Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens is Dead

"...Voltaire was simply ludicrous when he said that if god did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. The human invention of god is the problem to begin with." - Christopher Hitchens
The problem, if there is one, is not that we came to believe in God, but that we came to believe in something. All of the mighty works of men, good or bad, have a single feature in common: at bottom, they are works of certainty. It is only by accident that the truly doubtful bring to pass any great thing.

Goodbye, Mr. Hitchens, most religious of godless men! You may have doubted, but you doubted with certainty.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Let Them be Played by Machines

I'm in a violin shop on the third floor of an old building in downtown St. Paul. There's an art studio down the hallway and a big ballroom adjacent to that where people come to learn Aikido. Downstairs are some law offices and an antique shop where I bought an old #5 jack plane for only twelve dollars.

Something like chaos is happening around me. There's a thunderstorm rumbling above the cavernous ceiling of the room where I'm learning to make a violin. A student is standing apart from the workbench and he's playing on one of the recently completed instruments. The instrument and the music are both masterpieces; the musician--an aspiring violin maker who has been thrown out of every pub on 7th street--once studied at Juiliard, and he plays more beautifully than anyone I have ever heard. It's difficult for me to focus on what I'm doing.

There is a school of violin making in my home town, as well as numerous violin makers, but I've traveled a thousand miles to learn the trade in Minnesota. Although he doesn't realize it, my teacher reminds me why: "The violins they make are so clean," he tells me, "and boring as shit."

This is coming from a man who attended a funeral almost every week for fifteen years during a time when he cared for AIDS patients who had been thrown away by their families and friends. Now he's making a violin from the floor of a house that burned to the ground, and you can still smell the smoke in the wood. He's also teaching me and a few others the art that he continues to perfect after 45 years of practice.

I'm making a copy of the 1742 Guarnerius Del Gesù violin that was once owned by Ferdinand David and later by Jascha Heifetz. The original is in a museum in San Francisco when it isn't on loan to the Concert Master there. I've been told that it's priceless.

Although I've already made a couple of violins over the past several years, I'm discovering once again that it isn't easy to do, and there is a lot of controversy about the proper way to do it. Can I use sandpaper? The old maker's didn't have it. What about the band saw or the purfling router? We used modern rubber bands and dowels to clamp the ribs onto the mold; sometimes we use whatever is convenient. We aren't purists in this shop.

Other makers are equally concerned about particular aesthetic results. Some think that each instrument ought to be factory-perfect. Their scroll work is flawless and perfectly symmetrical; there are no tool marks to be found anywhere. The corner purflings all end in elegant bee-stings and the back always arches in a precise curtate cycloid. The coloration of these instruments are even and deliberate, rubbed to a lustrous finish. It's as if "Violin" were some abstract Platonic Form that perhaps Stradivari once achieved in concrete, and all proper violins must now approach this perfection or be deemed inferior. This, however, is not the school of thought pursued at the shop where I am learning.

"You must always stay within the parameters of the instrument," my teacher tells me. He is looking at a tear-out on my scroll work. My pencil line from the template has been compromised, and I wonder if the piece will need to be repaired before I can continue, or if it is already ruined. "But," he continues after some thought, "Del Gesù did whatever the hell he wanted." I re-draw the lines on my scroll to avoid the mistake; the parameters have changed. Sometimes that is the best way to fix a problem.

I think of the different kinds of work I have done, outside of the workshop. It is all artifice, to be sure; but is it all art? On the most artistic end of the spectrum are those projects that have no rules at all. What is art anyway? I have painted, I have drawn; some of it has been good but most of it bad. Why? Maybe that's hard to answer.

On the opposite, utilitarian side of the spectrum, you just don't fool around. Not ever. I once worked at the bank, and we had Sarbanes Oxley to deal with. Nobody ever examined my work and said, "I like it." No, either it worked according to exact specifications or I changed it until it did. There was only one "right."

Violins exist somewhere between pure art and pure utility. Where I learn to make them, they tend slightly to the artistic side. There are exact parameters that cannot be changed, it is true; but we avoid "factory-perfect" like the plague.

