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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society 08/21/15 -- Vol. 34, No. 8, Whole Number 1872
Table of Contents
Hugo Awards Live Streaming:
The Hugo Awards ceremony (August 22, 8PM PDT/11PM EDT) will be live-streamed at http://www.ustream.tv/hugo%C2%ADawards. There will also be a text stream at http://www.thehugoawards.org/.
Metaphysics (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
When you do something from force of habit what is the mass and what the acceleration? [-mrl]
Why the Japanese Don't Play the "Bomb-Guilt" Card (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I recently wrote a review of the documentary MESSAGE FROM HIROSHIMA. I saw the film on August 6, the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing and posted my opinions on the film just a day or two later. Not too surprisingly it sparked some discussion and controversy.
One of the responses I got asked about was whether the film painted the Americans as villains who dropped the bomb on living people. Actually there is very little to be found anywhere of Japanese blaming the United States for dropping the atomic bomb on them (twice). I cannot claim to be an expert on the history involved, but I hereby respond with the following.
I have been to Japan and was surprised how helpful the people are to visiting Americans. If on the street you look the slightest bit lost you have people coming over to see if they can help you. A woman of the generation that fought the war offered us chewing gum while we were waiting for a train. The Japanese behaved as if we had always been allies and good friends, and that they wanted us to see their country in the best possible light.
It would be very easy when we have modern-day disagreements with Japan, many about trade (for example), for the Japanese to bring up that we had bombed them with nuclear weapons in the war and thus they could claim the moral high ground. I have never heard of that happening.
There probably were or are some Japanese who resent the Americans for what they did to Japan. But there are many more who seem to have a policy of letting bygones be bygones. There could be several reasons for that.
If the war had not ended so suddenly the United States would have had to invade the Japanese homeland and to say it would have had to get very ugly is a huge understatement. The number of deaths that could have resulted could have reached into the millions. The Japanese ideology calls for the people to defend their leaders and their land with their lives. In the Japanese view of honor if they had surrendered they believe they would be unworthy of life. Those rules were written in and for a time when fighting was done with swords. But nuclear warfare was totally unforeseen and unprecedented. There was no chance of the Japanese winning a conflict of flesh against nuclear weapons. Under these new conditions they could assume surrender is not dishonorable. There was in fact an attempted coup of officers who wanted to fight to the death, but it was put down. In effect, the bomb gave the Japanese an excuse to not fight to the death. And both sides benefited from that.
There was a fear in Japan that since the Soviets we getting involved with the Pacific War that Japan would end up as part of the Soviet sphere of influence and they wanted their surrender to be to the Allies and not the Soviets to avoid Soviet control.
The Japanese sense of honor says if a pilot was ordered to drop some sort of super-bomb on the United States that they would have no qualms. Orders are orders. So the American people were, from their point of view, no worse than their own people.
What is more their people threw the first punch at the United States at Pearl Harbor. If the fight became a lot more than they envisaged neither side took full blame for the bombing.
The Japanese people did not know at the time, but do know now, that their people committed real atrocities in Nanjing, in Manchuria, in prison camps. It would be hard for them to defend a stance of moral superiority.
But perhaps greatest of all was the post-war occupation of Japan. When Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan he told his people: "It is according to the dictates of time and fate that We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable."
The Japanese shuddered at what that "unendurable" and "insufferable" might be. It turned out to be help with the reconstruction of Japan and helping to introduce Japan to world markets. This was not at all the fate they were expecting.
The Japanese really in many ways were better off overall because they were victims of super-weapons. That could well be the reason for their policy of conservation of bygones. [-mrl]
FANTASTIC FOUR (2015) (film review by Dale L. Skran):
Josh Trank's abortive reboot of the Fantastic Four has received really low Tomatometer ratings--like 9%! The movie also seems to be a box office dog. FANTASTIC FOUR (FF) is not a great movie. It is a much worse movie than, for example, the recent ANT MAN, which is fantastic--among the best of the Marvel movies. However, there is a certain amount of exaggerated dislike of FF by the critics. FF is not a bad movie. At worst, it is an average movie, hardly deserving of a 9% rating. However, the standard for super-hero movies has been set so high by the Nolan BATMAN and the Marvel Cinematic Universe that if the new movie isn't top of the line in every way, the critics fall all over themselves dumping on it.
