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The Idiots

There's a Hemingway story -- very brief, 3 or 4 pages maybe -- called "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen". In it, two tedious doctors discuss a 16 year old boy who'd come into their emergency room a few hours earlier and wanted to be castrated. He'd begged the doctors to free him from his impure urges. These sinful feelings came to the boy every night, you see, and the boy felt they were sins against the Lord, against purity itself. The doctors told him to get lost. A few hours later, the boy is brought into the hospital near death because of blood loss. Since the doctors wouldn't help him, see, he decided to perform a little self-surgery with a razor. Sadly, the boy's understanding of the facts of life was weak. He'd misplaced the seat of his lust. He'd misunderstood the meaning of the word "castrate", and so what he cut off was not his nuts but his dick.

You know, in my opinion, the trouble with Christianity -- at least as it is practiced in the U.S. -- is that it lets just any old unqualified person in. This is how you end up with high school students ignorant of the scientific method and thus contemptuous of evolution. This is how you end up with people thinking it is somehow crucial, above all else, that prayer be allowed in school. This is how you end up with preachers who feel that it is the fault of gays and feminists that we were attacked on September 11, 2001.

See, you take this thing that has the potential to address profound issues of human suffering, and you hand it out to people who have no idea what suffering is. You turn this potentially beautiful thing into an idiot religion. It just seems grotesque to me, and I'm not even a Christian.

I think people should not be allowed to be Christian until they have lived lives like Jesus Christ lived his. They should have to live as the least of us for as long as Jesus did -- 33 years or so. You know, maybe then their religion could become about something important again, with something deep and meaningful to say about human suffering, rather than being about voting Republican, or supporting Roberts for the Supreme Court, or telling gay people they can't commit themselves to each other before the law.

I dunno, maybe other religions should do the same thing -- have some sort of apprenticeship program for living as a human being first, and then, after a suitably long learning period, a guy can graduate to becoming a member of their religion. I can't say. I was raised in a Christian nation and can only see the particular idiocies of the way that religion is practiced here.

Honestly, Christianity in America today is no better than that idiot kid who thought he could solve his lust problem by cutting his dick off instead of his nuts. Their depth of misunderstanding of the real facts of human life is as profound as that poor boy's.

Except, come to think of it, assuming that kid did bleed to death (we never really find out in the story), I guess he did manage to solve his lust problem after all. Kind of his own personal Armageddon and Rapture all rolled into one, I guess.

Say, there's something we can all look forward to.

Four Wheel Drive of the Apocalypse

Sometimes Texas produces imagery even God can't manage.

CRAWFORD, Texas (AP) - A pickup truck tore through rows of white crosses last night near President Bush's ranch, where a woman has been protesting the Iraq war.

The crosses stretched along the road at the Crawford, Texas, camp, bore the names of fallen U-S soldiers....


The Accidental Nazi Tourist

Interesting weekend.

Saturday evening, I stumbled across a DVD of Visconti's 1969 (released USA, 1971) movie "The Damned". I saw it years ago and it was as lurid and engrossing as I remembered it. My worst criticism was more technical than otherwise. I hate the zoom-lens. It always triggers something in me that makes me feel I'm watching a rerun of "McMillan and Wife". Visconti even uses the zoom in the title sequence -- which makes you feel like you are about to see some really cheesy 1970s SF movie.

But. Nevertheless. If you haven't seen the film, it tells the story of the von Essenbeck family (roughly translated: the Krupps) and its increasing entanglement with the rise of the National Socialists in 1930s Germany. We go from just before the Reichstag fire to just after the "Night of the Long Knives" when the pesky S.A. was finally, um, removed from the game.

The next afternoon, Sunday, I discovered in my local Hollywood Video a DVD of the brilliant "Downfall" (Germany, 2004). I rented and watched it immediately. As you will probably recall from the buzz around the time of the Oscars, this story covers the last few days of the Third Reich, taking place (mostly) deep inside the bunker where Hitler made his last stand.

