Beautiful Description from a Horrifying Book

On the White Sea, where the nights are white for half a year at a time, Bolshoi Solovetsky Island lifts its white churches from the water within the ring of its bouldered kremlin walls, rusty-red from the lichens which have struck root there — and the grayish-white Solovetsky seagulls hover continuously over the kremlin and screech.

“In all this brightness it is as if there were so sin present … It is as if nature here had not yet matured to the point of sin” is how the writer Prishvin perceived the Solovetsky Islands.

Without us these isles rose from the sea; without us they acquired a couple of hundred lakes replete with fish; without our help they were settled by capercaillies, hares, and deer, while foxes, wolves, and other beasts of prey never ever appeared there.

The glaciers came and went, the granite boulders littered the shores of the lakes; the lakes froze during the Solovetsky winter nights, the sea howled under the wind and was covered with an icy sludge and in places froze; the northern lights blazed across half the sky; and it grew bright once again and warm once again, and the fir trees grew and thickened, and the birds cackled and called, and the young deer trumpeted — and the planet circled through all world history, and kingdoms fell and rose, and here there were still no beasts of prey and no human being.

Half a hundred years after the Battle of Kulikovo Field and half a thousand years before the GPU, the monks Savvaty and German crossed the mother-of-pearl sea in a tiny boat and came to look on this island without a beast of prey as sacred. The Solovetsky Monastery began with them …

The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, abridged version, pp. 181 – 182

Do Your Part. Stop Eating, Going to the Bathroom, and Reproducing.

So, this might be a little bit of a rant.

Today we have this lovely article, the link for which was sent to me by my husband:

Hobbits and other early humans not ‘destructive agents’ of extinction, scientists find

I’ll give you a moment to click on the link and go read the article in all its awful glory.

Ah.

There. You back?

Let’s take a moment to appreciate everything going on with this article. First of all, the unironic use of “hobbits” in the headline. Waaay down in the article we get the explanation, “For example, on Flores in Indonesia, where the “Hobbits,” or Homo floresiensis, lived …” I kind of have an issue with naming an actual group of humans, “hobbits.” Granted, maybe they were short, like some people groups living in the Philippines, Australia, and Africa today. And at least, in the explanation, the term is put in quote marks. But when you use Hobbits with no quote marks in a headline, it gives the impression that you don’t know what you are talking about, sort of like some of the news articles that came out when the Lord of the Rings movies did, which incorrectly summarized the books.

Secondly, when we did start calling everyone hominins instead of hominids? That also looks like a typo. I’m guessing what it actually is, is some newfangled anthropological term that is meant to imply a class of beings that were somehow even less human than hominids. You all know my feelings on that. (Human rights for Neanderthals!)

Thirdly, as a not-too-dim layperson, I’ve got to say that the “findings” in this article strike me as a sort of rickety Tower of Babel of assumptions (see what I did there?), piled on top of one another, each one of which could possibly turn out to be bunkum. First, there is the difficulty and inconsistency of dating events millions of years in the past. Related to this is the uncertainty of determining, at this time depth, such things as exactly when and why a given species went extinct, and when a population actually arrived on an island.

Finally, the word “jerk.” I don’t mind this word; I use it when called for. In this article, all it takes to be a jerk, apparently, is to exist as a human and cause some kind of detectable change to the natural environment. This is coming out of the whole world view where humans are not part of any kind of design for the world and are not supposed to alter it in any way; hence any human-caused environmental change is by definition bad. I mean, I’m with you; I think the Mediterranean dwarf elephant was cute and it’s too bad if humans contributed to its demise. But when things pass away, we can mourn them even if it was their time to pass away.

Example: I recently heard the argument made that “the earth is fragile.” Evidence to back this up was that the Everglades, a unique swamp ecosystem in Florida, will vanish if sea levels rise. Now, that would be a shame. We would indeed lose many things if sea levels rose. But the Everglades are not the same as the earth. Sea levels have been lower in the past, as evidenced by many archaeological sites that we discover off the coasts. Sea levels rose, and those parts of the land were lost to us. But the earth went on. On the other hand, much of North America was once, I am told, a shallow inland sea. Now it’s plains, mountains, deserts, etc. Again, the ecosystems changed — a lot — but the event was more properly termed change than just purely destruction.

