Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Dog spirituality 1

And the Lord said, "Do not let your front foot know what your back foot is doing."

H/T: Misspent.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Negatives in the prayer of St. Ephraim

After 15 years in the Orthodox Church, I have seen the prayer of St. Ephraim come up on the Lenten horizon and sink behind Pascha often enough to know it without looking at the cheatsheet:
O Lord and Master of my life,
Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk,
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to your servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not judge my brother,
For you are blessed unto ages of ages.
During Lent, it's prescribed for every prayer time and -- as if the Church Fathers weren't sure we'd really get it -- more than once at a lot of them. And, of course, there's no rule against saying it the rest of the year.

The words, especially of the second and third lines, always seemed to hide some profound understanding of the spiritual life, the way those 3-D pictures a few years back purported to show a hidden picture if you held the thing up to your nose and crossed and uncrossed your eyes.

I never did see a hidden picture, but I think I've found a pattern in the "Take from me" line: sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.
  • Sloth is the idea that nothing I do matters. It's the sin of the parsimonious servant in the Parable of the Talents, the one who says to the Master, "What do you need me for? You can get everything you want by your own power. Here's yours back. Take it and leave me alone" (paraphrased).

    The Master is angry, not because of the small return on investment (he apparently didn't expect -- or ask -- much of the servant, if the disparity in the investment capital is any indication), but because of the servant's lack of commitment and lack of trust.

  • Which leads to the second item -- despair -- the idea that, in the words of the third Psalm, "there is no help for him in God."

    The servant not only believed he dare not do anything to increase the holdings; he also feared the master's hardness, expecting brutal treatment from him, and certainly not help, so he was left on his own, to handle his own problems.

  • Which leads to lust of power. One response to the frustration of having no meaningful role to play in life (the illusion that is sloth) and expecting no help from God (the illusion that is despair) is to try to take over the world oneself. It would be as if the faithless servant buried his own treasure in the ground and then tried to tell the other two what to do with theirs.

  • And if that doesn't work, there's always idle talk -- both outward and inward. It's the senseless chatter -- fruitless plans and imaginary arguments and self-justifications on the inside, meaningless bilge on the outside. (Some trivial conversation is part of the process of building relationship, so I'm not talking about that, but it's important, but not always easy, to discern the difference.) We use idle talk to shut out true thought, true understanding, which can be painfully revealing. In some ways idle talk is the opposite of lust of power; in other ways, it simply alternates with it, passive and aggressive reactions to sloth and despair.
Sloth is a sin we don't talk about much these days, because it's so often translated "laziness," giving us a picture of a man sitting in a hammock chewing a grass stalk and watching a creek flow. But we're too busy running around, making money, and controlling the world to be lazy in that way, and we're too full of inward chatter to be able to do nothing in that way.

So spiritual laziness is not rest -- the Psalmist also writes, in the same Psalm, "I lay down and slept. I awoke for the Lord sustained me." In other words, he gave himself over to the vulnerability of sleep, even in the midst of being under attack, and trusted in God to protect him. And God blessed his trust.

But if sloth is not rest but a belief that nothing we do matters, then it can lead to laziness -- being a couch potato, for example, is both sloth and idle talk -- or to horrible crimes -- armed robbery can be a combination of sloth and lust for power. It can cause someone to say, "I can't provide a million dollars to fund that school, so the $20 I have to give is worthless."

Or, "I can't be a great evangelist, so being a good cook is meaningless," or alternatively, "I can't cook worth beans (heh), so my gift for opening spiritual discussions with strangers is of no use to anyone." In other words, it can cause us to deny the value of our own talents (what is with that pun anyway? does it work in any languages beside English?) instead of seeing them as a unique and infinitely valuable contribution to the whole.

The Psalmist again (same Psalm) answers the whole line of the prayer: "But You, O Lord, are a shield for me, my glory and the one who lifts up my head."
  • "You, O Lord, are a shield for me . . . ." The shield, naturally, is protection, specifically from the many enemies in the Psalm ("Many are they who rise up against me; many are they who say of me, 'There is no help for him in God'"). But the "shield of faith" comes up again in Ephesians: "above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one." The fiery darts of the wicked one include both inner and outer dangers, just as broadening the interpretation of the Psalm includes both inner and outer voices saying, "There is no help for him in God."

    With the shield of faith, the slothful servant would have overcome his fear of the Master's wrath, just as the Psalmist, tempted to despair, overcomes his fear that God might abandon him.

  • "You, O Lord, are . . . my glory . . . ." Glory is fame, respect, good reputation. It's exactly what the lazy servant refused the master in calling him a "hard man," reaping where he doesn't sow, and exactly what we promise -- and, at our best, give -- to God every time we sing,"Glory to you, O Lord, glory to you."

    So if God is our glory, it's a reminder that if our task seems small -- or our investment capital insignificant -- it's God who glorifies us. Or that our reputation doesn't depend on people, many of whom say, "There is no help for him in God," but on God's declaration that we are "good and faithful servants."

  • "You, O Lord, are . . . the one who lifts up my head." I try to be careful with drawing too much of a conclusion from biblical gestures, because they can be so dependent on languages and translations, and something that has a perfectly obvious meaning in one cultural context can mean nothing or exactly the opposite in another. Nevertheless, I'll go out on a limb here and guess that throughout human society and history, a drooping head comes with sadness or depression. When someone is "downcast," we might say, "Chin up," or "Things are looking up"; we gently lift a child's chin and tell her to cheer up.

    But the Psalmist says it's God himself who does this for his despondent children. This is not a master who is a "hard man," as the mistrustful servant says, but a God of lavish compassion.
The reality is that we do tumble through the sins of this line from St. Ephraim -- sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk -- which is why I prefer the translation "take from me" rather than "give me not," even though I've heard from people whose Greek is much better than mine that "give me not" is more accurate.

The answer, again, comes from the third Psalm -- a simple prayer: "Arise, O Lord. Save me, O my God." If it can save the Psalmist from "ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around," it can save me from my lone worst enemy -- myself.

God's answer to the Psalmist and to everyone who calls on him ends the Psalm: "For you have struck all my enemies on the cheekbone; you have broken the teeth of the ungodly. Salvation belongs to the Lord; your blessing be upon your people."

So here it is, a discovery that most people probably figured out the first time they read St. Ephraim's prayer. Apologies for the length of this post. I'm like a driver who learned how to get to a destination by a circuitous route and, when trying to give directions to the place, gives all the twists and turnings of that route because it's the only one I know. My consolation is that sometime in the next 15 years, I may figure out the next line.

Friday, December 16, 2005

How did I miss this?

Soon after becoming Orthodox, I learned that we are 13 days out of step and 15 minutes late, and it didn't take all that long to learn to like it.

Now that I'm a pajama-clad blogger, I move Orthodox time into the news business, where this Sept. 5 article about a July event is news to me. But good news.

It's a Greek layman talking about joint meetings of the Orthodox Church in America and the Antiochian Orthodox Church, moving toward Church unity in North America. If you're Orthodox, you know how important such talks are. If you're not, here's a parable that might explain it.

Once upon a time there were three brothers that lived next door to each other in a village in Never Never Land. They were 10 years apart in age, so they weren't as close as they might have been, but it was a loving family, and they lived happily with their parents.

One day a local lord rode by, taking conscripts for the army, and the oldest one was drug away, never to return.

Ten years later, the lord's son rode by, taking conscripts for a different war, and the older of the two remaining brothers was drug away, never to return.

Finally, ten years later, the lord who had defeated the prior lord came by, taking conscripts for yet another war, and dragged away the last of the three sons, leaving mother and father impoverished and longing for their children, who never returned.

The three sons didn't die in the wars. They survived honorably, fell in love, settled down, and when opportunity arose, they took their wives and families to another place where they could live in peace and their children not be kidnapped into servitude.

They contacted their parents, who begged them to come home, but the sons replied that they were at home now and couldn't come back.

In the meantime they had all settled in the same city. But the brothers had never really known each other, and a resentment had grown among them through the years, with the younger ones feeling abandoned by the older and the older feeling that the younger didn't know how they had suffered. They were all struggling to get along in the new land and all tried to preserve the customs they had learned from their parents, as they remembered them, modified by the countries where they'd lived during their long exile.

But their children and grandchildren began to discover each other and find that they had more in common than differences. Others in the city also became members of the family, through marriage and friendship, and they had interest in, but no attachment to the customs that the family had acquired during the patriarchs' exile; they wanted to be part of the original family, from the old, old country.

So by small steps and slow persuasion, the children and grandchildren closed the gap among the brothers, and finally brought them all together into one family, of blood relations and the new kind of kin, acknowledging the original parents as their ancestors and celebrating the courageous journeys of the three brothers. They finally gathered in one house at one table and proclaimed themselves brothers again.