There are some neat things in FF. I really like the idea of switching the origin of the powers from "cosmic rays" in space to exposure to strange energies in another dimension. The problem with the space travel origin is that it made sense in the early 60s when we hadn't gone into space to any real degree and didn't understand the effects of cosmic rays very well. Now, nearly 50 years later, we have a permanently inhabited space station in orbit and astronauts have just eaten the first lettuce grown in space. We all know, even little kids, that the origin of the FF in the comics is just plain nonsense.
I liked Miles Teller as a young Reed Richards. He dominates the movie, and drives a lot of the plot. Not only is Teller believable as a youthful yet fantastically bright genius, he gets to show off Mr. Fantastic's fighting abilities to a greater degree than in the previous FF films. The back story required to explain how Johnny Storm is a young black man while still being the brother of a white Sue storm is decently explained. Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and Ben Grimm/The Thing (Jamie Bell) are well handled--at least as well as in the previous movies.
There is also a "dark vibe" in this FF, with the four drafted by the military for use as weapons. The movie is at its best in conveying a sense that the FF are, in fact, really powerful and really dangerous. The normal humans are appropriately fearful yet desperate to control what may be the final weapon of war. All this gets the FF into zero-ish or maybe +1 territory. What could go wrong?
As in the previous movies, the biggest error is an abject refusal to use the Dr. Doom from the comics. Instead, Victor Von Doom, one of the greatest Marvel villains--right up there with Magneto, Doctor Octopus, Ultron, and so on--is reduced to mere caricature of himself lacking any real motivation. The problem is not Tobby Kebbel as Von Doom, but the idiotic refusal of the screenwriter to even consider using the Doom from comics. Perhaps Doom is just too complicated and realistic a character for these Hollywood types to handle. Much like Magneto, the Doom of the comics is, in his own mind, the hero of the story, and with good reason. Also, the most interesting characters are often those with the least super-powers, and of these Doom in the comics has none beyond his vast intelligence (nearly equal to that of Reed Richards) and his unequaled will. The movie FF makes Doom a super-powered telekinetic killing machine, but in the process drains all life out the character. Even before this, Doom is played for laughs as sort of hip flask toting high-IQ "bad boy." The entire treatment of Von Doom is so disrespectful of the original as to spray a bad odor over the whole movie.
Another significant error lies in Trank's efforts to recast the Fantastic Four as a bunch of misunderstood teens who blunder into real power, much as the teens in Trank's excellent CHRONICLE. Alas, this approach, which does have amusing moments, is much at variance with where the Fantastic Four need to end up at, and ultimately does not come off that well.
Finally, Trank has re-envisioned Sue Storm as a skinny, emotion free mentat with a nearly super-human ability to find patterns in things. This is entirely at variance with the comic, of course, and does not connect at all with her powers. The idea in the comic was that the powers the FF received were to a large degree reflections of who, fundamentally, they were. Sue storm was a shy and retiring female, who, post cosmic rays, became literally invisible. After a while of having Sue around as a fourth wheel, minor character, and damsel in distress, the writers decided to keep up with the feminist revolution of the 60s by adding the ability to create invisible force fields to her repertoire. This actually makes a bit of sense, as the only way Sue could be invisible is to bend light around her--with an invisible force field. It also seemed to reflect the idea that although Sue seemed weak on the outside, her will was strong on the inside. Over time, the writers realized that Sue was actually the most powerful member of the FF, since the strength of the force fields really just reflected her will to win, which was considerable. It is entirely possible to write all this into a movie, but it takes more effort than appears here.
