Lessons from History

It is common practice to look back and conflate the events of the past with those of the present, seeking parallels, resonance, and answers from previous events that help explain today’s. We learn from others, from their experiences, and we like to find commonalities in our shared experiences, even from our or other’s historic past. We see ourselves reflected in our past and we sometimes mistake that reflection for the reality.

Machiavelli did it in both The Prince and The Discourses, didactically using examples from classical Greek and Roman texts to explore the events, politics, and governance in his contemporary Italian states, and drawing conclusions on his modern events from parallels in the past. That was one of his great achievements: to explore how people behave similarly in similar situations across the ages, and thus extrapolate how we will behave under similar conditions in the future. This is why his books remain relevant today. In The Discourses, he warned in what could be seen as prescient to the current US administration:

Whoever desires to found a state and give it laws, must start with assuming that all men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature, whenever they may find occasion for it.
Discourses on Livy Book I, Ch. 3

It’s a losing battle to argue that the US administration isn’t filled with evil, vicious, self-serving people, because all the evidence points otherwise. But I digress.

Legend, mythology, poetry, and literature in every culture has always provided examples from which to learn. From the earliest stories of Gilgamesh and the Bible to modern novels, we learn that human behaviour has not changed in any dramatic manner, and we can always discover our modern selves in reading about our past. And we may find new ways of seeing events and issues from another perspective. An article in The Atlantic noted,

…beyond providing an introduction to troubling issues, historical fiction can offer the chance, if taught conscientiously, to engage students with multiple perspectives, which are essential to understanding history; to help students comprehend historical patterns and political analogies; and to introduce students to historiography—how history is written and studied…
Humanizing history not only means it’s easier for students to connect the historical dots, research shows that it also encourages empathy. Being told a story via historical fiction helps students identify with the characters’ points of view, and that ability to recognize different outlooks… is an essential historical skill…

If anything, history and literature have show us that humans today remain as greedy, parsimonious, warlike, loving, compassionate, lustful, treacherous, loyal, curious, wise, affectionate, and pigheaded as we were at the dawn of recorded history. This also is why classical philosophy and — some non-supernatural parts of — religion still have relevance today, too: human behaviour has not changed in the millennia since we started writing about it.

Machiavelli wrote,

To exercise the intellect the prince should read histories, and study there the actions of illustrious men, to see how they have conducted themselves in war, and discover the causes of their victories and defeat, so as to avoid the latter and imitate the former.
The Prince, Ch. 14

Of course, all such comparisons are at least partially epigonic, because despite parallels, changes in cultures and technologies over time have created situations and events that cannot be duplicated nor simply overlaid on the past by mere ideological association. Looking back can offer many lessons, but one must be wary of aligning the past too closely with the present, and confusing allegory and metaphor with current reality. It’s far too easy to make false equivalences or grand generalizations from a cursory knowledge of the past.

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Bring Back the Yogh and the Thorn


ThornYe Olde Shoppe. We’ve all seen the signs like this. Ever wonder why it says “ye” instead of “the”? Me, too, at least way back then. I’ve known the answer a long time now from decades of reading about English, about typography, Chaucer, and about Middle English orthography. Spoiler alert: It was pronounced “the.” Not “ye.”

Thorn evolvedThe “ye” was actually spelled “(thorn)e” — thorn was a letter in the Old and Middle English alphabets that stood for “th.” It started out looking like a lowercase “p” as in the images at the top, but as time went on, it devolved into something that looked more like a “y” (on the left) in German printing (which lacked a thorn in its character set) which got passed back into early Modern English. When printing arrived in England, Caxton used the “y” form of thorn in his books, hence the “ye” in “the olde shoppe…”

Although Latin characters are the basis for most European languages, Latin (itself derived from earlier Etruscan) had only 23 characters in its alphabet, missing several used in other languages including the Germanic and Norse tongues that loaned so many words and sounds to English. To convey these missing sounds and letters, medieval scribes used characters and runes from other alphabets. While Latin was the official language of Christendom, which spread throughout Europe, it had some hiccups in translation.

