Happy Holidays? Nah!

Beginning with Thanksgiving this year, there has been a plethora of parties and parades in anticipation of Christmas. Many, if not most, of them have been officially designated by the rather sterile “holiday” appellation. Nevertheless, it remains the reason for these events is the festivities traditionally surrounding the anticipation and celebration of Christmas Day.

The period beginning with Thanksgiving and extending through New Year’s Day, or for some, Twelfth Night, is often referred to generically as the holiday season. Christmas, its centerpiece, has its origin in the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and thus gave the season its name. During this time, however, there occur the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, which is not a major feast for Jews; and Kwanzaa, which is a recent innovation, ostensibly a sub-Saharan African tradition. Greek, Russian, and other Orthodox Christian denominations actually celebrate Christmas on January 7.

Now I have no trouble with honoring other traditions during this period, but the focus and the real reason there are such celebrations is Christmas, the commemoration of the birth of arguably the most influential man in history. The politically correct crowd seems to believe that terming the season and the parties and the parades as “Christmas” excludes and dishonors the other traditions. Erecting Christmas scenes such as the Nativity in public places is feared as endorsement of a particular religion by government. This notion is poppycock.

Christmas began as the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ sometime in the early Christian era. No one knows for sure the day, or even the time of year when the Nativity actually occurred. Around the winter solstice in December is as good a time as any. Christianity took root primarily in Europe. The Western Hemisphere, Australia, and New Zealand after the 16th century became essentially a greater Europe. The European traditions, including those important to celebration of the Christian religion traveled with the European, primarily British, French, and Spanish settlers. Thus, the dominant culture in those areas included Christian practices and traditions. If it were not of this origin, it is doubtful there would be a “holiday” season as significant as it is.

Christmas has evolved into being as much a secular holiday as a religious one. Gift giving, trees, poinsettas, lights, holly berries, egg nog, and so forth are as much a part of the time as church services, creches, and Advent wreathes. Carols are the great crossover between the religious and secular. The great oratorios of Handel and Bach, as well as their less ambitious pieces, are enjoyed by the devout and irreligious alike.

This past week there was an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News titled “This atheist loves Christmas, so stop the war on my favorite holiday.” In that column, Zachary Moore says “because I love Christmas so much … Squabbling over the public square diminishes my enjoyment of the season.” He goes on to propose that “Christmas [should] henceforth be treated as a secular holiday open to the interpretation and enjoyment of all. Christians are welcome to revel in its theological implications, while atheists and others may pick and choose whatever resonates with their own particular values. The Christmas tree in the square will be a malleable and inclusive symbol, able to support the weight of Magi, Menorah and Muhammad, as well as any other marginalized culture that would appreciate a little bit of fun in the darkness of winter (including we joyless atheists),” his parenthetical being a welcome tongue-in-cheek.

So, like this sensible unbeliever, let us all cut out the nonsense, politically correct or not. Christmas should not be a political or culture-war football, but for all a joyous time of some respite from the slings and arrows of daily life, whatever their religious or political persuasion.

Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noel, Feliz Navidad to all, and to all good tidings.

Luther’s 95 at 500

October 31 has been known on the Christian calendar for centuries as All Hallows’ Eve, contracted to”Hallowe’en” for most of us. “Hallows” is archaic English for saints, all of whom are celebrated on November 1 of each year. The theme of composer Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” famously animated in Disney’s Fantasia, portrays it as the night when Satan and his minions have a final romp before the saints take over at dawn. (Mussorgsky actually composed the piece for St. John’s Eve, June 21, not All Hallows Eve, but it has become associated with Hallowe’en.)

Legend has it as the day Martin Luther posted his “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” known popularly as his” 95 Theses,” on the Wittenberg Castle church door in 1517. The day and the act popularly marks the beginning of the Reformation, the downstream effects of which shaped the modern world.

Not all of the accounts of Luther’s publication of his Disputation are based on precise facts. Posting of debate notices by theology and philosophy scholars was not unusual at the time; it was not an act of defiance when first posted. Debate on the nature of indulgences and other challenges to Catholic Church doctrine had occurred before among theologians – John Wycliffe and William Tindale in England and Jan Hus in Bohemia among them. The 95 Theses were probably not personally nailed to the church door by Luther. More likely, the church sexton pasted them in a prominent place as was the custom. And probably not on Hallowe’en. But, when legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Luther’s posting of his Disputation, whichever day it was, nevertheless is as good as any marker for the beginning of the Reformation. As it turned out, Luther’s role in the movement became crucial, but there are arguments that the Reformation would have occurred anyway.

