Saturday, February 28, 2004

Why I'm Here 

Yes, it is half-past midnight, more or less, on a Friday night. I don't normally surf the web and write long meandering posts on Friday nights. I didn't in the past, anyway. My Friday nights are changing. For the next 20-24 weeks they'll consist primarily of relaxing at home with the DMG and making sure she gets comfortably into bed at a decent hour. From that point forward, I suppose they'll consist of whatever the Bean wants them to consist of—until he's old enough to bring out to the bars with me. (What age is that, exactly? I'm thinking six or seven months?)

Just wanted to have that word of explanation in here for American friends who may be looking at some of my timestamps and thinking, "Hey, Greg, uh... you got a life out there, or what?"

I do! I have a fantastic life, but the two best parts of it are fast asleep in the bedroom and I'm damned if I'm gonna watch another piece-of-crap B movie by myself just because it's on and in English.

Friday, February 27, 2004

Sexy Abroad, Part VIII 

A story from Nettavisen underscores a point I've been making repeatedly since I started blogging (mostly on JustMorons) in Denmark. That's why I'm calling this Part VIII in what will apparently become an ongoing series of rambling observations about the different sexual mores here and at home—specifically, how our cultures handle nudity, sexuality, and all that interesting stuff.

I don't know if it's really the VIIIth time I've dealt with this topic—it could just as easily be the Xth or XIth—but I had to start numbering somewhere and didn't feel like going back to count. (But here are a couple that were easy to find: a foolish little thing on toplessness here and a reflection on marketing here.)

Now back to the Nettavisen story. Basic facts of the case:

At a student party for two Norwegian business and management schools, the boys enjoyed a striptease while the girls were drinking champagne in the next room. The sponsor is not pleased.

Do you get a sense of where this is headed? We're talking about a party for students, at a school, but only the sponsor was upset. That's not an omission, it's a fact. There were no "negative reactions from either the female or the male students who were present," and, besides:

...striptease has been a part of the entertainment at the winter games every year since 2001. This year the event took place in Ål in Hallingdal in the end of January.

The principle of one of the school's participating in the festivities said only that he was "not pleased" with the "selection of entertainment by the students."

So if the students were cool with it and the administrators were merely "not pleased" (are administrators ever pleased?), why the fuss?

Because the sponsor didn't like it:

The finance firm Deloitte, which is the main sponsor of the BI student organization, is not at all pleased with the selection of entertainment and is considering retracting their sponsor money to the annual event.

"This is not something we want to be connected with," said Morten Bjerke, market director at Deloitte, to the student paper Studvest. "We will evaluate the sponsoring again at the next crossroad."

Behold the real horror of globalization: the homogenization of Christmas parties throughout the world. You know what Deloitte's gonna say at that next crossroad: they're gonna say, "Don't spend our money on strippers!"

And the students will say, "Okay, we'll kick in a few bucks of our own and pay for a pretty young woman to come and take off her clothes."

And Deloitte will say, "That's not the point! It's a Deloitte-sponsored event and we don't want strippers at a Deloitte-sponsored event!"

And the students will say, "But we always have strippers! We had them when you guys were at our schools, didn't we?"

Deloitte: "We didn't go to your schools! We were manufactured in a Delaware laboratory. We are nameless, faceless corporate lackies who refuse to have our name associated with anything you think is fun."

Students: "You pay for our booze, that's fun."

Deloitte: "Booze isn't salacious."

Students: "Booze is the most salacious thing of all!"

Deloitte: "(Salacious doesn't mean intoxicating.)"

Students: "(Oh.)"

And in the end, the tradition of strippers at the annual Norwegian B-School Christmas celebrations will fade away.

Despite (and because of) our well-documented prudery, I don't think this would happen in America.

Firstly because I don't think many of our B-Schools have traditions of strippers at Christmas parties.

Secondly, if they did I think I'm on pretty solid ground when I opine that at least one female student at each school would by now have objected to the practice and had it squashed it on sensitivity grounds. ("The men are enjoying themselves at the expense of that woman's dignity," etc.)

Thirdly, and very differently, I think any corporate sponsors of any American business school's annual Christmas party would be the kind of people that would have a little respect for the free market: if all of the students wanted to hire a stripper, with no dissenting voices, and if a stripper were available for hire, where's the problem? Demand. Supply. Case closed... and, as Milton Friedman would point out, everyone's a little wealthier for the experience.

Especially the stripper—man, they're expensive!

(Or so I'm told.)

Hunger Math 

In the previous post, commenting on a report of "13 million hungry children," I wrote that I "found it hard to believe that on any given day, somewhere between 13 and 26 million American parents weren't feeding their children."

I also find it hard to believe what a moron I can be sometimes.

