Religion

American independence and Quebecois dependence

So, the question I’m pondering today: why does it never seem to have occurred to anyone—not the French, nor the British, nor apparently even the Quebecois—that France might have demanded the return of Quebec at the end of the American Revolutionary War?

Historiography of the Revolutionary War tends to concentrate solely on the fighting in mainland North America.  This is understandable, inevitable, and completely appropriate—and, incidentally, just as true of British histories as it is of American. But it obscures how much of a global conflict France’s entry into the war in 1778 (and Spain’s in 1779 and the Netherlands’s in 1780) made it into.

The American Revolutionary War was fought in the Thirteen Colonies and Canada, but it was also fought in Florida, in the West Indies, in India, in Spain and in the English Channel.  The Great Siege of Gibraltar was part of the war.  The Second Anglo-Mysore War, in which the native state of Mysore came close to sweeping Great Britain from southern India, was part of the war.  During the war, France picked off a series of British islands in the Caribbean Sea (the Revolutionary War is the only war of the last three hundred years during which the Royal Navy has lost its customary naval superiority) and Spain occupied the Bahamas, though Lord Rodney’s victory at the Battle of the Saintes prevented a Franco-Spanish invasion of Jamaica.  The Franco-Spanish alliance’s attempts to launch an invasion of Great Britain in 1759 and in 1805 make it into all the history books, but their invasion of 1779, despite coming closer to success than either of the others (in that it actually put to sea and roamed around the English Channel), gets much less mention.  (Though I’d like a citation for Wikipedia’s assertion that France intended to retain Portsmouth as a naval base after the war.)

Indeed, so much did the Revolutionary War take on the character of a European war to outside observers once France entered that when Spain entered a year later, she did so with an alliance with France but without signing an alliance with the United States or even recognising the United States as a legitimate, independent nation.

And the peace settlement at the end of war—while its most important provision was British recognition of American independence and cession to the United States of the Old Northwest—also involved the colonial and European territorial transfers customary between European states at the end of these things.  Britain ceded Florida and the strategically vital Mediterranean island of Minorca to Spain, and Tobago to France; the Netherlands lost their Indian port of Negapatam to Britain.

And yet nowhere is there any mention of Quebec.  I can understand why France would ultimately decide not to pursue the return of Quebec—it wasn’t particularly lucrative (in fact it was a money sink, even with its dominance in the fur trade), it was difficult to defend, it had what was guaranteed to be a hostile power on its southern border.  But I don’t feel like I should have to assume that that was the thinking.  I don’t like that there doesn’t seem to have been any actual thinking going on.  I don’t like that I can’t find any evidence of French Canadian agitation for it after France entered the war—after all, in 1778, Quebec had only been British for fifteen years; anyone older than twenty-five could remember being a French subject, could remember the campaigns of invasion and conquest by armies of Britons and Americans.

Any attempt to Google about this gets swamped by results wondering why Quebec didn’t join the Patriots and become the Fourteenth State.  That’s a perfectly reasonable question for those with only a casual understanding of the American Revolution to ask, but it’s also one with some fairly obvious answers once you start studying the subject and realise the mutual antipathy the French Canadians and les Bostonnais—their word for Yankees—felt toward each other.  The Americans, particularly those of New England and New York, were so anti-Catholic that on Bonfire Night every year, the people of Boston burnt not Guy Fawkes in effigy, but the Pope; and they were so anti-French that when a French army arrived in New England in 1779 to help them win their independence from Britain, the people of Newport rioted and the Boston mob murdered a French officer.  The British were plenty anti-Catholic and anti-French, too, but they had also given the French Canadians the Quebec Act 1774, guaranteeing the freedom of Roman Catholic worship and preservation of French civil law in Canada—an action the Patriots found so odious that it’s included in the Declaration of Independence as a justification for the Revolutionary War.  It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Quebecois never mustered up much sentiment in favour of throwing their lot in with the Continental Congress.

(“Why didn’t Quebec become the Fourteenth State?” also swamps most results for another question I’ve wondered about from time to time: why didn’t Nova Scotia become the Fourteenth State?  Nova Scotia, after all, was English and Protestant in population—the French colonists having been violently and forcibly deported during the French and Indian War, in an action by the British government that would qualify as a war crime under modern definition—and, indeed, most of the settlers in the province had emigrated there from New England, where Revolutionary sentiment was strongest.  I did eventually find an answer to that question, albeit an unsatisfactory one.)

But just because the French Canadians found the British preferable to the Americans on their doorstep is still no reason why they’d have found them preferable to the actual French under whose governance most of them had been perfectly content.  I can understand why France ultimately decided that retrieving Canada wasn’t much of a priority, but I have harder time believing there wasn’t anything to decide in the first place.

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Turning Chick-fil-A into something good

There used to be two businesses we refused to frequent because I felt skeevy giving them my money.  One was Chick-fil-A; the other was Walmart.  But then there came a time when I found something out about the place we went instead of Walmart, and I realised something.  I came to think I couldn’t object to shopping at one place for its objectionable practices or support of objectionable causes if I wasn’t prepared to check into each and every place I frequented to make sure they weren’t doing anything I objected to.  So for some time now, we’ve occasionally shopped at Walmart or eaten at Chick-fil-A.

