Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Scalia scandal

Bird murderer and legal fantasist Antonin Scalia died just the way he wanted 22 million Americans to die, without medical attention. Karma is a bitch.

On all sides, memorialists are saying he elevated the concept of original intent into constitutional law. Since nobody else will say it, let me state the obvious: hogwash.

The original intent of the Framers was to preserve chattel slavery. A Roman Catholic scholar -- but a very different kind of Catholic from the ritualist Scalia -- Garry Wills, says this:

"One of the effects of this line of argument [that the slave power conspired against freedom] was to continue the marginalizing of abolitionists, an effort at which the South was very effective. William Lloyd Garrison was the Ur-conspiratorialist in this view. He thought even the Constitution a plot against freedom ('a covenant with death'). He went beyond  criticism of the open concessions to southern demands -- on the three-fifths clause, the slave trade, and fugitive slaves -- and found a pro-slavery slant throughout the document. A claim that this was the conscious aim of the framers cannot be sustained.

But Paul Finkelman shows that the South did find ways to use many clauses of the Constitution, and many interpretations of it, to protect their slave property. The concept of  'state sovereignty' was just one of these tools. For southerners 'state's rights'  meant first and foremost the right to declare that their slaveholding was no one else's business. Other constitutional conveniences afforded them included the bans on taxing exports or interstate taxes, which favored the products of slave labor. Similarly, the guarantee of states against domestic insurrection, and the use of the militia for that purpose, put the federal government on the slave owners' side if their property should rebel. The 'full faith and credit' clause made other states recognize all the South's legal provisions for slavery. And so on."
("Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power, pp. 10-11)

Friday, February 12, 2016

The biggest discovery in over 100 years?

So they are saying about gravitational waves. Some qualify it by saying "greatest astronomical discovery."

I'm not buying that. A remarkable discovery, sure enough, but more significant than the discovery of the neutron? I think not. Even if we limit ourselves to astronomy, it isn't more significant than the mapping of the variations in the cosmic microwave background, which led to the proof that 95% of the substance of the universe is (still undetected) dark matter and dark energy, plus proof that the universe is accelerating.

I am happy to report that, according to the New York Times, some 2nd Amendment patriots participated in the experiment:

 Hunters once shot up the outside of one of the antenna arms in Louisiana
Probably it looked like a deer.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Book Review 362: The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang

THE SILK ROAD JOURNEY WITH XUANZANG, by Sally Hovey Wriggins. 326 pages, illustrated. Westview paperback, $25

The destruction of the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan got the attention of and outraged the world in 2001. It also brought to some in the West the name of Xuanzang, famous for centuries in the East, who was the first traveler to describe the statues.

The concurrent and continuing destruction of idols in the Pacific by (mostly white) Christian missionaries is unknown to the wide world; and no doubt American Christians would not care if they did know. Some do know, and pay for it to happen.

Therein lies one difference between East and West. Xuanzang was a Buddhist missionary, one of the four most important in spreading Buddhism to China, but he was not about destroying idols. He spent 15 years collecting manuscripts and images of the Buddha in India, and back in China, with imperial favor, was involved in building pagodas, including the Big Wild Goose pagoda in Xian, still standing, to house the 500 horse loads of sacred writings he brought back.

In Sally Hovey Wriggins’s description, Xuanzang is a most attractive character, a man of intellect and of action, bold enough to defy emperors and savvy enough to negotiate with kings. Singleminded, both in his devotion to Buddhism (especially his patron Maitreya) and in his mission to find the best sources of Buddhist thought and to translate them into Chinese.

Though a partisan — he was Mahayana, and beyond that a fervent proselytizer of an Idealist school of philosophy, now extinct — he also brought back and translated other documents, both religious and secular.

His versions of the Heart and Diamond sutras are commonly known in Asia still.

Wriggins calls him the greatest traveler the world has known after ibn Battuta (a spot that might be disputed in favor of, among others, James Cook), but Battuta did not also contribute a mighty intellectual transfer that changed the future of hundreds of millions of people.

To put this in some context, Xuanyang arrived in India just as Muhammad was dying.  Buddhism was more than a thousand years old and had been brought to China hundreds of years earlier; but it was in retreat in India, what are now Pakistan and Afghanistan and along the Silk Road.

Xuanzang recorded thousands of empty monasteries; all the kingdoms he visited have long since disappeared.

“The Silk Road Journey” is a bit of an odd book. The framework traces Xuanzang’s 10,000-mile journey from China to India and back, at each important node noticing the Buddhist artwork found there later by (mostly European) investigators, notably Aurel Stein. Important images are reproduced, though in small size and not in color. Along the way Wriggins inserts a small — very small — dose of Buddhist doctrine.

All in all, it makes for a readable small book, a good invitation to western-oriented readers to start familiarizing themselves with the historical personages familiar to Asians.

