Innocence of the Muslims

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The other night I spoke to a Muslim friend online, with whom I’ve been chatting for several years. He was very upset at the movie Innocence of Muslims, and didn’t much care for my response to his dismay. My take was that it was the work of individuals who hate Muslims, and that the riots the movie had set off in much of the world had been exactly what the moviemakers wanted. I reminded him that such scurrilous propaganda can’t damage God, the saints, or the Prophet. He asked, But what about their followers? And asked if someone were to defame my father, wouldn’t I want to retaliate? My reply was, If someone did that, I’d know they didn’t know my father.

Since then I’ve read several articles about the incident, and asked another Muslim friend his opinion. One article said that many Muslims believe that the US government was behind the movie, which I find unlikely. On the other hand, another article points out that the Bush administration not only invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, but President Bush referred to the invasions as “a crusade”, and his administration came up with the phrase “Axis of Evil”, referring to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Since that phrase became current, North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons, but the US government hasn’t even talked about invading them. Muslims could be excused for thinking that the United States of America wants to destroy Islam and Islamic countries.

Of course there are such people in America, some of whom are in the government. Andrew J. Bacevich, in his article, Boykinism, talks of William J. Boykin, who, when asked Why do they hate us, said, “The answer to that is because we’re a Christian nation…” He went on to talk about a Somali warlord who claimed that Allah protected him. Boykin’s response was, “I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.”

If the arrogance of that response doesn’t explain why Muslims don’t like us (at least in part), I don’t know what will. To top that off, Mr. Boykin didn’t lose his job. Bacevich asks what would have happened had he said that about Israeli prime minister Netanyahu. I suspect the outcome would have been different.

Unfortunately, there are a number of Americans who believe just that, including one of my friends at work, a Christian who inclines towards the Fundamentalist end of the spectrum, and doesn’t accept that anything about Islam is true. I respect my friend, but must respectfully disagree with him there. At least he’s not obsessed with hatred, as many Islamophobes are. He doesn’t believe in the validity of Islam, but it’s not a constant topic of conversation with him.

As I said above, my opinion is that the makers of the movie were individuals who hate Muslims, and wanted to start trouble, rather like spoiled children. Another Muslim, whom I talked to online tonight, said that in Egypt (where he lives) TV programs had shown many of the protesters, and said that many of them weren’t even Muslim. If so, then we’re talking troublemakers on both sides, who could possibly start enough trouble to involve a large part of the world.

Leonard Pitts, in The Price of Freedom (an op-ed piece published in the local newspaper), begins his piece by quoting the First Amendment of the United States Constitution in its entirety, and emphasizing that those words are extremely dangerous. Dangerous because they protect not only noble and positive speech, but also the negative and disgusting. He points out that our country, which has had over two hundred years to get used to the First Amendment, is still not entirely comfortable with it. He mentions the  Alien and Sedition Act of 1798, as well as the Snyder vs Phelps decision of 2011, “…a Supreme Court ruling upholding the right of a hateful Kansas cult to picket military funerals.” The cult, if I’m not mistaken, believes that our soldiers die in war because we tolerate homosexuality. If we in this country are uncomfortable with the First Amendment, we can’t very well blame people who live in countries without a tradition of free speech, or the laws to back it, to take hateful speeches lightly.

But it does seem important that we try to explain to foreign friends just why we consider freedom of speech so important. One reason is that it’s important to have the freedom to criticize the powerful, not only government officials, but religious leaders and communities, as well as leaders of industries and other important organizations. If such leaders have the power to suppress criticism, as is true in much of the world, and still happens in this country as well, then no one will have political freedom. Real revolutionaries speak the truth and work for it, and expect nothing less than to be imprisoned, tortured or killed for expressing their beliefs.

We in America have the advantage that we are at least theoretically free to say whatever we please to or about whomever we please. That theory doesn’t always work out in practice, though, as we saw particularly in the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Black people stood up for their rights, and a good number got mistreated or killed for doing so. Perhaps the tactic of nonviolence helped them to prevail, though, as well as the mass media. People saw blacks on television being persecuted unjustly, and that may have been a lot of the reason Civil Rights legislation was enacted in 1965. Not every American is fair-minded, but a lot are.

My friend said that the rioting was the only way Muslims could express their dislike for the movie. I’m not sure that’s true. Perhaps they could have tried nonviolent protests. Another approach might have been to get a respected Muslim leader to speak to the press on the matter. I’m reminded of what Ghandi reportedly said when a reporter asked him his opinion on Christianity. He said something to the effect that he had great respect for Jesus Christ, but little for most Christians. A Muslim leader could say it’s a pity that Americans are so rude and uncivilized. That would certainly be a valid criticism of the movie, from what I hear.

I suspect the moviemakers consider Muslims to be barbaric, and the violent response to the movie could, unfortunately, be interpreted that way. And wouldn’t it be better if Muslims reacted by thinking, Stupid people will say stupid things? Allowing stupid people to get you upset doesn’t seem like a very good idea, generally.

