April 05, 2008


The nonviolent toppling of dictators and repressive regimes has gotten a good deal of attention in recent years. The use of strategic nonviolence is even frequently studied by military personnel.

While many people sometimes think of nonviolent action as something invented by Gandhi and practiced by others such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in reality it has been practiced without fanfare in many places since ancient times.

Believe it or not, it was even tried with success on the Roman procurator of Judea Pontius Pilate. Yeah, that Pilate--the one who presided over Jesus' crucifixion. The incident occurred when Jews protested the presence of images from Roman military standards in the city of Jerusalem.

According to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, writing in the Jewish Antiquities (18.55-59)

Now Pilate, the prefect of Judea, when he brought his army from Caesarea and removed it to winter quarters in Jerusalem, took a bold step in subversion of the Jewish practices, by introducing into the city the busts of the emperor that were attached to the military standards, for our law forbids the making of images.

It was for this reason that the previous prefects, when they entered the city, used standards that had no such ornaments. Pilate was the first to bring the images into Jerusalem and set them up, doing it without the knowledge of the people, for he entered at night.

But when the people discovered it, they went in a throng to Caesarea and for many days entreated him to take away the images. He refused to yield, since to do so would be an outrage to the emperor; however, since they did not cease entreating him, on the sixth day he secretly armed and placed his troops in position, while he himself came to the speaker's stand. This had been constructed in the stadium, which provided concealment for the army that lay in wait.

When the Jews again engaged in supplication, at a pre-arranged signal he surrounded them with his soldiers and threatened to punish them at once with death if they did not put an end to their tumult and return to their own places.

But they, casting themselves prostrate and baring their throats, declared that they had gladly welcomed death rather than make bold to transgress the wise provisions of the laws. Pilate, astonished at the strength of their devotion to the laws, straightway removed the images from Jerusalem and brought them back to Caesarea.

Who'd have thunk it?


April 04, 2008


The Order of the Dragon insignia, courtesy of wikipedia.

Welcome to the final day of Dracula Week at Goat Rope, which has looked at the fictional character and the historical figure (you'll also find, as always, links and comments about current events). If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

Given all the real Dracula's horrific deeds, it's not surprising that he was remembered for a good while after his death. In the 15th and 16th century, German writers published stories of his atrocities, complete with grisly woodcuts. The German merchants, after all, were one of the main targets of his terror campaign in Transylvania. Similar stories were told among the Ottomans.

The Russian versions of Dracula stories tended to portray him as a strong leader, something of a role model for czars. The most surprising thing is that he became a folk and national hero to Romanians.

As Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally put it in Dracula: Prince of Many Faces,

the "Romanian Dracula" is indeed a law-upholding statesman who is implacable in punishing thieves, liars, idlers, or people who otherwise cheated the state. He was a rational despot attempting to centralize his government by killing unpatriotic anarchical boyars. Dracula's crimes are further justified on a variety of counts. From a peasant point of view, because of his antiboyar stance he acquires the characteristics of a social leveler, a Robin Hood type of character, who plunders the rich in order to help the poor...Above all his anti-German and anti-Turkish exploits gave a boost to the patriotic ego, in the dawn of the era of nationalism.

One thing conspicuously missing from pre-Stoker Dracula stories are any rumors of vampirism, although the living Dracula was said to have dipped his bread in the blood of his victims on at least one occasion. There were legends of such creatures in eastern and central Europe as elsewhere.

That link we owe to Stoker, who in his researches for the novel combed through travelogues and works of folklore of the region. He did enough research to uncover the Dracula name and something of his exploits, but he apparently missed the mother lode.

Ironically, most people outside of that region only know there was a real Dracula thanks to Stoker's fictional character.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, I'd rather tangle with the vampire than the Impaler any day. Truth isn't just stranger than fiction--sometimes it's a lot worse.

40 YEARS AGO TODAY, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Here's the Washington Post looking back.

WRONG TURN. Eight one percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.