Historians have posited a number of theories as to the causes of historical change and evolution. Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle opined that history is but the biographies of great men — the Great Man Theory. Russian writer Leo Tolstoy maintained the opposite: popular mass movements transform societies. Both theories have their followers and critics among able minds, which suggests that the best answer is some synthesis.

Western European Christianity at Luther’s time was ripe for reform. The Christian church and secular powers, since the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, through Medieval period, and into the early Modern period, had never been separate. The schism between the Eastern Orthodox and the Western Catholics in the Eleventh Century, though ostensibly precipitated by an arcane theological disagreement, was essentially a political move. The Eastern Patriarchs considered the Pope in Rome to be perhaps the first among equal bishops, but not the absolute the authority. The Western Church believed otherwise – the Pope was the supreme authority as the Vicar of Christ. Kings and sovereigns of other appellations were his and God’s lieutenants. Popes and secular powers, in a symbiotic, occasionally contentious, relationship maintained that authority for the half millennium before Luther.

The principle under which the Church and state maintained absolute power was the promulgation of incontestable dogma that bolstered their authority. The touchstone was the authority of the past; that is, Scripture, as interpreted by the Popes and church councils, and tradition. The ancient writings of Aristotle and that of early and Medieval scholars, particularly Thomas Aquinas, formed a canon of authority that settled all philosophical and theological arguments. Deviation was heresy. Heresy was a capital crime and mortal sin, punishable by being burned alive, the first taste of eternal hellfire.

The methodologies of Aristotle and Aquinas were brilliant, and sound, as far as they went. To this day, their logical forms are used to frame issues and make arguments, and can be persuasive. But many of the observations, particularly those of the physical world, and other sources, which formed the premises of their logic, were flawed, and led to flawed conclusions – the garbage in, garbage out paradigm. Those conclusions, whether they had anything to do with spiritual well-being, nevertheless became doctrine and thus not contestable. The Church, and secular authorities, believed that denying any part of the doctrine or challenging its validity would bring the entire canon into question.

The major source of authority for the Church was scripture. But what did the Bible really say? Before Luther’s time, all copies of the Bible were written in Latin. While Latin was the lingua franca of Europe, few could read it. Indeed, only scholars and some churchmen could read. Common folk and even parish priests generally were illiterate. Many country priests recited the Latin Mass by rote with as much understanding of what they were saying as that of a parrot. Even kings and nobles mostly were illiterate. They relied on the Church officials and scholars to inform them what the Bible taught. Leaders could interpret, or even make up biblical tenets to suit themselves, and probably did.

Martin Luther’s scholarly research convinced him that the ability of the Pope to grant indulgences – the remission of punishment for sin in this world or the next – had no basis in scripture, and was otherwise suspect. The notion that indulgences gave leave to one to commit future sin seemed outrageous, although that was not the Church’s official position. This issue was precipitated by the efforts of one Johann Tetzel, a Dominican monk enlisted by Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz to raise money to defray the cost of a donation he made for his appointment by the Pope Leo X. At the time, the Pope was in the process of rebuilding Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome in a high Renaissance, that is to say expensive, style, and needed money. Tetzel claimed authority to grant indulgences on behalf of the Church to donors in proportion to their donation ostensibly for that purpose. Evidently he was a charismatic speaker and a persuasive salesman. Disturbed by Tetzel’s Barnumesque sales tactics, and the idea that an indulgence could be sold for money, Luther posted his invitation to debate Tetzel on multiple issues concerning indulgences. Such an invitation to a disputation in prior times would probably been purely local, and news of it would have been confined to a few scholars who would have received handwritten copies.

Until the second half of the 15th Century, books and multiple copies of any writings were rare. The was no way to make copies except than by hand writing. Books like the Bible were mostly copied by monks in monasteries. Few churches actually had Bibles, and those that did kept them under lock and key, often chained to a lectern. The printing press using moveable type invented by Johann Gutenberg in the middle of the 15th Century had the potential to change all that, and ultimately did.

