Tuesday, December 20, 2011


The death of Kim Jong-il has started some new conversations and reawakened some old ones. Among the latter are several leftist myths, including the notion that the Korean war was started by the South invading the North. Over the years more and more evidence has come to light that the opposite is the case.

For a fair-minded account, one should consult the book by John Lewis Gaddis on the Cold War, summarized at several places on the Internet.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Hitchens love

The tributes have been pouring in for Christopher Hitchens, who has just died of esophageal cancer. I find that I cannot fully share this positive emotion. Not that Hitchens was a bad person, just inconsistent and generally shallow in his analysis. During his TV appearances--and apparently in person--he masked this shallowness with clever quips. In the end, though, he seemed to be mostly about "getting over" on someone, whether it was Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa, or whomever, but never offering analysis at any depth. This cleverness was nurtured, of course, by the Oxford Union and other places where clever English people develop a taste for it, many never to recover.

I found his support for Bush's invasion of Iraq disgusting beyond belief.

His militant atheism exhibited all the faults of that trend: the self-righteousness, arrogance, and of course outright mimicry of the intolerance of the religionists themselves.

On the CNN blog Stephen Prothero, a respected scholar of comparative religion, makes some telling points about Hitchens' atheist blather. Here are some excerpts.

Prothero: "My love/hate relationship with Christopher Hitchens started when I read “God Is Not Great.” Before that, he was a hero of mine. I loved his slashing style, his intelligence, his learning, his self-possession and, above all, his passion. But I hated this book.

"So I panned it in the “Washington Post.” “I have never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject,” I wrote, before taking Hitchens to task for demonstrating one of his own pet themes: “the ability of dogma to put reason to sleep.”

"I panned the book because I knew Hitchens could take it, and because he deserved it. But what really motivated me was disappointment. I had disagreed with him before, of course. But in every other case I had the sneaking suspicion he knew more than I did about the subject. And even if he didn’t, I didn’t care, because he was always so much fun to read. . . .

"Everyone has a blind spot, however, and for Hitchens it was religion. I remember being confused when I began reading “God Is Not Great,” chiefly because I agreed with virtually everything he was saying. Of course, religious institutions have visited all manner of horrors on humanity. Of course, theological writing is often literally incredible. And yes the whole enterprise can be poisonous.

"But what I finally saw was that Hitchens wasn’t really dynamiting, as he believed, the whole world of “religion.” He was just blowing up, over and over again, his little corner of a little vacant lot in his own little neighborhood and imagining he was leveling Mecca and Rome.

"The problem with Hitchens’ writing on religion is that he did what many preachers do; he let his emotions get the best of him, and then he started preaching to the choir. In the process, he helped to lead a whole generation of New Atheists down a rabbit hole of their own imagining.

"Inside that fantasy world, the atheists are always the smartest boys in the class, and around every corner there is a new religious sin to sneer and chuckle at. In the real world, there are millions of intelligent Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Jews sneering and chuckling at precisely the same stuff. The criticism of religion begins, believe it or not, with embarrassment in the pews."


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas conflicts

Once again Christmas is upon us. I am not a big fan, as I do not enjoy the souped-up versions of carols that are so insistently and monotonously played in stores. (Some go so far as to term this musical junk "ear rape.") Luckily I am exempt, pretty much, from the obligation to buy presents. I have no children and my surviving friends are beyond that sort of stuff.

For various reasons, though, myths seem to thrive at this time of year. One which we have not heard much of lately is the notion that Christmas is just a survival of the Roman Saturnalia. I will have more to say about that notion presently.

Another myth, common among secularists these days, is that there is an insidious plot to compel people to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” which is more appropriate, given the mosaic of observances that occur this time of year. I do not say "Merry Christmas," and feel no compulsion to do so. Speech must be free.