13 million hungry children would, at maximum, have 26 million parents—assuming that every child had two parents and every couple had only one child. Big assumptions. But still, mathematically and biologically, that's the absolute maximum.

As to the minimum... well, even if every child had two parents, many children have siblings that share the same parents. In that case, for example, 13 million parents could be living with their spouses and raising two children. Each household would have exactly two parents and two children. Not very likely.

In fact, some households may have one parent and eight children. Some may have two parents and one child. Some may have one parent, one step-parent, and two children. Others... well, you get the idea.

Innumeracy bothers me when I see it elsewhere, so I felt compelled to apologize for my own staggering mathematical stupidity. The minimum number of parents required to produce 13 million children isn't easily calculable, so my having stated that "I found it hard to believe that on any given day, somewhere between 13 and 26 million American parents weren't feeding their children" would indeed have been understandable if I were talking about the math of it—but I wasn't. I was talking about the "fact" of it.


On the other hand, although I wouldn't find it as unbelievable that, say, 8.6 million American parents were depriving their children of a meal on any given day, I still think it's pretty unlikely and would like to see some better scientific instruments at work here.

I'm sure there are some very poor, very hungry kids in America, but we ought to separate the obese and sometimes "hungry" kids from the malnourished and always hungry before we go throwing 90 billion dollars at the problem (as Second Harvest suggests).

There are, after all, about 72 million Americans under the age of 18 (and 67.5 million of them live "in family"). The 13 million "hungry" kids would represent about a sixth of that. If handed directly to the kids with no overhead costs, 90 billion dollars would come out to just under 7000 dollars per hungry kid—or about $19 per child, per day. An adult could eat pretty well on $19 a day in America—with money left over for beer and cigarettes.

But remember, we don't have to feed these kids completely: they're hungry, not starving. We just need to supplement their diets. One of the studies I looked at suggested that a sizable portion of the "hungry" kids "unfed" by their parents ate very well during the school year, but that on vacations and weekends they often missed meals because their lousy parents weren't around to feed them the "nutritional minimum" for lunch.

A school year has 180 days. So we don't need to divide that 90 billion dollars by 13 million kids by 365 days a year: just by 13 million kids for 185 days a year—the days they're not in school. Without resorting back to Excel, that'd obviously be about $38 per kid, per "at-risk-of-hunger" day. If you take that $38 supplement as an average, then a kid who just misses a couple of meals a year might only need $5 a day for five or six days. A kid whose parents feed him water and gruel could then have enough food money to... well, to eat every meal at a Michelin-rated restaurant.

But why?

Anyone who's ever watched television knows you can feed some starving Ethiopian kid for just fifty cents a day, including overhead, so what gives? What makes our hungry kids so much more expensive? Or have we been bullshitting ourselves about those Ethiopian kids all along?

(I suspect we may have been. When we want to help victims of famine, we ship them hundreds of tons of grain. Mm! Good, tasty grain! Can you imagine FEMA showing up to some famine-ravaged community in America and handing out buckets of grain? "Here you go, folks, a whole barrel of grain to help your family through these tough times! And here's a handsome trough to eat it from!" I don't buy it. I once had a job distributing government food to various poverty programs in the Chicago area. We gave them cheese, crackers, tinned meats, peanut butter, stuff like that. If we'd tried handing out grain at any of our stops, I highly doubt I'd be alive to tell about it today.)

Just something to chew on. (Sorry.) Ain't math fun?

Why I Can't Take the World Seriously 

In one of the free Danish dailies, the headline of a page-12 article caught my eye: "13 millioner børn i USA er sultne." It's an easy translation: "13 Million Hungry Children in the USA." (My translation accommodates cultural differences in headline styles.)

The article began by noting that on any given day, 13 million American children are hungry because they didn't get a meal from their parents. I found it hard to believe that on any given day, somewhere between 13 and 26 million American parents weren't feeding their children. Unfortunately, the article only had another 3-4 sentences and I couldn't translate them on my own. So I tried to look up an English-language version online. Google helped me find this.

I'd recently read that the definition of "hunger" in the United States was an answer of yes to the following question: "Have you missed a meal in the last month?" I wanted to confirm that. I poked around for quite a while, looking at all sorts of government studies and poverty reports and so on, and though I couldn't confirm that this was the actual definition of hunger in America, the closest I came to an official definition was a whitepaper from Tufts that came down to this:

Based on existing Federal policies, people whose incomes are below the poverty threshold are, by definition, not able to afford a minimally nutritious diet. This definition alone might suggest that some 37 million Americans experienced hunger at some time during 1992.

Supplementing this poverty-oriented view of hunger are the results of several empirical studies and analyses indicating that the number of Americans experiencing hunger is closer to 30 million (3; 4; 6; 7). These studies also indicate that approximately 12 million children (under age 18) experience hunger annually.