By 1517, the printing press had been in use for around 60 years. Luther’s 95 Theses were printed and disseminated throughout Germany and even reached Rome. A number of the issues raised by Luther were read as challenging the authority of the Pope and Church. The effect was to create distress in the academic community and led the Catholic hierarchy to fear a challenge to Papal authority. One thing led to another and the Reformation, a wholesale schism among Christians, occurred.

Regardless of one’s religious beliefs and allegiance, or lack thereof, today, Luther’s act and the corollaries to it should be recognized as the elevation of the individual’s freedom of conscience, which meant free inquiry into ideas, and the ensuing Enlightenment and scientific revolution. Its immediate effect was a political upheaval and bloody conflict throughout Western Europe for the following two centuries — entrenched establishments do not go gently. But Luther and his subsequent refusal to recant his beliefs set in motion the progression to the present day world, where unskilled laborers and even homeless persons have an exponentially better life in this world than Medieval kings did in the world into which Martin Luther was born.

More to come.

Sources: Barbara W. Tuchman, The March of Folly, (1984)

Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther (2017)

Donald Wilcox, In Search of God and Self, (1985)

See also:

Josep P. Orta, “Luther’s Legacy” National Geographic History, (Sept.- Oct. 2017)

Joseph Loconte, “How Martin Luther Advanced Freedom” Wall Street Journal (Oct. 27, 2017, p. A13)

“When the legend becomes fact, print the ledged.” – from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Ford film (1962)

Saint Crispin’s Day — Lasting Inspriation

William Shakespeare’s version of King Henry V’s speech at Agincourt on the eve of St. Crispin’s Day, October 25, 1415, is worth repeating. Though fictional, it has been recognized as one of the most stirring calls to action and resolution in history.

Shakespeare wrote most of his drama during the latter half of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Henry V was written around 1598. In 1588, King Felipe II of Spain sent his Armada, a huge fleet of 130 ships carrying then state of the art naval artillery and thousands of troops, to invade England and depose Elizabeth. The Queen went in person to her soldiers, assembled at Tilbury near the Thames estuary, to declare her solidarity with them. Part of her address to the troops was:  “Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself, that under God I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and goodwill of my subjects; and, therefore, I am come amongst you as you see at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of battle, to live or die amongst you all – to lay down for my God, and for my kingdoms, and for my people, my honour and my blood even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king – and of a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which, rather than any dishonour should grow by me, I myself will take up arms – I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.”

Compare with Henry’s speech:

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall see this day, and live old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

This speech marks a turning point in the play. Henry has completed the transformation from Prince Hal, an adolescent drinking buddy of the dissolute Falstaff, into a true king. “I am not the thing I was” he proclaimed, banishing Falstaff from his presence. That their king is willing to fight and possibly die alongside his men inspires them to wind the battle. The speech and the image of Henry delivering it have become a lasting symbol of leadership and resolve.

The words of this speech have continued to be used to inspire heroism and patriotism. The chorus of the song “Hail Columbia” was written for the inauguration of President George Washington following the American Revolutionary War: Firm, united let us be, / Rallying round our liberty, / As a band of brothers joined, / Peace and safety we shall find. Later, the phrase “band of brothers” was used in a popular Civil War song, “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” and even during the Napoleonic Wars, British hero Admiral Lord Nelson is quoted as saying, “I had the happiness to command a band of brothers.”

Winston Churchill is reputed to have asked British filmmakers to produce a movie version of Henry V to encourage the British public during World War II.

Anyway, let us strive to outlive this day and come safe home.

Sources: https://web.archive.org/web/20131203133234/http://www.folger.edu/template.cfm?cid=4373

Damrosh, David, et al. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Volume 1B: The Early Modern Period. Third ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006





The 525th Columbus Day

Christopher Columbus wasn’t the first. It has been scientifically demonstrated, that the original “discoverer” of the Western hemisphere was the first human who crossed the Bering Strait several millennia ago. Some have claimed, without any solid proof, that the Chinese visited the western coast of the Americas prior to Columbus. Perhaps. And Vikings briefly visited what are now the Canadian Maritime Provinces, and perhaps the coast of Maine four or five centuries before 1492.