As Leonard Pitts said, it’s distasteful to have to defend a movie like Innocence of Muslims, but if we establish a precedent that some speech can be banned, how far away is it for ANY kind of speech to be banned? If you lived in a Communist country during most of the 20th century, you were likely to be sent away to jail for a long time, tortured or killed for criticizing Communism, the government, or individual Communist leaders. In democracies leaders are expected to be able to take criticism without retaliating. They’re supposed to serve the ordinary people, and not the other way around. Of course the temptation is constant for governments to misuse their power, and individuals have to watch and work against that happening. For this, freedom of speech is at least a necessary reminder that individuals do have rights, and that governments are not supposed to push them around. To make any necessary changes in our governments, we have to be able to talk about the real problems, which is difficult enough without having to worry about being imprisoned or shot.

I can’t blame Muslims for being offended by the movie. Muslims have some reason to feel that Americans in general, and the United States government in particular, hate them. They’re not completely wrong about that, but a lot of Americans feel otherwise, and wish we’d never started wars in the Middle East. I don’t think anything good came of any of the three wars of the last twenty years, and I think a lot of Americans agree. Some conservatives in this country want us to start a war with Iran to prevent them from building nuclear bombs, but polls indicate that most Americans disagree. One article said that even conservative Israelis, who might be expected to feel otherwise, think that war with Iran would be counterproductive, and that portraying Ahmedinijad as the new Hitler is ridiculous. So I think there are a lot of people in the west who do not hate Islam, and would like to live in peace with Muslims. Those who don’t are quite vocal about it, but that doesn’t make them a majority or powerful enough to make bad things happen.

Unfortunately, we can pretty much count on someone doing something (private individual or not) to offend Muslims and other groups. I only hope that Muslims can begin to see that these are usually stupid and fearful people, and should not be taken seriously. There will always be people who want to hate. I think usually the best response (though not easy) is to refuse to be provoked.

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Three Series by Gene Wolfe

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Gene Wolfe is an author who has been working in the science fiction/fantasy area for a long time, and at a very high level. I haven’t read all his work, but I’ve read three of his series, which may constitute the most important part of it. The New Sun series, the Long Sun series, and the Short Sun series. All three are connected, though the first is connected rather tenuously.

The first is the story of Severian, a trainee in the Torturer’s Guild in the distant future. Torture has been pretty constant in human history, and it makes a degree of sense to formalize it, if only to control it. The Torturers are part of the judicial arm of the government, punishing offenders as the courts decide. Severian is an orphan, so he has no other connection to anyone. As he reaches his middle teens a noblewoman is imprisoned there, and he’s often assigned to bring her food, and otherwise care for her. They become friends, she introduces him to the arts and other knowledge, and they eventually become lovers.  So when he disobeys an order to prepare her for a form of torture he knows she will have difficulty enduring, by giving her a knife with which she can commit suicide, it’s somewhat traumatic for him to be forced to leave the headquarters and become a torturer in a small town some distance away.

The series takes the form of a bildungsroman showing the process of the young man reaching maturity, and in this case becoming Autarch of the government in his part of the world. Apparently primogeniture is not the system by which rulers are chosen, though Wolfe is vague about this.

A fifth novel is appended to the first four, in which Severian goes to a distant world (or possibly another universe) to ask that Earth’s sun be renewed. This story takes place in the very far future, when our sun has become red, and is dying. The request is granted, Severian returns to earth to observe, and finds himself living in various different places and times. Apparently he is some sort of god or demigod, unbeknownst to himself; unless he does suspect, and doesn’t see fit to mention it to the reader.

There’s a good deal of action in these books, a lot of strange characters, and much that is different, without being absolutely alien, in these books.

The following two series I find more interesting.

The first is the Long Sun series, which starts out with a concept not unusual to science fiction readers, the colonizing ship that travels to the stars at less than the speed of light, so that only the descendents of the people who began the voyage arrive. Wolfe puts this on a much different scale by making the spacecraft a hollowed-out asteroid, and an immense one. The city where much of the action takes place is said to have a population of about half a million, and there are said to be many cities, as well as at least one large lake, mountains, deserts, farmland, and so on. There is an artificial sun to make the ecology work (therefore referred to as the long sun), but soil, air, animals and vegetables have been imported so the world can be self-sustaining.

The culture is rather odd as well: the main character is an Augur, similar to a priest or minister, but belonging to a polytheistic religion (no other religion is mentioned), of which the principal members seem originally to have been a human family, who have probably died, but live on in a gigantic computer system which has given them augmented powers. There are also examples of high technology, like robots, and a particularly destructive hand weapon, alongside the use of animals for farming and transport, as well as sacrifice to the gods.

The series begins with the enlightenment of Patera Silk, the main character, by a god he calls the Outsider, which may correspond to the Judeo-Christian God (Wolfe is not definite), since he apparently is powerful outside the spacecraft (called the “whorl”), while it’s at least implied that the other gods are confined to the “whorl.” Quickly following that is a rebellion in his city, which has to do with local politics, but actually has more to do with the spaceship (which most people are unaware they’re on) has almost reached its destination, and the gods now want the passengers to leave, and colonize two planets: one called Blue, for its color, as seen from space; the other Green. Patera Silk is a leader, and is characterized as being a good man, as well as a great one–it being pointed out that many people called great are not particularly nice. He’s not just nice, but willing to act and firm in his beliefs. There are other leaders on his side, but everyone defers to him. But as the settlers leave the whorl, Silk is left behind.