It occurs to me, as I write this, that our lives are things we make. Where do lives fit on the spectrum from art to utility? Some lives are chaotic and full of surprises, others are predictable in their attempts to approach some popular interpretation of a Jesus or a Buddha. Just like with violin making, there are schools of thought about the right way to live a life.

I got into violin making because I wanted to play a violin, but I couldn't bring myself to buy something made by a machine, even a human one. Machines achieve perfection so cheaply and predictably. Thorsten Veblen once claimed that probably these cheap and perfect things are just as good as their expensive counterparts, labored over by imperfect people. I have no doubt that Veblen was thinking only of utility when he wrote that. How boring! We can't help putting who we are into what we make. Will my instruments be clean and boring? Or can I see beauty and potential in a nail-hole-riddled plank of a barn, or in a piece of a burned-down house, or in the mark of a tool? Does it make a difference to anything? I like to think that it does.

I am learning a different meaning of perfection. My copy of the 1742 David Heifetz Del Gesù won't be exact, but I'm certain that it will be a sort of perfect. I'll give it to my wife, who also wants to learn to play, and we can take lessons together. As for the factory-perfect fiddles made back home--let them be played by machines.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Man from the Machine

I came across this quote on the Distributist Review, and I thought it was particularly relevant to the topic of my blog: 
"Once you separate the man from the machine the man is useless, whereas the true craftsman can make things almost out of nothing. We want a population of people who can make things out of next to nothing, rather than a population of people who need an elaborate mechanical structure before they can start doing anything at all." - K.L. Kenrick

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Freedom must be secured by men with guns. Can you imagine a bumper sticker that says, "Have You Hugged A Diplomat Today?" Where is the popular appeal in that? Besides, nobody counts the body-bags left vacant because of kind--or at least persuasive--words. We are not interested in people who remain free because they put their weapons away. We do not wish to buy our freedom too cheaply.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Recent Events

Jack Kevorkian died, without any help and in spite of his low-calorie diet.

I was reminded of this news as I sat in traffic school, a place where one may see and hear a number of shocking things. As a matter of fact, it was in traffic school where I learned the news of a girl who was thrown from her boyfriend's motorcycle during a somewhat recent traffic accident. The responding officers, as the story goes, had to call for a medical helicopter on account of the girl's traumatic and life-threatening injuries. As the paramedics lifted her onto the stretcher, it was noted that the girl's head had assumed the tactile properties of a water balloon.

Now, it turns out that the girl survived the accident. Lucky, isn't it? A happy ending. Yes, but we also learned that she is now obliged to perform most of her bodily functions through a series of tubes. This is because she has no use of her arms or legs, you see. As the traffic school officer so nicely put it, "she's done." Somehow that got me thinking of Dr. Kevorkian and his brand of medicine.

There is more news to report. Casey Anthony, a woman accused of murdering her young daughter, has been acquitted. I have no opinion on the matter, since I did not follow the case in the least. However, I note two things:

First, On account of the proceedings being rendered a national spectacle through the miracle of modern media, Ms. Anthony surely stood trial for all accused child killers in the court of public opinion, which generally has condemned her as guilty (if I am any judge of public sentiment).

Second, I note that some specialist commentators seem to accept that the actual verdict satisfies the rule of law.

I say this is interesting because it illustrates something about the rule of law. Now, "the rule of law" means just this: Everyone is treated equally under the law. The law is supposed to be applied exactly the same way to all, regardless of circumstances or any particular itch that the public may feel. Clearly this is not the same thing as justice, which means that we get exactly what we deserve. Of course, we try to employ the right amount of casuistry when crafting our laws, so that they can be equitable laws, but in the end everybody has to abide by what the law says even if it isn't fair. This is the rule of law, which is to say that the law may be satisfied without justice being done.

Since the rule of law is a manifestly venerated principle in some quarters of our political spectrum, this is something worth thinking about.

Is there any happy news to be told? Yes, there is.

North Korea's best researchers have determined that people who live in North Korea are among the happiest to be found anywhere. Now that this has been established as scientific fact, or at least as government truth in that part of the world, maybe it will become substantially true for the people who live there. Let us hope the best for them.