Of course, for the past week or so, we’ve again foregone Chick-fil-A.  But I’ve not been able to help feeling like that doesn’t really mean anything.  Chick-fil-A’s certainly not aware of the loss of the ten dollars they’d have made off us on Saturday, when we drove past one right as we wanted lunch on our way back from the Liverpool-Tottenham match in Baltimore.  And that would probably have been the only time in July or August that we visited them.  I just can’t shake the feeling that a personal boycott doesn’t actually hurt either Chick-fil-A or the hateful organisations that they support, and it doesn’t actually help the cause of gay rights that all our outrage is supposed to be in support of.  It seems to me that it’s more about making myself feel smug and feel like I’ve helped a cause when actually, really, I haven’t.

But obviously, just doing nothing isn’t acceptable either.  If a personal boycott feels like it accomplishes nothing, then simply continuing to patronise Chick-fil-A is actively hurting the people that Chick-fil-A makes its donations to hurt.

I crunched some numbers.  Chick-fil-A took in $4.1 billion last year.  The year before that, they donated $2 million to seven organisations that Business Insider describes as “anti-gay”.  Now, I’m not going to dispute that pretty much all the organisations on this list hold noxious positions on equality and civil rights when we’re talking about the rights in question being exercised with people whose sexuality they don’t like.  But the lion’s share of the money is going places like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes or the National Christian Foundation, organisations for whom anti-gay campaigning isn’t really at all a major focus of what they do.  I don’t think that makes those organisations okay, but I do think we need to make a distinction between them and pure hate groups such as the Family Research Council, whose sole concern is hating gays and who received a thousand bucks from Chick-fil-A in 2010.

If our family of four swing by Chick-fil-A and spend sixteen dollars, therefore, we’re spending about four-fifths of a penny toward those seven organisations, and about .0004 cents toward the Family Research Council.  If we eat there, say, six times a year (probably a lot for us), we’ve contributed about two and a half cents and .0024 cents respectively.

So here’s what we’re going to do.  We’re going to make a ten-dollar donation to a gay rights group; we don’t know which one yet.  And if, at any point in a calendar year, we eat at Chick-fil-A, then come the New Year, we’re going to make another ten dollar donation.  Is ten dollars a lot?  Not in the grand scheme of things, no.  But when it comes to this family, Chick-fil-A is going to be responsible for orders of magnitude more money going to gay rights than toward hate.

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The elephant on the front page

First Palin.  Then Trump.  Then Bachmann.  Gingrich.  Cain.  Perry.  Pinochet.  Gingrich again.  Pinochet again.  Now it’s even Ron Paul.

Every time this happens, it’s the same story, and I genuinely don’t understand why it’s treated as a unique event.  I don’t understand why we’re not getting exactly the same lede to start off the story every time: The economic and religious movements that drive the Republican Party have further confirmed their deep ambivalence between nominating an individual who will recapture the Presidency in 2012, and their desire that their nominee pass a checklist of discredited reactionary, oligarchic, plutocratic, anti-democratic, xenophobic, fascistic and borderline sociopathic positions on social and fiscal policy that would instantly disqualify any such nominee from receiving the vote of any rational, reflective voter considering the respective merits of the candidate.

Barack Obama should be profoundly vulnerable in the 2012 election.  He’s consistently brushed off the political left, who were his most enthusiastic supporters during the 2008 campaign.  He’s consistently failed the political centre by confusing “collaboration, consensus-building and intelligent conversation” with “complete abdication of leadership and authority”.  And the political right will hate him as a matter of principle.

And yet he has to be a heavy favourite for re-election, because instead of genuine conservative candidates for the Presidency, the Republican public have proven themselves only interested a parade of religious zealots, anti-liberty fascists and economic fringists who keep shouting that the best way to end a global recession brought about by a decade of Randian plutocratic policy from Republican congresses is more Randian plutocratic policy.  They’re so desperate to find someone like that to be their nominee that they glomp onto every new one that comes along, until they realise that, hey, this one’s just as detestable to the American general electorate as the others have been.

Mainstream media don’t preserve their neutrality by failing to point this out–they in fact abandon it.  When you deliberately ignore such a basic and important element of the story as the ridiculousness of the Republican primary field, and the desperate attempts of Republican primary voters to cling to economic and religious extremism, you slant the story in favour of ridiculousness and economic and religious extremism.

Of course, the Republicans have another candidate.  He’s consistently the number two candidate whenever the latest fringe extremist jumps to the head of the pack, and he’s consistently the number one candidate whenever the media and the Republican voters haven’t yet found a new fringe extremist to get excited about.  Just as Barack Obama will in all likelihood be re-elected by default because the only candidates the Republican Party can find capable of winning the vote of a conservative primary voter all make moderate general election voters either collapse with laughter or shudder at the terror of them winning the Presidency, so too will Mitt Romney in all likelihood win the Republican nomination by default because the Republican Party can’t find any candidates acceptable to conservative voters who aren’t also laughter-inducing or terrifying to sane, moderate general election voters.

They don’t like him because he doesn’t pass their religion test, and they attack him for not being a fringe extremist, but in the end, Republican primary voters will hold their noses and vote for Mitt Romney.  Then they’ll hold him up before the general election voters with an unmistakable attitude of, “We couldn’t find anyone we actually like, so … this is the best we could do.  Mitt 2012!  Yeah!”  With predictable results.

