Peshawar School Attack Not Religious

Peshawar School AttackThe Peshawar school attack yesterday was truly horrific — in the same way that the Sandy Hook massacre was. Except this one that the patina of politics that makes it seem worse. I’m not sure that it is (except in that there were many more deaths). Adam Peter Lanza, in his messed up mind, must have had reasons for killing a bunch of people. And the Pakistani Taliban have their reasons. The stated reason is that it is revenge for the Pakistani army’s killing of the Taliban’s own families. Just as I don’t think torturing is right just because “they” do it, I don’t think revenge killing is ever justified — especially of the children of those revenge is sought against.

What I don’t really understand why this attack is framed as religious in nature. You can hardly go anywhere in reading about it without tripping over Muslims claiming that the attack was “un-Islamic.” It’s a funny claim anyway. The Quran is a big book. I’m sure you can find all kinds of text in it that would lead one to believe that killing children is wrong — emphatically so. Just the same, I find it hard to believe that you can’t also find text that justifies killing children. I don’t know the Quran, but all the Abrahamic religions are pretty bloodthirsty. Here’s Isaiah 14:21, “Prepare for his sons a place of slaughter because of the iniquity of their fathers.” That was God talking. There is more.

But a fundamental problem I have as seeing this as a religious attack is that it is Muslims on each side. We in the west have such a tendency to see Islam as this monolithic thing. I discussed that yesterday, The Bigoted “Muslims Condemn” Ritual. But clearly, in this case Muslims on one side are acting the way the United States does. And on the other side, Muslims are acting as terrorists. As I have tried to explain over the years, terrorism is a tactic of relatively impotent groups. Such groups would wage wars in more “civilized” ways if they had the ability.

The main thing is that terrorism isn’t something that comes out religion — much less a specific religion. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have all used terrorism when the tactic suited them. And they have just as quickly condemned it as a tactic when it suited their political interests. And atheists use it too! I am sick to death of the idea that terrorism is something specific to Islamic faith when it is actually that Islam is the religion of a lot of places where people have a lot of political grievances.

I came upon a great article from last year by Owen Jones, Not in Our Name: Dawkins Dresses Up Bigotry as Non-Belief — He Cannot Be Left to Represent Atheists. It discusses many of these issues in a general sense. But I want to highlight one that is perhaps most annoying. It is the idea that people like me give Islam a pass — that it is just our liberal nature forcing us to see the poor Islamic world as oppressed.

I’m often asked why I don’t take a stronger line against Islamism: that it is one of my blind spots. In truth, I think that issue is pretty much covered. The alleged threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism has been debated to death ever since several Saudi hijackers crashed planes into the Twin Towers over a decade ago. Polls show that support for political Islamism is tiny among Britain’s Muslims, and they are as likely to support violence as the rest of us. Terrorism is being dealt with by the security services, and a few articles by me isn’t really going to contribute very much. My fear, however, is all I would achieve is magnifying a marginal problem among a small religious minority, contributing to a climate where Muslims generally are portrayed as extremists and potential terrorists.

To this, I would add something else. I still find it offensive that Americans are so concerned about religious extremism over there, when we have so much of it here. The common counterargument is that our Christians are not violent. First, that isn’t true; it is just that we carve out an exception for every act of violence perpetrated by a Christian. Timothy McVeigh wasn’t a Christian terrorist because he acted based upon a political ideology. Guess what? The same thing can be said for the vast majority of Muslim terrorists. The fact remains that if McVeigh had been a Muslim, he would still be referred to as a Muslim terrorist.

More concerning is that I have absolutely no doubt that if American Christians saw their lives fall apart, they would not respond like Job. They would respond with violence. Just look at the violent rhetoric that the Christian right uses for mythical oppression! “Don’t Retreat! Reload!”? That was in response to Laura Schlessinger’s resignation after repeatedly using the n-word on the radio. Imagine what would happen in Mississippi if the federal government refused to send the state any more aid than the federal government received in taxes? There would be blood in the streets. But, of course, most people wouldn’t call it religion violence — nor would I.

It is far too facile to dismiss wars and terrorism as the acts of religious people. They are political struggles. Regardless, I know many of my fellow atheists who think if we could just get rid of religion, the world would be more peaceful. I wish it were so, but I just don’t see that. As Jones put it, “Religion can be used to justify anything: and, in practice, it has.” That’s true of good things and bad. Religion is not the cause; it is the justification.

