July 30, 2003

The Rant Will Return on Monday, Aug. 4

... but don't worry, all is well here at The Rant. See you soon, and with even more great features ... such as NEVER-BEFORE SEEN CONTENT!

Of course, given that we're in the business of producing content that's never been seen before, that's kind of a rip-off, but hey. We shall be back, and we shall see you then!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:55 PM | TrackBack

July 28, 2003

Illinois Has Officially Gone to Hell

What happens when word gets out that two young children are earning pocket money at their grandmother's small business? Well, in Illinois, the state Government sends in a labor inspector to read Grandma the riot act!

Christ. Go read the story in the Chicago Sun-Times. It's freaking pitiful.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:46 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

July 25, 2003

Sound and Fury Prevails in Talk About Great Americans

When one looks at the brouhaha that has erupted around John Hawkins' survey of the twenty greatest Americans in our nation's history, one is tempted to consider Kissinger's dictum about academia: the infighting is so fierce because the stakes are so small.

For Mr Hawkins' survey is small both in scale and scope. That is not to say it was not a worthy endeavour. However, as Mr Hawkins himself notes, it only draws from a survey pool of 49 blogs and only hopes to list 20 of the greatest Americans, when our nation could easily list 300 to 500 people who have truly changed the course of history. As such, it should be taken for what it is: a survey of historical greatness, true, but most definitely a survey of popular opinion.

Still, we here at The Rant must admit surprise at the vociferous reaction in some quarters to Mr Hawkins' survey, and the ensuing brouhaha that erupted after Mr Hawkins responded to that reaction.

For instance, Meryl Yourish complained bitterly that there were no women listed among the twenty honorees. Mr Hawkins then took issue with Ms Yourish's complaint, and fired back that there were no women in American history deserving of mention on the list. In short order, Mr Hawkins learned that it is most unwise to dismiss the fairer sex's contributions to American life, as evidenced in this post from Moxie and this post from Venemous Kate. There are trackbacks-a-plenty at Mr Hawkins' site and elsewhere, so have a gander.

Now we here at The Rant have our own issues with Mr Hawkins' list. We note with displeasure that Thomas Jefferson and Ronald Reagan share the coveted No. 1 spot upon it. We think very highly of both men, but ranking them as the greatest Americans of all time is a bit silly.

The greatest American of all time, of course, was Abraham Lincoln. This really shouldn't be a matter for debate. Yet Lincoln ranks only fourth, a result which we attribute to lingering Southern prejudice against our nation's greatest leader.

George Washington is given a rank of third, when he should rightfully be given the second-place award. We here at The Rant would personally put Jefferson in the top 20, although we are not sure where; and others we would include, such as Monroe, are nowhere to be found at all. We will say we believe Hamilton's inclusion at No. 13 to be about right, although we find Henry Ford's No. 12 ranking to be ridiculous in the extreme. Mr Ford's contributions to industry were great, true, but his outlook on life (virulent anti-Semitism, dismissal of learning) proved that he was a bumpkin and a rube. Only his development of mass production would merit him a spot in the top 100, and even there we would suggest he would be lower down on the list.

It is in the lower levels of the list, naturally, where we find much with which to take issue. Consider that Ulysses Grant -- Grant, for God's sake -- ranks above Eisenhower, Douglass and Truman. This is an appalling state of affairs. Just look at the official biography of Grant's tenure as President:

"When he was elected, the American people hoped for an end to turmoil. Grant provided neither vigor nor reform. Looking to Congress for direction, he seemed bewildered. One visitor to the White House noted "a puzzled pathos, as of a man with a problem before him of which he does not understand the terms."

Grant. Gad!

Now, that said, we must say we also take issue with the scholarship present in the work of Ms Yourish, Moxie, and other writers. This is not to say we are not sympathetic to their concerns, but we have our own complaints that we would like to register.

For instance, we note that Moxie suggests that Elizabeth Cochrane (Nellie Bly), a 19th century female investigative reporter, or Pearl S. Buck, the writer on China, should take the place of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). While we certainly must say we consider both women's accomplishments to be quite noteworthy, we just can't see either replacing Mr Clemens on the list. Mr Clemens still remains the best writer this nation has produced, and until he is dethroned from that lofty post, he should by rights outrank them.

Also, Moxie created an all-female list which had many good points to it. Unfortunately, it also included Margaret Sanger, whose mention so appalled us we about had to call the kitchen boy to bring us our laudanum.

Ms Yourish included Gloria Steinem on her list, which we would note as a sign that such surveys are public-opinion polls and not serious scholarship. If one is to give credit for the feminist movement to anyone, one ought to give it to Betty Friedan. We also don't agree with the inclusion of Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a nice lady, we are sure, but if you want real power, you need to go back a few decades: to Edith Wilson. It seems pretty clear to us that she was the one calling the shots after Woodrow had his stroke.

But ah well. In any event, this whole exercise has made two things clear to us. The first is that diplomacy would suggest it wise to qualify such lists: for instance, ranking the best American writers, or best American musicians. The second is that while we find such quibbling a bit academic, we also find it invigorating that people care enough about history to find it worth arguing about.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 03:00 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Records and Such

Layne writes the following about this column from Robert X. Cringely:

Robert X. Cringely comes up with a new business model for the music business: He gets rich, and the people who create the music get nothing.

Mr Layne devotes a good bit of time to fisking Mr Cringely's work, and you should read it. I only have one quibble with Mr Layne's analysis. Since when did screwing a musician out of his or her hard-earned become a new business model for the recording industry?

I mean, my God! if there's one reason why no one sheds tears for the recording industry's plight, it's because people in the recording industry are schmucks. Now, Lord knows there are plenty of shady dealings involving the creative industries, but no creative industry can even come close to the recording business in terms of its utter corruption and sloth. The only difference between today's music industry and the music industry back during the good old days of payola is that back then, the people running things at least had a bit of cunning about them.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:27 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

July 23, 2003

Oh, God, the Agony

Regular readers of The Rant will be unsurprised to learn that I am coming down with a particularly hideous cold. Hence, while dinner is cooking, I am going to use my failing strength to type out a blog entry since I have let things go for too long. Then I am going to go to bed, and desperately attempt to sleep this thing into the ground.

As you can imagine, though, the current state of my health (chest pain, chest congestion, head congestion, sinus misery, aches, pains, listlessness, sore throat, possible fever, etc.) made me take a second look at a spam e-mail that I received in my inbox today. After all, with my health, I probably was suffering from one of the conditions this e-mail purported to cure, which were:


Oh, yes. Chron's Disease (insert Phil Bronstein joke here). Well, fortunately, I don't have that or Crohn's Disease either. Anyway, this e-mail informed me that the cure to these ailments was just a mouse-click away via ... wait for it ...


(blink rapidly)(sigh)

You know, part of me wonders whether we are all wrong about e-mail spammers. Sure, when I get spam mail, I must admit that like many people, I get a very faint, very brief desire to see the senders strung up by their thumbs and thoroughly bastinadoed. On the other hand, it is pretty ingenious for these direct marketers to separate fools from their money, and do so at such little expense and cost. Can you imagine the profit margins these fellows must have?

Now, clearly I am writing in jest, but I will say it's interesting on an economic level. After all, with all the hassles that junk e-mailers get from the Righteous God-Fearing Citizens of the Internet, such sales must have quite high costs, both economic and non-economic. Yet apparently it works, as spam would cease to exist if it was not profitable.

But how to make it not profitable?

Of course, as we all know, excessive regulation can destroy profits faster than a termite colony can devastate a lumber yard. But we can also surmise that despite the existence or creation of tough laws forbidding such spamming, that rogue operators will continue wasting our time with e-mails about making money from home. Hence, the solution is clear: we must ban anyone who has ever purchased goods through a spammed e-mail from the Internet.

OK, I'll admit that might be a bit drastic. Let's try this instead.

Perhaps we could create an alternate Internet where the spammers could spam to their hearts' content and everyone using the system would have implicitly agreed to get spammed.

Heck, the market could work that out on its own, with a little kick from the regulators. Think about it. In fact, I am sure someone besides me already did, because it is a pretty nifty idea. So if that's the case, then I hope my readers will put them up on a pedestal in the comments section. I'm just thinking out loud here.

