24 July 2016

And farther down we go.

I saw a few links to this article entitled "I'm a baby hater and I'm not sorry". The most obvious comment to make is to point out that if you were to replace "baby" with any other identifiable social, racial, ethnic, gender or religious group, this article would be a stunning example of racism, sexism and so on. However, it is only directed at babies, and  therefore it is an  acceptable lead article at a major liberal periodical with pretensions of being intellectual.  Despite out society's claim to tolerance, we have what may be called our acceptable hates . Babies are among them.

That's the first point.  Then second point is more complicated.  This article is an indication of how far we have descended down the slope, and how close we are to the terrible conclusion.

Before the latter half of the last century, it was held that it a virtuous to accord to people and things the respect each deserved.  A large part of the liberal education was to train people in how to appreciate each thing as was proper.  It was  for this reason that philosophers argued over the difference between the sublime and the beautiful.  Does this work of the hand of Man or Nature deserve to be appreciated as a thing of beauty, or should we feel the awe and humility we are meant to feel before the sublime?

The modern argument against this is simple, backwards, and completely misses the point: who decided that we should honour this more than that? Who decided how we should feel about anything?  What they  are missing is this: no one decided that, just as no one decided that 1+1=2. These were logical conclusions derived rational applications of first principles.

CS Lewis touches upon this (and, not incidentally, the  question of liking or not liking children) in his Abolition of Man:

Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself — just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind.

Like the author of the Salon article, Lewis did not care overmuch for the society of children. Unlike the author, he regretted it, and herein lies the rub.

We have rejected the old premises and in so doing we have bound ourselves in a world of uncontrolled appetite, desire and will.  We recognize no bounds, no obligations, no givens.  What we say goes. But, at the same time, we do not allow for others to tell us we are, from their point of view, wrong, and eventually we do not allow the other point of view to exist at all.  In this case, it  goes like this:

It is good and just to find children delightful. (good is good)

I don't find children delightful, and I am sorry. (I recognize that I lack a good, and I regret it. C.S. Lewis' position.)

I don't like children, and I am not sorry. (I deny the good exists in my case You may not tell me otherwise.)

I hate children. (I run contrary to the good.)

Hating children is right and just.  (Evil is now good.)

I hate children, and I deserve to be praised for so saying. (I say evil is good, and I demand you praise me for so saying.  The Salon author's position.)

This is where we have gone in a relatively short span of time.  Naked hatred, directed at those who by definition are utterly helpless and most in need of protection, in a major 'respected' publication, brought to us by an author who courageously faces the applause of her peers for her daring to embrace the very lowest and worst of our passions, and claims it to be the highest of goods. I'm the one whose right, she is saying, my feelings are right and just and you're the one who is wrong and who is deceiving yourself, and she resents those wrong with a burning hatred not for anything they have done or could do, but simply because they exist. She desires that they be not.  History has shown this has never lead to a good place, but you will never be able to tell her that.

21 July 2016

Just call it the spoils system.

So the Liberals replace twenty four Conservative appointed ambassadors to foreign nations with twenty four Liberal Ambassadors. I don't actually have much to say about that: that's what the parties do when they are elected. But then foreign affairs minister Stefan Dion comes out and says the changes were made to better reflect the diversity of Canada. Now that is Orwellian Newspeak: having all ambassadors members of one party is now diversity.

He could have said that he is changing the ambassadors because the new ambassadors are morein line with current government policy.  He could have been truly honest and announced that to the victors go the spoils.  But no:  He announced that the old ambassadors ticked the wrong boxes, the new ones ticked the right boxes, and he called that diversity. What's even worse: I think he sincerely believes it.

That's really bad.  I expect politicians to lie, but when they start believing their own lies, we're in real trouble.

14 July 2016

And again

In your charity, please pray for those murdered in Nice today.

5 July 2016

A little note on the inexplicable longevity of my parents' marriage.

All her life, my mother had a friend by the name of Zena R. One day after she had married, she was down in the basement doing laundry, when she heard my Dad calling her from the top of the stairs at the other end of the house.
"Mary! Mary!" he yelled.

"What is it?" she returned.

"Zena R's dead!"

