Tuesday, April 30, 2024

A great adventure

I read the Nordhoff & Hall trilogy (Mutiny on the Bounty, Men Against the Sea, and Pitcairn Island) while in elementary school. Later I saw the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty starring Charles Laughton as a particularly sadistic Captain Bligh, and Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian. The story is historical and there have been several movies based on it. In 1962 a film starred Marlon Brando as a rather effete Christian, and Trevor Howard as Bligh. That one, I didn't care for. Last night, for the first time, I watched the third movie about the mutiny: The Bounty (1984) with a script by Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons), starring Anthony Hopkins as Bligh, and a young-looking Mel Gibson as Christian. I'm sorry I missed it forty years ago. It is probably the most accurate recounting of the actual events. And it is entertaining. Note: there is a lot of native nudity in the Tahiti scenes. Roger Ebert gave the film a "thumbs up" in 1984:
The relationship between Fletcher Christian and Captain William Bligh is one of the most familiar in the movies: We've seen it acted between Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, and between Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard, but it's never before been quite as intriguing as in "The Bounty," the third movie based on the most famous mutiny in the history of the sea. The movie suggests that Bligh and Christian were friends, of all things, and that Bligh — far from being the histrionic martinet of earlier movies — was an intelligent, contemplative man of great complications. The story is well-known, and simple: HMS Bounty sets sail for the South Seas, has a difficult voyage that frays everyone's tempers, and then anchors at a Polynesian island. During the trip, the original first mate has been replaced by the young Fletcher Christian, whom Bligh decides to trust. But Christian tires of the voyage and of the dangers and probable death that lie ahead. He falls in love with a native girl and leads a mutiny of sailors who choose to stay on their island paradise. ....

This Bounty is not only a wonderful movie, high-spirited and intelligent, but something of a production triumph as well. Although this third Bounty film was originally conceived as a big-budget, two-part epic to be directed by David (Doctor Zhivago) Lean, the current version was prepared and directed after only a few months' notice by a talented young New Zealander named Roger Donaldson....

The sea voyage is done with the sort of macho confidence that a good sea movie needs, and the land portions do an interesting job of contrasting the proper, civilized British ... with the cheerful absolute freedom of Polynesia. The romance between Gibson and the beautiful Tevaite Vernette, as his island lover, is given time to develop instead of just being thrown in as a plot point. And the Polynesians, for once, are all allowed to go topless all the time (the movie nevertheless gets the PG rating, qualifying under the National Geographic loophole in which nudity doesn't count south of the equator). The Bounty is a great adventure, a lush romance, and a good movie.

Monday, April 29, 2024

Not about how I feel

Carl Greene is Executive Director of the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference. In the current Sabbath Recorder, he writes "Sabbath Liturgy is Not All About Me":
Liturgy is not a word that we drop in our Seventh Day Baptist circles very often. Even less often do we use the word as a positive descriptor of ourselves. We prefer to say that we are non-liturgical and simply use an order of service for gathered worship. We tend to see the label of liturgical as representative of worship that has become routine to the point of mindless repetition.

I will confess. I like the word liturgy. I am out to convince you that liturgy is a lovable word.

Liturgy is derived from the Greek work leitourgia. It gets better. Two words are contained within liturgy: people (laos) and work (ergon). Hence, leitourgia is literally a "work of the people."' Liturgy is not some stodgy approach to worship—it is the intentional way that we worship together as a body. What I like about using the word "liturgy" is that it keeps us focused on Biblical worship rather than attractional worship.

Our only metric for assessing worship can all too easily be reduced to an assessment of if people like it. This constitutes seeing worship mainly as an attraction to get people through the doors of a church building. One way we do this is by directly demanding our worship personal style preferences—because any normal person will agree with my worship preferences. That usually does not end well.

We can also be indirect in communicating our worship wants. We refer to the wants of people who do not attend worship (yet) but we are confident will come to worship if we make some strategic changes. It just so happens that the worship preferences of the currently-not-attending are the same preferences as mine. I do not even have to ask them. ....

...[O]ur practice of liturgical worship is not so much focused on how I feel or what I want but focused on our great God. ....

Sunday, April 28, 2024

The lazy latitudes

Exploring again at Standard EBooks I've come across Earl Derr Biggars' The House Without a Key, described on the site:
Published in 1925, The House Without a Key introduces the kindly detective Charlie Chan, conceived by Earl Derr Biggers as a counter to the “Yellow Peril” stereotypes common in the era’s society.

John Quincy Winterslip, having been sent by his family to convince his aunt to return to Boston, arrives in Honolulu to find that a rich family member with a shady past has been murdered. Detective Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police Department recruits John to aid in the investigation. As he works to uncover the murderer, John learns about Chinese culture—and true love.
There were six books in the Charlie Chan mystery series published in the 1920s and early thirties. The Chan in the books avoids most of the steriotypes of East Asians common in a time when the US had severe restrictions on immigration from that part of the world.

