Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Note to terrorists: Subscribe to USA Today

I'm on holiday at the moment and wasn't planning to do any posting, but I just had to say something about this.

This morning's USA Today's front-page lead, headlined "Airport Security Uses Talk as Tactic," describes how airport cops and TSA screeners are being taught to spot possible terrorists by their speech and body language.

A second article on page 3 then describes precisely the sorts of suspicious speech and actions Officer Plod is on the lookout for. Both articles are sourced from airport police, Customs and Border Protection and TSA officials.

Security? Do these dopes have the smallest idea of what their jobs are supposed to be about?

I'm no security expert either, but I know this much: you don't announce your tactics in public. It doesn't surprise me that politically appointed government hacks would be so ignorant, but I would have expected a little more discretion from professional police officers and airport security directors.

The security routine at airports is mostly a farce designed for public relations, to give the appearance of protection without the substance. Any serious airport security would involve extra screening for identifiable
Muslims or those whose records show they've traveled in Muslim countries. But that would mean running afoul of the dreaded ACLU (which, needless to say, also opposes using behavioral clues to decide who needs extra attention).

Think about this next time you put your hand luggage and shoes in those trays and raise your arms to be "wanded": the United States government would rather you were blown up in mid-air than offend the politico-religious group that is unquestionably the most likely to try to separate your infidel soul from your body.

Saturday, December 24, 2005



We interrupt this blog to bring you a news bulletin of temporary and, in the great scheme of things, very little importance.

I'll be away from Reflecting Light Control Center until January 1. Destination: Pasadena and Los Angeles. Blogging will resume shortly after we all toast the New Year.

I wish you a wonderful and spiritually uplifting Christmas, Hanukkah, day off, or whatever else you celebrate.

As always, I recommend checking out the sites listed in the sidebar to the right.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Painting spirit by numbers

matrix of multiples of four --- www.

Chryzode: Matrix of Multiples of Four

Mathematicians can find great beauty, even inspiration, in a mathematical formula. The greatest mathematician of antiquity, Pythagoras, was also a mystic.

Until recently I never could conceive how that was possible. Economics is supposed to be the dismal science, but I'd award the prize to math. A bunch of letters, numbers and signs -- pure essence of boredom.

Modern computing has changed the, er, equation. It's now possible to visualize mathematical ideas in color and simulated three dimensions. Wowie zowie!

Artistic view of 128 quaternionic Julia sets

Jean-François Colonna: Artistic View of 128 Quaternionic Julia Sets

Or, check this out:

images of crystal growth based on simple cellular automaton rules with 8 nearest neighbors

Primordial Soup Kitchen: Images of Crystal Growth Based on Simple Cellular Automaton Rules With 8 Nearest Neighbors

Advanced mathematics, yes; but any old hippie of my generation will recognize it as the tribal folk art known as a God's Eye.

See the links for many more fascinating examples of computer-visualized mathematics.

The Web finally convinced me that computers were not inherently Satanic; the blogosphere made me a believer in online communities; and pictures like these suggest the truth of Arthur C. Clarke's famous aphorism: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Give them an inch, they'll take 2.54 centimeters

If you are planning to order a pizza in a European Union nation during 2009 or thereafter, paste this in your hat:
Pizza Hut are in the process of phasing in metric measurements for their 950 [European] restaurants in preparation for an EU ruling due to take effect from 2009 which says that pizzas must be sold in metric measurements instead of imperial. (Thanks to Neil Herron at Wonko's World.)
What could be more reasonable? The initiative, after all, came after 18 months of close study by the multi-lateral Pizza Standardization Commission, which swore in 44 witnesses whose testimony runs to 3,659 pages of closely spaced type. If nothing else, you could hardly expect a system of measurements called "imperial" to survive into the 21st century C.E. (itself an anachronism; events will soon be dated 2o E.U.E., etc., for European Union Era). If only our ancestors had had the foresight to call the system Emerging-World Multi-Cultural Units (EMUs), the mandarins in Brussels might not have gotten around to outlawing them until, maybe, 2015.

Given the urgency of the situation, the EU is taking a risk in allowing the present pizza measurements to be phased out gradually. But according to my highly placed sources, a last-minute behind-the-scenes effort by the European Coordinated Pizza Manufacturers and Distributors League (ECPMDL) pushed back the deadline by 60 days.

Certainly the pizza lobby felt hard done by. They pointed out the costs involved: re-sizing pans and ovens; a complete design re-think for advertising and point-of-sale collaterals; ordering new lettering for menu boards; and the person-hours required to remove the old letters and retrofit the new ones.

Nevertheless, the Pizza Standardization Commission concluded: "In today's highly competitive world, the nations of Europe must present a united front if we are to offer a counter-weight to the pizza-pricing power, or PPP, of the bloodthirsty screaming-fundamentalist Halliburton-ruled intelligent-design-loving United States of America."

There is no question that this move by Brussels represents a significant challenge to American PPP. I view with alarm the inchworm pace of metrification in the U.S., more than 30 years after President Jimmy ("I am the World") Carter told us to get with it as soon as we put our sweaters on.

In fact, the only new metrification moment I have experienced in years was when signs went up on Highway I-10 between Tucson, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico, showing distances in kilometers. I can only surmise that this was part of a Federal Highways Program to ensure that illeg — excuse me, economic migrants from Mexico were not confused about their actual progress away from the border. A small step, but surely a harbinger of greater ones to follow.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Look out below

The latest post, Apologia pro Blog Sua, appeared underneath two earlier ones. That surprised me, even freaked me out a little at first when I published it and didn't see it at the top. But I'd tinkered with it since yesterday before publishing it, and I realized that Blogger sorts postings by the time code for when you first save them as drafts, not when you publish them.

It doesn't matter, except I didn't want you to miss the latest entry thinking nothing new has appeared. So I invite you to scroll down to Apologia pro Blog Sua. Thanks.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Refracting light


This is a Hubble telescope photo of a dying star, which is emitting gas and dust, thus, refracting light. (Tip of the hat to Pastorius at Infidel Bloggers Alliance.)

"The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork." (Psalms 19:1)

Yankees, go home

Iraq has had its third election in a year. That should now qualify it as a democracy. It meets Bush & Co.'s most recent definition of a success.

The United States's real success in Iraq took place some two and a half years ago, when Saddam Hussein's vicious regime was ended after a three-week invasion. It was a good thing to do and I'm proud of my country for doing it.

Ever since, President Bush has upheld one of the country's less admirable traditions, of winning a war and losing the peace. He and his advisors seem to have understood nothing about the psychology of the Middle East or about Islam. They assumed that once the Baathist government was no longer calling the tune, a grateful populace would hail the American liberators and the territory between the Tigris and the Euphrates would resemble the green and pleasant landscape inhabited by The Teletubbies.

When the Peaceable Kingdom didn't arrive on schedule, the rationale for the war and occupation morphed from taking down a threat to the United States to promoting democracy, the all-purpose solvent, the great Philosopher's Stone of history. While our very brave and extraordinarily skillful armed forces dodged (or failed to dodge) mortar fire and IEDs, as the casualty rate that had been minimal during the invasion began its agonizing rise, we applied to the Iraqis for their friendship. We tried to bring them together in one happy family. We rebuilt the country's infrastructure. The world's toughest fighting men and women were drafted as social workers riding in tanks. Some didn't make it home.

But we've won — we've hatched, officially, a democracy. We've accomplished all that we can accomplish. It's hubris to imagine that we have the power to instill in a people the power of self-government that it took the Anglosphere half a millennium to grow organically.

Not to say the Iraqis can't do it; I wish them the best. But we can't do it for them. The most we can do is create the outward framework of democracy. The spirit is something they'll have to develop themselves. If enough of them really want to, they will. If they don't understand or desire the idea of democracy, the state of mind it requires, then we can't inject it.

It's time to end the occupation. I don't want one more American life sacrificed for the fantastic notion of democracy all over the Middle East. If various different brands of Islam want to prong each other to win control, let them. We should probably welcome exactly that. Hasn't anyone among Bush's lineup of neocon bobbing heads ever heard of the maxim, "Divide and conquer"?