And are we happy in America? Alas, no. The North Koreans have also discovered that we are, in fact, the least happy of all people on the earth.

I protest this finding. They only say this because they watch our news, and perhaps attend our traffic schools. I contend that, in the United States, we already take our collective happiness for granted and have stopped inquiring after it. It is only if you doubt how happy you are that you must produce a study on it.

That, of course, is the cue for someone to cite a dozen studies that Americans have done about our own happiness (wouldn't it be ironic if someone pointed me to a certain cranky blog with the dubious title of "Surviving Phalaris?"). Nevertheless, I defy anyone to prove that we Americans are not, generally speaking, a happy people in spite of our multitude of complaints. Or perhaps even because of them. I confess that I believe we could be much happier, otherwise I wouldn't write many of the things that I do. We think we are pretty happy, however, and so we must be.

Anyway, we've had our own season of truth-telling, as we always do, during the weeks leading up to our Independence Day. This year's patriotic fare included some haranguing over the Civil War, characterized as always by a particular consternation over the fact that chattel slavery once existed in America.

Yes, this year marks the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the American Civil War. I meant to write about that in April, actually; I even read Bruce Catton to mark the occasion.

In any case, one of our political factions is freshly miffed by certain progressive interpretations of early American policies on slavery. Walter E. Williams wrote up a nice editorial that is simply brimming over with truth, while The Heritage Foundation's Dr. Spalding informed us, in his Independence Day essay, of a certain prominent slave owner's indignation at King George III for allowing the the barbarism of slavery to exist in the colonies. Another Facebook commentator exulted that an old political party--one with a name strikingly similar to that of the modern party to which he claims allegiance--ended slavery in America.

I reminded that particular commentator that we ended slavery in America in the same way that Dr. Kevorkian ended the lives of his terminal patients.

It's awfully important if things come into this world or if they leave it. Do you think it matters how or why? I think of the girl with the water-balloon head, dying on the pavement. Her life is saved for a little while, but for what? I think of another girl that died in a way that even Jack Kevorkian would have never endorsed, and will there be justice for her? I think of a dying institution murdered by a Civil War, but what else died with it?

No doubt you will answer those questions, if you care to do so, with truths. Maybe they will be the same kind of poetic truths, like the truth of happiness, that are true only because someone believes in them. Truth rarely stops disagreements, though; not the kind of disagreements that happen when competing truths collide.

One of our New Atheists recently explained to me that these poetic things we choose to put our faith in are all lies, and we should not base our lives on lies. Nonsense, I told him; whenever a materialist says anything is good or bad, he is telling a lie. Whenever he glimpses meaning in some precious fact, he only fools himself. If not the stories we tell ourselves, what else have we got to keep us going? Just look at the North Koreans.

Monday, March 28, 2011


It is the hallmark of a totalitarian never to abandon his ideals. But we do not elect gods or kings for our leaders, though the price of their office is a godly vision.


Faction allows for no redemption; it cares nothing even for its own principles, only that its enemies are hypocrites. The greatest threat to faction is that old adversaries should become friends, and thus we see an increased disdain for outsiders whenever their opinions begin to look agreeable.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why Jason F. Wright could be wrong about public schools

In an article entitled, "Why you could be wrong about public schools," Jason F. Wright concludes that, while there is much useful discussion from all sides of the issue of public schooling in America, he cannot respect "people forming coast-to-coast opinions about public schools and throwing teachers into a single, deep and dysfunctional pool."

Mr. Wright's apologia centers on the many exceptional and successful teachers that exist in the public school system, some of which he extols in his article. I know the kind of public school teacher that Mr. Wright is talking about.

I had a fifth-grade teacher who brought her compassion and humanity to work and wore it on her sleeve. I remember an occasion when Mrs. Ellis read to us a story about a girl who had an eating disorder. We all felt bad as Mrs. Ellis begin to cry at the part of the story where the girl dies. At first, I felt ashamed that a grownup would cry at school, but it made me stop what I was doing and think about it.