The Short Sun series begins on the planet Blue, where a man who was a teenager at the time of settlement, and who had know Silk well, is asked to return to the whorl the settlers left to find him because people think his leadership would stop the corruption and criminality of their town. He leaves his wife and three children to search for Silk, as well as a way to return to the whorl, which means finding a working lander. The landers have mostly stopped working because they’ve been looted of everything usable by the settlers. Finding such a lander takes a long time.

If the New Sun series was a bildungsroman, the Short Sun series is plainly the reflections of an older man. The story is chronologically disconnected, and a lot of things don’t get said very plainly, or possibly not at all. But there’s a good deal of wisdom here, usually imputed to the main character, Horn. Horn has eventually found a lander, but instead of taking him to the long sun whorl, it takes him to Green, a jungle world where the inhumi breed. The inhumi are reptilian and vampiric, destroyed the civilization of the previous inhabitants of the two planets, and threaten humans too. The two planets come into close conjunction periodically, and the inhumi are able to fly from Green to Blue to seek victims. They’re crafty, and have bodies that can imitate humans so that few can perceive their real natures if they wish to conceal them. They’re particularly motivated to do this because it turns out that their intelligence is derived from human blood.

Horn reaches Green, and dies there, but suddenly finds himself on the long sun whorl. It develops that he has found Patera Silk, and has taken over his body. People who have known him in the past don’t recognize him, but he steadfastly denies that he is Silk, though we’re not certain if he entirely believes this. Silk occasionally speaks to him through other people, to make matters more confusing, but Horn is also a better man after his “translation”, if that word fits. He becomes a leader in several different places, and a competent one, with arguably a larger view of life ,and deeper insight than when he began his quest.

Although Wolfe uses some science fictional ideas, there are a lot of very odd things that happen in these books, so the only category they could fit in, I think, would be science fantasy. Religion is certainly one of the subjects that interests him, and most religions don’t fit the materialistic worldview that’s usual in science fiction. There are suggestions that Silk is some sort of a messiah, that he has become part of the father of the gods, and that Horn has partaken of Silk’s possible divinity by taking over his body. Horn testifies that he has always tried to emulate Silk, and eventually his emulation ends in his becoming Silk.

Does any of this sound interesting to anyone? I’m leaving out all the action (and there’s quite a bit), and focusing on the ideas, and implications of the writing, which is purposefully suggestive and imprecise. Anyone reading this might think the books tedious, and some might find them so, but however imprecise the impression given by the writing, there are multiple plots, there is plenty of action, and there are many memorable characters. These books take time to read, but you might just find it time well-spent.

 

Our Miraculous Bodies

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When you stop to think about it, it’s very striking how much better the human body functions on an automatic level than on our usual conscious level. Our hearts beat, our lungs inspire and expire, and many other natural functions proceed almost without our awareness of them, and with very little conscious control. We make complicated machines these days, but none as complex or sophisticated as the human (or animal) body.

Homeostasis is a very basic characteristic of our bodies, but one that’s not easy to understand. The word refers to the constant process of adjustment the body makes to conditions inside and outside. I particularly think about it when I take vital signs–temperature, pulse, respiration, blood pressure–on someone frequently, and see that the values I get always vary slightly, but not very much, unless there’s something wrong. Homeostasis is the process which keeps our functions within the pretty narrow limits where we are healthy. Our planet is situated at the precise distance from the sun which keeps most of us from either freezing or burning. Our individual bodies work to complement that, by keeping our internal functions within a certain range.

And that happens without our conscious control. Suppose we had to consciously make our hearts beat and our lungs work. Assuming the possibility, it could only last until we went to sleep. Then we would die. The autonomic nervous system makes all these systems work, more or less in balance, without our conscious control, and it does this with incredible accuracy, precision, and for a very long time (in most cases). Even damaged hearts can keep pumping for many years.

Beyond these very basic functions are more that most of us know little or nothing about, but which are just as important, though we don’t perceive them. Electrolytes are various chemicals, including sodium, chloride, postassium, magnesium, calcium and phosphorous, which our bodies require, and which must stay within a certain balance to ensure that our bodies work in a correct and healthy way. Too much potassium, for instance, can cause a heart attack. Too little can also make a person very sick. Muscle contraction depends on sodium, calcium and postassium, for instance. Too little any can cause muscle weakness, or severe muscular contraction.

If these electrolytes get out of balance, that can cause other problems. One such condition is pulmonary acidosis, which has to do with lung diseases like chronic bronchitis or emphysema, when the lung loses its flexibility and can no longer expel carbon dioxide. Too much carbon dioxide can cause the body’s pH balance to become too acidic, making the affected person very sick. The process can also work in the opposite direction, called alkalosis, where the pH balance rises instead of falls. Either can make you extremely sick, and ordinarily the body is able to avoid such problems.

The autonomic nervous system controls these levels by the use of hormones intended to raise or lower the various levels. Fifty years or so ago I read a fantasy story in which a man helped out a very small genie, with very limited powers. The genie wanted to reward him, but because of his limited powers, couldn’t give him anything worth more than $1.25. The genie made a woman the man had been lusting after fall in love with him, since the supposed value of the chemicals in the human body were thought to be $1.25 at the time. Now we know that the chemicals in the body have a value of several million dollars at least.