Okay. So what's a "minimally nutritious diet?" Go here and find out, if you want—I couldn't find a quick answer. But from what I saw, I can tell you this: a minimally nutritious diet in the United States is a pretty sweet thing.

In other words, This is magnificent news. We are so civilized, so generous, and so good at taking care of our citizens, that we consider them hungry if they've gone without a single meal in the past month. We define them as "food insecure" if, for example, they say there've been times in the last year when their groceries didn't seem to be enough to get them through to their next paycheck. Yes, the word "seem" is in the question! And no, there's no follow-up as to whether they bought a couple of gallons of Coke and twenty-frozen pizzas or lots of chicken, fruits, veggies, and milk.

We take care of our own, goddammit. The problem is, we worry so much about the unfortunates in our midst that cottage industries have sprung up to serve our hysteria right back to us. They begin with the noble goal of filling in the cracks, but once those cracks are filled they're not about to pack up and call it a day. No, they keep raising the bar and making us feel bad.

The end result is wonderful in that it makes sure that the least fortunate American is still better off than the average citizen elsewhere in the world. (Though, admittedly, not as well off as the average Scandinavian.) But it's also terrible, in that foreigners pick up on hysterical press releases from advocacy groups and trumpet the news that "13 million American children are hungry!"

The average Pakistani reading that "Hi Pakistan" article probably doesn't define hunger quite the same way we do. Not only that, but the average Pakistani is going to be confused because the average Pakistani has also been hearing a lot about how fat Americans are. And what is the average Pakistani going to make of this line from the same article:

However, food advocate groups say recent research shows that often, hunger is the cause of obesity.

War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Hunger is Obesity.

Now where'd I put those Gummi Bears...?


I accidentally read yesterday's Maureen Down column this morning and it got me wondering: everyone's so goddam worried that Mel Gibson's The Passion is going to kick up a whole mess of anti-semitism because, some say, the film features "classically anti-Semitic images." I don't want to open that can of worms until I actually see the movie, but something Dowd wrote actually did get me thinking (the ellipsis is hers):

In "Braveheart" and "The Patriot," his other emotionally manipulative historical epics, you came out wanting to swing an ax into the skull of the nearest Englishman. Here, you want to kick in some Jewish and Roman teeth. And since the Romans have melted into history . . .

First of all, just a nit: isn't every movie "emotionally manipulative"? Isn't that sort of the point? Whatever their politics or aesthetics, they're supposed to manipulate holy hell out of your emotions.

Second of all, and more importantly, what's all this crud about Romans melting into history? Every map I look at still shows a capital of Rome in the middle of Italy. There are plenty of Romans in the world today, yet I haven't heard a single one crying out against Mel Gibson's anti-Italianism.

Ms. Dowd might argue that today's Romans are nothing like the Romans of Jesus' day. Fair enough. But then it's a little harder to explain why today's Jews are like the Jews of Jesus' day. The through-line works for both or for neither.

Thirdly, did the apparent "anti-Englishism" of those two earlier flicks actually amount to anything? Was there a sudden surge in Brit Bashing? If so, why didn't I get the memo?

Still, it's an interesting question: why hasn't Silvio Berlusconi picked up on this? I'd like to hear him denounce the film for its unfair portrayal of Italians as savage, imperialist, Christ-killing bastards. I'd like to hear him remind the world that Roman civilization was classical, and therefore great. Anti-Italianism is a terrible blight that must be stamped out at once.

Now I really need to get to the gym.

Friday Stuff 

The Weekend Almanac is up... Week 16 with the Bean, Culture Day in Finland, and much, much more.

Also, I meant to link to this Bulgarian Incident earlier. Ah, the many joys of expatriate shopping! "Imagine a guy pouring over the instructions of how to use a packet of spices on chicken... that's me." Me too, Mr. Crank. (Danish shopping carts also require a 10- or 20-kroner piece to be detached from their "conga line," and I always forget to bring coin money with me to the grocery store. So I either have to get change before I can shop, which takes a lot of time and is, like most things, a pain in the ass, or carry handbaskets around with me—not a lot of fun when you're buying 6 liters of diet cola and a couple of liters of milk, among other things.)

Also another great Europundits essay, this one a very interesting perspective on how both the Euro-American split and the war in Iraq may both have been made messier by the very noble (read "naive") intentions and beliefs of British PM Tony Blair. If you've admired Blair's staunch support for American policy, as I have, this may get you to think twice: we may have been more cursed than blessed by the manner of the support from Downing Street.

Man, it's late, I've got to get to the gym.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Big Gay Wedding Thing 

I'm still baffled about the furor over same-sex marriage. I'm not trying to spout my opinions, I just really, truly, sincerely, honestly don't understand the objections. And I want to, because I feel like right now my opinion is completely uninformed. I can't consider the other side until I understand the other side, and I'm having a hell of a time with it.

