My New Novel (Part Two)

One more selection from the preface of my new novel… and by the way, Seven Demons Worse was its title under a very different and much earlier guise.  The new release is titled Worse by Seven.

In Seven Demons, Evans moves along in Part Three to seek out a desert space where he… does what? Almost kills himself with idle wandering until he decides to have another go at life? The nature of his “redemption” while straying through a sandy wilderness far west of his university never becomes clear. In the version of the novel before you, Evans’s reanimation through his acquaintance with Carmen makes his journey west far more comprehensible, I believe (I hope), though he himself constantly questions its purpose. I would argue that his purpose is illuminated by his explicit frustration in trying to find it. He’s looking for his soul. Ostensibly, he has to go back and mop up after resigning his professorship by mail. An apartment must be emptied, a car sold… these are details that I had ignored earlier, but that a story of life in the real world cannot afford to pass by. Yet he understands from the start that such details are the trip’s pretext. He is not in a position, psychologically or spiritually, simply to have another go at being happy with yet another woman whom he has met quite casually and treated rather better than her recent predecessors. He no longer trusts his judgment: he has fooled himself too often in relying on his compromised conscience. He needs to see a rigorous, objective test run on his moral stamina, and perhaps even more on his sheer physical self-control (which is pretty much the same thing, if you stop and think). He continues westward, therefore, with an irresistible inclination to put himself in harm’s way.

I remember being forced to read one of Norman Mailer’s novels as a college freshman, and I recall the protagonist as a virulent womanizer whose addiction to sex has diminished his manly fortitude practically to nothing in his own eyes. (I observe this, by the way, to be a fully—if ironically—genuine consequence of skirt-chasing: men actually lose their self-respect as virile men.) Mailer’s character ends up walking along the parapet of a skyscraper to restore a bit of his soul’s energy. In the original version of my narrative, I can’t see Evans as having done anything much different in traipsing through a space resembling New Mexico’s White Sands and being reprieved from death only by a blind chance. That’s not the end I wanted. It doesn’t bring together all the story’s tortuous (and torturous) strands: the academic world full of haughty hypocrisy, the beloved wife snatched away rudely, the affairs with campus carnivores intended to be a kind of fist-shaking at heaven… the domineering mother, the elusive father, the small-town whited-sepulcher church… the budding love of a worthy but vulnerable human being who must not be mishandled any further… all of these sources of tension must be addressed. What is essentially a Maileresque dance atop a skyscraper doesn’t address any of them—and most certainly does not propose a Christian resolution.

If my “Christian” critics had wanted to lance Seven Demons Worse at its most exposed point, their target should have been the ending. Indeed, if I had staged some supernatural conversion in the sand dunes where Evans falls on his knees, cries, “I hear you, Jesus—you died on the cross for my sins!” and blubbers himself into ecstasy, most of my critics would probably have considered a stay of execution for me. But here I will share a confession of my own. I have never been able to fathom the spiritual content of the boo-hooing displayed at the thought of the Savior’s being cruelly butchered because the justly enraged Father demands a blood sacrifice. The ritual analogies attempted here simply muddy up the terms of redemption impossibly for me; I cannot find in this jumble of scapegoating and human sacrifice a compelling expression of how the wayward heart might be realigned toward humility, hope, and the worship of goodness. Maybe it’s my fault. Like Evans, I’m sure I have some missing pieces. As his literary creator, though, I cannot put into Evans’s experience sentiments that have no basis in my own. The God he seeks must be the God I have sought—and whatever peace and renewal he finds must be such as I have found.

Suffering, again, is an indispensable element of the formula: Evans must realize that suffering belongs to the righteous life in this vale of tears called Earth. The Beatitudes promise us no less. It is therefore unjust and immature to rebuke God because we suffer. If our suffering is “good suffering”, it indeed demonstrates that we are followers of God (who ended up on the Cross in trying to reach us through a fully human form). Yet there is also such a thing as bad suffering. Evans has managed to consume his fill of this during his wild run at the campus life’s “there is no God—I’m in control” caliber of pleasure. Indeed, he has discovered that Hell can scarcely be anything other than separation from God in a world entirely of one’s own making—right down to its luxurious indulgences.

The reality of bad suffering, then, must be balanced against the reality of good suffering. I cannot have Evans exiting the desert triumphantly with the mere dictum in his mouth, “Get back to doing your duty, and don’t ask questions” (or, as the great American philosopher Bill Belichick expresses it more succinctly, “Do your job”). This would be just a slight repackaging of his mother’s cultic devotion to building a superior bloodline while suppressing all personal affections that interfere. The duty at issue might be of a much higher sort—but the dedication to it would still be abject and without joy. Somewhere in his desperate desert meander, Evans has to discover joy.

In my first draft of the utter rewrite (and, by Part Three, I had thrown Seven Demons aside completely and was composing fresh), Evans’s “revelation” emerges from his mouth in the words, “Try again—try harder!” The mere determination to take one more stab at doing the right thing in life manifests an awareness that one has been forgiven past sins. Hence “try again” correctly states part of a truly Christian formula, I would argue, because it implies that all the figures on the ledger’s “debit” side have been canceled. You don’t start a new business if your old business hasn’t paid off its debts.

Now, being liberated to go forth and try again can certainly stir the heart to joy. Yet, as a formula, it still loiters dangerously close to the faithful legionnaire’s commitment to his marching orders. We mustn’t send Evans away to re-live the Charge of the Light Brigade. I therefore—after much anguish and many deleted phrases—amended the “try harder” part of the formula to this: “Try to find joy in how hard it is” (with “it” understood as the first part: “try harder”). To take joy in a formidable challenge is, it seems to me, a quite natural human response. The less arbitrary and more meaningful the challenge, the greater the joy, even in the event of ultimate failure. Knowing that you almost succeeded in leaping from your second-story window onto the oak tree’s limb when you broke your leg may give satisfaction to a fool: knowing that you saved two of three children rushing down-river in a flood brings a profound peace that mitigates the one failure, and that endures a lifetime. Is that peace a joy? We should strive to make it so, if only a sad joy. Though still embedded in suffering and regret, it also rests firmly on a sense of personal worth won through worthy endeavor. Try… and try to find joy in how hard it is.

Aware that we are weak and fallible human beings who must always come up a bit short—and aware, too, that God forgives us such inadequacy—we must try to recognize in our second and third (and seven times seventy) attempts an amplitude, a generosity, that defines the life of faith. The closest analogy I can think of would be one drawn from the sporting life—a kind of illumination dear not only to Coach Belichick, but to Saint Paul. I’ve heard many interviews of Hall-of-Fame baseball players where an admiring sportscaster, wide-eyed and breathless, asks the star about the game where he hit three home runs or struck out fifteen hitters. The immortal answers perfunctorily, perhaps with a touch of coolness. Then the interviewer asks about his subject’s fondest memory. The star’s face brightens, and he proceeds to share details of a fourteen-inning playoff game which featured, perhaps, no significant contribution of his own. What he recalls is the thrill of being utterly absorbed in an effort with everyone else on both teams—an effort whose boundaries were respected by all and whose worthiness of their dedication none of them questioned. The recollected joy here is the joy of trying, of striving in a complex and difficult contest. One side would win at last and one side lose. Yet all parties would look back, once the pain of failure had subsided, with pride and… and joy.

I believe Evans discovers this hidden and critical secret about suffering in God’s cause as he babbles into an empty desert sky. He finally understands that he was happier having spent one brief year with his wife than he could ever be over a long career of sharing beds with willing luminaries of the liberated, God-free intelligentsia—infinitely happier, even had he known in advance that they two would have only one year together. He realizes, likewise, that he will find happiness with Carmen not because he will necessarily make her happy or be made happy by her, but because he and she are both prepared to dedicate themselves fully to the attempt. For in the attempt lies the success… in the unlimited surmounting of small failures.