If the military strategists want it, we should establish permanent bases in Iraq. We should call the newly elected, democratically chosen, bright and shining leader of a liberated Iraq to drop by for a very private visit and listen to a valedictory speech. It would go something like this:

"Congratulations on your election victory, Mr. President. We're going to keep a couple of divisions and some Air Force units here so you won't miss us too much, but otherwise it's your show now. Feel free to call on us for advice, and come help yourself to our foreign aid, like most of the world.

"Oh, one other thing. If a little bird ever whispers in our ear that you are offering aid and comfort to al Qaeda or some such mob, we'll be having this conversation with your successor."

Apologia pro blog sua

Students of spiritual literature will recognize the title of this posting as a light reflection of Cardinal John Henry Newman's autobiography, Apologia pro Vita Sua. Cardinal Newman might well have felt the need to offer an apologia (which I think is best translated as "justification" rather than "apology"), as an Anglican who converted to Roman Catholicism — not the done thing in 19th century England.

My only recent conversion involved swapping some dollars for pounds sterling at Heathrow Airport last March, but I've been feeling like I need to justify something about this blog.

The tagline says Reflecting Light is about spirituality, psychical research, politics, and the way we live now. Looking back over three months' worth (if they are worth anything) of postings, I see that politics has been overweighted.

That was never my intention. If anything, I expected to emphasize psychical research, which I've been following for many years and which seems to have hardly made a ripple in the blogosphere. It's also been all but ignored in our materialistic, pseudo-rationalist culture. So finding news or ideas about psychical research (or parapsychology, as the few professionals in the field tend to call it) is no cinch. The subject matter is there, but it can take some digging, even if you're reasonably au courant in this area, as I try to be.

As for spirituality, I hold that the search for the experience of God is the greatest and most important adventure there is. If people can write in blogs about their quest for the world's best ice cream or the latest gee-whiz technological toy, why shouldn't one's daily interaction with spirit be a fit subject?

Why not indeed. But it has been harder than I expected to find suitable subjects in the realms of either psychical research or spirituality that can be dealt with adequately in the relatively short length of a blog entry and the limited time available for writing a posting.

Spirituality is especially tough to give its due in the blogosphere. For one thing, it's intensely personal, and while I have to refer to myself in a posting occasionally to set a scene, I'm determined that this is not going to be a blog about me. (Anyone who believes they are learning ego transcendence, as urged in Vedanta and Buddhism, would do well to write a blog: it's a good test of seeing whether you can put your lower self aside.)

More than that, spirituality is immensely subtle. Although it has an outward aspect — I believe spiritual growth that isn't grounded in benevolent behavior in the daily world is a delusion — the path is one of groping in darkness, at least in early stages. It takes great conscious effort but the results are often hardly consciously perceived at all; you meditate or pray or serve your fellow men and women and you seem to fail again and again. No revelation rewards your efforts. But maybe you think about how you are now and how you used to be and realize that you've changed in some way that can't be put down only to getting older or more wordly wise.

People much more spiritually gifted than me have had trouble putting experiences of transcendence and grace into words. But I still intend to try from time to time. Maybe it will be useful for others like me who meditate poorly, don't understand how to pray, and continually fall short of the glory of God. I can't tell you how to overcome blockages or inertia on the spiritual path, but I believe I can honestly tell you this: if your aspiration is sincere, you cannot fail. At some point you will understand this.

Politics, in contrast, is easy to write about in the sense that there is plenty of raw material to work with and it's right out there, often very dramatic. Until the past few years, I have not paid much mind to political issues, because I believed that they were unimportant, belonging only to the world of transient phenomena rather than the spiritual realm. That was shallow of me. The world of phenomena is less real than the world of noumena, but it is not unreal, and acting rightly in it is important if we would know the higher consciousness.

Even so, in comparatively "normal" times, I doubt that I'd have a great deal to say about conventional politics. (I still can't get worked up about things like congressional races, much less mayoral elections.) But at the moment there are what might be called meta-political issues. They are of more than passing interest — they will profoundly affect the course of history and "the way we live now."

First, of course, there is the Islamic march to dominate every society where it has gained a foothold. Whether this is something inherent in Islam or a perversion of it is an interesting topic, but whichever is true, there is minimal difference in the consequences. Islam has already begun to exercise a strong ideological and legal influence in several European countries, and the same process in earlier stages can be seen elsewhere. Islam is not compatible with Western traditions of individual freedom of thought and speech, and those traditions are decaying where Islam has established itself through immigration and a shockingly high birth rate.

Second, the tradition of individual freedom is almost equally threatened by a quite Western ideology: the super-state, as seen in purest form the European Union and to some extent in national governments. Centralized government, far removed from local interests and traditions, as well as from individuals, shows seemingly unstoppable growth. Its goal is to regulate virtually every aspect of life that matters in the name of rationality and efficiency. Under this system, society doesn't develop organically, and change doesn't stem from decisions of individuals or groups of individuals; it's handed down by bureaucracies motivated by the belief in social engineering. Whether the system is called Communism, Socialism, or democracy serving corporate capitalism, the principle is much the same.

Third, there is an international Liberal Establishment that includes politicians, academics, and the media that is determined to perform radical surgery on every concept of the nation state and on many previously long-established individual rights. To use the phrase "international Liberal Establishment" does not mean a conspiracy — the Establishment's personnel don't get together to plan their next move. It's just that they have the same assumptions and values and use their positions to set the tone of every controversy.

What do they believe in? Multi-culturalism, open borders, favoritism for every "minority" that can be found or invented (such as the Hispanic "race"), regulation, the moral equivalence of both sides in every conflict (except when it's minorities versus the majority).

Putting all three of those issues together, I am profoundly worried about the future of individualism, free thought and free discussion.

There are plenty of other bloggers illuminating these topics, and plenty of them are better informed and more sophisticated in their thinking than I am. There are a number of blogs (some listed in the sidebar at right) to which I am grateful for helping me to understand what's going on. As much as I'm tempted to defer to them and burrow in my chosen specialties, it would be moral cowardice for me to ignore the great political and social currents of this our time on earth. So I offer my thoughts in the hope that each individual's contribution will count for something.

And that's my apologia for this blog. Thanks for your time spent reading it.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

No more make-believe

The regrettable violent confrontations in the streets of Sydney have at least concentrated some journalistic minds wonderfully — to the point where they have started to look at the context and go beyond the Liberal Establishment's one-note song of white racism.

In the Sydney Morning Herald, Miranda Devine writes:
So now we know the facts, straight from the Supreme Court, that a group of Lebanese Muslim gang rapists from south-western Sydney hunted their victims on the basis of their ethnicity and subjected them to hours of degrading, dehumanising torture. The young women, and girls as young as 14, were "sluts" and "Aussie pigs", the rapists said. So now that some of the perpetrators are in jail, will those people who cried racism and media "sensationalism" hang their heads in shame? Hardly.

The journalists, academics, legal brains and politicians who tried to claim last August that the gang rapes of south-western Sydney were just a run-of-the-mill police blotter story being beaten up by racists, scaremongers and political opportunists don't ever want to acknowledge the truth about that ugly episode in Australian history. They don't want to acknowledge the fear and tension that ran through a part of Sydney they rarely visit and can never understand.
To give the judicial system due credit, it did arrest and obtain a conviction of the rapists. But the judge had to make sure that political correctness got in the last word.
In August, when Judge Megan Latham handed out laughably lenient sentences to three men in one gang rape case, which were later more than doubled on appeal, she made a special point of debunking the race link: "There is no evidence before me of any racial element in the commission of these offences," she said. "There is nothing said or done by the offenders which provides the slightest basis for imputing to them some discrimination in terms of the nationality of their victims."

Except that later one of the victims complained her victim impact statement had been "censored" of any "ethnic" references by prosecutors intent on a plea bargain. She was convinced she was raped because of her ethnicity. "You deserve it because you're an Australian," the rapists told her during the five-hour attack.

It's just so inconvenient of the victims to insist on telling the truth.
I hope dhimmi dummy Judge Latham is now suitably embarrassed, but I doubt it. When political correctness seizes the mind, it drives out values such as truth and and emotions other than self-infatuation for knowing better than ordinary people the difference between acceptable facts and unacceptable facts.

The article continues:
"I looked in his eyes. I had never seen such indifference," one 18-year-old victim, codenamed Miss C, told the court, remembering one of the 14 men who called her "Aussie pig", gang raped her 25 times over a six-hour period in Bankstown and Chullora, and then turned a hose on her. "I'm going to f*** you Leb style," he said.