The image on the right is of the cover of the book in my library, a facsimile of the 1925 first edition.

I enjoy Biggars' writing. These are the first paragraphs of the first chapter, introducing some important characters, and the setting is Waikiki in the 1920s:
Kona Weather

Miss Minerva Winterslip was a Bostonian in good standing, and long past the romantic age. Yet beauty thrilled her still, even the semi-barbaric beauty of a Pacific island. As she walked slowly along the beach she felt the little catch in her throat that sometimes she had known in Symphony Hall, Boston, when her favorite orchestra rose to some new and unexpected height of loveliness.

It was the hour at which she liked Waikiki best, the hour just preceding dinner and the quick tropic darkness. The shadows cast by the tall coconut palms lengthened and deepened, the light of the falling sun flamed on Diamond Head and tinted with gold the rollers sweeping in from the coral reef. A few late swimmers, reluctant to depart, dotted those waters whose touch is like the caress of a lover. On the springboard of the nearest float a slim brown girl poised for one delectable instant. What a figure! Miss Minerva, well over fifty herself, felt a mild twinge of envy⁠—youth, youth like an arrow, straight and sure and flying. Like an arrow the slender figure rose, then fell; the perfect dive, silent and clean.

Miss Minerva glanced at the face of the man who walked beside her. But Amos Winterslip was oblivious to beauty, he had made that the first rule of his life. Born in the Islands, he had never known the mainland beyond San Francisco. Yet there could be no doubt about it, he was the New England conscience personified⁠—the New England conscience in a white duck suit.

“Better turn back, Amos,” suggested Miss Minerva. “Your dinner’s waiting. Thank you so much.”

“I’ll walk as far as the fence,” he said. “When you get tired of Dan and his carryings-on, come to us again. We’ll be glad to have you.”

“That’s kind of you,” she answered, in her sharp crisp way. “But I really must go home. Grace is worried about me. Of course, she can’t understand. And my conduct is scandalous, I admit. I came over to Honolulu for six weeks, and I’ve been wandering about these islands for ten months.”

“As long as that?”

She nodded. “I can’t explain it. Every day I make a solemn vow I’ll start packing my trunks⁠—tomorrow.”

“And tomorrow never comes,” said Amos. “You’ve been taken in by the tropics. Some people are.”

“Weak people, I presume you mean,” snapped Miss Minerva. “Well, I’ve never been weak. Ask anybody on Beacon Street.”

He smiled wanly. “It’s a strain in the Winterslips,” he said. “Supposed to be Puritans, but always sort of yearning toward the lazy latitudes.” .... (more)

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Humor today

Fawlty Towers is about to reappear, this time on stage. I bought the entire series on DVD some time ago. It's funny. John Cleese on humor:
.... In comedy, context is everything: part of the problem with humour today is that people have lost sight of that. Some people still think “The Germans” is controversial because of the scene in which Basil imitates the Nazi goose-step, but the only people who have never complained about that episode are the Germans themselves. They know the comedy is never at their expense. Those who do take exception to this episode also criticise the moment in the hospital early on when Basil jumps back on encountering a black doctor. I pinched that from WC Fields, because I thought it was funny. The point of that particular moment is that we are all frightened by whatever is unfamiliar. It’s Basil’s naivety that makes you laugh.

But when people get mired in ideas about comedy and victimhood, they stop thinking. They lose sight of those distinctions of context. I’ve recently been working on a stage show of the 1979 Monty Python film Life of Brian, which we’re hoping to open in London next year. When we had a read-through in America last year, some of the actors objected to a scene from the film in which Eric Idle’s character says he’s going to become a woman. They said, “We can’t include this scene!” To which I said “Why not? It has amused people for 40 years…” No one was offended until a couple of years ago. ....

These days it’s almost mandatory that everyone gets offended by one thing or another, but it doesn’t breed in you a good state of mental health. A friend of mine who suffered greatly from depression recently underwent cognitive behavioural therapy which is all about reframing negative opinions, changing your mindset. But the extreme woke believe the opposite to this: that whatever you feel about something is entirely valid and should never be questioned. Which basically means Freud was wasting his time. .... (more)
A favorite film of mine starring John Cleese is A Fish Called Wanda.

Friday, April 26, 2024


Most historians agree that the reparations required of Germany after World War I had unfortunate consequences. Are those lessons relevant to the consideration of reparations in general?
.... Reparations caused endless, dangerous resentment, and damaged the prospects of genuine reconciliation. They arguably harmed both those paying them and those receiving them. They caused severe trade distortions and added to financial instability. They imposed burdens on people not responsible for the damage being repaired. Worst of all, the political outcomes were disastrous.