So I'm rooting around in the law, of all goddam places, trying to understand what the fuss is about.

Here's one legal definition of marriage, from LegalLawHelp.com:

The state-recognized, voluntary and exclusive contract for the lifelong union of two persons. Most countries do not recognize marriage between same-sex couples or polygamous marriages.

And here's some helpful background from Cornell's Law School:

Marriage is chiefly regulated by the states. The Supreme Court has held that states are permitted to reasonably regulate the institution by prescribing who is allowed to marry, and how the marriage can be dissolved. Entering into a marriage changes the legal status of both parties and gives both husband and wife new rights and obligations. One power that the states do not have, however, is that of prohibiting marriage in the absence of a valid reason. For example, prohibiting interracial marriage is not allowed for lack of a valid reason and because it was deemed to violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

All states limit people to one living husband or wife at a time and will not issue marriage licenses to anyone with a living spouse. Once an individual is married, the person must be legally released from the relationship by either death, divorce, or annulment before he or she may remarry. Other limitations on individuals include age and close relationship. Limitations that some but not all states prescribe are: the requirements of blood tests, good mental capacity, and being of opposite sex.

And this is where I begin to get confused. "One power that the states do not have, however, is that of prohibiting marriage in the absence of a valid reason." Okay. But some states already prohibit marriages between persons of the same sex.

From my absolutely worthless, legally uninformed position, it seems to me that all we need to settle this whole issue is for the Supreme Court to make a ruling on whether or not homosexuality is "a valid reason" to prohibit marriage between two consenting adults. After all, if "prohibiting interracial marriage is not allowed for lack of a valid reason and because it was deemed to violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution," but homosexual marriage can be prohibited, then clearly homosexuals aren't protected by that clause, which doesn't strike me as true.

More from Cornell:

In 1996, President Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which, for federal purposes, defined marraige as "only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife" (1 U.S.C. § 7). DOMA further provided that "No State, territory, or possession of the United States, or Indian tribe, shall be required to give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other State, territory, possession, or tribe respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws of such other State, territory, possession, or tribe, or a right or claim arising from such relationship" (28 U.S.C. § 1738C).

Now I'm really getting confused. President Clinton was defending marriage? Yikes. Let's go back to that 1967 Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, in which race was deemed "not valid" (and in violation of the fourteenth amendment). Here's an excerpt from the Opinion of the Court:

These (anti-miscegenation) statutes also deprive the Lovings of liberty without due process of law in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.

Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival. Skinner v. Oklahoma, 316 U.S. 535 , 541 (1942). See also Maynard v. Hill, 125 U.S. 190 (1888). To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.

Yadda, yadda, yadda. We get the point. (Don't you love that the case is "Loving v Virginia?")

But hold on... what's the 14th Amendment? Well, it's a 5-section monster from 1868 which, among other things, prohibits persons who've taken up arms against the U.S. government from holding elected office. More to the point, however, is section one:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

So there's my problem. I realize I'm a complete amateur and am very likely misunderstanding everything, and I'm sure there's a lot more I ought to be reading, but I still don't get why dudes can't marry dudes and chicks can't marry chicks. Yes, yes, I understand that people have moral and religious objections to homosexuality, that people are worried about the fate of the family as an institution, and all that. I really do.

But those aren't legally binding, are they? I have moral objections to arson, but you don't see me running around trying to keep arsonists from getting married, do you?

In the Simpsons episode entitled "Jaws Wired Shut," Homer, Marge, and the kids are watching Sprigfield's gay pride parade. I can't find the text online, but if memory serve it goes something like this:

Gay Parader: We're here! We're queer! Get used to it!

Lisa: We are used to it! You do this every year!

Why do I mention this? Partly because I think the Simpsons is like the Iliad or Bible of my generation: it's the ultimate touchstone, a boundless font of allegories, metaphors, and analogies. Partly because, you know, it's more interesting than Loving v. Virginia. But mostly because I think it nicely illustrates the way I feel about homosexuality:

I'm used to it. You don't spend fifteen years in theatre and not get used to homsexuality.

Anyway, this whole exercise in research has left me no wiser than I was at the outset. I still don't understand this mess, so it's time to add it to the unresolved mess pile and move on.

On Christianity 

In responding to a request to print a citation from one my old WarNewz articles, I found myself prowling around the old web edition of what is now a print newspaper (the Charleston Mercury). While there, I stumbled across the most engaging and entertaining essay about Christianity I've seen without a C.S. Lewis byline. I'm not Christian, myself, but I'm a sucker for this kind of writing, whatever the subject. Here's a sample:

For so many years, I took such pleasure in mocking Christians as hypocritical. In fact, during pre-marital counseling, I told my church's assistant rector, "I don't go to church because it's full of hypocrites."