Fourteen gang rapists have been convicted, or pleaded guilty, thanks to the courage of seven victims who testified for days in court as their tormentors smirked nearby, the men's families threatened them and defence lawyers suggested they had enjoyed the rapes.
For better or worse — no doubt for better and worse — the events in Sydney have signaled the drawing of a line. Indigenous Aussies will no longer put up with insults and outrages from immigrants who imagine themselves soldiers in a 9th century Sultan's army.

Lawrence Auster quotes from a forthcoming article in something called the Citizens Informer.
… Something significant has happened in Australia. For the first time since the Third World invasion began, thousands of whites gathered together, as a self-identifying group of co-nationals, and stood up for themselves and their civilization, as it becomes more and more clear that an increasingly dangerous situation is developing in their country.
I've never previously heard of Citizens Informer and it might be cranky, but that observation at least rings true.

As I said in the last post, the whites who felt hard done by chose the wrong way to register their anger. I hope from now on they'll be just as insistent for justice and as determined to defend their community, but in nonviolent ways. Whether they will, or can, take that route depends in large part on the government, the media, and the courts being willing to stop playing make-believe and recognize realities about immigration that their cherished liberalism wants to keep suppressed.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Oppressed majorities

The civil disturbances in Sydney represent a phenomenon I predict we will see a lot more of: oppressed majorities lashing out in the only way the feel they can.

The white Australians described by the mainstream media as rioters were out of line. It's wrong to deal out extra-legal "justice," whatever the provocation. And any lager louts who are convicted of going around beating up people of middle eastern appearance deserve what they get from the court.

That said, the native Aussies were exhibiting a pent-up anger that had been building for years about the bullying, intimidation, and violence practiced by some Muslims and Lebanese gangs, which civil authority did nothing to stop, for the worldwide Liberal Establishment's usual reason: fear of "offending" minorities and giving them an excuse to spool up their anti-social behavior even further.

At Belmont Club, Wretchard (who apparently lives in Sydney) describes the background (scroll down to comments):
A number of Lebanese Muslim gangs have been marauding and were famously raping white gals fairly frequently. A number were arrested but there are already liberal campaigns to get them out. Most recently, these youths have been hanging out at Maroubra beach where they ran into the surfing crowd. A few days ago, a gang of 40 Lebanese Muslims took over a beach to play soccer and were asked to leave by the lifeguards. The 40 (what is it about 40? Forty Thieves?) beat the lifeguards, one into unconsciousness.
From the Sydney Morning Herald:
THE eldest of four Pakistani gang rapist brothers has admitted lying at trial and apologised to his victims but said he thought he had a right to rape the "promiscuous" teenage girls.

MSK, 27, told the NSW Supreme Court yesterday that this was because the girls did not wear headscarves, were drinking alcohol and were unaccompanied when they went to his Ashfield home. MSK also blamed his intoxication, "cultural beliefs" and an undiagnosed mental disorder.

He and his brothers MAK, 25, MRK, 21, and MMK, 19 - who cannot be named for legal reasons - are serving between 10 and 22 years for raping two girls in 2002. All except MRK are yet to be sentenced for several other rapes.
The Liberal Establishment bangs on endlessly about equality and respect for everyone. In practice, though, some are more equal than others. There is one set of law enforcement for white Australians, another and much more lenient one — to the point of non-enforcement — for immigrants.

Tony Parkinson, in Australia's The Age:
Clearly, there has been much anxiety and tension in this part of Sydney for some years. Allegations in 2001 that Lebanese youths had specifically targeted Anglo-Australian girls for gang rape became a white-hot issue after a local Islamic leader argued the young women ought to accept some blame for their attitudes and dress sense.

This may have been the genesis of the so-called "cultural misunderstanding".

Then came the Bali bombings of 2002, which claimed the lives of six women from Maroubra. Next, a series of counter-terrorism raids on Middle Eastern families in the city's south-west. All of which coincided with the increasing menace of Lebanese crime gangs in Sydney's underworld, muscling in on narcotics, gun-running, car theft and extortion.

In November 2003, a retired NSW police detective, Tim Priest, delivered a scathing presentation to a dinner hosted by Quadrant magazine. Having worked on two National Crime Authority taskforces on organised crime, Priest warned of the risk of parts of Sydney degenerating into Los Angeles-style gang warfare unless police chiefs recanted the "softly-softly" approach adopted since the mid-1990s to ethnically based criminal gangs.

"The Middle Eastern crime groups and their associates number in the thousands," Priest went on to say, adding, controversially, that much of their violence was racially motivated. "That these groups of males can roam a city and assault, rob and intimidate at will can no longer be denied or excused. Even more alarming is that the violence is directed mainly against young Australian men or women … victims … because they are Australian."

The Lebanese gangs, he said, were ruthless in the extreme: "They intimidated not only innocent witnesses but even the police that attempted to arrest them. As these crime groups encountered less resistance in terms of police operations and enforcement, their power grew not only within their own communities, but also all around Sydney."

Priest drew a comparison with the no-go zones of inner-suburban Paris. "Police began to use selective law enforcement," he said. "In hundreds upon hundreds of incidents, police have backed down to Middle Eastern thugs, taken no action and allowed incidents to go unpunished. Again, I stress the unbelievable influence that local politicians and religious leaders played in covering up the real state of play."

In the flip side to the contentious policy of racial profiling, Priest asserted that police in NSW have tended to prosecute those who were less likely to use their ethnic background, or cultural beliefs, to hinder investigations. This kept the police out of trouble with the Anti-Discrimination Board, the Privacy Council and the internal investigations unit. But one effect, argued Priest, was to give Lebanese crime gangs the run of the streets.
The Aussies who went on a rampage may have been tanked up and stupid — but not so stupid that they couldn't see the obvious: their rights, and those of other white Australians, to be safe from harassment and crime had been ignored for years by government and police operating under the delusion that if only they closed their eyes to Muslim immigrant wrongdoing, the problem would go away. The Liberal Establishment had come down on the other side. There was one set of rules for white Australians, a different set of rules — or a near absence of rules — for immigrants.

And the mainstream media follow the party line: The problem is always white "racists." That many Muslims believe that infidel laws do not apply to them and that infidels have no rights that need to be recognized by Muslims cannnot be mentioned — too insensitive. One of Tim Blair's commenters notes:
Interesting phenomenon in these excerpts. When the attackers are Middle Eastern, they are described simply as “men” of indeterminate race/nationality:

gangs of men rampaging through the beachside suburb.

cars carrying up to 50 men

Mobs of men have damaged a number of vehicles

police making arrests as mobs of men roam the streets

But when they are the ones being attacked, suddenly their status as Middle Eastern is made explicit:

Sunday’s mob attacks on Australians of Middle Eastern origin

a group of about 100 Cronulla locals surrounded a car carrying men of Middle Eastern appearance

Do they teach this stuff at journalism school?

The Liberal Establishment makes it clear that the oppressed majority can expect no help through legal redress or fair representation in the court of public opinion. While condemning violence, it removes every alternative to violence except submitting to the tyranny of a minority that officially can do no wrong.

That's how it works everywhere in the Western world. Immediately after the London Underground bombings in which Muslims blew up more than 50 people, the police official at a press conference could scarcely contain himself when a reporter asked if there was evidence of Muslim terrorism. He replied: "The words Muslim and terrorist do not belong in the same sentence." He could have replied, perfectly reasonably, "We don't know yet and don't want to jump to conclusions." Instead, he immediately ruled out even the possibility of its being Muslim-inspired terrorism, as indeed it turned out to be.

In the United States, people who merely photograph or report illegal immigrants who are criminals, according to the law, are called "vigilantes" by the president of the country. And the only reason the so-called "vigilantes" have taken direct action is that they have watched year after year as illegals flood across the border with a wink and a nod from Washington.

I fear — and fear is the word I mean — that the violence in Australia is an opening shot in what could become an international civil war. When citizens raised to believe themselves to be free people under the rule of law see, again and again, that their government and media have only contempt for them; that they are second-class citizens compared to minorities; and that they can have their liberties taken away for defending themselves, we should not be surprised if they no longer feel obliged to follow the rules of a game in which the cards are stacked against them.