I don’t imagine that my formula will strike everyone as quite what a Christian should be proposing. I know that many, for instance, will insist upon some “free gift” packaging of salvation that absolves the ecstatic believer even from the obligation to try (let alone try harder) at doing good. This preference for what was called “enthusiasm” a couple of centuries ago—for the undiluted, irrational gush of rapturous adoration—has virtually destroyed the “maleness” of Christianity in our time, I fear. Leon Podles published a book longer ago than the appearance of Seven Demons Worse about the unhappy feminization of Catholicism; and not only has the Roman faith not recovered the ground lost with males over the intervening years, but it has lost much more—in the company, of course, of Protestant denominations spanning the entire spectrum of liturgical practice. Doctrine regarding sexual conduct is perhaps more illustrative of this fatal anemia than most of the church’s many other “evolving” positions. We are not to judge. Nobody, it seems, is to judge anything. Everything’s “okay” (or, as a prophetic book title from 1967 put it, “You’re okay, I’m okay”). Struggle is gone, because struggle produces suffering, and suffering cannot be good. Why (we’re told), the whole point of the Christian faith is to eradicate suffering! How will we ever do this if we make severe demands of ourselves or frown upon our fellows for mounting only a token defense of principle? Find joy in the challenge of accomplishing our high mission? But our mission (we’re told) is precisely to relieve ourselves and others of challenges!

Thus the new Christian—the new false Christianity. When my tale began life as Seven Demons Worse, it was rejected by many of the organized faith for daring to pry open a forbidden closet’s door. Now, as Worse by Seven, I’m sure it will be rejected by just as many who ostensibly profess the same faith because it “insensitively” proclaims the necessity of laboring up a steep, high staircase. Pardon me a smile at the irony of my having kept Baudelaire’s lines to open Part One in both versions. For daring to hint at the existence of Lesbian love, “Delphine et Hippolyte” won the poet a few days of legal detention in the midst of France’s smug, stodgy nineteenth century. Today the European Union’s arbiters of taste and manners would likely fine him a few thousand Euros—and also return him to jail—for hinting that anything whatever about Lesbian love was at all wrong in the least. Huston Evans is no Charles Baudelaire: he fights his way through deep melancholy to a triumphant sense of life’s worth in the context of a life that never ends. That doesn’t mean, however, that he should expect any better fate in the hands of the censors who define the “acceptable” in this world. Indeed, his sins are more damning for being more robust. Though he is only a fictional character, he may yet land me in Siberia.

My New Novel (Part One)

Yikes–it’s Wednesday!  How many of you suffer from the subconscious conviction that Christmas always falls on Sunday?  No matter.  I had predetermined that I would publish a couple of excerpts this week from the preface to my new novel, Worse by Seven.  My commentary therein isn’t at all different from the sort of thing i usually post in this space, it may induce one or two readers to download the Kindle version or purchase the hard copy, and… and it has become fairly evident to me that most people aren’t reading blogs over the holidays, anyway.  So I’ll indulge in a bit of self-promotion today and Saturday, and otherwise join our fearless leaders in a shutdown of activity.

From the author’s “Polemical Preface”

[The preceding paragraphs describe the immense difficulties I encountered when trying to interest self-styled Christian publications in a much earlier version of this book twenty years ago.]

Still, there was certainly a component of the Christian community (understood in a more general—and also more genuine—sense) that did read novels. A few such people sampled my book before our press collapsed… and of these, more than a few lodged an objection not easily shrugged off as insubstantial. I should note that all members of this “test group” were affiliated with a Southern Baptist institution to which I had a professional connection at the time. The somewhat squeamish character of their reservations, then, was perhaps to be expected—for they were distressed that the novel had chosen to tackle the sexual revolution, especially as it had evolved in the Ivory Tower during the Eighties.

I had witnessed this lurid cultural debacle from a spectator’s seat rather than participating on the field of play—but my seat belonged to the first row of bleachers. Between 1972 and 1984, I studied at three different institutions of higher learning, eventually earning three degrees. Shortly thereafter, I began a career of teaching at various colleges that ended only a few months ago. My exposure to the lifestyle of the cultural elite, therefore, was lengthy.

In my time, I had seen one psyche after another, among both males and females, corroded dangerously by the prevailing ethic. When I began my academic apprenticeship back in the Seventies, the message was overtly hedonistic. (It has lately grown more self-righteously ideological: promiscuity not for pleasure’s sake, but to liberate oppressed minorities.) Back then, one was supposed to approach sex as among life’s most desirable joys, probably surpassing good food and a good sleep in many minds. To more than a few, I have a feeling that it even outranked food and sleep as a necessity. It was an “it”: an acquisition, a thing to be possessed and savored like a German-sweet-chocolate cake straight out of the oven. Educated adults were to understand this “itness” and to abstain from the childish or uncouth attachment of emotional significance to “good sex”. If both parties consented to dedicate their bodies (for a month, a weekend, or ten minutes) to plucking the forbidden fruit off the tree and sucking out its juices, then what ground remained for the moralist to grow livid and call down damnation? Would that bourgeois, probably Christian moralist have the same hang-up about other perfectly natural behaviors like going to the bathroom? More than once, I heard his kind dubbed “anal-repressive”.

The irony about the “anal-repressive” jibe was that it logically eliminated the possibility of love among the Enlightened without their ever having noticed. If sex is a kind of bowel movement involving the other side of the abdomen, what can it have to do with emotion? A physiological need cannot be considered a fine sentiment by any sensible person. The ability to sleep eight hours a night is no proof of delicate feeling. Yet the rock-and-roll mentality that saturated the society in which I grew up (and in which I observed very little growing up) persistently applauded itself as more “sensitive” and “caring” than its glowering, Puritanical parent generation. “All you need is love”—with the supplementation, apparently, of birth-control pills. At the same time, the refrain that “sex is just sex” was beginning to be sung by the same hipsters. I never could get an answer from any of them to the question, “So which one is it?”

Alas, the Christians I have tried to describe in my preamble held aloof from the fray of ideas rather than tearing into the other side’s contradictions, as I myself thought proper (and even compulsory for those of us whose business was ideas). My remote, unsoiled colleagues didn’t resemble the caricature of Christian self-discipline that the “educated” crowd drew of them except, perhaps one respect. They were not a bunch of trap-jawed males keeping their womenfolk barefoot, pregnant, and chained to the stove… but they did feel very uncomfortable about lifting the veils insistently draped by polite society. Let me return now to these ever-vigilant caretakers of propriety.

My book’s sin, for this more literate class of Christian, did not—of course—lie in promoting the “educated” view of sex as a natural joy for the laid-back (and sketchily toilet-trained); nobody ever accused my novel of that, and nobody who had read it ever could. Yet I seemed to have been doing something close to illicit promotion precisely by exploding the sexual revolution’s premises at close range. I was looking microscopically into a matter that good people agree to keep half a mile away, or to approach more nearly only if squinting through lowered eyelashes. It appeared that an author was doomed to make sex enticing (especially to impressionable young girls) even if he systematically, almost categorically revealed its host of spiritual risks in scrutinizing it. The scrutiny was impermissible. It was like giving a child a sip of beer to show him how vile the stuff tastes: what if the kid enjoys it?

Here I must set the scene more thoroughly. My tortured hero, Professor Huston Evans, had reached a vaguely suicidal decision to compete in elite campus dating games after he had followed a celibate adulthood’s path to marriage—only to see his young wife die within months. Evans’s state, at this point, is so deeply depressed that it becomes virtually nihilistic. The happiness achieved by his strictures having turned to ash in his hands, he can recognize no further virtue in fighting the good fight—for tomorrow, indeed, we die.

Through this tormented character, I tested the claims of the sexual revolution one by one. (Readers may believe or not, as they will, that Evans was truly a test vehicle for me and not myself under an alias: the novel isn’t an autobiography—but I’m too old now to bother about those who want it to be.) What I observed in peering imaginatively through this man’s eyes was that sex never has an emotional (I would prefer to say spiritual) value of 0. In other words, I am convinced that sex is never just sex (except, perhaps, in cases of pathological degeneration). Crude men will claim otherwise almost as a boast, or perhaps to challenge younger men to come down and join them in their psychological dunghill. When feminism, with the aid of the Pill, began to morph into a cult of promiscuity during the Seventies, “educated” women took up the same loud, hoarse boast. Female Ph.D.’s were now sounding rather like lifelong playboys whose only fear on earth was pregnancy, with its host of attendant shackles. Some of them, indeed, were sounding more like sailors on shore leave. These were the women with whom Evans felt he had some kind of score to settle. The vision of happiness they most derided was that for which he had most longed, and whose sudden loss after so much waiting seemed (in some associational manner created by his buried grief) all their fault.