All in all, a whole lot of huff and puff and enough candidate debates that the cable news networks really should have started a weekly Republican Debate Tuesday show by now, and all done just to surrender a general election.

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As we know it, and I feel fine

By my calculations, New Zealand is supposed to end tomorrow night at midnight, Eastern Daylight Time. By that time, Lisa will be asleep, but I’ll still be awake. If we haven’t heard from New Zealand by 12.30, then we’ll know it’s real. At that point, I’ll wake up Lisa and the kids so that we can be awake for our final sixteen or seventeen hours in an unapocalypsed Virginia. (It’s unclear to me whether this apocalypse that is supposed to roll around the world at 6p.m. local time for twenty-four hours respects Daylight Savings Time or not.)

If we have heard from New Zealand, and we know everything’s fine, then I’m not going to wake up Lisa. Instead, I’m going to call a cab. While I’m waiting for the cab, I’m going to change clothes, and leave all the clothes I’ve been wearing all day in a pile on the floor beside Lisa’s side of the bed. Then I’m going to get the kids up, and leave their pyjamas in their beds. Then the three of us are going to go check into a hotel for the night.

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God and the preschooler

Wondering how to teach our kids about religion has been something Lisa and I have been dealing with since long before we had kids–probably, since before Lisa had to sign a statement saying she’ll raise her children Roman Catholic, in order for her church to agree to marry us. Personally I’d like the kids to see both their parents’ choices equally–to see me without religion and Lisa being Catholic, and then on their own they can come to whatever faith (or lack thereof) they end up with. Lisa’s broadly in agreement with this, though she does sometimes fall into the privilege-trap of assuming that we can brush aside my lack of religion and treat being religious as the default state.

And then the other day, out of the blue Boy asked me to tell him about Jesus.

While Lisa was at work.

My first reaction was, “Errr.”

My second reaction was, “That’s probably something it would be better to ask Mum about.”

“But why?” Boy asked.

“Well,” I said. I wanted to stay away from the word Christian, because I thought having to define that for him would get into stuff that was a bit too subtle. So I went for people who go to church. “Well, because Mum is someone who goes to church, and I’m not.”

“Yes you do!” he exclaimed. “You go to church just as much as we do!”

Which I suppose is accurate, since the only times he’s seen Lisa go to church in the past twelve months were at Christmas and last Easter, which are the two times a year that I get drafted into going too.

(Lisa also went to a midnight mass the Christmas before that, but Boy was asleep, and I got out of going as it was when we were in Florida for my dad’s funeral.)

I can’t recall exactly the words I used, but I managed to convey the idea that while I did go to church at Easter and Christmas because his mum asks me to, I’m not someone who goes to church like he and Lisa are. “Hmm,” he said, his brow knotted in thought. Then his face lit up, and he suggested, “Are you Georgish?”

Georgish. “Do you mean Jewish?”

“Yeah.”

So my kid thinks the word for “anyone who doesn’t go to church” is Jewish. Which he pronounces Georgish. Parents of the year are we.

“No I’m not.”

He frowned again. “Then what are you?”

“I’m not anything.”

“Dad!” He laughed aloud at the obvious absurdity of this. “You’re teasing me!”

I smiled. “No, I’m not.”

“Yes you are!” Now he was laughing so hard he almost couldn’t get the words out. When his laughter had subsided, he patted the couch and invited me to come sit next to him, like it was a reward for having amused him so.

I was fairly unhappy with how this exchange had gone, and really didn’t want to set a precedent of all questions about Christianity being deflected onto Lisa. So I settled onto the couch and unwisely asked, “So … what has Mum told you about Jesus?”

P’s eyes brightened. “That he died! The king killed him because he didn’t want Jesus to be king!”

(Lisa had placed blame for the Crucifixion on Herod, thus neatly avoiding for a few years any need for explanations about the role of either Romans or Georges in the events.)

“Ah, okay.” I couldn’t think of anything to add to that, so I decided to move the conversation to what I thought would be easier ground. “Do you know who Jesus’s mum and dad were?”

He shook his head, looking at me with bright expectation. “No.”

“Well, his mum was named Mary, and his dad was named Joseph.”

“Joseph?!” he exclaimed.

“Yeah.”

“Daaaad,” he said, in a tone which clearly conveyed, Silly old man, “what about God?

“Oh. God.” I thought about this. “Well, church says that God was Jesus’s real dad, yes. But Joseph was Mary’s husband.”

I’m kind of relieved, though. I’m sure that now we’ve got through all that, the questions only get simpler.

Pretty in pink

My four-year-old son loves sports. He loves physical activity of any kind, really. He loves to run and jump and climb. He loves to throw and catch. Lately we’ve been playing football in the living room, kicking the ball back and forth to each other or else trying to kick the ball away from each other and score goals through the legs of the kitchen table chairs. Last week we took him to his first professional sport event, a DC United match, and he loved every second of it. He’s been swimming underwater since he was three, and last week he started swimming above the water, too.

My son’s favourite colour is pink. (Though sometimes when you ask him, he says red.) He found his mother’s short, purple silk nightie and declared it his “pretty dress”, and wore it around the house for several days.

