If it keeps on raining…

 

 

The other day I heard a strange and wonderful cover of a blues classic, performed by Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan’s second band.

A delta blues purist might get an even bigger stroke than they would from Led Zeppelin’s famous version. But precisely because of the change of context, and Maynard’s emotional yet understated delivery, the song hit me like a hammer.

The original was written about the 1927 Great Mississippi Flood, the most destructive river flood in the history of the USA, which made hundreds of thousands homeless. Many of those were black, and joined the Great Migration from the agricultural South to the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest.

But the metaphor of a levee about to break speaks to me on a number of levels.

There is the general sense that insanity and inanity in the political system and the popular culture have reached a level where the rest of us feel like we are drowning in derp and d-baggery. Exhibit, well, T: My Beautiful but Evil Space Mistress’s article on the left’s long post-election tantrum.

At another level, the Harvey Weinstein scandal (and another shoe about to drop) show that the depravity of some beacons of popular culture has risen to such levels that even with the help of a fawning, compliant press it can no longer be contained. “When the levee breaks, you’ll have no place to stay.” Not that it came as a great surprise to anyone familiar with the inner workings of certain industries.

My friend “masgramondou” comments here on the peculiar “bootlegger and Baptist coalition” (or is that a CAT coalition: cads and Tumblristas?) that has arisen in an attempt to change the subject. (Mayim Bialik learned the hard way what happens when you deviate from the party line.)

At a third level, one sees something more hopeful. The ever-increasing shrillness of the would-be opinion makers and virtue signalers in politics, media (but I repeat myself), academia, and popular culture are causing ever more of us to “cut the cord” and tune them out entirely. Too many alternatives are available nowadays, and if none are to our liking, the entry barriers to creating our own have never been lower. (The flip side, of course, is the ever greater challenge to stand out from the crowd of creators.)

Are we at a tipping point, and is a return to sanity near? “And grace and good sense will be found in the eyes of G-d and man” (ומצא חן ושכל טוב בעיני א׳ ואדם), as it says in the Grace After Meals. May it happen speedily and in our days.

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Post-Yom Kippur reflection on intergenerational guilt

During the Yom Kippur service, we repeat many times the “Vidui” (confession) prayer. While reading the commentary in the Artscroll Machzor (AM below), I was struck by the gloss on the line

‘But we and our ancestors have sinned’ (אבל אנחנו ואבותינו חטאנו)
The gloss asks: why are the sins of ancestors mentioned, which we did not commit? And indeed, Leviticus 26:39-40 reads (KJV translation):
And also in the iniquities of their fathers shall they pine away. [But] if they shall confess the iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers…
Now does that mean that the people of Israel today are on the hook in perpetuity for, say, the sin of the Golden Calf? The implications of a “yes” answer for contemporary political reparations debates in the US speak for themselves: are present-day nonblack, non-aboriginal Americans on the hook for slavery abolished in 1865, or for the tragedy of the American Indians? (Actually,  the “reparations” advocates go one step further and expand the “blood guilt” to people whose ancestors weren’t even in the US in those times!)
Closer to home: what does Lev. 26:39-40 imply for the responsibility of present-day Germans for the Shoah and other genocidal and democidal campaigns that happened before the defeat of National Socialism? That is, do people who were born or came of age after these crimes against humanity were committed bear some sort of blood guilt?
As pointed out in AM, the Talmud (TB Sanhedrin 27b) explains that we are punished for our ancestors’ sins only if we approve of their way of life, and especially if we adopt it.
The Moroccan Jewish Torah commentator Rabbi Chaim Ibn-Attar, in his commentary Or haChaim, notes ad loc. Lev. 26:40 that a proper understanding of our ancestors’ sins is often a prerequisite of repentance. Paraphrasing AM, sometimes we accept family or community traditions as a proper way of life because ‘it’s always been done this way and no-one was ever punished.’ Thus we are to ‘confess’ — i.e., acknowledge — such sins of the past.
If true teshuva is achieved (repentance, but literally: “return” [to G-d] or “backtracking” from the evil ways) then the guilt has been washed away.  The Torah describes Amalek as what amounts to the first terrorist (Deut. 25:17-18): the Amalekites avoided combat with the Israelite warriors but lay in ambush and attacked the women, the children, and the elderly. Indeed, Amalek becomes a symbol, or a synecdoche if you like, for mortal enemies of the Jewish people that arise in every generation.
The villain in the book of Esther, Haman, is identified as a descendant of Amalek. But the sages also refer to Shimon and Levi has “having the seed of Amalek in them”, making it clear this is not a matter of biological descent.
And the Talmud (TB Gittin 57b) indeed gives a long list of descendants of evildoers who have now embraced the Torah, including “the descendants of Haman [and hence of Amalek] are now students of Torah in Bnei Brak” (see also TB Sanhedrin 96b). They have made full teshuvah, have fully rejected the poisonous doctrine and practices of Amalek, and hence are cleansed of his guilt.
Summing up: Judaism rejects the concept of intergenerational guilt in the narrow sense. In a broader sense, it does extend the guilt to descendants who continue walking in their ancestors’ ways, but once the descendants make a clean break with those behaviors and attitudes, they also make a clean break with the guilt.