And the poor man’s “vendetta”, if irrational, was not utterly incomprehensible. After all, the sexual revolution had indeed reduced his chances of finding what he sought to statistical zero, at least in an academic setting (with not much better odds to be found outside that setting). No man and woman could find enduring, mutually respecting happiness in such a climate; for, to repeat my thesis, a purely sensory savoring of sexual pleasure, as of a fine wine or a crêpe Suzette, is impossible for people of stable emotional health—yet such is the academic formula for sexual relations. The quixotic quest for “emotionally unengaged” sex—for that utterly detached joy in the “object”—must find itself diverted to one of only a few practical destinations. Evans had embarked upon an unwholesome journey to explore many of these, ripping up the scenery as he went.

Most natural for any tender, callow person is the tendency to fall in love with the partner, to be sure; but, among the experienced players of the game in an artificial world like Evans’s, this is also the least likely outcome. Much more often in these highly exploitative surroundings, one develops a contempt of partners as mere deliverers of “the thing” (a perverted sentiment felt especially often by men for their female partners) or a contempt of oneself as having developed an addiction-like dependency upon the thing (probably more common in females, since it requires introspection—but Evans explores these waters, too). Women sometimes want to get “the thing” out of the way as quickly as possible so that they may proceed to learn if they and their partners actually have a basis for friendship. Men seem to me more likely to push the envelope, seeking after ever more violent and unnatural ways to achieve “the thing” once they have grown bored with the old-fashioned way. Evans, I will note here, registers a new taste for physical violence—for a kind of vengeance on the world—before he retreats to the bedroom with his first conquest.

My design, in a way, was to write a little Inferno about de-spiritualized sexual experiences, with different levels of degradation implied here and there. Yet it seemed that most of the few self-identified Christian readers who nosed through that version of the book (and you’ve probably deduced by now that Seven Demons Worse was the first incarnation of Worse by Seven) couldn’t make out my Dantesque intentions. They saw the narrative as profoundly “off-color”. Neither of its versions ever had any explicit descriptions of sex acts or human anatomy (though the definition of “explicit” depends, I suppose, upon the beholder’s eye, and specifically upon how much imagination enhances that eye’s vision)—and, likewise, no references whatever appeared to any form of sex that might be called sodomy. Nevertheless, my harshest critics didn’t like my getting into Evans’s head. Sex is… hush… sex. Jack and Jill withdraw to the bedroom, the door closes, and… oh, Jack! Oh, Jill! Naughty, naughty! No analysis of either character’s reflections and feelings, please. If they’re not married, then something bad has just happened. And if they are… why, apparently nothing bad could possibly happen. The right and the wrong of it is all about being legal, not in the least about state of mind or disposition of the heart.

The Challenge to “Reaching Across the Aisle” Is Finding the Aisle

My son once remarked rather glibly that he’d like to run for public office some day.  I asked him over Thanksgiving if he had retained that ambition… and, after pulling a long face, he answered that he might seek office only if he could do so without raising the banner of either major political party.  Of course, this makes office-seeking a practical impossibility; but his response contained a sentiment that I have found very common in his generation.  They may speak of wanting to “cross the aisle” or wanting to “get something done”, a position which I have chided in them more than once; for why cross the aisle if error sits on the other side, and why get something done if activity leaves the world worse at dusk than it was at dawn?

But, yes, as little sympathy as I tend to have with one side, the other inspires in me no warmth of affection.  Both have lately passed a farm bill (another farm bill—the word “pork” acquires new meaning under that a rubber stamp, year after year) which subsidizes mega-farming conglomerates and helps to drive small farms out of business.  Neither side is currently talking about securing the power grid against an Electro-Magnetic Pulse that could leave 90 percent of us dead in a year: both are too busy drawing lines in the sand over the Wall.  For the sake of full disclosure, I will say openly that I believe the endgame envisioned by Democrat master-puppeteers (an elite group which fully excludes useful idiots like Alexandria Octavio-Cortez) is to flood our system with public dependency until shortages produce riots in the streets—at which point martial law will be declared, elections suspended, and a dictatorial oligarchy settled into place.  I believe that certain Republicans share that vision, though their way of reaching it may take a detour.  (How about, for instance, inviting civil chaos by not securing the power grid against an inevitable EMP?)

A particular commentator whom I have followed on Twitter and whose personal journey in life has led her through the kind of misery and travail that I always respect posted last week a comment about reaching across the aisle only to wring “one of them” by the neck.  I get it.  At the same time, though, I’ve blundered into studying a series of cases where justice has grossly miscarried: the Steven Avery case in Wisconsin, the four young men originally imprisoned for the Carter and Haraway murders in Ada (Oklahoma), and Officer Daniel Holtzclaw’s outrageous 263-year sentence for sexual assaults never committed (also in Oklahoma).  Now, my friends on the Right appear to be generally comfortable with the assembly-line manner in our justice system shuttles cases from the “active” to the “closed” file.  As long as someone ends up in the jug, they’re happy—and the judges for whom they vote seem fully aware of this predilection.  Of course, when Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller usurps unconstitutional powers and extorts Mike Flynn into an unlawful confession by bullying his son, the same justice-hawks suddenly develop a taste for fairness and due process—while the other side, on cue, is looking for a tree that will bear Flynn’s full weight.

Now, this past week, I see a flurry of “tweeting” (what an unconsciously apt verb for people who chatter away like starlings descended upon a field!) from the Right about what a bad boy Vladimir Putin is and how the cause of human decency and eternal truth compels us to stay in Syria and oppose evil actors everywhere.  Beyond the logistical impossibility of waging a worldwide war forever (for la paz empieza nunca, in the words of one Cold Warrior), how would we escape bombing ourselves at some point for our own malfeasance, if our crusade were sincere?  (Example: President Obama gave the order to “drone” perhaps as many as a thousand children located in close proximity to desirable targets.)  In our very imperfect world, should we not consider that the PRC’s objectives encompass the globe and include actually reading thoughts by means of cameras and interpretive software (a bit of intrusion already being practiced on Chinese citizens), whereas Putin is interested only in returning Russia to a world-power status as NATO annexes real estate all around him?  In short, shouldn’t we be cutting a deal with the lesser villain in order to hold the greater one in check?

All of this “aisle” stuff… if I am to reach across and strangle everyone who is promoting a ridiculous or ruinous position, I’ll need to combine the talents of the most implacable serial killer ever with those of the liveliest kangaroo.

So, my son… I do understand your perplexity—and I wish you and your generation much luck in trying to sort it all out.  Perhaps this explains the appeal of Octavio-Cortez: just go crazy and set the intellectual needle back to “zero”.  That failing, I can see no better place to begin than self-sufficiency.  Be radically skeptical, and be as stingy as Scrooge in the matter of handing control of your life over to Big Brother.  Make a circle around yourself of things you can handle on your own, and try to broaden the circle every month, every year.  Learn how to purify water.  Grow something to eat, even if it’s a few gojis on your window sill.  Take a self-defense course if you don’t want to pack a gun.  Put a little cash away in a safe place, and buy a little gold.

Could this be the platform of a new party, or of a transformed old party?  (The Anti-Slavery Party, perhaps?)  I don’t know.  I’m too old for such questions—or perhaps these are the questions that immediately make me feel very old.  I only know that everything seems to be headed in the reverse direction: dependency, and always more dependency.  As I receive the yearly bombarding of emails giddily wishing me happiness and good cheer—without any logical connection to real-world events or practical likelihood—I simply hit “delete, delete, delete”.  I will extend to you all, rather, the wish I have for my son: greater self-sufficiency.  Independence.  In my parlance, that translates as happiness and good cheer.

By All Means, Discuss Religion—But Think Before You Speak

I wonder if you have that “yes… but” feeling in discussions about religious faith as much as I do.  A certain discomfort with unqualified assertions has afflicted me throughout my adult life whenever this particular area of inquiry opens its wide vistas.

Take a column published by Dennis Prager yesterday.  I like Dennis Prager, but… but is the “goodness” or “evil” in human nature really just an “either/or” proposition?  It seems so here:

With the increasing secularization of society, less and less wisdom has been conveyed to young people. One particularly obvious example is most secular people, especially on the left, believe human beings are basically good. It is difficult to overstate the foolishness of this belief. And a belief it is: There is no evidence to support it, and there is overwhelming evidence—like virtually all of human history—to refute it.

