December 31, 2008

Cositas


Imaginitive drawing of the long since destroyed temple of Zeus at Olympia. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

El Cabrero has been so busy slacking and blogging about books for the last several days that current events and snarky comments about the same have been sadly neglected.

One more book for the road though: Tom Stone's Zeus: A Journey Through Greece in the Footsteps of a God was a lot of fun. I'm a big fan of the Hairy Thunderer and the whole Olympian family and this book scratched that itch.

(It's a bit ironic that many people have seen some kind of moral progress in the triumph of monotheistic religions over polytheism. At times I must admit that the evidence for this seems underwhelming...)

Anyhow, aside from the usual news fare of carnage and collapse, here are some items that caught my eye in the last week or so:

RECORD FINE FOR MINE FATALITY. From the Dec. 24 Charleston Gazette, Aracoma Coal Co., a subsidiary of Massey Energy, admitted criminal safety violations in a fire in which two miners, Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield, died in 2006. The company pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges, including one felony. The company must pay a record $2.5 million in criminal fines and an additional $1.7 million in civil fines.

WAL-MART COUGHS IT UP FOR WORKERS' UNPAID WAGES. Far be it from me to take joy in the misfortunes of others, but this is freakin' awesome!

SIGNS OF THE TIMES, PART ONE. Last week, an AP story reported that a growing number of Americans have been giving up their cats and dogs as the economy tanks. Yesterday's Gazette reported that both pets and farm animals have been abandoned at an increasing rate in West Virginia.

SIGNS OF THE TIMES, PART TWO. On a little less grim note, more people are using repair shops to fix old items rather than buy new ones as money gets tighter.

One thing that struck me on a trip to Mexico last summer was the vast number of businesses there that fix up all the things that people here just throw away. It was another reminder of how wasteful we are.

DEMOGRAPHIC ODDITY. At a time when adults in industrialized countries have grown taller, the average height of African-American women has been declining, beginning with those born in the 1960s. The effect is most pronounced in women with low and median incomes, while those with higher incomes have actually grown taller.

ONE MORE THING. Happy New Year and don't drink and drive!

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 30, 2008

Unbelievable


The Greek word "atheoi" from a manuscript of a New Testament epistle. It's best translated as "the godless." Image courtesy of wikipedia.

During Slacker Week, El Cabrero is reviewing last year's reading material. And no discussion of that would be complete without mentioning some recent books attacking religion.

For the record, El Cabrero is a fairly religious person, although I probably won't make Eagle Scout. Still, given all the mischief and worse unleashed on the world in the name of religion, I don't begrudge those who give it an occasional whack.

Thanks to local public libraries, I was able to listen to two such books on CD. Ironically, both times I was driving some distance to attend one or another religious function. There has been a spate of atheist books of late but the two I spent time with were The God Delusion by British scientist Richard Dawkins of "selfish gene" fame and God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens.

Both were lively and entertaining, although I found Dawkins to be the more persuasive of the two, not that I was won over. That would be too much of a leap of faith for me.

And in all fairness, I don't think it's fair to say that religion is responsible for all the evil in the world--I'd say it's closer to 70 or 80 percent. Besides, people use whatever material is at hand to justify their nasty deeds, religious or otherwise (although religion does work pretty well in that department).

NO LINKS OR SNARKY COMMENTS ABOUT CURRENT EVENTS TODAY--I'm too busy slacking. Maybe tomorrow.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: GOD ONLY KNOWS

December 29, 2008

Quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore



During this week of slacking, El Cabrero has been reviewing items from the last year's worth of reading material.

Today's selection involves Weird and Obscure Works that I Wouldn't Necessarily Recommend to Anyone Else. To wit, sometimes I go on extended reading jags about extremely arcane subjects. Good though. Here goes...

*Homo Necans: the Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, Walter Burkert. I told you these were obscure books. This one is about the role of hunting and later animal sacrifice in human culture, with a special focus on the Greeks.

*Violence and the Sacred, Rene Girard. This was my second time through that book, although the reasons for reading it again escape me at the moment. If I got it right, and I'm not saying I did, Girard views acts of violent scapegoating as key to maintaining the social order in early societies.

*Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion, Robert Parker. What can I say? It's a weird reading jag thing. I'm intrigued by the ancient Greek idea of miasma or pollution as a way of understanding contemporary violence. Short version of my theory: violence is kind of like a barrel of hazardous materials that gets dumped in some public place. Once it's out there, it's unpredictable and can pollute people far removed from the original act.

*The Goddess Fortuna in Medieval Literature, Howard Rollin Patch. Again, what can I say? She lives.

Disclaimer: El Cabrero and the staff of Goat Rope assume no responsibility for those who actually try to read these things.
NO LINKS TODAY. I'm too busy slacking to deal with current events.


GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: OBSCURE

December 27, 2008

Fun books



It's that time of year at Goat Rope wherein the dying year's reading is discussed. Here are some fairly random but interesting ones that I'd recommend, presented in no particular order.

Note on method: some books included in the category of "fun books" are kind of downers but they are the kind of reading material you don't have to force yourself to read.

*All is Change: The Two-Thousand-Year Journey of Buddhism to the West, Lawrence Sutin. Call me weird, but I think this was my favorite for 2008.

*Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time, Greg Mortenson and David Olive Relin. The true story of how a mountain climber found his life's vocation building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

*Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich by Robert Frank. After the financial meltdown, this may be more of a cultural artifact than a current account, but it was a fun tour through an alien world.

*Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, Barbara Kingsolver, Camille Kingsolver, Steven L. Hopp. This one got lots of people eating closer to home. At Goat Rope Farm, we're all about that. Plus, the authors are all Appalachians to one degree or another.

*Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls. If you think your childhood was rough, check out this autobiography. Sad to say, El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia didn't come off very well in this.

*The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A great poet (but not so great defense secretary) once said that there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns. One of my pet peeves is dealing with people who think they can predict the future and plan without taking surprises into account. Too bad the people who really need to read this won't.

*American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China, Matthew Polly. You don't have to be a martial arts nut like me to enjoy this one.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 26, 2008

Psyched out: more from the Goat Rope book shelf


You know who. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Tis the season at this blog to discuss the waning year's reading material. I don't know about y'all, but it's been a good year of psychology books at Goat Rope Farm. One of the best was Philip Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, which filled up a lot of blogging days round here this past summer. I'd put that one on the "must read" list.

A fun overview of research in the field can be found in Lauren Slater's Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century. Her book led to me some classic Old School psychology, such as Leon Festinger's 1956 classic study of cognitive dissonance When Prophecy Fails, a case study of a UFO cult that miscalculated the date of the end of the world.

One of the most interesting books of the year was Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Pinker demolishes certain misconceptions enshrined in some models of social science and in some "left" circles. These include a denial of the legacy of our animal past and some of the nastiness that might entail (the blank slate), the belief that people in a "state of nature" are peaceful and holistic (the noble savage) and the idea that mind is independent of brain (the ghost in the machine). Some bubbles need busted.