FF works just fine as a summer popcorn movie. There is zero sex, and typical "super-hero" fights. The most disturbing element for small kids will probably be the initial transformation of our heroes, and their struggles to control their new powers/bodies. But one thing can be said for sure--the Fantastic Four needs a reboot that brings to life the Victor Von Doom of the comics, and not some cheap substitute. One way to do this would be to just make the movie about Doom--call it "I, DOOM"--and tell it from Doom's perspective, with the FF as background players.
I'm rating FANTASTIC FOUR a zero on the -4 to +4 scale. It's not trash, but it's not great either--which puts it on the same level as most movies. Appropriate for all but small children. [-dls]
THE LIBRARY AT MOUNT CHAR by Scott Hawkins (book review by Dale Skran):
I don't buy many first novels just "off the shelf" but I was in B&N the other day and I came across this book. The premise interested me, and there were laudatory jacket blurbs from the likes of Nancy Kress, Charles Stross, and Walter Jon Williams, who are all authors I like and respect. So I bought it and started reading it in the parking lot. It was hard to put down to drive home. Although apparently Hawkins's first book, it reads like his tenth. The only stylistic or organizational flaw is that when he introduces some of the background characters he goes a bit afield for five or ten pages that aren't very interesting and don't add much to the story, and which I tended to skim. Aside from at most two or three episodes of this kind of characterization drift, THE LIBRARY ON MOUNT CHAR picks you up, grabs you by the throat, and carries you along at light-speed.
As one of the blurbs says--this is part fantasy and part thriller. At once horror and SF, THE LIBRARY AT MOUNT CHAR is a meditation on religion and power, mathematics and truth, wonder and evil. It borrows from numerous sources--the Library of Alexandria, H. Rider Haggard's THE NINE UNKNOWN, Godel's proof, the Junior Woodchuck's Handbook, recent fantasies like WAREHOUSE 13 and THE LIBRARIAN, modern techno-thrillers, and the Old Testament--and makes them new again.
Here is the setup. Carolyn Sopaski is a little girl in an ordinary American town, who, in some other universe, will grow up to be chain-smoking librarian. In this universe, the government launches a nuclear weapon at her town, which just happens to be the location of a very special library run by one special person, Adam Black. Who was also once known as Ablakha, who Carolyn comes to simply call Father. Who may or may not be the one true god who created the universe. Who controls a library that contains perhaps not all knowledge, but all the knowledge that can be assembled by a mad genius over 60,000 years. Adam Black may not be "God" but he possesses power undreamt of. Power to reach out and protect Carolyn and her friends from a nuclear bomb with a gesture, although, sadly, not their parents. Power that seems like magic but may simply be mathematics. He offers twelve children a new home, as apprentice librarians. David learns the ways of war and death. Michael studies the lives of the beasts. Margaret learns to die and walk with the dead. Jennifer learns medicine and resurrection. Peter learns the mathematical bones of the universe. And Carolyn learns all languages. There are only two rules in the library--absolute obedience to Father and to never share your "catalogue" of knowledge with any of your "siblings." Adam Black punishes all infractions with a harsh sadism that makes Hannibal Lector look weak-kneed.
SPOILER ALERT: The rest of this review goes a bit beyond the jacket blurb and reveals some key plot points.
Time passes differently in the library. Carolyn learns so many languages she can no longer remember how many. She grows up, and becomes immortal. But she does not forget the cruelty of "Father" and his favored pupil, the psychopathic David. A burning hatred grows in her, a desire for justice and revenge, and she conceives a plan. A plan to kill a god, and his powerful allies. To kill her siblings, who are potential rivals. To control the library, and using it, to rule all that is or could be. To become a god herself.