Having cheerfully allowed into their countries huge numbers of immigrants with no desire to assimilate and in the case of Muslims a rejection of the individual freedom that most Westerners take for granted, politicans are now caught in a trap of their own devising. The numbers of immigrants are now large enough in many electoral contests that they're perceived as being able to tip the balance. And so the race is on to see which candidate and party can most cater to them and ignore any wrongdoing, and to do so they must imply as an excuse that minorities are victims of an intolerant majority.

What better way to create an intolerant majority than to make it into an oppressed class?

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Putting Queen Victoria in the waiting room

While away from Reflecting Light Command and Control Center these past few days, I spent some of that time in the waiting room of a hospital outpatient facility along with my mother, who was there for surgical treatment.

If you've been in one of these places, you know that it's of a different order than a doctor's or dentist's waiting room. It's more like a hostage situation. As many as 30 patients, along with their accompanying relatives and friends, can be required by the system to hang tough there for hours on end.

Why must waiting rooms be so oppressive, particularly since many of their inhabitants are ill, anxious, depressed, or experiencing physical pain?

If I say the waiting room where my mother was told to park herself until she was ready to be admitted to the surgical preparation area was institutional, you will understand what I mean. But this place was worse than institutional: it was a warehouse for people.

From my recollection (and I had bags of time in which to note its every detail), it lacked even the token mass-produced calendar art pictures that grace the walls of a cubicle-filled government office. There were chairs; there was a carpet; there was a rack with a few ill-used magazines. That was the decor. One large window had a view, partially blocked (which was probably just as well), of the parking lot.

And, oh yes, there was a wall-mounted TV, tuned to dopey interview shows and soap operas, with the sound on.

Tell me this: how many patients, many of them getting on in years, all with some ailment — perhaps potentially life threatening — want to be entertained by a half-wit host asking, "Is it true that you can lose weight by having sex? Stay with us, you'll find out right after the break!"

Almost none, if what I saw in the waiting room is any clue. The several dozen people on hand did their best to ignore the TV. Some talked with their companions; a few read; lots of them just sat, staring into the air or their memories, as the minute hand circled the clock.

This scene, mark you, took place in a unit of a prominent medical facility serving Long Island's tony North Shore district.

So an institution whose standards of medical treatment are presumably first class can't find any better way to help its patients, their friends and relatives — who, as already noted, are not likely to be in good spirits — pass the hours than to give them chairs and force-feed them junk TV.

A hospital administrator reading this might well reply in exasperation, "Well, what are we supposed to do for the patients while they're waiting to be called — stage a song-and-dance show for them?"

No. But you can start by showing them some respect and not assume they're all dummies who would be lost without their ration of daytime TV.

And thinking along those lines, there are other options, once you acknowledge the possibility that being ill doesn't make people morons. And that, in fact, being ill tends to encourage people to value their time and use it wisely. Those whose bodies are failing them (and that's all of us, sooner or later) need the consolations of art.

So how about making the waiting room an uplifting experience? For a cost of next to nothing, the hospital could play recorded music. Classical music, even. All right, not Mahler or Shostakovich, but there are plenty of popular favorites to choose from: Bach and Schubert and Mendelssohn and the inevitable Mozart. Why not? Surely even those not accustomed to it would prefer that to braying tabloid TV.

What about offering reading matter beyond a few tattered copies of Sepsis Today and Modern Cancer and dumbed-down supermarket tripe like Time? I suspect many people sentenced to indefinite confinement in hospital waiting rooms would be glad to be offered magazines with ideas, so that they could improve their minds instead of killing time.

Improve their minds? The very phrase has a quaint, Victorian ring to it. Well, the Victorians had some attitudes that could help sort us out. They lacked our (somewhat illusory) assurance that any problem can be fixed by a therapist or tax accountant or social welfare program. They knew, for instance, they could be carried off by cholera any time, and no polysyllabically named drug existed to stay the hour of their passing: no wonder they believed "life is real, life is earnest." The idea of "killing" time was abhorrent to well-brought-up Victorians. They would have shuddered to think of hospitals encouraging their own patients to waste hours on TV shows they would rightly have found degrading.

But we don't have the Victorians' faith in individuals' ability to improve their own character. (We believe, instead, in reforming their health habits, monitoring their speech for any hint of insensitivity, and hectoring them to consume fewer resources.) The idea of a medical facility being concerned with its patients' souls as well as their kidneys or arteries never crosses our rationalist minds.

The loss is ours.

I agree with A.N. Wilson when he writes:
If there has been a single shift in balance since Lytton Strachey wrote his mischievous debunking of Eminent Victorians over eighty years ago ... it is the reversal of roles in the judicial bench. Strachey and his generation self-consciously judged and condemned the Victorians. We, while noting many things amiss about Victorian Society, more often sense them judging us.

Sunday, December 04, 2005


I'll be out of town for a few days and there will probably be no posting. As usual, I recommend checking out the worthy sites linked to in the sidebar to the right.

Thanks for stopping by, and I'll see you again soon.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Mr. President: Tear down this wall

To take politics at all seriously is to send yourself an engraved invitation to disappointment. Imagining that one elected official is going to set things to rights — even a modestly few things — is to make yourself hostage to a game where the odds are stacked against you, and the politicians who manage to climb the greasy pole do so in a world whose moral and philosophical content could be carried in a flea's purse.

So I am in no way shocked, or even much saddened, that the Wizard of Crawford, Texas has turned out to be — like he of Oz — not a bad man (unlike his predecessor), just not a very good wizard.

But it does require a strenuous attitude adjustment. I voted for George W. Bush in 2004 to be my country's president (although even then it was somewhat a matter of faute de mieux). A couple of years before that, say in the eight or ten months following Sept. 11, I honestly thought he might turn out to be one of our great chief executives. He seemed — nay, was, back then — that rarest of political figures, someone operating on principle and damn the opinion polls and pundits of the mainstream media. Bush also won my respect when, instead of responding to the terrorist plot with a symbolic public relations stunt (e.g., ordering the lobbing of a few missiles addressed "To Whom It May Concern"), he oversaw a slow-to-ignite, meticulous plan that took down the regime in Afghanistan that had harbored the Al-Qaeda terrorists.

What followed the Iraq invasion, which I still believe was a highly moral act, was an extraordinary military victory followed by a debacle of the highest order in which we entrapped ourselves through our own success. He should have been content with ridding the world of Saddam and establishing a permanent military presence in Iraq, while leaving the factions that had been fighting one another in that country since Genghis Khan was knee high to a hound dog to get it together. Instead, Bush opted t0 spend American lives trying to create an Anglosphere-style democracy, among people for whom that concept meant as much as the Martian Bill of Rights.

That isn't saying that Iraqis can never acheive a reasonably free and benign society. I'm not that cynical about human nature, even human nature that has been stewed in Islamic dementia for 1400 years. But the president I used to admire seems to have taken those remarkable military successes as a sign from God (whether literally or figuratively is hard to tell) that he could remake the earth. "Democracy" was the magic elixir that would turn the Middle East into a church social.

With every passing day, it has become more obvious to practically everyone (including many favorably disposed to Bush) that his utopian vision is going pear-shaped. And what was under other circumstances a Bush strength, namely his willingness to stand his ground even when subjected to the most extreme and outlandish abuse any president has had to endure, has become a factor in his gathering downfall. The man lacks any mental flexibility. He seems to equate changing his mind with weakness. He doesn't learn from experience.

Once Bush settles an issue for himself, his position seems to possess him. End of discussion.

I know less than the average person about the president's associates — that sort of political-insider gossip bores me — but it seems likely that he surrounds himself with people whose first spoken word was "yes" and whose vocabulary hasn't noticeably widened since, and with advisors hand-picked to give him the advice that he has already given himself. Even Bush's public appearances are starting to be hermetically sealed. Lawrence Auster writes, concerning the president's recent pep rally:
Bush gave the speech, as he seems to have given all of his speeches on Iraq, to a military audience, clearly conveying the message that he doesn’t feel confident to address an audience of civilians on this urgent national issue, but must have an audience of ready-made, 22-year-old yes-men, thrilled to be in the presence of their commander in chief. It is as though Bush sees America as a banana republic, or as a country like Pakistan, in which the only reliable national institution is the military.
Bush's desire to deliver his message in the presence of a presumably groveling audience can also be seen in his tactics for pushing a de facto U.S. merger with Mexico. In support of his philomexican obsession and his stealth plan for amnesty for illegal immigrants, he chose to relaunch his stuttering open borders campaign in a speech in my former home town of Tucson, Arizona. Since Tucson is a mere 60 miles or so from Mexico, and a fair number of its citizens are of Mexican descent, El Presidente Fox-Bush (or his yes-persons) seems to have assumed that his proposals would be warmly received down there in Mexizona.