One might think that such a discouraging and well-known historical example as the Treaty of Versailles would cause those blithely proposing billions or trillions in reparations for long-distant wrongs to exercise some caution, especially as today’s circumstances make the case for reparations vastly less strong than it was in 1920. Precisely what damage today is to be repaired? Who are the victims now? Who alive in the 2020s is responsible for events in the 1720s? How can the monetary cost of remote harms be reasonably calculated? Would resentment be caused by the imposition of reparations? How damaging might that be to present society and to the relationship between payers and receivers? Could resources be better used to relieve urgent 21st-century needs, rather than to pay the distant heirs of long-dead victims? ....

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Art, architecture, music, and philosophy

I watched Civilization when it first aired on PBS. I watched it in B&W because I did not yet have a color TV. I was enthralled. I am getting a Blu-ray version right now fearing that the series in its original form may not always be available. From The Spectator:
'What is Civilisation? I don’t know. I can’t definite it in abstract terms – yet. But I think I can recognise it when I see it; and I am looking at it now.’ So suggested Kenneth Clark, looking towards Notre Dame at the start of Civilisation, his magisterial televisual guide through Western art, architecture, and philosophy. .... Now, more than fifty years since its creation, the BBC has decided its viewers need protecting from this ‘personal view’.

It suggests the programme does not necessarily accord with Auntie’s current ‘standards and attitudes’, and further undermines it by placing alongside it a new segment by Mary Beard lamenting the ‘posh’ Clark’s Euro-centrism.

The former can be begrudgingly accepted, since it has previously been applied to other programmes from the BBC archives, including an interview with Martin Luther King Jr. But the latter sticks in the craw. ....

Reading the Victorian critic [John Ruskin] had convinced Clark that art should be accessible to everyone. Civilisation was the embodiment of his life’s work. It never talks down to its viewers. Clark contentedly left minutes devoid of commentary, allowing those watching to bask in the magnificence of whichever cathedral or piece of music he had chosen. You are free to enjoy the beauty without interruption.

...Clark wholeheartedly believed in individual genius and Christianity’s role as ‘the chief creative force in western civilisation’. Neither is in vogue today. Looking at the monstrosities that litter our cities and galleries, one can’t help but find Clark’s traditionalism appealing. ....

At the end of the series, Clark maintains that it is ‘a lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation’. A national broadcaster that feels challenged enough by a fifty-year old programme not to let it air without some form of warning or lecture cannot be said to be that. But as Civilisation proves, great art endures, even as fashions shift – and idle posturing can never substitute for good taste.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024


Planning to grill this evening, so was happy to come across this in The Telegraph this morning. It discusses seven myths about choosing a good steak. Some of the positive advice:
“The best steak doesn’t exist,” says chef Paul Foster, the owner of Stratford-upon-Avon restaurant Salt and author of How to Cook Meat Properly. “[Fillet] is the most tender,” he admits, “so if you’re looking for the most tender steak, then you’ve got to go for fillet. But it doesn’t have very much flavour.” Flavour often comes from meat taken from parts of the cow that have done more “work”, so for Foster, rib-eye (from the forequarter of the animal) is a great choice, delivering plenty of flavour and texture. ....

There are two types of fat to consider, explains Smith. “We’ve got subcutaneous fat – the fat on the outside – and too much of that is not good. Then we’ve got intramuscular fat, known as marbling. .... the distribution of fat plays a far more significant role than the quantity. Foster’s advice is to look for a steak that’s a dark cherry red, with even marbling. “Good, even marbling shows it’s a good animal. You don’t want pockets of fat in one side of the steak and not in the other.” ....

You’ll often see steaks referred to as aged or dry-aged, along with a range of days, most commonly 28, which is considered roughly to be the sweet spot. Ageing beef can help meat develop a more intense flavour, as well as tenderising it by breaking down the muscle fibres. .... More important than the duration is how the meat has been aged, argues Smith. Dry ageing describes when meat is exposed to air, in many cases hung but sometimes on a rack, allowing its moisture to evaporate, whereas a different process – called “wet ageing” by some – sees meat vacuum-packed, sitting in its own moisture, then left to age. .... [T]he key word to look out for is “dry” rather than simply “aged”. “If you see ‘28-day aged’, it sounds lovely,” he says, but if the meat has been vacuum-packed for that time, “the moisture hasn’t escaped and it’s just sitting there ageing in a bag, so the enzymes aren’t breaking it down as much. It’s not getting that flavour from being dry-aged, it’s not losing that moisture content.”
I knew most of that, although I didn't know what "wet-ageing" was, and I will avoid it. A previous post on the subject.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Freedom and friendship

Anthony Esolen's "Word of the Week" is "Friend":
Cicero wrote a charming treatise on friendship, in which he says, among many other things, that a friend is someone in whose presence you can think out loud. ....