My son loves to build. He loves it when we build models of police cars or X-wing fighters. He loves to see how things go. He cranes his neck so far it must hurt in order to catch every second of an ambulance or firetruck or police car with its lights flashing out the car window. He gets incredibly excited when he gets to go to the mechanic and see what’s under our car’s bonnet, or see them raise the car up and then get to take a look at its underbelly.

The last time we stayed at my mother’s, my son found her high-heeled shoes, put them on and strutted around her house. He found a full-length mirror and admired himself in it, twisting his body around to try and see the shoes from all angles.

My son loves science fiction. For months we watched Star Wars at least once a day. Now we’re watching at least one full Doctor Who story a day, generally one with Daleks in it.

Whenever my son plays make believe, he always picks the role of the girl. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him be Luke Skywalker, or the Doctor, or Lightning McQueen. Always he’s Princess Leia, or Zoe Heriot, or Sally.

And good for him.

I read the comments on this post, and I can’t tell whether my reaction is one more of sadness or of anger. (Maybe that ambivalence means I’m gender confused.) Either way, I know there’s also an awful lot of pity mixed in.

It’s common, when one encounters displays of homophobia, also to encounter accusations of insecurity in response. I’m not generally a fan of such a response. It’s usually accompanied by an assertion–whether implicit or explicit–that the homophobe is themselves attempting to repress homosexual urges of their own. I’m sure that sometimes that’s true, just as I’m sure it’s also sometimes not. But what it always is, is an attempt to shut down the discussion. And whatever the topic, I almost never think that can be a good thing. We don’t accomplish anything when we make discussion impossible–we don’t get a better understanding of the other side’s position and of how they arrived at it, and we certainly don’t get a chance to expose the other side to our own position, perhaps to open their eyes and change their hearts, even if just a little.

But reading that thread, it’s unavoidable to conclude that the single biggest motivator behind the homophobic comments is insecurity. These commenters are deeply insecure. They’re insecure because the world is bigger than the small, narrowly defined place they want it to be. They’re insecure that they might not have control over their children’s sexuality.

Many of them shroud their comments in an attempt to restore some sort of masculinity that our society has apparently lost–to return to the days when Men Were Men and boy-children, I suppose, were boy-children. Here’s the thing, though: it’s only recently that we’ve started dressing our infants and toddlers in such a way that we differentiate their gender in the first place. Before then, all babies and small children were dressed in white frocks.

And by “recently”, I don’t mean recently as in, “It’s only recently that humanity has harnessed the power of the steam engine.” I mean recently as in Jackie Robinson was already playing in the major leagues before we started putting twelve-month-old boys in trousers. My father and my uncles were dressed in white dresses when they were infants. I have the grainy, black and white photographs to prove it.

Not that it matters whether we dress our infants as boys and girls or simply as babies. It doesn’t–because small children don’t have gender identity. When Boy wants to try on my mother’s high heels, it isn’t a sexual choice, anymore than it’s a sexual choice for him to go get out his toy tools whenever I pull out my hammer or tape measure or screwdriver and to stand next to me while I work, re-enacting whatever task I’m doing. He’s not emulating women when he wears high-heeled shoes or men when he works with his tools; he’s emulating grownups. He’s exploring the world around him and trying to make sense of it.

And the last thing I would ever dream of doing, as his father, is try to stunt that exploration by pressing a gender identity on him that he’s simply too young to have developed on his own. He knows he’s a boy. He knows he wears shorts or trousers when we go out and swimming trunks at the pool. Soon enough he’ll be going to school, where he’ll learn that girls are icky, that he doesn’t really like pink and that he doesn’t want to be Leia, he wants to be Luke or Han Solo.

For now, though, his world isn’t complicated by all that. And at the moment, he’s better for it.

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Similarity

I’m going to expand on a comment I left at Making Light, in response to the prompt, “The New Testament is to the Old Testament as the Aeneid is to the Iliad and the Odyssey: discuss.” My response wasn’t really a discussion of that, but it is a point I’ve been considering for some time.

The analogy I’m fond of isn’t to the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid, it’s to Graeco-Roman mythology generally. It’s a common assessment whenever ancient mythology is mentioned that Roman mythology is essentially just Greek mythology with the names changed.

My reaction to that is always to point out that that’s equivalent to saying Christianity is really just Judaism, because the Christian Bible comprises mostly the Hebrew Bible, with a short additional section attached at the end. Both analyses are built on valid propositions, but they ignore the facts that in both cases, it’s within the differences that we find those parts of Christianity and of Roman religion that are most relevant to understanding Christian and Roman identity (and society and history).

We need first and foremost to acknowledge the difference between mythology and religion. It’s perfectly valid to say Roman mythology is essentially Greek mythology with the names changed, so long as that’s immediately followed by Of course, mythology was far less relevant to Roman religious worship than Judeo-Christian mythology is to Judeo-Christian worship.

But I don’t think people are keeping that in mind when they compare Greek and Roman mythology; rather the contrary, I think most people nowadays have some vague notion that mythology is pretty much all there is to Graeco-Roman religion, because it’s all we ever learn about in school. There’s two reasons why our view of ancient religion is tilted so lopsidedly toward mythology.

