Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Democracy of Devils

I want to bring up the topic of dignity because it is at the center of my next subject, which is the principle of Liberty. How we approach the idea of dignity will affect very much how we view liberty.

When I think of dignity, I remember a dog my family once owned that apparently felt shame after being groomed and cleaned. That was the distinct impression I got when I watched this animal sulk and pout and hide.

It seems that dignity is not exclusive to human beings, but of all creatures, it appears most developed in people. Dignity is a pillar of civilized society, the consciousness of character. It is an awareness of shortcomings coupled with the capacity to remedy or, failing this, to conceal.

This sense of dignity constitutes, I think, a part of what C.S. Lewis once called the "tao of humanity." Dignity is not an objective sense, but arises from the measuring of one's self against ideals. It is in part an acknowledgment that there is little self-interest in seclusion; that the selfishness of the lonely consists of longing for the company of others. Dignity is felt because people are fundamentally more social than selfish.

Dignity is the covering of nakedness.

Dignity is the retreat of sexuality from the public square into the private closet.

Dignity is the practice of temperance.

Dignity is the respect of innocence.

Adam Smith taught that the dignified attune the expression of their passions to the sympathies of those around them.

There is also an Aristotelian aspect to dignity: a want of dignity results in licentiousness and savagery while the excess of dignity results in hypocrisy and falseness. True dignity requires frankness and candor in private, but tact and control in public.

After I read Victor Frankl, it occurred to me that the Nazis didn't need the concentration camps for an agenda of mere extermination. Frankl said that the best men didn't survive those camps, but survival went to those who lost their dignity.

The Nazis needed Auschwitz and Dachau and other camps to remind them that their enemies were simply brutes and that they deserved all of the misery that they got. Look how the Jew is miserable and depraved; look how low he sinks. He is not human. He is not even an animal. The Nazis needed to manufacture a devil worse than themselves, and that's what the concentration camps did for them. The most brutal men at the camps, said Frankl, were not the Nazis.

What is more troubling than the loss of dignity through coercion? Just this: that since the days of Auschwitz, men have begun to shed human dignity of their own free choice. Eric Hoffer had an inkling of it. He said that in our age, dominated by self-styled intellectuals, the human being would take back-seat to nature. Humanity, it now seems, should not be allowed to encroach upon the natural world. Humanity itself is unwelcome and depraved, and we should do well to be rid of it.

Thus, today it is fashionable to "come out of the closet." We now celebrate the "natural" attributes that once were considered deficiencies; we rejoice in excess and condemn innocence as ignorance. All is natural and all is equal, and life with its concrete lusts is greater than the abstract principles and vague superstition of dignity.

That's why we feel more humane keeping our worst criminals penned up in kennels, like dogs, than we do sending them to the gallows. We keep them, a weight around the neck of society, because we can't conceive of anything more important to being human than the biological life that animates our flesh.

With all of our progressive doctrine in these modern times, we've only now managed to re-discover the sixteenth century philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, or as W. G. Pogson Smith put it, that truth is not found, it is made. Not only is our pity untruthful, but it is undignified as well.

Is there more to being human than the human being? Is it really better to live an animal than to die a person?

Herman Melville said that "there is no dignity in wickedness, whether in purple or rags; and hell is a democracy of devils, where all are equals." This is the flavor of egalitarianism that shapes the landscape of liberty in America going into the 21st century.

Monday, December 15, 2008

No Technical Solution

In his 1968 essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, Garrett Hardin made an interesting observation. He said that there is a class of human problems that have no technical solution. These are the kind of problems that we are constantly trying to solve by inventing better technology; problems like hunger, strife, poverty, disease, and so forth. They have been with the human race out of living memory and probably since before written history began.

To date, there has been no technological advance that has made humanity, as a whole, significantly "better off," whatever that means. We make advances in one area while giving up ground in another. Our artifice can give us new ways to deal with problems, but usually it also opens up entirely new possibilities for suffering at the same time. Think about nuclear power and prescription drugs as two examples.