HOW BAD WILL THE ECONOMY GET? According to economist Jeff Faux, writing in The Nation, pretty bad.

THE POLITICS OF FOOD. Here's an interview with Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food.

BAD HEALTH. Here's Krugman on McCain's voodoo health care plan.


INTERESTING WEEK FOR MASSEY. Not only has Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship had trouble getting good help these days--he also got into some kind of scuffle with ABC News reporters. Here's ABC on the subject.

On the bright side for the dark side, the sick joke that the WV Supreme Court has become overturned a $76 million dollar verdict against Massey. Considering that Blankenship spent around $3.5 million to buy the court in 2004, that represents better than a 21-fold return on investment.


April 03, 2008


Welcome to Day Four of Dracula Week at Goat Rope. Along with links and comments about current events, the theme is the character and the real person behind it, the former being by far the nicer of the two.

Yesterday's post covered the outline of Vlad III's "career." In a way, he shared many traits with other rulers of the time, particularly a ruthless drive to gain and retain power. But his methods were so brutal and sadistic that he makes many contemporaries seem like humanitarians.

After all, one does not acquire the title "the Impaler" by acts of charity.

Since this is a family-friendly blog, I won't go into all the gory details, although you're probably heard about them. But in outline, here are some of the events of his longest reign.

*Forced labor and liquidation of the opposition of the nobility. Shortly after gaining power for the second time, Dracula purged the ranks of the nobility with mass impalements and forced labor.

*He is said to have invited the beggars of his kingdom to a feast, after which he had the doors sealed and burned them alive.

*He waged a terror campaign against Saxon merchants in Transylvania, making copious use of his preferred method of execution, in addition to various other means, some of which may have been just as bad.

*When foreign diplomats visited who refused to remove their caps or turbans (there are versions of this happening to Italians as well as Ottoman envoys), he had them nailed to their heads.

*Ottoman armies invading Wallachia were sickened by a "forest" of impaled Turks.

I could go on and on. Estimates of the deaths caused by Dracula go as high as 100,000, although that is probably an exaggeration. Let's just say it was lots and lots.

The moral to the story is not just that truth is stranger than fiction. Sometimes it's worse.

TORTURE FROM THE TOP DOWN. A recently released memo suggests signals that led to Abu Ghraib came from the top.


THE ART OF LOVE, octopus style.

BAD IDEA. Here's yet another item on the Bush administration's unnecessary war and the strain it's causing US armed forces.

WILL POWER. Is self control a matter of the mind or blood sugar levels? Maybe both.


April 02, 2008


Welcome to Dracula Week at Goat Rope. Aside from links and comments about current events, this week's Goat Rope will take a look at both the literary character and the historical figure. Short version: if I had to pick which of the two to tangle with, I'd take the vampire any day.

A lot of times when we think of the Renaissance in 15th and 16th century Europe, the things that come to mind are art, architecture, and learning. In reality, it wasn't all art class. Rather, it was a pretty nasty time of cruelty, persecutions, warfare and political hardball.

The real Dracula, Vlad III of Wallachia (1431-1476) in what is now Romania was way over the top in terms of cruelty and sadism, but in some ways his goals were similar to those of other monarchs of the time.

Any self respecting ruler of the time sought to build an absolute monarchy, limit the powers of the aristocracy, create a loyal state apparatus, enforce religious conformity, and come to terms with the merchant class, and play the ruthless games of war and diplomacy among contending powers.

It's just that most of the others managed to do it without impaling as many people or enjoying it so much...

Vlad II, his father, was also a ruler of Wallachia who acquired the name Dracul on being inducted into the Order of the Dragon, an institution pledged to defend Christendom against the Muslim Ottoman Empire. However, it wasn't as simple as Muslims vs. Christians. Many "Christian" rulers vied with each other for power, sometimes allying themselves with the Ottomans. Vlad II died as a result of the machinations of the Hungarian John Hunyadi and the local boyars or nobility. His older brother Mircea was tortured and buried alive.