Rush, “Between the Wheels” – A song for uncertain times

 

You know how that rabbit feels
Going under your speeding wheels
Bright images flashing by
Like windshields towards a fly
Frozen in that fatal climb
But the wheels of time just pass you by…

Wheels can take you around.
Wheels can cut you down

We can go from boom to bust
From dreams to a bowl of dust
We can fall from “rockets’ red glare”
Down to “brother, can you spare?”
Another war
Another wasteland
And another lost generation

German Elections II: Up is down, down is up

Browsing through German election updates in Die Welt over lunch, I got a feeling it isn’t just the US that has entered Robert Heinlein’s “Crazy Years”. (see my previous post)

  • Various virtue-signalers are of course hand-wringing about the “extreme right” AfD. The actual NS-nostalgists of the NPD, however, polled less than 0.5%, worse than the satirical Die Partei. (As explained by the article in Die Welt: under German law,  a party must poll at least 0.5% nationally to be eligible for certain subsidies.)
  • It is, however, clearly true that the AfD is riven by a power struggle between two camps: a “right-liberal” one around Frauke Petry that is pro-free-market, Euroskeptic, and populist, and a “national-conservative” camp currently led by former CDU politician Alexander Gauland. The latter camp appears to include some truly unsavory elements, presumably “entryists” from the extreme right.
  • Now Frauke Petry and her husband Marcus Pretzell [sic] are leaving AfD, citing its “radicalization”, and just bought a new internet domain Die Blauen (the blue ones – in Europe blue has traditionally been the color of classical liberalism). She herself was elected to the Bundestag directly (about half the seats are constituency seats) so she doesn’t have to vacate her seat.
  • This leaves Alice Weidel as the co-chair representing the party’s “right-liberal” wing.  Weidel, a Ph.D. economist who speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, works as a management consultant to startup companies and… is an overt lesbian who lives in a domestic partnership with a Swiss filmmaker of Sri Lankan origins. The couple have a second residence in Biel, Switzerland and raise her partner’s two biological children together. [How many leftie heads have exploded yet?] Weidel is opposed to same-sex marriage and adoption, as well as what she calls “pushing gender idiocy on prepubescent children”, but says she “supports lifestyles other than the traditional family” as well as, naturally, domestic partnerships.
  • Lest you think that the AfD (which may well implode) is the only party riven by internal contradictions: the Greens have pretty much for all their existence been divided between a “Fundi” (fundamentalist Green) extremist wing and a pragmatic “Realo” wing. Coalition negotiators for the Greens are having to placate both camps.
  • And as if this weren’t enough headaches for Merkel (at this point I feel almost sorry for her): her Bavarian sister party the CSU is now signaling that their presence in her coalition is not to be taken for granted. They are quite nervous about regional elections next year, and are in particular demanding an upper limit on refugee admissions. The Greens, for their part, have indicated that this is a nonstarter for them.

As the SPD had earlier announced it was taking the opposition cure following its historical nadir this election, Merkel’s options are basically reduced to a “Jamaica Coalition” of CDU/CSU (black), FDP (yellow), and Greens. But the latter is increasingly looking like an exercise in squaring the circle.

And I would not rule out an internal coup against Merkel by the right wing of the CDU.

 

German elections: One more such “victory” and Merkel is undone

The national elections in Germany took place. As expected, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats are still the largest party and she is looking at a fourth term in office. However, as King Pyrrhus is supposed to have said, “one more such victory and I am undone”.

 

german elections 2017
[Screencap from the Frankfurter Allgemeine website. Black=Christian Democrats; Red=Social Democrats; Blue=Alternative for Germany (populist right); Yellow=Free Democrats (classical liberals); Purple=The Left (former East German communists); Green=The Greens; Sonstiges=remaining/others.]

