Here it is! The cover for Tomorrow’s Songs Today

Here it is at last: Matt Leger’s cover for Tomorrow’s Songs Today! This art will be reproduced on the tote bags and hard copy versions that are going to the book’s IndieGoGo supporters, and there will be a few more available.

Cover for Tomorrow's Songs Today

The cover by Matt Leger for Tomorrow’s Songs Today

Excellent work, Matt!

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Newton’s birthday and the “war on Christmas”

Lately on Twitter I’ve noticed complaints from a number of conservatives about people who celebrate Isaac Newton’s birthday on December 25. It’s a tactic of the War on Christmas, they tell us, to claim he was born on the 25th. If so, then all of England was waging this war during his lifetime.

The case against regarding December 25 as his birthday is that under the reformed European calendar, which everyone now uses, his birthday would have been January 4. However, Newton was born in 1643 and died in 1726. England didn’t adopt the new calendar until 1750. It’s perfectly reasonable to regard his birthday as the date in use in his home country.

Dates of birth don’t have any intrinsic significance, of course. Those who want to call it January 4 can. But it’s especially silly for people who celebrate Jesus’s birthday on December 25 to express outrage at alleged inaccuracy in such matters. Even if you take everything in the Bible as literal truth, there’s nothing in it that indicates Jesus was born in winter, and the nocturnal watch of the shepherds makes a spring day much more likely.

Some people, like me, like to observe Newton’s birthday because the big religious holiday on December 25 has no special meaning to us, and it’s nice to celebrate something we find more meaningful. Let’s face it, this is the real reason for the outrage; a lot of Christians think no one but them should engage in any seasonal celebrations. Some of those people know enough history to know that shortly after Newton was born, the Puritans passed a law banning many forms of Christmas observation, so that gives conservative Christians a reason not to like anything English from that period. (I’d agree with their low opinion of the Puritans, if not their reasons.) On top of that, Newton may have been inclined toward Unitarianism.

If you missed December 25, celebrate Newton’s birthday again on January 4. That should make everybody happy.

Vandalism and fear

Someone committed a remarkably disgusting act of vandalism this week in the Bradford section of Haverhill, Massachusetts. This person stole a statue of the infant Jesus from the Sacred Hearts Church and replaced it with a freshly severed pig’s head. I’m often in Haverhill and have driven past that church hundreds of times. The thought is revolting. (I’m an atheist, if that matters.)

So far people seem to be avoiding a panicked reaction. In some times and places, people would have grabbed the nearest Jew and strung him up, or tried somebody as a witch. Today such incidents are apt to bring out screams of “Terrorism!”, riot police, Bearcats, and lockdown orders. In the “Satanic panic” of the eighties, people would have been claiming this was part of a Satanic conspiracy to bring about death and destruction.

My best guess is that this was the work of a lunatic with hallucinations of commands issued by Satan. It doesn’t seem like the act of any kind of organization. People want someone to blame, though, and demagogues live on spreading fear. I hope that doesn’t happen in this case.

A woman donated a replacement statue and said:

I can’t change the world, but I can change my city. I’m bringing this, and I’m asking everybody to do the same. Make a statement. You don’t have to come here and hold a sign to be destructive. Just come to let everybody who drives by know. Not here. Not my city.

“To be destructive” sounds like either a slip of the tongue or a mistake in reporting. Apart from that, she has it right.

In contrast, in Berlin, New Hampshire, a tiny city by courtesy in the White Mountains, police chief Peter Morency has issued a request for Bearcat armored vehicle; the document reads like the ravings of a fanatic. He claims an “urgent need” because of Berlin’s “critical infrastructures,” claims that “domestic terrorism” is a serious threat to the place, and asserts a need to be able to detect “Alpha, Bata [sic], and Gamma radiation.” He talks about “numerous high-risk warrant services performed by the BGERT [Berlin-Gorham Emergency Response Team] where the threat levels call for an armored vehicle of this type.” Yes, he wants to use an armored vehicle to serve warrants. In saner times, people would be urging him to get a nice long sabbatical in a restful place. It’s scary to think what Morency might have done if he were police chief in Haverhill.

People sometimes do horrible things. We have to respond to them firmly, but at the same time not exaggerate their significance. There are better things to do with life than live it in fear.