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No Special Pleading From Hollywood

Aaron SorkinI remember listening to an interview with Sidney Lumet about the making of Serpico. He told one story about Al Pacino hanging out with the real Frank Serpico. It was an acting exercise for Pacino, who was studying for the part. But then the relationship was broken off brutally. Lumet, sympathetic toward Serpico who he referred to as smart and funny, laughed the whole thing off. According to him, that was Hollywood and that was the necessary nature of their “art.” I didn’t buy it. To me, it was just a couple of rich and famous guys who were used to being jerks to people who had no power over them.

I had this feeling again that I was listening to the pampered Hollywood elites who think they are “artists” doing some kind of noble work — above the considerations of other people. In this case, it was Aaron Sorkin’s pathetic OpEd in The New York Times, The Sony Hack and the Yellow Press. Basically, it is a long whine about how unfair it is that the hacked information is getting reported. His logic is what we charitably call “completely wrong.”

He wants us to think about this as though it happened to one of us. Would we want our personal conversations revealed to the world? Of course we wouldn’t! But our personal conversations will not be revealed to the world because the world does not care. The world does care about Amy Pascal, because she runs Sony Pictures. And Amy Pascal gets paid really well to put up with the fact that a computer hack with information about her is news. Similarly, Aaron Sorkin’s $80 million net worth should sooth any hardships he may have to bear. And Angelina Jolie’s half billion dollar net worth is more than enough compensation for getting her fee-fees hurt.

But the whole thing is just so very hypocritical. Michael Hiltzik summed up the issue perfectly, Why the Press Must Report Those Sony Hacks:

Hollywood makes billions by manipulating reality, including the reality that is Hollywood itself. It’s not that executives don’t want information to be divulged about their machinations to get a movie made, or their judgments about actors, actresses and directors: they merely want it all to be published entirely according to their own spin.

That’s what it really all comes down to. It is exactly the same thing we see from the White House — no matter who is sleeping there at night. They don’t want any unauthorized leaks. But they love leaks! They provide a steady stream of leaks. They just don’t want any leaks that don’t flatter them. So Aaron Sorkin’s OpEd really is nothing more than special pleading. But there is no reason to give him or anyone else among the Hollywood elite any special treatment. Richard Nixon did not want the Pentagon Papers reported on because they made the government look bad. Aaron Sorkin doesn’t want the Sony hacks reported on because they make Hollywood look bad.

Hiltzik provided the perfect one word response: tough.

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America’s Difficult Torture Journey

Conor FriedersdorfWhen I was growing up, Americans thought of torture as a tactic used by history’s villains. A brutal dictator might keep a depraved regime in power with torture. People in foreign countries might suffer inside torture chambers. But US policy reflected the will of the citizenry, not the sadism of an evil-doer. Even folks who knew that the US had tortured in the past never imagined it would do so again.

After al-Qaeda murdered nearly 3,000 Americans, our polity didn’t exactly embrace torture. But attitudes in the US shifted. The absolutist taboo against torture gave way to a consequentialist debate. Nearly everyone continued to avow that torture was morally unacceptable in almost all circumstances. On the other hand, say a ticking time bomb would incinerate New York City and a terrorist knew the code to stop it. Would it be morally permissible to torture the terrorist?

Over many months, Americans debated that question.

On Sunday, Dick Cheney gave an interview that illustrated why it was so imprudent to abandon the taboo against torture and indulge in implausible hypotheticals. 13 years ago, Americans were arguing over whether it should be legal to torture a known terrorist if we knew it could stop a mass casualty attack on a major city. Now a former vice-president is defending the torture of innocent people

Once 9/11 happened, Dick Cheney ceased to believe that the CIA should be subject to the US Constitution, statutes passed by Congress, international treaties, or moral prohibitions against torture. Those standards would be cast aside. In their place, moral relativism would reign. Any action undertaken by the United States would be subject to this test: Is it morally equivalent to what al-Qaeda did on 9/11? Is it as bad as murdering roughly 3,000 innocent people? If not, then no one should criticize it, let alone investigate, charge and prosecute the CIA. Did a prisoner freeze to death? Were others anally raped? Well, what if they were?