The first is that knowledge of mythology is more accessible to us than knowledge of other segments of religious practice, because it gets written down, and then gets copied in great quantity. When the apocalypse comes in 2012 or 1988 or whatever date we’re going to pick after 2012 comes and goes, I can guarantee that archaeologists trying to reconstruct our culture two thousand years later will be able to find a copy of the Bible, to transmit our mythology. Rosaries, or stained glass, or descriptions of transubstantiation and consubstantiation, or written records of sermons, or whatever other elements of Christian worship you want to name, will all be preserved in much smaller quantities, or not at all. (Classicists estimate that only about seven per cent of the written works of the ancient world have been preserved and rediscovered today.)

The second is straight-up chauvinism. Having a written religion–and a written civilisation generally–was a big part of what made the Greeks and Romans “civilised”, and therefore superior to the Gauls or Teutons or Celtiberians; until a few decades ago, there was a strong tendency both in academia and in popular culture to see only those societies classed as civilised as worthy of respect.

(To be fair, the Romans were just as guilty of this as modern classicists. The very reason we identify Greek and Roman mythologies so closely is because, when the Romans were first creating a literate, scholarly society for themselves around the time of the Punic Wars, they essentially grafted their own gods onto the Greek gods’ mythology and family tree to give themselves a veneer of respectability. Prior to that, Roman gods had been much more impersonal beings, essentially forces of nature–without human form or personality or mythology. The term for such a god is numinous; a good trick to see how deep-rooted the Roman cult of a god was, is to see how numinous it is–like Vesta or Bona Dea.)

I think it’s also important to point out that the Romans did not see their gods as discrete, unique characters in the same way that we generally do. When the Romans equated Mars with the Greek god Ares, and even when Roman generals in Greece sacrificed at temples of Ares before or after battle, it was on some significant level simply an identification of both gods with the idea of war, rather than a claim that they were the same individual. Julius Caesar tells us that the principal god of the Gauls is Mercury, with Mars, Jupiter, Apollo and Minerva beneath him, but he doesn’t mean that the gods worship those exact same Roman gods–rather, he means that the Gauls worship their god of commerce and ingenuity as their principal god, supported by the gods of war, the sky, and protection from disease, and the goddess of urban settlement.

Now, I find all this fascinating just in its own right, but even beyond that, it also gives rise to a lesson I consider very important in my writing–highlighting how different societies see the world. (It’s a lesson I’ve mentioned before and will almost certainly mention again.)

I’ve spent most of this space talking about what Roman religious practice wasn’t, and of course the obvious question that gives rise to is asking what it was. I won’t go into that now, beyond touching on how legalistically the Romans viewed their interactions with their gods. It’s fundamentally different, I think, from the relationship that the Abrahamic religions have with the divine. And as writers, whether we’re recreating authentic foreign societies in works set in the real world, or creating our own in speculative fiction, I think it’s vitally important to understand how differently people can approach matters that are so ingrained in us that it’s often really hard for us to see past our own assumptions.

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Shanghai
Words last two days: 1020
Words total: 28,488

Time spent writing: 1pm-5pm; 6pm-7pm
Reason for stopping: Took the kids for a walk; quota
Darling: I got up onto my knees and peeked out the curtains at the view outside, through the rivulets of rain running down the glass.
Words that boggled Word: pyjamas
New words today: rivulets, carbine, flinty

In Search of Zarathustra

In Search of ZarathustraIn Search of Zarathustra: The First Prophet and the Ideas That Changed the World by Paul Kriwaczek is my 47th favourite book. Its topic, unsurprisingly, is Zarathustra (often known in the West by the Hellenised form Zoroaster), the ancient Iranian prophet; the intensely dualistic and fanatical religion he founded, Zoroastrianism; and the effect Zoroastrian precepts have had throughout Western history and continue to have today, touching upon Roman Mithraism, mediaeval Bogomils and Cathars, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and even the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But it’s not a history; in fact, what scholarship it contains is none too often somewhat questionable. It’s the genius of In Search of Zarathustra that its author tackles his topics not from earliest to latest, but rather from latest to earliest. We start with the role Zoroastrian ideas play in the modern Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union; then we move on to the movie 2001 and its famous theme music, “Thus Spake Zarathustra”; then to Nietzsche and his book of the same name.

This conceit has the effect of turning In Search of Zarathustra from a history into a journey of self-discovery by Kriwaczek, an Austrian Jew who has lived in Britain since the age of two, when his family fled Nazi persecution. As part of the book, he travels to the Islamic Republic of Iran to see Zarathustra’s homeland and the Zoroastrian fire temples that, despite its fanatical Islamic fundamentalism, the Iranian government still maintains. It marks a return for him; he spent several years in the 1960s living in Iran and Afghanistan, in the days when one was a Westernised American satellite and the other was a semi-feudal kingdom, before ayatollahs and Soviet occupation and the Taliban.

And so we move through modern Iran, 1968 cinemas, Nietzsche’s nineteenth-century Alpine retreat, the doomed French fortress at Montsegur, Sassanid Persia, Roman Britain, Alexander’s empire, the Holy Land in the time of the Zoroaster-influenced Biblical Prophet Daniel, and ultimately to the time of Zarathustra himself. A fascinating journey.