Spammers could only send from approved ISPs while only being able to send to addresses on approved ISPs. Breaking these laws would result in severe monetary and non-monetary penalties, such as steep steep fines and being sentenced to forced labor. Furthermore, since all right-thinking humanity receives and hates spam e-mail, it would be easy to coordinate a global enforcement effort.

True, we'd have to take steps to ensure that good people weren't caught up in the dragnet, but we could do that by defining "mass e-mail" and "fines" in a proper manner, and that task would be aided by having competent investigators on our side.

I think it would work. Surely some of the techies could figure out ways to make this happen!

OK. Rant's done for today. I shall return ... well, we'll see when I beat this miserable cold. But hopefully very soon.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 06:57 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

July 22, 2003


(sigh) DRAFT mode ... not PUBLISH mode ... I wasn't DONE with that yet. But I should have the essay that formerly appeared in this space completed tomorrow!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 01:54 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

July 19, 2003

Extraordinary in its Mediocrity

Oh No!
It's Time for Another Installment of ...

Today's Feature: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

IT HAD POTENTIAL, we can say that much for "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." Sadly, we cannot say that "LXG," as it is known, had other elements crucial to a film's success -- such as an INVENTIVE STORY or a BELIEVABLE PLOT. That segment of the American movie-going public which cares nothing for history will enjoy it thoroughly, I am sure, but both the story and the plot of LXG makes a learned man shudder. (Before I continue, do note that this review contains spoilers up the yin-yang).

You should know that the British Government have recruited the LXG thanks to the depraved actions of “The Fantom.” This fellow is not, as one might think, a crazed comic-book collector. Rather, he is a scheming ne’er-do-well who intends to profit greatly from arms sales if he can but plunge Europe into a continent-wide conflict. As such, the peace-loving nations of Europe are counting on the LXG to save them from his mercenary actions. Sounds all well and good, does it not? Aye, until one considers the time element. You see, the action takes place in 1899.

Gee, thanks a lot, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen! Why the devil didn’t you just let Europe have at it and save everyone all the trouble? At least the Germans wouldn’t have been able to use chemical weapons! Furthermore, if this conflict had erupted in 1899, one could still hold out hope that whatever the outcome, there wouldn’t have been a Treaty of Versailles to accompany it. The end result was that it was quite, quite difficult for me to root for the good guys, because the good guys were unknowingly paving the way for Hitler.

Don’t get me started on the technological silliness inherent in LXG, either. Now I will say that it was nice to see that the producers realized that illumination at the dawn of the 20th century was often the result of gaslight, not electricity. That was believable. It was not believable to think that Captain Nemo, one of the LXG’s heroes, was able to build a proto-Bentley from the ground up. It was especially not believable to think that most of the LXG were imbued with the inherent sense of how to drive a manual-transmission automobile. I mean, Gad. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but to completely throw out any sense of realism is another thing entirely.

But let’s turn back to the LXG itself. Now, one thing that really intrigued me about the movie was that the heroes therein were merely heroes. Their powers were fantastic, to be sure, but nothing so out of the ordinary that it really got silly. For instance, LXG leader Allan Quatermain’s main power appeared to be the fact he was a leader, not to mention a crack shot with a rifle; Captain Nemo had a skill set worthy of any modern engineer; and Tom Sawyer was, well, Tom Sawyer. Personally, I thought Sawyer’s creator, Sam Clemens, would have cut a much more interesting figure, but hey. It is a movie, after all.

Still, it was also frustrating to see that things did get a bit silly in reference to the more outlandish LXG team members. For instance, Dorian Gray is an immortal, whose special powers include SAG membership and immunity to bullets. Mina Harker is a vampire, whose special powers include an encyclopedic knowledge of tort law. Despite the fact that the bad guys are fully aware of these things, no one in the bad guys’ higher echelons bothered to send out a staff memo on the matter. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I tend to think that Mr Gray and Mrs Harker would find themselves a bit less extraordinary if some mid-level henchman had told the men to fix bayonets.

But what more can be said? Lots of Manly Fighting and Impressive Explosions and the Predictable Revelation of the Bad Guys’ Plans ensue; there is much in the way of a happy ending, such as it is; and one can imagine that the LXG could very well return in some sort of impressive sequel.

One can only ponder what they will save next, in 1907 or 1911 or whatever year Hollywood would have them reunite. Perhaps they would salvage the gold standard, or the balance of naval forces among the great powers, or Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 03:58 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

France Bans "E-Mail" From Lexicon

The French Government has forbidden using the word "e-mail" in official correspondence, the Associated Press reports from Paris. A French hybrid word has been invented to replace it.

Why does France fail to meet its obligations under the Stability Pact? It's because they pay people lots of money to do things like this.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:11 AM | TrackBack

Taking Things a BIT Too Far

Eight dogs have died after eating poisoned sausages left at a popular dog-walking park in Portland, Ore., the Associated Press has reported. The poisonings come as Portland authorities move to enforce the city's leash laws, which many dog owners apparently ignore.

We here at The Rant are not surprised that this type of thing happened in Oregon, a state which long-time readers know we have often considered a bit different.

On the other hand, though, this is probably the type of thing that could happen in any modern city. Many Americans, we realize, get far too worked up about issues that really aren't all that important in the grand scheme of things. As such, it does not surprise us that at least one American has gone off the freaking deep end due to this issue of leash-law enforcement.

Look. It ought not matter whether people keep their dogs on or off a leash provided a) folks clean up after their canine companions and b) the dogs are trained to behave with as much decorum as one can drill into them. Even then, it might make sense to set aside one or two of the city's parks for dog owners who would prefer to let their canines roam free, just so people who do not care for dogs don't have to deal with them.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:04 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 16, 2003

America's Condiment and Other Goodness

It is not even 10 a.m. and already I have read enough quality commentary to sate my appetite for the stuff. The topic du jour? Why, America's Condiment -- the great and wonderful and precious thing we call "salsa."

You should know that Lileks has used part of today's Bleat to disucss salsa, including an enjoyable interlude on the merits of "corporate salsa" v. "boutique salsa." Mr Lileks says that he should buy the latter at the expense of the former, but I personally think this gives too much credit to the purveyors of inferior-grade salsa in this world.

Here in New Hampshire, the grocery store which I frequent has a variety of boutique salsas for sale. Unfortunately, these salsas come in some horrible flavor, such as peach; or the producers forgot to add in hot peppers; or some other gastronomical sin has been committed to make the thing palatable to trendy people who don't know any better. Besides -- as part of a trend which Lileks notes, with his fictional example of the Wisconsin salsa -- some of these things are made in Maine.

I'll be damned if I am going to trust a Mainer when it comes to salsa. Lobster, yes; shellfish, yes; salsa ... no. Certainly not. This would be akin to purchasing merlot from South Dakota, or schnitzel in Oregon, or bagels in Topeka. One ought not do such things.

Now, that is not to say that Maine salsa, South Dakota wine, German food in Oregon, or Topeka bagels are bad. Don't get me wrong. Besides, the last thing I need are angry letters from the Topeka Bagel Cooperative and Gas-n-Sip. But since glorious capitalism has made it possible for a man to purchase sublime (and wicked hot) salsas from salsa-making areas such as Texas, New Mexico and California, there is no reason why he should not shell out the same money to get a better product. I mean, come on -- it's just comparative advantage at work.

Of course, as Lileks and others note, one can also get imported salsa from Mexico. Personally, though, I am not convinced that some of those salsas -- lovingly canned into existence at some run-down maquiladora in Ciudad Acuna -- are true and authentic. On the other hand, if you can live in Mexico and sample the local wares for yourself, you should definitely do so. Heck, Layne did.

Now that, my friends, is living.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:13 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

A Very Sad Case, II

What is brighter than the sun? yet the light thereof faileth; and flesh and blood will imagine evil.

-- Ecclesiasticus 17:31


ONE COULD SUBMIT that the intense reaction to Dr Daniel Dennett's recent commentary about "brights" in The New York Times is evidence that the Republic is not yet lost. For Dr Dennett's supporters and detractors have largely produced excellent work defending their theological beliefs.

Let us examine but a small portion of these opinions:

Andrea Harris has argued the operating phrase for "brights" ought to truly be "smugs." Dean Esmay has proclaimed he is still a "bright," and in such a way that I think he ought to have written instead of Dennett on the Gray Lady's pages.