Because we are friends, and true friendship can only be founded in virtue, we delight in one another’s company, and friends don’t abandon one another when that delight is overshadowed by danger, or sadness, or misfortune, or even the threat of death. In that world, it meant a lot to call someone your friend. That’s why Jesus, who had befriended his apostles for three years, says at the Last Supper that he no longer calls them his servants, but his friends: not because of any greater love that he feels, but because he has chosen to be entirely open with them. “All that the Father has made known to me,” he says, “I make known to you.” ....

If you love someone, you do not make a bondslave of him; he is free; hence we get Welsh rhyddid, freedom, as they sing in that great fight song “Men of Harlech,” and we get Germanic freo, free. Now, if you’re really free in the company of someone, it means that you needn’t worry that your next word will cause him to leap upon the table and put a knife to your neck. .... (more)

Friday, April 19, 2024

He saw the Light

The Word & Song substack remembers a song each week. Recently it was "I Saw the Light" by Hank Williams:
.... The idea for our song this week came to Hank when his mother was driving him and the band home after one of their performances. The guys were all asleep. When she drew nearer to home, and the lights of the Montgomery airport came in view, Hank’s mother called out, “I saw the lights.” What Hank heard that night inspired him to write a timeless song of gratitude and praise. And if Hank’s heart was really in his music, which it must have been for him to get as far as he did in the short time allotted to him, we surely can hope that he hoped to see the Light of his heavenly home and to receive the ultimate healing of body and soul.

Debra Esolen, "I Saw the Light," Word & Song by Anthony Esolen, March 9, 2024.

Thursday, April 18, 2024

"Above all earthly powers"

I recently revisited a book that I had not read for many years: Robert P. Ericksen’s Theologians Under Hitler. It is a study of how three intellectuals, Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, and Emanuel Hirsch—scholars of the Old Testament, Luther, and Kierkegaard, respectively—came to support Hitler in 1933 and ultimately be identified with an evil ideology that cost millions of lives, both in the death camps and in the war that German expansionism precipitated.

It is a troubling book because, while Hirsch was always a nasty anti-Semite and remained so after the Third Reich collapsed, Kittel and Althaus started as what we might call orthodox, patriotic conservatives. The story of their corruption by Nazi ideology is a sad and disturbing one. ....

It is an interesting thought experiment to wonder how Christians today might have voted in Germany in the early 1930s. Hindsight grants great privileges. It not only gives us all 20/20 vision, but also exempts us from the difficult moral trade-offs and compromises that all voting booths contain in a manner unavailable to those at the time. We should not be so certain that we would have necessarily acted as we might like to imagine. It was a world where it seemed that either the Nazis or the Communists must triumph and where the full evil of both was as yet not fully visible. But even as we can acknowledge these difficulties, it is important to note that there were still theologians who did see the problem in 1933 and who refused to strike a deal with the devils on either side of the political spectrum. ....

The Bethel Confession has recently been reprinted and is well worth study and reflection. It makes clear that the reason Bonhoeffer and Sasse were able to understand their times was that they placed the transcendent God, his Word and sacraments, and his church above all earthly powers. They understood that the church was not to confuse itself with the state nor with worldly forms of power. ....

They did not collapse the transcendence of God into the immanence of political exigency. And it was that very concern for the transcendent that made them wise actors in the world of the immanent.

This points to their value in today’s debates. One of the striking lacunae on both the right and left wings of the Christian political spectrum is the general absence of any reference to the transcendence of God and the supernatural nature of the church. Immanent concerns rule the day. ....

And this leads to an odd, though very Pauline, conclusion: The secret to political integrity and discernment for Christians is a high view of God, his Word and his gospel. Only when this world is set in context of the next can we hope to avoid allowing the perceived demands of our political moment to overwhelm our fidelity to God and, by way of consequence, to those made in his image.

An unhealthy preoccupation with politics

A reference in today's Free Press newsletter led me to "Why Does Being Left-Wing Make You Unhappy?" Following the link will bring you to that substack article. In the excerpts below I have not included his citations but they are there.

Note: I’m using the terms “liberal” and “conservative” to denote left-leaning and right-leaning, while acknowledging that they’re imprecise. I’m also using a lot of American data simply because that’s where the bulk of this research has been carried out, although the basic finding does seem to be replicated globally. ....

.... Conservatives tend to be more religious, more patriotic, and more married, and all these things correlate with happiness. Indeed, it has been argued that political conservatism is not the important variable here — that liberals who feel deeply connected to country and religion and family would be equally happy. I’m not sure if this is a real distinction since those liberals would be behaving in ‘conservative’ ways even if they espouse liberal beliefs, but anyway, church-going conservatives tend to have better mental health than church-going liberals, so it seems that conservatism does provide benefits independent of religiosity. ....