Columbus’s voyages of exploration and discovery, however, commenced the permanent connection between the Americas and Europe, and later the rest of the world. In most significant aspects, the New World over the next five centuries became the New Europe. The culture termed Western Civilization came to dominate the world, and its world has been much better ever since. Anyone that does not believe that it has is not paying attention.

The leftists in the United States, especially the majority of the university professoriat, are certainly among them. They are the blind who will not see. Their fiction is that Columbus and his immediate successors rapaciously conquered “paradise” and brought war, disease, racism, slavery, and oppression to the inhabitants who had long communed in harmony with nature.

This is nonsense. Western Civilization did not invent racism, disease, slavery, or warfare. Those maladies existed among humans from time immemorial, and still do, chiefly in non-Western cultures. The West, however, during the post-Columbus centuries ended slavery, and drastically curtailed disease. While racism may have been mitigated, the leftist identity politics have given it a new life under a different name, but it will fade eventually. War has not been eliminated; perhaps that is impossible for so long as there are those who eschew reason.

This is not to say that Western Civilization is perfect. It has had, and still does have, its flaws. Likewise, other civilizations have their merits. They would not have developed and continued if their values failed to generally work for their inhabitants, given the environmental milieu in which they existed. But none have achieved the dominance the West has. That dominance has not been so much by force of arms, but by force of ideas and the fruit of those ideas that mitigated the Hobbesian nasty, brutish, and short life that humankind suffered for millennia since its beginning.

Christopher Columbus was in the vanguard of the West. He was the individual with the courage to strike out and risk his very life by sailing into the unknown to discover a new route, not for conquest, but for trade and commerce. He found a new hemisphere where Western Civilization was to expand and flourish. If it had not been Columbus, it doubtless would have been another European who discovered the existence of the American continents. But no matter, he was the first, and in more than four voyages he made the connection between the old and new worlds permanent.

So let us celebrate Columbus Day for the man who put in motion the process that truly changed the world 525 years ago.

For further reading on the impact of Columbus and Western Civilization see:

Joel Mokyr, A Culture of Growth: the Origins of the Modern Economy.

Ian Morris, Why the West Rules: For Now.

Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Frontier.

Samuel Huntington, Clash of Civilizations.

Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History. (This is a 13 volume tome. There is a two volume abridgment published in 1957 that retains the essence of Toynbee’s thesis.)


New Statue

While many cities and campuses in the USA are frantically rushing to remove statues and other monuments – today Confederate Civil War soldiers, tomorrow, who knows? – Russia this past week unveiled a new statue commemorating one of its most consequential citizens of recent times.

A thirty foot high pedestal bearing a sixteen foot statue of Mikhail Kalashnikov was unveiled at an intersection in Moscow’s Garden Ring Road. The statue cradles in its arms Kalashnikov’s eponymous invention, the AK-47 rifle.

Kalashnikov was an officer who ultimately rose to the rank of general in the Red Army during what the Russians called the “Great Patriotic War” (World War II). He came up with the idea for his rifle while recuperating from a war wound. While in the hospital, he heard numerous complaints from soldiers about the inadequacy of their firearms as opposed to the ones used by the invading German army. He succeeded in designing an inexpensive to manufacture rifle that was light, reliable, easy to maintain. It was so successful that today there are estimated to be over 100 million of the AK-47 design in military and private hands.

Although the AK-47 has been characterized as an “assault rifle” Kalashnikov claimed to have designed it mainly as a defensive weapon. Regardless, it has been used by terrorists and counter-terrorists, governments and insurgents, as well as hunters and other sportsmen. It is so reliable and easy to maintain that some have called it “peasant proof.” Having fired one (semi-automatic version), I can attest to its accuracy, light recoil, and ease of field stripping for cleaning.

Some Russians and many others have criticized the honoring of Kalashnikov because it has killed and maimed numerous soldiers and civilians. It is more accurate to say that many persons have killed others using an AK-47, or, for that matter numerous other designs of firearms and weapons. Unfortunately, war and violence are part of the human condition, and that is unlikely to change. Lethal weapons have been around since the first caveman picked up a stick to defend against (or attack) another human or animal. Since Samuel Colt invented the six-shooter, the little guy has had at least a fighting chance against the big guy.