Our digestive and eliminative systems also work automatically, as does the system by which the individual cell gets the glucose it needs to survive. Our brains send signals to other parts of our bodies, and receive signals from them. Our immune systems repel foreign bacteria without our knowledge.  We hardly are even aware of much of this happening, let alone the process by which it happens. We take our bodies pretty much for granted, unless we have good reason not to.

All of these systems can have flaws or accidents which affect them. That’s not terribly surprising, More surprising is how often they work well without any difficulties.

The system in our bodies, however sophisticated, is also limited. Put a human in a place where the temperature is significantly too high or low, and they will die. Too much water causes drowning. Too little causes dehydration, which can lead to death. But one significant difference between our automatic system and our usual consciousness is that our system is minimally affected by our ideas, if at all. The automatic system in our bodies is designed for reality, and superbly designed for it. It’s not designed for some fantasy that we may have. So our consciousness, as limited and unreliable as it may be, seems to have been designed for something else.

Ideas do influence our consciousness. It may not be accurate to say that no other animal is influenced that way. Higher mammals have similar emotions to ours, but less freedom to decide what they’ll do. Predators must eat meat. Animals that eat only vegetables are usually prey to some predator. None of these animals has a choice about how to live, but humans do.

Humans can decide whether or not to be predators, for instance. Humans can indulge in sexuality throughout the year, unlike any other animal. In most other animal species males are more impressive, or prettier than females. In humans it’s the opposite. Is all this accidental? Or were we designed to be very different from other animals, though in other respects we’re much the same?

That’s a question about which many people disagree, sometimes violently. I consider the idea that humans evolved accidentally to be quite unlikely, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s no truth to the theory of evolution. On the other hand, I’m not a Fundamentalist either. I don’t consider every word of the Christian Bible (to say nothing of other books considered holy) to be unquestionable truth, nor do I see any necessary conflict between science and religion. Science show us, any time that we are willing to look at its results, that we live in a miraculous world that we usually hardly even notice. Mostly, we don’t even understand our own bodies, let alone the environment we live in, so how can the beliefs that many are willing to kill and die for be other than wrong-headed?

Science, at its best, demands evidence for any assertion. Most of the time our evidence for our beliefs is what someone told us, or what we’ve always felt. Some believe that Jesus’s command to love your neighbor as yourself, is simply a rational way to live. Others don’t believe in that kind of behavior, even though some say they do.

Our bodies operate on a different, realistic plan to adjust to the conditions of life. It may fail to adjust as conditions change, but it will try. Our intellectual, emotional and spiritual beliefs may affect how it performs its duties, but it will still do its best to perform them, even when gravely ill.

Could we imagine controlling our consciousness as effectively as our bodies control the various systems that keep us alive and healthy? To me, that seems a likely (though vague) direction for human evolution to proceed. It’s certainly not a goal that anyone can expect to reach immediately. There may be some people in the world who have something approximating that kind of control, but if there are, they aren’t very visible, and I would assume (perhaps erroneously) that there aren’t many. For most of us, that goal is beyond anything we can achieve, but it might be a worthwhile goal to strive for nonetheless.

Roberto Clemente

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When I first started paying attention to big-time sports, almost 50 years ago, Roberto Clemente was one of the premier players in Major League Baseball. He didn’t hit as many home runs as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron or Frank Robinson did, and he didn’t steal a lot of bases, but his credentials were otherwise impeccable. He was always a great fielder, and he had one of the greatest arms in the history of baseball, able to throw a ball accurately from deepest right field in one of the deepest right fields in the major leagues at that time, Forbes Field, on a line to third base. Like many in that era his path to stardom wasn’t a particularly easy one, though. Not only was he black, but Hispanic, so he experienced discrimination because of his skin, but also had a hard time fitting in because of his language and culture. Latin players had played in the major leagues before black players, but not many before the 1950s. There had been a pitcher, Adolfo Luque, who won 27 games one year in the 1920’s for the Cincinnati Reds, never had a comparable season again, but stayed in the majors for a long time.

There wasn’t another until Hiram Bithorn, who had one excellent season as a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs before hurting his arm and having to retire. As the 1950’s came, more Latin players began to arrive, as black players were also. These were the pioneers, and they had to endure a lot from both players and fans. A number of these first players were outstanding, though not all of them. When Branch Rickey, then with the Brroklyn Dodgers, decided to make the effort to end segregation in the major leagues, he looked for a very particular kind of player: a player not only talented and determined enough to succeed, but one who could take the abuse he’d be sure to get without striking back. He found Jackie Robinson, who was able to fulfill all those requirements. He may or may not have been the best player in the Negro Leagues at the time, but he was a good hitter and fielder, and particularly a good base stealer. He was able to take the abuse, sometimes virulent, and use it to motivate himself to excel, and not only paved the way for other black players to play in the majors, but helped make the Dodgers one of the dominant teams of the time. Had they won about 30 more games, they could possibly have won 10 straight pennants, which would have been unprecedented. As it was, they won 5 in 9 years, which isn’t exactly shabby.

Clemente originally signed with them, hoping to play for them because they had not only signed Robinson, but also Sandy Amoros, another Latin player. But the Dodgers didn’t think he was good enough to protect, so the Pirates acquired his contract.