He said, "Well, the gym is full of fat people, but that doesn't mean you can't work out there, does it?" He had a point; I went to church.

It's a shame the author's column only appears to be available in print.


Not much to write here because I said pretty much everything I have to say for the time being over on the website, including a Fastelavn follow-up, more on marriage, and the usual bundle of anecdotes, exaggerations, and inaccuracies.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Theatrical Endorsement 

If you're in the Chicago area, Heather Donaldson Moran is one of the most talented people I've ever known. Period. See this.

A Theory of Danish Etiquette 

A propos of the Magnificent Savage rant, below, comes this interesting theory from Laura, a Finn now living in Denmark.

Err... In the words of the Venerable Dean, I'm not saying I believe it, I'm just saying it's interesting.

The Moron's Defense of Marriage Act 

Here's a transcript of what President George W. Bush said about same-sex marriages yesterday.

Here's my problem with it:

Today, I call upon the Congress to promptly pass and to send to the states for ratification an amendment to our Constitution defining and protecting marriage as a union of a man and woman as husband and wife.

The amendment should fully protect marriage, while leaving the state legislatures free to make their own choices in defining legal arrangements other than marriage. America's a free society which limits the role of government in the lives of our citizens. This commitment of freedom, however, does not require the redefinition of one of our most basic social institutions.

Got that? We need a Constitutional "definition" of marriage as a union of a man and a woman as a husband and wife (and specifying which is which). We also need a Constitutional "protection" of that concept—but that protection should leave the states free to let same-sex couples engage in legal arrangements that are not "marriage."

Without saying it outright, the president seems to imply that such "other" legal arrangements wouldn't have to be recognized from one state to another. (By his assertion, earlier in the remarks, that in the event the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act were struck down by the courts, "every state would be forced to recognize any relationship that judges in Boston or officials in San Francisco choose to call a marriage." His wording suggests that he'd prefer things not to go that way.)

I don't understand what the president hopes to gain here, or what he fears would be lost if homosexual couples were allowed to get wedding certificates.

Let me get anecdotal for a minute.

My favorite ex-wife has a gay cousin living in a monogamous relationship with another guy. His heterosexual sister fell into drug addiction and prostitution on the streets of Oakland. One pregnancy followed another. Her brother and his lover adopted each of her children. We visited them one Christmas and they were as happy a family as ever you saw. Two daddies and a brood of children ranging in color from lily-white to darkest black, as close and loving family as you ever saw.

At the time, the ex and I lived next-door to some hillbillies in Chicago. (It's not a slur, that's how they described themselves, proudly: quoth one of them, one night, "we're the fuckin'est hillbillies you ever met!") They were violent, lawless drunkards. Twice they robbed our apartment building. They slapped each other and their children around. One day I saw their little boy hit his little sister after she'd jammed a stick into the spokes of the bike he was riding. The father came rumbling after the boy, practically wrenching his arm out of its socket as he dragged him back inside for the inevitable whoopin', admonishing him along the way: "Ya cain't hit a girl until yer married!" (Honest. There were other witnesses.)

Mama and Papa Hillbilly were married. My ex's cousin and his lover were not. Will that fact help the Hillbilly kids overcome the terrible obstacles of their upbringing? Will it diminish the upbringing of the kids with two daddies? Not at all.

Why not? The same reason you can be a great driver without a driver's license, or a lord among flyfishers without a fishing license. The government issues licenses, not skills. The success or failure of marriage as an institution depends not on the government's selection of who can and cannot get married, but on what those men and women make of their marriages.

About half of all heterosexual marriages in America end in divorce. The institution is a wreck already, so let's not even argue about the sacred state of matriomony. Let's talk nuts and bolts. Let's talk tax law, healthcare benefits, adoption law. If the same benefits will accrue to a homosexual couple with an approved civil union as accrue to a married heterosexual couple, then the issue is purely semantic. If not, then the issue is purely one of bigotry.

I don't care if the civil bond between homosexuals is called a Marriage or a Civil Union or a Handfasting or The Big Gay Bond. They certainly have the right to dedicate their lives to one another, and persons who take an oath to do so deserve all the benefits of "marriage" no matter what they (or we) choose to call it. They should be able to protect one another on their insurance policies, adopt children, and get the family rates at vacation resorts.

Here's the only defense of marriage I can get behind—call it the Moron's Defense of Marriage Act:

If you don't like homosexuals, don't marry one.


The Magnificent Savage 

The Vikings were big hairy men wrapped in animal pelts who piled into boats, set forth onto the frozen waters of their nordic homeland, and conquered almost everyone with whom they came into contact from Baghdad to North America; they were a mighty barabarian horde that elicited fear in all who beheld them.