For something completely different, Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain takes and interesting look at people with strange and interesting musical abilities and disabilities.

I also revisited some old items on the shelf, including Man and His Symbols by C.G. Jung et al and James Gilligan's unfortunately neglected Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic. Jung, by the way, was the subject of a huge but interesting biography by Deirdre Bair.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 24, 2008

A Shakespearean Christmas wish


Longtime Goat Rope readers may remember my fondness for these lines from Hamlet at this time of the year, but it can't hurt to take another look:


Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.


Here's hoping that holds true this year. Best holiday wishes to all from Goat Rope Farm!

You can expect another post on the Feast of St. Stephen (that's Dec. 26 for all the heathens or excessive Protestants out there)--just don't expect much.

GOAT ROPE ADVISOR LEVEL: SUSPENDED

December 23, 2008

Make new friends but keep the old


This may be a bronze of the ancient Greek bard Hesiod. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

It is the immemorial custom at this blog (for the last couple years anyway) to reserve the last week or so of the year to discussing items from the Goat Rope book shelf. This involves giving a shout out to some of this year's best reading material, although little if any of it was written in 2008.

(Note: While El Cabrero is pleased to discuss selected books, I cannot divulge the total number of books consumed this year lest my employer realize what a slacker I am.)

This first installment consists of classics, many of which have been revisited after years since the previous perusal.

So here goes, starting with the ancients. The ancient Greek bard Hesiod was no Homer, but he had his moments. I started 2008 with another run through the Theogony, his account of the origin of gods, the universe and everything. As he put it,

In the beginning there was chaos.


Come to think of it, there still is.

Then came another look at Plato's Symposium, a dialogue on the nature of love. For some reason, I liked it better the last time I read it. Followers of this blog will not be surprised that the Odyssey of Homer got another look, since I spent a couple of months taking the long way home with its hero.

I also took another look at Rome's answer to the Homeric epics, the Aeneid of Virgil. Virgil was a more elegant writer than Homer although I prefer the latter. One difference between the work of Homer (whoever he was/they were) and Virgil is that the Homeric epics grew while Virgil's was self-consciously written. Good though.

I love these lines from Aeneas' visit to the underworld (which make a great mission statement):

...your arts are to be these:
To pacify, to impose the rule of law,
To spare the conquered, battle down the proud.


That works for me...

On the borderline between ancient and medieval literature lies Boethius' Consolations of Philosophy, a wonderful book by a man who was unjustly accused by the Powers that Were and which was composed while he prepared for a particularly nasty death. His musings on the nature of Fortune inspired this year's series on luck and randomness. It's definitely worth a look.

HEARTS OF DARKNESS, then and now, form the subject of this elegant rant by Chris Hedges. El Cabrero is a sucker for Joseph Conrad references.

LOOKING FOR A PLACE TO CUT SPENDING? There is quite a bit of indefensible "defense" spending which is really just corporate welfare.

EVERYBODY HURTS, but we hurt more if we think people are deliberately inflicting it.

PARLEZ USTED PAJARO? Here's an item on deciphering the songs of birds.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 22, 2008

Do moon coyotes howl at the earth?


Earthrise from the moon, courtesy of wikipedia.

El Cabrero has a feeling that lots of people will be slacking off today as the Christmas holiday approaches. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The holiday season seems a little different this year. I don't know about you, but the annual ritual of excessive consumption that has grown around the holiday, always pretty crass, seems particularly off key given the growing economic crisis that is affecting so many people around the world. I keep wondering how bad it's going to get.

In the meantime, here are a few items, starting with one about the above image...

AN IMAGE THAT CHANGED THE WORLD (see above) is discussed in this article from the UK Guardian. Short version: the trip to the moon helped people discover the earth.

KICKING THE ECONOMIC BUBBLE HABIT will be tough.

A LENGTHY OBITUARY FOR "THE OWNERSHIP SOCIETY" and how Bush policies contributed to the current crisis can be found here.

GOD BLESS US, EVERY ONE. The latest edition of the Rev. Jim Lewis' Notes from under the Fig Tree ponders Dickensian themes in these hard times from A Christmas Carol.

SPEAKING OF HARD TIMES (AGAIN), labor and community groups in WV called for a meaningful stimulus package to get the economy moving again. Here's the coverage from the Charleston Gazette.

SURF'S UP! Waves in the Pacific Northwest have been increasing in height by 7 centimeters a year and no one is sure why.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 20, 2008

An old holiday favorite


What would the holiday season be without favorite reruns? In that spirit, Goat Rope is pleased to once again feature a 2006 contribution by boxer and official Goat Rope Farm film critic Sandor Sege (pronounced Shandor Shegg-AY).

Once again, we must remind our readers that Mr. Sege sustained a head injury whilst crashing into a wall chasing a squeaky toy. As a result, he sometimes transposes the plots of the films he discusses. (His fondness for holiday libations is doesn't help). Nevertheless, we are convinced that his insights into the world of cinema more than compensate for this regrettable shortcoming.

It is our hope that these weekend features will help to elevate the level of public discourse and promote a greater appreciation of both the humanities and the animalities.

THE CANINE FILM CRITIC EXPLAINS "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE"

OK, so this is like everybody's all time favorite Christmas movie. It's about this Jimmy Stewart guy, except he's pretending to be someone else. That's acting, which sometimes happens in movies.

After he loses a bunch of money and thinks he messed up his whole life, he thinks about killing himself. But just before he throws himself into the river, this big twister comes and picks up his house and drops it on a witch. Only her feet are sticking out. And these little people are real happy about it.

Glenda the Good Witch tells Jimmy/the other guy that he needs to go see the Wizard to figure it all out with this angel named Toto who wants to get his wings.

Toto kind of looks like a squeaky toy to me.

So anyway he takes off on the Yellow Brick Road and is joined by some hobbits, an elf and a dwarf. They have to fight off a lot of orcs and trolls, which is kind of cool.

Moomus and Doodus say I look like a cave troll...

So anyway, they finally get to the wizard and destroy the ring. And when the bell rings, Jimmy gets his wings and goes back to Kansas.

And here's the thing: he could have got there all along.

The cinematography is outstanding. This is a technical film critic thing, but it's like in these old movies they take a bunch of pictures and show them quickly so it looks like people are moving around. So it looks like there are people moving around.

They say if you play Pink Floyd's The Wall while watching this movie you get real confused and depressed.

I think that's only true if you run out of popcorn.


GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 19, 2008

Talking poetry at the Head Start center



For about eight years, I taught pre-GED classes in Head Start centers in southern West Virginia. Most of those who attended were mothers of young children in the program, although it was open to anyone who was interested. Some were on public assistance and most if not all were living in or near poverty.

In a bit of a strange turn, I found that I enjoyed teaching math although I was pretty bad at it. In fact, it was only in my second year of teaching that I finally figured out how to do ratio and proportion problems: cross multiply and divide.

(I think the students thought I was playing dumb to make them look good but that was not the case.)

And while I've done a lot of writing, I found that subject much harder to teach. At least math at that level had rules, whereas it always seemed to me that writing had infinite possibilities.

