|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Tuesday, April 20, 2004
Rise of the Machines
This, via <--- BoingBoing, is the funniest thing I've seen on the web for ages. Follow the chip-warming thoughts of these brave little toasters, Opportunity, Spirit, Sojourner, Stardust, and Beagle 2.
Monday, April 19, 2004
Islands, funerals, and the footnotes of Buckle
On Easter weekend Mrs Early and I took a cruise on the Maid of the Forth to Inchcolm Island. This island, a couple of hillocks joined by a short strip of strand, is in the middle of the Firth of Forth. Like all the other Inches it's cluttered with rusted and ruined fortifications from two World Wars (Inchgarvie and Inchmickery look like stone battleships, not coincidentally wasting more than one German bomb). It also has an abbey, which unlike most in this area is only partially demolished. Its lawns and garden, its cloisters and some of its rooms, are intact, and it's used for weddings. (All denominations and none - it belongs to the Scottish History trust, not to any of the churches.) It's fascinating to ramble and clamber around in. The chapter house, where the monks met daily for abbey business, is a polygonal structure with a stone vaulted roof, with stone benches around the walls and three arched seat-niches for the abbott, the prior and the sub-prior. Standing in the middle of the floor and imagining the monks lining the benches I realised what it reminded me off. 'It's a locker room!' I said. It probably smelled like one, too, when full of seldom washed men in often wet clothes.
The island's main pull, however, is its bird life and sea views, which you get to via pathways, stairways, tunnels and dangerous cliff edges. I saw my first puffins, a flock swimming in the sea, small birds with big triangular rainbow beaks that look as if they're held on with elastic, like clown noses. Lots of gulls, making ready to nest and already noisy in defence of their territories. A nearby rock, the Haystack, has a colony of seals, of which you can see a dozen or so at low tide.
I didn't read up the history, but the abbey's been there in one form or another for almost a thousand years, during half of which it was in use. What happened? Well, the Reformation happened. 'The best way tae prevent the black corbies fae returning,' said Knox, 'is tae pull doon their nests.'
In the third volume of Henry Thomas Buckle's Introduction to the History of Civilization in England he deals with Scotland. This was by way of comparison and contrast to (Vol 2) the history of Spain, which in turn was to point up the peculiarities of the history of France, which in its turn was to show how different it was from the (Vol 1) history of England, which was in Buckle's opinion the ideal country in which to observe the undisturbed and natural course of Civilization, what with its being an island and all (except for its attachment to Scotland and Wales, which introduced minor disturbing factors). So Buckle, in preparation for a scientific study of history, wrote in succession introductions to the history of England, France, Spain and Scotland, and - just when he was getting to what he thought was the main point - died. (In Damascus.) Bummer. But he left us one of the most entertaining and indeed enchanting hard-core rationalist and libertarian histories of these countries ever penned.
This is especially true of Scotland. Buckle sought to explain the paradox that the Scots were liberal in politics, and bigoted in religion. Loyalty, Buckle owned, was not one of their faults. 'The Scotch have made war upon most of their kings,' he wrote with barely concealed approval, 'and put to death many.' How were so rebellious a people so craven before their clergy? It was the association of the Church with, first the king against the nobles, and then the people against the king, that explained its ascendancy. That ascendancy, upon victory, it turned rapidly to a tyranny of its own, a spiritual Cheka complete with its very own people's courts, the Kirk Sessions.
The Scottish Presbyterian clergy of the seventeenth century did more to inculcate superstition, gloom, asceticism, fear of hell, and dread of evil spirits than perhaps any religious establishment outside of Spain or Tibet. Not even the Puritans, not even in their godly pomp during the Reign of the Saints, could hold a candle to the ministers of the Kirk. They told of themselves and each other self-serving miracle stories of the sort that, told elsewhere of Catholic saints, make Protestants scoff and Jesuits blush. (I myself have been in all sincerity shown the footprints of a renowned preacher from centuries past, still there in the top of a rock.) If a class of men is given power they will abuse it, Buckle said. 'The entire history of the world affords no instance to the contrary.'