At least, that's what a lot of us like to think.

National Geographic has a fluffy piece on archeology's changing perceptions of Vikings, "Vikings' Barbaric Bad Rap Beginning to Fade." The story doesn't dispute the well-chronicled horrors of some Viking practices, but it seeks to mitigate them even as it attempts to divert attention to their more humanistic achievements.

"The Norsemen were not just warriors, they were farmers, artists, shipbuilders, and innovators," said Ingmar Jansson, a professor of archaeology at Stockholm University in Sweden. "More than anything, they were excellent traders who connected peoples from Baghdad to Scandinavia to the mainland of North America.

And their reputation may have been maligned unfairly:

But it was also in the interest of the churchmen to exaggerate the atrocities of the Vikings in their reports. Many of the Christian rulers at the time behaved equally unpleasantly, without being condemned on religious grounds.

Not only that, but most of us have apparently misunderstood who the Vikings actually were:

"Viking is misused as an ethnic term," Jansson said. "The Vikings belonged to the upper class. They were the sea warriors. But most people were just Scandinavians. For them, the normal life was to stay home and be a farmer."

Before I decant my bottle of whup-ass on some of these notions, I ought to give author Stefan Lovgren his due. He quotes William Fitzhugh, the director of the Arctic Studies Center at the National Museum of History in Washington, D.C., and curator of a major Viking exhibit there in 2000, as pointing out that:

The Vikings reconnected humanity and made the world a smaller place by traveling huge distances. We look back to the Vikings as the origin of this kind of human endeavor to find new horizons, use new technology, meet new people, and think new thoughts.

Exactly. Viking civilization doesn't inspire anyone. What captures our imagination is Viking barbarism, the Viking spirit of boldly going where no man has gone before—then kicking ass and taking wives. Mr. Fitzhugh is perhaps being disingenuous when he speaks of a human endeavor to "meet new people," insofar as that strikes me as a serious understatement of the peculiar Viking people skills.

Imagine it's Halloween and you've just opened your front door. There before you stands a little boy dressed as a Viking: the horned helmet, the ragged furs, the hammer or spear, the leather moccasins.

"Oh!" you exclaim indulgently, "What a scary Viking! Please don't pillage me!"

The little barbarian rolls his eyes. "I'm not scary," he says, "and I'm not interested in pillage. I'd like to get to know you, and perhaps incorporate some of your traditions into my own. I'd like to open lines of trade with you and your family, and perhaps establish a cultural exchange that could be mutually beneficial. I am, after all, an artistocratic representative of an agricultural society that is really not so different from your own."

He might be an accurate historian, but he's a terrible Viking. No Clark Bar for him!

With all due respect to archaeology, I think this whole line of inquiry ought to be dropped immediately. History has already robbed of us so many other savage heroes that it's time to draw a line and defend whatever little legacy remains.

Look, for example, at the American Indian. These were proud and disciplined warriors, for the most part, whose cultures honored courage, fidelity, strength, and genius. There were agricultural tribes, of course, and they had their spiritual side just like anyone else. That's the side history has embraced. The noble warrior tribes of North America have been emasculated, reduced to poofy pastoral caricatures: wise, earth-loving, herb-eating pacifists who wanted nothing more than the right to chew their plants and worship their Earth God in peace.

Even the mighty Aztecs and Incas of South America, whose magnificent empires were a testament to their strength and ambition, now excite more pity than admiration—simply because their conquering nations were conquered by other conquering nations.

"Well," you might say, especially if you held an advanced degree from a distinguished university, "we're more civilized today than we were back then. Enlightened society no longer embraces the archetype of the warrior-hero. There's much more to learn from the humanistic side of these civilizations. As Rousseau observed..." You'd probably go on like that for a while, since I'd be unlikely to interrupt you in my sleep.

Here's my problem with that line of reasoning: if the human race had contented itself with soft humanism from the outset, we'd still be huddling up in trees, terrified of the carnivores below. At some point, one of our collective ancestors looked down upon the gleaming fangs of a tiger and said, "Fuck this, I can take that bastard."

And probably he died a painful death.

But some of our ancestors may have been looking on. "Ook was brave, but stupid," they may have said. "It will take three men to whup that tiger's ass. Let's the three of us give it a shot while the tiger is still digesting Ook."

And probably they kicked that tiger's ass.

Those men were heroes. They advanced human civilization. They practically founded human civilization. What were the humanists doing? Our gentle, soulful, peace-loving ancestors were munching their nuts and berries up in the tree, shaking their heads. "Bloody-minded fools," they were saying. "Macho barbarian bastards! Gimme another nut..."

We need our warrior heroes—we'd be nowhere without them.