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Slacktivism

The other day I received an email forward claiming that the US Mint’s new series of presidential dollar coins do not include the words “In God We Trust”. I’ve already deleted the email, so I can’t quote the exact one I received. Instead, I’ll quote one of the samples reproduced on Snopes’s page debunking this dishonest rumour; the version I received had several sentences taken word for word from this one, particularly the one I’m going to talk about:

You guessed it
‘IN GOD WE TRUST’
IS GONE!!!

Who originally put ‘In God We Trust’ onto our currency?

My bet is that it was one of the Presidents on these coins.

All our U.S. Government has done is Dishonor them, and disgust me!!!

If ever there was a reason to boycott something, THIS IS IT!!!!

DO NOT ACCEPT THE NEW DOLLAR COINS AS CHANGE

Together we can force them out of circulation.

(Just as a note: anyone who places a bet on a President being the one who first place “In God We Trust” on US currency would lose that bet. As about ten seconds of Googling can reveal. Of course, that’s about the same amount of time it takes to establish that these presidential dollars do include the phrase.)

Now, there’s a lot here that I could talk about how angry it makes me, and there’s a lot I could talk about how sad it makes me. I could talk about the whole undercurrent of “Anything that doesn’t make non-Christians feel like alienated second-class Americans counts as actively persecuting Christians!” that runs through so many of these fallacious email forward campaigns. It’s an undercurrent that would be laughable if so many people didn’t find it so powerful and invigorating that massive (and successful) consumer campaigns have been organised in its name.

I could talk about how the people who exploit that sentiment through emails like this are clearly doing it dishonestly, just to manipulate these people–the particular version of the email I receive had a story prepended about how the author had received one of the coins as change at the post office and refused to accept it, and the postal worker had expressed pride in that decision. So either the author knew they were lying about “In God We Trust” not appearing on the coin, because they had handled it and therefore must have seen it, or they were lying about the entire story of having received it as change. Either way, they were definitely lying about the postal worker’s reaction.

I could talk about how futile it feels when I hit Reply All and detail all the ways emails like this are false, not because people are going to think that my facts are suspect, but because I firmly believe that for most people who believe nonsense like this, whether or not it’s true simply has no relevance to them. These people believe these things because they want to believe them–because for whatever reason, they want it to be true that Big Evil Secularists have removed “In God We Trust” from the currency, that Barack Obama is a Muslim, that Proctor and Gamble donate a portion of all their profits to the Church of Satan, that f*ck is an acronym of “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge”, that Beaver Cleaver died in Vietnam, that gangs initiate new members by driving around at night with their lights off and chasing down and murdering anyone who flashes their high beams at them, that one of the World Trade Center bombers dated an American girl the summer before the attack and told her just before he broke contact with her that she shouldn’t go to the World Trade Center on 11 September or to any shopping malls on Hallowe’en, no matter how stupid all of those are when given even a moment’s serious scrutiny.

But the one line that jumped out at me more than any other from that email was, “If ever there was a reason to boycott something, THIS IS IT!!!”

Really? I mean, really?

Walmart actively destroys the quality of life of millions of employees, both their own direct employees and the employees of their suppliers around the globe. Yahoo provides personal information to the People’s Republic of China so that the Chinese authorities can hunt down and imprison any of their citizens who commit the crime of expressing dissatisfaction with their country’s political situation. For that matter, China itself–the source of a huge and growing proportion of the products you and I buy every day, particularly of children’s toys, often manufactured in inhuman conditions and sold through Walmart–maintains a system where over a billion people are deprived of basic civil and human rights that you and I take for granted.

But the only unquestionably legitimate reason for a boycott the author of this email has ever encountered is whether or not four words that were only adopted as the National Motto in an anti-Soviet PR stunt in the 1950s appear on a series of limited-edition coins? Whose only material effect is to make sure that atheist or polytheistic American citizens are reminded that our country considers us inherently inferior to the monotheistic majority?

Allow me to attempt to rewrite the sentence in question so I can get closer to the original author’s real meaning:

If ever there was a boycott that will allow us to feel smugly superior without any effort, sacrifice or inconvenience to ourselves, THIS IS IT!!!

Which is what disgusts me as much as anything else about the sentiments in dishonest emails like this–this sentiment that we’ll make loud, obnoxious noises at anything we don’t like, so long as it doesn’t cause us a hassle in any way. It’s like the people who get up in arms every year about demanding retail employees say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” (again, purely with the aim of ensuring that non-Christians know that they can never be as good as Christians), which–I can tell you from experience–never seems to involve actually forgoing the purchase of whatever they were going to buy, just self-righteously haranguing the hapless customer service employee.

Truly trying to make the world a better place means sticking to your convictions even when–perhaps especially when–it makes our lives harder. As I noted above, whenever I get one of those email forwards–at least, one of the genuinely harmful ones, like Barack Obama being a Muslim or Starbucks refusing to donate products to soldiers in Iraq in an effort to undermine the war effort or the Supreme Court having a monument to the Ten Commandments at its entrance to confirm that American law is supposed to be based on Biblical law (all of which, funnily enough, always seem designed to get me to vote Republican)–I hit Reply All and debunk it. This isn’t easy for me; I’m profoundly uncomfortable making a fool of myself in front of people I don’t know (people I do know are often disbelieving when I say this, since I have absolutely no problem making a fool of myself when I know everyone in the room), and I know that when I send that reply I’m going to look like a total crank to dozens of strangers, very few of whom will even be willing to believe that truth that contradicts the urban legend they’d much prefer. But I realised that I couldn’t think of myself as the person I’d like to be if I was willing to let lies like that be spread right in front of me and not speak up.