Update: There was another church vandalism incident in Haverhill, resulting in the arrest of a woman for scrawling “666” in several places on a church and attacking a detective with a crucifix. The two churches are less than a mile apart. It could be the same person or a copycat, or the cases might be unrelated.

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How not to win support

It’s good to see people waking up to the problem of unjustified force by police, but whenever an idea starts appealing to a crowd, you know some things will go wrong.

Some people seem convinced that blocking traffic and invading and disrupting private property will win support for better police accountability. If people encounter protesters blocking their commuting and shopping, they’ll realize there should be more controls on the power of cops. Oh, really? I can’t imagine that winning support for anything except getting the police to clear the way and arrest people.

People with dark skins bear a disproportionate burden of police harassment, false arrests, and unjustified violence, but it’s not exclusive to any group. It’s appropriate to point out that “black lives matter.” However, this line has been repeated so incessantly that something else is clearly at work. When I went into Boston earlier this month, some people were riding on the subway to a protest against police violence. One (light-skinned) woman was making a sign while sitting on the subway; it was something like “Black lives matter. White allies speak out, even in white-only spaces.”

I don’t read this exactly as “Only black lives matter,” but rather as “If I stay in my white-only space, it can’t happen to me.” She wants to imagine a world in which she’s “privileged” and none of these bad things can personally happen to her; then she can generously ally with the people who are at risk, as long as they keep their distance.

These seem like two opposed trends. The people who block streets and shopping malls seem to be acting from anger that they want to take out on anyone convenient, whether they win any support or not. The “it can’t happen to me” people want to win support but need to convince themselves that nothing bad can happen to them.

Effective opposition to unwarranted force requires attention to, and effective presentation of, both principles and facts. The principle is that no one should be an initiator of force; the one who uses force on people who aren’t violating anyone’s rights, or responds with severely disproportionate force, is in the wrong. The facts are the many instances where cops are the initiators of force and anyone might be a target. Sometimes the facts aren’t as they first appeared, and it’s important to separate truth and error.

There are signs that things may improve. I hope people don’t ruin it with stupid tactics and pretenses.

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Spohr’s Quintet

Statue of Louis Spohr in Kassel

Statue of Louis Spohr in Kassel

I have more music than I can keep track of. Yesterday, setting out for my client’s office, I grabbed a CD of chamber music by Spohr and played it in the car. The first piece was one which I love and didn’t realize I currently had: his Quintet for piano and winds, Opus 52. I hadn’t heard it in a very long time, but found it as fine yesterday as I always had before.

Louis Spohr is a very underrated composer, and anyone who thinks he doesn’t belong among the masters should listen to the Quintet. It has a particularly Mozartean sound among his works, while still being distinctively his. There’s a bit in the second movement which reminds me of the Jupiter Symphony. The interplay of tone color is one of its strongest features, with the piano conversing back and forth with the flute, clarinet, and horn. (The bassoon doesn’t escape its background role very much.)

My favorite movement is the last. It starts of with a stormy theme from the piano, then calms down to a dance-like second theme from the piano, which the horn and then the other winds answer with a very simple five-note phrase.

Spohr’s inspiration declined long before he died, and his later works have dragged down his reputation. I recommend the first five symphonies, the oratorio Die Letzten Dinge, some of his overtures, and much of his chamber music, especially the pieces for harp and violin.

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Opposing the tribalist mindset

Events in the past couple of weeks ought to have disgusted most of the people reading this blog, whatever we may disagree on. A cop choked Eric Garner to death for selling cigarettes, he was caught on video, and no charges were brought against him. It’s official now that the CIA has been torturing people, stumbling into the policy rather than having a real purpose, and not even accomplishing anything, and no charges are being brought against anyone. Obama is being True Neutral on torture, showing himself more than ever as a slimy creature with no principles. At least Cheney stands for something, even if it’s vile.

Outside the US, there are the ongoing atrocities by the Islamic State and Boko Haram. The majority of their victims are other Muslims. Lately the loudspeakers on the mosques in Kabul have been urging people to stay inside instead of calling them to prayer.

All these events are manifestations of the collectivist, tribalist impulse to divide the world into “us” and “our enemies.” It seems to be a path of least resistance in human psychology. In primitive societies, there must be a value in making snap judgments about whether someone is friend or foe. The Bible, which is part of our culture whether we grant it religious significance or not, is full of horrible deeds which are supposedly good because their targets have a different religion. It presents the child-butcher Joshua as a hero because the children lived in a Canaanite city.