Poor old mother was down in the basement by herself, dealing with the news of her lifelong friend's death, being told by a man, who, as a soldier, saw his friends get blown up in front of him. The difference between the two often showed.

"You know," she said later. "You could have been a little kinder to me, and come down and told me the news in person."

"What for?" he replied, "She wouldn't be any less dead."

1 July 2016

Day of Nation and Memory

I greet my fellow countrymen on this day of nation and memory. A day of nation, because it is the one hundred and forty ninth anniversary since Confederation, and anniversary formerly known as Dominion Day. Memory, because it is the hundredth anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

At the time of Confederation, only four provinces elected to enter into the new Dominion- Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland opted to stay out. Prince Edward Island joined the confederation a few years later, and was later joined by BC, Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan. Newfoundland, the last to join, only joined the Dominion in 1949 after a hotly contested plebiscite won by the narrowest of margins for the Dominion side. There are those in Newfoundland who believe the plebiscite was rigged by the British government who wished to shed themselves of a poor colony.

For Newfoundlanders, July First holds a double meaning. It is Canada Day, but the day holds another meaning to which they are dedicated- memory. It is the memory for which the provincial university- memorial university- is named and dedicated: to perpetuate the memory of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment and the events of July First, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

The Battle of the Somme has its roots in 1916's other and greater bloodbath, Verdun. The French were sustaining huge losses at Verdun, to the south of the British sector of the Western Front. The French appealed to General Haig, the British commander, to launch an offensive in his sector in an attempt to draw German units out of Verdun and to relieve the pressure on the French. According to legend, Haig took a pushpin and placed it randomly on the map. "We will attack there," he said. "At the Somme."

By this time, the war had reached a stalemate. Each side had adopted defensive trenches as a way to fortify their position, and no advance was made on either side. The trenches were a complicated affair. Each side laid out series of parallel trenches to create a defense in depth. Running perpendicular to the front line, second line and third line trenches were another series of trenches allowing movement back and forth between the trench lines, called communication trenches. The ground between the trenches was often covered in barbed wire, as was the area in front of the front lines. It was a formidable defense.

The battle plan, such as it was, called for the largest bombardment yet to destroy the German lines- trenches, barbed wire and all- at which point the British forces would push through unopposed and continue straight on to Germany. The British quickly amassed the shells necessary for the bombardment, and began the shelling on June 24, 1916. The attack was originally scheduled for June 29, but inclement weather caused the attack to be postponed. The delay also allowed an additional two days to the bombardment. So confident were the British of the utter destruction of the Germans that the units of the first wave of the attack were told they could walk upright and erect to the German lines. The trenches, the barbed wire, the Germans themselves would long since have been destroyed. The British generals even ordered the men to sew metal reflective plates onto their backs that would flash in the sunlight as they moved, so the generals could better observe their advance from aerial reconnaissance photographs they would peruse from their safe positions far in the rear.

In the meantime, the Germans stayed in their bunkers. The Somme region was known for having a bedrock of chalk, which could be easily excavated and provided excellent protection from shelling. The Germans dug their bunkers deeper and moved in more troops, as the French had desired. Far from obliteration, the only result of the bombardment was to warn the Germans of an impending attack, and allowed them time to reinforce their line. It did not destroy the trenches. It did not clear the barbed wire. The German position was actually stronger after the bombardment than before.
On the morning of July 1st at about 7:30 the guns fell silent, whistles were blown, and the British climbed from the trenches and began their advance. The Germans could not believe their eyes- thousands upon thousands of British troops advancing in parade ground marching formation, many of them lead by bagpipers. Their shock did not last long. They reached for their rifles and machine guns, sent signals to their own batteries, and opened fire.

It was a massacre. For almost the entire length of the Somme sector, the first wave was wiped out. The second wave was ordered over the top and met the same fate. Communication was a shambles. The only reports that reached the British Command came from the few units who had succeeded in their attack. Thinking the attack was successful, the third wave was ordered to prepare to go over the top.

