Saturday, March 13, 2021

Protecting Dissent

The consequences of freedom of speech when a global platform is within the reach of just about anyone seem to have gotten a little overwhelming lately. On the one hand, it's true that freedom of speech is a political right, and therefore is not intrinsically infringed by the choices of a private entity. On the other hand, it's equally true that political rights do not thrive when they cease to represent the values of a society. 

And it is difficult to remember just how unnatural the concept of freedom of speech is. The natural human instinct is for consensus, for harmony, and for shunning if not blotting out people who disagree, a practice that was undoubtedly in place long before the Pharaohs started scratching out engravings to their disfavored predecessors. 

Even though it's my job to have people disagree with me, I still hate it every time. Still get sick to my stomach when I see that new round of pleadings come in, still get annoyed when a malicious tenant has managed to cajole a public interest attorney to dragging out an eviction to the damage of everyone around them.

At the same time, I know that this is absolutely necessary. That without that adverse position, I would get sloppy and cut corners, no matter how much I tried not to. There's no substitute for someone actually getting in the ring against you to keep you honest and careful.

And dissent in every setting has that same function. A recent book by Charlan Nemeth, In Defense of Troublemakers, points out that dissent improves thought processes and decision making--even when it is 100% wrong. It's not just that dissent is valuable because it might be right--it's because even when it's wrong, facing up to it causes us to dig deeper, consider more angles, probe underlying reasons and causes, and ultimately come to a better decision. It's because welcoming even stupid dissenters makes it more likely we'll get to hear from wise ones.

So while I certainly understand the difference between government censorship and the content choices of a private organization, I also think it's worth speaking up and fighting for freedom of speech as a social value, not just a constitutional right. That it's worth preserving the voice of the cranks, the ignorant, the prejudiced, and that one guy who has questions about line 48 in the budget just as the meeting was about to adjourn for doughnuts. Because freedom of speech is hard. It's not natural. It takes practice. And it's how we keep learning. 

Friday, December 20, 2019

Here We Go A-Wandering

It is one of our most treasured if ill-conceived traditions that we always do a Real Tree, and if humanly possible, cut it from a u-cut farm. Now that DOB is not really up to the trek, I usually pick the kids up from school on a day in mid-December and we go straight to the nearest farm to pick one before dark. We are very quick in our selection. (Is this tree short enough to reach the top? Is it right here? Then it is good.) And last year I finally learned how I had been cutting trees wrong my entire life so now the cutting down is quick, too.

Unfortunately this year obtaining a tree was delayed a week or more past our usual late date because of the repair work still being done on the house from the pipe leak that happened in August. The back room was finally finished, though, and I had Toolboy scheduled to come help me set up the new couch later in the afternoon, so I figured we could squeeze it in yesterday.

It was inconvenient but not surprising that the window to get the tree coincided with the commencement of a three-day storm of torrential downpours. It was surprising that the tree farm was already closed and since I still refuse to get a smart phone as long as my 14-year-old flip phone keeps working, I had no backup plan for finding or checking if another one was open. (To be perfectly honest, even my flip phone was dead, which is why I don't really want to bother with a smart phone.)

So the kids (Duchess, Dot and Dash--Deux had been coming down with something and elected to stay home) insisted that we needed to go try to find another farm. The only one whose location I was certain of was about half an hour drive away through the busiest roads in the county at rush hour in the downpour. Duchess was driving and insisted she keep driving. I told them we might arrive just to find it closed for the day or the year, but they all wanted to go anyway. We could always give up and go to Lowe's on the way back.

In due course we did arrive, and amazingly enough it was still open (we were the last customers of the day) and they were immediately overcome with its size and majesty, as it was about a square mile of Christmas trees. We drove out to the section with our preferred species, forded a small river that had formed in the downpour, and cut down our selected tree.