Assuming that the many premises in this article are actually true, and that they actually support the conclusion that ancient humany people had less of an impact on the natural environment than did people in the last 12,000 years or so, I can think of one major reason that would be the case: population density. Lower populations have less impact on their environment. They just do. You cannot eat all the mammoths when the mammoths outnumber the people. Also, if you have a teeny tiny village of just a few dozen people, even your sewage is not that big a deal. You can go and do your business back in the woods behind your garden. People don’t even really see the point of toilets until a certain population density is reached.

So, if a larger population means more environmental impact, and environmental impact means you are a “jerk,” then we have finally identified the problem. The problem, on this value system, is that there are too damn many of you. Put another way, the big problem with you is that you exist.

So, if you want to be morally upright according to this value system, but you don’t quite feel up to suicide, I suggest you that make like Harry Potter and “be in [your] room, being very quiet and pretending [you] don’t exist.”

Here are some practical ways to apply that.

Stop eating all the animals. (Ideally, stop eating.) Stop breathing out so much carbon dioxide. Try not to fart, of course, and also not to produce too much sewage. (That will be easier once you stop eating.) And whatever you do, for God’s earth’s sake don’t produce any more awful human beings! They will just go on eating and breathing and pooping and doing all those icky things that destroy the beautiful Everglades.

Misleading Archeology Headline of the Week

Pottery Shard May Be ‘Missing Link’ in the Alphabet’s Development

So, according to the article itself, here’s what is really going on:

“… the script represents a “missing link” connecting alphabetic inscriptions found in Egypt and Sinai with later writing from Canaan. The writing uses an early version of the alphabet in which letters bear a resemblance to the Egyptian hieroglyphs they evolved from. The finding appears to overturn a previous hypothesis that the alphabet only came to Canaan when Egypt ruled the area.”

OK, so instead of this particular alphabet being brought directly from Egypt through imperialism, it seeped over much earlier, through cultural influence. That’s a “missing link”? O.K.

Also, note that this shard has been dated to about 1450 B.C., which is much younger than some other systems of writing, including the Vinca signs.

But my favorite line from the article is this: “… the researchers have not definitively determined what the inscription says. Also unclear is whether the writing was meant to be read from left to right or right to left.” So, we don’t know whether to read it right to left, but we have come up with a tentative translation.

Three Logical Fallacies Around “Power”

“Power” is one of those words that is both so polysemous (having multiple meanings) and so emotionally loaded, that I would be just as happy if it was never used in public discourse. However, I am going to be using it a lot in this essay.

1. Misattributing Power to People Who Don’t Have It

It might seem strange to dive right into the first fallacy without stopping to define “power,” but rest assured, all will become clear.

Consider this quote from Ibram Kendi:

One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist.

page 9

OK, let’s skip over the shocking naivete of this statement. (It overlooks the #1 source of “problems”: the sinful heart within every individual human being.) Do you see what he did there? Let us not blame groups of people. Instead, let us blame “power.” But this is obviously a dodge. Power (he is talking about social power) does not float around naked through our cities, towns, and countrysides. It is exercised by people. Hence, locating the roots of problems in “power” is nothing but a sneaky way to locate the roots of problems in certain groups of people … those deemed to have power. I say “groups,” not individuals, because Kendi apparently is incapable of considering individuals. Also, historically, when people have sought scapegoats, they are seldom satisfied with individuals. When getting rid of one individual (or his power) does not cause problems to vanish as anticipated, people who locate problems in power tend to seek to root out an entire villain class, and like concentric circles in a pond, this class tends to widen.

Here are a few historical examples. Witches, in Salem, Massachusetts, were deemed to be a class of people with a lot of power. They were thought to be able to cause sickness, crop failure, bad dreams, sudden sensations of being pinched, and I don’t know what all. This power was misattributed. The girls’ sufferings were caused by their own mental illness (possibly their own involvement with the occult), not by their neighbors. But questioning their misattribution of power meant challenging the accusers’ lived experience, and was likely to get you included in the enemy class.

The Kulak farmers, in Soviet-controlled Ukraine, were prosperous, and so they were deemed to have a lot of power. It was, supposedly, their prosperity that was causing the poverty of the other farmers. They were wiped out, their farms taken, and it transpired that the only “power” the Kulaks had was expertise at farming. They were not powerful enough to stop their own slaughter.

The Jews in Europe, due to being smart and hardworking, were often prosperous. They were wrongly attributed with having a lot of power, even to controlling whole industries and being responsible for nearly everything that went wrong in society. We all know where this led. But despite the horror, this misattribution of power has a ridiculous side too. A recent hilarious example was speculation about a Jewish space laser that was used to set the California wildfires.