Latin had no J, U, or W (or any lowercase form, which was also invented in medieval times), so these came from elsewhere into English. I was used for J; J wasn’t even a separate letter until Gian Giorgio Trissino used it in a book in 1524, but it didn’t appear in English books until 1633, and still wasn’t commonly used until around the early 19th century. So there was no Jesus, Joseph, Jehovah, Joshua, or any other character whose name started with a J in the original bibles (Latin or Greek). Those names are the result of translation into later English.

W had been represented in 7th and 8th century Germanic texts as a digraph (VV or uu), but didn’t make its way into English until the 13th century. It still took a century to become standard. Before then, the sound was represented by the rune wynn. U was originally just a stylistic variation on the letter v, used in the middle or end of a word, while the pointed v was used as the first character. Although u was accepted as a separate character as early as 1386, it was only in its lowercase form. The uppercase U was not used in English until the 17th century. 

EthAnother lost symbol for the was the Irish character eth, which also represented ‘th’ but was a slightly longer sound than thorn (try saying thing versus this to hear the difference).

YoghThe letter “y” wasn’t used back in Chaucer’s day, and instead scribes would have used a yogh, looking a bit like the numeral 3,  spelling our “ye” as 3e.  But yogh was flexible. Yogh, which derives from the Hebrew character gimel, was used for more than one letter, depending a bit on context and pronunciation: it could be g, z, w, or y, or sometimes an x or the allophone gh (as in night or knight, although these were not silent as they are now) and the guttural ch in loch or Bach. Yogh suffered from its closeness to the Arabic symbol for number three. Arabic numerals were gaining popularity in Britain around the end of the 14th  and early 15th centuries, and the two symbols conflicted.

By Chaucer’s day, by the way, the Latin I and Y had lost their distinctiveness as sounds in English.

Another lost letter is wynn, which was used for the “w” sound centuries before the letter was finally adopted into English. Several of these lost characters stayed around in English writing until Chaucerian times, but after the Norman invasion of 1066, French became the official language, and they disappeared from court documents and records. 

Thorn, eth, wynn, and yogh were incorporated into early English because they represented existing sounds not in Latin, but the long s was a typographic affectation for the letter s: style rather than pronunciation, so it had somewhat greater longevity. By Caxton’s time most of these symbols and letters had vanished from printed works, in large part because the printing press and its moveable type were imported from Europe where they didn’t have any of these symbols, so Caxton and others had to make changes to suit the typefaces they had.

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I Just Don’t Understand Americans

I’ve long been somewhat of a politics/history junkie, and as such I read a lot about both topics, from ancient times to modern; I read about events, wars, issues, personalities, elections, debates, governance, and the philosophy of politics. I read books, newspapers, websites, magazines, social media, and more books. I don’t have cable TV, however, but I do get to several reliable media sites online every day, including BBC, CBC, Al Jazeera, Atlantic, Reuters, Spiegel, Agence France Presse, Forbes, Macleans, New York Times, The Star,  Globe & Mail, Slate, and others.* 

So even though I am not an American, I like to think that, for a foreigner, I am reasonably well acquainted with American history, geography, and politics. It’s hard not to be at least somewhat aware, when it’s splashed all over every paper, website, social media, and radio news even in Canada. I try to be well-informed about the events and issues that affect our biggest trading partner and (sometimes uncomfortably close) neighbour because they always affect us here.

But for all my reading and attention, some days I just don’t get Americans. Don’t get me wrong: I have known and loved many Americans over the years; I count quite a few Americans among my friends or at least friendly acquaintances. I’ve worked for them, I’ve travelled with them, had sex with them, I’ve partied with them, played music with them, and danced with them. I’ve sipped tequila with them in a tiny bar tucked away in the hills of central Mexico, and I’ve played wargames and paintball with them. But when it comes to politics, I just don’t get them.

Why would ANYONE have voted for Donald Trump? It was like standing on a train track seeing the light coming towards you at full speed, hearing the whistle warning, and yet staying on the track because you believed it would pass you by and hit someone else.