While the expression “War on Christmas” is an exaggeration, it is important to remember the origins of this conflict. A decade ago, Wal-Mart and some other big stores deleted the salutation Merry Christmas from their advertising, using Happy Holidays (HH) instead. Apparently, it was felt that some people who are not Christians were offended by the salutation. The imposition of this seemingly neutral, “ecumenical” wording was intended to address their feelings. In reality this outbreak of Verbal Correctness is not very different from the Michigan school which deleted the word “gay” from “Don we now our gay apparel.”

Heaven forbid that in our multicultural society anyone should be offended by anything. But the HH solution did not resolve the problem, for a different group, traditional Christians, came forward to say that they were offended. After the imposition of the “ecumenical” greeting became common knowledge, there was a fire storm of protest, and the stores that had forbidden “Merry Christmas” allowed it to come back.

The motives of those who are (still) fervently backing “Happy Holidays” as the only truly appropriate greeting merit some attention. In my view, they are seeking to relativize Christmas--and by extension Christianity itself--by promoting this expression. I am not a Christian and I am not an advocate for that faith. But I am a historian, and having investigated the background, I have concluded that the relativizing approach is not defensible. Here is some background (partially recycling some parts of an account from 2004).

It is generally acknowledged that no one can determine the actual day of the birth of Jesus Christ. Several candidates enjoyed popularity in various parts of the late Roman world, some in the spring. The most popular choice, though, was January 6, Epiphany. Yet the Roman Church adopted December 25. Why?

One view regards Christmas as a hijacking of the Saturnalia, a somewhat raucous pagan event, which started on December 17 and extended to from three to seven days thereafter—but never, it seems, reaching as far as the 25th. In addition, some have suggested the winter solstice as a source, but that is fixed at December 22, though some astronomical wobbliness has been detected. Near misses don’t qualify, for the Romans insisted on precision in these calendrical matters. The reason for this emphasis is that astrology, then widely accepted, required determination not just of the actual day of one’s birth, but the hour. (By the way, has anyone ever calculated Jesus’s horoscope based on the several candidates for his proposed birth?)

To make a long story short, Christmas actually coincides with an observance established by the emperor Aurelian in AD 274: December 25 was fixed as the birthday of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus).

Late antiquity saw the rise of a contentious welter of religions. Of Middle Eastern origin, the Unconquered Sun came to enjoy wide appeal because of its lack of specificity. While it connoted potency, the Sol Invictus otherwise had a kind of neutrality that gave it appeal to a number of competing religious factions. It was cosmic, not anthropomorphic, at least not necessarily so. For traditional pagans Sol Invictus was identical with Apollo, originally a Greek import. The Mithraists saw it as a manifestation of their Mithras Helios. Christians could honor the solar deity as a metaphor for the "Sun of Righteousness," that is, Jesus Christ. Interestingly, the soil underneath the basilica of St. Peters has yielded a mosaic, apparently of the early 4th century, showing Christ as a sun god riding a chariot.

While the Roman Church, and eventually the entire Latin West, adopted December 25 to mark the Nativity, the eastern holiday of Epiphany was retained as well. Today the 6th of January is observed in Hispanic countries as the day of the Three Kings (the Magi), when gifts are exchanged. In this way, the old Roman observation of New Year’s Day, the first of January, was bracketed by Christmas, on the one hand, and Epiphany, on the other. They were two bookends, as it were, enclosing the older date for the beginning of the civil year. (For the Church Christmas was the beginning of the year.) The combination attests a widely ramifying process: retention of traditional holidays—providing that their pagan character was not overt--while mingling them with the new.

As part of this inquiry I looked into one of the major sources for late Roman festivals, the Calendar of 354. This richly illustrated volume, made for a cultivated Christian named Valentinus, is actually a composite reference book recording the public religious festivals in Rome (roughly the first half), together with Christian parallels (the second half). While this combination may at first sight seem schizophrenic, or at best a shotgun marriage, it actually accords well with an era of transition. Valentinus, the book’s owner, wished to have a record of the festivals of his ancestors, as well as the holy observances of his own faith. Many of the old festivals were falling into desuetude in his own day, and new deities, more acceptable to Christians and those adhering to other salvific religions, came in, favored because of their relative neutrality. These included Roma Aeterna, a personification of the city; Salus, or public safety; and the aforementioned Sol Invictus.

