope we refuse to believe that God will keep His promises. We have lost our confidence in Him.

In fact we are never “marooned.” We are never alone and without hope. When we begin to feel like that, it is important to remember what we know to be true.
[W]e rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance... If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. ... And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. ... For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 5:3; 8:11, 28, 38-39 (ESV)
Note: I have the uncomfortable feeling that some of the material above may have come from another source. If so, I would like to give credit and would be grateful to anyone who could provide a reference.

Another great illustrator

Howard Chandler Christy. These are all WWI era propaganda posters.




Friday, May 24, 2019

"Not dark yet, but it's getting there"

On Bob Dylan's 78th birthday Power Line posts "Not dark yet" so I went looking for the song.


Shadows are falling and I been here all day
It's too hot to sleep and time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I've still got the scars that the sun didn't heal
Well I been to London and I been to gay Paree
I followed the river and I got to the sea
I've been down to the bottom of a whirlpool of lies
I ain't lookin' for nothin' in anyone's eyes
There's not even room enough to be anywhere
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there
Well my sense of humanity is going down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing, there's been some kind of pain
Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there
I was born here and I'll die here, against my will
I know it looks like I'm movin' but I'm standin' still
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writin' what was in her mind
I just don't see why I should even care
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there
Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there

More at Power Line: "Not dark yet, cont’d", with various well-known performers doing covers of Dylan songs.

Escaping

In his essay "On Fairy Stories" (pdf) Tolkien writes "Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” Escaping can be a good thing. Bradley J. Birzer attributes his return to faith to Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons:
...I discovered a role-playing game that allowed me to spend as many hours as I so desired in Tolkienian-inspired worlds, Dungeons and Dragons. Surviving a very violent domestic situation during the late 1970s and early 1980s, I can state with no hyperbole that my ability to enter in and out of Tolkienian realms at will quite definitely saved my life. I remember the bizarre motherly whisperings at the time that Dungeon and Dragons might open a child to Satanism and the dark occult. I can only laugh at such comments, especially in hindsight. For me, Dungeons and Dragons (as based on Tolkien’s mythology) not only sheltered my then pre-teenage collapsing faith from collapsing entirely, but it also allowed me sanity by giving me an escape from household terrors that so dominated those years. During my daily walks to and from Liberty Junior High, I often contemplated suicide, trying to decide not if, but when. Honestly, it sometimes seemed the only way to escape my stepfather. Tolkien’s characters and stories, as played in Dungeons and Dragons, strangely (or Providentially?) intruded, pushing aside the darkest thoughts and depressions. Fantastic worlds provided the healthier and healthiest escape in those sombre days. When my friends and I played Dungeons and Dragons, we challenged and conquered evil in all its manifestations, domestic and foreign. We had only one God, and that God was good, true, and beautiful. If some kids fell in the occult because of Dungeons and Dragons, I am truly sorry. In my case, though, it prevented the greatest darkness of all and helped me realize the precious value of life. While I might not be able to stave off the evil in my home, I could rescue others from abuse, even if only in my imagined kingdoms and fantastic republics. ....
He mentions two books I have but had not looked at recently.
Of those books about Tolkien, but not written or edited by members of the Tolkien Estate, I loved the works by David Day, especially his Tolkien Bestiary, featuring some of the best painted renderings of Middle-earth I have yet to overcome. My current students have the distorted images of Tolkien’s world by Peter Jackson stuck in their heads. For me, my images come from the paintings commissioned by Mr. Day. Just as important to me was cartographic treasure, Barbara Strachey’s The Journeys of Frodo.
A Tolkien Bestiary is beautifully illustrated but is also an encyclopedia of Middle Earth. A typical entry:
FIRE-DRAKES Of all the creatures bred by Morgoth the Dark Enemy in all the Ages of his power the evil reptiles that were called Dragons were feared most. There were many breeds of these beings; the most deadly were those that vomited leaping flames from their foul bellies. These were called Fire-drakes, and among them were numbered the mightiest of Dragons. Glaurung, Father of Dragons, was first of the Uruloki Fire-drakes, and he had many offspring. The evil work of these Dragons on the kingdoms of Elves, Men and Dwarves in the First Age of Sun was terrible.

In the last days of that Age, when most of the Earth-bound brood of Glaurung had been put to death in the War of Wrath, the winged Fire-drakes appeared out of Angband. They are said to have been among the greatest terrors of the World, and Ancalagon the Black, who was of this breed, was said to have been the mighest Dragon of all times.

In later Ages, the histories of Middle-earth all tell of one last winged Fire-drake that was almost as fearsome as Ancalagon. This was the Dragon of Erebor, which drove the Dwarves of Durins Line from the kingdom under the Mountain. He was called Smaug the Golden, and in the year 2941 of the Third Age he was killed by Bard the Bowman of Dale.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

"What passes for cynicism...is little more than naïveté in deep disguise"

From Wilfred McClay's introduction to his new United States history volume, Land of Hope:
.... A nation that professes high ideals makes itself vulnerable to searing criticism when it falls short of them — sometimes far short indeed, as America often has. We should not be surprised by that, however; nor should we be surprised to discover that many of our heroes turn out to be deeply flawed human beings. All human beings are flawed, as are all human enterprises. To believe otherwise is to be naive, and much of what passes for cynicism in our time is little more than naïveté in deep disguise.