One thing I did make an effort to do was not just stick to the GED study books but to bring in at least some major works of literature for students to read and discuss. As noted in earlier posts this week, I believe that the humanities can be especially important for disadvantaged people.

Among the things we'd read aloud and discuss were poetry by Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, and William Blake, stories by Poe (I once even tortured them with Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown") and works like the Declaration of Independence and speeches by Lincoln.

Of all the things I brought in, selections from Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience seemed to have the deepest impact. Some would cry over the chimney sweeper poems or make the political connections from "London." One very young mother in a tough situation seemed to find in "The Sick Rose" an inspiration for a proto-feminist awakening.

Something really powerful happens when people who haven't had the opportunity get a chance to read, reflect, think and talk about ideas. I would argue that it's even profoundly political in the broad sense.

THE AGE OF PONZI. Here's Krugman's latest.

BAILOUT MESS. In this piece, David Sirota argues that we've been had and suggests things to do about it.

CAPITALISM ON THE BRAIN. Here's an item about how unregulated capitalism short circuits the moral sense. My favorite part is a quote by the great primatologist Frans B.M. de Waal: "You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme capitalist positions."

A PEACE OFFENSIVE, if it happens, might look like this.

IN THE EVENT THAT YOU WERE WONDERING ABOUT THE TUSKS OF BEAKED WHALES, click here.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 18, 2008

How I read my way through the last economic depression


The theme at Goat Rope lately is hard times and how to get through them. The series began a week ago Monday. If you feel so inclined, please click on earlier posts. You'll also find links and comments about current events.

As I mentioned before, the 1980s hit West Virginia really hard, with massive layoffs and high unemployment. And the cavalry was not on the way. I remember it as a time of poverty as I scrambled to provide for two young children.

When hard times hit, of course you have to try to get yourself out of them. I looked for more and better work and scrambled to finish a degree. But you also have to stay alive in the meantime, physically and otherwise.

For me, reading was a kind of salvation. For some reason, I stumbled upon The Story of Civilization, a massive 11 volume popularized version of world history by Will and Ariel Durant. It was far from academic history and contained any number of howlers that would drive sticklers up the wall. But it was engagingly written and was a constant companion for many months during work breaks, sleepless nights and stolen moments.

The Durants would include discussions of literary classics in their rambles through history and I made a list and went back and read as many as I could.

All of which is to say that I made it through the Reagan era with the help of Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Plato, Herodotus, Thucydides, Shakespeare, and the like.

As poor as I was and as hopeless as the times seemed, I still remember the awe I felt on finishing Plato's Republic, the Oresteia of Aeschylus, and several of Shakespeare's tragedies and histories that I'd missed. That experience took me out, however briefly, from the grind and gave me a chance to think and reflect--and not to feel like a hunted animal.

There are some things you do that seem to take the life force out of you and leave you less than you were before, like zoning out in front of a television or playing video games during all your free time. But there are other kinds of things that seem to build you up. It could be a course of study, some physical discipline or learning an art or skill. These take effort and discipline but they can richly reward the time and trouble.

In my case, it helped me both to endure and eventually escape dire poverty--and left me with the will to do something about it when I had the chance.

R.I.P. the Bush administration's "ownership society."

WHAT A DIFFERENCE UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE MAKES. In another op-ed, economist Dean Baker points out that if General Motors was a Canadian company, it wouldn't be in need of a bailout.

HERE WE GO AGAIN. Welfare rolls are increasing for the first time since it was "reformed" in 1996.

MORE BAD WV NEWS. Century Aluminum in Ravenswood may close.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 17, 2008

Getting through


The theme lately at Goat Rope is hard times and how to get through them. The last two posts were about poverty and the role of education, broadly conceived, in helping people escape it. Yesterday's post was about a program that provides economically disadvantaged people with college level classes in the humanities.

As fate would have it, the humanities helped me get though the economic depression that hit West Virginia in the 1980s. It was baaaad. I was working at a low wage job and picking up any extra work on the side and trying to provide for two young children. At times, it seemed like there was no way out.

As mentioned in the last two posts, being in poverty sometimes feels like being a hunted animal. The writer Earl Shorris called it, accurately in my opinion, a "surround of force."

It would have been nice if we had an administration at the time that cared about working class and poor people, but that wasn't on the menu. There was no social movement waiting in the wings to come to the rescue.

One thing you have to do in a situation like that is just Get Through Time while you're waiting for conditions to change or opportunities to occur. And there are some ways of getting through time that can make you stronger and other ways that make you weaker.

One thing that saved me was starting an ambitious reading program of my own on work breaks and lunch hours and other stolen moments. It didn't put any extra cash in my pocket at the time but it enriched me and gave me a chance to think and reflect when I couldn't do much else. And over time, it was an investment well worth the effort.

About which more tomorrow.

REGARDING LINKS AND COMMENTS ABOUT CURRENT EVENTS. Today there ain't none.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 16, 2008

Time to reflect


Socrates, courtesy of wikipedia.

Yesterday's post was about a description of poverty developed by the writer Earl Shorris. He called it a "surround of force," which keeps poor people on the defensive, dealing with one crisis after another with little or no opportunity to reflect.

That's pretty much what it was like for me.

Shorris also developed a novel approach to dealing with the problem that seemed to work for many of the people who had the chance to try it. It involved, of all things, studying the humanities and reading and talking about the classics. As he put it,


The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world, for thinking, for learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned against you. I think the humanities are one of the ways to become political...


Shorris makes his case in two books, New American Blues: A Journey Through Poverty to Democracy and Riches for the Poor: The Clemente Course in the Humanities.

No doubt there are politically (self) righteous advocates for the poor who have never been there who think this was a silly or useless approach. I will waste no words refuting them except to say that when one is in a miserable situation, there is really nothing so rare and welcome as the chance to think and reflect. Oh yeah, and this: nothing is too good for the working class, bub.

It's no substitute for other ways of fighting poverty but I think it has merits.

Shorris developed what came to be the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities. According to their website, the program


grew out of the disturbing fact that in our society many low-income residents have limited access to college education and no opportunity to study the humanities. The Clemente Course provides college level instruction in the humanities, with the award of college credits, to economically and educationally disadvantaged individuals at no cost and in an accessible and welcoming community setting. Participants study four disciplines: literature, art history, moral philosophy, and American history. Like their more affluent contemporaries, students explore great works of fiction, poetry, drama, painting, sculpture, architecture, and philosophy, while learning also about the events and ideals that define America as a nation. The course also offers instruction in writing and critical thinking, while the seminar style of the classes and dialectical investigation encourage an appreciation for reasoned dialogue.


One person who went through the program described its effects:


This class has given me something that I thought was lost forever, and that is the will power to reach my dreams.


I never had the chance to participate in or observe the course, but I found my own way toward that conclusion by both living in and working with people who live in poverty. More on that tomorrow.

DEFICITS, DEFICITS, WE GOT DEFICITS. Here's Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz on some of them.