This is a parable, not an allegory. It doesn't faithfully portray the history of the divisions among American Orthodox, which is long and complicated and better detailed in many other elsewheres. But if you imagine this as a movie and the audience's emotion as the credits rolled over the joyful, tear-stained faces of the aged men, then you know how we Orthodox look at prospects of reunion among our scattered jurisdictions.

UPDATE: I cross-posted this to the Conciliar Press blog.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Rev. Ned update

We last heard from Rev. Ned Reidy back in June when he wrote an article congratulating the Orthodox on ordaining women deacons.

A little googling turned up the fact that he's in a "let's play Catholic and have women priests" community, and a commenter (comment since lost) said that he had formerly been a member of the Holy Cross (Catholic) religious order.

Well, the Rev. Ned is back, says Get Religion, and in full Galileo mode, as he faces a trial for, I kid you not, heresy. (In California? gasp!)

Get Religion takes up the oddity that the San Bernardino Diocese seems to be the only one in the United States that does heresy trials -- along with the fact that it's hard to be excommunicated when you've already started up with a different church, but there seems to be a question of brand identification or something. Get Religion refers to the story in the as a well-written article with various experts interviewed.

I still get google searches for Rev. Ned, so I thought I'd pass along the update.

On the Incarnation

Unvoiced, the Godhead spoke the world
And unflesh hands made man.
Time's Creator, not bound by time,
More distant than the sky,

Who willed to be in place and time
Confined, Who healed and taught
With hands and voice of matter born,
Was one of us, though God.

Closer now than one's own heart,
Time deep and cosmos wide,
Enfleshed in fallen hands and tongues,
He builds and calls the world.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

God grant them freedom

This photo of an Iraqi woman sporting her vote-stained finger is a picture of courage. By the ink of a tattoo, she has marked herself a Christian in a country where Christianity is not always safe, and by the ink on her finger, she stands for a new Iraq in a time when the Rhinoceroses would kill her for that, too, if they could.

So may God grant them freedom and us the courage to stand with them in a way that honors their courage, and that of our military.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Carnival of the Clueless

After I entered Stephen Schwartz in the 25th Carnival of the Clueless, I got a letter proving him even more clueless than I had thought. It started "Hey stupid" and went downhill from there.

Last night I read a column about an e-mail exchange between Larry Elder and a reader who disputed his facts. If Mr. Schwartz ever comes back to my "pathetic blague," he might do well to follow the link and learn how a person with intelligence, class and discretion deals with a disagreeing, even disagreeable, correspondent.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

A public apology

This is a public admission of arrogance to two bishops and a Protestant television celebrity. A couple of days ago, I posted a snarky comment about a Russian archbishop calling Krishna Satan, and then I drew a comparison to Pat Robertson and my bishop, Tikhon, and suggested that they all go to Antarctica together. To all three, I offer profound apologies. It's not that I think Archbishop Nikon was correct; it's that, first, who am I to sentence anyone to exile, and second why bring in Pat Robertson or Bishop Tikhon, neither of which had anything to do with it?

I thought about just deleting the post, but then I decided that this is more appropriate.

Let me do my disagreement with Archbishop Nikon more better.

I begin with the Kontakion of Pentecost:
When the Most High came down and confused the tongues,
He divided the nations;
But when He distributed the tongues of fire,
He called all to unity.
Therefore, with one voice, we glorify the all-holy Spirit!
The nations, as we know, are still divided, and the task of calling all to unity has fallen to the Church, empowered with the Holy Spirit. But the fact that we are divided doesn't mean that those on the outside are necessarily rebelling against the Cosmos, harmony with God -- they may be following to the best of their understanding -- more or less, and often more than, say, I am, who am supposedly blessed with the Holy Spirit.

So how can we give the Good News to people who have grown up not knowing it? If someone comes to me and says, "Everything you think is good is evil. Everyone you thought loved you has deceived you. Let me turn your world upside down and give you a life of dissension and chaos," I'm not going to be much inclined to listen.

Instead we can say, "Everything that you know that is true is True. Everything that you know that is good is Good. Everything that you know that is beautiful is Beautiful. Like everyone who learns and grows, you may have to throw away some fond beliefs on the way to a better understanding of what's True and Good and Beautiful, but you'll count them as dross in light of the greater Truth, Goodness and Beauty that you'll find." Then if we follow it up with deeds of mercy and compassion, we may find some who will listen. Others won't, but as St. Paul says, one plants, another waters, and God gets the harvest.

This is true whether we're talking to Hindus, Moslems, Native Alaskans or 21st-century agnostic skeptics. We owe a gentler touch to people outside the Church than to those within. After all, St. Nicholas punched out the archheretic Arius, not his pagan neighbors.

That's what I should have said about Archbishop Nikon's comments, and not what I did say.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Hey stupid

Begins the big comeback from my new acquaintance Stephen Schwartz, recently heard from waxing starry-eyed about prospects for an Albanian Kosovo. I had already planned to post his reply -- seems only fair, after all, to let him have his say -- when he kindly extended his permission.

So here it is, in its entirety, with breaks for comments:
Une flas shqip. Do you know that means? It means I speak Albanian.
Actually, no. Dare I ask? Have I just posted some flawlessly obscene idiomatic Albanian insult, or does it literally mean "I speak Albanian"? Being stupid, I've only studied French, Greek, Russian and Spanish, and though I'm not conversational in any of them -- not being a globetrotting journalist with many opportunities to polish my language skills -- I could figure out how to say, "I speak [language]," in all of them. I won't do it, though; it would be showing off.
I first went to the Albanian area of Yugoslavia in 1991. I worked in Kosovo in 1999-2000 and returned to the area in 2003 as well as this year.
My mistake. Being caught up in the dreary mundanities of Stateside life, I haven't read his entire opus.
You can't even read English. The guy who wants to publish the American founding fathers is an Albanian from Albania, not a Kosovar.
My error again. And actually, my impression of the Albanian Albanians is that they've been drug through the mill, first by Hoxha, and then, just as they were starting to get on their feet again, by a bunch of hucksters posing as capitalists, and yet there's remarkable harmony among the ethnic and religious groups there. Again, I'm not a globetrotting journalist who speaks Albanian, merely a stupid American who tries to sift the truth out of the news and who knows some people who have spent time there and loved the Albanian people. Is is safe to point out that these people were Orthodox Christians?
I have written on the Greater Albania issue since 1990. I have published more on Wahhabism in Kosovo and the Albanian lands than any other foreign writer.
See above about not catching the opus.
You should also go back and check out the fact that THE WEEKLY STANDARD supported the Kosovo intervention, regardless of your opinion of Clinton and Albright.
I'm aware that a lot of conservatives thought it was a pretty neat idea to "bomb Serbia into the Stone Age." I believe a lot of them were impatient with the bad behavior among the divorcing Yugoslavs, and the U.S. media, tired of trying to figure out who was right and what was really going on, finally just landed on a bad guy to villify (Let's see, Muslims are exotic; Catholics have the Vatican; that leaves the Serbs. OK, Serbs are wholly bad and the others are wholly innocent. See how easy that is? It totally works on TV.) Then with a good deal of selective reporting, some "revised" voice-over translation of Serbian "man in the street interviews," and some high-class public relations, it became easy to maintain a settled paradigm. But that excuse doesn't work for people who have been following the issue as globetrotting journalists since 1990.

Nevertheless, even from my sheltered stupidity, I remember when Richard Holbrooke stiff-armed the religious leaders of the former Yugoslavia -- Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim -- who had together authored a letter to all their people asking them to eschew violence. He visited Milosevic and the KLA (and don't miss the photo at the link of Holbrooke lounging with armed thugs), but didn't have an hour to spend with the bishops and the imam. It was a time when the diplomatic apparatus of the most powerful country in the world sent a message by its behavior -- the message that the people who mattered in Yugoslavia were the thugs in power. Beside that, Holbrooke calling Serbs "murderous assholes" on television in 1995 was just part of the Clinton approach to diplomacy.

The fact that the Weekly Standard has been so supportive of Clinton's abysmal foreign policy is part of why I don't read the publication much and therefore haven't followed Mr. Schwartz's opus more carefully.

Mr. Schwartz continues:
You write:

1. "why investigators couldn't find evidence of the Kosovo massacres that were the pretext for the assault on Serbia;"

A lie. There are 550 mass grave sites. Everyone knows about them.
Call me a liar if you want to. It's the same definition of "lie" that the Democratic Underground uses against Bush. But the link I gave in my earlier post has the World Court saying that the "mass graves" contain 5,000 bodies. This is, as Detective Sgt. Brian Honeybourn points out, a great evil, but not genocide. It's also not entirely clear that Serbs did all the killing. After-the-fact investigations have turned up evidence that some of the pivotal "massacres" never happened. Or maybe they did, but how many of the victims were killed by Serbs and how many by the KLA? "Everybody" apparently knows a lot of stuff, but when the reporters are so biased, we stupids in the hinterlands don't believe them at all.
2. "about the mass graves of Serbs discovered in Kosovo since the war;"

And where were these? There were a couple of gravesites I know of with fewer than two dozen Serbs altogether in them. They were fully investigated at the Hague. Place names? You don't know what you're taking about. I doubt you could find Kosovo on a map.