If he had any real contact with people in Tucson other than selected cheerleaders, he might have learned something. But the odds are he left as ignorant as he arrived. Bush has done something no politician of any stripe can afford to do — he's insulated himself from political reality outside his circle of sycophants. He's built a wall with gates that open only outward.

No matter how deep his own feelings run, Bush the leader should — if he cares about what's good for him and his party — peek over the ramparts he's surrounded himself with. If he could bring himself to do that, he would understand that a substantial majority of Americans (including some of immigrant stock) are extremely concerned about his failure to enforce immigration laws and his collusion with a Mexican president keen to export Mexico's problems to America.

He'd understand why, in border areas, more and more people are taking it on themselves to do the job of that the federal government is supposed to do but isn't, stopping the invasion of illegals. (Bush calls the Minutemen "vigilantes," as if notifying the authorities when you see people breaking the law is contrary to the way things are supposed to work.) If you think that's not a healthy situation, I agree. But when the president of the United States contemptuously ignores the law and public sentiment, what else can they do?

Mr. President, get out of Fortress Bush, listen for a change, and think. Tear down this wall.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The boom in do-it-yourself psychical research

electric spiral

Do-it-yourself psychical research has taken on major proportions.

It's easy to see why. The few university parapsychology departments are in a rut. Anxious about keeping what little academic respectability and funding they have, they kneel before the altar of experimental repeatability, the essence of scientific method. Unfortunately, by far the greatest number of paranormal events seem to happen spontaneously, or if they are somehow induced, can't be repeated at will. So respectable parapsychologists are pretty much locked into a routine of testing subjects for telepathy and psychokinesis, which give results that can be calculated to see if they score above chance at a statistically significant level.

The trouble is, telepathy and PK have long since been demonstrated scientifically. And while there is still something to learn about the factors involved, this play-it-safe research isn't advancing the field in a way that provides new answers to age-old metaphysical questions, or captures the imagination.

Long-established private organizations are in a bind as well. I'm a member of the Society for Psychical Research, which has a distinguished history, puts on splendid annual conferences, and continues to publish the important Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. But the Society lacks the funding to support very much independent research on its own, so it has to rely on reports by university departments or invididual members.

Thus, the institutional basis for psychical research presents a discouraging picture at the moment, at least concerning questions that interest non-specialists the most: for instance, the nature of apparitions ("ghosts"), hauntings, poltergeist phenomena, and the survival of the individual's consciousness following the death of the physical body. The more official and respectable researchers either reduce such issues to abnormal psychology or throw in the sponge and declare that these phenomena can't be studied scientifically because they won't dutifully present themselves in the laboratory.

But people -- including some of the most intelligent and curious -- still want to know more about the meaning of events that seem to defy ordinary physical laws. And above all, what can we expect when the black camel kneels at our tent? The quest for answers to the enigma of post-mortem survival will not be stopped.

So in a time when electronics permeates daily life as never before, and people are (practically of necessity) getting sophisticated about technological gadgets, it's no surprise that more and more individuals and groups are using modern recording devices to find and preserve evidence of paranormal events and communication. These individuals are amateurs in the original and positive sense of the word, those who study a field for the love of it, not for something to put on their résumés.

There are two main categories of do-it-yourselfers: "ghost hunters" and EVP (electronic voice phenomena) recorders. No doubt there is some crossover among these forms.

Professional parapsychologists and those who have to be one step up from anything popular can object that these uncertified practitioners aren't qualified by background and training, don't have the intellectual discipline that it takes, and so on. But many do-it-yourself psychical researchers appear to have scientific and technical backgrounds, and to make use of advanced software applications in their investigations into the mysteries of life and death.

In some cases, though, the criticisms may be true. Try Googling "ghost hunting" and you'll turn up a startling number of web sites of local ghost-chasing societies. Too many of them don't seem serious-minded -- they're illustrated with comic-book imagery of ghosts and tell their story in language that resembles advertisements for tours of haunted places. Some sites appear to be primarily geared to sales of everything from electromagnetic sensors (a legitimate tool of the trade) to New Age paraphernalia to T-shirts with spooky messages.

I've no doubt that there are ghost hunters who pursue knowledge for its own sake, or for the sake of their personal and spiritual development. As in all aspects of the occult, the jokers tend to give the whole pack a bad vibe.

Bright Resurrection

EVP enthusiasts work from an even more astounding thesis: that disembodied spirits -- either people who have passed through the gate called death, or permanently non-physical entities -- can be heard speaking on ordinary recording media. Although there are computer programs designed to improve the signal-to-noise ratio and otherwise "clean up" the paranormal recordings, it is said that with no special equipment other than a tape recorder anyone can hear the voices once they get used to some peculiarities of the sound and inflections of the voices.

If this can be demonstrated -- and hundreds of apparently perfectly sane people say they are demonstrating it, repeatedly -- EVP could be the Holy Grail that psychical research has always dreamed of, so-called permanent paranormal objects. That is, phenomena that may be borderline spontaneous but of which a permanent record can be kept.

I make no claims about the validity of EVP, not having done any experiments myself. (And often in this field, even when you have the evidence, it's debatable how to interpret it.) But it seems to me a very promising technology.

Moreover, I recently became acquainted with an organization whose integrity I'm inclined to trust on the basis of my judgment and intuition. It is the American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena (AA-EVP), founded in 1982 by Sarah Estep and now directed by Tom and Lisa Butler. The web site includes detailed instructions for people who want to try the techniques for themselves and sound file samples of EVP. AA-EVP is presenting a conference next June titled "Life After Death: The Evidence" with an impressive lineup of speakers, including Gary Schwartz, whom I met when I lived in Tucson where he is based, and who has been published (to considerable controversy) in the SPR Journal. I see that another speaker, Alexander MacRae, has also been published by the SPR.

The first book on psychical research that came my way, some 40 years ago, and perhaps sparked a fascination that has never dimmed for me, was written by two psychical researchers of an earlier generation, Eric Dingwall and John Langdon-Davies. The title of their book asked: "The Unknown -- Is It Nearer?" Yes. I think it is.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Eurabian Nights

Norway this year passed a so-called anti-discrimination law that "says in pretty clear words that in cases of suspected direct or indirect discrimination due to religion or ethnicity, Norwegians are guilty until proven otherwise," reports Norway-based Fjordman.
Immigration spokesman for the Progress Party, Per Sandberg, is deeply disappointed and fears the consequences of the new legislation. "This law will jeopardize the rights of ordinary, law-abiding Norwegian citizens. The principle of reverse burden of proof means that Norwegians are guilty of discrimination unless they can prove otherwise. It will lead to many convictions of innocent people. Reverse burden of proof is also combined with liability to pay compensation, which means that innocent persons risk having to pay huge sums for things they didn't do."

"Anti-racist" organizations are given a significant role in the new law. There is a new, state-sponsored Equality Ombudsman who will be responsible for enforcing it, and coerce all employers who refuse to abide by it. A multicultural Inquisition, in other words. ...

This law could open the floodgates for all kinds of unreasonable demands from Muslim immigrants in particular, who will be given a licence for extortion of employers, courtesy of the Norwegian parliament. For instance, it is likely that they can now claim that it is “discrimination” if they don’t have a special prayer room provided. Already, Muslim taxi drivers demand a separate prayer room at Oslo Airport, where they can pray during working hours, but have received a negative answer. The leader of the Somali Taxi Association, Ali Hassan, finds this discriminating and unacceptable, and is planning a law suit over the matter ... .
You can find yourself in trouble with the law in Norway should you be heard to speak out loud against Muslim women wearing the hijab in workplaces.
It is frustrating that Norwegian authorities make it mandatory for all non-Muslims to accept hijab, the Islamic veil, in their workplace. Many non-Muslims find hijab offensive, and even some Muslims, too. The veil is not ”just a piece of cloth”. It serves as a demarcation line between proper, submissive Muslim women and whores, un-Islamic women who deserve no respect and are asking for rape. The veil should more properly be viewed as the uniform of a Totalitarian movement, and a signal to attack those outside the movement. An Islamic Mufti in Copenhagen, Denmark, sparked a political outcry after publicly declaring that women who refuse to wear headscarves are "asking for rape."
Politicians in Europe are voluntarily dismantling the principles of a free society so as to accommodate Muslim plans for sharia law to replace Roman-derived law. When that happens, Europeans who refuse to convert to Islam will become dhimmis, "un-persons" with no rights under sharia, or will have to emigrate -- assuming they are permitted to and can find anyplace to emigrate to. The Eurabianizing has gone farther in Scandinavia than in the rest of Europe only because high Muslim immigration and birth rates have made the greatest inroads there.