Vlad III, i.e. Dracula, spent several years as a youth as a hostage of the Ottoman sultan, where he witnessed his share of cruelties. After his father's death, he briefly ruled Wallachia in 1448 with Ottoman support but was overthrown by Hunyadi.

His main period of power in Wallachia lasted from 1456-62, when he exacted brutal vengeance on unfaithful boyars and inaugurated a reign of terror which fueled horror stories for the next few hundred years. His goals were to crush the power of the old boyars and replace them with "new men" from the lower orders loyal to him. He waged a terror campaign against Saxon merchants in the towns of Transylvania and then moved on to war against the Ottomans, with brutal forays into their territory and a scorched earth retreat when the army of Mehmed the Conqueror invaded his territory.

The Ottomans did succeed in replacing Vlad with his brother Radu the Handsome, who was also raised as a hostage. Vlad was held prisoner for several years by Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, during which time he entertained himself by torturing animals. He eventually gained a degree of freedom and married Countess Ilona Szilagy, the king's cousin, with whom he had two children.

Around the year 1475, he again seized power in Wallachia but was soon thereafter killed in an engagement with the Turks. Circumstances of his death are mysterious and some traditions say he was killed by his own men.

He expressed his political "philosophy" succinctly:

Pray, think that when a man or prince is powerful and strong at home, then he will be able to do as he wills. But when he is without power, another one more powerful than he will overwhelm him and do as he wishes.

DOCTORS SUPPORT HEALTH REFORM. According to Reuters, more than half of U.S. doctors support a national health program and fewer than a third oppose it.

WHO REALLY GETS WELFARE? Here's Dean Baker on 21st century corporate welfare kings.

GREAT MOMENTS IN CREATIONISM. Here's Wired Science on a perennially amusing topic. They left out one though: Noah could have gotten all kinds of dinosaurs on the ark if he just took the baby ones. So there...


MAID TO ORDER. Here's the latest on the WV Supreme Court case involving Massey CEO Don Blankenship's former maid, who is suing for unemployment.

ON A RELATED NOTE, Massey opposes a public hearing scheduled for next week by Justice Larry Starcher about recusal issues.


April 01, 2008


Max Schreck in Nosferatu, by way of wikipedia.

Bram (originally Abraham) Stoker was born in Ireland in 1847. After a sickly childhood, he recovered to shine at an athlete at Trinity College in Dublin. He graduated with a degree in math of all things. He later got a law degree

He wrote many novels and short stories, of which the 1897 Dracula is the best known, but his main gig was as personal manager to the British actor Henry Irving. He also managed the Lyceum Theatre. When Irving died in 1905, Stoker's fortunes went south, financially and otherwise. He suffered a major stroke from which he never fully recovered and died in 1912.

Stoker didn't live to see the first major and probably unauthorized film adaptation of his book, Nosferatu, which appeared in 1921 and spawned a flood of Dracula movies.

Stoker's novel is basically epistolary, being composed of the diaries of various characters along with fictitious news clippings. The plot isn't that hard to follow, although for some reason filmmakers can't seem to get it right.

The young solicitor Jonathan Harker goes to Transylvania to assist a nobleman (who just happens to be...) in his planned move to England. Things get really weird there and he barely survives. Meanwhile, back at the Sceptred Isle, strange things happen when a ship from that part of the world arrives in bad condition.

The focus shifts to Harker's Intended, Mina and her ill-fated friend Lucy, who is apparently Dracula's first victim in England. Lucy's fiance and former suitors band together to try to save her when she is stricken by a mysterious illness and call in the great Dr. Van Helsing from Amsterdam to look at her case. They discover the truth to late to save Lucy but manage to put her out of the vampire business before she gets much of a start.

The group, eventually rejoined by Harker identify Dracula as the perp and begin vampire hunting, making a royal screwup or two along the way. After not putting up much of a fight for a centuries old vampire, Dracula ditches England and tries to return but is killed for good outside his castle.