What should be clear from these examples is that if we follow misattribution of power all the way to the end of the path, it leads to killing people, sometimes a lot of people.

Unfortunately, it is really easy to misattribute power when we locate it in groups. Even if some particular group has many powerful individuals that arise from within it, it is almost never the case that all members of the group, distributively, have social power.

So let’s take a break from groups for a moment and talk about individuals.

2. Mischaracterizing Power as Always Arbitrary and Unnecessary

Another way to read Kendi’s statement, above, would be that nobody should have any power at all. No social or legal power, no authority. I don’t think that’s what he means, based on his policy recommendations (whispers: he wants power), but let’s set that aside and go with it, because this is actually a position that is very appealing to human beings. When we talk about power as a bad thing, which is easy to do because nobody likes being under it, it is very easy to begin talking as if all power is unearned and arbitrarily given. In short, that every instance of power residing in a human being is synonymous with injustice.

This is the basic attitude of a kindergartener who sees that his parents are controlling his life in a very totalitarian way. They control his wardrobe, his diet, his bedtime, his screen time, and whether he gets to jump on the couch. He figures that this is very oppressive. If all these arbitrary rules were to vanish, his life would be nothing but fun. It never crosses his mind to wonder, Do we actually need somebody to be in charge?

To be fair, we adults can also fail to ask ourselves that question. That’s because we want to be in charge (most of the time). And most of the time, this is appropriate. In an ordinary, non-emergency, non-war type of situation, each adult should be able to govern him- or her-self, well enough to get through his or her day, with little to no supervision. And then it will actually appear as if no one is in charge.

However, as soon as a drastic situation arises, it becomes obvious that someone has to have power, both in the sense of the power to get things done, and in the sense of authority over others. If there are children around, there must be a parent with power. A platoon needs a leader, especially on the battlefield. As soon as an emergency arises, most people freeze, looking about and wishing for someone to tell them what to do. They are usually relieved when someone takes charge.

As these examples show, power is not always arbitrary. Sometimes it is earned. In the best cases, it is earned by competence. (You hope that the person in charge in the operating room has a lot of medical training and experience.) But there are also cases where someone is in power and it is not arbitrary, despite that they are not an expert in the field. It could be that they were put in charge by someone else, or that they were simply the person who was willing to step up and start giving orders, which is in emergency situations is usually a job that no one wants, because once you are in charge, you are also responsible if things go wrong.

Returning to the ordinary situation where an adult can get through their day just fine with no one telling them what to do, we now see that this can happen only in very stable conditions. These conditions are good and we like them. What we may not notice is that one of their prerequisites is somebody still has to be in charge. If you are not living in the Wild West where you have to fight for your life on the way to work, that is because there is some kind of law enforcement out there somewhere, even if you don’t see them. If you are living in a region that is not torn by war, thank your president or prime minister or the local warlord who is keeping things peaceful in your county. He may not be a nice person (quite the opposite), but he managed to get things under control so that, for the time being, you can live a normal life. If not for him, then just to survive and defend your family, you would be forced to exercise a lot more personal power.

And this raises the question of what exactly power even is.

3. Failing to Recognize Complexity

Now let’s finally define our terms.

Power obviously has a cluster of senses in physics that don’t concern us here: velocity, force, pressure, energy, and the like. But even just restricting our discussion about power to human beings, there are several different meanings.

Power can mean social status. A powerful person can shame or ruin another person but not be susceptible to the same treatment.

It can mean authority, the ability to make people do things without having to physically force them. Of course, authority has to be backed up, ultimately, with physical force when it is not recognized.

This brings up physical strength as another type of power. This one is highly relevant because, as we saw in the last section, if you remove all other types of power (legitimate authority, rule of law, etc.), then conflicts between human beings will ultimately come down to who is bigger.

Finally, there is power in the sense of ability to get things done. This is an interesting one, and hugely important to all of us in our daily lives. Being able-bodied is a kind of power in this sense. It enables you to do all sorts of things for yourself in the way that you would like. Money is a kind of power in that it enables us to get things done that we otherwise couldn’t. Competence in various areas is also a kind of power. When I cook a meal for my family, I am able to do so because of the power given to me by the technology of my electric stove, the money with which I buy food and pay my electric bill, my strong legs that allow me to stand in front of the stove, and my competence at food prep. All of these are different kinds of powers.