What can account for this madness among Europe's leaders? (It is highly doubtful that ordinary citizens accept the situation, but -- like the majority in the U.S. who oppose the de facto "open borders" policy -- they are ignored by "their" government.)

It is nearly unfathomable, but if one must fathom it, the selling out of European populations into dhimmitude probably stems from a combination of naiveté and a desire to carry on breathing. (Several politicians in the Netherlands are under 24-hour guard or in hiding because of death threats from Muslim terrorists.)

Fjordman is planning to close down his blog for "private reasons." In the comments box, he adds, "Maybe I would survive, but I would be walking a legal tightrope with this, and other additional laws ... . Criticism of Islam and Muslim immigration is increasingly being banned by law in Eurabia."

Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary at the outbreak of World War I, famously said: "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." He was very nearly right in his day. I am afraid he will be right in ours.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Dhimmi Britain: No. 1 in a series

And, I'm afraid, this is likely to be a long-running series. The moral cowardice that is settling over the U.K. is profoundly disturbing, and those of us who aren't in a position to do anything about it are obliged to at least call attention to it while hoping that Britain will come to its senses.

The Bristol Old Vic, performing at the Barbican in London, has cut out part of a classic play because it
"would have unnecessarily raised the hackles of a significant proportion of one of the world’s great religions,” the director said.

It was feared that Jewish theatergoers would riot if the role of Shylock were not eliminated from The Merchant of Venice.

You don't believe me? You're right. I just made that up.

Jews have every reason to deplore the Bard's characterization of Shylock. Oddly enough, though, they seem to understand that Shakespeare was playing to the prejudices of his time when creating his cruelly caricatured, but theatrically effective, villain.

Actually, the play that was censored was by Christopher Marlowe. I don't suppose I need to tell you which of the world's "great" religions provoked this onslaught of sensitivity.

Marlowe was, of course, England's greatest playwright before Shakespeare, whose gift for striking and poetic language he shared. (Almost invariably when I look out of an airliner window at cruising altitude, I'm reminded of Marlowe's phrase "the windy country of the clouds.")
Audiences at the Barbican in London did not see the Koran being burnt, as Marlowe intended, because David Farr, who directed and adapted the classic play, feared that it would inflame passions in the light of the London bombings. ...

The burning of the Koran was “smoothed over”, he said, so that it became just the destruction of “a load of books” relating to any culture or religion. That made it more powerful, they claimed.

Members of the audience also reported that key references to Muhammad had been dropped, particularly in the passage where Tamburlaine says that he is “not worthy to be worshipped”. In the original Marlowe writes that Muhammad “remains in hell”.

Farr "reworked the text after the July 7 attacks," The Times wrote. "Mr Farr said in a statement: 'The choices I made in the adaptation were personal about the focus I wanted to put on the main character and had nothing to do with modern politics.'”

If they had nothing to do with politics, why did Farr perform his scriptectomy after the July 7 terrorist attacks in London? It would appear that he not only pandered to political correctness, but lied about his motives.

Other productions in Britain have recently run afoul of religious protest. A play called Behzti was closed down in Birmingham after three police officers were hurt in clashes with about 400 demonstrators outside the theater. Jerry Springer the Opera was strongly condemned by some Christian groups. No one felt it necessary to rewrite or shut Jerry Springer, however.

It would seem that Muslim reactions arouse more -- what's the word -- fear than those of Christians.

Not everyone agreed with the director's decision.
Park Honan, Emeritus Professor at the School of English, University of Leeds, and author of Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy, said: “It is wrong to tamper with the play, wrong to shorten it and wrong to leave out the burning of the Koran because that is involved with the exposition of Tamburlaine’s character. He’s a false prophet. This is meant to horrify the audience.”
The contemporary theater Establishment is not usually reticent about protecting its audience from being horrified. After the Birmingham flap, Nicholas Hytner, the National Theatre's artistic director, said: "The giving of offence, the causing of offence, is part of our business."

It's not entirely clear to me what he intended, but if he meant that the theater has some kind of duty to offend its audience, then that sounds like the statement of a juvenile 1960s-era retard. If he was saying that from time to time the theater will inevitably offend some audience members even if that isn't its specific intention, he had a point.

Tailoring a classic to avoid arousing the hypersensitivity of Muslims is a form of dhimmitude, in which the artistic freedom that goes with political freedom is compromised for the sake of an intolerant religious group.

Britain has recently been debating something called the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which would make speech a crime if it was designed to incite religious hatred against Muslims. (There is apparently already legislation to "protect" Jews and Sikhs.) The trouble with all such laws is not only that it's up to prosecutors to decide what forms of criticsm or irreverence would come under the heading of inciting religious hatred. Worse, even if hardly anyone is prosecuted under "religious hatred" laws, they can't help having a chilling effect on speech and artistic freedom.

Self-censorship is the most dangerous kind. Since no external authority appears to be doing the censoring, there is no overt action to react against. As with political correctness in general, people learn to to watch what they say until it becomes second nature to avoid certain topics, words, and ideas.

Artists proclaim, in season and out of season, their right to present whatever they see fit. It's sad when their principles go all wobbly along with an increasingly dhimmified Britain.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

No Monastery for Monk

In an earlier post, I noted that music aficionados are missing out if they don't take advantage of DVD as a medium for musical performances. Straight No Chaser is another example.

As any jazz buff can tell from the title, the film is about Thelonious Monk. It had a brief theatrical release in 1990, although I doubt it played in more than a dozen culturally plugged-in cities (I saw it in Santa Fe). Thanks to DVD, it's available for viewing at your leisure.

Monk had the habit of spinning, onstage and off, like a human radar antenna scanning the sky for alien contact. He wore funny hats, his among them one resembling a yarmulke. Monk's oral communication bordered on incoherence, a hipster's growling drawl. In the 1950s, he fitted perfectly with "Mr. Charlie's" concept of what "Negro" wigged-out musicians were supposed to be like.

As Straight No Chaser points out, though, the image was one-sided. Monk grew up not in Harlem but on the Upper East Side, and studied at Juilliard. The rehearsal segments we see in the film suggest that his groups worked from charts he prepared as meticulously as Gil Evans or Michel Legrand. Unlike many jazzmen of the period, he had no use for heroin. His writing and playing have more intellectual concentration and less frenzy (but no end of controlled energy) than those of anyone in the be-bop realm from which he emerged.

Emerged is the right word. By the mid-'50s Monk had developed his own unique and compelling style. There have been many keyboard jazz players who exhibited more overt virtuosity, but some of them are dull compared to Monk. No matter how often you've heard his recordings, there's always an element of surprise -- not infrequently, astonishment -- in Monk's playing: Where did he get that from? I think it's no exaggeration to say that Monk was one of the few composers who invented a musical language, like Beethoven, Debussy, or the Stravinsky of Firebird and Rite of Spring.

It's puzzling to try to reconcile this highly respected (in the latter part of his own time), world-famous artist with the figure we see in the backstage footage: withdrawn, seemingly almost indifferent to any conversation directed to him, given to off-the-wall and non sequitur replies. Was his head really in deep space, or was the jive-clown act part of a jazz musician's job description in those days? But the sidemen who appear with him in the film seem pretty normal (except, of course, for their prodigious talent). I suspect he was deeply depressed, maybe even a little schizophrenic -- which an interview with his son seems to bear out. Well before Monk died, he simply quit playing and composing.