It was then I realized that, relying on the Christmas tree farm to provide the service, we had failed to bring anything to tie the tree to the top of the car. But first we had to get it back to the office, which was about a half a mile hike back through the downpour and dusk. So I told Dash to pick up the short end of the tree and we headed off while Duchess drove back to the office. Dot accompanied us out of an overpowering desire to commune with nature.

We had made it most of the way back and watched Duchess drive past us en route to the office when Duchess came driving back, with twine to tie the tree to the top of the car. (It was at this moment that it occurred to me that we could have done this in the first place.) So we did, although not very well, and at this point after fifteen minutes walk in the downpour I had finally noticed that I was missing my hat, which I had actually knitted myself during a triennial fit of craftiness, out of green and brown variegated yarn.

So Duchess, Dash and I decided to drive all the way back to the place we cut the tree before it got darker to try to find the hat, while Dot elected to continue on to the office and commune with hot cocoa. We found the spot again easily enough (the small river was handy in location) but it now occurred to me that a knit hat made of green and brown variegated yarn looks exactly like the ground in a Christmas tree farm in a downpour at dusk in December. Happily we did find it.

Somewhere in here the tree fell most of the way off the car and I had to try to tie it on again, but it was still threatening to careen off the side the whole time.

Then it seemed to Duchess that rather than turning around what with stumps and streams and all she would be better off to keep driving on the assumption that the roads in the tree farm would loop back around to the office sooner or later. They did, but by the time we made it back Dot had finished her trip to the office, drunk an entire cup of hot cocoa, and come back out to stand in the rain and wonder what was taking us so long.

Then everyone else who wanted cocoa got it and the man still waiting for us to leave tied the tree on extremely securely and I insisted on driving home. We were all soaked to the skin and I still had a sectional couch to set up.

Everyone thought it was the best tree expedition ever.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Crime and Punishment

It was not an easy read. It was a good read, but definitely not easy, as much for the emotional intensity and theme as the usual Russian habit of giving everyone 6 different names and swapping them in and out at random. (Next time I start a Russian novel, I need to create a cast of characters to accompany me, because half the time I'm not sure who's talking.)

I probably shouldn't have been reading The Secret History of Moscow at the same time, which, although an intriguing book, made for altogether too much Russianness. We are all doomed, so let's drink more vodka.

Still, it was amazing and the scene in which he confesses to Sonia and she sees right through his confusion and misery and inability to repent to the suffering human at the core without the slightest hint of excusing wrongdoing is one of the most amazing things I've ever read.

It was a tough summer (and fall) and not much good for heavy reading. DOB had another new and different health challenge, some new diagnosis and a lot of uncertainty still.

So I'm certainly not going to finish out my Back to the Classics challenge, but I can surely fit in one more before the end of the year. And the dice roller says it will be Jude the Obscure, another one I suspect may be hard to get through.

That only brings me to 5 (having abandoned Swiss Family Robinson), so I'm going to throw in Orthodoxy as a bonus because I can certainly do that before the end of the year and at least make half my goal.

Considering the year it's been, that's pretty good, and maybe I can do the other half next year. 


Sunday, June 03, 2018

The Scarlet Letter

It's always risky revisiting a book that one remembers from childhood or adolescence; it may live up to your memories, it may not, or you may realize that you completely missed the point as a young person.

Fortunately The Scarlet Letter and I both survived the test of the re-read. It's a wonderful book, and although I certainly didn't get the full depth of the book at 15 (or now, likely enough) neither was I entirely uncomprehending.

Interestingly, I think the version I read back then must have omitted the author's preface explaining his finding of the story-sparking manuscript, which is largely a personal polemic on the character-sapping influences of a safe government job. I found it pretty entertaining now, from the position of the envious but proud private sector.

Simultaneously, I was reading Games People Play, one of the iconic works popularizing psychology from the 1960s. There was certainly some overlap--you could certainly see Chillingsworth playing a game of Now I've Got You, You Son of a Bitch disguised as I'm Only Trying to Help You while Dimmesdale plays Kick Me. They both get what they want from the relationship. (Psychology from the 60s still sounds far more judgmental than modern works. It's fascinating to begin to feel the distance from an era that I am old enough to think of as not that long ago.)