The thing that's kind of amusing about the novel is how "modern" it is. The characters use the telegraph, take pictures with a Kodak, practice hypnosis,give blood transfusions, and one character, Dr. Seward, records his diaries on a phonograph. Not to mention the Freudian symbolism.

The vampire slayers could learn a thing or two from Buffy. On one occasion, they leave Mina alone at night in Dr. Seward's asylum to go hunt for Dracula next door. Although they just lost Lucy to Dracula, it never occurred to them that this might not be a terribly good idea.

My favorite character, has got to be the fly- and spider-eating mental patient Renfield, a true gentleman, aside from his dietary irregularities and a penchant to fall under the sway of the Undead.

As for Dracula himself, he's kind of a letdown. After much in the way of background about his history and prowess, he turns tail and runs for the old country after one setback. One would think that a vampire who planned the English adventure for a century or two would have had a better plan...or maybe might have chosen the US, where he might well have gone unnoticed.

His real life namesake, a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler, would surely have racked up a higher body count and been harder to deal with. More on him tomorrow.

INEQUALITY GROWS. From the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

Between 2005 and 2006, the average income (before taxes) of the top 1 percent of households increased by $73,000 (or 7 percent), after adjusting for inflation,[2] while the average income of the bottom 90 percent of households increased by just $20 (or 0.1 percent). (In 2006, the top 1 percent of households were those with incomes above about $375,000.)

THE OVERCLASS. We hear a lot about poor people behaving badly. It's about time somebody checked upstream.

HARD TIMES. According to a newspaper report from last week, one in six West Virginians are now using food stamps. The numbers have increased by nearly 30,000 from five years ago. Numbers are climbing across the country as the economy tanks, as this article attests.

LOVE ME, LOVE MY BOOKS. Here's a NY Times essay on whether or not one should gauge compatibility on the basis of books. I will say that La Cabra and I highlighted the same passages in Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind.

TOUGH JOB. Massey CEO Don Blankenship's former maid is appealing to the state Supreme Court for unemployment. Too bad the deck is already stacked.

APRIL FOOL! Social scientists have studied the purpose of pranks. Here's a look.


March 31, 2008


"I never drink...wine." Speak for yourself, dude. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

When El Cabrero was a little kid, as yet innocent in the ways of goats or the larger world, Channel 8 used to show 1930s horror movies on Fridays at 5:00. I thought this was The Coolest Thing Ever.

I may have been predisposed to this since my old man read me Edgar Allen Poe at a very early age.

They showed Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man, and the various combinations thereof in good old black and white. I liked them all but Dracula was a favorite. Before I could make out the big words, I conned the Maternal Unit into reading Bram Stoker's book aloud.

Ever since then, I've waited patiently for someone to make a Dracula movie that was actually like the Book. The 1990s flick Bram Stoker's Dracula was probably the closest I've found, but it was really Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula...But I digress.

The book is one I've gone back to for entertainment through the years over and over to clear the palate. It certainly doesn't rise to the peaks of literary greatness, but it is kind of diverting.

It was much later that I learned about the real Dracula, who was a lot scarier than Stoker's vampire.

More of that to come this week. Stay tuned...

NEW DEAL REMEMBERED. Here's a review of American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, When FDR Put the Nation to Work. The book surveys the history and accomplishments of the Depression-era jobs program which among other things built a lot of the infrastructure of El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia.

AT LEAST THESE GUYS ARE DOING OK. The economy is lousy for most Americans, but businesses in the foreclosure "industry" are thriving.

WHERE'S THE BEEF? Here's Krugman on the Bush administration's approach to the credit crisis.

LOSING IT. Here's a review of current research on the subject of self control.

YOU DON'T NEED A WEATHERMAN. Here's an op-ed by yours truly on the opportunities of a well designed climate change policy.

COAL AND COMMUNITY HEALTH. Here's the latest news on public reactions (or the lack thereof) to a recent report by a WVU researcher on the health of coal communities.