To do this, she must first kill a figure who has lived 60,000 years, and who overthrew the previous ruler of the universe. To survive afterward, she must find a way to defeat the greatest warrior who has ever existed, an unstoppable killing machine with a vast array of powers and skills. To execute her plans, she must survive among telepaths ever alert for stray thoughts that might mean them harm. Carolyn plans endlessly in the timeless library. She will kill. She will lie. She will blackmail. She will cheat. She will find a way to read the other "catalogues." She will re-make herself into what she needs to be to win, even if that means she will become, as Margaret says, "a horror, and death." And she will need human allies.
And she does win. But that's where her troubles start. Can she execute the most horrific revenge imaginable and still be good person? Can she become a god and not lose her soul? What does it mean to have all power, and to be able to do anything? To live outside of time and space? When do you forget what caring means? What does it take to get your attention? How do you know that you aren't the devil?
THE LIBARY AT MOUNT CHAR is not for everyone. A dark, violent fantasy filled with horrific evil, it brims with wonder and insight. I found it echoing around my mind long after I finished it. It certainly provides a different perspective on the Old Testament and what the human/god relationship might really be. And you will not soon forget Carolyn Sopaski, although if you do meet her, I suggest running away as far and as fast as you can. Not that it will do you any good.
SPOILER: It may seem like I've given away a lot of details above, but there is much, much more in the book. However, I did want to mention that the book ends in a fashion reminiscent of first version of THE ITALIAN JOB, with the final sentence being Carolyn saying "I have a plan." Having said that, THE LIBRARY AT MOUNT CHAR is a complete novel that resolves the issues it raises. But, of course, nothing ever really ends, and even gods have enemies. I'm not sure Hawkins plans a sequel, but I'd certainly buy one although I fear it can't be as good as THE LIBRARY AT MOUNT CHAR.
WARNING: Just in case somebody may have missed the point of some of what I said above, this book is absolutely for adults only. Every page is not filled with violence, and the violence is mostly sketched in, but when bad stuff happens, it is really bad. Sadistic rape. Torture murder. Adam Black can resurrect the dead and heal any wound. The final battle between Carolyn and David is brutal. The violence is not pointless, and the author does have a message. But be warned. [-dls]
Jobs (and the Military) (and Health Insurance) (letters of comment by Robert Mitchell, Jay E. Morris, Lee Beaumont, Keith F. Lynch, Gary McGath, Scott Dorsey, Dorothy J. Heydt, Kevin R, and Peter Trei):
In response to Mark's comments on jobs in the 08/14/15 issue of the MT VOID, Rob Mitchell writes:
The military may not say, "We're full up", but there have been a number of "draw-downs" in my career (and I've had to essentially "fire" people from the Navy because of them), and there can be statutory limits as to the size of various elements of the armed forces. Plus, there are implied limits to the size of the military, due to yearly budgets, which are in part based on anticipated manning levels. Hence, the military is not a bottomless pit for employment... [-rm]
If someone wants to join the Navy during a draw-down and they are not told "We're full up," what are they told? Is it "Sorry, we are not hiring"? [-mrl]
Even during a draw-down, there is some recruiting, of course, for particular skills or test scores. If you don't have those skills or scores, yes, you might be told, "We have nothing for you. Maybe one of the other services has an opening for you." [-rm]
Jay E. Morris writes:
There have quite often been times in military recruitment when the supply has exceeded the demand. Never to the point where all the recruiting offices having closed the door and everyone's gone home but where they only accept less than half of applications. They adjust by raising the standards for enlistment. In the situation you propose I suppose they'd raise the standards very high, still leaving the Mrs. Watsons with no jobs.
Even if the best and brightest went to the military there would still be a few that go the evil genius route. I guess everyone left would have to be a minion. [-jem]
And Lee Beaumont writes:
I enjoyed your article on "The Future of a Bit of Washing".
I have long wondered why productivity improvements don't seem to result in more prosperity and more leisure for the average person.
I believe a key reason for this is because our economy, as it is currently structured, is unstable unless it is always growing.
One book that examines this in depth and presents bold and creative solution is SACRED ECONOMICS.
My review of the book is at: http://tinyurl.com/void-lrb-sacred-economics
More resources I have collected on the topic of rethinking money are at http://globalcircle.wikispaces.com/Rethinking+Money. [-lrb]
I admit to some cynicism on this subject.
In the past when a company was doing well, some of the profit went into better treatment for the employees. If management soaks up the fruit of productivity improvements the situation is less likely to add to overall prosperity and leisure. I suspect that management is getting better at strategies for gaming the system. [-mrl]
And Keith Lynch writes quite a long response: There are two issues. First is the distinction between education and credentials. Plenty of people have one but not the other. Many of the problems with the US economy are because most employers care more about credentials than about education.
The relative values of the two can be seen by comparing the cost of discontinued used textbooks at used book sales with the cost of new textbooks that are required for classes. The ratio of prices often exceeds a factor of a hundred. And for those who learn better from lectures, there's no shortage of free video lecture available online. Indeed, many universities let people "audit" course for free. Plenty of education, but no credentials. I conclude that education has never in US history been *less* important than it is today.
If there was really any demand for educated workers, more use would be made of tests which anyone could walk in off the street and take to prove their knowledge and competence. Personally, I am certain I could ace the GREs, could pass the Principles and Practices of Engineering exam, and that I could probably pass the bar exam. But, except for the GREs, which employers don't care about, I'm not allowed to take any of these tests.
As a teenager, I did walk in off the street and pass the tests for the FCC Radiotelephone First Class License with Radar Endorsement and for the Amateur Extra Class License.
But the other, larger, issue, is that there simply aren't enough good jobs to go around. It's a game of musical chairs. As such, giving everyone more credentials would accomplish nothing. It would be like a Worldcon saying that there aren't enough seats at the Hugo Award ceremony for every member, so everyone should be sure to get in line early to be sure to get a seat.
It seems we're rapidly returning to the historic norm in which there was little or no middle class. Through almost all of history almost everywhere on the planet, nearly everyone was either very poor or very rich. I don't claim to have a solution. I don't think luddism--which you seem to be proposing -- is a solution, if only because there's no way to force people overseas to go along with it.
[re Mark's comments on the military]
True. But that worked better in the past, when armies were inexpensive, as they lived off plunder. It was actually possible to turn a profit from warfare. Also, death rates among soldiers and sailors were very high, and that of course removed them from the job market. Also, medical costs were pretty much zero. Wounded soldiers either recovered on their own or didn't.
[re crime et al]
It's possible to live off very little. And I don't mean by stealing. However, government keeps making this more difficult by indirectly criminalizing poverty. They make it illegal to work for less than minimum wage, to do various jobs without expensive credentials even if the buyers know you're without those credentials, to leave your children unsupervised for even a moment, and to be in the wrong place at the wrong time unless you can afford bail and a good lawyer. (Most of the protections accused people supposedly have are somewhere between a sick joke and a total myth.)
In many states it's illegal to work unless you're a union member, even if the union won't let you join it. Obama attempted to make it illegal to be without medical insurance, even if you can't afford it. (Subsidies are available to the upper middle class, but not to the lower middle class or the poor.)
Zoning laws, fire regulations, and HOAs greatly limit sharing of homes. Apparently they think it's better for people to be homeless than to live in crowded or substandard homes.
OSHA won't let workers knowingly accept risks.
The price of housing is increasing much faster than inflation. If you don't already own a home, you probably never will. When the price briefly dropped in 2008, politicians treated that as a disaster, and bailed out the very speculators who had been driving up the prices. When they were making millions by "flipping" houses, they considered themselves geniuses. But when the prices briefly dropped -- there was no longer a "bigger idiot" -- at least not one with lots of money -- they ran to Uncle Sam and demanded a bailout at the expense of those of us they had priced out of the market.