What we should remember, though, is that the history of the United States, and of the West more generally, includes the activity of searching self-criticism as part of its foundational makeup. There is immense hope implicit in that process, if we go about it in the right way. That means approaching the work of criticism with constructive intentions and a certain generosity that flows from the mature awareness that none of us is perfect and that we should therefore judge others as we would ourselves wish to be judged, blending justice and mercy. One of the worst sins of the present — not just ours but any present — is its tendency to condescend toward the past, which is much easier to do when one doesn't trouble to know the full context of that past or try to grasp the nature of its challenges as they presented themselves at the time. ....

The "idiot delusion of the exceptional Now"

Quoted at the beginning of Land of Hope:
Every generation rewrites the past. In easy times history is more or less of an ornamental art, but in times of danger we are driven to the written record by a pressing need to find answers to the riddles of today. We need to know what kind of firm ground other men, belonging to generations before us, have found to stand on. In spite of changing conditions of life they were not very different from ourselves, their thoughts were the grandfathers of our thoughts, they managed to meet situations as difficult as those we have to face, to meet them sometimes lightheartedly, and in some measure to make their hopes prevail. We need to know how they did it.

In times of change and danger when there is a quicksand of fear under men's reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present and get us past that idiot delusion of the exceptional Now that blocks good thinking. That is why, in times like ours, when old institutions are caving in and being replaced by new institutions not necessarily in accord with most men's preconceived hopes, political thought has to look backwards as well as forwards.

John Dos Passos, "The Use of the Past," from The Ground We Stand On: Some Examples from the History of a Political Creed (1941)

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

"Poisonous cynicism has supplanted naïve bluster..."

I received Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope today and will soon dive in. Reviews like this one are very encouraging:
.... When I was asked to review it, I put myself on guard. I was skeptical that I would find a new and “fair” American history text. Instead, I expected to find yet another work with a political angle, whether sharp or hidden.

Experience has taught me that bias more often enters history textbooks through what their authors omit from the standard account, rather than through any new topics they might add. So, I immediately turned to the chapters that would be most vulnerable to revision.

What I encountered was a rich account of American history that had me rethinking historical events from new perspectives. My skepticism soon gave way to curiosity. As I began to race through the pages, I felt that I was learning much of the material for the first time.

Land of Hope showcases a nuanced approach that presents the American story as a series of difficult choices. It promotes critical thinking as well as anything I have read. McClay invites the reader to assess carefully what leaders and average Americans thought at the most important junctures of change and continuity in American history. Material is deftly woven into a chronological narrative that helps one understand events in context and keeps the reader yearning to learn more.

In a chapter entitled “Becoming a World Power,” for instance, Land of Hope provides an insightful look into America’s drift away from traditional isolationism and toward imperialism in the late nineteenth century. The narrative context highlights the complexities of the topic. McClay effectively places American motives and actions in a global setting while showing their continuity with the ideas and values of the Founding.

Multiple works that I have encountered present this shift as either a haphazard, racially insensitive venture or a calculated power grab aimed at economic exploitation. McClay does not hide the controversy that surrounded the change and diligently examines the arguments that ensued. But more importantly, the chapter casts new light on the situations in Cuba and the Philippines after the Spanish-American War―a critical point on which most texts remain silent. McClay uses primary sources to show how a commitment to principles guided much of the nation’s thinking, and the reader comes away without an overwhelming sense of national shame. .... (more)
Amazon offers the book (a hefty volume) for about $20.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

It never should have happened

.... No legal case has done more than Roe to define how the left sees the Supreme Court: not as a somewhat boring final arbiter of words recorded in law books, but as the oracle that tells us what rights the Constitution ought to guarantee. Consequential cases such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Miranda v. Arizona (1966), concerning racial segregation and the rights of police suspects, respectively, dealt with matters that clearly involved the Constitution. There was no question that resolving just such ambiguity is the Supreme Court’s job.

But by the 1970s, the court was, one suspects, a little drunk on the moral and legal triumph of those earlier cases. The justices were now going well beyond the words in the law books and into the unwritten law of what used to be called “enlightened opinion.” In 1972, they abolished the death penalty in all 50 states, even though the Constitution clearly contemplates government-administered capital punishment.

The following year, the justices gave the country a new right to abortion. The right is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution, but had apparently been lurking there undetected for the better part of two centuries before the justices finally coaxed it into the open. From this era dates the solemn invocations of “settled law” issued by “the highest court in the land.” ....

If the Supreme Court hadn’t intervened on abortion, political debate might have sorted voters along a spectrum, rather than forcing them into the unforgiving yes-no binary. And if you fear you’re about to end up on the wrong side of that binary, you might wish your side had settled for something less grandiose, but more enduring.