It is no exaggeration to say that the reputation of the Scotch Kirk has never recovered from the merciless kicking it received from the footnotes of Buckle. And it is the footnotes you have to read: in his chapter on the seventeenth century their small print occupies more space than the main text, page after page. He trawled every hell-fire sermon, every seditious screed, every tormenting self-tormented twisting of the conscience of the elect, every relevant Act of the Parliament of Scotland, every witch trial and heresy hunt and ludicrous hagiography and miracle-mongering memoir, and came up with the goods. He documented the clergy's savage misanthropy and refuted it in a stirring defence and justification of physical pleasure and worldly gain that echoes that of Spinoza, and is all the more touching in that Buckle (again like Spinoza) was himself among the most abstemious and studious of men.
Buckle has a clear explanation of how the Scotch clergy gained their power, and how long they kept it, and how slowly they began to lose it, but he misses - or lived barely long enough to see - how they acquired, in the second half of the nineteenth century, a somewhat more liberal and enlightened hegemony. The Free Kirk's theological college - still called New College, on the Mound in Edinburgh - was the pioneer of German-influenced biblical criticism in the English-speaking world, and some of its clergy and laity (Hugh Miller, for instance) were intellectuals, patriots and philanthropists of the first degree. They did it by siding, once again, with the people.
The story is peculiar and contorted. The Highland clansfolk, smashed and demoralised by the post-Culloden culminating terrors of the Scottish Revolution-from-above (q.v.), lapsed from Episcopalianism or a nominal Presbyterianism almost into their ancient and never entirely abandoned paganism. They were re-evangelised and re-moralised by the Church of Scotland. In Ireland, after a later and greater catastrophe, another feckless Gaelic peasantry pulled themselves together in the Catholic church, and became in a generation or two the canny kulaks who defeated the British empire. The Scottish Gaels had a less fraught destiny. They stopped - or became remorseful about - their hard drinking and promiscuous dancing, and became respectable hard-working on-the-make Scots. (Not that the pagan trace has entirely departed. There's one island, to all appearances devout, of whose people I've heard a minister complain: '[These] folk are so heathen they're not even afraid of dying.') And strangely enough, they identified not with the contemporary Moderate, moralising, ministers of Enlightenment Scotland, but with the persecuted, radical, King-hating, bishop-stabbing hell-raising evangelists of the seventeenth-century conventicles. The Highland Presbyterians took as their heroes and saints people to whom the Highlanders were known only and hated as a terrorist and terrifying horde of lickspittle, servile, counter-revolutionary, savage, Papist, cattle-thieving, bare-arsed mujahedin.
Soon enough, the tame preachers of the capitalist landlords who had (often in the same person, or that of their sons) replaced the patriarchal petty-tyrant chieftains of the clans, came into conflict with those favoured by their tenants, tenants whom the aforementioned landlords were busy shipping to Canada (and earlier, the Indies) to replace with sheep. The popular preachers, for the most part, and to their credit be it said, stood with their congregations against the Clearances. Little worldly good this did them - the benefice was in the gift of the landlord, not the congregation. Hence the Great Disruption of 1843, over that very issue of patronage, which across the Highlands emptied the churches and manses of the Church of Scotland and filled those of the new Free Kirk.
('What do you understand by "the invisible church"?' a Free Kirk elder is said to have asked an aspirant to the communion. Came the hesitant reply: 'The Established Church?')
Predictably, as the century wore on, some of the fervent Highlanders began to call into question the liberal theological drift of the now hegemonic Free Church, and some few of them - a savoury remnant, as the old phrase goes - separated from it in 1893 to establish, with less than a handful of ministers, the Free Presbyterian Church.