Medical care keeps getting slightly better but enormously more expensive. And it's illegal to provide 1970s medical care for 1970s prices. Everyone has to get the best or get nothing at all. Chest pain? People who a few years ago would have gotten it checked out are today more likely not to. It could be serious, but it's probably nothing, and getting it checked out would likely mean financial ruin.
I could go on and on.
I don't blame government for the "jobless recovery." I think that's mostly due to automation and off-shoring. But I do blame government for consistently making things worse. For instance a $15 minimum wage would plunge the US into a new Great Depression. "The perfect is the enemy of the good." [-kfl]
Gary McGath replies:
This summer I had a pain in my toe. The doctor had me get an X-ray and blood test, diagnosed gout, and prescribed some pills which made the pain go away within hours. That's all very nice, but the total costs shown on my various bills from the doctor's office and labs ran well over $500. The amount I was billed was somewhere between $100 and $200, but I was still paying for all of it, directly or through my insurance premium. If it didn't cost so much, insurance premiums wouldn't be so high. It would have cost even more if I hadn't cancelled the follow-up visit which she wanted.
The doctor recognized it as gout before ordering the tests but presumably had to order them because of procedures dictated by government and/or insurance. Doctors' customers are insurance companies, not patients. Rationally, she could have diagnosed gout and prescribed pills, charging me just for the office visit and then running tests if they didn't work. But that would assume that doctors are responsible to their patients rather than being obligated to fulfill bureaucratic requirements.
Meanwhile people demand that insurance cover more and more things, apparently believing that they're being subsidized by someone else (and in some cases being right). For example, some people were hugely outraged that they weren't being "insured" against the need for contraceptives.
Imagine getting a car fixed that way. "Well, it looks as if you've got a flat tire, but we have to run a full engine diagnostic and disassemble the transmission to make sure. Don't worry, your insurance will pay for it." [-gmg]
Dorothy Heydt responds:
Except that the human organism is several orders of magnitude more complex than a car. [-djh]
Scott Dorsey adds:
The doctor also does not have the option of randomly swapping parts out untilthey find the problem. [-sd]
Cars can be quite complex these days, and a pain in the toe doesn't present the same level of complexity as, say, chronic shortness of breath that defies all diagnostic efforts. It was clear from her initial examination that the doctor didn't need all the tests to make a probable diagnosis, and an error wouldn't have had drastic consequences. [-gmg]
Kevin R adds:
Moreover, if Marcus Welby didn't do that test, and doing it is considered "best practice," and anything went wrong, such as your having a different ailment that presented as if it were gout, he would be legally liable. Actually, Dr Welby was in private practice. Your MD, odds are, may be an employee of a much larger medical group than the old "hang out a shingle" model, or perhaps a partner in a group of practitioners, but the various hospitals have been buying up those smaller outfits fairly aggressively over the last couple of decades. He'd be exposing his employers or partners to a malpractice judgment if he didn't order the test, and since invoicing the test is going to bring more revenue and cover their collective asses, there is every incentive to do it and serious risk if he doesn't.
[re US health insurance]
US health insurance rules are a patchwork of state laws. When people started to want to use chiropractors, for example, and their insurance wouldn't cover that, they bothered their state legislatures about that, and pretty sure the insurers were required to include the backcrackers in basic coverage. This model has been copied over and over, so that it is not really possible to buy "bare bones" coverage. Single, unmarried men have to have pregnancy coverage included in their contracts, though I don't believe it will cover the one-night hookup they may happen to impregnate.
[re car repairs]
Substitute "it's covered in the warranty" and that actually doesn't sound that odd. That's one reason why some people sell perfectly good used cars, or trade them in: they don't want to have to pay for repairs out of pocket. There is even a business model of selling a warranty to owners of cars that are out of warranty, which sounds remarkably like "auto health insurance."
[re humans versus cars]
No trade ins, either. [-kr]
And Peter Trei responds to Mark's original comment ["Last week I wrote about how on strike duty I wrote some command language programs to save effort in running a branch node of a data network. I want to make a few postscripts on what I said in that column."]