Both the major parties, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, are at their nadir since WW II. The third largest party is now the populist right-wing, anti-immigrant, anti-establishment Alternative for Germany, which in the former East Germany placed second [h/t: masgramondou] and in the state of Sachsen (Saxony) actually became the #1 party! The other major winner are the classical liberal Free Democrats — the junior partners in many postwar federal governments — who have made a great comeback since the last election when they did not make the 5% electoral threshold. Barney the purple communist dinosaur and its green belly both maintained their strength.

 

Bundestag 2017
Preliminary seat distribution in the Bundestag (709 total seats). Voter turnout: 76.1%

 

The logical coalition partner for Merkel might seem the SPD (continuing the present coalition), perhaps with support from the FPD in a “national flag coalition” (black-yellow-red). However, the SPD decided to go lick its wounds and take the opposition cure. This leaves the so-called “Jamaica coalition” (after the colors of the Jamaican flag) of CDU, FDP, and Greens. “Two years at most for Jamaica,” says a headline at the Frankfurter Allgemeine, as such a government is prey to many obvious internal contradictions.

The AfD itself seems to be riven by an internal power struggle between populist-right and far-right wings. Party leader Frauke Petry has even announced she does not wish to be part of the AfD faction in parliament, leading to calls for her to step aside.

[At this latter link is also an interesting interactive graph showing voter flow between 213 and 2017 elections. For instance, about one-third of all FDP voters this time are defectors from the CDU/CSU, while one-quarter of all AfD voters did not vote in the previous election.]

“Interesting times,” in the ancient Chinese sense of the word…

UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers!

UPDATE 2: AfD-chairwoman Frauke Petry and her husband Marcus Pretzell, regional AfD chair in North Rhine-Westphalia, intend to quit the party.

And Horst Seehofer, chairman of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party CSU (Christian Social Union), is calling on Angela Merkel to “draw personal consequences” from the historically poor showing of the CDU and step aside. National Review speaks of “Merkel’s Nightmare Victory” [h/t: Jason B.]

UPDATE 3: see my next update here

 

 

Media bias: nothing new under the sun

 

Forsyth, Frederick. The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue (p. 111). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Judging from all the chatter about “Fake News,” one might think media bias is a wholly new phenomenon. Of course, there is nothing new under the sun.

I have earlier blogged about Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography “The Outsider,” specifically on how he reinvented himself as a pioneering thriller writer after his journalistic career came to an abrupt end. (The Day Of The Jackal to me still stands as perhaps the greatest thriller ever written.)

Forsyth never went to journalism school (he’d probably snicker at the thought): his formal training was as a jet fighter pilot! He had instead learned the craft on the job as a cub reporter for a regional newspaper, then decided to try his luck in London. By coincidence, the Reuters deputy bureau chief in Paris had just returned home with a heart condition. As this was a time of great political turmoil in France following de Gaulle’s decision to withdraw from Algeria, the agency needed a replacement urgently. The polyglot Forsyth spoke French like a native and thus was hired basically on the spot.

Forsyth credits his boss in Paris, Harold King, with teaching him the value of professionalism and objectivity even on a subject where your own passions are palpable — such as de Gaulle, whom both men admired.

In this spirit, Forsyth relates a telling anecdote for those who think manufactured press conferences with planted questions are a recent innovation:

“I had turned twenty-four, and in January attended the now-famous press conference in the Elysée when de Gaulle vetoed the British application to join the European Economic Community. It was a huge slap in the face to British premier Harold Macmillan, who, in Algeria in the Second World War, had pushed de Gaulle’s claims to be the sole leader of the Free French.

His conferences were no press conferences at all. He simply planted five questions with five ultraloyal senior pressmen in the audience, memorized the speech he intended to make in reply, and also memorized the placements of the five so-called questioners, because he could not see them. Harold King, in the front, was awarded a question to ask.

Later, Forsyth became the Reuters correspondent in East Berlin. I won’t detract from his many humorous tales of that period, many of which feature unintentionally comic behavior by the Stasi and regime officials. Pride of place is given to the press secretary of the East German Communist government, who acted as a de facto censor for the foreign press. Forsyth discovered that Kurt Blecha was, in fact, a former Nazi who underwent a “conversion” in a POW camp and now served the competing brand of totalitarians.

At Christmas, Easter, and on his birthday, I sent him an anonymous greeting card at his office. It was bought in East Berlin but typed on a machine in the West Berlin office of Reuters, in case my own machine was checked. It wished him all best, with his Nazi Party membership number writ large and purporting to come from “your old and faithful Kameraden.” I never saw him open them, but I hope they worried the hell out of him.

He tells of a few amusing amorous capers, one of which made it quite advisable for him to get back to the West. After another stint in Paris, he obtained a job with the BBC.