Lisa and I don’t shop at Walmart. We decided that we simply couldn’t collude with Walmart’s business practices–either their censorship of artists’ work because they disagree with that art, or because of the horrible conditions under which their employees at all levels of distribution, all around the world, have to suffer–by spending our money in their stores. And sometimes that really sucks. It’s more expensive and it’s less convenient (and as a single-income household, which option is the cheapest is one of the two or three biggest factors in most purchases we make), and it especially has the opportunity for awkwardness when we visit her family in Florida or South Carolina, most of whom swear by Walmart.

Please don’t think I’m trying to hold myself up as some sort of shining example here, because I’m not. I’ll be the first to admit that there are other sacrifices we could make that we don’t. And we’re hardly perfect with the resolutions we do make; the avoid-conflict-at-all-costs ethos that runs through Lisa’s family means that in particular it’s not uncommon for us to end up at Walmart on a trip to South Carolina or Florida rather than get into an argument over what’s so objectionable about shopping there.

But my point here isn’t to turn people into ascetics in pursuit of living morally perfect lives. It’s just that there seem to be so many campaigns or events designed to salve people’s consciences about the causes they care about. I don’t object to such things because I don’t think they make enough of an impact; I object to them because I think they actively work against making an impact, by allowing people to pretend they’ve made a contribution without actually doing anything that might make an impact.

Like participating in Earth Hour: I’ve yet to encounter anyone who used their participation in Earth Hour as a springboard to actually live their life in a greener way, by no longer leaving their computer on all night long, or by choosing to own less than one car per licensed driver in the household.

Similarly, there was a movement on Facebook to have people set their status to “is gay” for National Coming Out Day last week. Laudable. But of the tens of thousands of people who participated, how many have made even a twenty dollar donation to organisations fighting against Proposition 8 in California or Amendment 2 in Florida? Doing so actually would make a contribution towards making our world a better place; what sort of impact did claiming to be gay on Facebook for a single day make?

Or blogging. I’ve blogged about how disgraceful the treatment people feel entitled to mete out to customer service employees in America is–but is there really anyone who’s started treating other human beings more civilly regardless of whether or not they wear a nametag because of what I’ve written?

If you want to do Earth Hour, or announce to the Facebook community that you’re gay for a day, or blog about what you care, great. I mean it–great. Stand up for what you believe in. But use stuff like that as a step towards actually making a difference.

I

Inheritance
Words today: 1059
Words total: 67,695

Time spent writing: Ninety minutes (1.30-3pm)
Reason for stopping: Quota
Tyop: The flat sandstone roofstops of the necropolis stretched away from them
New words used today: juddering, cinderblock
Alcohol: Amaretto fower
Milestone reached: Three quarters done!

I Corinthians was not read at the wedding at Cana

The wedding at CanaLater this month, Lisa and I are heading down to Florida for a couple of weeks, for my high school reunion and Lisa’s sister’s (re)wedding. At the wedding Lisa is doing one of the readings. Specifically, she’s reading a passage that was also read at our wedding, I Corinthians 4-7:

Love is always patient and kind; love is never jealous; love is not boastful or conceited, it is never rude and never seeks its own advantage, it does not take offence or store up grievances. Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but finds its joy in the truth. It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes.

This is, unsurprisingly, not an uncommon choice for wedding passages. Which brings us to the problem.

You see, it seems to me that there’s only about six or seven passages that ever get read at weddings, and they all say pretty much the same thing–stuff like Ecclesiastes 4, Ruth 1 or I John 4. I won’t quote all of them here, but to get a feel for what I’m talking about, here are the other reading from Julia’s wedding and the other reading from our wedding:

Genesis 2:18-24:

Yahweh God said, “It is not right that the man should be alone. I shall make him a helper.” So from the soil Yahweh God fashioned all the wild animals and all the birds of heaven. These he brought to the man to see what he would call them; each one was to bear the name the man would give it. The man gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of heaven and all the wild animals. But no helper suitable for the man was found for him. Then, Yahweh God made the man fall into a deep sleep. And, while he was asleep, he took one of his ribs and closed the flesh up again forthwith. Yahweh God fashioned the rib he had taken from the man into a woman, and brought her to the man. And the man said: This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh! She is to be called Woman, because she was taken from Man. This is why a man leaves his father and mother and becomes attached to his wife, and they become one flesh.

And Ecclesiasticus 26:1-4, 13-16:

How blessed is the husband of a really good wife; the number of his days will be doubled. A perfect wife is the joy of her husband, he will live out the years of his life in peace. A good wife is the best of portions, reserved for those who fear the Lord; rich or poor, their hearts will be glad, their faces cheerful, whatever the season.