The ability to get things done, or mastery, is the kind of power that babies lack. When we become toddlers, our whole life is about gaining this power to make things happen. We figure out how to walk and talk, how to flip the light switch, how to get various reactions from adults and other people around us. The more competent we become, the more our sphere of personal power expands.

Seen from this perspective, it is obvious that every person has a sphere of power in their daily life. In Bible terms, these are our “kingdoms.” (I owe this point to writer Dallas Willard.) Our kingdoms vary in their extent and in the shape of their borders. But everyone needs some sort of power in order to live. In the typical case, we have to have a job at which we are competent. We need to be making money, so as to convert our competence in that one area into a form that can get things done for us in other areas. We need to have authority over our own bodies (personal hygiene and the like), our schedules, our property, and (getting more complex now) various kinds of power in our relationships with family, friends, bosses, coworkers, etc. There is nothing wrong with this kind of power. It is a basic part of human dignity. In fact, one of our favorite kinds of stories, that of the underdog, features a main character who has no social status or legal authority, but has a great deal of personal presence and forcefulness, and who may be physically very strong (think Jean Valjean).

But this is a complexity that simplistic power-bashing rhetoric does not take into account. People will often speak as though, if someone has a lot of social status, they also necessarily have a lot of ability-to-get-things-done in every area of their life.

When I lived as an American expat in Asia, I was in this position. As an American, I was very visible and was assumed to have a lot of social status. I was also assumed to have great wealth. (I had plenty, especially compared to the average person in that country, but not as much as people assumed.) Yet, despite all this, my ability to get things done was close to zero. As a foreigner, I couldn’t move house or even take an overnight trip without getting letters of permission from at least two government offices. My visibility and assumed wealth made me a target. My assumed status made people interpret everything I said and did in the most (pardon me) bitchy way possible. And because of government regulations, when it came to the work that I actually went there to do, I was prevented from doing virtually any of it. I never did get most of it done.

I’m not even complaining about all this. When you go to another country, you have to follow their rules. My point is that status (even wealth) and actual on-the-ground power don’t always go together.

Of course, it can work the other way too. People can have lots of advantages in their personal life (like a prosperous farm or business, as in our first section) but not have much social status or legal power. Sometimes when people are prosperous, the kind of power that got them that prosperity was personal energy, industry, and competence, not status arbitrarily leveraged to rob others.

The bottom line is that everyone has power of different sorts and in various degrees at different times in their life, and even in different spheres of their life at the same time. Thus, people who want to draw a line down the middle of the world and declare that people on one side of it “have power” and people on the other side “don’t have power,” are guilty of an oversimplification so gross that it is indistinguishable from a lie.

Seriously, Please Stop Telling Me I Have “Power”

I have some, sure. The kinds I would like everyone to have. I have health, housing, an income, the ability to raise my own children. And let’s not forget the vast intellectual powers, before which you must all tremble.

But I have been reliably informed that because of certain personal characteristics, people like me have an arbitrarily ascribed status that is so lofty that we should be able to get literally anything done that we want to. This is a dicier claim, but I have tested it.

We should be able to walk into any room and get exactly what we want; for example, publishers will beat down the door to publish our books. We will not get pulled over for possible drunk driving because we were driving down the middle of a country road and not down the right side because we wanted to avoid the ditch (not that this has happened recently). And when pulled over by the cops, we are not nervous. Our group status protects us from a variety of diseases such as migraines and “female problems.” Oh yes, and we never experience the normal insecurities that every woman experiences about her appearance, because we embody our culture’s standard of female beauty.

Experience has proven all these things to be false.

That is why I am not very patient when told by a writer or celebrity whose status is so high that they could ruin me with a single tweet that I need to acknowledge and give up my power. Sorry, friends. I don’t have a lot, but what I do have is legitimate and I’m going to try and hang on to it.

Netflix Wants Me to Doubt My Own Mind

So, within about the past month, I’ve watched two different psychological thrillers on Netflix. And they are both the same damn movie. (And I use damn advisedly.) In both, the viewer knows only what the point of view character knows. And he (it’s a he in both movies) is uncovering a conspiracy. Until, at the very end, it turns out that he’s delusional. Many of the major events in the movie, which were shown to the viewer as if in good faith, were actually happening only in his mind. Actual events were quite different. The interpretation he was putting on everything was completely wrong. In one of the movies, the point of view character is brought to realize this, at least briefly. In the other, it is made plain to the viewer only.