The original copy of the Calendar of 354, our best source for these matters, has been lost. Yet it has been reconstructed by several generations of classical scholars. The results of these labors have been summed up by Michele Renee Salzman in her fine monograph, “On Roman Time” (Berkeley, 1990).

Now for a fast forward. Somewhat analogous to the transitional picture recorded by the Calendar, we can observe changes in our own practice. Since 1954, Armistice Day, devised to commemorate the end of World War I on November 11, has been renamed Veterans Day. Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday get rolled together as President’s Day, while a new holiday has appeared to honor Martin Luther King.

Today controversy surrounds Christmas. For some time it has had two rivals, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. While the events commemorated in Hanukkkah took place before the birth of Christ, the actual commemoration is recent. in the 1870s, when Christmas was beginning to come into its own as a mass-market phenomenon in the US, two Cincinnati rabbis, looking for a way to cheer up Jewish kids who felt left out, launched the first big Hanukkah festivals, with games, music, and food. The concept proved popular, soon spreading across the country. So says Dianne Ashton, a religious scholar and author of the coming book "Hanukkah in America." Competition with Christmas is the main reason for the prominence of the festival. Kwanzaa. observed by some African Americans, thrives for similar reasons.

Today in many of the "blue" (liberal) states it is no longer fashionable to say "Merry Christmas"—-one should call out "Happy Holidays" instead. In some cases Nativity scenes and Christmas carols have been banned from public observance, ostensibly on grounds of separation of church and state. While these changes do not add up to an actual War on Christmas, they do represent an effort to relativize Christmas--and in fact Christianity itself.

Christmas is a national holiday in the United States. Yet in its origin it is a religious observance, as I have shown. In a sense we have come full circle, back to the duality of late Roman times. The day of the Unconquered Sun was a holiday in the perfected version of the official (pagan) calendar. Yet Roman Christians could also accept this figure as the avatar of their own founder. Hence Christmas as we know it.

As with everything else in human culture, holidays evolve. As in 4th-century Rome, these changes can occasion controversy, with some urging radical change and others defending the status quo. Whatever the case, it seems that Christmas will be with us a good deal longer.

UPDATE. The reductio ad absurdum of the relativist argument is this list (from rationalwiki.org):

"Late December celebrations"

* Alban Arthuan
* Boxing Day
* Chrismukkah
* Festivus
* Hanukkah
* Inti Raymi
* Kwanzaa
* Holiday (Pastafarianism)
* Lenaea
* Merlinpeen
* New Year's Eve
* New Year's Day (also celebrated on the first of April, by fools)
* Ramadan has recently fallen during this time of year, though since Islamic holidays are on a lunar calendar it is progressing backwards through the calendar.
* Eid Al Adha (Islamic New Year) currently falls during this time of the year, but like Ramadan, progresses backwards through the calendar.
* Saturnalia
* Second Rite of Belial
* Solstice (winter in the northern hemisphere, summer in the southern)
* Thanksgiving (in some places)
* The Long Night
* Xmas
* Yule (or Juul)
* Newtonma


Thursday, December 08, 2011

Tom Who?

Some of the columnists at the New York Times (think Paul Krugman) are mind-numbingly soporific. Not so Thomas Friedman. With his endless stream of mixed metaphors and gee-whiz happy talk, he is always good for a laugh. And then there are his actual theories: the world is flat (when it is not); the purported inverse correlation between petroleum and liberty; the magical effect of having a McDonald's on not going to war (NOT), and so forth.

In a couple of hilarious Rolling Stone pieces Matt Taibbi has had a go at taking Tom down. Now we have a whole book with that aim: Belén Fernández, The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work (Verso, 2011). Just reading the first fifty pages is an amazing experience; it is hard to believe that one writer could generate so many howlers. Somehow I can't summon the energy to peruse the hundred pages that follow. Fernández has got this bozo covered.

