Category Archives: Uncategorized

Oklahoma frat boys and free speech

Tonight, a political rant, but this time I’m going after many of my fellow liberals: I’m against the expulsion of University of Oklahoma students involved in the recent racist video. I’m not defending these guys. (And I think the closing of their frat house is another matter; one could make a case for it based on nondiscrimination laws.)

What I’m talking about is the expression of ideas, good or bad. There’s an important reason to support free speech as a principle, and not just when we agree with the content, and this reason is amply illustrated by history: Once people get used to prohibiting speech they find offensive, they soon ban the defense of many good ideas and the criticism of many bad ones.

Speech codes have no place at a university. Aside from libel and threats of violence, the only rule should be, “If you say it, you will be called upon to defend it.” Open prejudice is its own worst enemy.

The first sparrow of spring! (Walden 193)

The first sparrow of spring!

The year beginning with younger hope than ever!

The faint silvery warblings
heard over the partially bare and moist fields from
the bluebird, the song sparrow, and the red-wing,
as if the last flakes of winter tinkled as they fell!

What at such a time are histories, chronologies, traditions,
and all written revelations?

…The grass flames up on the hillsides like a spring fire…
as if the earth sent forth an inward heat to greet the returning sun;
not yellow but green is the color of its flame…

— Henry David Thoreau, from “Spring,” Walden Continue reading

This man doesn’t want you to vote

Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Moral Majority, Heritage Foundation, ALEC, etc., said bluntly, “I don’t want everybody to vote… our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

This isn’t a political blog, but if you’re here you’re probably one of the folks that Weyrich wanted to stay home on Election Day. He thought your vote mattered. Do you?

The lost world under your feet (Walden 128)

Thoreau knew that he and his fellow Concordians weren’t the first people to enjoy Walden Pond. He had long had a knack for finding Indian arrowheads, and he read early narratives about the people who were living here when the first Europeans arrived. But who lived at Walden itself in ages past? So much of it was lost. He could only guess.

He found “a narrow shelf-like path in the steep hillside, alternately rising and falling, approaching and receding from the water’s edge, as old probably as the race of man here, worn by the feet of aboriginal hunters, and still from time to time unwittingly trodden by the present occupants of the land.”

Whoever you are, and wherever you live, it’s a given that yours is not the first culture to inhabit what we all think of as our land. Let me tell you a little about the place where I live… I’ll come back to Thoreau (and to my point) at the end of the post. Continue reading

Columbus Day: How to distort the past without actually lying

Here’s a re-run from last year, which I think is apropos considering the current squabble over AP history standards. Many Americans still believe that the purpose of history is to teach patriotism. The best teachers, however, try to instill critical thinking skills and a willingness to follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if it ruins your preferred narrative.

But narratives can be tenacious, and it’s possible to cling to one in spite of overwhelming evidence. It’s possible to do so even while acknowledging that evidence. The story of Christopher Columbus shows how:

The Curious People

Replicas of Columbus’s ships at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Via Wikipedia

Columbus Day is a US holiday which is celebrated with annual arguments about the propriety of honoring Christopher Columbus with a holiday. The atrocities that he and his men committed are so well documented that you’d think it would be impossible to defend the man, but people are still doing it. Today’s post isn’t about Columbus so much as it’s about how to defend Columbus (not that I’m defending him). There’s an important lesson here about history and about the way we talk about history.

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Strange visitors at Walden (Walden 97)

We’ve come to the end of “Solitude.” Walden is about to get more sociable in the “Visitors” chapter. But first, a visit of another kind:

“I have occasional visits in the long winter evenings, when the snow falls fast and the wind howls in the wood, from an old settler and original proprietor, who is reported to have dug Walden Pond, and stoned it, and fringed it with pine woods; who tells me stories of old time and of new eternity; and between us we manage to pass a cheerful evening with social mirth and pleasant views of things, even without apples or cider — a most wise and humorous friend, whom I love much, who keeps himself more secret than ever did Goffe or Whalley; and though he is thought to be dead, none can show where he is buried. An elderly dame, too, dwells in my neighborhood, invisible to most persons, in whose odorous herb garden I love to stroll sometimes, gathering simples and listening to her fables; for she has a genius of unequalled fertility, and her memory runs back farther than mythology, and she can tell me the original of every fable, and on what fact every one is founded, for the incidents occurred when she was young. A ruddy and lusty old dame, who delights in all weathers and seasons, and is likely to outlive all her children yet.”

Who are his imaginary visitors? Spirits of the woods? Here he sounds playful, and maybe a little batty. But he’s telling us that he comes in contact with ideas and experiences that only happen in solitude — sort of a quiet voice that you can only hear when all else falls silent.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

Things I would say to the kitten we found under the hood of our car

Boo the day we found her, August 10, 1997.

Boo the day we found her, August 10, 1997.

At first we thought it was only a bird chirping. I started the car and pulled away from the curb. The sound followed us down the street, insistently. Cheep! Cheep! Cheep! My wife and I looked this way and that, but saw no bird. It followed us four blocks through our neighborhood.

“Stop the car!” my wife said suddenly. She still saw nothing, but it had dawned on her that the voice wasn’t following the car—it was trapped inside it. Continue reading