In that church I was raised. It retains faint but discernible traces of some of the faults excoriated by Buckle, and has added a few more. It was also the first church in the British Isles to denounce apartheid, and the first whose secular head - its Moderator, an annual post - was a black man. The majority of its adherents are now African. There were not many fundamentalist denominations in the white world of the 1960s where (literally) red-necked farmers listened with reverence to a black reverend from Zimbabwe (I still remember staring at the holes in his earlobes) or to an English Jewish convert, enthusiastically and knowledgeably expounding the Hebrew text that underlies King James.
Last week I attended the funeral of a relative of mine, a member of that church, in Skye. The rain was terrible. The church was packed. There was no sermon, only a singing of the 23rd Psalm, and two prayers. It is a peculiarity of that peculiar people that they have no funeral service; there is a dread of even the appearance of prayers for the dead, that Papist innovation. So the worship on the day of the funeral does not mention the deceased by name; the coffin stays outside, in the hearse, in the rain; and at the graveside the minister does not pray. The burial was miles away, in Glendale. A slow procession of cars followed the hearse. On the hillside above the cemetery is a memorial to 'the Glendale martyrs', one of whom - John MacPherson - was an ancestor of the woman we buried. His sword is in her attic. Another of the 'martyrs' was a minister. These men were arrested and jailed for leading a confrontation of 600 Skye crofters with the Sheriff's men who had come to enforce an eviction. Their victory is visible in the houses and crofts that still spread across the hills of the glen and the dale.
There have been moments when I thought my family's funerals resembled the Mafia's as depicted in movies. Businessmen in black suits, conferring quietly, smoking by their big cars outside the graveyard. This time, standing in the mud outside the drystone wall, on the land our fathers fought for, I was suddenly reminded of pictures of funerals on another island not far away. The religion and politics could hardly be more different, but something in the shape of the faces and the landscape was the same, and the same rain.
For his great, long, flawed poem Island Funeral Hugh MacDiarmid stole an entire chunk of text word for word from Haldane's essay on materialism. I have no compunction in stealing it back:
Yet if the nature of the mind is determinedI don't believe that, either, but not to believe is not the same as to scoff.
Thursday, April 15, 2004
I go away for a night and come back and the news at ten is like something from a Jack Chick comic; the frames where the sinister political figure tells the world that Syria has joined the EU or that all barcodes must henceforth include 666 or that the recent millions of car crashes are no cause for alarm, and I wish the reality producers would just cut that out. Bush, Sharon, Palestine, Najaf, soldiers closing on a golden-domed shrine ... enough already, OK?
Tuesday, April 13, 2004
Kathryn Cramer has advance ordered a new book which ascribes the rise in Islamist and other terrorism to the US late Cold War policy of supporting, organising and financing Islamist and other terrorism.
The World Socialist Web Site imagines a joint Bush-Kerry press conference:
'Fellow Americans, Senator Kerry and I agree on our vision for Iraq and are determined to carry through the mission, no matter what the cost in Iraqi and American blood. Iraq has the second largest proven oil reserves in the world. Our principal vision is for these vast natural resources to be taken from the Iraqis and placed under the control of ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco. This will simultaneously advance our strategy of asserting US global hegemony by means of military force, and further enrich the financial oligarchy that we both represent.
Monday, April 12, 2004
Riverbend reports that Baghdad is calm and relatively quiet if you don't count the frequent explosions.
Sunday, April 11, 2004
In attempting to deal with two thorns in its side at once - Fallujah and the Sadrists - the US has impaled itself on several more. What follows goes beyond the evidence, and is a rough guess. If you want informed comment, go to the War and Revolution links in my sidebar.