Hardin's particular problem, the Commons, is another good example. It turns out that we can't simultaneously maximize the variables of population and luxury. In other words, it's not possible for every human being on the planet to live the "disposable" American lifestyle without completely wasting the Commons (i.e., the Earth). I think the assertion is rather unassailable.

Hardin's "non-technical" solution to the tragedy of the commons is aptly named "Mutual Coercion." He recommended the divorce of sexuality from reproduction and the elimination of the natural family as a human Right - a whole new direction for human morality. It's easier for us to enjoy luxury when there are fewer of us around. Hardin was a terrific advocate of The Brave New World; it's unfortunate that Aldous Huxley's prophecy was so dystopian. Perhaps I'll argue with Hardin's solution in a future essay.

What comes to mind, though, is this enormous $700 billion bailout for the Wall Street firms that got in trouble by owning bad debt. Our bleeding hearts desired for everyone to own a house; which is of course the American Dream. But we forgot that renting from the bank and "owning" are two very different things in the Real World, and so our charitable plan of easy debt backfired badly. It was pity that moved us, but it wasn't truthful; like most of the pity our politicians subscribe to in these strange times. A certain notion of property is at the heart of sane living, so perhaps I'll argue that point in a future essay too.

We are trying to solve a problem with $700 billion, a sum that could easily grow an astronomical number of healthy calories from common dirt. Oh, but we plan to buy bad debt from Wall Street speculators. Well, that was the original plan. Our pity said that it was all for the little guy's sake; to make sure he can keep his mortgage. Now it seems that the government wants stock instead, and also we mustn't forget the failing auto makers. So we will take our grandchildren's money (taxpayers won't suffer... yet) and apportion it to the Managers of Other People's Lives. If they go out of business, who will we work for? Freedom feels so strange in the 21st century.

We once solved another problem by drastically increasing the efficiency of our agriculture. We found that we could increase the crop yield of an acre of land to embarrassing proportions. What a fine tool in the fight against hunger! Of course, all of this excess grain goes to feed beef cattle and to make corn syrup, two products that have hardly increased the quality of life for those who still feel hungry. At least we breathed new life into the health industry which is now booming with heart patients and state-of-the-art synthetic pharmaceuticals. Dollars galore. So, you see how technology solves our problems.

Speaking of the health industry, I was a recent witness to a relatively trivial problem at my wife's family Christmas gathering. My wife's aunt accidentally split her palm open with a dull knife. My brother-in-law's wife happens to be a nurse, so she promptly began to apply some rather old-fashioned medicine: pressure and a napkin. But the talk was more technical; it seems we need technology even for simple problems. There are stitches to think about, and of course liquid bandages of the polymer sort. For the ignorant, such marvels include the polyvinylpyrrolidone variety, the methylacrylate-isobutene-monoisopropylmaleate spirit-based variety, or the isooctane solvent based types. All of these probably got their start from the rudimentary cyanoacrylates that Harry Coover invented, used to patch soldiers back together in Vietnam. Who hasn't accidentally glued a finger to something with a bit of superglue? Just keep that caustic stuff away from your eyes and you'll be fine.

My unfortunate wife showed up during the treatment and suggested that a bit of cayenne pepper might be a good idea to stop the bleeding. She's an herbalist, so she says things like that. Well, capsicum is a vasodilator and can equalize blood pressure, so taking it internally can stop light to moderate bleeding fairly quickly (I've even heard rather outlandish claims of cayenne stabilizing bullet-riddled kids, but I'm way too skeptical for that story). The old herbalists still use it topically, in the open wound itself. Of course, this advice is rather alien to the Certified Health Professional, to whom all healing has become an entirely synthetic pursuit. The professional reaction to natural cayenne as a healing agent was somewhat sharp and incredulous, finishing on a sarcastic note from the non-professional quarters (we often have a peanut gallery at those gatherings).

I remembered a time over the summer when I punctured my wrist with a sharp chisel; it's just how I use tools. My first thought on that occasion was how unhealthy I must have been. Blood is supposed to gush red, not purple. My wife wasn't around to help me, but I remembered her cayenne and I put some in my wound and applied pressure to stop the oozing. The wound itched for a day or two, then I forgot about it until the Christmas party. I was going to demonstrate my own scar with the anecdote, but I couldn't find it anymore. I guess I'm a satisfied customer.