C.S. Lewis may have put it best in The Abolition of Man:

In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

Hoary, hairy, savage, meat-eating barbarians of the north! Masters of the frigid seas! I salute you!

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Language and Thought 

Nelson Ascher at EuroPundits has a great little essay on what various languages require of their writers.

The more I learn Danish, the more I realize that if I ever hope to speak or write it properly it won't be enough to simply swap words and phrases around in my head: I'll have to learn to think Danish. Because inverting your verb and subject whenever the sentence begins with something other than the subject, for example, isn't just a grammatical operation: it's a way of organizing your thoughts—and structuring your thoughts one way rather than another is bound to have consequences beyond mere "translation."

Which is all waaaaaay to deep for a quick little Tuesday night thought, so I'll leave it at that.

Adolescence as Grounds for Expulsion 

I'm stumped... is this article from ArabNews a good sign, in that it shows a level of dissident reflection in the Saudi Arabian mainstream, or a bad sign in that it reflects such idiocy on the part of Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Education? If having "destructive and dangerous ideas and beliefs" is grounds for expulsion, as the Ministry's pamphlet suggests it ought to be, what teenager could possibly get through secondary school? Isn't adolescence practically defined as the holding of destructive and dangerous ideas and beliefs? Or was that just me?

Probably it was just me. Never mind.

Norwegian Comedy 

You've got to love this, unless you hate it. First, an article in today's Nettavisen entitled "Alan Shearer shocked by penis questions." The gist:

Together with his brother Aleksander, Schau interviewed Shearer by phone, and the soccer star was asked questions he definitely not been asked before, according to the Norwegian paper VG.

Schau asked a direct, strait-on question of what Shearer did with his penis after taking a leak.

Kristopher Schau is apparently a popular Norwegian entertainer with a reputation as something of a shock jock. The nice thing about being a shock jock in Norway is that you can get away with more than you can in the states:

Last summer, Schau and his team were hired on entertained the crowd at the Quart music festival, and he managed splendidly to piss them off, getting exactly what he wanted.

The group blew up rats and hamsters all over the audience when they tried to make so-called "organic balloons" by filling the animals with helium. Schau also attached an engine to a carcass of a pig and used it as a boat . The audience was appalled and the animal rights activists were furious.

Organic balloons? How hilarious is that? (I know, it's sick, but come on... rats and hamsters!)

Second, don't miss the link from July's story about that motorized pig boat. It's got pictures.

Hitting "Undo" in Slovakia 

Petr Bokuva reports that riots have been breaking out in Trebisov, Slovakia. It's apparently a reaction to Slovakia's efforts to wean its citizens off government support, which has recently been cut back dramatically. It used to be more profitable to stay home and collect benefits than to go out and get a job because government assistance rates were higher than the minimum wage. That's been corrected, now, but the correction is obviously causing some pain.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Socialism at Work 

Ethics problem: you're running late to a reception with the queen. The only possibility of getting there in time is to drive the wrong way down a one-way street and park illegally. What's today's harried cosmetics heiress to do?

Answer, according to a Norwegian policeman: "Be nice and say sorry." Problem solved and ticket dodged! Why? Because "it doesn’t mean anything to get a fine of NOK 500 (USD 72) when you have a fortune of NOK 500 million (USD 72 million)."

Translation: if you can pay the fine, it ain't a crime.

UPDATE: Getting around zoning laws, however, appears to require royal pedigree.


Despite my having lived in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York for about five years each and having found them more or less the same in terms of my day-to-day life, for some reason I expected my life in Europe to have been a little more exotic. I don't mean I expected to become involved with a lot of nobles or pirates or revolutionaries, only that I somehow neglected to project into my imaginings such exigencies of daily life as laundry and grocery shopping. That is, I imagined a life without life.

That oversight was corrected almost as soon as I moved here, obviously, but I did notice that these trifling little tasks seemed different here. Something was different, I just couldn't identify what it was.

Until today.

While running a load of laundry at the coin-op place down the street, I popped into the cafe across the street to kill some time. I sat down, picked up a newspaper, and began to read. It was a perfectly ordinary thing to do, so I began to feel that curious feeling again, the feeling that this very ordinary activity was somehow different than it would have been in the states. I'm used to that feeling now, though, so I didn't pay any attention to it.

Suddenly, however, I found myself getting fidgety and annoyed. The feeling seemed to come out of the blue. Granted, I'd been sipping a cup of freshly-brewed coffee that could have made dead men jitterbug, but it wasn't just the caffeine. Something was harshing my mellow.

I stopped reading and tried to concentrate on my environment, but I couldn't. It was impossible to concentrate because of a conversation going on at a nearby table.

"I mean, you never know with Steinbrenner," one young man was saying. "But you got Derek Jeter, the best player in baseball, and when his contract comes up--"

"In four years," his companion interrupted him.