Now… where to begin?  If humans are not basically good—i.e., are basically evil—then whence do they draw the knowledge (or wisdom) to denounce their own essential wickedness?  Common answer: from a basis in revealed truth, such as a sacred text.  Excellent… but there’s a problem.  Around the world and throughout human history, several tablets, parchments, oral poems, and other “documents” have claimed to carry word of right and wrong into our midst from on high.  The various messages thus assembled are, unfortunately, irreconcilable: some of them must be false.  The Aztec apparently believed themselves commanded by their sun god to tear the living hearts out of prisoners and children in sacrifice.  The Germanic and Celtic peoples of northwestern Europe were also practicing human sacrifice at the behest (so they supposed) of some deity.  We continue to excavate the remains of their unhappy (or perhaps ecstatic) emissaries to the Beyond from peat bogs.  The Koran encourages the slaying of infidels after Ramadan, as well as polygamy, wife-beating, and strategic mendacity to non-believers.  Mr. Prager’s tradition itself is not above suspicion.  Deuteronomy 21:18-21 exhorts parents and neighbors to join in stoning a disobedient son to death.

How do we know which sacred texts truly channel the voice of God, which are utterly false, and which garble the message?  If we ourselves are invincibly corrupt of understanding, what hope have we of ever deciphering the truth?  Do we—each tribe of us—simply cling to our inheritance and trust that it has been bequeathed to us by the true God?  So maybe we’re right and maybe we’re wrong… is that how it works?  Roll for Seven and pray not to get Snake Eyes?

Obviously not; obviously, something guides us in our interpretation of scriptural tradition and other metaphysical claims.  In fact, as civilized beings, we will not accept the mutilating of young girls on the grounds that the practice stems from religious tradition; our assumption (and I contend that it is a correct assumption) is that even those raised in such a tradition should nevertheless hear the voice of the true God clearly enough to be repelled by Female Genital Mutilation (not to mention cutting girls’ hearts out).  In such matters, God speaks to us personally even when not through our culture’s revered texts.  The defense from cultural conditioning offers a mitigating factor, at best. Our judges didn’t accept the Nazi “just obeying orders” defense at Nuremburg, and they were right not to do so.

This isn’t to say that we are “basically good”.  Aye-aye-aye.  Define “good” and “basic”, for starters; and while you’re at it, define “we”—define your self, your soul, as a coherent and integral reality.  For the soul is divided against itself: Mr. Prager and I can certainly agree about that.  But if one side (which he associates with feeling or impulse, calling it “brain”) bears the ruinous seed of animal behavior, the other side (which Prager styles “mind”) must be the source of our benign inspiration.  Which is more “basic”?  And why is feeling matched against reason in this neo-Platonic dichotomy?  Moral inspiration is almost always a “feeling”, whereas “reason” (as any honest academic can tell you) has authored at least as much wickedness on earth as blind lust or vengefulness.  Indeed, inasmuch as a crime approved by deliberation engages more of the criminal’s will than does a destructive burst of passion, “reasonable villains” are the worst in the world.

We expect people to have that special inner light illuminating their behavior: we consider it basic.  I think I know what Mr. Prager means to say.  Yes… but….

And then I happened to read another column by Robert Knight within minutes of Prager’s. Mr. Knight cites a Ross Douthat of the New York Times, who cites… well, here it is (idiosyncratic use of quotations and all):

Mr. Douthat explains the clash of worldviews presented in a new book by Steven D. Smith, “Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac”:

“What is that conception [of divinity advanced by paganism]?  Simply this: that divinity is fundamentally inside the world rather than outside it, that God or the gods or Being are ultimately part of nature rather than an external creator, and that meaning and morality and metaphysical experience are to be sought in a fuller communion with the immanent world rather than a leap toward the transcendent.”

I’m squirming again… as I imagine Dennis Prager would be at this point.  A “leap toward the transcendent” could describe the motivation behind many a progressive program of ethnic cleansing or genetic modification.  What if I wish to fuse humans with robots so as to create a disease-resistant creature who (which?) can live for millennia?  That certainly doesn’t seem very natural… but my visionary leap encourages me to boldly go where no man has gone before (and to split infinitives that have never been split before, as one wag volunteered a while back).  A sense of natural order should dissuade me from being rash in this enterprise.  Maybe—just maybe—my “transcendent” trajectory is hubris rather than prophecy.  Nature teaches me that corporal life and death are inextricably bound; and, as a person of faith, I must believe that God has made them so by design.  For what would spur us to transcend our selfish desires and believe in higher dimensions if we did not know that our mortal clock might tick four score years, at most?  How would we learn compassion for others—the “tears of things”—if we humans were not all bound together by the miseries of sickness and aging, and of the loss of those who have sickened or died?

I cannot think of a cruder definition of paganism than this slapdash suggestion that it includes anyone who admires a sunrise or the Grand Canyon.  I appreciate what these authors are attempting to say—perhaps better than they do.  As a university professor until half a year ago, I was increasingly having to field comments from students whose bizarrely cultic beliefs were trying to spread their mauled wings in the open air of objective discourse.  One young woman, for instance, argued incessantly that her parents promoted a Satanist billboard only to make Christians see how intolerant their religion was.  Yeah… and I can hear an Aztec priest making the same argument if the twenty-first century should burst in upon him as he sharpens his knife.

The truth is that pagan witchcraft (which seems to be the practice most squarely in this article’s crosshairs) does not revere natural cycle at all: it seeks to disrupt nature, precisely—to make the moon stand still, to make trees uproot themselves and walk.  Historically, witchcraft occupied the same orientation to nature as does applied science today: both seek to make events behave contrarily to their natural programming.  To the sincere Christian, I venture to say that God is very much in nature, not sprawled back in His celestial recliner from the outside watching His wind-up gismo run itself.  That conception belongs, indeed, to the Darwinist (as well as to the ancient Epicurean, by the way).

Where do such “defenses of the faith” come from?  Sometimes I want to say, “With friends like these, what need has faith of enemies?”  A single notion seems to obsess an author here and there in search of a book topic, and… off we go.  Everything is X.  Were it not for X, we could return to the Garden.

Well… don’t stop reading—but don’t stop thinking as you read.

Does the New Polar Express Make a Stop at Auschwitz?

In some quarters, my most recent comments—concerning the importance of focusing on duty at Christmas time rather than roasting chestnuts in an open fire—were perceived as an ill-humored burst of “survivalist” extremism, or maybe just a “Scrooge attack”.  Allow me to clarify my case (which, I must warn, may simply enhance the Scrooge effect).

The substantive side of my argument is this: that we who care about the realm of human spirituality should give a sense of urgency to our religious holidays, not party ourselves into a state yet more oblivious than usual.  To dramatize the point, I offer for your examination a coin of two sides.  On one is a fraudulent disaster’s chimaeric, entirely imaginary leer:  climate change.  On the other is the blank surface of a calamity not only genuine in its contours, but utterly inevitable in some form: an Electro-Magnetic Pulse’s incineration of unprotected power grids.  When considered together, the sides of this Janus Dime show us just what a grim future we’re buying—just what a betrayal of our humanitarian culture we’re being sold.  The fantasy’s portrait, riveting but a mere daydream, distracts us; the blank surface easily escapes notice, especially when the other side’s lurid entertainment induces eyes to wander.

Climate change: I have objected for years, including many moments during my final semesters in the classroom, that the “98 percent of scientists” canard is a patent absurdity.  An entomologist is a scientist; so is an anatomist, and so is a speech pathologist.  The only science of any relevance in this plebiscite would be climatology—even meteorology would rest somewhat on the periphery of competence.  Now, responsible climatologists would refuse to reach any verdict based on data covering less than a century; yet we are constantly exhorted, on the Weather Channel and elsewhere, to heed the “climate warning” in today’s rate of tornadoes or late freezes or wildfires versus the statistics from ten years ago.  Those of us who protest, “Wait a minute,” are instantly shouted down—even, and especially, in academic settings—and are thereafter maligned with rabble-rousing phrases like “climate fascist”.

What’s going on here?  Don’t pretend that you see nothing amiss.

Carbon dioxide composes somewhere between .037 and .042 percent of the earth’s atmosphere.  A probable mild increase in CO2 over recent years has stimulated a robust growth in terrestrial vegetation—which means that water is not only being conserved at higher levels in the atmosphere (i.e., that humidity is greater) but also that vast amounts of it are being stored in plants.  Yet alarmist “climate change” models simply channel the melt from polar icecaps (which, perversely, do not seem to be melting at the projected rates) straight into Earth’s oceans.

Why are “scientists” creating such slipshod models?  What’s going on?