Now think about it. If we didn't have pharmaceutical technology and people could just grow their own remedies out of the ground and care for themselves, where would all the jobs go? What would happen if money didn't change hands every time someone got sick or hurt (or if people just didn't get sick or hurt as often)? We'd go bankrupt. Think of the economy!

On a serious note... are there any "noticers" in the world today? Who is questioning the ridiculous but invisible premises of our modern ways? Look for some future essays.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

History: Prince de Neufchatel vs. Endymion, War of 1812

History gives us context. History provides landmarks and paints broad pictures from which we may, with discerning minds, form our opinions and shape our worldview.

I build historic model sailing ships out of bits of wood. Years ago I was at a meeting of the Great Salt Lake Ship Modeling and Research Society when Ken Harris, our President, read a letter he had received from a good friend. He said that men, real men, have art in their blood; and they release it by making things with their hands. The ship modeler shares, for a time, the decks and spars of bygone sailors, pulled from the pages of history.

So I have an affection for maritime history. One of the ships I built is the Prince de Neufch√Ętel, an American privateer during the war of 1812. I learned a little bit about this vessel from George Coggeshall's 1861 publication, History of the American Privateers. This book has since passed out of copyright and can be had in its entirety at Google Books, for those interested.

Here I reproduce an excerpt from the book, regarding one of the Prince's naval battles. Not only is the history recorded, but we get a glimpse into the life and character of an early nineteenth century American hero. Of particular interest to me is the excellent prose in which this story is related, quite different from the terse and sterile language that we have become accustomed to in later years.

Following this excerpt, entitled "Note to Page 241," I have provided a few photos of my model. Read on!

Note to Page 241

Since the first edition of this work appeared, I have received a more particular account of the desperate battle fought between Captain John Ordronaux, of the privateer The Prince of Neufchatel, of New-York, with five British barges belonging to the English frigate Endymion, off Nantucket, on the 11th of October, 1814; by which it will be seen that under all the circumstances, it was the hardest fought naval engagement and the most conspicuous victory achieved during the war.

It was a contest waged against a force more than three times superior numerically; advancing in separate divisions under the cover of night, and assisted by the presence of a heavy frigate, while at the same time, and as a most serious obstacle of a successful defence, Captain Ordronaux was encumbered with thirty-seven British prisoners, who were refractory and all ready for revolt.

He was therefore obliged to handcuff his prisoners, and confine them in the hold just before the action.

He had recently manned so many prizes that he had left only thirty-three men, including officers and marines at quarters, when simultaneously attacked by five British barges, manned with one hundred and eleven men, beside the before-mentioned thirty-seven prisoners confined below, who were striving to get loose from their manacles, and unite themselves to their fellow countrymen.

Fearing that the British frigate would attack the privateer with her boats, Captain Ordronaux made the following preparation for the contest, beside the usual number of muskets, pistols, boarding-pikes and sabres, belonging to his vessel: He had made a large augmentation of fire-arms taken from sundry British prizes during the cruise, so that his gun-room was literally filled with these implements of death and destruction. He accordingly took the precaution before night to have some two or three hundred muskets and pistols loaded and placed in a position to grasp at a moment's warning.

The loaded pistols were put into baskets and placed behind the bulwarks, so that when the strife should commence, it would not be necessary to reload these weapons. He had also his shot-lockers all filled with heavy shot, to throw into the enemy's boats, and stave in their bottoms, if brought to close quarters, when he could not use his carriage-guns.

Being thus prepared, the brave Captain waited with the most intense anxiety for the approach of the enemy: it was about nine o'clock, the night being dark, they heard the sound of oars at a distance, silently approaching. In the obscurity they could not see the boats of the enemy; a few shot were fired from the Neufchatel in the direction of the sound, to draw a shot from his adversary, with a view to ascertain his position, and how he meant to attack, but the ruse did not succeed.