OWN TO RENT. Here's some interesting news on the housing crisis.

SEE YOU IN COURT. Mountain State Justice, a public interest law firm, plans to sue the WV Medicaid program over changes to the plan which may limit services to children.

THE COMET MAY HAVE BEEN FRAMED. Some scientists are now blaming volcanic eruptions for the extinction of dinosaurs.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 15, 2008

A surround of force


Being poor is sometimes like being hunted. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

There is a wealth of writings about poverty. I've scanned a good bit of them, but the one analysis that spoke most clearly to me was that of Earl Shorris in his 1997 book, New American Blues: A Journey Through Poverty to Democracy.

In preparing to write the book, Shorris traveled around the country and spoke with many people dealing with poverty. His description of the reality of poverty as people live it rang true to my own experience of it and seemed to fit the experiences of people I knew who had endured it.

Shorris called it "a surround of force." As he put it,


The poor, those who lose in the game of modern society, are thrust into a surround of force. Inside the surround, they experience anomie: panic is limitless action within a surround, but the surround ruthlessly limits the freedom of its objects by enclosing them.


Think of an animal being hunted. Another way of putting it might be to say that when you're poor, you're always on the defensive. It's one damn thing after another, generally not good. It keeps you always reacting and often deprives you of the opportunity to step back and reflect.

A line of Bruce Springsteen's comes to mind from "Born in the USA:"


You end up like a dog that's been beat too much 'Til you spend half your life just covering up.


When you feel like that dog, it's hard to be a citizen taking an active part in the life of the polis.

Shorris also came up with a novel approach to breaking that pattern through education which also rang true to my experience.

More on that tomorrow...

SPEAKING OF HARD TIMES, some states are running out of funds to pay unemployment benefits.

MISTAKES WERE MADE, according to an unpublished federal history of reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

BEYOND A CERTAIN POINT, more might not be better.

UNION WOMEN earn more than their unorganized counterparts, a new study reports.

COMMON GROUND. Here's a suggested policy agenda many Americans agree upon, by way of Yes! Magazine.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 13, 2008

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer explained


As the holiday season approaches, Goat Rope is pleased to offer some insightful discussions of some of the most beloved television Christmas specials. Our canine commentator is none other than Mr. Sandor Sege (pronounced Shandor SHEGG-ay), official film critic of Goat Rope Farm.

(We must remind the reader that Mr. Sege suffered a head injury when he crashed into a wall whilst chasing a squeaky toy and has since been known to transpose the plots of the films he discusses. Nonetheless, we are convinced that his unique insights into the world of cinema more than compensate for this regrettable shortcoming.)

It is our hope that features such as this will elevate the level of cultural discourse and promote a greater appreciation of both the humanities and the animalities.

THE CANINE FILM CRITIC EXPLAINS "RUDOLPH"

OK, so like this one comes on every year and is the coolest Christmas special ever.

There's this reindeer named Rudolph, see, and he wants to help pull Santa's truck, which is really a robot in disguise. But see, he has this red nose when he comes home from college. This guy tries to tell him to get into plastics but he goes off with Mrs. Robinson instead and I got confused after that part.

Anyway, Rudolph has this little elf friend who wants to be a dentist but he gets eaten by a talking plant after being mean to his girlfriend. The other elves don't think he's very good at making toys after that.

Then there's this abominable snowman who runs around scaring people because he wants to win this disco dancing contest with his partner, who is Mrs. Claus. Santa can't do it because he's trying to get home from the Civil War. They win the contest but the mummy runs off with the prize.

It was kind of predictable if you knew the song.


GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 12, 2008

One step, then another


The Andes Mountains. Not the best place to crash land. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme at Goat Rope lately is hard times and how to get through them, a topic to which I will return next week.

Speaking of which, if you think you've got troubles, I highly recommend Edward E. Leslie's Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls: True Stories of Castaways and Other Survivors. It is from that book that I came across the Best Advice Ever for dealing with tough times, one that I suggest committing to memory. It makes a pretty good mantra when you need it.

The words come from Henri Guillaumet, a pilot whose plane ran out of fuel in a snowstorm in the Andes. He managed (barely) to survive pain, cold and lots of other nasty stuff. Speaking from bitter experience, he gave this advice:

What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step, but you have to take it.


LESS IS MORE. Getting by with less stuff may not be a totally bad thing.

PRIMING THE PUMP. Here's economist Dean Baker on president-elect Obama's economic stimulus plan.

MISTAKES WERE MADE. In this article, economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz outlines the bad economic policies that led to the current mess.

LET THEM EAT NASTY STUFF. Some possible good news: bacteria that like to eat toxic gunk could help revive dead zones in the world's oceans.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 11, 2008

Change we can't help believing in


Tibetan image of the wheel of life and death, courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme at Goat Rope is hard times and ways of dealing with them. My first choice is that they "come again no more," as the song says. My second choice is that people come together and make them get better ASAP. But sometimes they just come and stay a while. And whatever else people do about them, we just have to get through them.

One way of looking at the world which is all about dealing with hard times and suffering is Buddhism--and you don't have to be a card carrying Buddhist to get something out of it.

According to Buddhist teachings, everything--good, bad, or indifferent--is impermanent, coming into being and passing away depending on conditions. No matter what the situation is, it's going to change. It may not change for the better, but it will be different. The Buddha taught that "whatever is subject to origination is subject to cessation."

We often screw up royally by regarding a temporary situation as permanent and acting or believing accordingly.

The Diamond Sutra, a Mahayana Buddhist text puts it like this:

"So I say to you -
This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:

Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.

So is all conditioned existence to be seen."

Thus spoke Buddha.


The universe, in other words, is kind of like the weather in El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia: if you don't like it, stick around. It'll change.

SPEAKING OF HARD TIMES, the Economic Policy Institute reports that unemployed workers outnumber job openings by more than 3 to 1.

GETTING IT RIGHT. Here's a take on what we need to do to fix the US economy.

DEATH SENTENCES AND EXECUTIONS continued to decline last year, reaching a 14 year low.

AIR HEADED DINOSAUR UPDATE here.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 10, 2008

Awful grace


Aeschylus, courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme at Goat Rope these days is hard times and how to get through them, not that we're dealing with that now or anything.

I am not one of those who thinks all suffering is beneficial. Most of it is just plain suffering that leads to more of the same. My first choice is to get rid of it.

But still...

Most people who have accomplished difficult things in life have had to overcome obstacles. And for many, the struggle itself gave them strength to go on and do great things (assuming they survived, of course). Athletes and others who do difficult things go through a long and arduous period of training and preparation.

Ancient myths and folktales are full of stories of heroes, heroines and sages who had to go through a painful initiation before they could accomplish their work.

According to the Greek tragedian Aeschylus,


He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our despair, against our own will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.


The ancient Chinese sage Mencius aka Mengzi (4th century BC) put it this way:


When Heaven is about to confer an important office upon a man, it first embitters his heart in its purpose; it causes him to exert his bones and sinews; it makes his body suffer hunger; it inflicts upon him want and poverty and confounds his undertakings. In this way it stimulates his will, steels his nature and thus makes him capable of accomplishing what he would otherwise be incapable of accomplishing.