In "The Damned" we see the political and industrial-corporate elite coming together to create and nurture one of the most malignant forces ever to slither onto the stage of human history. The growing ruthlessness of the parties to the struggle, all respectable members of the highest levels of their society, is more or less justified by their obligations not only to the von Essenbeck family, but also to The Glorious German People. In short, only they, the elite, can make Germany into what she is destined to be, and so they are more or less justified in doing anything, and I mean anything, to bring Germany's glorious future to fruition.

In "Downfall" we see how, only a few years later, it all has come crashing down onto to the heads of the aforementioned Glorious German People.

And so here's the interesting thing about this accidental Nazi film festival I inadvertently created for myself this weekend...

We start with the political and industrial-corporate elite taking responsibility for doing what needs to be done to give birth to the Thousand Year Reich. A few years later, we have Hitler and his cronies huddling in their bunker, and we have guys like Speer begging Hitler to abandon Berlin, out of compassion for the common people. The hope is this would spare the ordinary citizens of Berlin a brutal, street-by-street, doorway-by-doorway battle for control of the city. Hitler and his closest advisors will have none of it. They have no compassion for the ordinary citizens of Germany. "After all," we are told a number of times, "they chose this fate for themselves. They failed to live up to our dream of the future. They do not deserve our compassion."

It's not like we haven't seen this same storyline played out over and over again, throughout history. In short, the political and industrial-corporate elite rarely has qualms about donning the mantle of power when they hear the call to duty. They are, after all, the elite. They owe it to the little people.

And when they so totally eff things up that their society is effectively destroyed, neither do they have any qualms about placing the blame squarely where it belongs: anywhere but on themselves.

This is the culture of responsibility. We see it playing out again, right now, in Bush's plummeting poll numbers. The explanation isn't a stupid, incompetent, irresponsible war in Iraq as a purported solution to the problem of religious extremism. The explanation is that the American people don't have the stomach for war.

If you ever imagined -- even for a moment -- that these people were going to acknowledge and maybe even be held responsible for the mess they've made of things, I hope you are finally beginning to recover from your delusion.

No, it's going to be your fault -- just like our failure in Vietnam was your fault. See, here is the historical explanation of the difference between you and the elite of your culture: they are the elite because they deserve to be the elite, and you are a bunch of saps because that's what you deserve to be. And so if things go south, well, whose fault could it possibly be but yours?

I suppose our consolation will be that, in time, history will take note of what idiots these people are. It pretty much always does.

Sadly, though, it seems likely to me that at least some of us won't be alive to see that day.

Back In the Day We Were a Punk Rock People

Today we pass the dubious milestone of 1800 American soldiers killed in Iraq.

You know, there was a time when Americans didn't take crap from incompetent and duplicitous leaders.

To the Massachusetts provincial soldiers huddled against the cold in huts near Stillwater, New York, the year 1758 dawned bleakly, and not only because they remembered the previous summer's defeats. The eighty men of Captain Ebenezer Learned's company had come to think of their enemies not so much as the Indians and French as cold weather, short rations, and their own British superiors. Learned's provincials -- farmers, laborers, and artisans from central and western Massachusetts -- had enlisted in the spring of 1757 to serve for a campaign that they understood would last only until November 30. Because their notions of military obligation were no less contractual than those of New Englanders gener­ally, it had come as "a greate & unexpected disappointment" to learn, as their tour of duty was about to end, that Lord Loudoun had ordered them to remain in service until Candlemas (February 2, 1758).