Captain Ordronaux had no intention of running away from the fight, nor did he mean that the enemy should, when once engaged in the deadly strife, it being well understood by all on board that rather than surrender to the enemy the privateer should be blown up. Such was the condition of things at the commencement of the action.

The Neufchatel lying at anchor, was now fully prepared to receive the enemy, who approached with five barges in the following order, namely, one on each side, one on each bow, and the other under the stern. A warm action then took place with muskets, pistols, sabres and boarding-pikes. The enemy were promptly met and repulsed, and in about twenty minutes many in the boats cried out for quarters, which were granted to those amidships. The men in the two barges under the bows of the privateer, however, succeeded in gaining the forecastle, when Captain Ordronaux, with two or three of his faithful followers, discharged one of his main-deck guns, loaded with canister shot and bags of musket balls. This gun was trained upon the forecastle, which had the effect of killing and wounding great numbers of the enemy, and of driving the remainder overboard. In this discharge he unfortunately wounded several of his own men. The five barges which attacked the privateer contained at the commencement of the action one hundred and eleven men, including officers and marines. One barge was sunk with forty-three men, of whom two only were saved. Three boats drifted off from alongside, apparently with no living soul on board; one was taken possession of. She contained thirty-six men at the beginning of the action, of whom eight were killed and twenty wounded, and eight uninjured.

The Second Lieutenant of the frigate, (F. Ormond, who was not injured,) three midshipmen, two of whom were severely wounded, with one master's mate also wounded, were permitted to come on board. The remainder of the prisoners (fifteen seamen and marines) were kept astern all night in the launch — after taking out the arms, oars, etc., the commander being afraid to trust them on board, having only eight men fit for duty.

After the battle was over, it was found that six of the privateer's crew were killed, and nineteen wounded, beside Mr. Charles Hilburn, a Nantucket pilot who was stationed at the helm during the action; it is stated that he was several times wounded, and finally killed by the enemy. The British in this action acknowledge a loss of thirty-three killed, thirty-seven wounded, and thirty prisoners.

During the hottest part of the engagement the prisoners in the hold were loudly cheering their countrymen to continue the fight, and constantly striving to break loose, while Captain Ordronaux and his First Lieutenant, Mr. Millen, were obliged to watch their prisoners, and guard every point to prevent a recapture from the enemy.

The brave Captain, though wounded, could not be attended by the surgeon, for this gentleman was also wounded in the fight, and unable to assist those who were suffering; so that through this long and dreary night, Captain Ordronaux and his First Lieutenant, Mr. Millen, were obliged to keep guard at each hatchway, with pistol in hand, to prevent the prisoners from breaking loose, while his own poor fellows were lying about the deck, suffering from their wounds, with no one to attend them, or even to give them a drink of cold water.

Thus passed this awful night of painful anxiety. I will leave the reader to imagine the anxious feelings of Captain Ordronaux, and his faithful followers, during the long and sleepless night, surrounded by the dead and wounded, with mingled sounds of groans and curses of those who were wallowing about the deck, while the frigate at a distance was seen burning port fires, and sending up signal rockets for her barges to return.

He also feared that at the break of day the frigate would bear down upon them, and thus defeat all that he had gained in this eventful struggle. At last the morning dawned upon these weary, battle-stained watchers, who had passed the dreary night without once leaving their posts. The colors of the Neufchatel were still flying, though her decks were in an awful condition. Some thirty or forty men lay dead and wounded in every condition of mutilation, while the broken arms and implements of warfare scattered around told how desperate had been the struggle on that bloodstained deck; and now had arrived the most difficult part of Captain Ordronaux's duty. As has been stated, he had but eight men fit for duty after the termination of the action; all his prisoners were to be paroled and landed under the eye of a numerous enemy. He was, therefore, obliged to employ five or six of his men in a large launch, and at the same time to keep up an appearance of strength to deceive his adversaries. He was, therefore, obliged to resort to stratagem to carry out his plan.