It took Clemente a little while to put his whole game together. He was always a good fielder, though he sometimes threw the ball off-line or too far, but it took him time to learn how to hit well, for which he gave credit to the coaching of George Sisler, who had been a great hitter in the 1920s. The first year that he hit really consistently well was 1960, and his season helped the Pirates win the pennant for the first time since 1927, and to win the World Series too, beating the New York Yankees, which also made a number of people happy. Clemente didn’t dominate the World Series, though he hit safely in every game, but was one of a number of players who contributed. From that time on, though, he became increasingly important to the Pirates, though they didn’t become a really good team again for several years.

Clemente was at once humble and proud. He was proud of the family and country he came from, and proud of his own abilities, which he thought people often didn’t give him enough credit for. He didn’t often have major injuries, but early in his career he had hurt his back, producing a disc which slipped out of place sometimes, and which he had to put back in place, either himself, or with the aid of a chiropractor. This affected his hitting, and along with the distant walls of Forbes Field, probably prevented him from hitting as many home runs as the other elite players of the time. But between those problems, and the teaching of George Sisler, he decided to hit line drives, and get on base. He could hit home runs, and long ones, but he rarely did it with much consistency. But as popular as home run hitters are, players don’t have to hit them to be valuable to their teams. Offensively, those who keep innings alive and score runs are as important as those who drive them in, and home runs are also not necessary (though helpful) for driving in runs.

And Clemente was also a brilliant fielder, with a powerful, and eventually accurate, throwing arm. He influenced the World Series in 1960 with a throw he made from deep right field, which almost (but not quite) cut down a Yankee baserunner. The Yankees were cautious about running on him again in that series. That series was peculiar in that it went seven games, and in the three the Pirates lost, they were beaten badly. But this was a veteran team, and they were able to take losing in stride, and come back to play well the next game. Clemente was a veteran, but not yet as respected as he would become. He made his contribution, the Pirates won, but weren’t a good team again for several years. Several of their best players were injured the following year, or simply didn’t play well, and the team began rebuilding. By the mid-1960s it was becoming ready to contend again, and Clemente had a lot to do with that.

He had become an elite hitter, as he’d begun to be in 1960. The rest of his career he hit less than .300 only one season, and then .291, which would be a good season for most players. He finished his career having won four batting championships and 12 Golden Gloves (for excellence in fielding), and he’d become an influential player in the Pirate’s clubhouse, as well as in the larger world. His biographer found several instances where he treated fans better than most players would (and one where he didn’t, proving that he wasn’t a saint), and he spoke not only for the fans, but also for his fellow players, particlarly Latin players, and especially those from Puerto Rico. His biographer said that he particularly venerated Martin Luther King, not so much for his nonviolent approach to solving problems, but because he gave voice to the voiceless, speaking for those whom few wanted to listen to or know about. He tried to do the same himself, which was how he eventually met his death.

But before that time he was gaining more and more respect from his own team, major league baseball in general, and many fans. He helped his fellow players, telling them how they ought to behave, not only when they were playing, but in relation to fans. He helped Mateo Alou, a player who couldn’t hit the ball very far, become a good enough hitter to win at least one batting championship. And in the World Series of 1971 he really did dominate.

That was another series the Pirates weren’t supposed to win, though they were probably more talented than the 1960 team. They were also more diverse, with Willie Stargell playing the outfield, Dock Ellis pitching, and others. They were playing against the Baltimore Orioles, not the best hitting team, but a team that fielded and pitched brilliantly, and had four 20-game winners that year, something that hadn’t been seen in baseball since the 1920 Chicago White Sox. They were supposed to roll over the Pirates, and it looked like that was going to happen when the Pirates lost their first two games, at least one badly.

But they came back, and Clemente was in the middle of it, both hitting and fielding, and was MVP for the series, hitting .414 overall, and a solo home run in the final game to help Pittsburgh win in seven games, 2-1. The next season Pittsburgh went to the playoffs again, but weren’t as successful, losing thier first-round series. But Clemente had collected his 3,000th hit at the end of that season, a milestone which very few players ever reach.

Clemente had always felt he had to accomplish as much as he could as soon as he could, because he felt he would die young, in a plane crash. He pursued his wife aggressively because of that, and they had three children together. He adored his wife and children, and had them travel with him, not only during parts of some baseball seasons, but between seasons, taking them to South and Central America, as well as Europe. He was a handsome man, and told his father-in-law he could have many women, but only wanted one: his wife. He also cared about other people, and when he heard of the devastating earthquake that struck Nicaragua, including the capitol city of Managua, which he had visited and enjoyed, he was horrified.

He became more horrified when he heard that most of the aid that was being sent was being commandeered by the Somoza family. Anastasio Somoza was the head of state, and his family owned much of the country’s wealth. His son took the aid being sent to the country, and put it in warehouses, so that those who really needed it didn’t get it. Clemente decided to do something about it, and called for more contributions for the Nicaraguans, which he planned to fly to the country himself, to prevent the Somozas from stealing the cargo. The author makes clear that Clemente had unfortunately not done his homework when he arranged for a flight to ship the cargo. He picked a pilot who owned a DC-7 he didn’t know how to fly, and which was in poor condition. The rest of the flight crew were no more familiar with the plane than was the pilot, and the cargo hadn’t been packed well. The plane was also overloaded. Only one thing could happen in that situation: the plane crashed in the ocean, almost immediately after taking off from the airfield in Puerto Rico. Clemente must have been killed almost immediately.