It doesn't always work out that way, but sometimes it does--and the world is better for it.

HUMAN RIGHTS. Today is International Human Rights Day. El Cabrero and amigos will be exercising some of ours today on behalf of winning others. Here's the UN Declaration. Too bad we haven't got there yet.

GOOD FOR THEM! It looks like those union workers sitting-in in Illinois are getting somewhere.

DEATH IN THE MINES. Massey Energy has been cited for an October Boone County mine fatality.

TEASING OUT the positive side of teasing is the subject of this article.

URGENT FIRE ANT UPDATE here.

HOARDING can be bad for your health.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: AWFUL

December 09, 2008

The uses of adversity?


Wu prefers to sleep through hard times, which may not be a bad idea.

It is an article of faith in some circles that going through hard times brings out the best in people. In many myths, books and films, the hero or heroine must undergo an ordeal to achieve greatness. There are all kinds of popular sayings to the same effect, as in "no guts, no glory" and "no pain, no gain."

I do not entirely agree. Misery, as they also say, loves company. The world is full of unnecessary or preventable suffering, which usually only leads to more of the same. Given the choice, I'd rather get rid of it.

Then there are those who seek for some deep and perhaps cosmic purpose in human suffering and insist that it is all somehow for the best. Voltaire did a great job of skewering that viewpoint in his hilarious little novel Candide, and far be it from me to try to improve on that masterpiece.

I find that kind of cosmic optimism to be a real downer. For the record, I can't imagine a more depressing thought than the idea that this is "the best of all possible worlds."

Still there are some bullets that can't be dodged. In such cases, tenacity can be a virtue. And it really is sometimes true that going through tough periods can build a kind of endurance. Nietzsche famously said "What does not destroy me makes me stronger" (although the evidence often leans in the other direction). Sometimes telling yourself that can help a bit.

So can having some kind of goal or purpose, as Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl argued in Man's Search for Meaning (search the Goat Rope archives in the upper left hand corner for an earlier series here on his ideas). To quote Nietzsche again,


He who has a strong enough why can bear almost any how.


WORKS FOR ME. In the wake of the financial bailout, the union SEIU has proposed organizing bank workers.

HARD TIMES have sparked a boost of interest in WV's historic New Deal sites.

I COULD HAVE TOLD THEM THIS. Scientists have discovered that dogs have what seems to be a sense of fairness and are capable of envy. Perhaps they might have discovered this sooner if they'd have tried the novel experiment of giving food or treats to more than one at a time. My theory is that they can even do a kind of canine arithmetic in which they quantify the goodies and express disappointment if the balance doesn't add up.

I COULD HAVE TOLD THEM THIS ONE TOO. Research indicates that aging brains may be easily distracted. What was their first clue? And what were we talking about, anyway?

IN OTHER URGENT NEWS, vampires are cool again (or still).

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: DISTRACTED

December 08, 2008

Hard times, come again no more


Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother," courtesy of wikipedia.

"Hard times, come again no more," goes a line of a famous song by Stephen Foster--but it looks like they have.

(By the way, here's Dylan doing it live.)

The economic downturn and recent research El Cabrero and friends did for a study of The State of Working West Virginia over the last 30 years reminded me of the Dark Ages of the 1980s. It was a time when globalization and Reaganomics hit my state like a tsunami. As I mentioned in Friday's post, unemployment was in the double digits for most of the 1980s and early 1990s.

At the time, I had yet to finish college, was working a low wage job and had two small children. It was bad. Real bad.

Like the guy said in the Big Lebowski, some days you eat the bear and some days (decades?) the bear eats you. And help was not on the way. Hope, which the divine Ms. Emily Dickinson described at "the thing with feathers" seemed to have flown the coop.

I hope this time there might be a little help on the way, but long ago I took to heart the words of the great Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi:

"Pay your respects to the gods and buddhas, but never rely upon them."


So here's the question I'm going to be dealing with for the next little stretch: how does one, on a purely personal level, endure hard times when the cavalry isn't going to come and when there is no social movement to save you?

Sneak preview: tenacity helps.

FREE FALLIN'. The US economy dropped over half a million jobs in November and more than 1.2 million in the last three months according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

SITTING IN. Here's an update about a sit-in by union workers in a closed Chicago factory.

MEGAN WILLIAMS UPDATE. All seven people accused of torturing Megan Williams in Logan County have been convicted. Here's an overview.

PAID UP. Massey Energy paid Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel $267 million after the US Supreme Court overturned a previous decision by the WV Supreme Court. Previously, the state court overturned the verdict against Massey, with Justice Brent Benjamin casting the deciding vote. Benjamin, a political unknown, was elected to the court after Massey CEO Don Blankenship spent more than $3 million to defeat his opponent.

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS can make you happier.

COLLATERAL DAMAGE. The recession has taken a severe toll on recycling efforts.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 06, 2008

Holiday reruns with the canine film critic


The holiday season once again approaches and that means Christmas reruns. Goat Rope is pleased to offer a special repeat edition of one of the canine film critic's finest reviews. In this holiday feature, Goat Rope Farm film critic Sandor Sege (pronounced Shandor Shegg-AY) will discuss the perennial seasonal favorite, "A Christmas Story."

Once again, we must remind our readers that Mr. Sege suffered a head injury from crashing into a wall whilst chasing a squeaky toy. As a result, he has on occasion been known to transpose the plots of the films he discusses. Nevertheless, we believe that his insights into the world of cinema more than compensate for this regrettable shortcoming.

It is our hope that features such as these will elevate the level of public discourse and contribute to a greater appreciation of both the humanities and the animalities.

THE CANINE FILM CRITIC EXPLAINS "A CHRISTMAS STORY"

OK, so this movie is awesome. Some people may not think this movie needs explaining by a film critic but there's a lot going on there that you might not get at first.

First, there's this kid who wants a BB gun for Christmas so bad it's driving him nuts. But everybody keeps telling him he'll put his eye out with it.

What they don't know is that he really needs this BB gun because this evil robot from the future who looks like some kind of muscle governor is coming back and trying to kill him.

The evil robot catches the kid and puts him in a prison down south where he makes friends with everybody by eating 50 eggs.

I could probably eat 50 eggs if Moomus and Doodus would let me...

The 50 eggs is sort of a symbol for the 12 days of Christmas. Fifty is like the square root of twelve.

Anyway, he escapes from New York and these Christmas ghosts show him what's going to happen to him if he doesn't straighten up. So then he trades in his BB gun and buys Christmas presents for everybody, even the evil robot whose name is Tiny Tim, who gets the girl that works at the fashion magazine.

It's awesome, especially if you eat eggs and popcorn while you watch it.


GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: SUBLIME

December 05, 2008

Dreadful memories


Here's hoping a car isn't coming.

El Cabrero spent a good chunk of the last few months working with a couple of partners on a fairly substantial report about the state of working people in West Virginia. Here's a link to a press release and the full report.