Meanwhile, Telford Work offers his own opinion; as does Kieran Healy and Charles Murtaugh. Four of the five preceeding articles were noted over at Camassia; while Camassia kindly also links my work.

Brian Linse offers up a very well-written and erudite post on the "bright" movement and his own atheism, which you should all read. (Full disclosure: Mr Linse was quite complimentary to my own first post on the subject). Finally, Geoff Brown has a post on a related matter, with which I do not agree; but perhaps another time for that.

My position on the matter has not changed. However, I would like to address the comments which readers have addressed here at The Rant, as I feel it is important that I do so.

First off, Mr Esmay remarks that it would be nice if brights had a symbol to go with their newly-appropriated word. On a temporal level, I must agree with this, as he makes the logical point that having such a symbol could quiet the militants who insist religious displays must be banished.

You know, Mr Esmay's comment got me to thinking, and I thought up an adequate symbol for the "bright" movement -- one I think they probably would have truly liked. But after giving the idea a lot of thought, I decided against sharing it. It is not my place to suggest a symbol. The least of my reasons is that I am not one of them. On a spiritual level, though, I must also admit that in my heart, I would prefer that atheists had no symbol. One cannot force a man to believe in God, and I certainly have no quarrel with those who do not. But my fear, to be honest about it, is that it might strengthen a movement of which a minority of adherents are openly hostile to religion. Religion, I would argue, is a positive force in life; it is painful to see some people's openly negative reactions to it. Not, I hasten to add, that Mr Esmay is such a person; not at all. Go read his essay and you shall see that he does not mind even folks like me.

OK -- moving on! (You would not believe how much time I spent wrestling with that; how I detest my own pusillanimy sometimes).

Some commenters -- SFT was the first -- took issue with my witticism regarding Dr Dennett's first sentence and its reference to "us brights." I partially accept blame for this. I made the mistake of reading "us" as the subject, instead of the correct subject ("The time"). "Us" is clearly the direct object and as such the sentence is correct.

That said, it was a badly-composed opening sentence and Dr Dennett should have done much better in writing it! Gad! "Us brights" indeed; good way to create a trip-up right there. The second sentence wasn't much better, either. One ought not use rhetorical questions when writing.

I know that is being overly harsh; I admit it. But come on, though! I have to save some face here :-D.

Geoff, you have your link in the above reference. You're very welcome, and keep on blogging.

I would also like to say that I very much appreciate Kevin White's thoughtful and gracious response to my post. It is a very reasonable, rational and kind-hearted composition.

Finally, Max Power numbered his complaints for me in point-by-point form. I must say I appreciate that as it makes it easy for me to respond. Here is that response:

1. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. What can I say? Nobody's perfect :-D.

2. When Dr Dennett or anyone else compares belief in God to belief in the physical existence of the Easter Bunny, The Rabbit from the Trix Commercials, or the Tooth Fairy, it is quite insulting to religious people. That's because we do not believe in the existence of these things either; we all agree these are childish figments of the imagination or marketing concepts. So to compare theism with a four-year-old's outlook on life is necessarily arrogant and an insult.

Now, if an atheist and a theist are having coffee after a nice dinner and they get into a nice discussion on theology, we would not be offended by your first statement that you believe God is man's creation. That truly represents a difference of opinion. However, folks like Dr Dennett do not confine themselves to such statements: they go a bit further. I don't doubt you honestly believe that Dr Dennett's essay was not rude or offensive; but then you are in the choir to which he is preaching.

Naturally, this also means your original question is flawed. There are many religious believers who do place an emphasis on hellfire and brimstone; but the mere statement that "I am a Christian" merely conveys the fact that I happen to hold to a particular world-view. It is not a glove thrown in the face, and neither is saying, "I am an atheist." Such things are badges of identity and nothing more.

I don't know you, so I don't know whether you don't care for organized religion or if you are merely playing -- ha, ha -- devil's advocate. But your statement that if a man identifies himself as a follower to Religion X, he is automatically condemning Group of People Y doesn't compute. Not a bit.

There are two reasons why it is next to impossible for a "bright" to take part in public discourse. The first is that in the grand scheme of things, not many others share his viewpoint, and as such that viewpoint receives little serious attention. The second (and more important) is that public "brights" (O'Hair, Newdow, Dennett) have absolutely no tact.

"Brights" will not be taken seriously as a movement unless the tactful ones drive out the people who feel oppressed because the phrase "under God" is in the Pledge of Allegiance. Until the vast majority of Americans think that "brights" are willing to take their beliefs seriously, "brights" will not be given the time of day.

3. I am sure Dr Dennett's books are fascinating. But, if by naturalistic views of free will, you mean the concept of Free Will Without God Entering Into the Picture, then that's something that doesn't interest me. As a Christian, I consider such a premise flawed from the get-go.

As for Darwin's Dangerous Idea, I'll be honest -- I care little about the controversy over it. Whether Man came about via evolution, creationism, or intelligent design matters nothing to me. These and other things are subordinate concerns to what really matters, which is this:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

You see, that's what's Christianity is all about -- right there, in that one sentence. That through His sacrifice, Christ died on the Cross and Redeemed a fallen world. That is the rock upon which I stand. That is the message to which I subscribe.

Now, do I believe there is a Hell? Yes -- because the concept of the Redemption, in my mind, warrants it.

Ah -- wait a minute, now. Just wait. You are opening your mouth in protest and getting ready to fire off an angry response -- but read this first. Then fire away.

The message in John 3:16 is a message of hope; of faith; and of love. It is overwhelmingly positive. It offers men a wonderful thing. It offers men the chance to have their sins and their wickedness washed away; the chance to leave temporal things behind for something so much better.

Now, the question of whether other monotheist believers will not share in this is a question for the theologians. Personally, though, I would find it very, very difficult to believe that any good man who believed in God would not find himself in Heaven when all was said and done. Let's be clear: I don't believe that. Nor do I believe that good men who do not believe in God would find themselves suffering in fire and brimstone. Let me explain that.

Regular readers of The Rant know that I have a thing for Dante: he is perhaps my favorite author. In fact, he's the fellow in the first image up on the banner. My favorite work of Dante's, naturally, is The Divine Comedy. Some commentators have called it "The Fifth Gospel," and I think with good reason.

What I like about the structure of the afterlife in Dante's work is that to me it makes sense. It is ordered. It is logical. It is both terrible and beautiful. But it also raises a lot of questions for anyone interested in theology, and Christianity in particular. Now, the structure and meaning of Dante's Paradiso and Purgatorio are subjects for another time.

It is the Inferno which really draws all our interest, anyway, isn't it?

The Inferno's Plan is based on one fundamental concept: that, as Dante wrote, there are degrees of sin which displease God more than others. This is why Satan is at Hell's center, and why lustful souls must merely suffer getting blown about on the dark winds. In between, of course, the tortures of the damned are varied and often awful to even read.

But all is not agony and torture in that Hell; there is also sadness, and just sadness in many cases. There is no punishment except a sense of longing to be with a Presence which they did not accept in life. To me, that concept of Hell is very real as the concept of fire and brimstone. Can both exist simultaneously? Of course they can: there is nothing that would prevent a just God from punishing the wicked, while at the same time differentiating otherwise good people who merely didn't believe in Him.

What the reality is, we will all eventually find out someday. But I have digressed for too long. The crux of the matter is that we all have to make our own choices in terms of religious belief. And once militant atheists accept that theists' views aren't meant as constant slaps in their face, and accept that people will continue to believe in God, then perhaps we can have some progress.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:09 AM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

July 15, 2003

No Sleep 'Till Brooklyn

Oh dear readers, do offer your prayers and supplication to our God and His angels and saints -- particularly St Irving, the Patron Saint of Apartment Leasing, Subletting and Assorted Paperwork Issues. You see, Sheila O'Malley is looking for an apartment. In New York. In Manhattan.

As we learn in her latest entry on this all-consuming topic, this is not merely an apartment search. Oh, no. Basically, it requires her to enter into a bureaucracy-choked, financially-draining, spirit-crushing realm that somehow co-exists both with the environs of New York and the City of Dis. It is not an easy challenge: this zone of reality -- which is inhabitated both with legions of men and women whom the process has since ground into the dust; and gatekeepers, who were once people, but whom demons have corrupted and possessed. These gatekeepers' souls, according to tradition, now bathe in Cocytus.