Liberals not only tend to be more emotionally unstable, they also value emotionality more than conservatives — they like to dwell on emotions, to talk about them, to expound on trauma and pain. Studies find that they are more upset than others by public tragedies, like school shootings, or catastrophes like Covid-19, and that their distress lasts far longer. ....

Modern liberals, or progressives, take grim satisfaction in asserting the inescapability of politics. One of their favourite turns of phrase is “But X is inherently political” — i.e. that activity or human behaviour that you fondly imagined to be unsullied by the machinations of power is, in fact, governed by them. Friendship is political. Science is political. Journalistic objectivity is political. Fiction is political. Music is political. Food is political. Love is political. ....

There’s an element of status display in pushing politics into everything: the implication is usually that anyone who doesn’t agree is either complicit in oppression or, worse, naive and unsophisticated.

Most pertinently, for our purposes, it’s bleak. For a certain kind of progressive, anything that might seem above or beyond politics — a commitment to objective truth, a love of music or food or sport — is just politics by other means, part of the relentless battle of tribe versus tribe, identity versus identity. That’s pretty depressing, especially if you sincerely believe it. ....

At the same time it is for some reason necessary to insist that it’s the other side who engages in ‘culture war’. ....

You might say that just as conservatives find meaning in family or religion, liberals find meaning through activism and political discourse. But these different kinds of social participation do not have equal payoffs in well-being. The evidence suggests that going to church or spending time with loved ones tends to be good for people, whereas a preoccupation with politics is bad for your mental health. ....

Of course, conservatives aren’t immune to the over-politicisation of everything. In the US in particular they’re increasingly prone to see everyone in public life, including and especially those working for government institutions, as participants in a grand conspiracy against them. That’s deeply unhealthy too. .... (much more)

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Never grow old

Please don't tell anyone you are "tired of life." The progress in countries like Belgium and the Netherlands has been from "voluntary" euthanasia to doctor prescribed euthanasia:
Belgium’s euthanasia laws should cover elderly people who are “tired of life” or who feel they are a burden on the public purse, a health insurance chief has urged. Luc Van Gorp, 57, the president of the CM health fund, a Christian mutual insurance provider, said that the number of Belgians over 80 would double to 1.2 million by 2050.

“Many elderly people are tired of life. Why would you necessarily want to prolong such a life? Those people don’t want that themselves, and when it comes to budgets: it only costs the government money,” he told the Nieuwsblad newspaper. “We must remove the stigma.”

Tuesday, April 9, 2024


I posted about Standard Ebooks on Facebook recently. I am really enjoying the site. It describes itself this way:
Standard Ebooks is a volunteer-driven project that produces new editions of public domain ebooks that are lovingly formatted, open source, free of U.S. copyright restrictions, and free of cost.

Ebook projects like Project Gutenberg transcribe ebooks and make them available for the widest number of reading devices. Standard Ebooks takes ebooks from sources like Project Gutenberg, formats and typesets them using a carefully designed and professional-grade style manual, fully proofreads and corrects them, and then builds them to create a new edition that takes advantage of state-of-the-art ereader and browser technology.
There are many good books available here for download to Kindle, other e-readers, or to read in a browser. So far I've been reading on my browser. There are very clear, step-by-step, directions about downloading if you choose. 

I started here a few days ago with the Standard EBooks edition of John Buchan's Three Hostages. The reading experience is a pleasure because of the promised typeface and formatting. There have been no annoying glitches or errors.

Today I was particularly interested in browsing what is available in children's books (lots) and (this will surprise no one) mysteries. The mystery section has almost all of the Sherlock Holmes, early Agatha Christies, most of Dorothy L. Sayers Peter Wimseys, S.S. Van Dine, E.C. Bentley, the Father Brown books, and at least one Fu Manchu. There are more, including authors with whom I am less familiar. I was interested to find several of the early Hardy Boys, probably the first mysteries I read as a boy. The books in that series were periodically updated by the Stratemeyer syndicate so that settings, technology, slang, etc., would seem contemporary to each new generation of young readers. These are the original 1920s versions.

Standard Ebooks

Monday, April 8, 2024

A word that means something

The time came, quite a few years ago, when the foreign language department in my high school decided to call themselves the "world" languages department. I stopped by their office to tell my colleagues there that the only "world language" I could think of was Esperanto. They did not seem amused. Today, Kevin Williamson made a similar point:
It is remarkable to me that so many professional writers will go to such lengths to avoid the perfectly respectable word “foreign.” E.g., Jim Newell writing in Slate about the proposal to rename Dulles Airport for Donald Trump, who never flies commercial.
In a way, it could be a perfect passing of the torch. The current namesake, John Foster Dulles, worked to overthrow international governments; his would-be successor, the domestic one.
That’s a good line—clever.

But there are no “international governments” that can be overthrown—there are “foreign governments” that can. International things are things that are between nations, that involve more than one nation: international agreements, international travel, international trade, etc.