If it cannot be compared with 9/11, if it is not morally equivalent, then it should not be verboten.

That is the moral standard Cheney is unabashedly invoking on national television. He doesn’t want the United States to honor norms against torture. He doesn’t want us to abide by the Ten Commandments, or to live up to the values in the Declaration of Independence, or to be restrained by the text of the Constitution. Instead, Cheney would have us take al-Qaeda as our moral and legal measuring stick. Did America torture dozens of innocents? So what. 9/11 was worse.

Now that Cheney is stating all this explicitly it must be rejected as moral madness. Torture was the ticking time bomb. It exploded. And a city on a hill was destroyed. I hope it is rebuilt in time for my unborn children to grow up in a place that abhors torture, regarding it as a dark curiosity perpetrated by history’s villains.

We’ve got a long way to go.

—Conor Friedersdorf
Dick Cheney Defends the Torture of Innocents


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John Kennedy Toole

John Kennedy TooleOn this day in 1937, the great writer John Kennedy Toole was born. Other than his juvenilia, he is only known for one thing, A Confederacy of Dunces. But what a thing! Everyone seems to know the story of how the book was published: his suicide and his depressed mother’s pursuit of its publication. I can’t speak to the cause of Toole’s finally unraveling. I’m sure if he had found a publisher — especially if the book had done as well as it would when it finally was published — it would at least have extended his life. But I suspect there was more going on than a general depression brought on by a lack of professional success.

In preparation for this post, I spent an hour going through my books, looking for my copy of A Confederacy of Dunces. I couldn’t find it. I did find two copies of Kaufmann’s translation of Faust — which is okay, given one of them is in pieces. (I don’t know why I haven’t thrown it out.) And I found at least five copies of Dr Faustus — which is not okay, because I was collecting them because I had this idea of producing it at some point. But no Confederacy. I must have loaned it out to someone to read.

This is something that I do, especially with this book. No intelligent American should be able to go through life without reading A Confederacy of Duncesat least once. It is a wonderful book. And I don’t even mean in the sense that it is brilliant with a great feel for language. I mean it in the sense that it is a very funny book. You will enjoy it! Let me go further: you will enjoy it from the first page!

You have to ask yourself an important question, “Why am I reading Frankly Curious when I could be reading A Confederacy of Dunces?” There are really only two acceptable answers. First: “Because it is only now that you have opened my eyes!” Second: “I have already read it!” I appreciate your readership. But I’m more than willing to wait. A Confederacy of Dunces is a very special book — especially for the kind of people who come around here. (You should take that as a compliment.)

Happy birthday John Kennedy Toole!

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Mohammed Islam Should Read During Lunch Break

Mohammed IslamJust about everywhere I went on Sunday, I saw a very click-bait-y headline about some kid who had made $72 million during his lunch break day trading. I’m highly susceptible to click-bait, but I did not click. For one thing, I’m not that interested in things that are special only because they are done by someone young. They always make me wonder what’s wrong with their parents and why the kids aren’t outside doing something edifying. I’m also not interested in the subject of stock trading. I would have been far more interested by a headline like, “High school senior has profound inside into Don Quixote during lunch break.” So I just didn’t care.

Now we learn from New York Observer that the kid was lying. Or rather, he was trading but it was all simulated. Fair enough. Fun with numbers! Of course, it wasn’t all a simple mistake. The young man — Mohammed Islam — went so far as to make a false bank statement that he used to deceive the original reporter. But I can’t imagine that she looked all that closely. After all, a multi-millionaire self-made teenager is exactly the sort of thing that America generally, and New York especially, wants to celebrate. He reaps but does not sow — the American Dream!

Before the story fell apart, Jeff Macke at Yahoo! Finance called it bunk, Story of the High School Day Trader Making $72 Million Fails the Smell Test. Basically, he showed that the numbers just didn’t add up. He calculated that Islam would have had to have made returns of at least 500% per year for the last seven years — since he was ten years old. “In other words, Mo wouldn’t have to be one of the few blessed souls with market skills like Warren Buffett or Paul Tudor Jones… Mo would have to be the greatest trader in history. Ever. By far.” Since he’s a finance type, Macke’s annoyance seems to be with the idea that people think making money with stocks is easy. Fair enough. But I doubt that this is really what was going on in the story. I think it is rather the opposite.