The typical West Coast American (God help us) appears to believe that a sustained rise in temperature produces terrain like the Mojave Desert or Death Valley.  In fact, since higher temperatures put more moisture in the atmosphere, tropical rainforest is the more likely result.  Sometimes geology interferes.  Our own desert regions, and those around the world like the Sahara, were once ocean bottom that was lifted above sea level.  The increasing salinity of areas watered by such vast inland seas caused vegetation to die off around their margin, which in turn left more water in the atmosphere (the clouds that eternally drift through deserts while never brining rain) and induced further evaporation.  Eventually, only sand and salt flats remained.  Yet to call the Sahara typical of the super-heated tropics is to be unforgivably superficial and slapdash in one’s analysis.  (Speaking of superficial… an immense subterranean sea now appears to undergird much of North Africa, further demonstrating that we don’t know exactly where our water resources end up.)

Why are “scientists”, then, presuming to tell us that California’s wildfires are a window upon our common future if some One World Government doesn’t take control of our energy resources?

Why do said “scientists” not share with us the dirty little secrets about solar and wind power: that both have been linked to spiking cancer rates among those who mine the necessary Rare Earth Elements incorporated in their manufacture and even (in the case of windmills) among those who live near the completed dynamo; that both are fabulously expensive when analyzed start-to-finish; that neither is a reliable source of steady energy, since wind doesn’t always blow and sun doesn’t always shine; that both therefore require conventional back-up sources of energy; and that immense physical areas devoted to nothing else are needed to churn out effective energy levels from both (for, it turns out, windmill productivity plummets if rigs are placed close together)?

Why do “scientists” consider it beneath their whistle-blowing expertise to highlight the royal profit in tax breaks that energy companies are harvesting by collaborating in these boondoggles?

Why are “scientists” always promoting ever more big-brotherly political intrusion as the sole answer rather than endorsing more  insular, traditionalist, multi-functional, self-sustaining communities (where existence can be largely pedestrian)?

How many dogs do “scientists” have in this hunt—and what, exactly, is being hunted?

I’ve scarcely grazed the surface of an issue whose obvious and cynical marketing for public consumption is inextricably linked to a tongue-hanging lust for a highly centralized (read “totalitarian”) political machine.  Let us now flip the coin and contemplate how “scientists” and politicos respond to a looming extinction event not dramatized in one of Al Gore’s comic books.  And we find… a smooth, blank surface.

A solar storm of the severity of the 1859 Carrington Event is both inevitable and overdue.  It will happen; and when it does, we shall lose much more than telegraph communications (the only electrical system operative a century and a half ago).  Our lights will go out.  Our computers and cell phones won’t function.  Our cars, unless they are at least forty years old, will refuse to run—and even your classic ‘68 Mustang will need gas that can no longer be delivered or pumped.  Planes will instantly fall out of the sky.  The injured will bleed out because all emergency systems will be offline… and in any case, hospitals will have no electricity.  Your freezer will stand silent: your food will run out whenever you eat the last can of brown beans in your pantry or the last potato in your garden.

Absolute, utter, unspeakable, indescribable chaos.  And it will continue for months, because replacement generators are produced only in Germany, South Korea, and the PRC (our bosom pal)—not in the tariff-hostile, globalist U.S. of A.  Every informed estimate has nine out of ten of us dying within a year… which does not include the predations that might be inflicted upon us by cutthroat invaders.  For China and Russia, by the way, have secured their power grids.

I emphasize that this scenario does not require the malign activity of a terrorist: Mother Nature can bring it to pass all by herself.  But from a terrorist’s perspective, initiating an EMP turns out to be a rather low-level undertaking.  A small nuke exploded in the stratosphere from, say, one of North Korea’s two current orbiting satellites would do the trick.

Do you hear the outcry of those 98 of every hundred scientists?  I don’t, either.  And what alarm are the Democrats sounding when not riding jets to global conferences on climate change?  Where is the Republican rush to fill this breach in our essential defenses that no border wall can address?

We are told that the evil power companies have persuaded Congress to relax as they, behind the scenes, do nothing but pocket the money not spent on security.  Even if this were so, why does Congress accept such mendacity when dozens of its members will absolutely not be turned aside from their crusade to ban plastic straws and gendered pronouns?

Why would this intolerable situation be tolerated, unless… unless certain people in high places have found the option of lightening our population load by 90 percent to be not unattractive?

My intended “Christmas present” is a package which wraps these two responses together: the hysterical panic over an imminent catastrophe that cannot happen, and the utter indifference to one that hasn’t happened already only because the daily flip of our solar coin hasn’t landed on “tails”.

I know that most climate-change warriors are not evil conspirators: they’re kids who want to appear hip and engagé over a cup of Java at Starbuck’s or Barnes & Noble.  I don’t even suppose that many elected representatives who flog this tired nag have any real awareness of where she’s carrying us—they’re simply piling onto yet another opportunity to make government more intrusive in our lives (which, according to their philosophy, can only lead to happy destinations).

What I see behind all of them is the kind of mind that reasons thus: “Our species could travel the stars.  We could eliminate disease, and even death, with the help of Artificial Intelligence.  We could make war, and the risk of war, a bad dream in our cultural memory.  But we need more control!  We need ignorant masses of voters to settle us in the seat of power—and then we need a means, a pretext, both to suspend further elections and to thin out the volume of those masses.  Their collective activity is already consuming more resources than we can continually, reliably access… and their number just keeps growing!  They contribute nothing, they demand everything… and Mars appears to draw farther and farther away—not to mention Barnard’s Star.  We need to shed layers and layers of fat.  We need a purge.”

You can sing your Christmas carols on the train to Auschwitz if you like.  My preference for you—for us—would be this.  As you roast your chestnuts on an open fire, ask yourself where chestnuts come from, and how fire for heating and cooking may be made.  Could you harvest nuts, if you had to?  Could you build a fire?  God gave us Earth, and everything we need to survive is—or was once—within easy reach before us.  We need only fear for our parents, our children, and ourselves if we squeeze our lives neatly into train cars and trust in the engineer’s superior and benign planning.

Get off the train.  Collect some wood.  See what’s happening.  The “scientists” aren’t going to tell you.  They’re too busy trying to place another publication or win another grant.  Get off.  The manger has all you need.

Christmas: Engineered Nostalgia or Orientation to the Future?

Certain things can be done best on those days when the sun rises over a heavy frost—like today.  This would be a good morning to tug on my high boots and wade into the briars and vines around my garden’s perimeter with a shovel.  If I embarked upon the same mission at warmer times of year, I would either have to gear up like a beekeeper or else risk blundering upon a bed of yellow jackets (not vestes jaunes angry about Macron’s gas tax, but the really angry insect whose sting is worse than a flying stone).  This wicked undergrowth is dangerous throughout most of the year both for the poisonous snakes it might conceal and for the tenderbox it creates around our house, should a tossed cigarette far down the road start a forest fire.  I used to hack at it with a swing-blade. Now I prefer the shovel.  Its shaft is twice as long as the serrated blade’s, so I get more acceleration into my strokes.  I also don’t have to bend as far into spots where the spines are especially prickly.  A shovel’s blade, if you angle it properly, can cut as fine as a saber.

Yet I may not go a-hacking today.  Yesterday was the fourth in a row of very drizzly December days (the French word brumeux keeps rattling through my brain).  I exploited the opportunity to sally forth—again with my trusty shovel—to level a field in the far back where I hope to plant grass and have a playing surface for young visitors someday.  The builders of our new home, in their hit-and-run, time-is-money fashion, took a run at the space with a bulldozer.  In my opinion, their efforts were more harm than help.  The “leveling” was extremely erratic, and the weight of the dozer compacted broken stone and red clay into a sheet almost as impenetrable as concrete.  Only when the surface has been thoroughly soaked can one strip away an inch or two of it with relative ease.  Yesterday I transported four wheelbarrows of the stony muck from the high side of my “field” (a sculpture in progress) to the low side.  Despite the cold temperature and the drizzle, I grew heated with the work and shucked off my cap.  Eventually, even my coat went by the board.  Later that evening, I felt a head-cold coming on.  Mother Nature always gives me a little slap-in-the-face of this sort when I become presumptuous.  Today may therefore simply be a time of rest and repentance.  Sorry, Mother!