3. "and why Kosovo Albanians, set free to create a society in their own image, made it twice as much of a hell as the one Milosevic created for them."

How would you know? What do you know? Nothing. Kosovo is flourishing. But they have yet to be set free.
I honestly hope it's true. Here's a story of a courageous Serb family trying to return to their life in Kosovo. But here's an analysis that suggests that "flourishing" may not be exactly the adjective for it: "Why now? Kosovo has no economy to speak of, no one in authority able to push through privatization, and consequently high unemployment. Hideously abused in the past by the Serbs, the Kosovar Albanians are now on top and have been wreaking vengeance on the Serb minority in their midst, capped last year by the ransacking of churches and a monastery. This naturally stirs strong feelings in Serbia proper, even with Slobodan Milosevic away in custody. Without a functioning judicial system, organized crime in Kosovo is flourishing, so much so that it poses a threat to the entire region."

It's late, and I'll let Mr. Schwartz go on uninterrupted for a while:
4. "Oh, and while he's at it, he might have looked into human trafficking,"

Human trafficking largely involves activity by members of the international community, and Serbian gangsters, using Moldovan women and Ukrainian women to service said internationals. North Albanians, Kosovars, and Albanians from Macedonians do not get involved in this. If you think different, cite cases: indictments, names of the accused, dates of arrests, etc.

"drug dealers" Cite the names of the indicted, accused, dates of arrests, etc. They don't exist. The drug routes run from eastern Macedonia through south Serbia to Belgrade and from Greece through southern Albania to Italy. You can't cite any evidence otherwise. You are a victim of your own bigotry abetted by propagandists.

"and weapons markets." Albanians like guns. So what? You aren't for the second amendment? I am. They are. Deal with it. The gun market is in north Albania, not in Kosovo.
OK. I take it back. None of the links I provided had any information. I don't have dates and places, and the people who have access to dates and places have agendas that are preserved by not publishing them. So there are no drug dealers, no human traffickers and no Al-Qaeda-trained terrorists among the Kosovo Albanians.
The comparison with Kristallnacht is the usual kind of sloppy, morally despicable slobber one can expect from a comfortable American pseudo-intellectual sitting in a couch in pajamas.
I don't use these comparisons lightly, but I think the similarities are very strong between the Night of Broken Glass and the anti-Serb riots that ripped through Kosovo in March of last year. By the way, it was a UN administrator who made the comparison before I did.
As to the heart-breaking spectacle of vandalized Serb churches (sob!) -- the churches that were targeted were mainly recent foundations built to symbolize Serbian domination.
Hearing such hostility to a faith's religious structures makes me wonder if Mr. Schwartz is perhaps a Christian who hates the Orthodox, a Christian who hates Serbs, or a non-Christian who hates Christians. But I'm not asking for an answer to that question. Suffice to say that the hate is evident. On the other hand, he does ascribe considerable foresight to the Christians of the 14th through early 20th centuries, to know where to built churches to symbolize Serbian domination.
The old Orthodox monasteries, which were stolen by the Serbs from their Macedonian and Vlach builders, were largely left alone.
Is that why Decani has to be under constant guard, after its monks rescued Albanians during the war?
Do you know the story of the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Warsaw? It was a gigantic Orthodox structure built by the tsars to symbolize Russian power over Poland. When Poland became independent in the 1920s it was demolished and there is no trace of it today. Just as there will soon be no trace of the Japanese governor's palace in Seoul, Korea. Why should Albanians be held to a different standard than Poles or Koreans? To make foreign Serbophiles happy? Sorry, no thanks.
Even this "foreign Serbophile" was saddened by the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.
All comments on the record; I will post them to your pathetic blague if you don't.

Stephen Schwartz

P.S. [in follow-up e-mail]: The Serbian government now admits what happened in Kosovo: the Serbs attempted to expel the Albanians, killed many of them, including many children, destroyed many structures, etc. etc.
As a matter of fact, the Serbs are the only ones who admit that their side has done any wrong. It's part of their bad PR, and it's part of why I, as a stupid American who can't find Kosovo on a map (it's next to Ecuador, right?), think it's important to stand up for them every once in a while. I mean, Mr. Schwartz may call me names, but he's not likely to bomb my house.

UPDATE, DEC. 10: I edited out a reference to Michel Chossudovsky in the piece above, because his stand on other matters led me to doubt his credibility. For more information on the Kosovo Liberation Army, from a more authoritative and balanced source, here is a U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee report on the KLA filed one week after the war on Serbia began in 1999.

Kristallnacht? I didn't see any Kristallnacht

Stephen Schwartz, writing in the otherwise conservative Daily Standard, goes looking for white hats in the Balkans and finds them -- on the same heads blessed by Madeline Albright and Richard Holbrooke.

Schwartz manages to find a Kosovo Albanian who reads American founding fathers and a couple of others who assert that there's no plan for a Greater Albania and that Kosovo Albanians don't like Wahabbism.

Great. Life is simple if you only listen to one side of these messy situations.

In the meantime Schwartz, who seems to have arrived in Kosovo within the past couple of days, needs someone to explain to him about those piles of blasted rubble that used to be churches; why Serbs who have lived their whole lives in Kosovo -- including monks who gave shelter to Albanians running from Milosevic's troops -- aren't safe to leave their dwellings; why NATO troops need to spend more effort protecting Serbs from Kosovars than vice versa; why investigators couldn't find evidence of the Kosovo massacres that were the pretext for the assault on Serbia; about the mass graves of Serbs discovered in Kosovo since the war; and why Kosovo Albanians, set free to create a society in their own image, made it twice as much of a hell as the one Milosevic created for them. Oh, and while he's at it, he might have looked into human trafficking, drug dealers and weapons markets.

The answers to those questions might have made for at least a paragraph somewhere in his "It's a beautiful morning" story. The questions might have at least come up in his conversations with the "democracy-loving" Kosovars he talked with. Unfortunately, it's an opportunity lost and a whitewash perpetrated.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Is there a country where we can send Archbishop Nikon and Pat Robertson?

This headline from the Hindustan Times online edition tells the whole story: Russian Archbishop calls Lord Krishna 'Satan.'

Maybe Antarctica, where they can melt the ice pack by hurling burning epithets at each other. And let's add Bishop Tikhon while we're at it.

Note: It's not good evangelism to call other people's religious figures "Satan" (unless the people are actually Satanists). It should be obvious, but apparently isn't, that you build better relationships with people by honoring their highest impulses. It's something the members of the original Alaska mission, as well as Sts. Cyril and Methodius, understood.

UPDATE: I apologized for this post here.

Monday, December 05, 2005


We'll be hearing a lot of Christ-hatred, apparently, with the release of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Up till now I've been mostly running across Philip Pullman, getting quoted all over the place in his efforts to become the anti-Lewis and to keep interest in his own books going 10 years after the movie release. I don't think it will work, but the aim -- even if duplicitous -- is at least rational.

Now Polly Toynbee, writing in the UK Guardian, reveals the depths to which hatred of Christianity can go.

Just to clear up one thing, I think she's got a point when she says some Christians have used guilt to manipulate children:
Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to? Poor child Edmund, to blame for everything, must bear the full weight of a guilt only Christians know how to inflict, with a twisted knife to the heart. Every one of those thorns, the nuns used to tell my mother, is hammered into Jesus's holy head every day that you don't eat your greens or say your prayers when you are told. So the resurrected Aslan gives Edmund a long, life-changing talking-to high up on the rocks out of our earshot. When the poor boy comes back down with the sacred lion's breath upon him he is transformed unrecognisably into a Stepford brother, well and truly purged.
I've read a book by a Catholic priest, containing various meditations on the stations of the cross. They were all awful (though the priest was a kind-hearted, well-meaning soul), but the meditation "for children" was hideous, containing just the sort of guilt-smack Toynbee says her mother got from the nuns. The result, as so often happens when guilt -- as it inevitably does -- goes sour, is a soaring rage full of fear, shame at having been duped, and a wall that keeps one from looking at the situation in any light but one's own defensive anger.

But however pitiably Toynbee came by her rage, her view is still warped by it.

At the core of her argument with Aslan -- and with Christ -- is that He's not just the Lamb but also the Lion.
Christ should surely be no lion (let alone with the orotund voice of Liam Neeson). He was the lamb, representing the meek of the earth, weak, poor and refusing to fight.
For Toynbee, Christ must always be "gentle Jesus, meek and mild," certainly not "a mighty fortress." She mocks the idea of a powerful Christ: "Because here in Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America -- that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right."