We wanted to look both at how things stand now and at how they've changed over a 30 year period, starting in 1979. It brought back a lot of painful memories of hard times.

Here's the short version. Once upon a time in West Virginia, a typical young person had a decent chance of finding a job with good wages and benefits without too much trouble. Then the ladder got yanked away.

In 1979, before the economic tsunami hit, WV was higher than the national average in hourly wages, pension, and health care coverage. The decade of the 1980s was an unmitigated economic disaster here. Unemployment through most of the 1980s and early 1990s was in the double digits. In 1983, the official unemployment rate was an incredible 17.3 percent. That didn't count discouraged or underemployed workers.

Those are just numbers. I remember plant closing after plant closing, massive layoffs in mines and manufacturing--and that was before the NAFTA wave crashed over us. It was grim.

It took us literally decades to dig our way out from under and begin making progress again. And now that we're getting back on track, we're threatened once again by the international economic meltdown.

It's always something, isn't it?

FILLING IN THE STREAMS. Here's more on the Bush administration's last minute maneuvers to ease restrictions on mountaintop removal mining.

ON THE OTHER HAND, Bank of America announced it will stop issuing loans to companies that engage in mountaintop removal.

WEATHERING THE STORM. Do personality traits make some people more adaptable in hard times?


WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF THE AUTO INDUSTRY WENT UNDER?
Here's a link to an analysis from the Economic Policy Institute.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 04, 2008

Howling ghosts


It is the official position of Goat Rope that the coolest album of the 1990s was Counting Crows' "August and Everything After." And one of the coolest songs was "Mr. Jones."

One line from that song expresses a wish of mine: "I wanna be Bob Dylan..." Or at least I'd like to be able to use words as well or as wildly as he can. As I heard Arlo Guthrie say in a concert once, Dylan seems to fish for songs upstream from everybody else, which is why he catches so many of them.

Here's a random sample of a Dylan line, from "Visions of Johanna:"

The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.


I have no idea what that means but I wish that just once in my life I could come up with a sentence that cool.

ANOTHER CASUALTY of the recession for many Americans may be access to higher education.

STATE OF THE STATES: not good.

MORE PARTING SHOTS FROM THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION: easing rules on mountaintop removal mining.

GOING GREEN. The stimulus package being developed for next year includes a green component.

URGENT TOOTHLESS FLYING DINOSAUR UPDATE here.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 03, 2008

I saw a sign there


El Cabrero has been musing lately about how sometimes I've been deeply influenced by brief and random conversations. It kind of makes me wonder how much more I might have learned if I'd been paying attention...

When I was in junior high, there was an art teacher who was the master of random comments. Come to think of it, the making of random comments is one reason why we keep art teachers around.

Somehow, when the topic or Arlo or Woody Guthrie came up, he told me that there were some verses of "This Land is Your Land" that didn't make into the school music books. I was curious and looked them up and have since been a big fan of musical subversion.

These are the ones he was talking about:

As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tresspassin'
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!

In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.


HARD TIMES FOR COLLEGES and for people trying to go.

WHERE'S JOE THE PLUMBER WHEN YOU NEED HIM? Here's economist Dean Baker on the bailout, which is spreading the wealth around to those who don't need it.

HERE WE SIT, BROKEN HEARTED. The U.S. Supreme Court refused an appeal from Massey Energy to overturn a $260 million verdict won by Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel.

WORKING WEST VIRGINIA. El Cabrero was one of the co-authors of a new report from the WV Center on Budget and Policy looking at the state of working people in West Virginia over the last 30 years. Here's the press release with a link to the full report.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 02, 2008

A bridge of silver


This picture has nothing to do with the topic at hand.

You can get good advice in brief and even random conversations sometimes. As I mentioned yesterday, I got some very good advice about dealing with people when I began working in the public library of one of my state's major cities over 20 years ago.

The advice was, in essence, never corner a crazy person. Since then, I've added the following: we're all crazy sometimes. Pushing someone into a literal or metaphorical corner where there's no way out but through you can cause a situation to escalate out of control. I've tried to avoid doing that over the years and it's been pretty useful.

Conversely, providing people with a graceful and face-saving way out of a bad situation can smooth the waters. Possibly one reason the American Civil War ended as civilly as it did (and didn't turn into a decades-long guerrilla war) was the courteous and generous terms offered to Robert E. Lee's army by Grant.

Years after that conversation in a library, I stumbled upon a similar thought in--of all places--Francois Rabelais' (1494-1553) hilarious and bawdy novel Gargantua and Pantagruel. (The book also offers an interesting and amusing menu of toilet paper substitutes, but I'll leave that to the Gentle Reader to discover.)

In that book, the genial giant Gargantua puts it like this:


...according to the true military practice you must never drive your enemy into the straits of despair, because such a plight multiplies his strength and increases his courage; which was cast down and failing before. There is no better aid to safety for men who are beaten and dismayed than to have no hope of safety whatever. How many victories have the conquered wrested from the hands of the victors when the latter have not been satisfied with moderation, but have attempted to make a complete massacre and totally to destroy their enemy, without leaving so much as one alive to convey the news! Always leave every door and road open to your enemies. Make them a bridge of silver, in fact, to help them get away.


LUXURY SHAME. Newsweek reports that some very rich folks are trying to make their consumption a bit less conspicuous in hard times.

STRESSED OUT. The number of Americans feeling that way has increased in recent times according to a psychological survey.

CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO less severe moral judgments, recent psychological experiments suggest.

ZZZZ. Here's another plug for taking a nap.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 01, 2008

Good advice


Don't corner this guy.

It recently occurred to me that I have sometimes been profoundly influenced by brief and seemingly random conversations with people. What follows is one example.

In another lifetime, El Cabrero had a happy but impoverished career working in public libraries in my beloved state of West Virginia. I started out as a janitor at the branch in my small town and started working with the public when they figured out I could read and write.

A big change came when I was transferred, not entirely voluntarily, from that small place to the main library in one of the state's biggest cities. The clientele was a little more...interesting, and sometimes kind of unpredictable.

Someone who worked there a long time gave me what turned out to be very good advice: "Never back a crazy person into a corner."

The person meant it literally at the time. If a patron was emotionally disturbed, they could become dangerous if they were backed into an aisle with no way out. But if you think about it, even a small animal will fight back fiercely if driven into a corner with no way out. That's even more true of people.

I have since modified that rule with a corollary: we're all crazy sometimes. I still try to adhere to the practice of not putting another person in a situation in which his or her only way out is to tear a hole through me. Taken together, those are pretty useful things to keep in mind in de-escalating potentially dangerous situations and defusing conflict.

SUBURBS. Lots of people moved there over the last few decades. Now poverty is moving in too.

SPEAKING OF POVERTY, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities issued a new report that warns

the current downturn is likely to cause significant increases both in the number of Americans who are poor and the number living in “deep poverty,” with incomes below half of the poverty line. Because this recession is likely to be deep and the government safety net for very poor families who lack jobs has weakened significantly in recent years, increases in deep poverty in this recession are likely to be severe.