My cleared space has paid some surprising dividends in terms of my making friends with the neighbors.  Last week I was shocked to see “the field” arrayed with what looked like two dozen tree stumps suddenly sprouted from its razed surface.  On closer inspection, I found that the “stumps” were turkeys picking through the recently shifted dirt.  I managed to get a shot of them—with a camera—just as they were starting to flutter off (see above).  My moving the upstairs curtain may have spooked them.

Similarly, I also blundered into a couple of yearling deer last week while hanging a sheet over my orange tree in anticipation of a frost.  Both sides were surprised… but I decided to “act normal” and go about my business.  Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the deer, too, were going about theirs, casually and helpfully grazing my weeds away.  Always before, they had bolted away at the least sign of a human.  Of course, the bolting is a very healthy strategy around any primate, and I would be distressed to think that I was weakening their defenses by inspiring a false confidence.  Maybe they’re capable of distinguishing my wife and me from the rest of the species.

Whatever I get done during the winter months will determine what I get done over the rest of the coming year.  Hesiod says I should be mending the plow by a fire… but I have neither.  (We decided against a wood-burning fireplace because smoke torments my finicky sinuses.)  What I plant and where I plant it, however, will depend upon where I can adequately clear space—and some needs are more pressing than others.  My drainage ditches, too, require extension.  Those that I built last summer have been a resounding success; but the top of our hill, where the builder decided simply to dump massive amounts of large stone to give traction to his eighteen-wheel haulers, erupts into puddles every time a good rain falls.  While the job isn’t urgent, it also won’t grow any easier once the temperature starts rising again.

With all of this on my mind, I found myself explaining to my son in detail why I don’t feel free to take the long, long trip to Denver for Christmas.  I hate such trips, anyway: being confined in a tight space for three or four hours gives me a migraine.  I also hate large cities.  Yet if we were still in our previous home, we would surely hit the road for Parts West. The task of managing the new place has introduced a special complexity into the calculation.

My son, on the other hand, is beginning a “real job” (as opposed to the series of menial gigs that his college degree prepared him for), and December 24 is considered a work day; so his catching a flight to our part of the world is out of the question.  It’s the first Christmas he will ever have passed away from his parents, in his 23 years on earth.

No one is more distressed about that than I… but I’m convinced that my son understands my objectives for the property I’m trying to develop.  If we have a field of peanuts (protein), several thriving nut trees (more protein), pomegranates and gojis and prickly pear (antioxidants—and, yes, I have prickly pear cactus), apples and apricots (vitamins), and kiwi vines (latest addition—really strong in Vitamin C), then we will have created what I think of as a “survival farm”.  Water doesn’t seem to be a problem here.  Heat: I could convert my fireplace to burn wood in a crisis.  Electricity: do without… but may look into solar batteries next year.

If my son eventually has a family, he may one day very much need a place like this.  Nobody likes to talk about the several imminent catastrophes with which we are on a collision course—and, no, “climate change” isn’t one of them.  Just to give you an idea… our national power grid remains about 90% unsecured, making us unique in that regard among major industrialized nations; an Electro-Magnetic Pulse would cause most of us to perish within a year; such an EMP could occur at any time, not necessarily due to terrorism but simply because of solar flare activity; a solar event of this kind is overdue, as well as astronomers can tell; and our national conversation is consumed by… whether or not President Trump paid off a hooker to stay quiet.

I have relatives—no, I have a certain close relative who has reviled me for putting my property before my son.  She’s quite the typical over-educated, secularized, pampered, career-bureaucrat progressive, and she has decided that my sense of urgency about the future is all balderdash—though, of course, erecting windmills everywhere and impeaching Trump are among her top priorities.  I think of her now when I look at the lid of a tin of Planter’s Nuts that I bought off the discount rack at Walmart.  Across the festively decorated top are scrawled the words and phrases, “Family Traditions”, “Joy”, “Warm Wishes”, “Winter Happiness”, “Sweet Memories”, “Winter Wonders”, and—remarkable for both for its particular inanity and for its inconcinnity with the string of nouns—“Enjoy Love”.  There you have it.  Planter’s has captured in about a dozen words the new meaning of the “holidays” (and why “Happy Holidays” didn’t make the cut, I have no idea).  My relative is obviously of the persuasion that this secular caricature is the real deal.  I should therefore, cost what it may, be arranging those “winter wonders” and “sweet memories” out of respect for “family traditions”.  The only reason she wouldn’t say that I have a holy obligation to do so is that the word “holy” veers, for her, away from reality and into nothingness.

Ironically, I suppose, the love for my son that transcends Facebook-ready photos is precisely what keeps me preoccupied with my spring preparations.  My “winter happiness” includes busting my ass on a bed of rock and clay because I don’t want my child and his children to face certain agonizing starvation in the world being created by people like my oh-so-wise relative.  The irony would lurk in my being excessively immersed in the here-and-now, if one wished to deconstruct my practice; because if I claim a belief in higher realities, why not simply let this life’s chips fall where they may?

If you require a full answer to that question, then I won’t be able to supply it in the space I have left.  Try this thumbnail version: a person who lives for here and now does not sacrifice our very finite opening for self-gratification to the service of others.  A person who lives for an eternity where his fusion with God’s will may grow complete becomes very busy during his few terrestrial moments with giving others a little “extra time” to figure out the path.  I know that I may one day have to shoot those turkeys with something other than a camera.  In the meantime, I want them to settle in and peck my spaces to their avian heart’s content.  That’s why I don’t rent another bulldozer and raise hell pounding and crashing all over my premises: that’s why everything I do is with a shovel, a hoe, an axe, a rake, or a pick.  I want to raise as few seams as possible between “now” and “later”. In my view, the here-and-now should not be at war with the durable: it should unlock the enduring, if not the eternal.  As for those who scoff at undying truth and higher reality, I think they often abuse what we have now and may just carry us to the brink of existential calamity with their obsession over “warm moments”.

I’ve sent my son the photo of those turkeys as a Christmas card.  He gets it.  We’re not about huddling over “warm winter memories”, he and I.  We’re about adjusting our egocentric impulses to the requirements of a future that accommodates someone more than ourselves.

Would a Jury of Twelve Good Minds Be Better Than a Jury of Our Peers?

Last week I heard a certain television personality portray the kind of “loser” who (and I paraphrase, for I don’t have every detail by heart) inhabits his parents’ basement at age 30, plays video games in his underwear, and believes that “9/11 was an inside job”.  Lest I myself appear to meet the last qualification, I stress that my “takeaway” from the mass of contradictory 9/11 analysis has never been that it was an “inside job”.  My concern, rather, is that we cannot know what truly happened in such a scramble of disingenuous patching and plastering.  Naturally, the “wackos” turn out in full force to speculate when so little is nailed down… and this—another point I have stressed over the years—merely serves to discredit further any honest search for answers.  Indeed, a classic tactic of Soviet disinformation was to publish and circulate outlandish conspiracy theories about any event that the Party desired to conceal.  People quickly sigh, “There’s that annoying kid screaming about a wolf again,” and turn their backs.

I understand that the TV personality in question is something of a comic and caricaturist.  I’m not going to pretend offense at the genre.  There’s a real risk, though, of our admitting such witty slapdashery into our serious processing of events.  Excessive finesse—not being able to see the forest for the trees—characterizes the pettifogging scholarly world, and it can be very tiresome and enervating to behold; but excessive generality typifies the undisciplined lurches of popular group-think, and—entertaining though it can be—brings great risk.  At worst, it produces lynch mobs.  Even at its best, it creates shallow minds that imagine they have thought through an issue just because they’ve been able to torture a couple of weak analogies into a couple of cartoonish stereotypes.

Now, I would be writing almost nothing in this space if I could speak only with an expert’s authority.  I don’t have such authority in very many subjects.  I actually enjoy speculating, though, and suppose it to be healthy if done in a “maybe I’m wrong, but…” vein of poking around.  I hope I may attempt a general statement today that doesn’t put me in the camp of the caricaturist skipping merrily over details to sketch out a shocking, balloon-like picture.

Certainly in legal matters, I have no formal credentials whatever.  I expressed some genuine vexation last time with the slipshod manner in which judgments can be made from the bench, however… and I was stunned by how much applause I drew, some of it from people clearly more knowledgeable than I.  I had already planned on staying within this area for one more imaginary stroll; and I’ll begin down that path now after repeating that I’m just out for a stroll—I am not a trained jurist and expect that I will overlook a few intricate, important details.