Straight No Chaser is smartly edited, though its chronology is unclear and jumbled. The concert sequences have good sound for the period. (Besides Monk himself, we getto see and hear players such as Johnny Griffin, Charlie Rouse, and Phil Woods.) The DVD is essential viewing for Monk devotees and almost anyone who digs modern jazz. Even if your interest in the music is less than consuming, you may find Straight No Chaser interesting psychologically and sociologically. Here, in essence, is what hip meant to the generation of cool cats who took out the patent on it.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The French Correction

Frank Furedi, a regular contributor to the U.K.–based spiked-online, offers some intelligent comments inspired by the warm glow of French firelight.
… Politics seems to be lost for words: public figures and the media struggle to understand or explain the big issues of the twenty-first century. Now, many seem unable to make sense of a situation where relatively small groups of teenagers and children from the banlieues can expose the powerlessness of the French forces of law and order, and of the French political elite itself. How could youngsters with no political aims or objectives call into question the legitimacy of all authority, and expose the feeble sense of identity in one of the oldest and most powerful nations in Europe?

Silence and evasion have dominated the response to the French crisis. Some have sought refuge in economic explanations. Bill Clinton's banal statement 'It's the economy, stupid!' seems to have acquired the status of unquestioned political truth. This is an attempt to use the language of the 1980s - poverty, exclusion and marginalisation - to make sense of the current riots. If the disturbances can be explained in economic terms, then maybe there's an off-the-peg solution to them: if only an EU development grant or training and jobs schemes could do the trick and calm things down!
So far, so good. It was entirely predictable that the international Liberal Establishment would do exactly what it has done — recast the French civil disturbances into the only shape it can understand and be comfortable with. An oppressed minority. Racism. Poverty. Government not doing enough.

Especially that last. In France, as well as in Furedi's Britain, an aggrandizing central government has taken unto itself almost all political and social power; local authority can scarcely enact a parking regulation on its own. Most people have given up trying to sort anything out themselves. That's the government's job. Ergo, Furedi complains that the meaning of the nationwide car-b-ques in France is that they show up the ineffectiveness of France's ruling class.
The most significant thing about recent events in France is not the behaviour of the rioters, but the reaction of the political class and official authority. The Bush regime's response to the flooding of New Orleans looks positively energetic when compared with the sense of paralysis and confusion that seems to have gripped French officialdom.
The cheap shot about "the Bush regime's response to the flooding of New Orleans" is a typical gibe by a citizen of a modern centralized bureaucratic state who can't grasp the idea of American federalism, but he's bang on about the "paralysis and confusion" of the French political class. And he continues with well-spoken criticism of the irrelevant official reaction to outbreaks of multiculturalist anarchy, both in the U.K. and France.

But for all his good sense within certain boundaries, Furedi illustrates just how addicted European intellectuals have become to the assumption that if anything is wrong, "we" (meaning the traditional culture, the government, or both) are the cause. Besides our oppression of minorities, it's our lack of purpose, or the "exhaustion of politics."
Since the end of the Cold War, it has become much less clear what France's global role might be. Its claim to act as the leader of Europe has been undermined by the expansion of the EU and the decline of the French-German axis. …

Somewhere between De Gaulle's aggressive nationalism and the silent, spineless and confused politics of today, France has lost its identity.
Silent, spineless, and confused politics may rule France, but please don't play the naif with me, Mr. Furedi. Islamovandals aren't torching Renaults up and down the land as a protest against a decline in France's global role.

By his own reckoning, the riots are not due to economic hardship or the lack of inter-ethnic group hugs. Nonetheless, he concludes, rather illogically, that "they [residents of the no-go banlieus] simply desire the kind of French prosperity that they see on the other side of the tracks, but without wanting to be associated with any idea of France."

If they don't want to be associated with any idea of France, why is that? Because France has lost its national amour-propre? Phooey. The country has had none since 1914, and until recently there was no teenage wasteland of Molotov cocktails.

Or could the unpleasantness that has erupted in voitures flambées have something to do with … with … Furedi can't bring himelf to say it: religion.

Here the model of the modern European intellectual is at a severe disadvantage in trying to think outside the Liberal Establishment box. To such as they, the very notion of religion is a bit of a joke, really. You politely indulge the occasional believer you meet — not that you meet many in your circle — but it's not something to waste good cerebral neurons on!

So Furedi (and to give him credit, he is far more perceptive than many of his fellow Liberal Establishment pundits) can't bring himself to admit that the first wave of mass civil disturbance by France's North African citizens is supercharged by their religion, a religion that teaches contempt for any institutions except those derived from The Prophet. No, according to the liberal faith, Islam is simply another creed in the Family of Man, not a motivation for violence and the desire of its adherents for separate enclaves.

I'm afraid Frank Furedi is going to have to learn about religion — one religion, anyway — in a very hard school.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Smoking Diaries

Simon Gray's The Smoking Diaries is a melancholy farce inspired by the author's life, a memoir darkly tinged with folly recalled in abrasive detail under the shadow of advancing years.

Gray is an English playwright and author of several other books, although he writes as though he has outlived himself. My only previous encounter with his output was the film Butley, which starred Alan Bates and which he adapted from his own stage comedy. Both play and film were popular in the 1970s, but their writer is possibly correct that they have been occluded in recent years. He implies that his other plays, produced for the English stage, have been less than roaring successes; I don't know if that's true or just part of the self-critical mood he adopted, or which adopted him, for The Smoking Diaries.

As this journal of consciousness and (in Malcolm Muggeridge's phrase) "chronicle of wasted time" opens, Gray has just turned 65. Having given over drinking because its pleasures had lured him into alcoholism, he clings lovingly to his remaining vice, smoking. His physical condition is not likely to be an inspiration to others. At the time of writing, his close friend the playwright Harold Pinter has just been diagnosed with cancer. (Pinter is still with us, and received a Nobel this year.) The restaurant, Chez Moi, where Gray and his wife Victoria and Pinter and his wife, Antonia Fraser, have enjoyed one another's company for ages, is about to close down. Gray is starting to have trouble remembering useful things and finding it easy to remember painful events.

No wonder his mood resembles an English weather report.

The Smoking Diaries is written in a kind of diary format, so seemingly casual that some entries stop in the middle of a sentence. Thoughts break off from his intended subjects and he follows them as they drift away. His stream of consciousness repeatedly overflows its banks, sending rivulets into hidden sinkholes.

From many writers, this format could be pretentious, but decades of playwriting craft have taught Gray to bring the audience along through every byway. Minor events in his present dredge up flashbacks, some half a century old, and they become progressively more haunting as the pages are turned. But Gray asks no indulgence; as he muddles along, he makes sure that the language stays tuned up. He's a master at self-mockery delivered with panache, and he can turn a phrase that goes straight to your funnybone … on its way to your heart.

How much of The Smoking Diaries is revelation and how much is an assumed attitude is impossible for an outsider to say — maybe he doesn't know himself as he unfolds his tale of comic decline. But it's the nature of art to pull apart the raw material of life, reshaping actual experiences through imagination, fashioning them into a higher untruth. Gray has given us a work of eloquent despair that wears the masks of both comedy and tragedy — no small accomplishment for a writer of plays to remember, as the curtain slowly descends.

UPDATE 1/16/09: Harold Pinter, of course, passed on a few weeks ago. I haven't heard anything further about Simon Gray.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Talk of the Town

Visiting New York City is something like taking a mind-altering drug whose provenance is unknown and you can count on a trip to Heaven, Hell, or both. For me, it's usually both.

My visit earlier this week was on what is called, in a peculiar expression, "family business" — in this case, my mother's surgery. She was well enough on the following day that I was able to leave her at home in Queens and travel to Manhattan, primarily to visit the Met (see the previous entry).

New York, how do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways. No, stop me, at least after a few paragraphs of venting.

The subway system is simply horrible. Efficient on some level, I guess, but an experience of such unremitting grime, noise, and congestion that I don't know how any sensitive person can endure it regularly. And the new Metro cards that have replaced tokens are a nuisance and sometimes worse; mine refused to open the turnstile but deducted more money each time I swiped it until my credit was zero. Complaining to the agent in his zoo-cage-like enclosure brought no recompense. It was like dealing with a talking statue.

I tire easily, too, of the all-but-incomprehensible English and dozens of foreign tongues spoken by so many immigrants (call me xenophobic if you want; I'm not, so I don't care) and the gruffness of the native New Yorkers. Now I am well aware that what auslanders think is rudeness by New Yorkers is usually not intended as such. New Yorkers assume you are very busy making money and a name for yourself, and that you want them to get straight to the point. All right, but I still prefer a little graciousness.