I am pretty ticked at both of these movies. Especially at them both being on Netflix at the same time.

On the one hand, they are well-written, well-plotted, well-filmed and well-acted. Tense as heck. They are an immersive experience that helps the viewer understand what it feels like to be delusional. (In both cases, the break with reality was brought on by trauma. In both cases, actually, involving the death of a child.) So, they are very good.

But this strength comes at a pretty steep cost. Namely, they can make you doubt yourself something fierce. I think that the reveal at the end of each movie was that the person was delusional. But who really knows? Maybe I am misinterpreting what the director was trying to say. Maybe I did not even watch the danged movies. Maybe there is no such thing as reality.

This has to be intentional, right? Two movies, running concurrently, aimed at people who like psychological thrillers, both of them trying to tell you that you can’t really know what is real. I mean, God help you if you’ve got dissociative disorder. (And I use God help you advisedly.)

I’m with G.K. Chesterton on this. Or rather, he is there, throwing me a lifeline. GKC believed strongly that we have a moral obligation to believe in reality and to trust our own perceptions of it. I don’t have any of the quotes in front of me, but I do remember that he said something like, “Every day you can hear an educated man utter the heretical statement that he may be wrong.” He also tells a long story, elsewhere, about how he spent an evening at a friend’s house where they had a brisk philosophical debate. GKC was maintaining that reality exists and can be known. His friend was maintaining the opposite. Having vigorously defended reality, GKC got into a taxi and, when he arrived at his destination, had one of those confusing conversations with the cab driver that make you feel as if you’ve fallen through a portal. The cab driver remembered picking up GKC at some other location, and remembered GKC having said something to him that he didn’t say. GKC argued with the man for several minutes, and after just a few minutes was starting to doubt himself and, thus, reality. Then, just when GKC was beginning to waver, the cabman got on his face a look of sudden revelation as he realized that he was remembering a different customer.

You might think that someone like GKC, who believes that “I might be wrong” is a heresy, would be arrogant and impossible to convince of anything. But that’s not necessarily true. If you believe in reality and trust your perceptions of it, then you can be presented with evidence. And if the evidence is good, you can change your mind. If you don’t have the baseline trust in your own mind, then no amount of evidence is going to convince you.

One more, equally sinister, aspect of all this. Traditionally, Hollywood likes to give us messages that we should not trust authority. The cops are on the take. The conspiracy goes all the way to the top. The experts don’t know everything. We are “sleeping with the enemy.” The two movies I watched recently give the opposite message. They play on our expectations that experts and authority figures in movies will turn out to be villains. In both of these particular cases, it is doctors (medical doctors in one; psychologists in another) who appear to be concealing the truth. They appear to want to treat the protagonist like he’s crazy, or else frame him for being crazy. There is bureaucracy and gaslighting and all the stuff we find in dystopias. But in this case, they turn out to be right. What to do you know? He actually is crazy. If only he had listened to them. Lives could have been saved.

I think both of these movies were made before you-know-what, so it’s probably a coincidence. Still, I’m not super comfortable when two pieces of well-done art say to me in stereo, “Trust us. We know what reality is and you don’t. We know best.”

Unattractive but Understandable Boasting

So, this last week, I got the following e-mail from an agent:

“Sorry for the delay in responding to your query. This novel doesn’t look like it’s for me, but good luck with your writing.”

A pretty standard, polite, inoffensive reply. The second most popular kind after No Response Means No.

Why is this both amusing and annoying?

Because I sent the query eleven months ago.

I had forgotten that I was still querying in April of last year. That’s around the time that I decided to go ahead with self-publishing. Apparently, I was still sending off a few queries for Book #2, on the off chance that someone would love it and call me the same day to beg for the file of the whole novel. In the year since, I’ve had Books 1 and 2 professionally edited, done cover design, indie published Book 1 … and, this week, I was preparing finally to upload for indie publishing Book 2. The same week I got the reply to this query.

A delay of almost a year before a reply isn’t actually that unusual in traditional publishing? I guess? It wouldn’t seem very insulting except that, for me as for many people, this past year has seemed much longer. The idea that I could still be sitting by my laptop, waiting for replies to queries, is kind of sad.

Now, my book sales aren’t anything to boast about yet. On the other hand, because I took action instead of waiting on agents, I can now say the phrase “my book sales.” And that’s priceless.