Psychology is intriguing, but literature will always tell us more, because it shows people from the inside. Only through literature can we get to be Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingsworth and maybe even little Pearl. On the whole, I liked Dimmesdale the least this time around, for his moral cowardice. But then, at least he turned it to kindness which is better than many in his situation do. It was really Pearl he wronged the most, and perhaps that is why Hawthorne shows her the most healed by his final confession.

Also reading: The Queen's Thief series, a re-read after I got Deux hooked on it. Just an absolutely fantastic series. And The Phoenix Guards, a fantasy swashbuckler. And The Genius of Birds, which is intriguing but will not tell me a question I have been wanting to know, whether anyone has found out if rabbits can do math. And I picked up Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope at the library booksale, and it promises very well indeed. Summer Reading Challenge at the library has started and I intend to at least get the 10-hour book bag, although the 100-hour t-shirt may be a bit ambitious for me.

Next on the classics challenge roll:  Crime and Punishment. Gulp. I'm almost as intimidated by that one as by the Aeneid, but here goes.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Laws and Customs

Washington, in the true populist tradition reflecting its heritage, has elected, non-partisan judges. At our recent Law Day celebration, the Supreme Court justice who spoke referred to it as a right we "would never surrender, and never exercise."

He was speaking more generally of the ignorance the voting public has of judicial candidates, but the quote was even truer than that, as is evidenced every time a judge retires. At least in our county, the judges never retire at a time that they could be replaced by an election. Thus, the governor must appoint a replacement.

There is an extensive vetting process through the governor's office, various attorney associations conduct panel discussions and make recommendations, and someone is chosen. None of the process is open to the public at large. At some point the new judge will have to run for re-election, but they will do so with the full weight of incumbency behind them. Since I have been practicing in the county, no one has upset a sitting judge or even run a serious campaign against one.

At the most recent judicial panel, someone raised the question of whether this practice was good or whether it thwarted the public participation that was intended to be part of the process. To my surprise, not a single candidate of four criticized it. They all spoke in favor of the current practices as weeding out unqualified candidates, as there is simply no way for the public to assess whether someone would be a good judge--the qualities that make for a good candidate are likely to be the opposite of those that would make for a good judge.

In the last round, the candidate that was chosen had already been serving as court commissioner for over a year. She'd been hired originally by the judges and the local bar had had ample chance to observe her in the courtroom and determine whether she reviewed her materials, kept up on the law, kept control of the courtroom, and rendered fair decisions. It was a good pick.

What is fascinating to me is how, in a time that is still strongly driven by the desire to rip out old inequities and replace customs with great systems of logic, yet customs grow up anyway. Logical systems are never quite enough to go on with.


The Fall of Arthur and other books

This was nice and short. I didn't realize that about two-thirds of the book was appendices and explanatory material which I do not feel obligated to read as they were not written in the twentieth century. I did enjoy the one explaining in a bit more detail the rules and history of the Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse that Tolkien employs. It's far more intricate than initially appears, and it creates a weighty style, all sharp edges and hard corners, that is excellent for epics and marvelously atmospheric.

Not on the list, but maybe I'll pretend it was if I don't get them all in, I read Phantastes by George MacDonald. I think I read it once as a teenager; it was well worth revisiting.

Completely not on the classics list, I'm reading The E*myth Enterprise in an effort to get my head around running the business side of the law practice, something that has become acutely necessary in the past few months. (I can make no sense of the title by the book, by the way, and it annoys me greatly and sounds very cheesy. Still, there are some good ideas in there.)