I learned quite quickly that the BBC is not primarily a creator of entertainment, or a reporter and disseminator of hard news like Reuters. Those come second. Primarily the BBC is a vast bureaucracy with the three disadvantages of a bureaucracy. These are a slothlike inertia, an obsession with rank over merit, and a matching obsession with conformism.[…]

The upper echelons of the bureaucracy preferred a devoted servility to the polity of the ruling government, provided it was Labor, and it was.

After various assignments, the BBC sent him to Nigeria to report on the developing civil war and the secession of what became the short-lived Republic of Biafra. Here, Forsyth became an eyewitness to an unfolding human tragedy — his collected dispatches were later published in book form as The Biafra Story.

The BBC toffs were in lockstep with Whitehall (the Foggy Bottom of the UK) and the Wilson administration: they sided with the predominantly Muslim, pseudo-democratic, feudal regime of Nigeria against the predominantly Christian Igbo people who populated Biafra. (In this respect too, nothing new under the sun.) They repeated the propaganda of the Nigerian dictatorship as gospel truth.

Every journalist will know that he may have to report what a dictatorship is saying, but must make plain early on that it is the government talking, not him. This is the “attribution”—the words “according to the Nigerian government.”

Forsyth reported what he actually saw, and that did not go down well:

What I had actually done was point a Colt .45 at the forehead of my reporting career with the BBC and pull the trigger. It was not out of mischief but naïveté. I was trained by Reuters. I had never covered a controversial story in my two years with the BBC. I did not realize that when broadcasting for the state, a foreign correspondent must never report what London does not want to hear. And that is what I had done.

Forsyth was recalled to England, and then resigned from the BBC to continue reporting as a freelancer.

Every day, the horrors of Vietnam were copiously reported, but that was an American mess. Nigeria was a very British one, apparently to remain clothed in secrecy.[…]

For the record, there were no starving children visible at that time. They would appear later, and the ghastly images of them, splashed across the world’s media, would transform everything.

This happened after the blockade against Biafra had been enforced for a while. The Igbo grew their own sources of starches, but for protein were basically dependent on imports:

 It is a fact that an adult needs one gram of pure protein per day to stay healthy. A growing child needs five. The native population had always raised a few chickens and some small pigs for their eggs and meat. Other than these, there was no protein source and, unperceived, the hens and pigs had been consumed. The traditional protein supplement had always been fish; not river-caught fish but enormous quantities of Norwegian-imported dried cod called stockfish. These rock-hard sticks of cod went into the family stew pot, became rehydrated, and served as the family protein ration. For nine months, no stockfish had entered the surrounded and blockaded enclave. The meat/milk sources were gone. The national diet was now almost 100 percent starch.

And hence kwashiorkor made its appearance. Forsyth and others reported.

I did what I did, not in order to do down the Biafrans—far from it. I did it to try to influence the Whitehall argument that continued intermittently for the next fifteen months until the final crushing of Biafra, with a million dead children. The argument was between: “Prime Minister, this cannot be allowed to go on. The human cost is simply too high. We should reconsider our policy. We should use all our influence to urge a cease-fire, a peace conference, and a political solution,” and “Prime Minister, I can assure you the media reports are as usual sensationalist and grossly exaggerated. We have information the rebel regime is very close to collapse. The sooner it does, the sooner we can get columns of relief food into the rebel territory. Meanwhile, we urge you to stick with the hitherto-agreed policy and even increase the support for the federal government.”

Guess which path the Whitehall mandarins chose? Worse, through a sleight-of-hand, they actually armed the Nigerian regime while professing neutrality.

Another early lie was that no weapons at all were being shipped from Britain to fuel the war. The key word was from, not by. In fact, the supplies were coming from British stocks at the immense NATO weapons park outside Brussels, and thus technically from Belgium. They were then replaced by shipments from Britain to Belgium.

And thus, slowly but surely, Biafra was crushed to death, even as the famine became an international humanitarian cause célèbre. Forsyth tells at some length of the aid efforts by Catholic and Protestant aid organizations —including an improvised air bridge that is estimated to have saved over a million lives. A secular relief effort that started in France would later (1971) rename itself Doctors Without Borders.

On another occasion, the war hero Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC was asked to go to visit, be shown around Nigeria only, and return to peddle the official line. He duly went to Nigeria, but then refused not to go to Biafra. What he saw on the second visit so shocked him that he came back and denounced the official policy. He was immediately smeared as a gullible fool.