The story was a big deal in the same way as “Six year old sings national anthem at Super Bowl.” Stock trading is something that few people really understand but which they think is super cool because people make scads of money doing it. And it has been a long time since the stock market seemed to have much relationship to the real economy. I know that every stock trader thinks they are doing the important work of moving capital to companies that need it. But with things like high-frequency trading, which actually hurt the process of moving capital to where it can be used, this isn’t entirely true. And certainly the public’s perception of Wall Street is that it is a kind of black magic that some people are very good at. So why not a 17 year old high school student?

I wonder about a society that thinks this is a good thing. I wasn’t kidding when I wrote that Islam reaped but did not sow. His amazing trading — if it were true — would not have resulted in a more efficient market where worthy companies get more capital at a lower price. He supposedly started trading penny stocks! What he was supposedly doing was just beating other traders. He was the human equivalent of a high-frequency trading computer. And that means that all Islam was doing was making money. We’re supposed to applaud that?!

Give me a 5,000 word essay about the depiction of the working man in Don Quixote any day!

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Obama’s Bad Bet on Republicans

Barack ObamaOver the weekend, Jane Mayer wrote, Torture and the Truth. I know that many people are thinking, “Torture! Again?! That’s so last week!” Actually, this article is not about torture. But the truth of the matter is that, for me, torture will never be so last whatever. It’s not that I ever thought that the United States was lily white, but I was appalled when Cheney started talking about the “dark side” and people began to discuss when torture might be okay. From grammar school on, I always thought that the willingness to torture was the prime thing that separated the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” So I’m never getting over this. But that’s not what I’m going to discuss here.

In Mayer’s article, she discussed how Obama blew the response to this issue. By leaving it for so long to be dealt with by the Senate, he allowed it to become just another partisan issue. She quoted political science professor Darius Rejali, “It’s becoming a lot like the death penalty.” (I find this terrifying; I really do think that the Republicans have devolved into nothing short of fascism.) But it isn’t like the issue was off the table. Mayer explained that in early 2009, pretty much all of Obama’s advisers were in favor of “the formation of an independent commission.” It wasn’t done. “Obama, however, said that he didn’t want to seem to be taking punitive measures against his predecessor, apparently because he still hoped to reach bipartisan agreement on issues such as closing Guantánamo.”

Two days ago, I quoted Garry Wills, The Problem With Obama. In it, he said that Obama is so keen to maintain continuity that he often (Usually?) does the wrong thing. I think that is at work here. But there is a political aspect here as well — one that gets to the heart of why Obama was exactly the wrong president for this period. He was so eager to placate to stop people from attacking him as a foreign radical. And what he got for that was absolutely nothing. And that will continue going forward.

Can anyone doubt that if President Cruz is elected in 2016, that he would hesitate to prosecute the previous administration for any actual scandal that turns up? The Republicans — almost twenty years ago when they were a hell of lot more reasonable than they are now — impeached a president because he lied about an affair with an intern. I’m not even convinced that if the Republicans control all of Washington in 2017 that they won’t continue on with their Benghazi and IRS fake scandal mongering.

As I mention a whole lot around here, I’m not that ideological. I’m a pragmatist. That’s why I gave the Democrats a pass on the CRomnibus. But there is a huge difference between knowing what is possible and pretending that you live in a world of fairies and elves where you can have all the candy you want. And that was certainly the world that Obama used to live in. And to a significant, but reduced, degree I think he still does.

Politics is about power. Smart power. It isn’t about rubbing your opponent’s nose in his defeat. In fact, providing face-saving concessions to your enemies is a big part of correcting wielding power. (This is something that the United States is famously bad at internationally.) But it is not about cajoling. All Obama’s efforts to entice and prove that he is a moderate (by our far-right skewing system) have only hurt his efforts to get things done. If he had called for a single-payer healthcare system, he would have been called a socialist. So he didn’t call for a single-payer healthcare system, and he was called a socialist.

Well played, Mr President!