"Four years, sure, but listen, listen..."

Then it struck me. Not only did I realize at once that it was this conversation that had disrupted my afternoon coffee: I immediately realized what it was that had been so different about everything over here since the day I arrived. I don't understand a goddam thing. I've been living in a bubble of ignorance, a cone of oblivion that no conversation could penetrate. The little snippets of conversation that you overhear all the time, the public address system announcements, the children's shouts, the endless chatter of the people around you, all the verbal jetsam and flotsam that assaults you from all sides, wheresoever you go--I'd been immune to all of it. I'd been floating along in the bubble of my own thoughts, undistracted by the white noise of Danish that surrounded me.

Suddenly hearing a couple of Americans bicker about George Steinbrenner's plans for the Yankees reminded me that all that white noise was actually conversation--that Danes weren't walking around going "blah blah blah, grbl grbl grbl." They were talking about things, debating things, making fun of things, inquiring about things.

Of course I'd always known I was cocooned in an airtight little bubble of English. I'd been to enough parties and gatherings at which Danish predominated to realize how cut off I was from the culture in which I live. But for some reason it never bothered me with strangers. I think I sort of liked being cut off from their babble. Haven't I even remarked (on the other blog) on how nice it is to work out at the gym without being distracted by the conversation of others?

Hearing these kids talk about the Yankees in English made me realize how much I've been missing. How many conversations, had I understood them, might I have leaped right into? How many unsolicited expressions of my opinion might I have made? Sure, I've probably avoided a few bar-room brawls this way, but there are probably also a fair amount of friends I could have made that remain total strangers.

By the time I worked through all these thoughts, the Americans had left the cafe. And it's a damn good thing.

Lousy Yankee fans...

Bad News, Good News 

The bad news, according to Agha.com, is an interview with Taliban "spokesman" Saif Adel, who claims the Taliban's forces are growing and preparing for major action all over Afghanistan this spring.

The good news is his diminished capacity for boasting. He "claimed to have dozens of volunteer fighters in the movement's ranks, 'most of them our Arab brothers, but with more and more Afghans.'" A few dozen mostly foreign Jihadists plotting against freedom in Afghanistan, where even a thug like Said Adel has to acknowledge "their popular support remains low." Surely that's progress?

For what it's worth, I remember one Islamofascist promising in mid-Novemeber that there would be a devastating attack on the United States around the end of Ramadan. His interviewer (talking to the thug at an undisclosed location) expressed some skepticism, and the thug said something like, "Oh yes, yes, you wait and see. It will be spectacular! Why would I lie to you? If it does not happen, you will never trust me again." A lot of media picked this up and ran with it. No one ever did a follow-up story. No one ever ran a story about the fact that such-and-such a thug was a lying loony and should never be believed in the future. For all I know, it was the same loony popping his mouth off here.

Someone ought to keep track of these things. (I mean someone other than me.)

Fastelavn Extortion, Superman Interview, and More 

The Monday Almanac is up.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

The Kerry Album 

That 1971 image of John Kerry with Jane Fonda made quite an impression on me. It also got me thinking: if Kerry had been imprudent enough to allow himself to be photographed with "Hanoi Jane," was it not possible he had been photographed at other impolitic moments? It only took a few minutes on Google to discover the answer.

There's Senator Kerry (right) with Fearless Leader and the Badenovs, apparently oblivious to the raised gun and the bomb being ignited just a few feet away. Or perhaps he's just pretending to be oblivious? Very statesmanlike. What very serious things he must be thinking about!

I don't know what Senator Kerry was doing on the Death Star, or whatever Imperial base this photograph was taken on, but even General Tarqin watched his ass around Darth Vader. You have to wonder: is Darth Vader Senator Kerry's bitch?

What kind of man hangs out with rampaging orcs? What kind of presidential candidate? They don't even care about politics, they just attack, attack, attack... oh. Never mind.

This was the weirdest one of all—and the most disturbing to me personally. Apparently Kerry crashed my wedding last August and we didn't even invite him!

Sunday Luck 

About twenty minutes ago the DMG and I were sitting in the living room watching some Discovery Channel documentary, the remains of our very late breakfast scattered around us. Sunlight streamed in through the gauzy drapes drawn across the floor-to-ceiling windows. The sky was a brilliant blue, unsullied by a single cloud.

"It's a beautiful day," the DMG observed, "we oughta do something."

I agreed. We decided we'd hop in the car and try another random drive into hitherto unfamiliar (to me) parts of Zealand. We showered and changed, chatting all the while about places we might go. Forests? Cliffs? Castles?

And here we are, twenty minutes later. I'm looking out the window. The sky is dour, gray, and dreary. Not a patch of blue to be found. It's all part of the grand meteorological plan to drive me out of my mind.

It's succeeding.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?