Come on, folks: it splattered body parts all over the nation. He’s spent almost four years proving he’s a racist, intolerant, lying, narcissist, fake-Christian, barely literate, uneducated, vindictive, nasty clown doing his best to destroy the United States economically, environmentally, socially, and politically. He is shredding your nation’s democracy as we speak, undermining your Constitution, destroying your ability to vote,  and making Vladimir Putin a very happy man. He mishandled the pandemic at the cost millions of jobs, a worse economic collapse than the Great Depression, and more than 170,000 deaths (and rising). He mishandled international trade at the cost millions of jobs and hikes to consumer prices. He alienated every ally in Europe and North America. He has screwed education, tried to sell Puerto Rico, wanted to use atomic bombs on hurricanes, thinks windmills cause cancer, put incompetent sycophants into the Supreme Court, golfed this term more often than most people golf in their entire lives, and played footsie with America’s sworn enemies.

The whole fucking world is laughing at Trump and his blundering, his ineptitude, his unpresidential shenanigans. And they’re looking aghast at the overt fascism being rolled in. Unidentified, armed federal agents kidnapping people off the streets. Children separated from parents and put in cages for years, suffering abuse and sexual assault. Billionaires making billions more because of his tax cuts to the already-rich while workers lose jobs, rights, and benefits. Is this how you want American and its leaders to be perceived?

So who in their right mind would vote for him again? Especially now there’s a reasonable alternative in another candidate (and an excellent choice for VP) who can help the country heal and regain its stature in the world. Not the perfect candidate, sure, but in comparison the two Democrats simply outweigh the incumbents in ethics, morality, humility, public spirit, and intelligence.

Apparently, being in your right mind is not a requirement to vote for Trump or his enablers (Moscow Mitch McConnell, Lindsay “Vlad’s Boy” Graham, and the other crypto-fascists). Voting for any of them would be like asking to be disembowelled right after the executioner had lopped off your arms.  I just don’t get it. Who does that to themselves?

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The Cancer Diaries, Part 7

I don’t want readers to think I’m being narcissistic in writing these posts about my cancer or how it has affected me. Sure, I can be accused of being all sorts of things for writing my other posts, and a narcissist is the least of them. I’m sharing these because I felt — I hoped —others might benefit from my experiences: men and their partners. I think partners (be they men or women) should be as fully informed and engaged about what happens and what to expect as the patient.

I found a lot of medical and pseudo-medical (read: quack) advice and descriptions online about prostate cancer, symptoms, and its treatment, but not much of a personal nature. Maybe I didn’t search far enough, but what I wanted to read was what it meant to the person who received the diagnosis and the treatment. How does it feel to wake up every day and look in the mirror, knowing you have cancer? What goes through a person’s mind as they get wheeled into surgery? Or sit for hours in a thin hospital gown, among strangers, awaiting treatment? How should I prepare for these events?

Knowing the technical details and the biology was, of course, important, but how it affected a life in progress mattered equally or more to me. So I decided to post my own.

I’ve tried to document my experiences and emotions in these posts as honestly and openly as I can. It isn’t easy: I’m unaccustomed to writing for the public about myself and the details of my life except in a somewhat removed or neutral manner (like my posts on shaving or my reading). I am normally a very private person when it comes to my body and was reluctant to even mention the diagnosis to close friends and relatives at first. I was raised with the typical inhibitions of a suburban, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon family, and we didn’t talk about body parts, especially those related to sex. Admittedly, that was a long time ago — the Fifties and Sixties often seem like another world, imagined in a book or movie, rather than lived — but the reluctance to do so now remains.

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Don’t Get Your Hopes Up

News that asteroid “2018 VP1“, will pass within about 480 kms of Earth on November 2, 2020, has raised social media hopes that it might be drawn in by the planet’s gravity and crash on the White House, thus ending any speculation about the reviled Donald “Putin’s Puppet” Trump’s re-election. However, if you are among the alleged millions who wish for this scenario, I suggest you are being overly optimistic. Not only is the targetting rather too specific, but the chances of it even reaching the ground are very slim. And besides, it’s pretty damned small for an asteroid.

2018 VP1 is about 2m wide. As pointed out in the above-linked article, back in 2013 a much larger (20m) chunk of rock entered the atmosphere over Chelyabinsk, Russia, but exploded before it reached the surface. This rock was dubbed a “superbolide” (a bolide is a large meteor which explodes in the atmosphere): the entry and the heat from the friction caused it to explode about 30 km above the surface. Even at that distance the explosion caused extensive damage to buildings and the landscape. 2018 VP1 is a tenth the size.