And how about those bus ads from an organization called something like ""? They feature celebrities with gay siblings — Cyndi Lauper and her sister, and a gentleman I didn't recognize and his brother were on one — and urge you to be supportive if you are straight and your sibling is gay, or vice versa. If somebody has a lesbian sister and is perfectly comfortable with it, I say that's fine. On the other hand, if said person is not comfortable with it, that's fine by me too. But it's none of my business, or's, or anybody's but the people concerned. This organization is one more group of busybodies dedicated to the proposition that ordinary people are too stupid or retrograde to work out family issues by themselves, so these "experts" have to educate them about what to feel.

Not to make too soft a point of it, the New York environment bums me out.

It can also take my breath away, in a good sense. Because, despite the oppressive crowds and noise, the streetcorner madmen lecturing to the sky and the absurdly costumed fashion victims, somehow an enthralling and even civilized residue remains.

You walk up Madison Avenue in the 80s and every other shop window is a wonderland of individual flair, a treat for anyone used to mall chain-store window displays. You admire the detailing of townhouses, Renaissance revival, Beaux Arts, Gothic revival, French provincial, and wonder that such magnificence still exists in our gritty, pinched era.

Step into the Metropolitan Museum, fork over a mere $15 — yes, I consider that a lot of money too, but still — examples from virtually the entire history of human artistic creation are there before you: take your pick. And I don't think you have to be an art historian or specialist to realize that these are not table sweepings. They are mostly of remarkable quality, and some are among the finest works ever realized in the world of time and space.

Even in the city of restaurants competing to see who can come up with the most outlandish decor and dishes, it is still possible to dine in a pleasant atmosphere, with polished service and imaginative but not crazy cooking, among customers who can talk in a normal conversational tone without bellowing at one another as so many oafs do in public dining rooms these days. It's risky to recommend anyplace on the basis of one visit, but since I have no reputation to lose I'll go ahead and suggest you check out Caffe Grazie on 84th Street between Fifth and Madison if you happen to be in the area.

New York isn't my kind of place, but maybe that is an advantage, because my visits are infrequent enough that its moments of magic catch me unprepared and leave me grateful.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

"Photography and the Occult" at the Met

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has an enterprising and unusual special exhbition. "The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult" contains two rooms displaying photographs of allegedly paranormal phenomena, among them apparitions of the dead, "vital forces," physical manifestations such as levitation and ectoplasm, and photo images created by thought. Most of the pictures date from the so-called golden age of spiritualism, roughly 1850 to 1930.

"Approaching the material from a historical perspective, the exhibition presents the photographs on their own terms, without authoritative comment on their veracity," the show's explanatory text says. And for the most part, the curator has kept that commitment. Nevertheless, notes next to the photos of a few of the "spirit manifestations" have a tinge of incredulity, which in those cases is quite justified. But using "Henri Robin and a Specter" as the show's iconic image, reproduced in a poster, is a little misleading. The photo's "specter" looks like a Hallowe'en costume, and the curatorial note acknowledges that Robin was an illusionist who never claimed to be anything else; he was simply demonstrating the "phantasmogorical" entertainment he devised to cash in on the spiritualist vogue.

Most of the "spirit photographs" consist of either a medium or a "sitter" (the medium's client), the translucent form of the departed above or to the side. We smile, knowing all about double exposures. In the late 19th century, though, photography was a specialized craft and few non-photographers had any concept of how the pictures were developed, so we can forgive the naive acceptance that such forgeries met with at the time.

But if we can understand why ordinary people tended to take these concoctions for reality, what are we to make of educated and presumably sophisticated students of psychical phenomena such as Albert von Schrenck-Notzing and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?

On view is a photo by Schrenck-Notzing showing a naked medium, "Eva C.," peeking from behind a curtain, while a few feet from her is a supposed ghost. Schrenck-Notzing, according to the annotation, commented on the marvel of the medium's being without a stitch in which she could have concealed any apparatus for faking the ghost, which was captured in the same shot. It might have been marvelous, all right, if the revenant from the beyond did not look so utterly like a cardboard cutout, with features resembling those a child might have drawn. How could anyone, let alone a scientist, have fallen for this? I offer one possibility. Unlike the "ghost," the partially visible disrobed Eva C. is definitely three-dimensional -- and rather shapely into the bargain. Perhaps Schrenck-Notzing was distracted from concentrating too closely on the disembodied spirit by the embodied one.

Now we come to the embarrassing case of Conan Doyle and the famous "Cottingley fairy" photographs, two of which also figure in this exhibition. The creator of Sherlock Holmes developed, as is well known, a keen interest in the paranormal. He wrote quite a few books defending and explaining spiritualism. I've read a couple of them, and they struck me as reasonable in tone, neither dogmatic nor suggesting that the author had gone dotty in his later years. So there's no easy way to account for his being taken in by photographs of "fairies" who inhabited a garden in the village of Cottingley, and who were discovered there by two young ladies. The most, and the least, you can say about these fairies is that they were fashion conscious enough to dress very much in the mode of their time (circa 1920).

This is probably one instance where critics of psychical research are right when they say that an investigator fell prey to his own "will to believe" in the object of his research.

I left the exhibition with no doubt that most of its photographs of alleged paranormal manifestations were fakes, either cynically doctored to exploit people grieving over lost relatives or just for a hoot.

Why most rather than all?

Writing in the July 2005 Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, David Fontana remarks (in a book review, not in connection with the Met's show) that "photographs of materialisations always appear 'stagey' and rarely serve as hard evidence for paranomality ... ." True. But one reason such photos look "stagey" might be that we don't normally see materializations of non-material entities, so they are bound to look unreal when captured by the camera. In pictures (typically rather repellant) of ectoplasm being extruded from a medium, the ectoplasm may resemble cotton strands or cloth; but again, we don't know what ectoplasm, if such a thing exists, looks like. We shouldn't assume too quickly that what appears dubious must be phony.

So it is barely possible that even a few of the shots on view at the Met are what they purport to be, and they look dodgy because our minds don't know how to process what they have never experienced. That is of course only speculation on my part, and not offered as evidence.

But a few of the pictures in the exhibit do have some apparent claim to legitimacy. And, interestingly, they are among the most recent, taken long after the original "tricks of the trade" had been exposed (or double exposed).

A man named Colin Evans is shown in a photo taken in 1938, amid an auditorium full of people. The photo was taken using infrared light in a completely darkened room. Evans has risen into the air -- levitating, as D.D. Home, St. Joseph of Cupertino, and St. Teresa of Avila are said to have done. No means of aerial support are visible. And the audience members, including those right next to him, are looking not at Evans but at the seat he occupied when the lights went out. Supposing he had somehow leaped from a sitting position into the air,where he is shown to be almost vertical, it is hard to imagine that even in a darkened room no one would have heard or sensed it. And to have faked the whole scene would have required the cooperation of dozens of people, which a charlatan photographer could scarcely have expected would stay a secret for long.

For serios evidence -- excuse me, I mean serious evidence -- you should also consider a number of "thoughtographs" produced in experiments in the 1960s. Ted Serios, a boozehound and ne'er-do-well from the American midwest, appeared to have a singular talent: the ability to transfer his own visualized images to Polaroid film. Several examples are shown at the Met. The Serios phenomena, like practically everything else in the history of psychical research, are controversial, endlessly "debunked" and defended.

Whatever you want to make of the Serios "thoughtographs" or any other exhibits in "Photography and the Occult," they do not approach scientifically acceptable proof for post-mortem survival, energy fields, mediumship, or such. That, however, is not grounds for dismissing the paranormal.

In his book The Paranormal, Stan Gooch writes:
... It is not the case that the alternative universe is mysterious in itself. It is mysterious only to us. For our nervous system is poorly equipped to understand the paranormal. ...

The alternative universe -- I should really say universes -- of the paranormal do have their own laws and their own coherent existence. It is the case, however, that these in no way resemble those of the objective universe. They simply bear no relation to the rules of every day. This, in brief, is why the application of science and the scientific method to the paranormal not only produces no results, but rather literally causes the phenomena to disappear.
Although I question many of the conclusions in Gooch's book (and think that last quoted sentence is probably an overstatement), I do believe he is basically on the right track here. When we look for physical proof of a non-physical reality, or one whose "matter" exists in a more subtle realm than what we normally perceive, it's like trying to catch water in a butterfly net.

"Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine."

Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944)