Accordingly, he had a sail hung up abaft the main hatches, to serve as a screen, wherewith to conceal the quarter-deck. After this was done, he kept two boys there, one beating the drum, the other blowing the fife, and tramping heavily about the deck, to make the enemy believe that a large number of men were stationed there at quarters, to enforce his orders. Thus while the attention of the enemy was drawn off from his enfeebled state, sixty-seven of the prisoners were passed over the side into the launch, and transported to the shore, where they were placed in the possession of the United States Marshal.

He also landed his own wounded men, that they might be better attended to, and receive more medical assistance than could be given them on board of the privateer. And thus after having landed all his prisoners, except some five or six, who had been paroled, these being young and active he retained on board to assist his crew in weighing the anchor, and navigating his vessel to Boston.

In this adroit management, Captain Ordronaux displayed a vast deal of cool, deliberate judgment, as well as uncommon tact in disposing of his numerous prisoners, and hiding his own weakness in point of numbers.

He showed himself a great tactician, and, like General Jackson, knew how to avail himself of every advantage for enabling a small force to compete successfully with a large one.

A near relative of Captain Ordronaux has furnished the writer of these pages with the brave Captain's journal, the original parol given by the English in their own handwriting, and many other valuable papers and documents, which clearly establish the truth of this unparalleled victory.

I shall, therefore, make no apology for thus discharging my duty to the memory of a distinguished fellow-citizen, by communicating these facts in full. I think it will be conceded on all hands that Captain Ordronaux evinced as much bravery and tact in disposing of his prisoners after the battle, as in defending his vessel against the enemy during the severe conflict. There are many men who can fight bravely, but few who can manage as well as he did, to profit by and secure the fruits of a glorious victory.

On his arrival at Boston, a large number of patriotic merchants and other citizens proposed presenting the brave Captain with a sword and a vote of thanks for his gallantry, but the unaspiring modesty of the heroic Ordronaux begged, through his friends, that it should not be done.

For, so far from coveting applause, his unassuming, retiring disposition, led him to shun publicity of every kind, and often prevented him from receiving that just share of public approbation which his merit so richly deserved; so that the world knows but little of the gallant deeds of this distinguished nautical hero.


The following are photos of the starboard profile, the forecastle, the deck view, and some details.




Wednesday, December 3, 2008

What It's About

In his introduction to Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes asks the question, "why may we not say, that all Automata ... have an artificiall(sic) life? For what is the Heart, but a Spring; and the Nerves, but so many Strings; and the Joynts(sic), but so many Wheeles(sic), giving motion to the whole Body..."

In his 1967 book, The Temper of Our Time, Eric Hoffer wrote that "all through the millenia of man's existence the vying with God has been a leading motif of his strivings and efforts." The Hebrew creation mythos reveals a notion of God not only as creator, but as automator, breathing life into His creations.

The Classical legend of cruel Phalaris, and his brazen bull, becomes a metaphor for industrialized America, a place where mortal men have failed to achieve the holy grail of automation. Our machines yet lack souls of their own; thus we meld flesh and blood with iron and steam "to make the Bull of Phalaris Roar."

In the end, our machines remain machines, but our lives become artificial ones. We lie down each night with bodies well-fed and malnourished souls. There are those among us who are artists misplaced, greasing the wheels of global economy:

We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science. We have not to raise up from among them authors, educators, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have ample supply. The task we set before ourselves is very simple...we will organize children...and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.1

As Eric Hoffer said, "Up to now in this country we are warned not to waste our time but are brought up to waste our lives."

Surviving Phalaris is about returning to sane principles by exploring the premises of modern American culture and understanding.

Here also is a repository of my half-baked thoughts on social and philosophical issues; a private soliloquy overheard by few.


1. From the mission statement of Rockefeller's General Education Board, "Occasional Letter Number One," quoted in "An Angry Look at Modern Schooling," The Underground History of American Education, by John Taylor Gatto.

Friday, November 21, 2008

My Comments to the President-Elect: Energy Policy

To some, freedom means low prices. To others, Freedom means independence. With the recent economic crisis, energy costs have plummeted, particularly for oil and its byproducts. With this refreshing change, I fear we may soon forget what it felt like to be at the mercy of foreign corporations.