I am not so sure about her larger points. There is much wrong with American journalism today, but Friedman does not, as she suggests, personify it, for he is in a league all his own. Fernández is writing from a left-leaning, anti-imperialist point of view, so she seeks to convict him of familiar sins as viewed from that camp. Yet Friedman is so inconsistent, often shamelessly so, that it is hard to detect any sustained doctrine in the corpus his copious writings.

PS In the book the publisher has made a mistake with the author's first name, writing it Bélen, instead of Belén, with the accent mark correctly placed on the second syllable. The word means "Bethlehem" in Spanish, a fact that (curiously enough) I learned in the third grade by memorizing a Christmas carol in that language. I don't want to play the Schadenfreude card too harshly, but it is curious that leftist publishers like Verso have trouble with the orthography of "third world" languages.


Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The group-intelligence controversy revisited

In some recent postings at his Daily Dish site, Andrew Sullivan has returned to the matter of group differences in intelligence, reflecting his most controversial decision when he edited The New Republic quite a few years back. The conversation continued at his Facebook spot, but I have been unable to retrieve it again.

The discussion is basically a dialogue of the deaf, with opinions splitting along familiar right-left lines. One left-leaning commentator insists that we are all members of the human race. Yes, indeed, but that does not mean that there are not aggregate differences among population groups. In a series of studies, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza has shown that, based on mitochondrial and other DNA evidence, there are significant differences among population groups or pools. In this way, he has been able to construct evolutionary trees, showing how these differences arose and were confirmed.

Another common argument among the left-leaning faction is that one can measure individual intelligence but never group intelligence--between blacks and whites, women and men, and so forth. Well, if we can study differences in height and eye color on a group basis, why not do the same for intelligence? This taboo seems political, with no discernible objective basis.

Left-leaning observers often complain, with much justice, that conservatives who deny evolution and climate change are anti-science. In this matter of group intelligence, though, it is the left-leaning people who are anti-science. Both groups seem to adhere to a cafeteria approach to scientific evidence.

I confess that I have doubts about reducing the question of intelligence to g (or general intelligence). There are other aspects of intelligence, such as can-do knowledge and sensitivity to the needs of other people, that are not included under this rubric. Still, no one has been able to work out an acceptable pluralistic theory of intelligence(s) that would include all the significant variables.


Sunday, December 04, 2011

The return of James Burnham

James Burnham (1905–1987) was an American political theorist, best known for his "The Managerial Revolution" (1941). That book advanced conjectures about the new form of society ostensibly emerging to replace capitalism. Controversially, Burnham saw many common features that linked the economic formations of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and the United States under Franklin D. Roosevelt with his New Deal.

More generally, Burnham held that a new society had emerged in which a ruling elite of managers--not a ruling class in the traditional sense--had began to amass all power and privilege. In a later book "The Machiavellians," he acknowledged that the emerging new élite would seek to retain some democratic trappings or camouflage — political opposition, a nominally free press, and a controlled "circulation” of the cadres of dominant individuals.

Writing in 1941, Burnham took note of the early victories of the Axis powers. He concluded that Germany was bound to win the war in Europe, with Japan becoming the major force in Asia. Separated from the Old World by its oceans, the US would remain independent, perhaps retaining Britain as an outpost. At the time George Orwell took careful note, incorporating the idea of the three great powers into his powerful novel "Nineteen-eighty Four."

Most observers thought that Burnham’s geopolitical predictions had been falsified. As he himself noted, the Soviet Union survived and triumphed over Nazi Germany.

Today, however, the USSR is no more, and Germany is resurgent. To be sure, the center of Asian power has shifted to China. It does appear, though, that the world is ruled from three great power centers: Berlin, Beijing, and Washington DC. (Possibly to be termed, BBB--Berlin, Beijing, and the Beltway.)

In essence Burnham seems to have been right after all,



In the course of the past few weeks I have been composing my memoirs, covering the whole period from 1934 to 2011. The demands of this task have meant that I have neglected blogging--or perhaps been addressing it by other means.