Although I was sad to hear about his death at the time, it didn’t touch me the way it touched the many people who knew him. His wife, children and parents were dismayed, of course, but there were many others too. Friends from baseball, and just ordinary people whose lives Clemente had touched. There have been and are many great athletes in American sports, to say nothing of the rest of the world, but few great athletes are also great people. Clemente was. He had grown along with his baseball skills and his fame, until he had become an outstandin human being, and not just an athlete. Our culture reveres athletes for their athletic abilities, and doesn’t hold them to a standard commensurate with their gifts. Clemente was imperfect, but did hold himself to a high standard as a man. Many of his accomplishments were invisible to those who didn’t know him. His baseball records speak for themselves, but it has been individuals that have had to speak for him as a man. David Maraniss tracked many of them down to write this biography, which made me feel like crying when I read about his death and how the people who loved him reacted to it. It’s a book for baseball fans, as Maraniss is himself, but might be of interest to others too.

Cal Thomas’s Talk About Substance

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Cal Thomas, a conservative columnist I love for being very wrongheaded, recently published a column called Romney’s Opportunity, which I think shows Mr. Thomas getting desperate.  He thinks that if he asserts Romney has substance, for example, people will believe him, even though almost everything Romney has done shows his LACK of substance. When Romney’s father, who also ran for president, was asked about his taxes, he provided more tax returns than he was asked for. Why hasn’t the son done that? Obviously he doesn’t have the character his father had, but it also seems pretty clear that he has something to hide. Doesn’t sound like substance to me.

Mr. Thomas also asserts that President Obama promised to govern in a bipartisan fashion, and then “governed more like he was in Soviet America with redistribution of income and more centralized power in Washington.” The government has been getting more centralized for ages, and Obama hasn’t stopped that, but what’s this about redsitribution of income? Other than Wall Street (whose bailout began before Mr. Obama became president) and the auto industry, who has been the beneficiary of Mr. Obama’s supposed largesse? Aside from the above exceptions, I don’t know what Mr. Thomas is talking about.

Unless it’s Medicare. Of course “Obamacare” is anathema, even though it was based on a program initiated by a Republican governor (by stupifying coincidence, the candidate Romney Mr. Thomas is eulogizing). The facts seem to be, though, that Medicare works better than private insurance companies do, contrary to Republican ideology, which refuses to even consider that government might possibly do somethings better than the private sector. One thing that got lost in the shrieking accompanying the passing of the reform act was that we’ve had “Death Panels” in this country for a long time. That’s a nice euphemism for the refusal of insurance companies to insure people with “previous conditions”–in other words, those that need health care most. Mr. Romney indirectly admitted this (and probably inadvertently)  when he praised Israel for the efficiency of its medical system. Israel has a single-payer system: in other words, what the Republicans would call socialism. I used to know a German who became a physician and practiced in a great many different parts of the world. He explained to me, some 40 years ago, that western European countries thought it was to their benefit to have healthy citizens, which seemed reasonable to me. Why would Republicans think it acceptable to leave some 50 million citizens without health insurance?

Mr. Thomas also states that the “welfare state” has caused the economy to get bad by reducing motivation to work hard and innovate. It’s become apparent that of the various factors that have disabled the economy, Reaganomics is a leading perpetrator. It wasn’t the welfare state that caused the economy to implode 4 years ago, but rather the reckless financial speculations on Wall Street that went disastrously bad, followed by the bailouts, which went to the very people who had caused the problem, and not to those who were the victims. A famous writer on politics calls this, “Privatizing the profits while socializing the losses.” Even if you never bought one of the houses you were unable to pay for, you got to share in the losses, since your taxes helped keep the companies who made those speculations afloat. You may also have lost your job as a result of that whole sequence, and subsequently been blamed for being lazy or too dependent on government.

Mr. Thomas also refers to the coming election as the “take your medicine” election, meaning that we have to decide to cut Medicare and Social Security, as well as substantially reducing other “wasteful and unnecessary government spending.” How interesting that he should put Medicare and Social Security first. It has been pointed out that if EVERYONE paid social security taxes on ALL  the money they made, the problem of funding the program would quickly go away. And since Medicare has only a 2% overhead instead of 20% or more for private companies, that seems like a no-brainer too. And the more people you cover, the more leverage you have to keep expenses down. That also seems like a no-brainer. If conservatives are serious about cutting the budget, why not suggest cutting a program they DO like? That would do much to make their seriousness believable.

And the elephant in the room of wasteful spending is the military. A recent estimate said that, depending on how calculated, the military spends more than one TRILLION a year, far more than any other country on earth. For what? Ron Paul has pointed out that we have about 1100 military bases around the world. Again, for what? Why is all that spending needed to defend our country? No one else has that many bases, or ever has had. Why are they necessary now? Why do we keep military bases in Europe when the Cold War has been over for 20 years? Mr. Romney’s declared policies would be to cut taxes on the rich, cut Medicare and Social Security (at least), and increase military spending. In what way does any of that make sense?