However, there is hope even in this dark realm, for Ms O'Malley is in the running for "one of THOSE apartments." Now out in the provinces, where I grew up, "one of THOSE apartments" was not a place where one aspired to live; but as I understand it, in the parlance of New York, the phrase carries a different weight.

So go wish her good luck, already. Also, pray.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:05 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 13, 2003

A Very Sad Case

Philosophy professor Daniel C. Dennett has written an astonishing op-ed column in The New York Times in which he proclaims his disbelief in God. In openly identifying himself as a so-called "Bright," Dr Dennett complains that politicians and society-at-large belittle and deride his fellow non-believers' views. He ends his article with a clarion call for action, beseeching his fellow citizens to support "bright rights."

Now, I say Dr Dennett's article is astonishing not because I approve of it. I find it astonishing because of its insufferable arrogance, its smarmy self-righteousness, and its breathtaking hostility to religious views. I find it astonishing because of its flawed reasoning, its sneering self-conceit, and its insulting moral relativism. Finally, I find it astonishing because it sums up so very well the complete and utter hubris of what Dr Dennett might call the "aggressive atheistic" mindset.

So let us take a look at the relevant parts of Dr Dennett's essay in depth. He's in italics:

The time has come for us brights to come out of the closet. What is a bright? A bright is a person with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view. We brights don't believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter Bunny — or God. We disagree about many things, and hold a variety of views about morality, politics and the meaning of life, but we share a disbelief in black magic — and life after death.

Since Dr Dennett openly says later in his essay that the "bright" campaign is a public-relations exercise, I find it odd that he sees fit to compare belief in God with belief in the Easter Bunny. I mean, this certainly isn't the way to win friends and influence people in the much larger community of religious believers. Also, what he means to write in his opening sentence is we brights. Forgive him for that: they don't teach writing well in the colleges these days.

The term "bright" is a recent coinage by two brights in Sacramento, Calif., who thought our social group — which has a history stretching back to the Enlightenment, if not before — could stand an image-buffing and that a fresh name might help. Don't confuse the noun with the adjective: "I'm a bright" is not a boast but a proud avowal of an inquisitive world view.

Well, one could argue that modern-day atheism, such as it is, began in the works of certain ancient philosophers and Pelagius, the 4th-5th century heretic; and was refined from there on out. I can see why Dr Dennett might not want to mention him as an inspiration, given that even he admits atheists' image needs buffing. That said, I am not impressed at Dr Dennett's shoddy attempt at doublethink either. The words "boast" and "proud" do, after all, go hand-in-hand; and this is made clear through Dr Dennett's proclamation that the atheists' world-view is inquisitive -- and its unsaid inference that a religious world-view is not.

For the reality is exactly the opposite. Most Christians and other religious are by their nature inquisitive folk, and we see the hand of God at work in every new astronomical discovery or scientific breakthrough. On the other hand, when unexplainable phenomena occur either in the historical record or even in the present day, an atheist would by animal instinct write it off as having some natural cause, even if not readily apparent. Their supposed tautology -- God has not been proven to exist, therefore He does not exist -- is a mile wide but an inch deep. And only an uninquisitive sort would write off the possibility that such logic could in fact be flawed.

You may well be a bright. If not, you certainly deal with brights daily. That's because we are all around you: we're doctors, nurses, police officers, schoolteachers, crossing guards and men and women serving in the military. We are your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters...

What? No mention of petty thieves, bank robbers, gangsters, wife-beaters, confidence men, grafters and swindlers? No mention of deadbeat brothers-in-law, drunks, document forgers? They're all around us too, you know!

... Our colleges and universities teem with brights. Among scientists, we are a commanding majority ...

Please don't remind me. Now I'm going to get depressed.

... Wanting to preserve and transmit a great culture, we even teach Sunday school and Hebrew classes ...

Wanting to stay on good terms with the wife is more like it.

Many of the nation's clergy members are closet brights, I suspect. We are, in fact, the moral backbone of the nation: brights take their civic duties seriously precisely because they don't trust God to save humanity from its follies.

We quote from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles for our response to this little bullet. We will put it in bold just so Dr Dennett and his sympathizers see what we think of his proclamation:

Eminent, eminent people, one and all, members of the Society for the Prevention of Fantasy, advocates of the banishment of Halloween and Guy Fawkes, killers of bats, burners of books, bearers of torches; good clean citizens, every one, who had waited until the rough men had come up and buried the Martians and cleansed the cities and built the towns and repaired the highways and made everything safe. And then, with everything well on its way to Safety, the Spoil-Funs, the people with mercurochrome for blood and iodine-colored eyes, came now to set up their Moral Climates and dole out goodness to everyone. And they were his friends!

I would rather put my trust in God's saving grace than Dr Dennett's moral backbone.

As an adult white married male with financial security, I am not in the habit of considering myself a member of any minority in need of protection. If anybody is in the driver's seat, I've thought, it's people like me. But now I'm beginning to feel some heat, and although it's not uncomfortable yet, I've come to realize it's time to sound the alarm.

Gee, it would appear that Dr Dennett doesn't like it when people disagree with him. Clearly he is being persecuted and oppressed.

Whether we brights are a minority or, as I am inclined to believe, a silent majority, our deepest convictions are increasingly dismissed, belittled and condemned by those in power — by politicians who go out of their way to invoke God and to stand, self-righteously preening, on what they call "the side of the angels."

Somehow I don't see how invoking God equates with condemning atheism, but many aggressively-atheistic people can't stand it when the Government allows religious displays or "ceremonial Deism." It's a key difference between religious folks and aggressive atheists. Religious folk are happy whenever God gets a mention; atheists can't stand it because they want the rest of us to adhere to their God-less beliefs.

A 2002 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life suggests that 27 million Americans are atheist or agnostic or have no religious preference. That figure may well be too low, since many nonbelievers are reluctant to admit that their religious observance is more a civic or social duty than a religious one — more a matter of protective coloration than conviction.

Translation: Twenty-seven million people is approximately nine percent of the population residing in the United States. Dr Dennett does not want to admit that those who share his views may only constitute nine percent of the population residing in the United States.

Of course, I do think it worthy to note that there is a big difference between atheism, agnoticism, and being non-religious. An agnostic does not take one side or the other in the debate, and neither do the non-religious. As such, as Madalyn Murray O'Hair once put it, these folks have "one foot in the God camp." This would seem to separate the chaff from the wheat: only an atheist could truly call himself a "bright," because the agnostic and non-religious are leaving open the possibility that supernaturalism really does exist. So Dr Dennett's claim that there are 27 million brights lurking among 300+ million citizens in all is likely a bit high.

That shouldn't take away from his argument in a logical sense, of course; but to me it shows that he's willing to bend logic's rules a bit if it will help his case.

Most brights don't play the "aggressive atheist" role. We don't want to turn every conversation into a debate about religion, and we don't want to offend our friends and neighbors, and so we maintain a diplomatic silence.

Go talk to this guy, Dr Dennett. You'll have hours of fun, I can assure you.

But the price is political impotence. Politicians don't think they even have to pay us lip service, and leaders who wouldn't be caught dead making religious or ethnic slurs don't hesitate to disparage the "godless" among us.

Well, this is what happens when folks don't believe in something: they give other things deemed more important, such as tax policy and foreign affairs and retirement benefits, more weight. That's only natural, of course; but until Not Believing in God and Also Wanting to Suppress Other People's Religious Expression becomes a priority among a large segment of the American People, it will stay that way.

It is time to halt this erosion and to take a stand: the United States is not a religious state, it is a secular state that tolerates all religions and — yes — all manner of nonreligious ethical beliefs as well.

Yes, but I'm thinking that you don't tolerate all religions. I mean, God forbid someone should put an expression of religious thought up on public property. Why the aggressive-atheists don't put up their own expressions next to them is beyond me. I mean, it's their right. But that might be constructive.

I recently took part in a conference in Seattle that brought together leading scientists, artists and authors to talk candidly and informally about their lives to a group of very smart high school students. Toward the end of my allotted 15 minutes, I tried a little experiment. I came out as a bright.