The government of Germany isn’t international (not in this century, anyway!)—it’s just German, and foreign. Germans are foreign to Americans, and Americans are foreign to the Germans. ....

Yes, people sometimes spit foreign as invective. But it is a word that means something, and what it means is not international. Like alien and illegal alien, we need a term for the thing we are talking about, and it is better if that term is a word or words that actually say what they are meant to mean.

Sunday, April 7, 2024


One of the first books I can remember reading was Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. From then until now I've been drawn to read about piracy, especially in its so-called "golden age," the 17th and early 18th centuries. I resist Jack Sparrow, preferring history or at least historical fiction. Thus I enjoyed this review of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724).
It is perhaps the most influential book on pirates ever to have been written, the inspiration for never-ending tales of treasure and terror on the high seas. Yet the identity of its author remains a mystery. Three hundred years ago, in 1724, the pseudonymous author “Captain Charles Johnson” published a pair of volumes under the hefty title A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates.

They gathered together the scandalous biographies of villains such as John “Calico Jack” Rackham and Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, and were an immediate success – running to a fourth, much-expanded edition in only two years. In the centuries since, the book has served as the source text for many more ­dastardly characters, stalking the pages of J M Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island’s Israel Hands is even named after a figure from the General History, Blackbeard’s second-in-command). ....

Use the word “pirate” today, however, and everyone will know what you’re talking about: sailors in striped rags, roving the seven seas in search of plunder. .... Johnson’s General History, even though it only tackles the 30-odd years leading up to 1724, casts a long shadow across them all – firing the imagination and giving us popular tropes such as walking the plank, buried treasure, the faux-heroic “pirate’s code”, and the skull-and-crossbones of the Jolly Roger (“a black Ensign, with a white Death’s Head in the Middle of it”). ....

The romance of such tales is obvious, but it’s not all derring-do. There is plenty of horrendous testimony of torture and rape. The verifiable stories in the General History don’t shy away from this, drawing their readers in with the kind of transfixed horror that true-crime fans will understand. Underlying it all is the same, unsettling issue: what do you do with the fact that lionising pirates means celebrating people who were essentially evil?

Johnson gets around this by serving up their downfalls as cautionary tales. ....

He embellishes his sources, transforming his subjects from flat criminals into figures of legend and, in the process, giving their villainy a kind of theatrical charm. By the time we reach Blackbeard – named for the “large Quantity of Hair, which, like a frightful Meteor, covered his whole Face, and frightened America more than any Comet” – we are hearing cartoonish stories of his “mischievous Frolicks”. Johnson writes that he once shot two of his crew unprompted, claiming, “if he did not now and then kill one of them, they would forget who he was”. ....

While the General History may have been the high-water mark of pirate-mania in Britain, actual piracy was facing a turning point in the Caribbean. In 1718, 11 pirates were marooned on a Caribbean island. When word reached Woodes Rogers, the new governor of the British settlement of Nassau (hitherto a pirate stronghold; today the capital of the Bahamas), he sent a ship to pick them up. Ten were hanged on their return, one crying out from the scaffold: “I do heartily repent; I repent I had not done more Mischief, and that we did not cut the Throats of them that took us, and I am extremely sorry that you an’t all hang, as well as we!”

You can understand that this didn’t win over the crowd in Nassau, who had been dealing for decades with a veritable occupation by buccaneers. The so-called “Golden Age of Piracy” would peter out in the coming years. .... (more)
The book can be found in various formats here.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Inside Jim’s head

A reimagining of Mark Twain's Huck Finn that is likely worth a read:
is based on an ingenious premise: It retells the story of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn from the perspective of the black slave Jim. Readers anticipating a takedown of Mark Twain will be either frustrated or relieved, depending on their hopes. Everett, who in the book’s acknowledgments offers “a nod” to Twain’s “humor and humanity,” does not supply a predictable, politically correct attack on the canon. To the contrary, he adopts and extends the criticism of racism present in Twain’s novel. In his portrayal, for example, young Huck is at least as troubled by Jim’s plight and the injustice of slavery as in Twain’s original. Huck remains a character with whom we are permitted, even invited, to sympathize.

The shift from Huck’s to Jim’s perspective, however, enables Everett to sharpen Twain’s critique, lifting it from the level of satire to that of jeremiad (albeit a secular one). The youthful, uneducated voice of Twain’s white protagonist, with his naïve efforts to understand the adult world, was well suited to exposing the hypocrisy of American ideals in the face of racism. But the older voice of the black slave Jim cuts deeper, revealing the full horror of chattel slavery. As he encounters whippings, rapes, and lynchings, we confront the legalized violence and systemic terror of slavery. These are not fully visible to Huck, but they are Jim’s everyday reality.