I'm thinking about ditching Swiss Family Robinson. We've completely gotten away from reading out loud, and I think the book is partly responsible. It's just too implausible and too preachy. Also, it's part of the literature assignments the kids either have or will get to at school, so I feel no urgency to read it. I'm not a quitter, but when a piece of the thing is blocking the whole thing from occurring, it's time to ditch the piece. I'm not sure what to choose next, though. Nothing has lived up to Lord of the Rings, unsurprisingly. I want to read The Sword in the Stone, but I'm thinking of doing a traditional Arthur telling first.

And for my next trick--I rolled a 9, so it will be The Scarlet Letter. I'm really looking forward to it.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Next Challenge

Time for a new book. I'm kind of behind if I'm going to finish all twelve this year, but my first two selections were long, so maybe I will pick up the pace.

And the next selection is:

2. The Fall of Arthur

Time for some more epic poetry. I think I'll find Tolkien more readable than Virgil, though.

In other undertakings, we are ssllllooowwwwllllyyyy reading through Swiss Family Robinson. The twins seem to be enjoying it, but even Dash asked, "Why does the father know how to do everything?" It seems to work best if we envision it as an RPG in which the players are all overpowered, the GM is far too indulgent, and everyone always rolls a 20.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Kristin Lavransdatter, Mistress of Husaby and The Cross

Alas, I finished it. Now I have to move back to reality. I didn't die of the black plague, though, so that's good.

And I find it impossible to sum up. So much life. 

The middle novel details the years of prosperity--Kristin, finding herself mistress of a large noble estate in near-ruins thanks to Erlend's ineptitude, rises to the occasion in between birthing seven sons. Erlend wanders in and out, making himself a decent name as a border governor. They fight and make up, have another baby, fight and make up again.

Undset is incredibly good at showing the tangle of feelings, of desire and resentment, of missed cues and muddled responsibilities of a struggling marriage. Kristin's steadiness that gives her the ability to rise to being mistress of a noble estate--CEO, doctor, brewer, farmer, head of charity and society woman all rolled into one--goes along with a steady resentment that Erlend cannot be more like her even steadier father (though of course she never could love the steady man her father picked out). Only by tossing aside reality can she enjoy a bit of peace with Erlend, and that never happens for long once she has the heritage of her sons to worry about.

After a particularly nasty argument, Erlend has a brief revenge affair, which ends even worse than expected--it turns out he's been leading a plan which, had it gone well, would have marked him down as a hero of his country, but thanks to his idiocy the plan is discovered and he is tried for treason. 

Always at their best in a crisis, Kristin and Erlend reconcile and thanks to the tireless labor of Simon, Kristin's former betrothed (and now brother-in-law), Erlend is freed, but at the cost of land and titles. The family retires to Kristin's childhood home, which is her own property.

In the final book is the fallout. The fragile reconciliation falls to pieces again. Life goes on until it doesn't any more.  At the end, one son takes over the farm, the others scatter to seek their fortune or the cloister, and the widowed Kristin enters a convent. 

I saw one review commenting on the centrality of motherhood to the book and that is a major theme--and as I first read the book over a decade ago, when I was still in the baby stage and now revisit it as my children are entering their teens, I feel it with her--the constant loss, the fears, the joys that are only remembered in retrospect and the pain that is better than joy--even more than the first time through. 

But another theme that comes through is the journey of the soul to God--that all the things of life, the worries, the triumphs, the joys and sorrows--are not the main thing that most people think, nor distractions as people trying to be devout think, but the way through which God himself shows himself to us. On her way to the convent, Kristin gets sidetracked by a crowd of little boys: "And when the moment came that she had longed for all through her journey, when she stood below the cross on Feginsbrekka and looked down on Nidaros, it came not so that she could collect her thoughts for prayer or meditation. All the bells of the town burst forth at that moment to ring to Vespers, and the boys all talked together, wanting to point out all that was before her--"

Or, to put my favorite song with my favorite book, 

"Every heart--every heart to love will come/But as a refugee."

Here is my review from 2006. I will read this book again. Maybe in 2030.