Back around 2001, you started to see t-shirts which read: "Go away, or I shall replace you with a very small shell script." You actually did it.
Technology has been replacing labor since it was invented. At the macro level, this is a good thing; requiring less work makes things cheaper and more available.
But at the micro level, it can destroy the livelihoods of good hard working people. Back when the jobs being eliminated were unskilled or low-skilled, switching to something else was *relatively* easy.
We're now getting to the point where far more skilled jobs are being replaced, jobs which it took substantial training to get started in, and considerable experience to become good at.
The new jobs which automation is creating are not easily accessible; they often require years of expensive training before you can even start to be productive, and are not really viable mid or late career options for people displaced from lower-skilled jobs.
It's only going to get worse. The workforce participation chart here is relevant:
I think we're faced with a change in the human condition of a magnitude similar to that of the change from hunter-gatherers to settled agriculturalists, and the general terms of the social contract are up for renegotiation.
It could go very well, or very badly. [-pt]
Actually I did it in VMS, but I probably did it with UNIX shell scripts elsewhere. I was telling people that UNIX shell was an extremely powerful programming language back when most people I told it to did not believe me. Shell is quick to program, quick to de-bug, and easy to maintain. Okay, I'll get off my soapbox.
And, no, it will go very well *and* very badly, depending on who you are. And you can almost predict right now who will come out ahead and who behind. [-mrl]
THE HISTORY OF THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (Volume II of VI) (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
[continuing my comments from last week]
"The Jews were a nation; the Christians were a sect: and if it was natural for every community to respect the sacred institutions of their neighbors, it was incumbent on them to persevere in those of their ancestors. The voice of oracles, the precepts of philosophers, and the authority of the laws, unanimously enforced the national obligation."
E: In other words, the Rome (mostly) respected the Jews in the practice of their religion at this time, because they were being faithful to the "sacred institution" of their ancestors. But the Christians were rejecting their ancestors' sacred institutions, and this was a terrible sin to the Romans.
"By embracing the faith of the gospel, the Christians incurred the supposed guilt of an unnatural and unpardonable offense. They dissolved the sacred ties of custom and education, violated the religious institutions of their country, and presumptuously despised whatever their fathers had believed as true, or had reverenced as sacred."
E: As noted above, it was not the beliefs of the Christians per se that caused their persecution, but that they were so faithless as to turn their backs on their ancestors' beliefs and customs.
"In one of his laws he has been careful to instruct posterity, that in obedience to the commands of God, he laid the everlasting foundations of Constantinople and though he has not condescended to relate in what manner the celestial inspiration was communicated to his mind, the defect of his modest silence has been liberally supplied by the ingenuity of succeeding writers; who describe the nocturnal vision which appeared to be the fancy of Constantine, as he slept within the walls of Byzantium."
E: Gibbon has little respect for organized religion, and clearly does not believe that Constantine was personally instructed by God.
"As soon as the emnity of Julian deprived the clergy of the privileges which had been conferred by the favour of Constantine, they complained of the most cruel oppression; and the free toleration of idolators and heretics was a subject of grief and scandal to the orthodox party."
E: This is another "teaching passage": a group who has special privileges and then loses them calls this "leveling of the playing field" oppression. So (for example) when Christians are told that the public schools (which never celebrated any non-Christian religious holidays) cannot celebrate Christian holidays either, they start calling this discrimination against Christians, persecution, etc.
"A simple, naked statue, finished by the hand of a Grecian artist, is of more genuine value than all these rude and costly monuments of Barbaric labour; and, if we are more deeply affected by the ruin of a palace than by the conflagration of a cottage, our humanity must have formed a very erroneous estimate of the miseries of human life."