The Newfoundland Regiment was at a place called Beaumont Hamel when orders came through at 8:45 am. The command had confused flares sent up by the Germans to their gunners to be flares from British troops calling for reinforcements, and believed the first and second waves had been at least partially successful. They issued the orders for the third wave go prepare to go over the top. The 1st Newfoundland and 1st Essex were to move forward and occupy the enemy's first line of trenches. At the time they were about two hundred metres back from their own front line, out of sight of the enemy. The Newfoundlanders tried to move to the forward trench, but the communication trenches were clogged with wounded and under shell fire. The commander of the regiment, Colonel Hadow, decided to move immediately to attack positions by ordering his men out of the trenches and to march on the open ground above the trenches to the front lines. Meanwhile, the first Essex decided to try and move through their communication trenches, and as a result were not in a position to launch an attack until 10:30. At 9:15 The Newfoundland men, about 780 of them, rose from their trenches. Colonel Hadow gestured with his stick the in the direction of the Germans, and gave the order. With that, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment began to move in rehearsed formations through their own front lines to the jump off point.

At first they were protected by a small rise that lay in the middle of the British trenches, but before long they crested the top of the little hill and were completely silhouetted against the morning sky. By then, they were the only thing moving on the battlefield. Every German gun in the sector turned towards them and opened fire.

Men began to fall. Men from tight knit communities, men who had served together, knew each other as friends and as brothers fell to the ground. Those who remained continued on. As one witness later said, they moved forward "with chins tucked down as if walking into a blizzard". More men fell. They continued their advance. They had not yet cleared their own front lines.

They marched on because they believed. They believed in courage and honour. They believed in truth and justice, they believed in their cause. Those who had been educated had learned the words "Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori"- "it is sweet and just to die for one's country" These words had meaning, such meaning that men were prepared to die for these words, and also for an empire that would shake off their beloved homeland the first chance it got. They were men of a generation that proved beyond all others that they believed. And because of days like this, because of four years of days like this, they were the last generation that could believe so honestly, so naively, so blindly, and so totally.

Deeper into the storm they marched. By the time they had cleared their own barbed wire and crossed into No Man's Land they had suffered perhaps 30 per cent casualties. With every step they drew closer to the German guns. The fire became more accurate, more concentrated, more deadly. They stepped over the dead and wounded from the earlier attacks, swelled the number of dead and wounded with their own, and pressed on. There was no cover. There was no retreat. There was no escape.

Perhaps forty or fifty men made it to the German trenches. They fought bravely, aided by a few of the survivors of the earlier attacks, but the end was never in doubt. Their fate had been sealed the moment  they first rose from their trenches. It was over by 9:40.

For the wounded in the field the nightmare continued. As a final, terrible joke the wounded found thy could not move at all. The metal plates sewn onto their backs so the Generals could observe their movements also betrayed their movements to the German snipers. They had to lie still on the field, and hope they survived until nightfall. In the Northern Hemisphere, July First is one of the longest days of the year.

The 1st Essex attack was cancelled, but due to the communications chaos of that day, the order never reached them. They went over the top at 10:30, and suffered 280 casualties before the attack was called back.

July First remains the greatest one day disaster in the history of the British Army. Up and down the Somme front the casualties totalled 57,470, of which 19, 240 were fatal. For the 1st Newfoundland Regiment, 780 went over the top on July First. The next day, 68 answered roll call. The Regiment suffered the second highest rate of casualties of all the units that went over the top that day. Ultimately, tragically, the day was merely a prelude to slaughter. Before the Battle of the Somme was finally ended by Autumn rains it would claim over a million casualties. It was second only to Verdun for blood.

News of the disaster soon winged its across the Atlantic to the Island home of the men in the form of telegrams telling their families and friends of their death. To an Island of small tightly knit communities, everyone was touched in some way by that day. The British tried to put a good face on the disaster by invoking the words that once meant something in ways that ring hollow today. The Divisional commander paid a grim tribute to the men: "It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault failed of success because dead men can advance no further." Later the reconstituted unit received the unique honour of adding the word "Royal" to its name, so they were now the "Royal Newfoundland Regiment". More men signed up, followed their people back across the ocean to the desperation of No Man's Land. The war would continue for another two years.
After the war Beaumont Hamel was ceded to the Newfoundland Government. The ground of the attack was preserved as much as possible as it was during the war. The government placed a statue of a caribou, the regimental symbol, standing over the British trenches, forever facing the German foe. The ground has been cared for, as a reminder of that desperate morning 100 years ago. Near the entrance to the park an epitaph is inscribed in Bronze. It reads:

And with bowed head and heart abased
Strive hard to grasp the future gain in this sore loss.
For not one foot of this dank sod
But drank its surfeit of the blood of gallant men
Who for their Faith, their Hope, for Life and Liberty
Here made the sacrifice.
Here gave their lives, and right willingly for you and me.