Notice the favor given to intelligence over character. Someone, quick, call John Engel.

Now, my identity would come as no surprise to anybody with the slightest knowledge of my work. Nevertheless, the result was electrifying.

Anybody out there have the slightest knowledge about who the hell Daniel C. Dennett is and his work? We're just wondering here, folks, cause we hadn't heard a thing about the guy or his work before he showed up in The New York Times.

Many students came up to me afterwards to thank me, with considerable passion, for "liberating" them. I hadn't realized how lonely and insecure these thoughtful teenagers felt. They'd never heard a respected adult say, in an entirely matter of fact way, that he didn't believe in God. I had calmly broken a taboo and shown how easy it was.

Well, yeah, that's the thing. It's very easy. It's also very easy, for we as people, to give into our own desires and our own wills and our own flawed instincts. It is the first step down a path which leads to letting one's vices conquer oneself. It is the first step towards one's eventual self-destruction as a moral person.

In addition, many of the later speakers, including several Nobel laureates, were inspired to say that they, too, were brights. In each case the remark drew applause. Even more gratifying were the comments of adults and students alike who sought me out afterward to tell me that, while they themselves were not brights, they supported bright rights. And that is what we want most of all: to be treated with the same respect accorded to Baptists and Hindus and Catholics, no more and no less.

True, but Professor, you have to realize that respect is a two-way street. You've just spent half your op-ed being snarky about the views of Baptists and Hindus and Catholics and Mormons and Jews and Presbyterians, so why should they -- we -- give you that respect in return? I would encourage you to remember the Golden Rule -- do unto others as you would have done unto you. Some old Teacher said it a while back.

If you're a bright, what can you do? First, we can be a powerful force in American political life if we simply identify ourselves. (The founding brights maintain a Web site on which you can stand up and be counted.) I appreciate, however, that while coming out of the closet was easy for an academic like me — or for my colleague Richard Dawkins, who has issued a similar call in England — in some parts of the country admitting you're a bright could lead to social calamity. So please: no "outing."

OK! Here's the first insulting life comparison, folks! Dr Dennett's thesis here is that it's just as hard to be an atheist in, let us say Tennessee, as it is to be a homosexual.

(crickets chirping)(dog howls in background)

But there's no reason all Americans can't support bright rights. I am neither gay nor African-American, but nobody can use a slur against blacks or homosexuals in my hearing and get away with it. Whatever your theology, you can firmly object when you hear family or friends sneer at atheists or agnostics or other godless folk.

I hope I'm not reading this wrong, but is Dr Dennett seriously equating society's awful and undeniable bad past treatment of blacks and homosexuals to the supposed suffering of atheists? That's certainly how it seems to me. Somehow this just doesn't compute. Having one's after-dinner cocktail ruined because a dinner partner vociferously disagrees with you does not, in my mind, equate to years upon years of slavery, discrimination, or being treated like a second-class citizen.

But I don't know, and perhaps I am reacting to reading this at a truly Godawful hour on Sunday morning. To me, though, everything about Dr Dennett's essay reeks of what's wrong with an aggressively-atheist position: the self-conceit, the arrogance, the almost-blind confidence, the inner surety that he is right and the rest of the world consists of "sheeple." (I hate that word but it gets a lot of use).

And in a way, it's saddening.

I don't think anyone should be discriminated against on the basis of race or sexuality or creed. I'll admit I would like it if non-religious people became religious, but I also know that when all is said and done, they will make their own decision on the matter. You can't force anyone to make decisions in that regard: it just doesn't work.

But neither do I understand why a small minority of those who do not share in religious beliefs cannot merely accept the fact that many Americans do. For we are talking about the small minority of activist atheists who consider their non-religiosity so important that it alone defines them as a person.

No one, of course, would mind if such militant atheists merely wanted to be left alone. But given the past history of that movement, it does not take a leap of faith to argue that this is merely a tactic to denigrate and scorn organized religion and those who believe in it.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 02:05 AM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

July 12, 2003

More Fun with Wealth and Class

Fascinating story in The Scotsman today about an interesting problem facing the luxury-goods industry: namely, that the hoi polloi are purchasing their products in bulk.

Of course, as The Scotsman's Edward Black notes, there are other problems facing the industry: war, recession and currency fluctuations. But he makes a pretty interesting point: that the fashion industry has diluted its brands to the point where they are no longer exclusive. One can hence infer -- although Mr Black does not give this as much space as I would have liked -- that this dilution is leading to decreased sales, losses, and general economic woes.

It really is fascinating stuff, at least to me. That's not only because it deals with the issue of economics, it deals with the issue of materialism in Western society.

Now the economics issue is pretty cut-and-dried. To me, the fashion houses should have either raised their prices significantly, thus kneeling to the immutable laws of supply and demand; or introduced even more exclusive goods to protect their brands. Rather, as Mr Black's story notes, they increased supply to meet the increased demand, with immediate profit as the result. They are now reaping the whirlwind of that policy.

What's more interesting to me, though, is this issue of materialism and its acute effects on modern society. Certainly materialism has always been a force in life; but it has never taken hold of us as people like it has now.

It makes sense when you think about it, in a way, for at no time in human history has mankind enjoyed such prosperity. Further, during the Sixties and Seventies, society saw fit to devalue time-honored institutions: the traditional family, respect for God, civic activities, and so on. So it is no surprise that we now live in a world where it is quite acceptable for a man's fidiuciary self-interest to reign paramount over his duties and obligations to his family, his church, and his nation.

I will admit that we can't squarely put the blame on the disasterous social policies of the Sixties and Seventies, even if they did do so much to exacerbate things. In the Fifties, when American society first became prosperous as a whole, there was certainly a new emphasis placed on materialism. Indeed, one could probably go back to 1848 and find its roots. Still, I think, there is no denying that the excessive pursuit of status, possessions and wealth is a pox on our national house -- now more than ever. How else can one explain the all-inclusive veneration of wealth in all facets of our society, whether in pop music or sales brochures or in executive-compensation packages? This was not something you saw in the Forties and Fifties.

I should note, though, that the key word there is excessive. "Money is the root of all evil," goes the old saying, but that's crap. Evil is the root of all evil.*

Money, if used wisely and properly, is a good thing. Goods and services can certainly be good things: it all depends on why you want them. If you resolve tomorrow morning that you really want a BMW 7 Series automobile, and you want it because you would love driving it, there's nothing wrong with that. If you really want that BMW 7 Series because it means you can show it off at the club and enrage Simmons in the cubicle three down from yours, that's when you enter a real hornet's nest spiritually and temporally.

Temporally -- Gad. Where can one begin?

Material things don't make people happy, but too many people think they will. Lusting after said material things, and not getting them, makes people unhappy and resentful.

Lusting after said material things and getting them makes one happy for the moment, but makes others quite unhappy if one is arrogant or a show-off. When the happiness wears off, one is not only unhappy again, but one finds it more difficult to get a raise at the office because the boss sees the new BMW one is driving.

Then, in three years you trade the car in anyway and you have nothing to show for it because you bought a highly-depreciable asset. This leads you on a quest for more wealth, because you not only need a new car, there are now looming college tuition payments for the kids and the retirement you haven't adequately saved for and so on. The lessons here? Spend less, save more, income is not wealth, the only good debt is house- and education-related: all things that any financial planner can tell you.

But there are greater dangers. Spiritually, of course, there is the matter of one's own soul. Avarice, as Dante noted, was the appetite that can never be satiated and grows as you feed it. That cycle continues until it consumes one's being. As if that wasn't bad enough, avarice sparks deeper sins: envy, for one. And envy, at least in the world-view of we here at The Rant, leads to pride, the worst sin of all. It gets worse, too, because you're not just ruining yourself; you're helping corrupt others who aren't as blessed in this life as you are. I would submit that this matter is the gravest of all.

Related: Lileks on Anthony Burgess, and Burgess' views about the teachings of St. Augustine and Pelagius. If you haven't read this Bleat installment, you must. It will not only give you a new appreciation for Mr Burgess' writing, but a right-thinking perspective on the human dynamic.