Lewis, a British citizen, was neither was neither Republican nor Democrat, certainly not as those parties align themselves in the dawning years of the 21st century. What Toynbee fails to understand -- or, understanding, hates -- is that in fairy stories good people are rewarded and bad people punished; heroes become kings and queens, and villains get their comeuppance. The Church is not a place for rolling over and letting the bad guy kick you; it's an army of martyrs who laughed at death and saints who killed dragons and cities protected from marauding armies by an icon of the Theotokos.

She says that in Great Britain 43 percent of people polled didn't know what event Easter celebrates. How much of that ignorance and disdain is due to the "sensitive," "mild" and "inoffensive" cup of weak tea that Christianity has become? Toynbee would like to keep it that way, but Toynbee, as she says herself, is no friend of the Church.

And Aslan, the Lion who plays like a being at once thunderstorm and kitten, may be a worthy opponent to such a view. The fact that Toynbee is so upset is a sign of hope.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Talkin' dog

I've been working to learn to speak dog most of my life. Most of my dogs have done better at learning my language than I have at learning theirs, but over time, I've gotten better at it.

For instance, if you want to tell a dog that you're friendly, start at a high pitch and work down to a low pitch. Words are optional. Babytalk is fine, such as "Oh, what a good puppy." For added emphasis, wave your arm behind your back as if it's a tail. Dogs don't see well, and they don't make distinctions between arms and tails. People, unfortunately, do see well, and they are likely to think the tail thing is a bit of overkill, if not utterly mad. Proceed at your own risk. Also, of course, if you've violated some other dog protocol, such as crossing into restricted territory or seeming to threaten its pack, making friendly noises may not help. It can't hurt either.

If you want to speak warning, on the other hand, a staccato, "Bark! Bark! Bark" is the standard doggie alarm. If your dog says that to you, it's something the dog considers worth noting. (It may be a cat moseying down the street, but the dog considers that noteworthy.)

Or if it's time for sleep, a long breath expelled through the nose is a signal that it's time to calm down.

Now ABC News gives us another one. Researchers are calling it a "laugh," which is probably as good a name as any. Just for an experiment, I did a loud, long pant, as described in the article, to Sadie and Mocha, my dog teachers, who were sleeping nearby. Sadie got up and brought me a tug toy. Mocha got up and corrected my pronunciation -- it should be done with a rounded mouth, as if you've taken a large bite of a too-hot roasted marshmallow and are trying to cool it off before it burns your mouth. She congratulated me on my efforts before lying back down and releasing a long breath through her nose.

This is just my first attempt at dog-laughing. Anybody else have results to report (those who aren't the sort of people to look askance at using a spare arm as a tail on occasion)?

I can't wait to see the movie

It's like Chinatown, the 1974 film noire with Jack Nicholson investigating a simple adultery case that ends up revealing crime and corruption up through the highest levels of Los Angeles city authority.

Only more so
. The murder of a couple of gangsta rap musicians points to corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department, a coverup benefiting the then-police chief (who is now a city council member), aided and abetted by an apparently corrupt and complicit Pulitizer Prize-winning music reporter at the LA Times.

With the outcome that the Times bends its trial coverage so the repoter's buddy, a rap music producer, gets acquitted.

Chinatown is film noire in color; Jan Golab's piece is film noire in nonfiction.

H/T: Patterico.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Wait -- what have I been laughing at all this time?

Al Sharpton wants his own sitcom

OK, guys, fun's over -- who hid the passengers?

More random searches for passengers at US airports

Answers to Pullman

For some reason, a good many of the articles about C.S. Lewis coming out in advance of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe include interviews with Philip Pullman, British author of the revolting His Dark Materials trilogy and confirmed Lewis-hater. To judge by the constant quoting of this hostile witness, you'd think Lewis was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, instead of simply being a deceased author of a very popular series of children's books, one of which has been made into a movie. (Does anybody remember hearing from angry enemies of Roald Dahl around the time of the opening of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? I don't either.)

Nevertheless, Pullman is asked, and Pullman bilefully accuses, and Michael Nelson, writing in the Chronicle Review, answers Pullman's charges. Which is good, because Lewis doesn't seem to have as active a press secretary as Pullman does.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

I just want to say thank you

to this Jewish group defending "Merry Christmas."

And Happy Hanukkah to you, too.

Non-scandal of the week

The LA Times revealed this week that the U.S. military has paid Iraqi newspapers to run pro-U.S. articles.

The task force also bought a newspaper and "took control" of a radio station (sounds like they sent in a SWAT team and held the announcers hostage, but that would be too juicy a detail to leave out, so it was probably just some unused bandwidth).

Anyway, does the LA Times remember Voice of America or Radio Free Europe? Radio Liberty broadcast Father Alexander Schmemann's sermons into the Soviet Union for 30 years.

So the task force writes and translates articles and pays the newspapers to run them. Sounds like a win-win to me. Unless the Times is presuming that the poor benighted Iraqis can't discern a pro-American article when they see one. Well, welcome to the age of the Internet, O newspaper of plummeting circulation that runs Democratic Party press releases for free. We all have other sources of news now, and newspapers are being held responsible for their bias. If the Iraqi readers don't like seeing pro-American articles in their pages, they won't read them or they won't buy those papers. On the other hand, it might be nice to see a pro-American article occasionally in the LA Times.

Next scandal up: The president wears socks. I kid you not. Black ones, too.

UPDATE: In an LA Times column, Walter Jajko goes into more detail about the need to join the propaganda war.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Grammar Pledge

It always goes this way. Someone mentions a grammar problem -- in this case a novel, whose author is an English professor at a Seattle university, that is afflicted with dangling modifiers and even has an "it's" used as the possessive. These errors can be as distracting as a "factual" detail that isn't true or a character's action that doesn't follow or a tone shift from storytelling to preaching. It can pitch a reader utterly out of the story.

But unlike a catching a factual error or a tone shift, catching a stylistic problem (because dangling modifiers are not, strictly speaking, grammar but style) or a punctuation problem (see prior parenthesis) requires an advance apology. Mine is that I'm a grammatoholic, but I'm not trying to change.

That confession -- of interest in the finer points of language usage -- is always followed by someone who protests, "I don't know anything about grammar, and I'm a terrible speller, and I'm scared of all these people who think it's important." And then someone inevitably brings up Flannery O'Connor's saying that "Anyone who can only spell a word one way hasn't got much imagination."

There you have it. End of discussion. If you come back from that, you're not only insensitive, you're taking on Flannery O'Connor in an argument.

Well, I've got something else to say, and since it's my blog I'm going to say it. I'm talking to writers now mainly, secondarily to anyone who wants to communicate effectively, especially in writing. If you're a person of tender grammatical sensibilities and you don't fit those categories, best move along.

First, I don't care how Flannery O'Connor spelled in the drafts of her works; she was a master of the language and you don't get her dramatic effect with dangling modifiers and misused apostrophes.

Second, any writer has to care about the use of the language -- as a cook cares about food -- because that's all we have. And to say, "I don't know anything about it and I'm afraid to be told I need to learn" is a copout. It's no sin to say, "I don't know"; but "I don't know and I don't care" is an offense against oneself as a writer and against one's readers. The reader can glean our message only from what we lay out on the page. If we're not master of our message, we cannot communicate it.

And it's not that hard. I realize that the schools have been given over, by and large, to excusing "creative spelling" and "affirming" "natural" (read that, undisciplined) use of the language, so writers who graduated from such schools start at a disadvantage. But it's not quantum mechanics. Here are a few steps to start from nowhere and over time, fairly painlessly, develop a mastery of the language:
  • Stop saying, "I'm bad at grammar and spelling"; it's just an excuse for not trying. Start saying, "I'm working on my grammar and spelling."

  • Think about words -- where they came from, how they sound, what they mean. Get a good dictionary (also online) and, when looking something up -- as many unfamiliar words as possible -- look at all the definitions and the etymology, the history of the word. Ask what they have in common; ask why it's changed. The answer may not come right away, but if the question is burbling in one's brain, the answer that appears in a newspaper column or pops up in a conversation will bring the richeness of a found treasure.

  • Subscribe to A Word A Day, or something similar.

  • Buy a college grammar book -- The Complete Stylist is the best I've read, available from starting at 50 cents, but the Harbrace College Handbook is another, or check the shelves of the local used bookstore -- then read it cover to cover. It won't take that long, and it's not as boring as half the stuff in the daily paper (and a lot more relevant).

  • Explore the excellent grammar resources on the web. The page is a good place to start, but there are many. Google your question and see what happens.

  • If you've got time, study an inflected language, such as Greek, Latin or Russian. It will expand your brain, give you a different perspective on time (literally -- every language's view of time is encapsulated in its verb tenses) and help understand the cases and genders in English. This is for extra credit.