Nevertheless… I can say with some assurance that a bad judge wouldn’t have a chance to pass an unjust sentence if the jury did not first convict; so my focus this time is on that “jury of peers”.  It’s important in a free republic, to be sure, for a defendant’s case to be heard by ordinary blokes like himself, and not just Milord in a powdered wig.  I see an increasing problem, though, with our “ordinariness” as jurors.  Let’s assume, against everything that practical experience has taught me, that those of us with a college degree or other evidence of ability to think independently (not that the former signifies the latter any more) have a chance of being selected and seated.  Even if my college major were biology, I could easily get lost in the muddy layers of today’s DNA evidence.  If a prosecutor tells me that the defendant’s DNA was on the knife, and the defense attorney says, “Sure, but the cops planted it,” how am I to weigh the two claims?  So the prosecutor says, “It was a hot day, and Smith’s hand sweated as he clutched the murder weapon,” that sounds plausible.  Then the defense attorney says, “Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.  The State has found far more DNA on this handle than sweat could possibly leave.”  Wow.  Now I’m ready to toss a coin.  What I’ll do in reality, of course, is cast my vote on the basis of how I feel about cops, how I feel about Perry Mason over here and Hamilton Burger over there, how I feel about the defendant’s looks… and now I’m no better than the hyper-politicized judges about whom I wrote last time.

But what else can I do?  I’m in over my head.  I am being asked to arbitrate scientific questions over which people with graduate degrees might have an honest and long-standing argument.

In the real world, of course, the exchange I imagined above is unlikely to happen just because most of the heavy artillery is sitting behind the prosecution’s table.  The State (any state) has unlimited resources to go out and recruit expert witnesses—or so its agents seem to think, sitting prettily on our tax dollars.  Prosecutors appear also to know how to “share” evidence with the defense, as legally required, in ways that bury the good stuff.  (For instance, in Steven Avery’s trial, a computer disk that could well have proved exculpatory was very sketchily described at the end of a long list of items submitted to the defense just before the deadline.)  Unless the defense attorney is a high-priced racehorse, he probably doesn’t handle clients involved in complex cases on a regular basis.  The State has a team whose members are well versed in every contingency—and they probably “click” like a team, knowing how to apply finesse here and there during the presentation without quite straying over legal foul lines.

Add to this the jury’s preconditioning.  For some reason, our courtroom dramas on TV have shifted heavily to the prosecution’s side.  The Defenders, Perry Mason, and Abraham Lincoln Jones have yielded the floor to Law and Order and a huge kennel of elite CSI evidence-hounds. Strange, isn’t it, that the era of Eisenhower and gray flannel suits actually seems to have registered more sympathy for the poor guy in the docks than for the Machine That Keeps Our Streets Safe…. Henry Fonda single-handedly argued a hostile jury into acquitting in Twelve Angry Men. Now we have former prosecutor Kelly Siegler lending her expertise on a serial basis all over the nation to transform cold cases into indictments.

I can’t easily account for whatever societal shift is expressed in this morphing of our popular culture.  But the crux of my argument has already been made: that juries today are too often in over their heads.  Would I, with three degrees, be able to understand an intricate matter of tax evasion or copyright violation?  I very much doubt it.  If a homeowner whose house burned in a brushfire decided to sue the U.S. government for not combating climate change, would you be able to evaluate the merits of the case on both sides… or on either side?

My very tentative suggestion is that we create a “jurist profession”.  Make “jurism” a major in college.  Give the major different specializations—tax, civil, criminal, etc.—and require that graduates not only be re-certified yearly through an objective test, but that they lose their certification if detected in demonstrable incompetence, bias, or abuse.  Pay them well.  The investment would more than justify itself in the number of cases not fouled up and cycled through retrial by our system right now.

Wouldn’t you rather be making your case to twelve people like this if the neighbor who tussled with you about the property line turned up dead in his rose bushes, and then the State decided that putting a tidy frame around you was the best way to close the file quickly?  Do we even really have “peers” living around us any more, in any profound sense?  Personally, I’d rather have my freedom depend on twelve people who know the law than twelve random high-school graduates with driver’s licenses and voter ID’s.

The U.S. Justice System: A Banana Republic Slouching Toward Chaos

On the recommendation of Michelle Malkin (who has taken a great interest in publicizing the cases of the wrongfully convicted), I lately watched the Netflix series, Making a Murderer, Part II.  I’m no great fan of Netflix as an operation, and more generally I regard every arm of the entertainment industry as a driving force behind our vast cultural decline.  But you pick and choose, don’t you?  What else can one do in this world if a Hebridean monastery isn’t available?

As a series, the production is about twice too long for my taste.  I’m not really eager to know the details of Steven Avery’s family as they await the hour of his phone call from prison or plug along junking old jalopies while the state of Wisconsin crumples up his petitions and appeals.  Human interest?  Well, we all have our problems.  A family with mental illness or dementia or substance abuse gnawing away at its members might as well be considered part of the great wide sea of wretches with loved ones in prison.

No, the functioning of the legal process—I should say the mal- or dysfunction—is what makes the series riveting… and gut-wrenching.  Sometimes infuriating.  Kathleen Zellner has built up a formidable reputation as an advocate for the wrongly convicted; and, of course, one can easily tell that she’s nowadays greeted by the prosecutorial establishment with murmurs of, “Well, she’s not putting another notch on her gun at our expense!  Bring on the cameras.  We’ll show her who’s boss in this town!”

Seriously, I would speculate that the attitude I’ve just described is very vibrant among the judges who tossed Avery’s petitions aside cavalierly time after time.  In many states, one apparently need have no professional credentials whatever to be appointed a judge.  Sometimes judgeships are elective—the practical consequence of which is that the judge in question will rule as opinion polls tell him his constituents would like him to rule.  Job One is to be re-elected.  If you were voted in by a self-styled law-and-order crowd, whose knowledge of the Avery case is confined to two-minute segments on the evening news (God help us!) but whose certainty that bad guys walk on technicalities all the time is ironclad, then you pay no attention to the merits of the appeal.  Panem et circenses: give the hungry masses what they crave.

I found the preeminent example of this judicial travesty to be, not so much the instant dismissal of Avery’s request for an evidentiary hearing by some robed female idiot whose name escapes me, but the handling of Brendan Dassey’s extorted confession.  Without Dassey’s “confessing” that he and Avery had raped and murdered Teresa Halbach, Manitowoc County’s case could have advanced no motive for the crime and—in the relative absence of material evidence—would have become incoherent.  Brendan was a boy of sixteen when taken in for interrogation.  He had extremely poor social skills and an IQ measured in the low 80’s.  He was Mirandized… but one can only imagine what those abstract protections must have meant to him as a couple of avuncular detectives, on the other hand, promised him a quick trip home if he would just answer their questions honestly.  Three hours of tooth-pulling followed, with the two amigos constantly badgering the slumped-over boy with, “We know the truth, Brendan—we know that’s not what happened,” and, in final frustration, feeding him details to which he could answer “yes” or “no”.

Even brief excerpts of the interrogation were difficult to watch.  Yet Judge Hamilton, who seemed like a decent enough sort of soft-spoken, white, middle-aged champion of stable communities, could see nothing amiss in the inquisition, buying the prosecutor’s argument that Brendon needed to be nudged into attacks of conscience.  This spiritual awakening appears to have deserted the boy at Avery’s trial, where he repudiated the confession, refused to turn state’s evidence, and received a life sentence for his scruples.  Apparently he was conscientious enough (in the state’s eyes) to cop to a rape/murder scenario spoon-fed to him, but not enough to repeat the mea culpa—and also bright enough to grasp his Miranda rights, but not enough to understand that a murder conviction would put him in a cage for life.

Hamilton’s position failed to win over two other judges in the original appeal, but carried the day at the next level—the state of Wisconsin having refused with belligerent determination to admit its error.  I found myself drawing dangerously close to hair-tearing moments when the D.A.’s dragoon persisted in stressing that Brendan knew details only accessible to the perp—this when said details were a) fed to him, and b) corroborated by no material evidence but simply concocted by detectives.  Yet the little manikin was just doing his sordid job: it was the judges who should have blown away his house of cards.