CBPP recommends several steps to soften the blow, including expanding access to food stamps, expanding and extending unemployment benefits and contingency TANF funding, and providing fiscal aid to states so that these won't have to cut vital programs.

ELEMENTS OF A STIMULUS PACKAGE are discussed here. And Paul Krugman argues here that this isn't the time to be a deficit hawk.

WORTH A LOOK. Dollars, debt, dealing with crises, and even Dickens are the subject of the latest edition of the Rev. Jim Lewis' Notes from Under the Fig Tree.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

November 29, 2008

Weekend special: the canine film critic comes out of retirement


As the holiday season approaches, we are pleased to announce the return of a favorite Goat Rope contributor. Mr. Sandor Sege (pronounced Shandor SHEGG-ay), a boxer who is the official film critic of Goat Rope Farm, has agreed after lengthy negotiations to once again favor us with his contributions.

(We must remind the reader that Mr. Sege suffered a head injury when he crashed into a wall whist chasing a squeaky toy and as a result has been known to transpose the plots of the films he discusses. Nonetheless, we believe that his unique insights into the world of cinema more than compensate for this regrettable shortcoming.)

This weekend Mr. Sege will review a perennial holiday favorite, "A Charlie Brown Christmas." It is our hope that (bio)diverse features such as this will elevate the level of cultural discourse.

THE CANINE FILM CRITIC EXPLAINS "A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS"

OK, so this is an awesome movie. Charlie Brown is like this cartoon guy who plays baseball and football but not too well. He's got all these cartoon people around him and a cartoon dog named Rambo.

Anyway, he gets all bummed out because Christmas is so commercialized. So he decides to become the liberator of Scotland. He finds this sad looking Christmas tree but when they decorate it it looks good until he gets caught by the English who really start to mess him up.

Just when it looks really bad, he/she teaches all the other nuns to sing rock and roll songs. Everybody loves it, even the English, so they let him go. That's how come he got to be a pet detective.

The movie is really symbolic or something. The guy with the blanket is really a cop and his sister is the giant monkey who got shot of the Empire State Building. That's what Christmas is really all about.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

November 28, 2008

Atlas begged


Image courtesy of wikipedia.

BB&T, a large multi-state bank, has given away millions of dollars through its "charitable" fund to promote the ideology of Ayn Rand. You know, unfettered capitalism, keep the government out of everything, and all that.

This was the subject of an earlier op-ed of mine in the Charleston Gazette and this story by NPR.

Well, the latest:

BB&T, the largest bank in West Virginia, announced on Oct. 27 it would receive $3.1 billion in federal rescue plan money.


Uhhhh...do you think they'll issue a clarifying statement to the effect that government intervention is OK if it goes to big corporations but not to anybody else?

WHILE WE'RE AT IT, here's a glimpse into the worldview of Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.

FOR THE RECORD, I didn't make any of this stuff up.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

November 27, 2008

Annual Thanksgiving Possum Recipe


Entertain no doubt, Gentle Reader, that the staff of Goat Rope strive ceaselessly to make this a full service blog. And no full service blog worthy of the name would be complete without a possum recipe on the occasion of this great national holiday.

(Note: no self respecting hillbilly would use the term "opossum.")

((Note: no self respecting hillbillies of my acquaintance actually eat them--not that there's anything wrong with that.))

First, of course, you must find a possum. Once that objective has been achieved, here is an interesting recipe for possum and sweet potatoes.

Enjoy and have a great Thanksgiving!

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: SUSPENDED

November 26, 2008

Legacies


This rooster has an acute sense of honor and is displaying it.

Over the last two weeks, Goat Rope has been looking at cultural factors that influence attitudes towards violence. You'll also find links and comments about current events.

In their 1996 book Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South, researchers Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen argue that cultures of honor evolve in places where central authority is weak and goods are easily stolen. In such conditions, violence is often viewed as a legitimate response not only to direct attack but also to personal insults and slights.

They further argue that this kind of culture, which tends to develop among herding people, was influential in shaping the culture of places like Appalachia, the south, and the American West.

Again, the book is 12 years old and many regions of the country have changed in lots of ways since then, but I find their argument interesting and it may at least shed light on some history.

The authors suggested that the legacy of slavery exerted a lasting influence on states where it was prevalent by supporting the use of violence for social control to a much greater extent that societies in which slavery was not a major factor. This might explain some major differences between Appalachia and the deep south:

...if we look within the South, those states that had a higher proportion of slaves in 1860 are today more in favor of disciplinary violence than states that had a lower proportion of slaves. Thus, states of the slave South were between two and four times more likely to administer corporal punishment than states of the nonslave South, according to the 1990 data. And when it comes to capital punishment, states of the slave South were three times more likely to have executed someone than states of the nonslave South, during the period 1977 to 1991. Results were particularly striking when we looked at the chance that a prisoner on death row would eventually be executed. The chance of a death row prisoner being executed were up to fifty times greater in the slave South than the nonslave South. As we would predict, the differences between the slave and nonslave South were restricted to coercive, disciplinary violence; the two regions of the south did not differ when it came to defensive violence.


YOU REALLY MUST DROP EVERYTHING ELSE RIGHT NOW AND CHECK OUT THIS NEW FOOTAGE OF A GIANT SQUID!

TOWARDS A NEW NEW DEAL. Here's a call for smart spending on infrastructure investments and job creation.

PATTERN OR NOISE? It's hard to tell them apart sometimes.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

November 25, 2008

"Experimental ethnography"


An insult to his honor is something up with which this rooster will not put.

Lately, Goat Rope has been exploring cultural factors that may influence attitudes on the use of violence. As noted previously, societies in which the good things of life are easily stolen tend to develop cultures of honor which view violence as permissible in the face of insults as well as theft and self defense.

Researcher Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen in their 1996 book Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South, argue that much of the American south and Appalachia were settled by people from herding cultures, which tend to develop cultures of honor. As noted in yesterday's post, they found regional differences between white males both in homicide rates and in attitudes regarding the use of violence in defense of honor.

Again, I don't want to overgeneralize about any region, especially one that has changed as rapidly in as many ways as the American south, and the data from the book in question is seriously dated, but I think the ideas posed by the authors is at least interesting enough to kill a week's worth of blogging.

Full disclosure: El Cabrero is himself the product of polite but occasionally belligerent Scotch Irish hillbilly ancestry.

To test their hypothesis, Nisbett, Cohen and other researchers designed an experiment that exposed northern and southern students to a situation in which they where deliberately pushed and insulted by a--pardon the expression--confederate in the study.

They found that southerners responded differently to the insult than northerners in their emotional and physiological response and in how they interpreted the events. They were more likely to be angered than amused by the insult, showed higher levels of the hormones cortisol and testosterone after the event, and interpreted it as a direct attack on their manhood.

Nisbett and Cohen found support for three points based on the results of the experiment:


...(1) the insult is a much more serious matter to the southerner than the northerner. (2) It is more serious because an insult makes the affronted southerner feel diminished. (3) Consequently the affronted southern may use aggressive or domineering behavior to reestablish his masculine status.