  • Beyond that, take an interest. It doesn't require correcting your grandma when she says "lay" instead of "lie," but thinking about the difference between "lay" and "lie," and transitive and intransitive verbs (though learning the terminology is not as important as learning the principles), and that gives you control over when to use what and why. If you choose to use a word against its conventional usage, that's a choice you get to make, and as master of the word, you know what effect it will have and how that furthers your communication with the reader you have in mind.
And if you already know this stuff -- or are in the process of getting better at it -- do you want to take the pledge with me? No more apologies. I'm not a grammatoholic; I'm just a writer who takes an interest in her tools. I'm not gifted from God to understand the difference between "lay" and "lie"; I just looked it up enough times that I got it. I didn't inherit my knowledge from my rich Uncle Edgar; I got a good chunk of it scowled into me from my eighth-English teacher, Miss Babers, and if you don't have a Miss Babers in your life, I'll be it for you.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Riots help alert French police to new technologies

French police have discovered the Internet, as well as cellphones, in one of the serendipitous outcomes of nearly two weeks of boys-will-be-boys rioting.

Police were shocked to find the exuberant immigrant youths not depending on banners and bullhorns, as the student activists did in the May 1968 riots that ended up overthrowing the French government.

French authorities are trying to find someone aged 14-16, who is not involved in the riots, to explain to them how to get online.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Canada takes the lead

Team Canada
Team Denmark
Canada took the lead over Denmark last night in the newest round of International Capture the Flag, being played over Hans Island, a barren Arctic rock rumored to be somewhere between Greenland and Canada. Team Canada won two points for capturing two flags -- one flying on a flagpole and the other cleverly hidden in a barrel near the flagpole.

As required under current rules of the international competition, Canadian soldiers delivered the flags to Denmark to establish that they had gained their points.

Canada last scored in July when it erected a $2,000 flag pole and a sensitive multicultural pile of rocks on the island. The Canadian military had to fly in the 300-pound rocks by helicopter.

Using a classic stealth maneuver, Denmark later informed Canada that its flag hadn't survived. Canada disputed whether that deserved any points, but finding the two Danish flags on the island proved both the earlier Danish claim and their own.

The score seems to be 3-2 Canada, though it's hard to be sure.

The most recent round of International Capture the Flag was when England bested Argentina in the Falkland Islands match in 1982.

And that's all the news for today, sports fans.

This post is also available at Blogger News Network.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Chirac's Shakespearean crisis

The French drama has played through two acts, and we hardly noticed it.

Act I has been going on for decades. This 2002 article by Theodore Dalrymple in City Journal describes the ordinary world -- the growing discontent in the housing projects of France. Unemployment, discrimination, lack of opportunity, and bored youths who comfort themselves by affiliating with a foreign ideology that would give them power and status in a world that gives them every material necessity, but no dignity. In the growing conflict, French authorities have dealt haphazardly with rising anti-Semitic violence and have formed foreign policy around their own "Arab street."

Inciting incident: two boys think they're being chased by police, run into an electric substation and die.

In Act II, riots erupt and spread. A disabled woman is set on fire. Rioters respond to police, fire and ambulance crews with rocks and firebombs. At Day 12, a man dies.

The rest of Europe trembles, as cars are set on fire in Brussels, Belgium, and Berlin and Bremen, Germany.

The longer it goes, the more intense Chirac's crisis will be. If he had dealt with the issues years ago, with firm law enforcement and economic and social status for the peaceful immigrants, the riots would not be happening now. But instead, in typical post-modern fashion, the French authorities have treated the innocent and the guilty exactly equally -- with economic handouts on the one hand and discrimination and disrespect on the other -- which has the same effect as punishment for the innocent and reward for the guilty.

Soon we will arrive at Chirac's Shakespearean crisis: Will he do a Petain, following the 20th-century marshal who turned France over to the Nazis, or a Reno, following the U.S. attorney general who in 1993 stormed the compound of an offbeat religious sect, eventually causing a fire that killed all 76 members of the cult, including 27 children.

Either way, France is likely to be a very different place in Act III. The change will be more gradual if he goes Petain, but the radicalized Moslems will have increasing control over the government policies, as the authorities retreat and retreat to keep the same thing from happening again.

If he goes Reno -- and France has shown itself capable of brutality when French monuments are not at stake -- there will be blood in the streets and a period of active warfare with an uncertain end.

Europe will never be the same.

Monday, November 07, 2005

I'm seeing someone else

I've posted my first post on the Conciliar Press blog, The Orthodox Way, titled "'Closed Communion' or 'Communion as identity.'"

Catchy, don't you think?

That's my Monday blog.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

I need to get a new title up here

Just to show that I haven't fallen into a time warp.

In a couple of days, people won't remember who Harriet Miers was or the various transmogrifications her public character went through during her 15 minutes of fame. When all is said and done, she may be glad it was only 15 minutes, and not 27. But I wonder if the borking from the right was any less distressing than the borking from the left.

But I have nothing informative or incisive to say, so I'll let you folks move on to the next blog.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Call to Bloggers: Take Your Stand on Miers

I'm accepting The Truth Laid Bear: Call to Bloggers and taking a stand on Miers.

I support the Miers nomination.

I've heard a lot of arguments pro and con, but for me it comes down to two issues: 1) Is she qualified? 2) Did the president pick her?

1) That's not "is she the most qualified person we can imagine?" It's not "did she attend an Ivy League university and clerk for the Supreme Court?" It's not "does she take the 'right' stand on issues that are important to me?" It's "does she meet rational standards of ability to handle the questions posed to the Supreme Court?" Her background and experience say, "yes."

2) That's not "trust Bush." It's that the same Constitution Miers' opponents say they hold so dear gives the president -- Washington, Jackson, Roosevelt, Clinton, Bush -- the authority to pick Supreme Court Justices. If the nominees are qualfied (see #1 above), then they should be confirmed. Ginsburg, Souter, White and O'Connor were all qualfied, whether we like the outcome or not. If David Frum, Ann Coulter, George Will and the rest make the investment and take the risk to run for president, I will consider them for the office. If they win, they get to choose the Supreme Court nominees for seats that open during their administration. The idea that they can strong-arm the elected president (whoever he is) into making their pick is beneath them.

I want to get back to the written text of the Constitution as much as the next person, but if Republicans go back to it by violating it, there will be nothing to go back to.

Note to Fourth Estate

Very important distinction about the Second Estate:

A UPI story about the recent synod of Catholic bishops in Rome attempts to clarify the issue of priestly celibacy:
The Orthodox Church allows priests to marry, but those who do are not eligible to become bishops.

OK, here's where it gets tricky.

The Orthodox Church ordains married men.

Most if not all Protestant churches permit ordained men to marry (though it probably happens the other way more often), but we don't.

Notice the sequence: marry first, ordained to diaconate after (the priesthood, if it comes, comes after the diaconate).

I know it probably seems like an unimportant distinction to people who don't go to church, but we don't have "available" men leading Orthodox parishes. They're either married or monastic. I'm sure there are highfalutin theological explanations for this, but as a practical matter, having an eligible man as leader of a parish, hearing confessions, receiving the attentions of eligible (and ineligible) women, as well as the awareness that he might always be choosing "the one," frankly creeps me out.

Maybe that's just me. But I don't know the highfalutin theological explanation.

H/T: Father Joseph.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Orthodoxy for losers, freaks and failures

A famous Orthodox priest came to Portland last weekend. I won't give his name because I couldn't attend his presentation, and so this is not really about him, but about why I don't like to go to hear religious speakers anymore.

My friends and I -- the Fabulous Crones -- gathered Sunday afternoon for coffee and conversation, and two of them had gone to hear the presentation. The Famous Priest spoke Friday evening and then again all day Saturday. My fellow Crones were unimpressed.

They thought perhaps he was tired, but then we got down to it. He spent three hours Saturday morning talking about his family -- six kids, perfect wife, perfect dog, etc. (actually, they didn't say he mentioned his perfect wife or perfect dog, but I got the idea). I was glad I hadn't gone.

There should be a sign over the door of such retreats: Do not enter unless your children are under age 11 and your life is otherwise perfect.

"Oh," Famous Priest would protest, "but my life isn't perfect. Just last week, I stubbed my toe and uttered the 's' word. And my wife isn't perfect. Just last month she discovered a dust bunny under the piano. And of course child 1 didn't get his scholarship to Harvard so he's going to have to settle for Stanford; child 2 came back at 10:05 from a date last evening, and child 3 missed a homework assignment last year.

"So you see," Famous Priest continues, "we've got enough problems and sins to keep us humble, but of course we gather as a family and pray 45 minutes three times a day, just something simple you understand, and then we all relax as children 1 and 2 entertain us with light Bach pieces on the piano and violin as child 3 works on paintings for his upcoming art show."