As James begins, Everett sticks closely to Twain’s original plot. .... (much more)

Friday, April 5, 2024


The teaching of history in our schools and colleges isn't what it was, but these guys are all old enough to have learned stuff if they were paying attention. Jonah Goldberg:
... [S]tupidity and ignorance are closely related concepts, but they’re not the same thing. Smart people can be ignorant and stupid people can be informed. Indeed, one of the cool things about knowledge is that it can make not very bright people seem very smart. ....  Meanwhile, really smart people can seem stupid if they have no good facts to work with. We tend to look with scorn at thinkers of the past because we know they were wrong. Hah hah, they used leeches! They thought the sun revolved around the earth!

The thing is, the people who came up with these incorrect theories were probably very, very, smart. They just didn’t have access to a lot of information and data. It’s not like you came up with heliocentrism. ....

There’s a lot of wisdom to George Santayana’s aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But I’d like to offer a different observation. We are condemned to hear a lot of stupid nonsense from people who don’t know—or don’t remember—jack squat about the past.

What got me thinking about this was an interview with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on CNN Monday night. ....
And Goldberg then explains how RFK Jr. displays remarkable ignorance about history. But he's not the only Presidential candidate who does. There are a couple more.
[Donald Trump] knows nothing about American history, so every (allegedly) unfair thing that happens to him has “never happened before.” Indeed, RFK Jr. is essentially cribbing Trump’s material. After Biden’s State of the Union Address, Trump posted on Truth Social: “HE WEAPONIZED GOVERNMENT AGAINST HIS OPPONENT – DIDN’T TALK ABOUT THAT, NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE!” In 2016, Trump insisted that “African American communities are absolutely in the worst shape they’ve ever been in before. Ever, ever, ever.”

“Ever, ever, ever” is pretty definitive. It’s also nonsense.

Trump insists that no president has been treated as unfairly as him, including Lincoln (he also probably didn’t know Lincoln was a Republican—whenever he learns something new, he likes to say “a lot of people don’t know that …”). But even leaving out the whole assassination thing—which is a pretty big thing to leave out—Lincoln was treated pretty shabbily by the press. Trump didn’t know where some of his favorite terms came from, including “America First,” and “Silent Majority.” He claims to have invented “Make America Great Again,” but when it was pointed out to him that Ronald Reagan used it, he plausibly responded that he didn’t know that. Besides, Reagan “didn’t trademark it.” ....

Joe Biden is a little different. It’s not so much that he doesn’t know anything about history, it’s just that the history he invokes is frequently wrong. He wasn’t arrested in South Africa trying to visit Nelson Mandela. He didn’t have a historic conversation with Golda Meir, nor was he a “liaison” with Egyptians. Many of the seemingly historic tales of his personal life never happened.

More to the point, Biden makes up history about stuff he’s not personally involved in. And—also very important—he was doing this long before anyone accused him of being senile (though that’s increased the frequency). In 2008, he told Katie Couric, “When the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on the television and didn’t just talk about the, you know, the princes of greed.” But FDR didn’t go on TV then —television was introduced to the American public at the World’s Fair in 1939—and FDR wasn’t even president when the stock market crashed in 1929. He makes up stuff about the Second Amendment, Jim Crow, and more—all the time.

What this says about Biden versus Trump and Kennedy is open to debate. I do think having no idea there was a past is different than being wrong about the past, but the differences are obscure and psychological. Where all three old men overlap is that they’re blowhards. Biden’s style seeks the authority of the past in a different way, but it’s still wild exaggeration and bluster. When he touted Barack Obama’s successful effort to kill Osama bin Laden—which he opposed at the time—he said, “You can go back 500 years. You cannot find a more audacious plan.” Okay, Joe.

But there’s another commonality. They all work from the assumption that the rest of us are too ignorant to know better—or care. .... (more)

A moral imperative

On slavery, and the campaign against it:
...[T]he country that led the world in the rebellion against this barbarism – and played a bigger role than perhaps anyone else in its eradication – was the United Kingdom.

Britain did not invent slavery. Slaves were kept in Egypt since at least the Old Kingdom period and in China from at least the 7th century AD, followed by Japan and Korea. It was part of the Islamic world from its beginnings in the 7th century. Native tribes in North America practised slavery, as did the Aztecs and Incas farther south. African traders supplied slaves to the Roman empire and to the Arab world. Scottish clan chiefs sold their men to traders.

Barbary pirates from north Africa practised the trade too, seizing around a million white Europeans – including some from Cornish villages – between the 16th and 18th centuries. It was in fear of such pirates that the song ‘Rule Britannia’ was written: hence the line that ‘Britons never ever ever shall be slaves’. Even slaves who escaped their masters in the Caribbean went on to take their own slaves. The most concerted campaign against all this was started by Christian groups in London in the 1770s who eventually recruited William Wilberforce to their campaign, and parliament went on to outlaw the slave trade in 1807. British sea power was then deployed to stamp it out.