The supposed rationale for cutting taxes on the wealthy (at the expense, in particular, of the poor and middle class) is because they create jobs. But they don’t seem to have much incentive to create jobs HERE. In fact, a lot of them seem to be getting along quite well without many Americans being able to work, earn money, and therefore spend money on products the wealthy have contributed to creating. During the Great Depression, the wealthy made out better than the poor, of course, but they were hurt by the economy too. This time around, it doesn’t seem to be that way.

I’ve been noticing Mr. Thomas’s columns for some time now. It was probably last year when he told young people to make sure they stayed healthy and to arrange for their healthcare themselves, in the course of talking about how the Great Depression was, in some ways, a good time. He seemed to be expecting that our current economic problems are going to last, and he could well be right. He quoted a number of people who talked about the Depression having been in some ways good, because people helped each other out more than now, and managed to make it. Mr. Thomas had to depend on quotes from others because he himself wasn’t alive during the Depression, having been born in 1942. He seemed, however, to approve of it, and the lifestyle it imposed. If my impression was correct, then it would seem appropriate for him to give away his money and renounce any government program from which he might benefit, in favor of living the lifestyle that he seems to prefer. I wonder if he is, in fact, doing that. Or is he, as a young man I chatted with sometimes a year or so ago said, a conscious hypocrite? It would be interesting to find out.

Talking About Pedophilia

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A magazine called Gawker recently published an article by Cord Jefferson entitled Born This Way: Sympathy and Science for Those Who Want to Have Sex with Children. As you might imagine, a lot of the comments following it were caustic. Understandably so. Pedophiles may be the people it’s least possible to sympathize with. The article points to evidence that the condition has to do with brain structure: as many as one third of pedophiles are left-handed, and they also tend to be less intelligent than average–at least the ones scientists have studied.

The author suggests that being a particularly despised minority makes pedophiles despise themselves, which of course isn’t good for them, and may also make them more likely to offend. Many will object that pedophiles OUGHT to despise themselves, and with good reason. The other thing that Jefferson is suggesting is that what he calls the “true pedophile” has a sexual orientation, so that his (offenders are almost exclusively men) desires will always be towards children. Jefferson suggests it might be beneficial if pedophiles could admit their desires without inciting horrified reaction. There may be something to that point of view, but the problem is that child molestation is one form of sexual activity that objectively causes damage to the child. With other sexual practices, if they take place between consenting adults, they should be nobody else’s business. Sex with children eliminates consent from the whole equation, though at least some molesters like to believe otherwise. One of the residents of a nursing home I used to work in was reportedly a molester, who had reportedly told someone working there that his victim “wanted it.” It may have made him feel better to believe that, but it’s highly unlikely.

It’s quite possible that there’s a physiological component in pedophilia, but like several other disorders, it very likely has a constellation of causes. But Jefferson didn’t address the hypothesis that molestation is the result of a cycle of abuse: that abusers may often abuse because they were also abused. That may not be the only cause either, but it’s not a factor that should be ignored. As several people responding to the article pointed out, it’s not like being left-handed makes you an abuser, and that while a higher percentage of abusers were left-handed, the majority were still right-handed. The author said that left-handedness indicates that the right hemisphere of the brain developed earlier than the left, which is less common, but all that means is that some people develop differently than others. The differences aren’t necessarily pathological. Lower intelligence scores and left-handedness indicate SOMETHING, but it’s difficult to say what.

Other countries, the article says, have groupls something like 12-step groups for alcoholism and other forms of addiction for pedophiles. That doesn’t seem like a bad thing, and it may well be that there are pedophiles who struggle with their desires for their entire lives and never harm a single child, but it’s hard to say how many of them there might be. Are these a majority, a large minority, or a vanishingly small minority? We know that there are molesters who are sociopaths, who abuse children without any pangs of conscience, simply because they enjoy it. And there was a program on a major TV network a few years ago which showed pedophiles being lured into a situation where they were shown to be what they were. The surprise wasn’t that there were some people willing to take such a risk, but that there were so MANY of them, and that they can come from all levels of society.

Cal Thomas, a columnist who at times delights me with his wrong-headedness, blamed the Penn State scandal of last year on tolerance of homosexuality. Not all pedophiles have desires directed only at children; some are functioning heterosexuals, in other contexts, so that criticism was at least beside the point, if not a mere appeal to bigotry. The fact is, we don’t know what causes pedophilia. We may have some strong suspicions–victims of abuse growing up to be abusers is at least pretty plausible–but it’s an area that would reward more scientific investigation. The scientific data so far is interesting, but the meaning remains pretty nebulous. The article suggests that poor nutrition, lack of good healthcare (especially pre- and post-natal), and pollution may all play a part. The answers to really difficult questions are complex, and this is one of them. The most important answers science could give us would be ways to better to protect not just our own, but all children. Child abuse (even exclusing sexual abuse) is all too common, and doesn’t say anything very good about the human race. How do we change that? Science may be able to come up with part of the answer, but I doubt it can provide all of it.

Beethoven in Particular

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It’s interesting to look at the lives of artists and see the arc of them. Artists, of whatever kind, frequently begin showing their talents relatively young, spend some time learning their craft, then go on to do sometimes amazing things. A lot of times these things are done at a relatively young age; then the artist hits a plateau or a downward slope. It doesn’t always happen that way, of course, but that seems to be the usual thing.