The grace of a wife will charm her husband, her understanding will make him the stronger. A silent wife is a gift from the Lord, no price can be put on a well-trained character. A modest wife is a boon twice over, a chaste character cannot be over-valued. Like the sun rising over the mountains of the Lord, such is the beauty of a good wife in a well-run house.

And honestly, I’m finding it repetitive. So here’s the deal: after Julia’s wedding, if you’re going to have Bible readings at your wedding, I will only be attending if one of them isn’t your garden-variety wedding reading. I’d like something that will really allow you to tell who’s listening and who’s not, because those who are will suddenly start exchanging glances with each other and smirking slightly, perhaps even laugh.

Because I believe one should never complain about a problem without offering a solution, here are some suggestions for such readings:

To start with, you can use the quotation from Genesis 2, but finish out the chapter by including the final verse, verse 25:

Now, both of them were naked, the man and his wife, but they felt no shame before each other.

Or there’s I Chronicles 1:10-13:

And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be mighty upon the earth. And Mizraim begat Ludim, and Anamim, and Lehabim, and Naphtuhim, and Pathrusim, and Casluhim, (of whom came the Philistines,) and Caphthorim. And Canaan begat Zidon his firstborn, and Heth,

Or I Kings 21:21-25:

Behold, I will bring evil upon thee, and will take away thy posterity, and will cut off from Ahab him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel, and will make thine house like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah, for the provocation wherewith thou hast provoked me to anger, and made Israel to sin. And of Jezebel also spake the LORD, saying, The dogs shall eat Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel. Him that dieth of Ahab in the city the dogs shall eat; and him that dieth in the field shall the fowls of the air eat. But there was none like unto Ahab, which did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord, whom Jezebel his wife stirred up.

And seriously now, what wedding could be complete without a reading from Ezekiel? Try 23:17-21:

The Babylonians came to her, shared her love-bed and defiled her with their whoring. Once defiled by them, she withdrew her affection from them. Thus she flaunted her whoring, exposing her body, until I withdrew my affection from her as I had withdrawn it from her sister. But she began whoring worse than ever, remembering her girlhood, when she had played the whore in Egypt, when she had been in love with their profligates, big-membered as donkeys, ejaculating as violently as stallions. “You were hankering for the debauchery of your girlhood, when they used to handle your nipples in Egypt and fondle your young breasts.”

I also like Revelation 12:1-4:

Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman, robed with the sun, standing on the moon, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant, and in labour, crying aloud in the pangs of childbirth. Then a second sign appeared in the sky: there was a huge red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, and each of the seven heads crowned with a coronet. Its tail swept a third of the stars from the sky and hurled them to the ground, and the dragon stopped in front of the woman as she was at the point of giving birth, so that it could eat the child as soon as it was born.

Or Genesis 19:31-36:

The elder said to the younger, “Our father is an old man, and there is no one here to marry us in the normal way of the world. Come on, let us ply our father with wine and sleep with him. In this way we can preserve the race by our father.” That night they made their father drunk, and the elder slept with her father though he was unaware of her coming to bed or of her leaving. The next day the elder said to the younger, “Last night, I was the one who slept with our father. Let us make him drunk again tonight, and you go and sleep with him. In this way we can preserve the race by our father.” They made their father drunk that night too, and the younger went and slept with him, though he was unaware of her coming to bed or of her leaving. Both Lot’s daughters thus became pregnant by their father.

One idea I really like is simply to read those verse of Ecclesiasticus (26:5-12) that somehow always manage to get skipped over in the common wedding reading I quoted up above:

There are three things that I dread, and a fourth which terrifies me: slander by a whole town, the gathering of a mob, and a false accusation — these are all worse than death; but a woman jealous of a woman means heartbreak and sorrow, and all this is the scourge of the tongue. A bad wife is a badly fitting ox-yoke, trying to master her is like grasping a scorpion. A drunken wife will goad anyone to fury, she cannot conceal her own degradation. A woman’s wantonness shows in her wide-eyed look, her eyelashes leave no doubt. Keep a headstrong daughter under firm control, or, feeling free, she will take advantage of it. Keep a strict watch on her shameless eye, do not be surprised if she disgraces you. Like a thirsty traveller she will open her mouth and drink any water she comes across; she will sit down in front of every tent-peg and open her quiver to any arrow.

But the reading I am absolutely most hoping to hear at wedding is Genesis 16:1-6:

Now Sarah Abraham’s wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. And Sarah said unto Abraham, Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abraham hearkened to the voice of Sarah. And Sarah Abraham’s wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abraham had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abraham to be his wife.

And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes. And Sarah said unto Abraham, My wrong be upon thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the LORD judge between me and thee. But Abraham said unto Sarah, Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee. And when Sarah dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face.

Is a little variety really too much to ask?

I

PS Incidentally, the next time you’re trying to talk your wife into wearing a pair of kinky high heels and she’s reluctant, you can tell her it’s in the Bible. Seriously. (As long as you’re Catholic, Orthodox or Episcopalian.) Ecclesiasticus 26:23.

(Quotations from a couple of different translations depending upon which was funnier.)

Inheritance
Words today: 1009
Words total: 55,666

Time spent writing: Three hours (1pm-3pm, 3.30-4.30)
Reason for stopping: Quota
Food: Chicken tortilla soup

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