In 1908, one of the most famous bolides exploded over Siberia in a similar fashion, causing much greater damage: it’s known today as the Tunguska Event. the rock that entered the atmosphere has been estimated to be about 100m in diameter, and exploded between five and 10 kms above the surface.

So at 2m, 2018 VP1 probably won’t even get that far before burning up or possibly exploding in the stratosphere. Damn, say a lot of Democrats.

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The Talibangelist Conspiracy to Rule America and the West

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Talibangelists (aka (aka the pseudo-Christian, far right) would love to force everyone believe in and obey their highly-adulterated pseudo-religion, and to punish those who don’t.  Or won’t. Punishment is big on their agenda: unbelievers, those who stray, followers of a real faith, scientists, intellectuals, people of colour, gays, people with an “R” in their name — they love to punish anyone not among their small circle of authoritarian theocrats  (aka theocons, because their pseudo-religious ideology is conservative-far right) and enablers (cue the theme music from The Handmaid’s Tale).

In order to bring their authoritarian ideology into public policy and ramp up the punishment machine, they must  infiltrate and then replace the governments of the world with their own theocracy. In the USA, where they are strongest and most numerous, they already have a running start: numerous Talibangelists are active in the Trump administration, close to the president, on the supreme court, and among the justice system (Attorney General Barr being one). They are close to success and have had much of their agenda made into US public policy already. They intend to rewrite the very Constitution to enable their goals, especially that irksome Establishment Clause that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” that prevents religious (or in their case, pseudo-religious) control over the government.

They can’t do it without their religious disguise. Any similar attempt to overthrown the government would be seen as what it is: a rightwing, authoritarian coup d’etat. They’d be rounded up and jailed. Charged with treason.  But by pretending to be religious, they can make everything they do about religious freedom, about biblical law, about god, and make themselves look like champions of Christians (particularly the Evangelicals and other rightwing religious sects who seem most gullible to this con). But in fact they are as deeply anti-Christian as they are anti-democracy.

Nope, no difference at all.

They would have all national laws based on or subservient to biblical laws — including, they note with anticipatory glee, stoning homosexuals. Talibangelist laws have been compared to Islamic sharia law, but the comparison is unfair: Talibangelists ideals are much more aggressive, punitive, unforgiving, and oppressive. Despite that, theocons get offended and shirty when you compare their biblical laws with sharia laws.

Of course, they don’t want all the bible’s laws enacted: only those that are convenient for them or that fit their homophobic, misogynistic, racist, nationalist ideology.  And also because, for all their codswallop about the bible and their morality, they simply can’t obey the vast majority of them (where, for example, would they even find the silver trumpets that must be sounded at feasts, at the new moon, and also “in times of tribulation, to call the congregation together”?).

They wouldn’t want, for example, the death penalty for adultery (Leviticus 20:10) because that would mean their better-than-Jesus president would be stoned to death for his many sins in that category. Or for liars to be punished as Proverbs 19:5 demands, because he’d suffer every time he tweets or holds a press conference. What about the law not to fail to repay a debt (Lev. 19:13) or not to steal money stealthily (Lev. 19:11) or not to overcharge or underpay for an article (Lev 25:14) or not to work people oppressively (Lev. 25:43), not to covet and scheme to acquire another’s possession  (Ex. 20:15), not to bear a grudge (Lev. 19:18)… Trump has broken so many mitzvot, not just the ten commandments, that even the theocons have lost count.

Nor do the Talibangelists want to obey all  laws themselves. They ignore the dietary laws in Leviticus 11 because it would mean no more bacon or shrimp. They don’t want to obey the law in Numbers 15:32-36 that forbids work on the Sabbath on penalty of death because it would mean they wouldn’t have places to dine or shop that day (it’s okay if other people have to work on the Sabbath because their deaths don’t matter). As the LA Times pointed out,

The Hebrew Bible enjoins us many times not to mistreat or oppress foreigners, and it offers provisions for the care and feeding of strangers. Leviticus says, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born,” and the book of Hebrews reminds us to “show hospitality to strangers.” I didn’t see the memo, but God must have revised his thinking on immigration before his endorsement of Trump.

So many biblical laws are just plain inconvenient to the Talibangelists, or threaten their power base, so they ignore them. Surely it’s not hypocrisy to demand others obey laws you refuse to even recognize? Or to forgive your president the same sins you would have others put to death for?

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