It doesn’t always work that way, of course. Some artists do their best work relatively late in their lives, sometimes because they die relatively young, like Mozart and Schubert. Those who continue to be creative at a high level through middle and old age are fewer. Renoir and Monet are a couple from the world of painting, and maybe Picasso as well. Bach was composing at a high level towards the end of his life, though some might say his work had become overly abstract and technical. Tchaikovsky and Beethoven are two who did some of their best work towards the end of their lives.

Tchaikovsky was a very productive compower, in the varied areas of chamber music, opera, ballet, and symphonic works. Two of his concerti are still often performed to day, and his last three sympohonies are his most famous, and probably his best. His last work was his sixth, the Pathetique symphony, certainly not inferior to the previous ones. Shortly after that he drank a glass of water during a cholera epidemic, and died shortly thereafter. One of his similarities to Beethoven may have been that both of them suffered a great deal. Tchaikovsky was homosexual, and that seems to have caused him a good deal of suffering, as Russia was a very puritanical place in those days. He tried getting married at one point, but suffered such panic that the marriage didn’t last long. His patron was a woman, which also fits the general pattern. One source says that shortly before he died he had had sex with one of his nephews, and suggests that drinking contaminated water was a more or less conscious form of suicide.

Beethoven’s life was different. Most people know how he began going deaf at about the age of 30, the most devastating handicap a musician could suffer. It wasn’t until he had come to grips with his deafness that he began writing some of his greatest works, and these remain some of his most popular. JWN Sullivan, writing about Beethoven’s spiritual development, points out that his 3rd amd 5tj symphonies were about the triumph of Beethoven’s will over his deafness: he had discovered that his deafness couldn’t keep him from composing, and his triumph at that discovery can be heard in those symphonies. That triumphant feeling lasted about ten years, and through the bulk of Beethoven’s most famous compositions. But then he hit something of a dead end.

At that point he considered leaving Vienna to work for a nobleman, but was persuaded not to, by five local nobles. They wanted him to stay in Vienna, but this was the time of the Napoleonic wars, and not only was the currency unstable, but several of the nobles had problems,  one dying, so that Beethoven never got much of the money promised him. He had been thinking about marrying, which probably would never have worked out well: he didn’t understand human beings in general, it seems, and was often contemptuous of them, considering that their beliefs were usually superficial. Women he probably understood even less well, so that he couldn’t have been a good husband, even if he could have supported a wife.  He desperately wanted someone he could be intimate with, something made almost impossible by his deafness, as well as his attitude towards people in general. This, according to Sullivan, is why he spent so much energy on his nephew, who was a very ordinary sort of person, prone to getting into trouble, and certainly unable to understand anything about his uncle. For 7 or 8 years Beethoven wrote little of any worth. His Wellington’s Victory was a joke, and sounded like one, though it became the best-selling composition of his lifetime. But approaching 1820 he began to write again, and this time on a deeper level.

Sullivan characterizes his Hammerklavier piano sonata as Beethoven’s ferocious grasp on life, without a great deal of other meaning, though Beethoven knew the piece would last. Other pieces were coming, though, that were much deeper. The Missa Solemnis. three more piano sonatas, the Ninth Symphony, and his last quartets.

I’m not familiar with the Missa Solemnis, or the final piano sonatas, but I first heard the Ninth Symphony when I was young, maybe before I had entered my teens, at a time when I was already familiar with the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, and immediately realized the Ninth was far better than those. I still consider it one of the most profound pieces of music I’ve heard, but Sullivan points out that it’s different from the earlier symphonies, in that the final movement of the earlier symphonies was superior to the earlier movements, and summed them up; this wasn’t true of the Ninth, even though Beethoven was the first to use a choir in that movement. As startling and dramatic as that was, the first three movements were still superior to it, and over the years I had come to that conclusion myself.

But according to Sullivan, and probably a lot of others too, Beethoven’s last quartets were his greatest work, and beyond any other music most of us know about. I’ve tried listening to them, and haven’t been able to hear that in them so far, perhaps because I haven’t experienced the suffering that Beethoven did. In his last years he was desperately poor and very isolated, partly because of his deafness, but also because he was so poor and so different from most. Few were willing to spend the time to communicate with him, and perhaps they wouldn’t have understood him if they had. Sullivan calls his last quartets beyond the normal range of human experience and understanding, and different from his earlier works in that they didn’t develop to a dramatic climax, but instead showed different aspects of whatever the experience was that had inspired him. He had written in his diary that he had to accept suffering, and, according to Sullivan, the quartets show that he had done so, and had (at least at times) achieved a perspective in which he saw that the creativity with which he had fought the suffering of his deafness had also been the cause of his suffering, and had had to be paid for. He had come to the conclusion that not only was this necessary, but right.

Few artists can have ended their artistic lives so profoundly. More usually, artists do their best work when relatively young, then find a plateau or become caricatures of their younger selves. Musicians that were famous decades ago still tour, and occasionally make albums. Maybe their professionalism makes them still worth listening to, but I’ve had the impression of musicians often being focused only on what they’re doing, trying desperately to become popular again, if they ever were. Maybe that’s a false impression, or one that doesn’t apply to a lot of older artists. I don’t know.

What I also don’t know is just where the creativity that’s so strong in some artists comes from, and why, in many cases, it leaves. Maybe I’ll speculate more on that in another post.