I don't begrudge Famous Priest -- or anybody else -- his perfect life; in fact, I would wish it for everybody. But not being from Planet Perfect, i have a hard time relating to the effervescent assumption that I could move to Planet Perfect if only I had the right amout of optimism and discipline and spirituality and good character and wisdom and . . . . In other words, if only I were someone else, someone from Planet Perfect.

It's a recipe for despair.

Bring me a speaker to talk about "Orthodoxy for Losers, Freaks and Failures," someone who understand that Orthodox kids do meth, leave the church, sneak out at night, get sick, run away, get into car accidents; that Orthodox adults bring their own sins and gaps to their relationships and make things worse trying hard to make them better, hurt people deeply in ways that can't be corrected, zig when they should have zagged, and take on tasks that they're not qualified to handle, because all the better-qualified people are too busy and too wise to take the risk; that marriages break apart for good and bad reasons, that teen-aged girls cut themselves, and grown-ups live with the emotional and physical scars of past hurts and injuries.

Bring me one Orthodox speaker who is a loser, freak or failure to tell us people from Planet Loser about how to built our spiritual lives. I don't know what such a retreat leader would say, but I'd sure like to find out.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

'You have to break a few eggs . . .'

From the glass is only half empty department comes this New York Times review of the new biography of Mao: The Unknown story.

Nicholas Kristof reviews the book positively overall, and he credits the authors with having written a book that will ruin Mao's reputation forever. He says it "supplies substantial new information and presents it all in a stylish way that will put it on bedside tables around the world. . . . Mao emerges from these pages as another Hitler or Stalin."

Nevertheless, Kristof has reservations, because "Mao, however monstrous, also brought useful changes to China."

He details a lifelong history of deception, double-dealing, thuggery and indifference to other people's suffering. On the legendary Long March, Mao reports that he was carried on a litter. He tortured 4,400 "subversives" in the Red Army and had most of them executed, up to a quarter of the entire army, often by having red-hot rods forced up their rectums.

When the peasants were starving in the 1950s, he said, "Educate peasants to eat less, and have more thin gruel. The State should try its hardest . . . to prevent peasants eating too much." He told Moscow that he would be willing to sacrifice the lives of 300 million Chinese, half the population at the time.
At times, Mao seems nuts. He toyed with getting rid of people's names and replacing them with numbers. And discussing the possible destruction of the earth with nuclear weapons, he mused that "this might be a big thing for the solar system, but it would still be an insignificant matter as far as the universe as a whole is concerned."
Seems like the comparison to Stalin holds up pretty well.

But Kristof has a bone or two to pick with the authors. For one thing, the authors say that close to 38 million died in the great famine from 1958 to 1961. But other authors say the number was maybe closer to 30 million and someone else says, no, it was just 23 million. I've got an idea. Let's Mao 23 million consecutive life sentences instead of 38 million.

Kristof sums up the legacy:
Finally, there is Mao's place in history. I agree that Mao was a catastrophic ruler in many, many respects, and this book captures that side better than anything ever written. But Mao's legacy is not all bad. Land reform in China, like the land reform in Japan and Taiwan, helped lay the groundwork for prosperity today. The emancipation of women and end of child marriages moved China from one of the worst places in the world to be a girl to one where women have more equality than in, say, Japan or Korea. Indeed, Mao's entire assault on the old economic and social structure made it easier for China to emerge as the world's new economic dragon.
I wonder if Kristof recalls that land reform in Japan and Taiwan have brought far less suffering to their people than Mao's version of it, and in fact, if it hadn't been for Mao, China would probably have the freedom and economic vitality of Taiwan now, instead of having been devastated by famine and the Cultural Revolution; that women have been emancipated in many places without killing 70 million (or 55 million) people; that, as far as being one of the worst places to be a girl, what about the effects of the one-child-per-family policy on the population of girls in China (it's hard to have a good life as a girl if you've been drowned in a bucket at birth because you weren't a boy)?

I can't help remembering the words of Kristof's NYT predecessor, Walter Duranty, discounting Stalin's famine in Russia and Ukraine in the 1930s: "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."

For future reference an dfor context, here's the whole article:
The New York Times
October 23, 2005
'Mao': The Real Mao

If Chairman Mao had been truly prescient, he would have located a little girl in Sichuan Province named Jung Chang and "mie jiuzu"- killed her and wiped out all her relatives to the ninth degree.

But instead that girl grew up, moved to Britain and has now written a biography of Mao that will help destroy his reputation forever. Based on a decade of meticulous interviews and archival research, this magnificent biography methodically demolishes every pillar of Mao's claim to sympathy or legitimacy.

Almost seven decades ago, Edgar Snow's "Red Star Over China" helped make Mao a heroic figure to many around the world. It marked an opening bookend for Mao's sunny place in history - and this biography will now mark the other bookend.

When I first opened this book, I was skeptical. Chang is the author of "Wild Swans," a hugely successful account of three generations of women in her family, and it was engaging but not a work of scholarship. I was living in China when it appeared, and my Chinese friends and I were all surprised at its success, for the experiences she recounted were sad but not unusual. As for this biography, written together with her husband, Jon Halliday, a historian, I expected it to be similarly fat but slight. Also, the subtitle is "The Unknown Story" - which, after all that has been written about Mao, made me cringe.

Yet this is a magisterial work. True, much of Mao's brutality has already emerged over the years, but this biography supplies substantial new information and presents it all in a stylish way that will put it on bedside tables around the world. No wonder the Chinese government has banned not only this book but issues of magazines with reviews of it, for Mao emerges from these pages as another Hitler or Stalin.

In that regard, I have reservations about the book's judgments, for my own sense is that Mao, however monstrous, also brought useful changes to China. And at times the authors seem so eager to destroy him that I wonder if they exclude exculpatory evidence. But more on those cavils later.

Mao is not only a historical figure, of course, but is part of the (tattered) web of legitimacy on which the People's Republic rests. He is part of the founding mythology of the Chinese government, the Romulus and Remus of "People's China," and that's why his portrait hangs in Tiananmen Square. Even among ordinary Chinese, Mao retains a hold on the popular imagination, and some peasants in different parts of China have started traditional religious shrines honoring him. That's the ultimate honor for an atheist - he has become a god.

Mao's sins in later life are fairly well known, and even Chen Yun, one of the top Chinese leaders in the 1980's, suggested that it might have been best if Mao had died in 1956. This biography shows, though, that Mao was something of a fraud from Day 1.

The authors assert, for example, that he was not in fact a founding member of the Chinese Communist Party, as is widely believed, and that the party was founded in 1920 rather than 1921. Moreover, they rely on extensive research in Russian archives to show that the Chinese party was entirely under the thumb of the Russians. In one nine-month period in the 1920's, for example, 94 percent of the party's funding came from Russia, and only 6 percent was raised locally. Mao rose to be party leader not because he was the favorite of his fellow Chinese, but because Moscow chose him. And one reason Moscow chose him was that he excelled in sycophancy: he once told the Russians that "the latest Comintern order" was so brilliant that "it made me jump for joy 300 times."

Mao has always been celebrated as a great peasant leader and military strategist. But this biography mocks that claim. The mythology dates from the "Autumn Harvest Uprising" of 1927. But, according to Chang and Halliday, Mao wasn't involved in the fighting and in fact sabotaged it - until he hijacked credit for it afterward.

It's well known that Mao's first wife (or second, depending on how you count), Yang Kaihui, was killed in 1930 by a warlord rival of Mao's. But not much else is known of her. Now Chang and Halliday quote from poignant unsent letters that were discovered during renovations of her old home in 1982 and in 1990. The letters reveal both a deep love for Mao and a revulsion for the brutality of her time (and of her husband). "Kill, kill, kill!" she wrote in one letter, which became a kind of memoir of her life. "All I hear is this sound in my ears! Why are human beings so evil? Why so cruel?" Mao could easily have saved this gentle woman, the mother of his first three children, for he passed near the home where he had left her. But he didn't lift a finger, and she was shot to death at the age of 29.

By this time, the book relates, many in the Red Army distrusted Mao - so he launched a brutal purge of the Communist ranks. He wrote to party headquarters that he had discovered 4,400 subversives in the army and had tortured them all and executed most of them. A confidential report found that a quarter of the entire Red Army under Mao at the time was slaughtered, often after they were tortured in such ways as having red-hot rods forced into their rectums.

One of the most treasured elements of Chinese Communist history is the Long March, the iconic flight across China to safety in the northwest. It is usually memorialized as a journey in which Mao and his comrades showed incredible courage and wisdom in sneaking through enemy lines and overcoming every hardship. Chang and Halliday undermine every element of that conventional wisdom.

First, they argue that Mao and the Red Army escaped and began the Long March only because Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek deliberately allowed them to. They argue that Chiang wanted to send his own troops into three southwestern provinces but worried about antagonizing the local warlords. So he channeled the Red Army into those provinces on the Long March and then, at the invitation of the alarmed warlords, sent in troops to expel the Communists and thus succeeded in bringing the wayward provinces into his domain.

More startling, they argue that Mao didn't even walk most of the Long March - he was carried. "On the march, I was lying in a litter," they quote Mao as saying decades later. "So what did I do? I read. I read a lot." Now, that's bourgeois.

The most famous battle of the Long March was the Communists' crossing of the Dadu Bridge, supposedly a heroic assault under enemy fire. Harrison Salisbury's 1985 book, "The Long March," describes a "suicide attack" over a bridge that had been mostly dismantled, then soaked with kerosene and set on fire. But Chang and Halliday write that this battle was a complete fabrication, and in a triumph of scholarship they cite evidence that all 22 men who led the crossing survived and received gifts afterward of a Lenin suit and a fountain pen. None was even wounded. They quote Zhou Enlai as expressing concern afterward because a horse had been lost while crossing the bridge.

The story continues in a similar vein: Mao had a rival, Wang Ming, poisoned and nearly killed while in their refuge in Yenan. Mao welcomed the Japanese invasion of China, because he thought this would lead to a Russian counterinvasion and a chance for him to lead a Russian puppet regime. Far from leading the struggle against the Japanese invaders, Mao ordered the Red Army not to fight the Japanese and was furious when other Communist leaders skirmished with them. Indeed, Mao is said to have collaborated with Japanese intelligence to undermine the Chinese Nationalist forces.

Almost everybody is tarnished. Madame Sun Yat-sen, also known as Song Qingling, is portrayed as a Soviet agent, albeit not very convincingly. And Zhang Xueliang, the "Young Marshal" who is widely remembered as a hero in China for kidnapping Chiang Kai-shek to force him to fight the Japanese, is portrayed as a power-hungry coup-monger. I knew the Young Marshal late in his life, and his calligraphy for my Chinese name adorns the Chinese version of my business cards, but now I'm wondering if I should get new cards.

After Mao comes to power, Chang and Halliday show him continuing his thuggery. This is more familiar ground, but still there are revelations. Mao used the Korean War as a chance to slaughter former Nationalist soldiers. And Mao says some remarkable things about the peasants he was supposed to be championing. When they were starving in the 1950's, he instructed: "Educate peasants to eat less, and have more thin gruel. The State should try its hardest . . . to prevent peasants eating too much." In Moscow, he offered to sacrifice the lives of 300 million Chinese, half the population at the time, and in 1958 he blithely declared of the overworked population: "Working like this, with all these projects, half of China may well have to die."

At times, Mao seems nuts. He toyed with getting rid of people's names and replacing them with numbers. And discussing the possible destruction of the earth with nuclear weapons, he mused that "this might be a big thing for the solar system, but it would still be an insignificant matter as far as the universe as a whole is concerned."

Chang and Halliday recount how the Great Leap Forward led to the worst famine in world history in the late 1950's and early 1960's, and how in 1966 Mao clawed his way back to supreme power in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Some of the most fascinating material involves Zhou Enlai, the longtime prime minister, who comes across as a complete toady of Mao, even though Mao tormented him by forcing him to make self-criticisms and by seating him in third-rate seats during meetings. In the mid-1970's, Zhou was suffering from cancer and yet Mao refused to allow him to get treatment - wanting Zhou to be the one to die first. "Operations are ruled out for now" for Zhou, Mao declared on May 9, 1974. "Absolutely no room for argument." And so, sure enough, Zhou died in early 1976, and Mao in September that year.

This is an extraordinary portrait of a monster, who the authors say was responsible for more than 70 million deaths. But how accurate is it? A bibliography and endnotes give a sense of sourcing, and they are impressive: the authors claim to have talked to everyone from Mao's daughter, Li Na, to his mistress, Zhang Yufeng, to Presidents George H. W. Bush and Gerald Ford. But it's not clear how much these people said. One of those listed as a source is Zhang Hanzhi, Mao's English teacher and close associate; she's also one of my oldest Chinese friends, so I checked with her. Zhang Hanzhi said that she had indeed met informally with Chang two or three times but had declined to be interviewed and never said anything substantial. I hope that Chang and Halliday will share some of their source materials, either on the Web or with other scholars, so that it will be possible to judge how fairly and accurately they have reached their conclusions.

My own feeling is that most of the facts and revelations seem pretty well backed up, but that ambiguities are not always adequately acknowledged. To their credit, the authors seem to have steered clear of relying on some of the Hong Kong magazines that traffic in a blurry mix of fact and fiction, but it is still much harder to ferret out the truth than they acknowledge. The memoirs and memories they rely on may be trustworthy, most of the time, but I question the tone of brisk self-confidence that the authors use in recounting events and quotations - and I worry that some things may be hyped.

Take the great famine from 1958 to 1961. The authors declare that "close to 38 million people died," and in a footnote they cite a Chinese population analysis of mortality figures in those years. Well, maybe. But there have been many expert estimates in scholarly books and journals of the death toll, ranging widely, and in reality no one really knows for sure - and certainly the mortality data are too crude to inspire confidence. The most meticulous estimates by demographers who have researched the famine toll are mostly lower than this book's: Judith Banister estimated 30 million; Basil Ashton also came up with 30 million; and Xizhe Peng suggested about 23 million. Simply plucking a high-end estimate out of an article and embracing it as the one true estimate worries me; if that is stretched, then what else is?

Another problem: Mao comes across as such a villain that he never really becomes three-dimensional. As readers, we recoil from him but don't really understand him. He is presented as such a bumbling psychopath that it's hard to comprehend how he bested all his rivals to lead China and emerge as one of the most worshipped figures of the last century.

Finally, there is Mao's place in history. I agree that Mao was a catastrophic ruler in many, many respects, and this book captures that side better than anything ever written. But Mao's legacy is not all bad. Land reform in China, like the land reform in Japan and Taiwan, helped lay the groundwork for prosperity today. The emancipation of women and end of child marriages moved China from one of the worst places in the world to be a girl to one where women have more equality than in, say, Japan or Korea. Indeed, Mao's entire assault on the old economic and social structure made it easier for China to emerge as the world's new economic dragon.

Perhaps the best comparison is with Qinshihuang, the first Qin emperor, who 2,200 years ago unified China, built much of the Great Wall, standardized weights and measures and created a common currency and legal system - but burned books and buried scholars alive. The Qin emperor was as savage and at times as insane as Mao - but his success in integrating and strengthening China laid the groundwork for the next dynasty, the Han, one of the golden eras of Chinese civilization. In the same way, I think, Mao's ruthlessness was a catastrophe at the time, brilliantly captured in this extraordinary book - and yet there's more to the story: Mao also helped lay the groundwork for the rebirth and rise of China after five centuries of slumber.

Nicholas D. Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times, has written books about China and Asia together with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn.

* Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

Friday, October 21, 2005

Genocide promoted in North Carolina State University?

Nobody ever answers my letters, although to be fair, the Africana Studies Department of North Carolina State University is proabably getting a boat load of them, since it hit the news that one of their "affiliated" faculty members, Dr. Kamau Kambon, has advocated genocide against "white" people. (The squirm quotes refer to the difficulty of determining who is white or black or Jewish or Japanese or . . . , but that's more googling and linking than I can pursue right now.)

Here's the money quote from Dr. Kambon:
Now how do I know that the white people know that we are going to come up with a solution to the problem? I know it because they have retina scans, they have what they call racial profiling, DNA banks, and they’re monitoring our people to try to prevent the one person from coming up with the one idea. And the one idea is, how we are going to exterminate white people because that in my estimation is the only conclusion I have come to. We have to exterminate white people off the face of the planet to solve this problem. Now I don’t care whether you clap or not, but I’m saying to you that we need to solve this problem because they are going to kill us. And I will leave on that. So we just have to just set up our own system and stop playing and get very serious and not be diverted from coming up with a solution to the problem and the problem on the planet is white people.

All that having been said, here's the letter to NCSU that will probably not get answered -- or even read:
What is the position, please, of North Carolina State University on genocide?

I'm sure that the university would be opposed to genocide if it were proposed by, say, members of the Ku Klux Klan or perhaps even the Nazi Party. But when one of your "Affiliated Faculty and Instructors," Dr. Kamau Kambon, proposes the elimination of 30-80% of the population of the planet (depending on how he defines "white"), does the university take a position?

I'm just curious, but perhaps North Carolina's taxpayers and the university's alumni would be even more interested.

Thank you very much.

Jan Bear
West Linn, Oregon

By the way, I'm not surprised or offended that they don't answer my letter. I suspect their servers are running their little legs off. The webside for Kambon's Blacknificent website has been shut down for lack of bandwidth.

Well, Dr. Kambon, I hope you're enjoying your 15 minutes of fame.

UPDATE: NCSU cries "uncle." I wonder how many others still on staff there and elsewhere have the same ideology but just haven't been captured on television.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

On the benefits of cleaning one's office

I engaged pickaxe and shovel today and burrowed down to the woodgrain on the top of my desk.

The main benefit of leaving the piles is that it's a natural way of prioritizing those tasks that you've really chosen not to do -- consumer surveys, vote-by-mail ballots (or maybe that's really the same thing -- "Your opinion is very important to us . . . ."), membership application for an organization I don't have time for anyway.

The down side is, of course, more obvious -- floating out one of those de-prioritized tasks when you discover that it really is important; going looking for something that is actually in long-term storage on top of the desk; and the overall sense of clutter that -- no matter how inured you think you've become -- affects your overall sense of peace and tranquility.

The last was the reason that I vowed that today would be the day to attack the pile. It was left over from an aborted attempt to Get Organized that I suffered a couple of years ago.

Another thing I suffered a couple of years ago, tangentially related to the literal desktop, was the loss of a computer hard disk and all its contents. When I changed operating systems, I didn't make the effort to develop a backup plan, so everything was just gone, gone, gone -- photos, nine drafts of a novel, short fiction, including one story that I thought might be worth finishing sometime.

The benefit of losing all your fiction in a hard disk crash is that when you come at it again, you're free to rethink everything down to the fundamental assumptions. That's happening with my novel, and it's going to be better than it would have been.

The downside is that you may not have enough of the idea left to retrieve the piece from the overstuffed and disorganized filing system in your brain.

So here's today's serendipitous benefit: "Alias Allison," a short story, in its most recent version, printed out and partly edited. It still may be a sh*tty short story, but at least I've got it.

So how has your Saturday gone?

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Obligatory post on soon-to-be-Justice Miers

And a great wailing was heard across the land, lo, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and the people shouted, "Whoa! We have been undone, undone, we say, and disrespected, and our leaders have forsaken us and our God has ceased to listen to us. We asked for judges from the League of Indestructible Vines, but instead we have one come to us from the Plains of Dry Grasses. How can we accept the judgment of a foreigner, who does not know our ways? How can we accept the judgment of one whose judgments we don't already know? Where is Justice Luttig? Where is Justice O'Connell? Where is the justice who will overturn the rulings of the mighty? Can anyone named Harriet overturn the rulings of the mighty?"

And a voice came from the clouds louder than thunder, and it cried, "Get over it. It's just the way it is."

I don't know soon-to-be-Justice Miers, and I have no stronger crystal ball about her future rulings than anybody else does, but I stand in awe of the political savvy of the man who nominated her.

Look at it this way: Miers is going to be confirmed. If Republican Senators vote against her, Democrats will vote for her. If Democrats raise their opposition to high gear, the Republican "base" will come on board. If Senate Democrats try to mount a filibuster, they risk losing the filibuster against other, perhaps more objectionable (to their point of view) judges in the future. And despite all the threats and concern, more Democrats will vote to confirm her than Republicans against her.

Bush plays his constituencies like a piano. Getting the Schlaflys and the Coulters and the NRO crowd to proclaim his pick unacceptable will undermine her opposition among Democrats. Smelling blood, the NYT is putting its resources into finding information that will further alienate Republicans, again shoring up support among the Democrats. If she turns out to be a solid conservative -- as she may very well -- the Dems are going to feel so snookered that they will scream and stomp like Rumplestiltskin.

But a more apt folk tale may be Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby -- and that's George W. Bush you hear shouting, "Please don't throw me into the briar patch!"

Or the Schlaflys, Coulters and NRO crowd could be right, in which case W. will lose the 2008 presidential election.

It must be football season -- a game of inscrutable rules where two teams have fun hitting each other for a couple of hours, at the end of which the only thing that's different is that one of them is now further in the equally inscrutable process of playing off for the championship.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Jeffrey Dahmer's brain

Practicing four-voice testimony at court reporting school last night, we did this transcript about the disposition of Jeffrey Dahmer's brain.

Here's what I love and can't wrap my mind around: the words are so calm, clinical, ordinary, and the subject matter has Mad Scientist melodrama written all over it. But the father just loves his son, who will be a legendary mass murderer; and the mother just wants science to study his brain, which is in a jar somewhere waiting for a court to decide what to do with it. Another scientist has gotten a grant to study it.

OK, novelists, here's a concept: What if the father of a deceased mass murderer gets wind of a plan to clone his son's brain to create a secret elite corps for world domination?

Don't like it? Neither do I. But do it better. Put it in the comments, if you want.

Just for the record, we've departed from the Dahmer case into FICTION.

Bloggers beware

Libel and defamation happen on the Internet, and one blogger is being sued for what his commenters said.

The message may be worth a lawsuit, but it's probably wise to go into it with a clear awareness of what it may cost.

RatcliffeBlog gives a guide to libel, defamation, slander and confidientiality for citizen journalists and bloggers.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

What I learned from the Sitka icon

Grace went to see the Sitka icon when it came to her parish. She ended up taking an inkjet copy to a sick friend and witnessing what is quite likely a small miracle.

My miracle was even smaller.

I actually don't like the Sitka icon very much. It's in the "realistic" painting style that characterizes the Western captivity of iconography that has finally been broken, mostly, over the past several decades. The garish riza, or gold covering, eliminates the color symbolism, and it has these spiky haloes, instead of the traditional ones identifying the persons of Christ and the Theotokos. Maybe most significantly, the depiction of the "Father" at the top is against the canons of iconography.

And yet.

When you're in the presence of the icon, it's as if it really is a window into heaven, and the prayers and devotion of undemanding people brush past you like a breeze. You realize that what's required for sanctification is not so much perfection as devotion.

We should by all means aim for perfection, timeless beauty, faithfulness to the Tradition of whatever endeavor we undertake. But we should also understand that our best human efforts, the works of Michelangelo and the Pyramids and Dostoevsky and Mozart, are like a toddler's finger painting, stuck on God's refrigerator more out of love for the artist than appreciation for the art.

Even as we aim high, we need to realize that at the end of our works, love is enough.

Grace's miracle was more miraculous, but mine was what I needed that day.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

What about me?

Enough about hurricanes, Supreme Court, the War on Terror, and UN scandals, how about me?

I thought you were wondering.

A few weeks ago, a friend I don't see often asked if I was writing. I told him I blog everyday if you consider that writing, and I did. But a day or so later, I realized that I hadn't blogged in a few days and didn't know when I would.

It was around the time Katrina hit, and I was rendered speechless. There have been many fine and many stupid things written about New Orleans, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the Corps of Engineers, the devastation, the corruption, the sadness and the hope. The Walter Inglis Anderson Museum in Ocean Springs, Miss., survived, and the Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter survived. I still don't have anything to add to the fine things, and I'd rather not add to the stupid things, so for a week or so there was silence.

And then, well, sometimes you just get into a riff -- even if it's a riff of silence -- and ride it.

But last weekend I became a novelist again. I went to an Oregon Writers Colony workshop in Rockaway, on the Oregon Coast. The workshop was given by Larry Brooks, who teaches novel-writing from the bones outward, or to use his metaphor, by building the house foundation first, followed by plumbing and electricity, walls, then roof and paint. Seem obvious? When you put it that way it is. But some writers sit down in front of a blank piece of paper and write, "Chapter 1. It was a dark and stormy night. . . . The end."

I've tried it that way, and I testify to you that every time I've wandered into a swamp somewhere in the second act and got lost. To get out of the swamp, you either need a map ore you need to go back and start over enough times that you create a path through it. Stephen King may be able to keep enough of a map in his head to get through the swamp, but I can't.

With Larry's four-corners approach, you start with concept (the "what if . . . ?" of the story), theme (the issue or message of the story), characters, and structure, building up first one and then another as each decision about one corner makes the other corners stronger and taller and clearer. When it's done -- characters thought out, theme expressed, concept intensified through conflict, important plot points laid in and scenes fully planned -- then you write. If you do the structural work with enough care, you won't need multiple drafts, and you don't get lost in the second-act swamp.

He's a great teacher, thorough and encouraging, and he's careful to point out how the techniques work for both action-oriented plots and the quieter character-driven plots. I came home energized and hopeful, with the tools to fix this thing I've been working on longer than I care to say. I will finish it, make an honest effort to sell it, and if I don't, I'll post it on this blog under a creative commons license. If I don't have a sense that somebody out there is at the other end of this effort, then there's no point. But if there are even twenty people, even one person, who read it because they want to and not because they feel obligated to, then that's reason enough.

In the meantime, this blog will not be updated daily anymore. I'll be back. There'll be news items I can't pass up and maybe even writing discoveries to record. But if you wonder what I'm up to, I'm taking fictional characters on long neighborhood walks as I quiz them about why they are the way they are and why they do what they do.

I'll keep you posted about visible progress.

And if you're interested in writing fiction and Larry Brooks gives a workshop in your area, don't miss it.