For the record, I know that the reason we couldn’t have a single-payer healthcare system is because of all those Blue Dog Democrats — like Obama himself! I should point out, however, that the vast majority of those conservative Democrats were swept out of office in 2010, so I don’t really know what they thought they were buying. And that was as predictable as anything in politics. Conservative Democrats get elected in nominally red districts. Outside of a wave, Democrats won’t get elected there, so they are sure to lose the next time. So they might as well stand up for liberal policy. (This is assuming that they believe in liberal policy. And I have to admit that I just don’t know anymore.)

H/T: Digby

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The Bigoted “Muslims Condemn” Ritual

Haron MonisMy big takeaway from Tim Rice’s White Like Me is that the ultimate sense of white privilege is not being defined as a category. It is like when I was a child, I thought that vanilla had no flavor — just sugary deliciousness. This isn’t to say that this is all that white privilege is. Given my anti-authoritarian tendencies and the way I’ve lived my life, had I been born black, I would probably be doing 20 to life in some prison somewhere. I would not be able to refer wryly to my “colorful” past. But I think it is much more fundamental to know that anything I do — go or bad — reflects on me alone and is not “typical of those people” or “the exception that proves the rule about those people.”

This occurs to me all the time. Whenever there is murder, I hope it is a white guy. It’s not that I care about the individual case. But when it is anyone but a white guy, it becomes categorized. The issue is not the explicit bigots — they already “know” whatever it is they know. But for the rest of us, it pushes buttons that have been created by living in a racist society our entire lives. In fact, it is doubtless deeper than that — with evolutionary and pattern recognition aspects of biology.

It is in this context that I came upon Max Fisher’s fantastic article, Stop Asking Muslims to Condemn Terrorism. It’s Bigoted and Islamophobic. With a headline that great, you hardly need to read the article. I feel like getting it tattooed to my forehead. The truth is, it is everywhere in the United States (and the west, as Fisher discussed). It is more blatantly bigoted than anything Paula Deen ever said. Yet it is not only allowed on television — it is celebrated.

Imagine if the same thing were applied to African Americans. Imagine that every time a black man committed a murder, the NAACP had to issue a statement, “The African American community does not condone murder…” As racist a society as we are, no one thinks that would be reasonable because we all know that the act of one black man does not reflect the arbitrary category we place him in — at least when we manage to think about it explicitly. But somehow, requiring the same from Muslims seems just peachy. Fisher noted, “Otherwise, we wouldn’t expect Muslims to condemn [Sydney cafe gunman] Haron Monis — who is clearly a crazy person who has no affiliations with formal religious groups — any more than we would expect Christians to condemn Timothy McVeigh.”

But there’s a kicker. Every event where a Muslim does something terrible causes every mainstream Muslim group to issues statements designed to pacify the non-Muslim community, who are at that point quite dangerous. But they get no credit for it. Throughout the media, there will still be pundits calling for such statements. On conservative media, there is a genre: the Muslim Lament, “Why don’t regular Muslims stand up against horrific acts?!” Of course, they do. They just never get noticed by these people.

I know the standard reply to all of this, “But Muslims are unique in their use of terror!” I have much to say about this, because it shows a real disconnect where high-tech killing is somehow okay but low-tech killing is not. But let me leave all that aside. Muslims are not unique in their use of terror. And regardless, when the IRA bombed some place, no one went around whining that the Catholic Church didn’t stand up against those terrorists.

Fisher said what ought to be obvious, but isn’t, and bears repeating:

[W]e should treat the assumptions that compel this ritual — that Muslims bear collective responsibility, that they are presumed terrorist-sympathizers until proven otherwise — as flatly bigoted ideas with no place in our society.

This really isn’t asking very much.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates on New Republic

Ta-Nehisi CoatesIt’s true that TNR‘s staff roundly objected to excerpting The Bell Curve, but I was never quite sure why. Sullivan was simply exposing the dark premise that lay beneath much of the magazine’s coverage of America’s ancient dilemma.

What else to make of the article that made Stephen Glass’s career possible, “Taxi Cabs and the Meaning of Work”? The piece asserted that black people in DC were distinctly lacking in the work ethic best evidenced by immigrant cab drivers. A surrealist comedy, Glass’s piece revels in the alleged exploits of a mythical Asian-American avenger — Kae Bang — who wreaks havoc on black criminals who’d rather rob taxi drivers than work. The article concludes with Glass, in the cab, while its driver is robbed by a black man. It was all lies.