The uprising could fizzle. Already, however, it has revealed that the US-led occupation of Iraq is built on sand. The Fallujah insurgents and the Army of the Mahdi, few in themselves, have drawn mass - not necessarily majority - support. What must be far more worrying for the US is what props to its rule the insurgents have kicked away. The IGC puppet government, to which a very nominal 'sovereignty' is supposed to be handed at the end of June, is scurrying to dissociate itself from the US military's handling of the situation; hence the IGC negotiations with the insurgents. Given how unwelcome to the US military these negotiations must be, one can imagine what pressures the IGC must have brought to bear. Perhaps the whole arrangement might have been on the point of collapse. The IP, ICDC, and even the Iraq Armed Forces, built up over the past year, are not just unreliable but in many cases actively hostile. Of the allied troops, the least reliable are the ex-commies, with the possible exception of the Poles, who were never very commie in the first place. Bulgarians, Ukrainians and Kazhaks are unlikely to be called to the imperial colours again any time soon. Gestural allies with symbolic contingents are vulnerable to hostage-taking and other casualties, and therefore a liability. Second and third tier imperialist forces - Spain and Italy - are militarily solid but politically weak. Their troops will fight until they're withdrawn. The Spanish are leaving in a month or two. The Salvadorans are basically US colonial troops, blooded in occupying their own country for decades, and therefore sound. And then there are the Brits, reliable militarily and politically but privately shaking their heads, if not holding their heads in their hands, at the sight of a counter-insurgency strategy derived from that splendid positive role model of a winning approach: Israel.
On the other side, the insurgents have - to all appearances, and for the moment - fought the US to a standstill in Fallujah. On the outskirts of Baghdad they're taking out not just fuel convoys but tanks. The refugees from Fallujah aren't cursing the resistance - if they were, we'd be hearing about it non-stop, as in Basra a year ago. A year ago, Saddam's Fedayeen (etc) were fighting like an unpopular underground resistance movement. Today, elements of the resistance are fighting like a regular army. They haven't yet taken on more US forces in open combat than Saddam's army ever did, but they're getting there.
The US/UK can't afford to lose, and handing over the mess to the UN (or the French and the Russians) would also be to lose. Half the point of the whole exercise is to impress the rest of the world enough to keep the US line of credit open. If the other powers have to pay the butcher's bill, they won't for long accept promissory notes for the heating and the bar tab.
On the other hand, repeating Grozny on Fallujah is to bid for a world of pain. The whole thing could still fizzle, but its repercussions can only grow.
Friday, April 09, 2004
Channel 4 News at 19.00 BST interviewed by phone a 'British freelance journalist' just out of Fallujah who said that 'tens of thousands' of women, children and old men were fleeing Fallujah in response to warnings loudspeakered from US humvees that if they did not leave they would be killed. He also reported heavy armour being brought up to the town.
Make of that what you like. If it's true it's the biggest news of the day.
Thursday, April 08, 2004
A Uniter, not a Divider
BAGHDAD - Thousands of Sunni and Shiite Muslims backed by cars full of food and medical supplies headed on foot Thursday toward the town of Fallujah which has been besieged by US forces.
The protesters answered a call by Muslim groups for a peaceful march to carry supplies to residents of the Sunni town where dozens of Iraqis have been killed since US marines launched an offensive Sunday to wipe out insurgents.
"Our families in Fallujah, remember that our dead go to heaven and theirs to hell," read a banner held by the marchers who had gathered early Thursday at the Um al-Qora mosque in west Baghdad where people donated food, drinks and medicine.
"No Sunnis, no Shiites, yes for Islamic unity. We are Sunni and Shiite brothers and will never sell our country," they chanted.
Monday, April 05, 2004
The Agitator points to a punchy article against the proposed Washington, DC smoking ban and to a remarkably content-free interview with 'Nurse Bloomberg' puffing New York's. The former article claims that
In New York City, where legislators are considering amendments to the smoking ban, 76 percent of bars and nightclubs experienced a 30 percent decline in business.In the smoking culture war, of course, 48.03% of statistics are made up, so I prefer to stick with arguments from liberty and common sense. If it turns out to 'work' in Ireland, I won't take that as a reason to oppose it less in Scotland. I'll just take it as bad news about the Irish.
Adolf Hitler: Man or Myth?
Every so often, a survey is released showing that some startling proportion of US citizens believe that aliens have landed on Earth, that men never landed on the Moon, that Saddam attacked New York, that the Copernican conception of the Solar system is 'just a theory' pushed by secular humanists and evil government scientists. US educators grind their teeth; educated Europeans snigger.