* Full disclosure: I have to think someone figured that out long before I did; so if you've seen it and know a citation, let me know.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 06:59 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Oh No! It’s Time for Another Installment of …

A Semi-Regular Feature

Today’s Film: 28 Days Later

To be fair about things, I suppose I should note right away that “28 Days Later” is an excellent film. I would guess that horror-movie fans, of which I am not one, would likely be disappointed with it due to the relative lack of gore. However, if you take 28 Days with that grain of salt, then you’ll probably be pleased with the end result: a very nice film of the world-gone-to-hell genre, and probably the best of its kind since “This Quiet Earth.”

Given this, regular readers may wonder why 28 Days thus merits inclusion in the Bad Cinema with Ben Pantheon. That’s a simple question to answer. For despite the quality of the film, my Movie-Going Experience thoroughly sucked eggs. It was so unpleasant and horrid that the English language barely has words to express the trauma it caused me.

Anyway, here’s 28 Days' plot. Animal-rights activists invade a research facility at which the British Government is doing clandestine research on primates. These primates are infected with a contagious virus that causes them to go insane with rage. So while this leads to an enjoyable scene in which one of the monkeys tears off an eco-terrorist’s face, it also means that the fast-spreading virus gets out into the mainstream. Hence, nearly everyone in Britain turns into an uncivilized, screaming, pitch-drunk Arsenal fan.

About half-way through the film, I couldn’t help but wonder if such a virus had infected the other people in the theatre.

I mean, my God! is it that hard for theoretically-intelligent people to shut the bloody hell up during the feature presentation? Is the concept of turning off one’s mobile telephone so difficult to grasp that audio-visual reminders about doing so are ineffective? Finally, what does it say about us as a society, when such uncultured imbeciles pointedly refuse to see the error of their ways?

I’m serious—this is the type of thing that makes me fear for the safety of the American polity. As a nation, of course, we have decided that people too stupid to master common-sense manners, such as respecting their fellow theatre patrons, can somehow use those same brains to figure out a coherent view about things like Medicare reform or our armaments budget. Don’t get me wrong: I like universal suffrage. It’s just that I’m just despairing for the future.

Further, as if to add insult to injury, it wasn’t as if these conversations were actually interesting. Oh, no. That might have mitigated the offense. Instead, they involved loudly explaining obvious plot points that could only be missed if the other parties were in fact blind. If it wasn’t that, it involved details of personal lives that I really, really had no need to know about.

What was amazing about last night was my frustration was not confined to the scene inside the theatre itself.

For one thing, when I arrived at the theatre and I was walking towards the box office, I passed by a purple Japanese mini-van. This mini-van was not only unlocked, its sliding door was left open. Now you should know that it rained rather hard here yesterday, and that yesterday evening there were threatening clouds in the skies above. So it amazed me that anyone could forget to shut the door to such a nicely-appointed vehicle (leather interior, nice dashboard, that type of stuff).

What also amazed me was that this mini-van had clearly been left unattended for at least an hour. Dozens, if not hundreds, of people had likely walked by. Yet no one bothered to close this door. So after I dragged it shut, I thought to myself: what kind of apathy has taken hold on people that they wouldn’t do the right thing?

I’ll admit that I did think about the issue for a minute. I mean, if I closed the door and it wasn’t shut all the way, would that somehow make me liable if the door were to fly open on the 293 and the occupants therein were sucked out onto the highway? Would I find myself caught in a classic Good Samaritan case: no good deed goes unpunished? Then, there was another thorny moral issue: should I let these people be victims of their own forgetfulness, just so they would take more caution in future?

Still, I think I did the right thing. I don’t know if it rained when I was inside the theatre, but at least I think I saved the owners of that van a bit of headache.

But that wasn’t all that bothered me.

You should also know that here in Manchester, all the movie theatres we have are owned by the same large cinema operator. As such, this means it is difficult to find a movie that would not be considered a blockbuster first-run Hollywood film. This means that while I have ample opportunity to see movies about talking fish or robot assassins, I have little opportunity to actually see independent films or even niche films out of Hollywood.

For instance, when I wanted to see “Narc” back in January, it was only playing on one screen out of about forty that we have in the city. 28 Days was also playing on just one screen in Manchester this weekend.

Now, I don’t want that to be seen as a complaint. That is merely capitalism at work, and far be it for me to criticize the unstoppable engine we call market force. But since I’m part of an underserved market when it comes to film, I have to make an extra effort to see the movies I happen to like: even if that means going to a particularly hideous theatre.

For I positively detest the theatre in which I saw 28 Days. It’s not merely that the concessions are overpriced or that the sound system is a bit dated: it’s that there is not one shred of beauty in it. The place looks like it was built in the mid-Seventies, and from an architectural standpoint, it’s just awful.

I don’t know which is more noteworthy: its awful outdoor box office or its monstrous concrete façade. Both these things were bad ideas: for the box office doesn’t mesh well with our eight months of winter, and the concrete façade is in a section of the city full of concrete facades. You can stand it in the summer or the fall, which are gorgeous here; but in winter you feel as if you’re in Pyongyang.

The combination of all these things was incredibly depressing: so much so that I was ready to swear off movie-going altogether and stay at home with a growing DVD collection. But fortunately, 28 Days was excellent: great cinematography; good acting; interesting plot.

Just think how much I could have enjoyed it had my fellow movie-goers given me the chance.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:24 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

July 11, 2003

Bloggers on Parade

I am pleased to announce that Geoff Brown, my old comrade-in-arms from our days at The University of Michigan, has started his own blog. As if that wasn't good news enough, I am pleased to note that Mr Brown -- making good use of the Journalism Savvy that he gained at that august institution -- has written his first entry in response to my latest post.

Mr Brown, who is studying for the state of Michigan's bar examiniation, writes that stupid lawsuits are not necessarily the fault of the legal system itself, but rather the fault of a society unwilling to take responsibility for its own actions.
Now I can't really disagree with that, although one might note that because our society is the way it is, we might need more protections in place to protect honest citizens and companies from the predatory legal maneuverings of lazy ne'er-do-wells.

In any event, I encourage all of you to keep an eye on Mr Brown's site as it develops.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:43 AM | TrackBack

July 09, 2003

Comics Hijinks

You know, back when I was a boy, comic books never interested me all that much. Now that I'm an adult, they don't interest me much either -- but the news stories that spawn from them sure are interesting!

Iiiiiinteresting. But schtupid.

Anyway, this latest report comes from Fox News. Fox informs us that an unemployed, former exotic-dancer in Tampa claims she is the true creator of "Stripperella," that being the title of a new television show. Said former exotic-dancer has filed suit against Stan Lee, the creator of the show; Pamela Anderson, the lead performer, and myriad corporate entities, and would very much like the program to end.

Now, this is where things begin to get interesting. Let's turn to the Fox News report:

"This office challenges Lee to produce proof of his creative work, as true authorship belongs to Tanga's Jazz," she wrote, referring to an adult club in Tampa where she claims she asked Lee about the concept of Stripperella a year ago during a private dance session ...

"I'm just trying to get this off TV because it's not his idea," (the ex-dancer) told The Daytona Beach News-Journal. "She was supposed to be a nurse, which is what I'm studying for. I can't remember much about Mr. Lee, little bits and pieces come back. You know, I meet a lot of men."


Anyway, we here at The Rant will just say we would offer this example up as Exhibit A in any argument showcasing why our legal system is sick and needs help. However, we should note we also agree with the point which Allison Barnes made: "Why on earth she would admit to coming up with that crap is beyond me."

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 05:56 PM | TrackBack

Say, Jerry, This Tastes a Bit Off ...

A German zoo owner is being investigated for allegedly eating his own wild animals, Sky News reports in its famed one-sentence paragraph style:

It is suspected Joerg Schlechte may have used the zoo as his personal larder.

He has already been fined for roasting pot-bellied pigs during a drunken barbeque.

But now police in Germany are looking into the fate of a host of missing animals.

They include a small buffalo, rabbits, donkeys, goats, racoons, parrots, a wild boar and even three Shetland ponies.

The animals were found missing when the zoo in Meissen, eastern Germany, was taken over by new owners.

Part of me wonders what all the fuss is about: so he had some friends over and they had a pig roast. On the other hand, if this fellow did some of these other things, it's pretty gross. I mean, what kind of man would willingly eat a raccoon? Since when did eastern Germany turn into West Virginia?