What else to make of TNR sending Ruth Shalit to evaluate affirmative action at The Washington Post in 1995? “She cast Post writer Kevin Merida as some kind of poster boy for affirmative action when in fact he had risen in the business for reasons far more legitimate than her own,” David Carr wrote in 1999. Shalit’s piece wasn’t all lies. But it wasn’t all true either. Shortly after the article was published, she was revealed to be a serial plagiarist.

TNR might have been helped by having more — or merely any — black people on its staff. I spent the weekend calling around and talking to people who worked in the offices over the years. From what I can tell, in that period, TNR had a total of two black people on staff as writers or editors. When I asked former employees whether they ever looked around and wondered why the newsroom was so white, the answers ranged from “not really” to “not often enough.” This is understandable. Prioritizing diversity would have been asking TNR to not be TNR. One person recalled a meeting at the magazine’s offices when the idea of excerpting The Bell Curve was first pitched. Charles Murray came to this meeting to present his findings. The meeting was very contentious. I asked if there were any black people in the room this meeting. The person could not recall.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates
The New Republic: An Appreciation

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Jane Austen

Jane AustenOn this day in 1775, the great novelist Jane Austen was born. She is known for her witty romance novels, but they are probably better thought of as parodies of the romances of her own day. In this way, she is rather like Cervantes, whose Don Quixote is a loving ribbing of the chivalric books of his own time. But all of that is lost on most modern readers. It is remarkable, however, that we are able to get so much out of her novels completely outside the context in which they were written.

Another aspect of her novels that isn’t as appreciated as it ought to be is their political content. Austen was clearly very concerned about one issue: the injustice of inheritance law in England at that time — most especially the way that it affected women. In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Bennet is looking into the abyss of a future after her husband is dead when she (and her five daughters) will likely be thrown into poverty. In the book, she comes off as very silly; but it is hard not to sympathize with her razor-like focus on getting her daughters married.

In her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, poverty is not in the future — it is manifest. But there is another aspect of that novel that especially appeals to me. In it, she savages the romantic sensibilities of the time. Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby do not come off well in the novel. Austen clearly did not think much of the early romantics. I tend to agree.

Let me quote a little bit from the beginning of Sense and Sensibility. This is a lovely (and horrible) scene where John Dashwood’s wife Fanny talks him out of the promise he made to his father to take care of the son’s stepmother after the father’s death. These are the rationalizations of real people:

“It was my father’s last request to me,” replied her husband, “that I should assist his widow and daughters.”

“He did not know what he was talking of, I dare say; ten to one but he was light-headed at the time. Had he been in his right senses, he could not have thought of such a thing as begging you to give away half your fortune from your own child.”

“He did not stipulate for any particular sum, my dear Fanny; he only requested me, in general terms, to assist them, and make their situation more comfortable than it was in his power to do. Perhaps it would have been as well if he had left it wholly to myself. He could hardly suppose I should neglect them. But as he required the promise, I could not do less than give it; at least I thought so at the time. The promise, therefore, was given, and must be performed. Something must be done for them whenever they leave Norland and settle in a new home.”

“Well, then, let something be done for them; but that something need not be three thousand pounds. Consider,” she added, “that when the money is once parted with, it never can return. Your sisters will marry, and it will be gone for ever. If, indeed, it could be restored to our poor little boy–”

“Why, to be sure,” said her husband, very gravely, “that would make great difference. The time may come when Harry will regret that so large a sum was parted with. If he should have a numerous family, for instance, it would be a very convenient addition.”

“To be sure it would.”

“Perhaps, then, it would be better for all parties, if the sum were diminished one half.– Five hundred pounds would be a prodigious increase to their fortunes!”

“Oh! beyond anything great! What brother on earth would do half so much for his sisters, even if really his sisters! And as it is — only half blood! — But you have such a generous spirit!”

“I would not wish to do any thing mean,” he replied. “One had rather, on such occasions, do too much than too little. No one, at least, can think I have not done enough for them: even themselves, they can hardly expect more.”

“There is no knowing what they may expect,” said the lady, “but we are not to think of their expectations: the question is, what you can afford to do.”

“Certainly — and I think I may afford to give them five hundred pounds a-piece. As it is, without any addition of mine, they will each have about three thousand pounds on their mother’s death — a very comfortable fortune for any young woman.”