24 June 2016

On the Feast of John the Baptist

Today is, in the Roman Calendar, the Feast of John The Baptist. It is an important day to Catholics particularly those in Quebec, but it is also an important day for music lovers everywhere.  It is about as close as possible to the anniversary of The Day Everything Changed in Music.  How so? you may well ask.  Well, gather around, The story goes a little like this:

About a thousand years ago the Church was facing a crisis. This is of course nothing new: the Church is always facing some sort of crisis. This one had to do with music.

For the first millenium of the Church's history composers had been creating music to go with every part of the Mass, along with the divine office, and general hymns of praise, and so on. The total of music was immense, and every last bit of it was in danger of being lost forever because no one could write it down. As St Isadore of Seville put it: "Unless sounds are remembered, they perish, for they cannot be written down." Early attempts at write music at that time consisted of arrow-like markings over the words, indicating if the pitch went up or down, and sometimes elaborate squiggles. However, such markings were mnemonic devices, aimed at helping someone who already knew the piece remember how it went. It would not have been possible for someone who had never before heard the song to pick up a piece so marked and sing it from the page.

Enter the hero of our story, Benedictine monk Guido d'Arezzo. Our hero was in charge of teaching music to the young monks in his monastery. While teaching them our hymn for Vespers on the Feast of St. John Baptist, he noticed that each line began on a successive ascending note:

Ut queant laxis
re-sonare fibris:
mi-ra gestorum
fa-muli tuorum:
sol-ve polluti
la-bii reatus:
Sancte Ioannes

If you take the first syllables on which those ascending notes appeared you have Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and si... If you were to change the "ut" to "do" (pronounced as in "a deer"- a female deer) and "si" to "ti" (as in the drink, goes well with jam and bread, so I'm told, I don't like jam) you have something familiar to us all. What Guido had done was give the notes names, and names can be written down. The issue was how.

Eventually the solution he arrived at was to draw four lines over the words, and mark one line either as "ut" or as "fa" and indicate the notes with square dots placed on the line or space over the word, thus indicating that word's pitch. And thus the first modern music notation was born.

He also created a method of teaching singers still used today, wherein singers are trained to sing the intervals by having the singers sing the notes out of order, rather like Julie Andrews in Sound of Music, where she teaches them, as Guido did, first the names of the notes, and them how to move between them "so, do, la, fa, mi, re, do- when you know the notes to sing." And his students could now sing most anything.

The immediate reaction to Guido's brilliant and workable solution was the reward so often given to those who find think outside of the box and find elegant solutions to complicated problems: He was fired by his bishop, who was upset that Guido turned novices into professional singers, instead of professional pray-ers.  But another bishop of a nearby diocese was quite happy to have professional singers, and brought Guido to his place, where he encouraged Guido to write a book on his method. That book, the Micrologus, came to the attention of the pope, who summoned Guido to Rome to explain and demonstrate his new method. Guido did as told, and the pope, after seeing the method demonstrated, almost immediately ordered all monasteries to adopt Guido's methods and set down their music. And thus the crisis was ended.

But Guido's invention stretched far beyond the preservation of Chant. All the music that exists in the West today, whether Polyphony, or Baroque, or Classical, Romantic, Jazz and so on, exists because it could be written down by one writer, and handed over to musicians who could then faithfully reproduce what they saw on the page. And for that, we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to a simple Benedictine monk, who was simply trying to teach his novices to sing.

22 June 2016

Uncle Screwtape on Modern Education

I've been hard on modern education for the last while, but the problems I identify are by no means new or recent.  As always, others have seen the problems before I have, and, as is usual, they phrased it much better than I ever could.  Here is CS Lewis on  those who read (or used to read, at any rate) the old books:

Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating The Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer's development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man's own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the "present state of the question". To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge - to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour - this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. But thanks be to our Father and the Historical Point of View, great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that "history is bunk",