Shaking My Head

… and laughing at human nature.

The close ties within middleman minorities have led some to imagine a wider web of loyalties than has actually existed. Such phrases as “Jews all stick together” confuse intense loyalties within particular subsets of Jews –or other middleman minorities– with a solidarity encompassing the whole population of the group. However, when Eastern European Jews began arriving in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the predominantly German Jewish community viewed their arrival with alarm. The Jewish press, which was largely controlled by German Jews at the time, characterized the new immigrants as “slovenly in dress, loud in manners, and vulgar in discourse,” speaking “a piggish jargon” –that is, Yiddish.

German Jews were willing to employ Eastern European Jews but living near them was something else … Hungarian Jews had their own enclaves, separate from the enclaves of Russian or Polish Jews. There was a “low intermarriage rate” among these various subgroups of Eastern European Jews and a “mutual incomprehension and intolerance that kept Jews apart.”

Among the Lebanese who settled in Australia, “their regional loyalties seldom extended beyond that of the village” in Lebanon from which they had come. A history of bitter and lethal intergroup violence in Lebanon and Syria, taking thousands of lives at a time, was part of the legacy that Lebanese took to other countries in which they settled. Even in a small country like Sierra Leone, the many internal disputes among various Lebanese factions, which spilled over into courts and involved political authorities, proved too baffling for either Europeans or Africans to understand –much less settle– during the colonial era. Indeed, one of the main tasks of the diplomatic representatives from Lebanon in Sierra Leone after independence was to arbitrate these internal disputes among various Lebanese factions there.

Thomas Sowell, “Are Jews Generic?”, in the book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, pp. 90 – 92

Dorothy Sayers on Sacrificing for your Work

To feel sacrifice consciously as self-sacrifice argues a failure in love. When a job is undertaken from necessity, or from a grim sense of disagreeable duty, the worker is self-consciously aware of the toils and pains he undergoes, and will say: “I have made such and such sacrifices for this.”

But when the job is a labor of love, the sacrifices will present themselves to the worker — strange as it may seem — in the guise of enjoyment.

Moralists, looking on at this, will always judge that the former kind of sacrifice is more admirable than the latter, because the moralist, whatever he may pretend, has far more respect for pride than for love.

I do not mean that there is no nobility in doing unpleasant things from a sense of duty, but only that there is more nobility in doing them gladly out of sheer love of the job. The Puritan thinks otherwise; he is inclined to say, “Of course, So-and-So works very hard and has given up a good deal for such-and-such a cause, but there’s no merit in that — he enjoys it.” The merit, of course, lies precisely in the enjoyment, and the nobility of So-and-So consists in the very fact that he is the kind of person to whom the doing of that piece of work is delightful.

Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, pp. 134 – 135

Familiar Situation of the Week

One nightfall a man travelling on horseback toward the sea reached an inn by the roadside. He dismounted, and confident in man and night like all riders toward the sea, he tied his horse to a tree beside the door and entered into the inn.

At midnight, when all were asleep, a thief came and stole the traveller’s horse.

In the morning the man awoke, and discovered that his horse was stolen. And he grieved for his horse, and that a man had found it in his heart to steal.

Then his fellow-lodgers came and stood around him and began to talk.

And the first man said, “How foolish of you to tie your horse outside the stable.”

And the second said, “Still more foolish, without even hobbling the horse!”

And the third man said, “It is stupid at best to travel to the sea on horseback.”

And the fourth said, “Only the indolent and slow of foot own horses.”

Then the traveller was much astonished. At last he cried, “My friends, because my horse is stolen, you have hastened one and all to tell me my faults and shortcomings. But strange, not one word of reproach have you uttered about the man who stole my horse.”

Kahlil Gibran, The Forerunner, 1920, pp. 33 – 34

We Are the-Book-as-Read

This threefoldness in the reader’s mind corresponds to the threefoldness of the work (Book-as-Thought, Book-as-Written, Book-as-Read), and that again to the original threefoldness in the mind of the writer (Idea, Energy, Power). It is bound to be so, because that is the structure of the creative mind. When, therefore, we consider Trinitarian doctrine about the universal Creator, this is what we are driving at. We are arguing on the analogy of something perfectly familiar to our experience. The implication is that we find three-fold structure in ourselves (who are the Book-as-Read), because that is the actual structure of the universe (which is the Book-as-Written), and that it is in the universe because it is in God’s Idea about the universe (the Book-as-Thought). Further, that this structure is in God’s Idea because it is the structure of God’s mind.

There is nothing mythological about Christian Trinitarian doctrine: it is analogical.

Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, pp. 122 – 123

More Isaiah-y Goodness

His Enemies Becoming His People

In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the heart of Egypt, and a monument to the LORD at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the LORD Almighty in the land of Egypt. When they cry out to the LORD because of their oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and he will rescue them. So the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and in that day they will acknowledge the LORD. They will worship with sacrifices and grain offerings; they will make vows to the LORD and keep them. They LORD will strike Egypt with a plague; he will strike them and heal them. They will turn to the LORD, and he will respond to their pleas and heal them.

In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and the Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The LORD Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.”

Isaiah 19:19 – 25

It might be kind of hard to appreciate how bizarre all this would have sounded in the context in which Isaiah gave this prophecy. Egypt and Assyria were the two big baddies. They were not the chosen people of God; they were their enemies. “Blessed be Egypt my people”? A blessing on the earth?

But if we think about it today … are there Egyptian Christians? Are there Assyrian Christians? Why yes, yes there are!

That Surreal Feeling

They set the tables, they spread the rugs, they eat, they drink! Get up, you officers, oil the shields!

O my people, crushed on the threshing floor, I will tell you what I have heard from the LORD Almighty, from the God of Israel.

What troubles you now, that you have all gone up on the roofs, O town full of commotion, O city of tumult and revelry? Your slain were not killed by the sword, nor did they die in battle. All your leaders have fled together; they have been captured without using the bow. All you who were caught were taken prisoner together, having fled while the enemy was still far away. Therefore I said, “Turn away from me; let me weep bitterly. Do not try to console me over the destruction of my people.”

The Lord, the LORD Almighty, called you on that day to weep and wail, to tear out your hair and put on sackcloth. But see, there is joy and revelry, slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep, eating of meat and drinking of wine! “Let us eat and drink,” you say, “for tomorrow we die!”

Is. 21:5, 10; 22:1 – 4, 12 – 13

Can I get an Amen?


Photo by Renato Danyi on

I finally finished reading the abridged version of The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The abridged version is 470 pages long, and it still gives the impression that we are only scratching the surface of all that happened with the camp system in the century since the Russian Revolution. Solzhenitsyn himself writes with regret about the fact that his account is sadly incomplete:

Those whom I asked to take on particular chapters would not do so, but instead offered stories, written or oral, for me to use as I pleased. What we really needed was a well-staffed office. [But] not only could I not spread myself like this; I had to conceal the project itself, my letters, my materials, to disperse them, to do everything in deepest secrecy. I even had to camouflage the time I spent working on the book with what looked like work on other things.

I must explain that never once did this whole book, in all its parts, lie on the same desk at the same time! In September, 1965, when work on the Archipelago was at its most intensive, I suffered a setback: my archive was raided and a novel impounded. At this point the parts of the Archipelago were already written, and the materials for the other parts, were scattered, and never reassembled: I could not take the risk, especially when all the names were given correctly.

I have stopped work on the book not because I regard it as finished, but because I cannot spend any more of my life on it. Besides begging for indulgence, I want to cry aloud: When the time and the opportunity comes, gather together, all you friends who have survived and know the story well, and write your own commentaries … Only then will the book be definitive. God bless the work!

The full list of those without whom this book could not have been written, or revised, or kept safe cannot yet be entrusted to paper. They know who they are. They have my homage.

pp. 469 – 472

No Triumph Here

There are many words that could be used to describe the experience of reading this book. Horrifying, overwhelming, and in parts, inspiring. But I have chosen sobering because that is the overall impression that it left with me. No book about the systematic arrest, imprisonment, degradation, and murder of millions of people — and the suppression of their stories — can end on a triumphant note. Even when the triumph that has happened is that their stories have finally been told:

We could not foresee what it would be like: how for no visible compelling reason the earth would shudder and give, how the gates of the abyss would briefly, grudgingly part so that two or three birds of truth would fly out before they slammed to, to stay shut for a long time to come. So many of my predecessors had not been able to finish writing, or to preserve what they had written, or to crawl or scramble to safety — but I had this good fortune: to thrust the first handful of truth through the open jaws of the iron gates before they slammed shut again.

Like matter enveloped by antimatter, it exploded instantaneously!

Only too rarely do our fellow countrymen have a chance to speak their mind … and former prisoners still more rarely. Their faith had proved false, their hopes had been cheated so often — yet now they believed that the era of truth was really beginning, that at last it was possible to speak and write boldly!

And they were disappointed, of course, for the hundredth time …

When Krushchev, wiping the tear from his eye, gave permission for the publication of [my novel about the gulags] Ivan Denisovich, he was quite sure that it was about Stalin’s camps, that he had none of his own.

I myself was taken by surprise when I received a stream of letters — from present-day zeks [prisoners]. These letters, too, were a single many-throated cry. But a cry that said, “What about us!!??” And the zeks set up a howl: What do you mean, never happen again? We’re here inside now, and our conditions are just the same!