“To be sure it is; and, indeed, it strikes me that they can want no addition at all. They will have ten thousand pounds divided amongst them. If they marry, they will be sure of doing well, and if they do not, they may all live very comfortably together on the interest of ten thousand pounds.”

“That is very true, and, therefore, I do not know whether, upon the whole, it would not be more advisable to do something for their mother while she lives, rather than for them — something of the annuity kind I mean.– My sisters would feel the good effects of it as well as herself. A hundred a year would make them all perfectly comfortable.”

His wife hesitated a little, however, in giving her consent to this plan.

“To be sure,” said she, “it is better than parting with fifteen hundred pounds at once. But, then, if Mrs. Dashwood should live fifteen years we shall be completely taken in.”

“Fifteen years! my dear Fanny; her life cannot be worth half that purchase.”

“Certainly not; but if you observe, people always live for ever when there is an annuity to be paid them; and she is very stout and healthy, and hardly forty. An annuity is a very serious business; it comes over and over every year, and there is no getting rid of it. You are not aware of what you are doing. I have known a great deal of the trouble of annuities; for my mother was clogged with the payment of three to old superannuated servants by my father’s will, and it is amazing how disagreeable she found it. Twice every year these annuities were to be paid; and then there was the trouble of getting it to them; and then one of them was said to have died, and afterwards it turned out to be no such thing. My mother was quite sick of it. Her income was not her own, she said, with such perpetual claims on it; and it was the more unkind in my father, because, otherwise, the money would have been entirely at my mother’s disposal, without any restriction whatever. It has given me such an abhorrence of annuities, that I am sure I would not pin myself down to the payment of one for all the world.”

“It is certainly an unpleasant thing,” replied Mr. Dashwood, “to have those kind of yearly drains on one’s income. One’s fortune, as your mother justly says, is not one’s own. To be tied down to the regular payment of such a sum, on every rent day, is by no means desirable: it takes away one’s independence.”

“Undoubtedly; and after all you have no thanks for it. They think themselves secure, you do no more than what is expected, and it raises no gratitude at all. If I were you, whatever I did should be done at my own discretion entirely. I would not bind myself to allow them any thing yearly. It may be very inconvenient some years to spare a hundred, or even fifty pounds from our own expenses.”

“I believe you are right, my love; it will be better that there should be no annuity in the case; whatever I may give them occasionally will be of far greater assistance than a yearly allowance, because they would only enlarge their style of living if they felt sure of a larger income, and would not be sixpence the richer for it at the end of the year. It will certainly be much the best way. A present of fifty pounds, now and then, will prevent their ever being distressed for money, and will, I think, be amply discharging my promise to my father.”

“To be sure it will. Indeed, to say the truth, I am convinced within myself that your father had no idea of your giving them any money at all. The assistance he thought of, I dare say, was only such as might be reasonably expected of you; for instance, such as looking out for a comfortable small house for them, helping them to move their things, and sending them presents of fish and game, and so forth, whenever they are in season. I’ll lay my life that he meant nothing farther; indeed, it would be very strange and unreasonable if he did. Do but consider, my dear Mr. Dashwood, how excessively comfortable your mother-in-law and her daughters may live on the interest of seven thousand pounds, besides the thousand pounds belonging to each of the girls, which brings them in fifty pounds a year a-piece, and, of course, they will pay their mother for their board out of it. Altogether, they will have five hundred a-year amongst them, and what on earth can four women want for more than that?– They will live so cheap! Their housekeeping will be nothing at all. They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company, and can have no expenses of any kind! Only conceive how comfortable they will be! Five hundred a year! I am sure I cannot imagine how they will spend half of it; and as to your giving them more, it is quite absurd to think of it. They will be much more able to give you something.”

“Upon my word,” said Mr. Dashwood, “I believe you are perfectly right. My father certainly could mean nothing more by his request to me than what you say. I clearly understand it now, and I will strictly fulfil my engagement by such acts of assistance and kindness to them as you have described. When my mother removes into another house my services shall be readily given to accommodate her as far as I can. Some little present of furniture too may be acceptable then.”