E: Two points here: First, we now know that that "simple, naked statue" was probably painted in fairly garish colors, so Gibbon's implied praise of simplicity is somewhat misplaced. His second claim *is* valid, though for a totally different reason. When a palace is ruined, the owner or resident almost definitely retains a large portion of the wealth, and probably has somewhere else to go, while when a cottage burns, the people who live in it probably lose everything they had. And of course Gibbon's other implication is that whatever loss of human life occurs, it is of equal importance in the cottage as in the palace. (In the case of the statue and the monuments, one might argue that the barbaric monuments, if not built with slave labour, at least provide employment to large numbers of people.)
"They urged, with persuasive eloquence, that, in all cases of treason, suspicion is equivalent to proof; that the power supposes the intention, of mischief; that the intention is not less criminal than the act; and that a subject no longer deserves to live, if his life may threaten the safety, or disturb the repose of his sovereign."
E: Replace "the sovereign" by "the country" and this situation sounds remarkably (and depressingly) modern. The suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the curtailment of freedom of speech and of the press during World War I, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the blacklisting of the 1950s, and the Patriot Act all seem to indicate that these claims get traction whenever any sort of menace--real or imagined--is detected.
"Whatever had been the determination of the emperor, he must have offended a numerous party of his Christian subjects; as the leaders both of the Homoousians and of the Arians believed, that, if they were not suffered to reign, they were most cruelly injured and oppressed."
E: Again, the dangers of binary thinking: a group who cannot impose their wishes on everyone else cries out that this is persecution and oppression.
"The inaction of the negroes does not seem to be the effect of either their virtue or of their pusillanimity. They indulge, like the rest of mankind, their passions and appetites; and the adjacent tribes are engaged in frequent acts of hostility. But their rude ignorance has never invented any effectual weapons of defence, or of destruction; they appear incapable of forming any extensive plans of government, or conquest; and the obvious inferiority of their mental faculties has been discovered and abused by the nations of the temperate zone. Sixty thousand blacks are annually embarked from the coast of Guinea, never to return to their native country; but they are embarked in chains, and this constant emigration, which, in the space of two centuries, might have furnished armies to overrun the globe, accuses the guilt of Europe, and the weakness of Africa."
E: That perhaps they did not want an extensive government, and did not desire conquest, seems not to have occurred to Gibbon. Nor does it occur to him that the Europeans' extensive governments and desire for conquest which in part led them to enslave 60,000 people a year does not make them less ignorant than the Africans. Indeed, many might argue quite the opposite.
"The urgent consideration of the public safety may undoubtedly authorize the violation of every positive law. How far that, or any other, consideration may operate to dissolve the natural obligations of humanity and justice, is a doctrine of which I still desire to remain ignorant."
E: This is an eternal problem; it is the question of when (if ever) wars are justified, when (if ever) torture is justified, and so on.
[to be continued next week]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
THE READER'S QUOTATION BOOK: A LITERARY COMPANION edited by Steven Gilbar (ISBN 978-0-14-018539-7) is a small book (4" by 6.5") of quotations about books, reading, libraries, and so on. I am sure all the quotations are available on-line, and the book suffers from the lack of an index of the writers quoted, but is clearly designed for browsing rather than looking things up.
Here's a sample:
"A wonderful thing about a book, in contrast to a computer screen, is that you can take it to bed with you." (Daniel J. Boorstin) [Of course, with eReaders this is no longer true.]
"If you are to have but one book with you upon a journey, let it be a book of science, [for] when you have read through a book of entertainment, you know it, and it can do no more for you; but a book of science is inexhaustible." (Samuel Johnson)
"I'll spend the rest of my life reading, and because I'd rather read than do anything else, I don't look forward to years of hopeless, black despair. Most men who are in for life are filled with bitterness and hatred for the unkind fate that led them to such a horrible end." (Willie Sutton, who is best known for another quotation--when asked why he robbed banks, he said, "Because that's where the money is.") [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: You can't control the wind, but you can adjust your sails. --Yiddish proverbTweet
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