The largely successful British effort to eradicate the transatlantic slave trade did not grow out of any kind of self-interest. It was driven by moral imperative and at considerable cost to Britain and the Empire. At its peak, Britain’s battle against the slave trade involved 36 naval ships and cost some 2,000 British lives. In 1845, the Aberdeen Act expanded the Navy’s mission to intercept Brazilian ships suspected of carrying slaves.

Much is made about how Britain profited from the slave trade, but we tend not to hear about the extraordinary cost of fighting it. In a 1999 paper US historians Chaim Kaufmann and Robert Pape estimated that, taking into account the loss of business and trade, suppression of the slave trade cost Britain 1.8 per cent of GDP between 1808 and 1867. It was, they said, the most expensive piece of moral action in modern history. .... (more)
The portrait is of Wilberforce.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Cultural free-riders

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, and a prominent one. But he is more widely known as one of the New Atheists. Consequently, a recent comment has received a bit of attention, for example:
...Professor Dawkins’ admission that he considers himself a “cultural Christian”, who is, at the very least, ambivalent about Anglicanism’s decline is an undeniably contradictory position for a man who in the past campaigned relentlessly against any role for Christianity in public life, railing against faith schools and charitable status for churches.

Before we start preparing the baptismal font, it’s worth noting that Dawkins says he remains “happy” with the UK’s declining Christian faith, and that those beliefs are “nonsense”. But he also says that he enjoys living in a Christian society. This betrays a certain level of cultural free-riding. The survival of society’s Christian undercurrent depends on others buying into the “nonsense” even if he doesn’t. ....

...[T]his feels like another staging-post on a journey towards the good Professor finally admitting that the New Atheism, of which he was such a shining light, was wrong in crucial respects. First, in its almost touching naivety that a post-Christian world would give way to a values-neutral space, rooted in reason. Second, in its semi-adolescent diagnosis of Christianity as a retardant upon cultural and intellectual progress. A New Atheist would generally cite the Spanish Inquisition or some wacky US creationist as representatives of the world’s largest faith – conveniently ignoring any contradictory examples. ....

One reason for Dawkins’ change of heart might be good old-fashioned scientific observation. It doesn’t take the brains of an evolutionary biologist to work out that New Atheism was mistaken in its diagnosis of what would follow religion’s decline. The rational world we were promised hasn’t materialised and a nastier, less reasonable one is supplanting what was there before. ....

...[I]ncreasingly, the thesis of Tom Holland’s book Dominion seems to be winning out, via a growing recognition that the ethics we hold as natural and universal are, in fact, anything but. Much of what atheists ascribed to vague concepts of “reason” emerged out of the faith which informed the West’s intellectual, moral, and, yes, scientific life – a cultural oxygen we breathe but never see. .... (more)

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Permission to translate

I enjoyed reading Alan Jacobs' "A Letter From Karl Barth." The letter was to Dorothy L. Sayers.
On 7 September 1939, a week after the Wehrmacht invaded Poland and thus began the Second World War, the great theologian Karl Barth wrote, in German, from his home in Switzerland to a woman in England. “You too must be shocked by the events of our day,” he wrote. “But I am happy that this time England did not want to let another ‘Munich’ happen, and I hope also for the poor German people that now the end of its worst time (which I have witnessed intimately) has at least begun.” Tragically, war had returned to Europe — but the hapless policy of of appeasement was over, and now the end of Hitler, and of Nazism, could, however dimly, be foreseen.

But to acknowledge the war was not the purpose of Barth’s letter. Rather, he wanted to ask this woman for permission to translate two of her theological writings, and also to seek answers to a few questions about the texts. ....

The author to whom Barth wrote was Dorothy L. Sayers. Twenty years later he remarked that, in 1939, she had been “familiar to me as the author of a whole series of detective novels — at once thrilling, cultured, and thoughtful. The fascinating thing about these books for me was the visible connection in them between a humanism of the best Oxford tradition and a pronounced mastery in the technique which is essential to literary engagement in this genre.” But at that time he had no idea that she was a Christian, and when a Scottish friend suggested that he read some of her theological essays, he was surprised to learn of their existence — and even more surprised to find them stating most clearly and forcefully certain points about the beauty, power, and sheer drama of Christian doctrine that were dear to his own heart. (However, he did discern, and even in that introductory letter told her that he discerned, a strain of “semi-Pelagianism” in her theology, a comment that she found amusing and inaccurate.) ....

The works he sought to translate had originally appeared in 1938 in the Times of London: “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged” and “The Triumph of Easter,” later published together in a short book. Barth, having had his questions answered by Sayers, duly produced his translation.... (more)
I think Jacobs might intend to write a biography of Sayers (see his final paragraph). If he did, I'd read it.