“Certainly,” returned Mrs. John Dashwood. “But, however, one thing must be considered. When your father and mother moved to Norland, though the furniture of Stanhill was sold, all the china, plate, and linen was saved, and is now left to your mother. Her house will therefore be almost completely fitted up as soon as she takes it.”

“That is a material consideration undoubtedly. A valuable legacy indeed! And yet some of the plate would have been a very pleasant addition to our own stock here.”

“Yes; and the set of breakfast china is twice as handsome as what belongs to this house. A great deal too handsome, in my opinion, for any place they can ever afford to live in. But, however, so it is. Your father thought only of them. And I must say this: that you owe no particular gratitude to him, nor attention to his wishes; for we very well know that if he could, he would have left almost everything in the world to them.”

This argument was irresistible. It gave to his intentions whatever of decision was wanting before; and he finally resolved, that it would be absolutely unnecessary, if not highly indecorous, to do more for the widow and children of his father, than such kind of neighbourly acts as his own wife pointed out.

Reading that again, it makes me angry. Austen had people nailed. Her exaggeration is only slight. I think Fanny reaching the point of turning the logic back on itself — it is sad that they will get to hold onto that fine furniture when our selfishness will require them to live in place not deserving of it — doesn’t ring true. That’s Austen’s brilliance. If the conversation had ended a couple of paragraphs before, it would leave the reader punching the wall. But it is good to that that people have not gotten notably worse in the last two centuries.

Happy birthday Jane Austen!

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Two Paintings George Will Must Hate

Blue Poles - Jackson Pollock

More than I should, I mention that I’m not fond of Abstract Expressionism. That isn’t to say that I don’t like any of it — far from it. But on the whole, it doesn’t really work for me. This is a statement about me and not about the art. But as someone who is not that excited about the movement, I write about it a lot. I think it is a cry for help, “Open my eyes to this movement!” Of course, my eyes are hardly close. I think I’m a decent judge of what is good and what is not — even when I don’t like particular works.

One thing that really annoys me is when people claim that any kind of painting is easy. Personally, I think abstract painting is the hardest kind to do. At least if you are painting a representation of a duck, you have the duck to go by. I haven’t much of a clue as to why particular things do and don’t work in an abstract piece. Often I can note some design elements, but that’s usually a small part of what makes a piece good. Normally what really strikes me is the blending of the colors, but I don’t know why. For me, art appreciation is intuitive.

Decades ago, I read Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word. It is basically just an attack on modern art — Abstract Expressionism in particular. When I read it, I was very impressed. But since then, I’ve learned a lot more about art history. And now I think that Wolfe embarrassed himself in that book. He is dismissive of the idea of philosophical considerations dictating art. But what was the difference between the High Renaissance and Mannerism? It was highly theoretical. I suspect that the vast majority of people walking through an art museum see not apparent difference between those movements. You can certainly make the argument that artists and art critics are a bunch of idiots making a big deal of little things. But you can’t argue that the 20th century was any worse in this regard — other than that there were a lot more movements.

This came up earlier when I was reading Henry Fairlie’s three decades old hilarious and brutal take-down of the pretentious George Will. Will, of course, doesn’t know anything about modern art, but he knows what he hates:

Again, it is not a quibble, but an essential criticism of Will’s attitude toward contemporary culture, to point out that when he roundly condemns Jackson Pollock (in 1978, and again in 1985), he says not a word about any Pollock painting, not to mention the whole body of his work, except the old-hat criticism that they are “canvases covered with drips.” On both occasions he bases his criticism on the same silly tribute to Pollock by an unidentified art critic. Blue Poles, to take but one Pollock painting, cannot be described as a canvas “covered with drips,” and only an eye uneducated not only in modern painting, but in all painting, could say so. In fact, one doubts whether he knows what paint is, or for that matter what Raphael did with his “revolutionary” use of color.

Back a few months, while discussing Fernand Leduc, I briefly mentioned Pollock, “Anyone can flick paint on a canvus. But you’ve got to know what colors to flick where and most of all when to stop.” Even that greatly underestimates what he did. But there is this thing with many people (especially pretentious conservatives) where they think that they can judge Pollock’s work based upon how he applied paint. Implicit in this is that there is a right technique for applying paint to a brush. I imagine that if George Will had lived a century earlier, he would have dismissed Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. I mean all it is just a canvas covered in dots.

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte - Georges Seurat

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