For the record—and this may be more important than I would care to admit—two of the three judges who voted to throw out the confession were female, one of them black; three who found the confession ho-hum, business-as-usual, nothing-to-see-here were white males (the fourth being a fire-breathing harpy from hell who constantly talked over the presentation of Dassey’s attorney).  For years, I have bristled at the suggestion that we need to consult race, gender, and… I don’t know: taste in music?… when appointing judges to high benches.  Now I have to wonder.  If these sleepy, incurious hacks have nothing but their inbred prejudices to guide their decisions, then, yes, maybe we need to pay more attention to how they were bred.  I suppose, under the present system, we should pay exclusive attention to that.

The Supreme Court, by the way, declined to review this case.  No doubt, there is some unwritten “hot potato” rule that precludes that august body from burning its fingertips in such matters.

I will add, too, in wrapping up, that far too much mention was made—by both the D.A.’s office and certain judges—of the “need for closure” on the part of the victim’s family.  None of these officers should permit that need to tip the scales of justice.  Relatives of victims have a fully understandable tendency to believe that the guy in the docks is the right guy: you don’t sweet-talk your insomnia into remission by imagining that a heinous killer is still at large.  The court’s officers, however, are charged with punishing the guilty and safeguarding the public, not supplying survivors of crime with a soothing narrative.  The incompetence of this lot is simply underscored by its unreflective—and potentially lethal—sentimentality; for, remember, if the wrong guy is in jail, then a killer is still on the loose.

I’m not going to devote space to discussing the obvious and repeated instances of evidence-tampering, violation of protocol, sloppy or fallacious “expert” testimony, and prosecutorial misconduct (e.g., suppression of exculpatory evidence) in Avery’s own case.  You’d have to watch the series (and, yes, wade through the saga of Ma’s knee surgery) to appreciate the full magnitude of the injustice done here.  If you’re at all like me, your confidence in our system of justice will be irresistibly—and permanently—shaken.  We’re living in a banana republic; or if that is too harsh as a generality, then it appears, at least, that certain states and counties of our nation might as well be Lagos, Juarez, or Phnom Penh.

Footnote: could indifference to issues like this explain why 90+ percent of black Americans never vote for a Republican?  Could this kind of outrage lie at the bottom of much of the inexpressive, ill-marketed, politically exploited knee-taking at NFL contests?  Maybe middle-aged white guys with law degrees or a bit of public service should stop pitching the electorate with talk about safety in the streets and start focusing more on justice in the courts.  I hear the streets in Indonesia, where you can have a hand lopped off for picking a stray bill up off the sidewalk, are very safe.

The Emperor’s New Clothes Have Now Been Scientifically Verified

I’m extremely preoccupied this morning, so the occasion may be right for me to make a post that “speaks for itself” and requires minimal commentary.

Those who can put up with my rambles have long been aware that the collapse of three World Trade Towers on 9/11 leaves me baffled.  Even if we stipulate that the two iconic structures could settle neatly, floor by floor, all the way down to their foundations like a squeezed accordion, WTC 7 was a much broader and less lofty building.  How could it have been sucked tidily down into its base, hours later, in the same fashion—and not because it was uniformly bathed in hyper-heated jet fuel, but because some embers entered through a few open windows?

In seeking out the famous (or infamous) Popular Mechanics study said to have laid all suspicions to rest, I began my research with the latest in what turns out to be a series of articles.  This piece purports to give the lie to all lingering “conspiracy theories” (a disparaging term commonly applied nowadays to any suspicion of foul play in high places).  The paper may be accessed here.

What I noticed immediately upon a cursory reading is that the PM staff doesn’t actually conduct any investigation of its own: it merely passes along—with no thought of calling conclusions into question—research done by other entities of the very government that has invited mistrust.  I quote:

The long-awaited report from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) conclusively rebuts those claims [of planted explosives being involved in WTC 7’s demolition].  Fire alone brought down the building, the report concludes, pointing to thermal expansion of key structural members as the culprit.

PM then proceeds to cite a spokesman for the investigative project:

“Our take-home message today is that the reason for the collapse of World Trade Center 7 is no longer a mystery,” NIST lead investigator Shyam Sunder told journalists at this morning’s press conference in Gaithersburg, Md. “WTC 7 collapsed because of fires fueled by office furnishings. It did not collapse from explosives or from diesel fuel fires.”

Now, I find this “nothing to see here” reassurance less than reassuring.  The “take-home message” above certainly does nothing to explain the “accordion effect”.  Office furnishings?  Were the cushions impregnated with nitro-glycerin?  In all seriousness, although certain synthetic fabrics are highly flammable, are we to believe that they can ratchet a fire up to temperatures obtainable with jet fuel?  And the fuel was liquid; as incredulous as I remain about the proposition that fuel spread uniformly throughout the upper floors of the Twin Towers, one may at least picture (with deep squinting) a broad puddle of collecting accelerant.  Were polyester chairs and couches, then, set back to back from one side of WTC 7 to the other?  Perhaps the carpet was the culprit; but Mr. Sunder does not name carpet in his indictment… and in any case, what carpet has been manufactured over the past half-century which is not fire-resistant rather than highly inflammable?

More:

The final report describes how debris from the collapse of WTC 1 ignited fires on at least 10 floors of WTC 7 at the western half of the south face. Fires on Floors 7 through 9 and 11 through 13 burned out of control, because the water supply to the automatic sprinkler system had failed. The primary and backup water supply to the sprinkler systems for the lower floors relied on the city’s water supply. Those water lines were damaged by the collapse of WTC 1 and 2. These uncontrolled fires in WTC 7 eventually spread to the northeast part of the building, where the collapse began.

Sprinkler systems out: got it.  That makes perfect sense.  But the same paragraph explicitly describes the fire as started in a confined area and then spreading “eventually” throughout certain of WTC 7’s floors.  What we need is metal fatigue and structural collapse occurring with a freakish simultaneity.  This scenario does nothing to bring us to that event.

After 7 hours of uncontrolled fires, a steel girder on Floor 13 lost its connection to one of the 81 columns supporting the building. Floor 13 collapsed, beginning a cascade of floor failures to Floor 5. Column 79, no longer supported by a girder, buckled, triggering a rapid succession of structural failures that moved from east to west. All 23 central columns, followed by the exterior columns, failed in what’s known as a “progressive collapse”—that is, local damage that spreads from one structural element to another, eventually resulting in the collapse of the entire structure.

The quoting of “progressive collapse” seems intended rhetorically to make us back off from the cordon of the physics experiment, as if the flames might singe our low simian brows.  But, excuse me… I know what “progressive” means, and I can also sufficiently understand the detailed description preceding the phrase to picture a succession of collapsing columns, moving laterally “from east to west”.  Such a picture would yield a Leaning Tower of Pisa that decides, at last, to topple on its side—not a shrinking accordion disappearing into its base.

The report determines that the actual culprit in the collapse was the combustion of ordinary building furnishings: “These uncontrolled fires had characteristics similar to those that have occurred previously in tall buildings.” If the sprinkler system in WTC 7 had been working, it is likely that “the fires in WTC 7 would have been controlled and the collapse prevented.” The report also suggests that current engineering standards for coping with fire-induced thermal expansion need to be re-examined, particularly for buildings like WTC 7 that have long, unsupported floor spans. A key factor in the collapse, NIST concluded, was the failure of structural “connections that were designed to resist gravity loads, but not thermally induced lateral loads.” According to Sunder: “For the first time we have shown that fire can induce a progressive collapse.”

I love the “thermally induced lateral loads”: more than any other passage, it makes me want to pack my skepticism away and nod to my neighbor, “Yep… the Emperor’s new clothes look mighty sharp!”  But the paragraph itself is a catastrophic structural failure, throwing furniture and sprinklers and columns at us all at once in a disconnected, incoherent summary.  My verdict: case not proved.  File still open.

I suppose I could crown myself with the moniker of some impressively polysyllabic LLC like, “Society of Concerned Citizens for the Textual Analysis of Official Documents”.  Then I could write, “SOCC-TOAD has concluded that the government’s case remains unsubstantiated.”  My acronym would require that the public be mildly afflicted with dyslexia, or just not paying attention… but we’re talking about the American public!  Was any bet ever more secure?

That, at any rate, is how our keepers think of us—and we seem fully to justify their low estimate.  They throw some figures, some graphs, and some jargon at us… and the part of their discussion that actually reads like discursive prose confronts us with bald-faced contradiction.  Do they not read their own copy… or do they simply assume that no child among us will dare pipe up and warble, “But the Emperor’s naked!”

They’re probably right on both counts.