It's time for Brits to blush too:
A survey of the historical knowledge of the average adult, to be published this week, has uncovered "absurd and depressing" areas of ignorance about past events, and confusion between characters from films and historical figures.Blame is being divided between the Left in the education system (downgrading 'kings and battles' history for social history) and Hollywood (making shit up). This seems fair and balanced.
P.S. To be fair, I can think of ways in which the method of the survey could bias the results. If, for instance, people were presented with a list of names of battles, and asked to indicate which were real and which were not, wouldn't Endor and Helm's Deep sound more historical than the Little Big Horn and the Bulge? Still, I like the idea that some of my compatriots believe Harold Wilson flanked by Xena and Conan led an army of cyborgs to victory over the apes in the Battle of Woking during the Martian invasion ...
Saturday, April 03, 2004
Kathryn Cramer has been digging up some intriguing information about military and security mercenaries. Go and have a look.
Googlebombing the antisemites
What is a Jew?
Spread the word.
Some additional questions, freely adapted from Feorag:
What's the religion of religious Jews?
What ethnicity is denoted by the word "Jew"?
What else might be said about a person who is a Jew?
What about Judaism, the religion of the Jewish tradition?
Anything else about the Jews?
How about a dictionary definition of "Jew"?
What's the real deal on Jewish ritual?
That should do something to drive the fascists off the first page of results.
Friday, April 02, 2004
The Passion of the Road Warrior
Last Christmas I updated a poem I'd written years ago for Mrs Early (a carol for Carol) and put it on Teresa's weblog:
One for the carpenter
Happy birthday to you,So much for the Son of Man. More immediately pressing is what we are to make of Mel Gibson. To my mind the most moving of the films in which he has starred was Conspiracy Theory. It was at some artistic remove about real events, the infamous project MK-Ultra, and it showed with compassion and respect the predicament of a paranoid with real enemies. I was disturbed to find, and damned if I'll link to it, that one of the more insightful reviews I happened across on the Web was by an anti-semitic dingbat and Holocaust denier. The next most powerful was Mad Max II, which in its attack on parasitic, decadent and barbaric exploiters can be glossed as Marxian or Randian and is in any case a hoot. Now, I haven't seen The Passion of the Christ, and I'm not exactly eager to, but I've read some reviews. There's the thoughtful Marxist analysis:
The narrow scope of The Passion of the Christ renders impossible any serious discussion of Jesus’ religious and social message. It also excludes the fact of his popularity with wide layers of the Jewish population in Jerusalem. After all, only a few days before his death, according to the Gospels, Jesus was welcomed to the city by jubilant crowds. Most accounts of the Passion begin with this triumphant entry.There's the gonzo journalist response:
The Passion didn't make me want to kill any Jews, as promised. It just put me to sleep.There's the (I guess) religious humanist critique, speaking in the name of humanity for the Man:
Did you really have to cast that talent-free pretty boy as me? Haven't we had enough soppy, doe-eyed saviors down the centuries? Especially since the poor kid has to act the entire movie with one eye shut.
And then there's the shocker, God in the Hands of Angry Sinners:
Two thirds of religious conversions are gradual, the result of intellectual and emotional quest. Only a third are sudden. Conversions usually occur to adolescents, the sudden ones early in one's teens, the slower ones later. I thought of that when I noticed that much of the audience was young at the theater where I saw the film, and most of those who were standing in line for the next showing were also young - many of them teenagers.But that theological radicalism is not the shocker. It arrives farther down in the review, of another work entirely, but not unrelated to Gibson's:
The charges Renner and Berry wanted to investigate all told the same story, and all of them revolved around one man, the founder of the Legion, Marcial Maciel Degollado.If this is true, then, as the Road Warrior said in another of his incarnations:
'Somebody has to lift the scab...the festering scab that is the Vatican.'
If the Pope's Catholic, is Gibson a Protestant?