It was pretty standard to smear every journalist who expressed disgust at what was going on as either a mercenary, arms dealer, or [Biafran leader] Ojukwu propagandist, even though a million pictures are rather hard to dispute. No massive humanitarian tragedy, save those inflicted by nature herself, is possible without two kinds of contributors[: perpetrators and enablers].[…]

Starting with Sir David Hunt’s biased and flawed analysis, which was adopted by the Commonwealth Relations Office, taken over and intensified by the Foreign Office, and cravenly endorsed by Harold Wilson and Michael Stewart, what happened could not have happened without the wholesale and covert contribution of the Wilson government. I remain convinced of it to this day.

Nor was it necessary to protect some vital British interest, and what interest merits a million dead children? Britain could have used its huge influence with Lagos to militate for a cease-fire, a peace conference, and a political solution. It chose not to, despite repeated opportunities, pursuing Hunt’s conviction that Biafra must be crushed no matter the cost, but without ever explaining why.

That is why I believe that this coterie of vain mandarins and cowardly politicians stained the honor of my country forever, and I will never forgive them.

Frederick Forsyth was a journalist not just with a brain and a heart, but with a kind of raw moral integrity and intellectual honesty that made it impossible for him to continue in that profession, as he was “blackballed” upon his return to England. Looking for a way to support himself, he struck gold as a fiction writer, almost single-handedly establishing a new kind of tightly factual thriller.

Many journalists were presstitutes [sic] and mediatamites [sic] in Forsyth’s day — nothing is new there. What has changed is more that they morphed from high-class courtesans to pathetic streetwalkers—and that the tools to expose them are more readily available to those of us who want to hear what really went down.

RIP Jerry Pournelle, 1933-2017

The great Jerry Pournelle, political scientist, technological visionary, prolific science fiction writer (often in collaboration with Larry Niven), and computing pioneer all in one, just passed away after a brief respiratory illness. He had appeared at DragonCon only days earlier.

I’ve been following Chaos Manor on an off since it was first a print column in BYTE magazine, back in the Early Tertiary era of computing. The online version has a serious claim to being the world’s oldest blog.
Novels like “Fallen Angels” (with Niven & Flynn) or “The Mote in G-d’s Eye” (with Niven) would have made the reputation of a lesser man. But aside from being a prolific science fiction writer, he was also a compelling thinker and technological visionary. Even with half his brain zapped by radiation treatments, he could still out-think most soi-disant “intellectuals”. Pournelle suffered no fools intellectually, but by all accounts was a generous and solicitous human being in private.
Here is a taste of Jerry Pournelle in his own words. (He was, by the way, apparently the first writer to write a published novel entirely on a [then primitive and monstrously expensive] personal computer.)

HOW TO GET MY JOB

The question I get most often, both in mail and when I speak, is, “How do I get your job?” Usually it’s done a bit more politely, but sometimes it’s asked just that way. It’s generally phrased differently by computer audiences than by science fiction audiences, but both really want to know the same thing: how do you become an author?

I always give the same answer: it’s easy to be an author, whether of fiction or nonfiction, and it’s a pleasant profession. Fiction authors go about making speeches and signing books. Computer authors go to computer shows and then come home to open boxes of new equipment and software, and play with the new stuff until they tire of it. It’s nice work if you can get it.

The problem is that no one pays you to be an author.

To be an author, you must first be a writer; and while it’s easy to be an author, being a writer is hard work. Surprisingly, it may be only hard work; that is, while some people certainly have more talent for writing than others, everyone has some. The good news is that nearly anyone who wants to badly enough can make some kind of living at writing. The bad news is that wanting to badly enough means being willing to devote the time and work necessary to learn the trade.

The secret of becoming a writer is that you have to write. You have to write a lot. You also have to finish what you write, even though no one wants it yet. If you don’t learn to finish your work, no one will ever want to see it. The biggest mistake new writers make is carrying around copies of unfinished work to inflict on their friends.

I am sure it has been done with less, but you should be prepared to write and throw away a million words of finished material. By finished, I mean completed, done, ready to submit, and written as well as you know how at the time you wrote it. You may be ashamed of it later, but that’s another story.

The late Randall Garrett, one of the most prolific writers of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, used to have a number of rules, many of them scatological. One of them was that no professional writer ever got anything from formal courses in writing. I think he was wrong, in the sense that a good formal introduction to the rules of grammar and spelling can be extremely useful; but he had a point, which is that there aren’t any secrets to be learned from creative-writing courses. If the only way you can force yourself to write that million words of your best work is to take a class in creative writing or attend a writers’ workshop, by all means do it; but do it understanding that the good comes from the writing you do, not from the criticism or theory or technique taught in the class.

May his memory be blessed. The science fiction field and the blogosphere are truly a poorer place without him.