For Xuanzang in particular, this is made more difficult by the very large numbers of ways to spell his name in the Latin alphabet: a reader of several books who encountered Hwen Thsang, Yuan Chwang, Hieun Tsiang, Hsuan-Tsang and Xuanzang could be forgiven if he did not immediately recognize that they were all the same man. And there are other variants, too. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Book Review 361: A Black Woman's Civil War Memoirs

A BLACK  WOMAN’S CIVIL WAR MEMOIRS, by Susie King Taylor. 154 pages, illustrated. Markus Weiner paperback, $9.95

Susie King Taylor was a woman when she wrote these memoirs in 1902, but a girl during the Civil War – just 14 when the Yankee army occupied the Sea Islands and she crossed their lines.

She did a woman’s work, though. Officially a laundress, she was mostly a teacher and nurse for the soldiers of the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first formation of black soldiers raised by the Union. She married a sergeant, but we don’t learn much about him or, indeed, much of anything personal to her – not until the 1890s.

These brief remembrances, self-published as “My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops Late 1st S.C Volunteers” read more like a diary and were intended to perpetuate the story of the service of the black soldiers, to whom she remained devoted all her life. (Which ended in 1912, one of many facts we might have wished the editors to have included, but they didn’t.)

It is not a specially good memoir but it is the only one we have from a black woman in the war. Nevertheless, we can learn a good deal from it.

There are occasional glimpses of the girl, as when the soldiers hold a big barbecue, which is good but not as good as it would have been “at home” in Savannah.

Susie Baker King Taylor was born a slave but apparently was free in 1862. We are not told how that came about.

We learn a little, but not much, about how she learned to read and write, an unusual accomplishment at the time. Because the soldiers – some escaped slaves, some free blacks; some volunteers, some pressed – wanted so much to learn to read, she was important in the camp.

The most interesting parts of the book are not her wartime experiences, but her “Thoughts on Present Conditions” and her account of a mission to her dying son in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1898.

She had been living in Boston, where racial harmony was cherished by many, and she was shocked by what she found in the Jim Crow South. Her account is restrained but the anguish comes through.

She was not allowed to take her boy home to die, because he was too sick to sit up in the railroad car but was not allowed to hire a berth.

Her testament of faith that her country would eventually do the right thing was misplaced but makes for inspiring reading, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Matthew 7:16

How crazy are the Republicans?

This crazy.

I urge you to listen to the entire 8-minute tirade, meanwhile remembering that this person was a legitimate contender for the Republican nomination for president -- as were Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan.

As are, this year, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum.

Meanwhile, in the crazy candidate contest, the Democrats have no one -- not a single person -- in the same league.

Kucinich is about as crazy but he was never a contendah.

If you were not raised on the Bible, Matthew 7:16 is the place where it says "by their fruits you shall know them."

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Close call

Going up Baldwin Avenue Monday afternoon, I was just pulling around the hairpin turn at Rainbow Park when a downhill biker from Arkansas hit me.

If I had been a quarter second later, she would have hit me head on and gone through the windshield. A quarter second earlier, she'd have missed me and gone over the wall. As it was, thanks to plastic body panels, the Miata didn't get a scratch. She knocked off my radio aerial but she didn't even fall off her bike, although the combined speed impact must have been over 50 miles an hour.

I asked her husband, "Did the bike rental company give you any safety instructions?" "Yes, a long list."


Monday, February 1, 2016

Bad, bad news for RtO

Long-time readers will recall that the purpose of starting Restating the Obvious was to extol the delectability of greasy pork and lament its rarity. Making fun of rightwingers is just a placeholder, because you cannot write about bacon every day.

But the New York Times reports that fire has destroyed the Edwards smokehouse in Surry, Virginia. When I lived in Norfolk, we often drove out to Surry and Smithfield to get ham dinners, with vegetables picked from a garden right outside the window of the dining room at the Staunton Inn (closed long ago).

Then we'd put the top down on my 1967 Corvair Monza Spyder and return home using the ferry run by Mr. Edwards' forebears.

The fire has had ripple effects far beyond Surry. Heritage farmers here and in the Midwest, who raise the rare-breed hogs Mr. Edwards requires for his specialty pork, have lost their biggest customer. A Brooklyn purveyor of sustainable meats who buys those farmers’ hogs and sells Mr. Edwards his pork is grappling with a break in his supply chain. Chefs from Washington to New York are busy adjusting their menus.
Ugh. I guess I should be grateful that hipsters are helping to preserve the old ways, but a Southerner doesn't have to adjust his menu.

If you can get real ham, here's what to do with it.

Make thin, crispy corn cakes. Cover with paper thin slices of ham, top those with shucked Chesapeake oysters. Run this under a broiler long enough to make the oysters curl.