Clickety Claque

“We have what Frenchmen call a ‘cliqué,’
Who entertain a sort of pique
Against all sacrilegious wights
Who meddle with their sacred rights.”

The Mysteries of Charleston (1846)

Humans naturally follow the crowd and assume that popularity arises from some merit in that which is popular, and unpopularity from some demerit in that which is not.  While it is true that the food in a crowded restaurant is often better than the food in a restaurant where listless waiters lean against the bar and flick flies with stained towels, those who follow the crowd are usually following what the crowd follows.  And the crowd is usually following a clique or a claque. Continue reading

The Envy of the World

“There is America, which at this day serves for little more than to amuse you with stories of savage men and uncouth manners, yet shall . . . show itself equal to the whole of that commerce which now attracts the envy of the world.”

Edmund Burke, Speech on Conciliation with America (1775)

I recently crossed Louisiana on Interstate 10, and by close reading of the passing billboards formed a clear idea of the state’s economy.  The foundation of Louisiana’s economy appears to be the fees and settlements connected with lawsuits against homicidal trucking companies.  Although I did not notice too many Louisianans squashed on the roadway, “big rigs” were out in plenty, and their drivers did not look like men who were inclined to swerve.  Thus, from half of the billboards along the highway, there glared the square-jawed faces of legal bulldogs who promised to mulct these truculent teamsters to the enrichment of squashed Louisianans. Continue reading

A Very Brief Anatomy of Worship

“‘I declare, your worship, there is nothing you don’t know.”

Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605)

When a Sancho Panza addressed Don Quixote as “your worship,” the salutation was meant to acknowledge the knight’s superiority in status, rank or worth. When a lawyer addresses a judge as “your honor,” or a courtier addresses a monarch as “your majesty,” they do exactly the same thing. Worship was originally the state of possessing extraordinary worth, and only by extension became the words, acts, and other rites by which this extraordinary worth is acknowledged by lesser beings. Continue reading

Progress Pilgrims and the Fascist Pit

“It is time to shout . . . that the freedom of all the earth’s people to move across borders must be at the center of any response to the climate crisis.  Unless we do, racism and fear . . . will give way to fascism and war before the tides get a chance to drown us.”

Ben Erenreich, “Open Borders Must be Part of any Response to the Climate Crisis,” The Nation (June 6, 2019)

There was a time when a Man of God would terrorize his congregation with a vivid prospect of Hell and damnation. Today our men of god are for the most part godless, but they are no less give to terrorizing their listeners with lively descriptions of the punishment that awaits men who do not repent and amend their ways. This punishment is not eternal torment in a Lake of Fire, but a future in which the sin of “racism and fear” has received its just wage of “fascism and war.” Continue reading

In Defense of Anecdotal Evidence

“She liked Mr. Walpole’s company, because they could bring their little scraps of scandal together and compare them.”

“‘But where was the proof?’ said Horace, doubtfully, on some wicked anecdote being told.”

Percy Fitzgerald, Charles Townshend (1866)

I have been warned against the perils of anecdotal evidence, and I am sure you have as well.  I have not, however, assimilated the modern prejudice against anecdotal evidence, and if you have, I hope to talk you out of it. I concede that it is a great mistake to extrapolate from an anecdote to an understanding of how things generally are, but I believe we make what is often a greater mistake when we fail to interpolate anecdotes into our understanding. Continue reading

Lumping It

“An’ them that do not like it they can lump it”

Rudyard Kipling, “Cholera Camp” (1896)

It has been awhile since I last heard the expression “like it or lump it,” although the stoical philosophy expressed in the line will never go out of fashion. I will say more about that philosophy in a minute, but let me first say something about the expression. Continue reading

Playing My Part in the Great Work of Social Destruction

“There should be some restraint of law against foolish and impertinent scribblers, as well as against vagabonds and idle persons . . . . I do not speak this in jest: scribbling seems to be a sign of a disordered and licentious age.”

Montaigne “Of Vanity” (c. 1580)

Cobbler, stick to your last.”

Apelles of Kos (c. A.D. 79)

Montaigne was of the opinion that everyone could lend a hand in the destruction of society, since each man could bring to this great work his own pernicious power.  “One contributes treachery,” he wrote, while others, differently gifted, contribute “injustice, irreligion, tyranny, avarice and cruelty.” As in happier undertakings, “the same spirit” is in this evil enterprise advanced by “diversities of gifts” and “diversities of ministrations” (1).

Continue reading

“The Arch Flatterer is a Man’s Self”*

“O wad some pow’r the giftie gi`e us,
To see ourselves as others see us!
It wad frae mony blunder free us . . .”

Robert Burns, “To a Louse” (c. 1785)

Burns wrote these lines after he spotted a louse capering on the bonnet of a particularly proud and vainglorious woman who was sitting before him in church.  In her own mind, Jenny was a lovely object of envy and admiration; to everyone else she was a lousy popinjay and a slovenly groomer.  And so we have all blundered, at one time or another, swelling with vanity at the very moment a booger dangled from our nose, or our fly stood open to the four winds, or a louse did the jitterbug on our bonnet. Continue reading

So You Want to be a Witch Doctor?

If you wish to become a successful witch doctor, you must be the first in your tribe to discover a pattern in the natural order. For instance, imagine yourself as a member of a tribe of savages, your tribe as the inhabitants of a dismal swamp, and the swamp as home to a hideous black snake, the bite of which kills men at a rate of 1:2. Being slightly more observant than the other savages, you notice that, within two days of being bitten, the feet of a doomed man emit a faint but peculiar odor, whereas a glutinous yellow slime coats the inner eyelid of a man on his way to recovery.

If you were a modern doctor, you would publish your findings; but a witch doctor keeps his findings to himself. Continue reading