Monday, June 05, 2006

Links and Notes

* Lindsay Beyerstein reviews the documentary, The War Tapes.

* A very good post at "DarwinCatholic" on the whole science vs. religion cliche.

* June 5th is St. Boniface's memorial. Medieval Sourcebook has selections from Willibald's Life of Boniface and documents related to the conversion of Germany. Since Boniface is patron saint of Germans and brewers, if you needed an excuse to drink a beer, today's the day that gives you one.

* It's also Monday in Whitsun-Week. You can read the relevant poem in Keble's The Christian Year. The subject is the City of Confusion.

* "Timotheos Prologizes" quotes an interesting essay by Fulton Sheen on Muslims and Mary.

* At "Philosophy, etc." Richard has an interesting post on whether time travel is logically possible.

* Writers who use big words without needing to do so give off the impression of being less intelligent than those who don't -- as do those who use less reader-friendly fonts. You can get the scoop at JohnHawks.net. (HT: MM)

* The Valve is apparently a place where literary people get together and talk about philosophy and mathematics. Of course, it's not quite accurate to say that before Cantor people though that infinity was only a potential thing, unless we clarify what that means (and whether, for instance, the infinity of the objects of divine knowledge is being counted); and it's false to suggest, as one of the commenters does, that the Kalam argument is question-begging, since there are theists and atheists on both sides of the question of whether the universe began or not. But it's worthwhile to read the discussion. For a discussion of relevant philosophical texts on infinites, see page at The Logic Museum devoted to the subject; there is also a page under development on questions that are relevant to the Kalam argument itself.

* An interesting article on exploiting the past by Ulf Zander (HT: Cliopatria). I think the argument is quite right insofar as the value of history for civic life lies less in being able to equate historical events with modern-day happenings for partisan purposes than in being able to compare the two objectively. And he's right that political users of history are simply not facing up to the challenges and complexities of history. But I think he doesn't quite do justice to the fact that political use of history is absolutely unavoidable -- the only serious question here is not whether history will be used politically, but whether it will be used well. I also think the argument ends up going too far when he argues:

The Nazi genocide has a strongly moral, emotional and political charge, but in a deeper historical sense it is difficult to draw any conclusions from it. As for example the Holocaust and military historian Omer Bartov has pointed out, the murder of the Jews is problematical as a reference point not primarily because it is unique, but because it is extreme. It seems unlikely that there should be lessons to learn that are applicable for us in our everyday lives or in forecasts of the future if we look for them in one of the most atypical events in modern history.

While it's certainly true that the Holocaust is for this reason almost useless as a basis for forecasting of the future, it doesn't follow from this that it has no lessons to learn that are applicable for us in our everday lives. In fact, quite the opposite seems to be true; and the more informed our notions of the Holocaust, the more genuinely applicable to our lives such knowledge would seem to be. This is because applying knowledge of an event to our everday lives has nothing to do with how extreme or unique an event is, and everything to do with what Zander calls the strong "moral, emotional and political charge" of the event. A historian should not confuse applicability to everyday life with value for the historical analysis of our times (well, no one should confuse the two, but historians are especially likely to do it). And precisely because knowledge of historical events is applicable (in good ways and bad ways) to everyday life, there is no avoiding the political use of history, because there is no avoiding the application of history to civic life. (Another reason there is no avoiding it is that people in part need to use history to constitute themselves as communities; and this means history is already there at hand to be used in politics. The only community in which the political use of history can be eliminated is the community that has no historical memory. Such is barely a community at all, and is not, I would presume, what a historian would want as a civic goal.) I think historians should not be abusing politicians for using history politically, as such, but challenging them to use it in a less purely partisan and more seriously thoughtful way.

* On Thursday I went to see X-Men: The Last Stand. It has several great storylines and manages to mangle them all quite a bit. However, enough comes together that if you're not seeing it just because of the bad reviews, and you're not the nitpicky type, you should go and see it. If you can cut them some slack for not quite succeeding in juggling all the characters they have to juggle, then you should be able to enjoy it. All of the newcomers, especially Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde and Kelsey Grammer as Beast, are worth seeing; in fact, several of them outshine the returning actors. Storm has more of a good, serious storyline than she did in the previous movies, although they never quite manage to do justice to it. The race between Juggernaut and Kitty -- the two people no solid object can stop -- was done quite well. Beast is never given the storyline he deserves, particularly with Grammer's excellent acting. The whole charm of Beast is his backstory: he's one of the world's most brilliant scientists, and the scientific community refuses to recognize him because he's a mutant who looks like a big, blue, furry brute. It's this that grounds the occasional pedantry and pompousness that shows up in his relationships with others -- it's not an affectation, because he's a gentle and humble person; it's all innocent and due to the fact that he's a gregarious, sociable person forced to be intellectually alone. Very little of this shows up in this movie. But Grammer still brings everything to the role that's needed; and I don't really understand why some fans were worried before it came out that he wouldn't be able to fill the role well -- he's perfect for the role, and everything else is just make-up and special effects. It's impossible to imagine a better silver screen Beast. The Eric-Charles dynamic, which should have virtually made this movie, is the most disappointing part of it; neither side of it is written quite well.

* UPDATE: Part 2 of the History Carnival is up at "Aqueduct."

* Also, "Is That Legal?" is hosting a mini-symposium on Mitsuye Endo, a civil rights hero who is often forgotten, despite her considerable importance. Greg Robinson gives some of the background. [UPDATE: Patrick Gudridge continues the discussion.]

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