Science fiction fans aren’t completely free of the impulse. While the division between fans and “mundanes” is usually expressed in a good-humored way, I’ve heard “mundane” used as an expression of contempt often enough and may have used it that way myself. This is especially likely to happen when a convention is sharing a hotel with a group that includes some obnoxious people. All mundanes get painted with the same brush. I’ve heard annoyingly often, among filkers, that people speaking German always sound angry. Perhaps a good reply would be, “If you’d stop saying that, they might sound less angry.”

Uglier than either of those is the “race identity” mindset that’s taken hold in some parts of fandom. This is the notion that we’re supposed to think of people not as people, but as members of racial groups. There was a post I encountered on Tumblr a long time ago, which I’d meant to work into a blog post but never did. The text was in pictures, and I couldn’t figure out how to link to it, but here’s the relevant part:

I kind of just spontaneously groaned and put my head in my hand and someone said, “Well, what was THAT reaction?” And I said, “Well, when I wake up in the morning and I look in the mirror I see a human being.” I’m kind of a generic person, y’know, I’m a middle class, white, man. I have no [visible] class, no race, no gender, I’m universally generalizable. So I like to think that that was the moment that I became a[n aware] middle class, white, man. That class and race and gender weren’t about other people but they were about me and I had to start thinking about them and it had been privilege that had kept it invisible to me for so long.

The brackets were in the original, if my recollection is correct.

The KKK couldn’t have put it better: Stop thinking of yourself as a human being and start thinking of yourself as a privileged white (or as whatever group has been assigned to you). People of other skin colors are different. I don’t have any reason to think this person (yes, person, however how much he objects) was in fandom, but the expression is a particularly clear form of the rhetoric I’ve seen from people trying to promote race identity on convention programs. As far as I know, no con has yet put “Your race:” on its registration form; I hope none ever do.

There’s a large difference, of course, between mocking mundanes and torturing prisoners, but the motivation is the same in kind. The same kind of motivation has muted the response to the torturers — excuse me, the politically correct term is “enhanced interrogators” — and their defenders. We’re Americans. They’re “terrorists,” whether anything has been proven against them or not. So we can regret that “we tortured some folks,” but let’s not be vindictive against people who approved or committed war crimes “in the past.” Let’s “look forward, not backward,” unless we’re talking about Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, or Chelsea Manning.

If we’re ever going to reach a society that isn’t ruled by tribal hostilities, we have to learn to be aware of those impulses, control them in ourselves, and point them out in others. That requires a culture with an ethic of individualism, the treatment of people according to their personal merits rather than their group membership. Today that’s an unpopular idea, and we’re paying a high price for its lack.

We can’t change the world, but we can each speak as the opportunity arises. We can be careful to check our premises every time we start to think “All of those ___ are scumbags.” Any degree of honest effort helps.

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Nathaniel Branden

Nathaniel Branden died on December 3, at the age of 84. Whatever the mistakes he made in his life, he has to be credited with bringing Objectivism to a larger audience. At the same time, his Nathaniel Branden Institute promoted the ideological conformity, the idea that almost any disagreement, even in tastes, is a sin, which has tainted the Objectivist movement ever since. Reason and unquestioning agreement are totally incompatible, as he later came to realize.

Branden’s The Psychology of Self-Esteem presented an idea which was later widely adopted, if only in name. In The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, he wrote:

Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as worthy of happiness.

The “self-esteem movement” picked up part of the basic idea but turned it into something to be achieved with sheer positive thinking, rather than something that’s built up through decisions and actions. Conservatives, for their part, have often regarded self-esteem as the sin of pride.

I’ve found it valuable to remember that self-esteem builds on itself. If you’re confident in your ability, you’re motivated to take the actions that will lead to success and to keep going when it gets hard. Being successful gives you more confidence. However, we all experience strings of failures in our lives, and we need a more enduring kind of self-esteem to get through those, a sense of personal integrity and worth and a philosophical view that regards success as a possible and worthy goal. Branden wrote: “What people think, what they believe, what they tell themselves, incluences what they feel and what they do. In turn, they experience what they feel and do as having meaning for who they are.”

We’re so often told we should be “selfless,” that “there’s no I in ‘team,'” etc. People are pushed into self-doubt and self-disparagement in order to make them easy to manipulate. Branden helped to push back against this idea, to tell people that their personal worth is theirs to lay claim to and develop.