Loudoun had extended the enlistments of Learned's and three other Massachusetts companies because he needed men to garrison the block­houses and forts north of Albany. The fall of Fort William Henry had laid the region open to enemy raids, and in September he had asked the assemblies of New York, New Jersey, and the New England colonies to recruit rangers to defend it over the winter. Nobody questioned the need -- had anyone done so, the French and Indian destruction of Ger­man Flats in early November, a raid that resulted in the deaths of 50 set­tlers and the seizure of 150 more, would have made it undeniable -- and despite their lack of enthusiasm for the additional expenditure, most of the assemblies acceded to Loudoun's demand. But Massachusetts, unlike the other colonies, garrisoned a chain of forts and blockhouses along its own frontier, and its general court refused to raise the men Loudoun asked because the province was already carrying more than its share of the burden. With the German Flats incident on his mind, Lord Loudoun found this even more exasperating than the usual colonial obstinacy and so dealt with it directly. On November 18, as the provincials were disbanding, he detained 360 Massachusetts soldiers, advanced them two months' pay from his own funds, and ordered them to remain in ser­vice -- or suffer the consequences.

Captain Learned's men had acquiesced but among themselves agreed not to serve beyond the time for which they had been paid. Learned had returned to Massachusetts on sick leave, and when he returned in early January his men told him that they planned to march for home on February 3. Rather than upbraiding them for their lack of loyalty or warning them of the consequences of desertion, Learned offered to represent their case to Captain Philip Skene, the regular who commanded at Stillwater. If Skene refused to make some reasonable accommodation, Learned said, he would lead the "retreat" himself. In the meantime his men continued to save food out of their rations to provision the journey home and improved their leisure hours by making snowshoes. According to a nineteen-year-old private in the company, Rufus Putnam, when Candlemas ("the day. . . that we wished for") arrived,

we were all ordered into the Fort whe[re] Capt. Skean read a part of a letter to us, that Major General Abercrombie sent to him, the con­tents of which was this. You are hereby required to persuade the Massachusetts [men] that are under your care to tarry a few days longer, till I shall hear from their government, to know what the government intends to do with them. To these orders, there was answer made by some of our Company, that they looked upon him to be a good soldier that tarried till his time was out; and that the Province had no business to detain us any longer; neither would we be detained any longer by any power that they could raise. He told us that if any man had been duly enlisted into His Majesty's service and should leave the same, without a Regular Discharge, he should Suf­fer Death. We told him we did not value that, for according to our Enlistment, neither they nor the Province could hold us any longer, and that we did not break the Court Act by going off.

At three o'clock the next morning, leaving behind only a second lieutenant to care for ten men who were too sick to walk, Ebenezer Learned's company -- with its captain and first lieutenant in the lead -- marched for home. Seven days later, half-starved, frostbitten, and minus their mascot ("a large dog" they had eaten two days earlier) they staggered into Hawks's Fort in Charlemont, Massachusetts. The garrison received them "very Kindly," offering the deserters food and a place to rest before send­ing them on their way. No one at the fort seems to have thought that Learned's men had done anything wrong. Indeed, the hospitality they offered gives us every reason to believe that the provincials at Charlemont admired the deserters' willingness to brave the winter woods rather than remain at Stillwater without enlistment contracts to protect them from enslavement.

"He is a good Soldier that Serves his time out" was a maxim as transparently true to the soldiers of the Bay Colony as it was unmeaning and pernicious to Captain Philip Skene and his fellow regular officers in America, adherents of a military system based on the gospel of subordi­nation and discipline, men with neither time nor sympathy for contractu­alist sophistry. That whole companies of soldiers, together with their officers, would defy the king's officers in the name of a supposed princi­ple, was a fact significant in ways Lord Loudoun never quite grasped. Soon, however, he would discover that soldiers who defied his authority to preserve what they called their rights were the least of his problems.

The small saga of Ebenezer Learned's company bears retelling because it illuminates the larger pattern of resistance to imperial author­ity that was emerging in New England at the beginning of 1758. Even as Learned's men floundered through the snowdrifts of the Green Moun­tains, politicians in the Massachusetts Assembly were gathering their resolve to challenge Lord Loudoun on issues that went to the very heart of his power as commander in chief.

From Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 by Fred Anderson, pp. 219-221.

In Memory

May 2006

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