I thought that I should attempt this job while I am still (relatively speaking) compos mentis.

I have now completed the text in draft form. Doubtless I will expand these observations later, but the main lines of my life story are discernible.

The full text is now available at my allied blog: www.homolexis.blogspot.com. For access, it may be more convenient simply to consult the sidebar on the right.

In the meantime, here are the opening pages of the Memoirs.


I have never been a believer in the formative role of childhood experiences. Instead, I have fashioned my own version of the existentialist concept of the self-creation. This process, I believe, takes place over many years. For better or worse, I am the one who has made me what I am.

Moreover, I have never been very interested in genealogy (though I am not averse to acknowledging biological elements in human behavior). Here is what I know. My ancestors have been on this continent for several generations, going back for the most part to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in the American south. They were chiefly of Protestant Irish stock. Yet they were not Scotch Irish, as they seem to have mainly come from southern Ireland. This combination would appear to be something of an anomaly. Further inquiry into the matter might be interesting, but it strikes me as otiose.

Both my biological parents came from families engaged in agriculture. The Conways, my father’s folks, maintained a large dairy farm near Fort Worth, Texas. The Colemans, my mother’s family, grew cotton at a place called Fate, east of Dallas.

Early on Brant, my biological father. showed an inclination for the natural sciences. Accordingly, he studied physics at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. My mother Jean, who had come to Fort Worth to work as a secretary, met my father when she took some extension classes at the university. Unlike my father, she never completed her course work, but continued all her life to have a strong interest in literature. Between the two of them, then, my parents incarnated the binarism of the “two cultures”: science and the humanities.

After trying teaching for a while, Brant ended up as a guided-missiles specialist for the US Navy. He really was a rocket scientist, though a person I rarely saw.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, my parents divorced when I was three years old. My mother then sent me to live with my paternal grandparents on their dairy farm, where I was surrounded by a happy throng (or so it seems to me now) of aunts and uncles.

This idyll ended in 1939. My mother had decided to remarry and to go to live with her new husband in southern California. Accordingly, she collected me from the farm, and we went by train to San Diego, where Grady Dynes, the new husband, met us. First we lived in San Bernardino, and then in Los Angeles. It didn’t seem so at the time, but moving to California was probably much to my benefit. Later I took my adoptive father’s surname, changing from (Robert) Wayne Conway to Wayne R. Dynes.

It turned out that my stepfather, who had been educated at Pomona College, had been a Communist in the 1930s. Eventually, he converted my mother to these beliefs, and ipso facto me too. Yet fortified by reading the writings of Arthur Koestler and George Orwell I rebelled, becoming an “ex-Communist” at the tender age of 14.

On only one occasion (the funeral of my grandmother) can I ever remember being taken to a church. My parents were atheists, a creed I found arid--and an excuse, most years, for denying me Christmas presents. So this upbringing had an effect that was opposite to the one intended, giving me a strong interest in religion. Young people find things that are taboo inherently attractive. Yet this interest was not strong enough to make me convert to a particular faith.

When I was about six years old, a neighbor boy Jimmy (who was about twelve years old) inducted me into his male harem. Assembling in his parents’ garage, we would take our clothes off and play with each other’s penises. Some would say that these early experiences--which were enjoyable and never exposed to public knowledge--”made me” a homosexual. That I doubt.

Was it pedophilia? No, because we were all prepubertal kids. Above all, there was no penetration, not even digitally.

We all have our own personal horrors. One of them, to me, is the idea that a child might be subjected to penile penetration of the mouth, anus, or vagina. As for nonpenetrative intergenerational sex, it presents its own problems, but they strike me as being of lesser magnitude.

What I experienced with Jimmy and his charges was erotic play, but not sex in any fundamental sense. It was more akin to “playing doctor.”

In my view, one of the problems with the current concern with pedophilia, from whatever side, is that it tends to conflate categories that need to be carefully distinguished.

[And so on.]