“I’m proud of my invention, but I’m sad that it is used by terrorists,” he once said according to Russian network RT as The Two-Way reported. “I would prefer to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work — for example a lawnmower.” Ultimately, that would be the preference of most of us. But as the late Texas historian T. R. Fehrenbach observed, “in this world there are tigers.” For as long as that is so, weapons like the AK-47 are necessary.


Labor Day

There has been a lot of talk about “American Exceptionalism” recently. The left side of the political spectrum generally disdains the concept, while the right wishes to affirm it. The concept has many contours that we can debate, but one thing is clear, whether or not the United States of America is exceptional, it is clearly contrary. The evidence?

  • Nearly every country in the world uses the metric system for measurement; the U.S. remains committed to the “English” system, which even the English no longer use, at least officially.
  • The standard electrical delivery system throughout the world is 220 or 240 volt/50 cycle alternating current; the U.S. uses 120 volt/ 60 cycles (as do our immediate neighbors in North America).
  • Most nations generally ban or heavily restrict private possession of firearms. The U.S. constitutionally protects the right of private persons to keep and bear arms, with minimum restrictions. District of Columbia, v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008); McDonald v. City of Chicago, 561 U.S. 742 (2010).
  • Almost every country somehow restricts freedom of speech and expression, including the so-called hate speech. The United States constitutionally forbids all manner of prior restraint of expression, other than incitement to imminent lawless action. Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969).
  • The rest of the world uses the color red to symbolize the political left and the color blue for the political right. The U.S. reverses this scheme of color-coding.

And, apropos to this weekend, most other countries mark their day for commemoration of labor and workers on “mayday,” May 1. The U.S. marks the first Monday in September as Labor Day.

Celebrating Labor Day in September, unlike the other contrarian characteristics mentioned, was not an accident or result of an evolutionary process. It was passed by Congress at the urging of President Grover Cleveland after the 1893 Pullman strike. Cleveland had used federal troops to get the trains moving again, based on his legal, Constitutional responsibility for the mail. He wished to reconcile his party (Democrat) with the U.S. labor movement. Choosing the September day was deliberate and meant to be a rejection of the socialist premises of the International Workers of the World. Leftist groups have several times attempted to change our Labor Day to their May 1.

Being a natural born contrarian, and libertarian (but not a lunatic), I applaud America’s exceptionalism here, now, and in the future.

Happy Labor Day

UT Professors’ Frivolous Suit Tossed

July 9, 2017

A federal court sitting in Austin this past week dismissed a lawsuit by three University of Texas professors who alleged that the Texas statute permitting license holders to carry concealed handguns on university campuses “chilled” their First Amendment rights. Judge Lee Yeakel ruled that because the professors had not shown a cognizable, imminent injury the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to entertain their claim.

The claim advanced by the professors bordered on frivolous. The gist of their complaint was because they often discuss controversial subjects and issues in their classrooms, the presence of persons who may be carrying concealed handguns, albeit licensed after a stringent background check performed by the Texas Department of Public Safety, would inhibit discussions in the expression of opinions about which they might disagree. Judge Yeakel cited a number of U. S. Supreme Court opinions that disapprove the application of the First Amendment to such a patently ridiculous theory. Of course, the court’s opinion is restrained in characterizing the absurdity of the claim, but merely dissects the law and the alleged facts. This is appropriate. Strong language is for commentators and politicians, not judges. A dispassionate recitation of legal analysis provides more strength to the opinion.

The court’s opinion and order recites that the cases are dismissed “without prejudice.” This means that it is possible that a similar claim could be filed at a later date, assuming it alleges new facts. Generally, a dismissal for want of jurisdiction is without prejudice, for a number of esoteric legal reasons. The court did not reach the additional and alternative issue that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

Even if the law did not permit licensed holders from carrying concealed handguns into classrooms, what would stop a determined, non-licensed person from so doing? A licensee would probably not carry for fear of losing their license. The statute defined “concealed” as “carried in such a manner as to not be discernible by the ordinary observation of a passerby.” One could tuck the gun under their shirt or carry in their purse, and who would know? All this means that the bad guy might have a gun and the good guy would not. Get real, folks.

For those interested in reading the actual opinion, it is styled Dr. Jennifer Lynn Glass, et al v. Ken Paxton, et al, No. 1:16-cv-845-LY, United States District Court, Western District of Texas, Austin Division, July 6, 2017, document #79. It’s available on PACER and probably many other on line sites.