I think the primary focus of energy policy ought to be independence from foreign interests.

I agree that our national energy policy ought to be a policy that allows us to be good world citizens and also to better care for the commons that we all share. While expanding offshore drilling and developing protected lands may be a better choice than continued dependence on foreign powers, seeking alternative sources of energy would help us more in the long term. Now that the auto industry finds itself in arrears, it could be the perfect chance to change how we think about energy and transportation.

Ultimately, I'd like to see America's energy production owned and operated by Americans, not by government or foreign interests.

In summary:

1) Energy independence is better than low cost energy.
2) Local oil production is better than energy dependence, but alternate energy is the way to go.
3) Energy production in America should be owned and operated by Americans and energy should be produced closest to where it is used in proportion to local demands.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

My Letter to the Senator

Dear Mr. Senator,

I am writing in regards to the recent Senate Bill S.3688, Introduced by Senator Harry Reid. As you know, this bill is designed to provide "bailout" funds to the US automakers, or more specifically, to "automobile manufacturers and component suppliers that have [...] operated a manufacturing facility for the purposes of producing automobiles or automobile components in the United States[.]"

I am writing to tell you that I oppose using American funds to maintain any corporation, US or otherwise, if it means propping up the present status-quo. In addition, I do not consider companies that maintain significant foreign operations to be "US" corporations in any practical sense. Foreign multinationals, even if they consider themselves US corporations, should never receive American money as a matter of principle.

While I feel no compassion for corporations, I am sympathetic to those fellow Americans whose jobs are on the line because of the present crisis. In fact, the managers and pencil-pushers that have no part in the physical production of useful goods reap the highest rewards from the profits. They have now failed even in their sinecure, and are of no further use to the workers who depend on them for their living.

If taxpayer money is to go to these companies, I would like to see it happen only under the following conditions:

1) That foreign operations shall cease. Automobiles are for the convenience and necessities of actual people, not for profit. American cars should be produced where they are most efficiently consumed, that is, on American soil.

2) That the corporations shall cease to be publicly traded, and that once they have been set aright, shall be returned to the hands of those who operate the factories and produce the goods. According to our theory, those who create property also own it. It is an injustice to place ownership of these things in the hands of investors who care little about the goods produced, other than as a means for profit. Such contracts should be discouraged in America.

When healthy and skilled men and women - who live in a land of plentiful resources - find themselves at the mercy of panicked investors and greedy executives, they can not be Free. America has failed them.

We are now confronted with the unprecedented opportunity to return to sanity. We can return to the America where individuals once relied on their own ingenuity, on their local communities, and on the good graces of Providence to thrive on this abundant land. A Free people must never become dependent on "other people's money" lent at usury, nor on the Invisible Hand of a fickle Wall Street, nor on the benevolence of Leviathan.

We have traded our American Dream for the American Illusion, which is the belief that renting from the bank at interest is the same thing as owning property, and that work for hire is just as good as directly owning and profiting from the produce of our hands. Thus a core value of American Democracy has been eroded, i.e., the proper and proportional ownership of private property.

Please use this opportunity to help Americans instead of corporations.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

My Violin

Here are some pictures of the fiddle I recently finished making. I had a lot of help from Will Bartruff, and from my friend Chuck Thomas (he lent me the Stroebel book), and also from a local apprentice, Sam Barker.

One of the things Will pointed out to me is that the strings are supposed to lie over the saddle on the tailpiece, not under the tailpiece, as I have it in these photos. So, I have since restrung it. Sam checked my sound post and confirmed what Will also told me: it is too close to the bridge. He tried to reset it, but I have it a hair too long. Those are some of the improvements I am still making, in addition to thinning my neck a little bit more.

But it sounds great, and you can see how it has turned out. Prior to beginning this project, I had never handled a real violin in my life. Now I am learning how to play it.

I'll be working on a couple more instruments in January.





Tuesday, October 7, 2008

I Have No Blog

If you are looking for my website, try http://petermccombs.com. I haven't posted there for a while, but you can see some of my projects.