All I know is the experimenters are lucky they didn't get their clock cleaned.

PRIORITIES. Governments in the US and Western Europe are spending 40 times more on bailing out the financial system than on climate change or fighting poverty in the developing world.

ROBOSOLDIERS may have a role in the future of warfare.

CHILDREN OF KATRINA are suffering from serious health problems, particularly those who lived in FEMA-provided trailers.

RANDY RANDITES. From New York magazine, here are some personal ads by followers of Ayn Rand who are looking for love.

IX-NAY ON THE OGA-YAY. Malaysian clerics have issued a fatwa against the practice of yoga. They have plenty of company in the US, where the "Christian" religious right has raised similar objections. So like does that mean no stretching exercises?

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

November 24, 2008

Going south


This rooster had a keen sense of honor, which may have led to his untimely demise.

For the last week, Goat Rope has been looking at cultural factors that may influence attitudes towards the use of violence. Please click on last week's posts if you find this interesting.

To recap briefly, in societies where the good things of life are scarce and easily stolen, people tend to develop a "culture of honor" which encourages people to engage in or at least credibly threaten violence in response to insults or threats. Such cultures often develop among herding peoples where central authority is weak or nonexistent, but once established they can continue long after a society's economic base has changed.

El Cabrero's beloved region of Appalachia may be a case in point...

In a 1996 book, Culture of Honor: the Psychology of Violence in the South, researchers Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen argue that many parts of the American south and Appalachia (the two are not identical in my view) were settled by herding people such as my own Scotch-Irish.

They also identify different attitudes towards violence between those areas and northern states.

Let me be the first to say that it's dangerous to overgeneralize about a region and that the American south has undergone many changes, demographic, political and otherwise. I'm not going to give this book the coveted Blanket Goat Rope Endorsement, but it is interesting in at least identifying historical trends.

Nisbett and Cohen found (using data from the early 1990s) that homicide rates for white southerners were higher than that of white non-southerners in fights that developed as a result of arguments which generally involve some kind of insult. They controlled for other factors, such as urbanization, poverty, etc.

In terms of attitudes, they found that

southerners were not more in favor of violence in general, that they were not more in favor of violence in many specified contexts unrelated to culture-of-honor concerns, but that they were more likely to endorse violence when it was used for self-protection and for social control. The...data also showed that southerners were no more likely to endorse violence than northerners in a wide variety of specific situations. It was only for situations involving an affront, the protection of self, home, or family, and the socialization of children that southerners were more likely to endorse violence. Thus, southern ideology does not make all violence acceptable but, rather, allows violence as a tool for special purposes.


On the other hand, this attitude that violence may be permissible under some circumstances may have also contributed to southern traditions of courtesy, politeness and hospitality:

Perhaps that is also why southerns have a reputation for being so polite. The best way to keep a conflict from spiraling out of hand is to avoid the conflict in the first place. So southern hospitality, politeness, and friendliness are what keep social interactions going smoothly.


Y'all have a nice day!

PARTING SHOTS. President Bush is spending his last weeks in office rewriting rules and deregulating industries.

WHAT PRICE REFORM? This review of coal mine safety from the Charleston Gazette is a reminder that improvements were paid for by the deaths of miners.

MY PICK DIDN'T MAKE THE LIST. Here's one estimate of the 10 worst corporations of 2008.

DON'T JUST DO SOMETHING--SIT THERE. Here's more evidence that mindfulness meditation can be good for your brain.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

November 22, 2008

Weekend special: Denny Dimwit on the economic crisis


In view of the current economic crisis, Goat Rope has invited a veteran animal commentator to shed light on the situation. Long-time readers will no doubt remember bantam rooster and noted free market economist Dr. Denton "Denny" Dimwit.

Dr. Dimwit is director of the Goat Rope Farm Public Policy Foundation, a fellow at many libertarian and conservative think tanks, and has served as a senior economic advisor to the Bush administration. His credentials are such that we feel very honored to have him as our resident scholar (and are somewhat surprised that he hasn't been hired by WVU).

It is our hope that, by providing space for (bio)diverse viewpoints, we are elevating the level of public discourse and creating a climate of mutual respect and deep listening.

DENNY DIMWIT ON THE RECESSION

Crudawackadingdong! What's all this stupid crap you've put in this blog lately, anyway? I've picked the seeds out of better piles than this!

All this whining about a recession--get over it! The market knows what it's doing. It always does. It knows everything. And if the market wants to dookie in your dinner bucket, suck it up!

Extending unemployment benefits and regulating the financial industry? No way! Haven't you dingles ever heard of supply and demand? They always balance out--see? And that's good for everybody, even if you're dead.

I can prove it empiroeconomicallistically. Check out the picture. The handsome little guy in the front is me. Pretty sharp, huh? I bet you wish you were more like me--too bad that's not going to happen.

OK, so I represent demand. Now, check out who's in the picture with me. That's right, I'm talking BIG hen. Ginormous. Yowza! She represents supply--and she's with me, bub, got it? That's what I'm talking about. That proves there's no problem. Perfect equilibrium, baby!



That's the beauty of the market. And that's the truth. You bet your cloaca.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

November 21, 2008

Acting bad


The toy monkey insulted this man's honor.

El Cabrero is musing this week about how some cultures evolved in situations which promoted the use or threat of violence as a survival asset. Let me state again that people who want to make the world less violent would do well to try to understand the factors that contribute to violence.

As I mentioned yesterday, the researchers Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen came up with some interesting findings as reported in their book, Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South. I consider Appalachia to be a distinct cultural area from the deep south but they discuss that region as well.

The authors note that one leading cause of male violence is

the sense of threat to one of his most valued possessions, namely, his reputation for strength and toughness. In many of the world's cultures, social status, economic well-being, and life itself are linked to such a reputation. This is true wherever gaining resources, or keeping them, depends on the community's believing that the individual is capable of defending himself against predation. If resources are abundant or are not subject to theft (like those of most traditional farming peoples, for example), then a reputation for toughness has little value. But if resources are in a scarce or unpredictable supply, and if they are sufficiently portable that theft is a practicable route to bounty, then toughness has great economic value. Potential predators will go elsewhere rather than risk dealing with a man who knows how to defend himself and his possessions and who appears to be not afraid to die.


Again, such cultural values tend to develop in herding societies, where wealth is mobile, but they can last long after social conditions have changed.

I would write more about this subject today, but I'm off on a cattle raid...

UNEMPLOYMENT. The US Senate yesterday approved an extension of unemployment benefits. unemployment benefits. Here's some information showing why that's a good idea.

SITTING HERE IN LIMBO. Waiting for decisive action on the economy even for a few months could be really, really bad, as Paul Krugman argues in today's op-ed.

THINKING BIG. From Foreign Policy, here's an interview on the state of things with economist Jeffrey Sachs.

CAR TALK. Here's Dean Baker on the proposed bailout to the automotive industry.

CUTE PRIMATE UPDATE here.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED