"Joy and pleasure are as real as pain and sorrow and one must learn what they have to teach. . . ." -- Sean Russell, from Gatherer of Clouds

"If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right." -- Helyn D. Goldenberg

"I love you and I'm not afraid." -- Evanescence, "My Last Breath"

“If I hear ‘not allowed’ much oftener,” said Sam, “I’m going to get angry.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, from Lord of the Rings

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Review: John Boswell: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

This is another one originally written for Epinions.com and no longer available there. In this case, context is important: it was originally written in 2003, when the push for marriage equality in the U.S. was just gathering steam: in 1993, the supreme court of Hawai'i, in Baehr v. Lewin, held that the state could not abridge marriage rights on the basis of sex; this, of course, led to the inevitable backlash, with states and the federal government passing laws and/or constitutional amendments to do just that. Then, in 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided in favor of the plaintiffs in Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health; times had changed: the Massachusetts legislature couldn't muster the votes for a constitutional amendment or even a civil unions bill, and marriage equality became law in Massachusetts. (I might add that I caught a fair amount of flak on this one, mostly from people who objected to Boswell's conclusions.)

So, in that context, Boswell's book:

One considers seriously that the debate raging in the United States over same-sex marriage might have a more civil tone if all participants had read John Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. It is a wide-ranging, carefully thought explication of the institution of marriage before the modern period of European history (generally considered to begin with the end of the Thirty Years’ War in the mid-fifteenth century), and does much to clarify the historical context of the debate.

Boswell devotes his “Introduction” to a discussion of the difficulties facing the historian in research, first in comprehending the context of the period, and then in making it clear to an audience. This is extraordinarily difficult in the area of social customs, because so much has changed, and so much is not recorded and must be reasoned from vague and often cryptic sources. Boswell stresses, quite rightly, that the historian must understand the vocabulary of the question, in this case marriage, in contemporaneous terms to bring any sort of understanding to the discussion. In Chapter 1, Boswell does a more than creditable job of clarifying the many forms that marriage took in the Mediterranean societies of the Classical, Hellenistic, and early Imperial ages, with particular appreciation for St. Augustine’s dictum that procreation was not a requirement for marriage (notwithstanding contemporary Church teaching to the contrary). What is interesting is the development of heterosexual marriage from an institution devoted entirely to economic, political, and dynastic concerns, in which the wife was essentially property bestowed on her husband by her father to cement an alliance between two families, to a contractual arrangement by independent adults (at least in theory – the arrangement was by no mean equal, except in social class). In light of this, it is no surprise that marriage in pre-Christian Europe was practiced by – and quite often permitted to – only the upper classes: those who had significant property. It is not until the later Empire that affection and attraction become acceptable considerations in arranging marriages. (It is also worth noting that, for the most part, priestly participation was an add-on – for the vast majority, once the financial agreements had been worked out, a simple declaration before witnesses constituted the ceremony: marriages were usually blessed by priests, but the crux was signing the agreements.)

Boswell goes on to discuss same-sex unions in pre-Christian Europe. Even for those familiar with some of the customs and expectations surrounding same-sex relationships in this period, he provides an enlightening commentary, pointing out that such relationships were expected to be long-term, ideally permanent, that the much touted age difference between erastes and eromenos in Greek custom (when it existed at all) paralleled exactly the ideal age difference in heterosexual marriage, and, no surprise to some, that same-sex relationships were expected to call forth the best characeristics of the lovers. (The U. S. military establishment comes in for a few pointed comments, as Boswell brings the history of the Sacred Band of Thebes – never defeated until they were wiped out to the last man at Chaeronaea – to bear on arguments about “unit cohesion” and “morale.”)

The chapter on marriage in the early Christian period is more than enlightening. Stunning is Boswell’s observation that “For the enthusiastic and devout, the most dramatic change in attitudes toward marriage was its profound devaluation.” The early Christian Church did not like the idea of sex under any circumstances, and far from promoting procreation as a divine mandate, held that the ideal marriage was never consummated. (Fortunately for the development of Christianity, the Church Fathers did finally, albeit grudgingly, admit that sex within marriage was acceptable – a somewhat lukewarm endorsement. One wonders if they were just bowing to the inevitable, since the vast majority of Christians paid as much attention to Church teaching in this area then as they do now.) Marriage did not become a sacrament within the Church for over a thousand years. Boswell also discusses several instances of “paired saints,” particularly SS Serge and Bacchus, who were without doubt a couple and were perceived as such at the time.

Perhaps the most revelatory chapters in the book are those treating the development of nuptial offices in the early Church, both heterosexual and homosexual, and their characteristics and history into the early Medieval period. Boswell cites an impressive wealth of sources that point to the almost exact parallels in treatment of the two (given that a same-sex union was less likely to involve the transfer of property or to reflect an unequal relationship in terms of relative authority). There is an extensive discussion of Roman law in this regard, since canon law was basically grafted onto that existing foundation, and Boswell goes into exhaustive detail on such ancillary issues as the adoption of brothers. What is remarkable is that the early Church’s de-emphasis of sex not only did not preclude same-sex unions, but actually made them more acceptable than they are today. Particularly instructive is the career of the Emperor Basil I, a nobody from Macedonia who “married” a wealthy Greek youth, John, at the behest of the youth’s mother and then, after assassinating the Emperor Michael (to whom he had been advisor and bedmate) summoned John to Constaninople to live with him. Boswell cites evidence from sources as diverse as the Eastern Empire, the Principality of Kiev, Spain, the Kingdom of the Franks, and Ireland as illustration of the widespread existence of same-sex unions entered under the auspices of the Church. He also notes anecdotal evidence of such unions entered into less formally.

The fourteenth century witnessed an abrupt shift in the Church’s position on same-sex unions, somewhat equivalent to the rise of the Church in the fourth century (at the beginning of which, Christianity was illegal, and by the end of which, it was the state religion). As Boswell points out, the reasons for this shift are obscure, save that the Church responded to growing public antipathy toward homosexuality (which had always been more marked in the West than in the East). This shift was hardly universal: Montaigne described witnessing a same-sex union performed by a priest in Rome in 1578, and there is documentation of a similar ceremony between two women which took place in a church in Dalmatia in the eighteenth century.

In his final chapter, Boswell examines some of the difficulties of the “history of history” in this area. It is no secret that Western society, particularly in England, Germany, and the United States, has a pathogical fear of homosexuality. It is therefore no surprise that this cultural context has colored the work of historians and anthropologists in describing the realities of other cultures, both contemporary and historical. Indeed, I remember my own dismay at the discovery that Jowett’s translations of Plato, long the standard, were heavily bowdlerized for just this reason. Boswell makes a good case for a clear-eyed view of history in this regard, one that I think can only be helpful in its honesty.

A highly respected historian, Boswell was careful in his research and very well aware of the dangers of transposing modern attitudes to historical events. As a writer, he is articulate, witty, sometimes acerbic, and very clear. He draws heavily on original documents as well as secondary sources (which makes the footnotes somewhat of a chore, unless you read French, German, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, and Old Church Slavonic), and refers as well to hagiography, Christian iconography, Hellenistic romance novels, medieval folktales, and legal codes and decisions in clarifying his examination. There is no doubt that Boswell had an agenda; what is impressive is that the agenda does not infringe on the balance in his discussion. (In spite of the impression readers may have gained from my own summary discussion above, let me note that Boswell is very careful to point out ambiguities in usage and in the texts – this is not a work of polemic.) There are sections that are heavy sledding, particularly for those not familiar with the forms and methods of historiography. The footnotes, which are legion, are a distraction: although Boswell points out that one can read through without reference to the notes, someone conditioned by a lifetime of checking citations will find it almost impossible to ignore them. Boswell also includes as appendices translations of texts discussed, the texts in their original language, a discussion of the Jewish perspective, the text of a same-sex union, and the Passion of SS Serge and Bacchus.

I found “Same-Sex Unions” fascinating, but then, I have more than a passing fondness for history. For those who routinely tout the 3,000-year-old “tradition” of marriage, it would be instructive to find out just exactly what that tradition encompasses. For those who blithely point to antiquity as the touchstone of social approval for same-sex relationships, it would be equally instructive to learn just how tenuous that approval sometimes was. Boswell’s book brings a badly needed perspective to the furious debate raging on the subject of “gay marriage” in this country and others. I don’t think anyone can dispute that same-sex unions had their ups and downs in European history – but then, so did marriage.

This Week at Green Man Review

It's that day of the week again -- hope you all survived St. Patrick's Day in good order. Interesting things at Green Man Review today, very heavy on Neil Gaiman:

Danish String Quartet’s Last Leaf, Lindt dark chocolate, music from Planxty, some very different approaches to “traditional” music, and Neverwhere in various forms

But as you can see, there are other things, too, so check it out.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Today's Must-Read: Trump's War on Democracy, Free Press Edition

This post from Digby is really pretty scary:

I'm glad to see someone of Tom Edsell's stature say this in such stark terms:

More than any president in living memory, Donald Trump has conducted a dogged, remorseless assault on the press. He portrays the news media not only as a dedicated adversary of his administration but of the entire body politic. These attacks have forced the media where it does not want to be, at the center of the political debate.

Trump’s purpose is clear. He seeks to weaken an institution that serves to constrain the abusive exercise of executive authority. He has initiated a gladiatorial contest pitting the principle of freedom of the press against a principle of his own invention: freedom from the press.

This is not something Trump invented:

[Jay] Rosen observed that the history of right-wing attacks on the media extends back through Agnew’s speeches for Nixon to Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 and winds forward through William Rusher, talk radio, and of course Fox News, which founded a business model on liberal bias.

I don't find it surprising in the least that this is coming from the Republican side of the aisle. The GOP has become the resting place of the most retrograde elements in our society, the 27 or 28 percent who, in William F. Buckley's description, have always stood athwart the flow of history yelling "Stop!" -- except that they're yelling "Go back!"

And make no mistake -- the right has never been all that fond of democracy. All the progress made toward extending the right to vote, for example, has been made in spite of conservatives. (Remember that the likes of Tony Perkins consider working to preserve civil rights for all Americans a "radical agenda.")

At any rate, read Digby's whole post.

Footnote: And it's not just the press that's under attack -- it's anyone not considered a Trump loyalist. Which unfortunately includes most of the people in the executive branch who know what they're doing.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Today's Must-Read: We're Screwed

The Supreme Court seems to feel that police need to be protected from accountability when they shoot someone on a whim:

In recent years, the justices have regularly shielded police from being sued, even when officers wrongly shoot innocent people in their own homes.

They have done so by extending a rule adopted in the 1980s that gave government officials "qualified immunity" from being sued over constitutional violations unless they did something that the court already had clearly defined as illegal and unconstitutional. It is not enough to cite the words of the Constitution, such as its ban on "unreasonable searches and seizures." To bring a claim before a jury, the injured plaintiff must show the officer had obviously and unquestionably violated a recognized and specific right. In practice, this rule has served as a broad shield to prevent cases from proceeding.

There's a pending case described in the opening paragraphs of this article that may change this course, but I have no confidence that this Court will see fit to protect civilians from police misconduct: they're real big on authority. There is one small ray of hope, however:

Last year, Justice Clarence Thomas cited law professor Baude's criticism of the court's approach to these cases. "In the appropriate case, we should reconsider our qualified immunity jurisprudence," he wrote.

Yes, you read that right: Clarence Thomas wrote that.

However, given the Court's tortured reasoning in cases such as Citizens United and Hobby Lobby, I can hardly wait to see what rationale they'll come up with should they decide in favor of the police.

Yes, read the whole thing -- some of the incidents described are appalling.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Image du Jour

I couldn't resist. Offered by commenter Slippy_World at this thread at Joe.My.God.


Today's Must-Reads: The Walk-Out

First off, these posts by Betty Cracker and TaMara at Balloon Juice (with pictures and videos).

And a really good piece by Mustang Bobby that brings it all home to those of us who remember the 1960s. This cause is a lot more immediate than what we were protesting against.

That's probably it for today -- I'm a little pressed for time this morning.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018


I admit it -- I've been following the results in the special election for the congressional seat in Pennsylvania's 18th district. It looks like Conor Lamb, the Democrat, took it, but very narrowly.

1) His opponent, Rick Saccone (who had to suffer through a Trump rally "in his support) will sue for a recount. Count on it.

2) Trump took this district by 20 points in 2016. Blue tsunami, anyone?

(I'm not going to join the chorus of "watch the Dems blow it". I have a feeling that Trump is so toxic to the majority of Americans that not even the DCCC can screw it up.)

In Memoriam: Stephen Hawking

Noted physicist Stephen Hawking is dead at 76:

Stephen Hawking - who died aged 76 - battled motor neurone disease to become one of the most respected and best-known scientists of his age.

A man of great humour, he became a popular ambassador for science and was always careful to ensure that the general public had ready access to his work.

His book A Brief History of Time became an unlikely best-seller although it is unclear how many people actually managed to get to the end of it.

Via Joe.My.God. There's much more at the link.

And here's a nice discussion of his attitude toward his life.

Today in Really, Really, Really Stupid Ideas

The Moron-in-Chief has outdone himself this time:

The New York Daily News reports:

President Trump doesn’t think the U.S. military is large enough — so he announced during a bizarre press conference Tuesday that it will expand beyond planet Earth.

“My new national strategy for space recognizes that space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air and sea,” Trump told a crowd of Marines at the Miramar military base in California. “We have the air force. We will have a space force. We will call it the space force.”

The most cogent reaction:

The man is really sick -- he'd have to be, to see everything -- and I mean everything -- in terms of war.

Kelly should just give him a box of toy soldiers and park him in a corner someplace -- out of reach of his "nuclear button."

Culture Breatk: The Danish String Quartet: Tiny Desk Concert (NPR)

I first encountered the Danish String Quartet when offered their next-to-most-recent album for review by ECM. ECM has a strong focus on contemporary European composers and performers, and that one was works by two Danish and one English composer.

Well, I have their latest album sitting here for review -- their versions of traditional songs from various places. There are a couple on the album that are real charmers, so I thought I'd see if one of them was available for posting. Well, it turns out this is not their first foray into traditional music: they have a previous album, Wood Works, also featuring traditional tunes.

Thus, this video, which runs about eighteen minutes but is interesting enough to spend the time. The program: Ye Honest Bridal Couple — Sønderho Bridal Trilogy Parts I & II; Sekstur from Vendsyssel — The Peat Dance; Sønderho Bridal Trilogy Part III (arr. Nikolaj Busk).

The text accompanying this video is equally rewarding. You can find it here.

Today in Disgusting People (Update)

I have to admit to having almost no first-hand knowledge of Sean Hannity, since I don't watch either broadcast or cable TV, or listen to the radio. (I stopped listening to the radio years ago because they talk too much, and I find talking a distraction when I'm reading or doing something that needs musical accompaniment. I can watch a talk show, but I can't listen to one.)

At any rate, the take I have on Hannity is, as might be expected, from sources on the Internet, and considering the sources I usually check out, you might well imagine that my take is not positive. I think this confirms my judgment:

“When you look at this report and what it says, the major finding that the House Intel Committee have now ended their 14 month phase of this Russian investigation. There’s still a lot of other investigations to come. It confirms everything we have been telling you and it also confirms that the media and Democrats have been flat out lying to every American for over a year with their breathless hysterical reporting and they out of pretty much whole cloth created a Russian collusion conspiracy theory all designed to smear and delegitimize Donald Trump.” – Sean Hannity, speaking today on his SiriusXM show.

Gee, the House Intelligence Committee found no evidence of collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign -- uh, let me clarify that: the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee found no evidence of collusion, so they've ended their investigation before questioning all the witnesses and examining all the documents.

That's all Hannity needs to go full-tilt conspiracy theorist. Well, not up to the level (down to the level?) of Alex Jones, but still. . . .

This is an order of magnitude beyond sycophancy.

Well, now they can go back to investigating Hillary's e-mails.

Update: Here's more background if you need it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Today's Must-Read: Is It an Insult If It's True?

It's a widespread comment on the internet that fundamentalist Christians aren't playing with a full deck. You've all heard or read it in one context or another. Well, get a load of this:

A study published in the journal Neuropsychologia has shown that religious fundamentalism is, in part, the result of a functional impairment in a brain region known as the prefrontal cortex. The findings suggest that damage to particular areas of the prefrontal cortex indirectly promotes religious fundamentalism by diminishing cognitive flexibility and openness — a psychology term that describes a personality trait which involves dimensions like curiosity, creativity, and open-mindedness.

The article points out that this does not offer a complete explanation for the prevalence of fundamentalism:

The authors emphasize that cognitive flexibility and openness aren’t the only things that make brains vulnerable to religious fundamentalism. In fact, their analyses showed that these factors only accounted for a fifth of the variation in fundamentalism scores. Uncovering those additional causes, which could be anything from genetic predispositions to social influences, is a future research project that the researchers believe will occupy investigators for many decades to come, given how complex and widespread religious fundamentalism is and will likely continue to be for some time.

So there you have it.

The article goes into some detail about how the study was conducted, but it's worth a read.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

And I Hope

You all remembered to set your clocks, watches, and other timepieces an hour ahead, so you're as disoriented as I am. (Seriously -- it takes me a few days to adjust to the time change. If you thinks that's weird, I used to have jetlag flying in from New York or Asheville.)

Review: Geoff Johns, et al.: Superman: The Last Son of Krypton

Another one first published at Epinions and no longer available there:

One of the featured items on Free Comic Book Day at my local comics store was the first chapter of Superman: The Last Son of Krypton. It was interesting enough -- and showed a whole new facet of Superman -- that I checked to see if it was an ongoing series. Turns out, it's two stories that have already been collected.

In "Last Son," a rocket crash-lands in Metropolis, with a sole passenger. The "landing" part is thanks to Superman, who manages to slow it down enough to lessen the destruction. The passenger is a boy who speaks Kryptonese and tends to lift heavy objects without strain. Guess where he's from. Of course, it makes the papers, and suddenly, everyone wants the kid -- starting with Lex Luthor, but General Zod soon makes an appearance.

The second story, "Brainiac," is Superman versus Brainiac, who is busily sucking up all the information in the universe -- and then incinerating the creators. He's been looking for Superman, and now he's found him. That doesn't bode well for Earth.

In some ways, The Last Son of Krypton was a disappointment. What seemed at first like a new take on Superman -- as a father -- snapped right back into formula, first with Zod and his minions, and then with Brainiac. The boy became merely a plot device. It's a shame -- in this universe, Clark Kent and Lois Lane are married, there are lots of visits to Ma and Pa Kent, and there's a lot of potential for building some real humanity into Superman, but the parts never quite connect.

The Brainiac story is pure formula, and little more. Brainiac's dialogue is a reiteration of "You're powerless, you can defeat me, I win," repeated ad nauseam. There's as little character development here as there is in "Last Son" -- if anything, less.

The art saves this one. "Last Son" was drawn by Andy Kubert, and he's about to join my list of top comic artists. Superman is suitably craggy-featured, the boy Christopher is eminently appealing, and the rest of the characters are nicely conceived and rendered. My only objection here is that in some frames, depictions become a little too abstract. There is enough variation in the page layouts to keep things interesting, although in some passages they become so fragmented they're hard to follow.

"Brainiac" was drawn by Gary Frank, with inks by Jon Sibal, and again, the characterizations are apt (although Supergirl, who occupies a strong supporting role, looks a little vapid).

There's an "Epilogue" on this one, drawn, I assume, by Frank. The first portion is completely visual, and is tremendously evocative. (I can't tell you what it portrays, since that's a major spoiler.)

On the whole, Geoff Johns has done better, and I really wish he'd followed up on the opportunity to develop the relationship between Clark/Superman and Christopher without falling back on somewhat shopworn villains.

Giggle du Jour

I'm surprised Trump hasn't taken credit for ending the Korean War:

The Winter Olympics were “very, very successful,” Donald Trump told a Pennsylvania audience Saturday night.

Thanks, of course, to Donald Trump.

“We did a greta [sic] job with the Olympics,” Trump said. “Might as well say it, nobody else is going to say it.”

Why is Trump responsible? For bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula, of course.

“A little hard to sell tickets when you think you’re going to be nuked,” he said.

“It became a very, very successful Olympics,” Trump assured.

Nobody else is going to say it because it's BS.

It's Sunday Again

And that means good stuff at Green Man Review. This week's post title isn't really very informative, so, let's see: books, of course (Glen Cook -- Yay!), and music (all kinds of music), winter ales, graphic lit, a travelogue, and even a little brown mouse.

So scurry on over and check it out.