“Nothing has changed since Ivan Denisovich’s time” — the message was the same in letters from many different places. “Any zek who reads your book will feel bitterness and disgust because everything is just as it was.” “What has changed, if all the laws providing for twenty-five years’ imprisonment issued under Stalin are still in force?”

After reading all these letters, I who had been thinking myself a hero saw that I hadn’t a leg to stand on: in ten years I had lost my vital link with the Archipelago.

pp. 451 – 453

Human Psychology is Universal

Though I have never lived under an oppressive socialist regime, many parts of this book felt familiar because human psychology is the same. For example, in an early chapter Solzhenitsyn describes how common it was for people to be arrested because they had been accused or betrayed by a jealous spouse. A man secretly accuses another man who he suspects is having an affair with his wife. A wife accuses her husband so she can get rid of him and live with her lover. This is the same phenomenon we now see on campuses where bitter exes will use the university’s sexual-harassment reporting system to take revenge on each other. And it’s not just about women vs. men: I recently saw a case where a lesbian used it to take down her ex, who happened to be a professor, after the relationship went sour. The problem is that when you set up a bureaucratic “justice” system that can be easily used to ruin people, the temptation to use it on your personal enemies is almost overwhelming.

Here are some other things that felt oddly familiar: When Solzhenitsyn’s book A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich came out, the Soviet newspapers grudgingly praised it: “an explosion of newspaper articles — written with gritted teeth, with ill-concealed hatred and resentment: an explosion of official praise that left a sour taste in my mouth” (p. 451). This, in turn, caused former prisoners to assume that the book was not an actual expose, but rather “controlled opposition” put out by the regime as more propaganda.

“The prolonged absence of any free exchange of information within a country opens up a gulf of incomprehension between whole groups of the population, between millions and millions. We simply cease to be a single people, for we speak, indeed, different languages.” (p. 432)

The mildest and at the same time most widespread form of betrayal was not to do anything bad directly, but just not to notice the doomed person next to one, not to help him, to turn away one’s face, to shrink back. They had arrested a neighbor, your comrade at work, or even your close friend. You kept silence. You acted as if you had not noticed. (For you could not afford to lose your current job!) And then it was announced at work, at the general meeting, that the person who had disappeared the day before was … an inveterate enemy of the people. And you, who had bent your back beside him for twenty years at the same desk, now by your noble silence (or even by your condemning speech!), had to show how hostile you were to his crimes.

p. 323

May God Prepare Our Hearts

Because if we ever face anything like this, our own character will be our downfall.

Those people became corrupted in camp who had already been corrupted out in freedom or who were ready for it. Because people are corrupted in freedom too, sometimes even more effectively than in camp.

If a person went swiftly bad in camp, what it might mean was that he had not just gone bad, but that that inner foulness which had not previously been needed had disclosed itself.

Yes, camp corruption was a mass phenomenon. But not only because the camps were awful, but because in addition we Soviet people stepped upon the soil of the Archipelago spiritually disarmed …

p. 319

When people express vexation, in my presence, over the West’s tendency to crumble, its political shortsightedness, its divisiveness, its confusion — I recall too: “Were we, before passing through the Archipelago, more steadfast? Firmer in our thoughts?”

And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!”

p. 313

Quote: A Liar Telling the Truth

Chad smiled a sad, pastoral smile. Rourke looked at him, sympathetically impressed. Man, this guy was good. But Rourke had been on the force for many years, and he was just as good. Rourke tightened the muscles in his jaw. That man across the desk is telling the truth for now, just this moment. But he is a liar telling the truth, and it almost suits him.

So Rourke just sat and watched admiringly. Chad chose his words with care, but with a carefree care. Everything was parsed, but it looked as though it was spontaneously lying about. Shabby chic.

Evangellyfish, by Douglas Wilson, p. 49

Quote: Survive!

One’s own order to oneself, “Survive!”, is the natural splash of a living person. Who does not wish to survive? Who does not have the right to survive? Straining all the strength of our body! An order to all our cells: Survive! …

They lead thirty emaciated but wiry zeks [=prisoners] three miles across the Arctic ice to a bathhouse. The bath is not worth even a warm word. Six men at a time wash themselves in five shifts, and the door opens straight into the subzero temperature, and four shifts are obliged to stand there before or after bathing — because they cannot be left without convoy. And not only does none of them get pneumonia. They don’t even catch cold. (And for ten years one old man had his bath just like that, serving out his term from age fifty to sixty. But then he was released, he was at home. Warm and cared for, he burned up in one month’s time. That order — “Survive!” — was not there. …)

But simply “to survive” does not yet mean “at any price.” “At any price” means : at the price of someone else.

The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, p. 302