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 05:54 PM | TrackBack

July 08, 2003

As Kepple Looks for Real America, Real Americans React with Disdain, Suspicion

KRUMSVILLE, Pa. -- You know, you would think that when you ordered chicken pot pie at a self-proclaimed country restaurant, the end result would involve something resembling, I don't know, a pie. A pie baked in a pot or other similar device. And oh yes, chicken.

Instead, what I got was a lukewarm bowl of dumplings, with an occasional potato thrown in to soak up the grease. To be fair, there was chicken, but not a lot of it; and the meal did suffice for the evening. But Gad! did it all have to be the same off-yellow color? And did it all have to be served with what I took as barely-concealed contempt for a city-bred patron?

I don't know; I guess I'm just still a little put out by the whole experience.

For you see, I love diners and country restaurants and old-fashioned holes-in-the-wall on the side of the highway. Such things are a glimpse into the past; how our country once was, and how it still remains in many small towns. They're generally friendly places, good local institutions where you can get a solid meal at a fair price. The food is never the sole profit-generator at such establishments: there are usually scads of trinkets and local goods for sale too. So for me, such establishments serve a dual purpose. On one hand, I can satiate my own nostalgia jones. On the other hand, I can help them as they adapt to the harsh new reality of modern American life, as dictated by the immutable laws of economics.

For really, when you think about it, roadside diners and country restaurants are about all that part of eastern Pennsylvania has going for it. All the anthracite has been mined out of the ground; the family farmer can't compete with the large agricultural concerns; manufacturing has gone to Mexico and Saipan and China. Travel along that stretch of I-78 from Carlisle to Easton, and you can see what the Invisible Foot of Comparative Advantage has wrought. Slowly but surely, it has stomped those small towns into the dust. But Comparative Advantage is a two-way street, and as you make your way along that highway, you can see those small towns learning to play off their own remaining strengths.

I suppose, in retrospect, I should have explored a bit. The place at which I ate was a depressing place: the type of hole-in-the-wall where the regulars routinely receive phone calls and the operation's main strength is that it's next to the highway. Had I gone further, I could have probably found a place in nearby Kutztown, a good Pennsylvania Dutch place with artery-clogging food. Indeed, the Kutztown PA German Festival (still in Kutztown!) had just finished up, so there was probably some place I could get some good baked corn and a decent bratwurst. But even though going to Kutztown would have been a Cultural Event of Freakazoid!-Esque Proportions --

COSGROVE: Hey, Freakazoid. Wanna go to the Akron Honey Festival?

-- I didn't have the time. So I got stuck with a disagreeable meal.

I don't know. Maybe the waitress was having a bad day: she looked awfully tired. Then again, years of hustling at such a small place would make anyone look awfully tired. Or maybe it was the fact that a fellow who looked like the owner came out of the back wearing a Washington-freaking-Redskins jersey. That even annoyed me. Personally, though, I'm inclined to think it was because I was wearing a suit. I had reason to, of course: I had buried my grandfather just hours before; but I am sure all my mannerisms screamed "ADVANTAGED CITY DWELLER." As such, it was probably a mistake to think I'd get treated one-tenth as well as Rusty the Local Farmer Who Has Gone There Every Sunday Since 1973 for Coffee and Pie. And it was probably a mistake to eat at a place which had on its sign the phrase "COOK NEEDED." Yeah -- they weren't frickin' kidding.

But ah well.

Still, what should you do if you're traveling along that lonely stretch of highway in eastern Pennsylvania, and you're hungry, and you need gas for the car? Easy. You should go down to Trainer's "Midway" Diner in Bethel, about twenty miles southwest or so. They don't care what you're wearing. They appreciate it when you leave a nice tip. And the food is great.

Now that was a diner. Wow. I mean, it had all the Great Diner Elements According to Lileks: the great neon sign, the use of non-ironic quotation marks, good, good cuppa joe. It also had the Great Diner Elements According to Kepple: good sandwiches, friendly talkative waitresses who probably started working there when Ike was in office, and most importantly: great -- freaking -- pie. You can't go to a diner without having pie, of course, and the Midway's was good. I went for the chocolate cream pie (choice No. 2 out of about 15) but on return visits I shall go for the shoofly pie.

A word on the hot sandwiches bit: have you ever noticed that you can't get a meal out these days that is actually hot? It's as if all the big restaurants in the world got an Informative Letter from Corporate Counsel warning them that food has to be served at temperatures warm enough to satisfy the health authorities, but certainly not hot enough to burn the mouth of some complaint-prone lout. That's because said lout might not know hot food is intended to be served hot, and he might end up hurting himself. Then there would be Litigation, and a jury of said lout's peers in Mississippi would Bankrupt The Company.

Anyway, the Midway serves its food hot, and what a joy that was. A perfect, perfect bacon cheeseburger: toasted bun, actual fresh bacon, just enough cheese, nice slice of meat. Add in the requisite side of fries-and-gravy, and this reasonably-portioned meal would hold you over the whole night. Including the pie, the grand total for this delightful meal was ... $8.18.

$8.18. Gawd. It hardly seemed fair.

One thing out of which I did get a chuckle, though, was that both the disappointing place and the Midway offered a "California Hamburger." This concotion consisted of your typical hamburger patty, plus the following condiments: lettuce, tomato, peppers, onions, mayonnaise. I found this funny for two reasons.

First, as a former Californian, I know that this is not the case at all. A real California burger is either an In-N-Out Burger slathered in cheese and onions, or perhaps one of Howard's Famous Bacon and Avocado Burgers. Mmmm. Avocado. In a way, though, you can see why they called it a California burger: back when it was dreamed up -- probably in 1962 or so -- all those vegetables on it gave it the appearance of being healthy. Still I found it funny.

I also found it funny because the California burger was $3.40 at the Midway and $3.45 at the other place. Heh. Oh, how I wish I could have bought any sit-down meal in California for three bucks. I daresay I would have been a much happier and richer man nowadays.

But I digress. Just know that if you ever find yourself out driving along the I-78, and you're tired and hungry and feeling a bit blue, there's a place where you can get a decent meal at a fair price. And if you look closely enough, you can see a bit of the Real America left in the Pennsylvania hills.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:58 PM | TrackBack

REAGANTOWN, Pa. -- On Monday, one of my uncles, one of my cousins, my brother, my father and I were five of the six men who carried my grandfather’s coffin to its final resting place.

Shouldering him over the hard Pennsylvania earth was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life.

The act of putting down in words the events of the past four days, and the toll they have taken on me, is almost as difficult. But I hope and pray that as I do so, it will provide me with both closure and strength: the type of closure and the strength I eventually gained after the loss of my father’s mother some years ago, and which I now need to deal with losing my mother’s father.

It’s impossible, of course, to sum up my grandfather’s life and what he meant to me in even a long essay. I could post the obituary, but that would not begin to do justice to him; death notices are not designed to do such things. But I can write about his life and what he taught me, and pray that God gives me the capability to write what should be written.

My grandfather was 83 years old; born on March 14, 1920; died on July 4, 2003. In a way, now that I think about it, it was fitting that he died on the Fourth. He was not a rich American or a famous American, but he was a good American. It wasn’t merely that he paid his taxes and voted: he had an American character. He worked like an ox and gave of himself to others. He never complained a bit about the lot he drew in life; instead, he worked harder to achieve his dreams. I don’t know if he fulfilled all of the dreams he had in life, but had you met him, you never would have been able to tell whether he had or not. He had his home and his family, and his garden, and I do think he was happy.

During the funeral on Monday morning, my mother spoke about the legacies that my grandfather had given her. How she was able to say all those wonderful things during that sad hour will always amaze me, just for the sheer strength it must have taken. She said many of the same things I wanted to say if only I could have mustered the will to do so. After she spoke, though, I felt as if I didn’t need to say anything. Her words were far superior to anything I could have said then, or anything that I write now.

So, Mom, I hope that you won’t mind if I borrow one point from those that you mentioned: namely, my grandfather’s Legacy of Faith.

I do not think that I have known any man who had a stronger faith in God than my grandfather, nor any man who did as well practicing that faith without fail in his daily life. It was always something I found special, but in the past few years I realized just how inspiring and special that was. And it was his example above all that I have tried to emulate in my own adult life.