I was in her class on the day that the space shuttle Challenger blew up. While other teachers quickly turned off their TVs, Mrs. Ellis rushed in to turn ours on. She thought it might be important for children to learn that tragedy is real, and that disaster can claim even our moments of greatest triumph. We all grew up a little bit that day.

There are only three assignments that I remember from the fifth grade: A book report, a paper on one of the fifty states, and a picture and paragraph about what I thought I might be doing in the year 2010. I don't remember what I envisioned for my future self as a fifth-grader, but in 2010, I attended Mrs. Ellis' funeral. One of her daughters stood up and told us about the last days of her mother's life. She said that her mother had been happy and was not afraid of death because, in a life filled with others, she had forgotten about herself. 

How to love a book, how to feel compassion, how to fool a dental hygienist, how to face death and not be afraid; these are the lessons of a dedicated teacher who has the power to reach beyond days spent sitting in a public school classroom. I had teachers who were active agents against all of John Taylor Gatto's public school pathologies, and I was made better for being in their classrooms.

Jason F. Wright is wrong, though. He supposes that all that matters is that there is hope and goodness in public schools--and the possibility for positive change. He is prepared for the unflattering studies, graphs, frightening anecdotes, and videos of teachers-gone-wild, because he knows that he is grateful for the hours of labor given by honest and loyal teachers to whom he entrusts his own children.

What has not occurred to Mr. Wright is that maybe it does not matter very much whether or not our public school teachers are decent, dedicated and caring people. Maybe what really matters is that, when children are away at school, they are not at home. When children are not at home, there is not a family.

The family is not simply a legal bond, or a useful way to delegate social responsibilities, or a method of fulfilling personal needs, or a convenience for raising children to replace parents in the workplace, or a system to grow the economy. If the first purpose of the family is an economic one, then it is only according to the oikonomia of the Greeks who understood that the word they created for us has nothing at all to do with anything outside of the home.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Horace Mann, the great champion of public schools, acknowledged the imminent destruction of the American family during a time when industrialization removed fathers from the home. Why do you think we even have compulsory government schools today? They were to be the remedy for the failure of self-sufficient private families upon which all other institutions, including the educational institution, had once been built.

I belong to a religion that believes in the so-called traditional family. We believe in a mother and a father who make solemn vows to each other and who produce children; together we think they ought to comprise the fundamental unit of society. That is our claim. Today we say that families are under attack, and we fear a coming revolution of secularism that will destroy this traditional family.

Eric Hoffer claimed that change actually precedes revolution, and not the other way around. This idea once seemed strange and wrong to me, but now I understand.

Do we wish to defend our families? First we must have them. We fight a verbal war for the family and leave empty homes behind us every day in order to go about our radically individual lives. The only thing we risk losing now is the make-believe facade of a tradition long forsaken by those who leave home for jobs and send their sons and daughters away to school. In the long history of families, this is a new and significant development.

The first step in the battle for the family must be a return to the home, and I am afraid that all attempts of subcultural movements to bring families together, in brief and faint echoes of long-lost participatory unity, will fail to save it.

We must make a new culture of family where the same high expectations and possibilities achieved by my fifth-grade teacher are removed from the non-family, government institution of public schooling and returned to mothers and fathers in the home. While I am grateful for teachers who taught me more than curricula, I still wonder how life would be different for me had I learned those same lessons in humanity from my own parents. If we still think parents are responsible for this sort of teaching, we must stop fooling ourselves that they can accomplish it in a culture where homes have become little more than dormitories. Or do we truly believe that what really matters can still be taught in the off-hours by parents worn out by the demands of everything outside of the home?

Unfortunately, public schools, as they exist today, will not survive the sort of changes that might save the family as a coherent and fundamental unit of society. A lot of things may not survive the changes I think we need, and I doubt that we even have the courage to attempt them in earnest.

Although I have not thrown any teachers into a single dysfunctional pool, I believe I have presented what Jason F. Wright would consider a coast-to-coast opinion of public schools, built from my questioning the fundamental premises of a mode of schooling that has little to do with home or family, and I am sorry that he cannot respect it.