My grandfather was baptized a Methodist on the same day as my mother was, and in that same plain Methodist church where his funeral was held. I don’t think he ever lost sight of those original teachings; teachings that the Methodist Church once held very dear.

For me, that explained a lot about why he never drank and never cursed; why he had perfect attendance at the church’s Sunday School program for at least sixteen years, and why he served in leadership roles at that church for much longer than that. And I do think that if the Methodist Church had held the line the way my grandfather had held it, I never would have left it.

But my point is not to focus on doctrinal issues. It is, rather, to try to show how devout a person my grandfather was. For if the end result of Christianity is, as the old saying goes, to lead men from wretchedness into happiness, then there was no better example of that in my life than my grandfather. He never had an easy life, and he only earned what he did through sweat and toil and aggravation. Lesser men, I think, would have abandoned their faith or complained mightily about the injustice of their situation; but my grandfather never complained. He bore his cross as was his duty, and he did it with style and class and with his sense of humor intact. I can only pray that, when hard times come in my life, I will be able to do the same.

You should also know that my grandfather was truly a modest and humble man, not merely in his own countenance but in how he lived his daily life. You could not help but notice that if you were you to walk into his Connellsville home, the home where my grandmother lives still. It has everything that one might need, and it is a cozy and quiet place. But it is almost as if it comes from a different era, and I have to think that was how they wanted it.

On Sunday, when our family took a break from calling hours at the funeral home, we came back to that house and shared a meal. We talked for a bit but largely ate in silence, and some of us in that family room where he spent so many of his days. No one sat in my grandfather’s favorite recliner, a recliner which, if I had to guess, is at least 30 years old.

Later, as my grandmother was standing over it, she remarked that she had once suggested that my grandfather purchase a new recliner, as the present model was shabby. My grandfather would have none of this, for as he noted at the time, the old recliner worked fine.

I don’t know if I would go thirty years before I replace my own favorite recliner, but I do think that instance was a small lesson that one ought to be thankful and satisfied with what one has in life. That doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t work hard, or refuse to change; but rather that one ought not focus on material things compared to other things in life.

God knows I have often failed in putting that and other of his lessons into practice, but I can hope I someday gain the strength and insight to finally learn what my grandfather and so many of those close to me have figured out.

July 6 – July 8, 2003

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:29 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

July 05, 2003

The Rant Shall Return on July 9

Until then, spend some time searching around ... look at the archives ... visit all the wonderful writers on my blogroll ... you know, the usual :-).

Hope you've all had a great Fourth of July weekend. Take care of yourselves out there.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:03 AM | TrackBack

July 03, 2003

Vive Berlusconi!

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has caused an uproar after he compared a German Member of the European Parliament to an extermination-camp capo, European media have reported. Mr Berlusconi's remark came just two days after he began a six-month stint as president of the European Union.

Hoo boy. Now this is fun on so many levels we're almost unsure of where to begin. But we'll keep it short and simple, using as an example the overblown reaction of Gary Titley, who heads up the (UK) Labour Party's delegation of MEPs:

"Nobody was expecting the Italian presidency to self-destruct on day two. Mr Berlusconi shooting from the hip shows his Jekyll and Hyde character; as soon as he's under pressure he loses it. How can you trust him to negotiate in the Middle East or in trade talks with the Americans?"

Oh, yes, trade talks. Look, Mr Titley, from our point-of-view, a straight shooter on the European side might actually be nice. It would sure beat the usual feebleness we get from Europe's trade negotiators, who can't go five minutes without bleating about "Frankenfoods."

Besides, Mr Berlusconi actually gets along with us, so we doubt that he would ever refer to us in such terms. That's more than you can say for French officials, who openly refer to Americans using phrases like "hegemonic vampire cowboy pig-dogs."

We would also note that we thought Mr Berlusconi's comments a welcome slap-down to socialist MEP Martin Schulz, who saw fit to embarrass Mr Berlusconi with a series of questions related to Italian national policy. True, they may not have been the most diplomatic things to say, and we certainly think Mr Berlusconi could have been a bit more witty.

But when all is said and done, we have one thought: we like this EU President.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 01:28 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 02, 2003

That's A Good Thing, Right?

Headline from the Australian Broadcasting Corp.'s radio division:
"Laos reconsidering jailing journalists."

Click on the link, and you'll find out whether that wretched state is reconsidering putting more journalists in the hoosegow or considering freeing jailed journalists. Come on, have some fun with it -- call it 'fun with delayed gratification.'

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 08:06 PM | TrackBack

We're Family Friendly -- Kinda

What rating is your journal?

brought to you by Quizilla

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:37 PM | TrackBack

That (Second) Pernicious Vice

Joseph Epstein, writing in The Washington Monthly, has produced a fascinating and thought-provoking essay on the nature of Envy. It is worth your time to read it in its entirety, for it casts sunlight on that widely-held and pernicious vice; and it examines its workings within our society in-depth.

However, having taken some time this evening to read his work, I fear that Mr Epstein has fallen short. Consider this excerpt:

No one would doubt that, whatever else it is, envy is certainly a charged, indeed a supercharged, word: one of the few words left in the English language that retains the power to scandalize. Most of us could still sleep decently if accused of any of the other six deadly sins; but to be accused of envy would be seriously distressing, so clearly does such an accusation go directly to character. The other deadly sins, though all have the disapproval of religion, do not so thoroughly, so deeply demean, diminish, and disqualify a person. Not the least of its stigmata is the pettiness implicit in envy.

The tenor of Mr Epstein's words remains consistent throughout his article, and I must note that as an examination of envy, his work is spectacular. But it amazes me that Mr Epstein fails to note the worst of all vices, that deepest and earliest of the universe's sins: namely, pride.

For pride is at the root of all sins; in the Christian tradition, pride was the Original Sin that ruined both mankind and the regis inferni. Its potential to corrupt and ruin and destroy is boundless. I don't think saying that discounts envy's well-deserved place as the second-worst vice; for envy is truly the mark of a defeated and angry person. But when all is lost, that ruined wretch can still overcome his envy and his other faults, and become whole again. Such a person whose pride still enslaves him will throw such a chance back in the face of his liberators.

Now the above is certainly not my idea; it is, really, nothing more than a quick summation of the excellent work done by Lewis, perhaps the 20th Century's greatest theologian. But even Lewis built on tradition: and at the heart of that tradition is St. Augustine and many other religious authorities. In short, it is nothing new: hence my surprise that the learned Mr Epstein does not say it.

But then, to do so would invalidate his argument that no vice like envy "so thoroughly, so deeply demean(s), diminish(es), and disqualif(ies) a person." For how could Mr Epstein say, first, that not the least of its stigmata "is the pettiness inherent in envy" and not say that at least an honest man recognizes that pettiness? Only the self-conceited would fail to see such a thing. Thus it is that envy really masks a deeper and crueler sin.

I would also argue that Mr Epstein treats what he calls "yearning" with a bit too much diffidence. He writes:

Envy must also be distinguished from general yearning. One sees people at great social ease and wishes to be more like them; or feels keenly how good it would be once more to be young; or longs to be wealthier; or pines to be taller, thinner, more muscular, less awkward, more beautiful generally. All this is yearning. Envy is never general, but always very particular--at least envy of the kind one feels strongly.

I don't think this is an incorrect analysis on its face. Sure, we'd all like to look better and have more cash in our pockets and live young forever. That's human nature. However, since that nature is fundamentally flawed, one can't just pass over it. Why is it people -- to take one example -- would generally like to have more money? In our own personal circumstances, there may be any one of a thousand good reasons for that: family needs, education, a home with more space. Such things are not, naturally, bad in themselves. But if, in the final analysis, our answer is reduced to because, then we have lost another battle to avarice. If left unchecked, that avarice can quickly turn into envy, and the envy can fester into pride.

One final thought, though; and again, I would encourage you to read Mr Epstein's work in depth. It is also worth noting that the seven deadly sins, at least according to Dante's Purgatorio, were not equal offenses. Certainly Dante recognized pride as the worst of those offenses, with the second-worst being envy. Anger was next up the ladder, then sloth, then avarice, then gluttony. Finally, Dante rightfully thought lust the least of these offenses. Far better that one partake of too much drink or too much sex than have too much pride. Although, as Lewis said in a different context, it is better if one does neither.

(link via Sheila O'Malley)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:33 PM | TrackBack