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Sigh, I guess we had better talk about the American Mid-term election ( I am writing this in 2018 AD, in case the Republicans win everything, and you are reading this in annihilated ruins in a lifeless desert).

Throughout my life, American elections have traditionally been formalistic affairs between two similar parties.  Indeed, years ago, in a more innocent (!) time, I proposed that everyone should vote for the non-incumbent party to prevent the ossification and stalemate which were coming to define American politics.  Alas! such fantasies are now relics of a distant past: the two parties have diverged very greatly (although the false equivalence of “horse race” style reporting still occludes the true distance between them).

The Democrats concentrate far less than I would like on blue sky research, space exploration, and defense funding (which, ideally, is where our national R&D budget comes from).  Additionally the Democrats have not created a compelling narrative for the future and they have petrified national leaders…along with all of the various problems of ego, corruption, and incompetence which occur in politics at a granular level.

I endorse them completely for everything without reservation. Vote Democratic up and down the ticket.

This is not an ordinary election. The Republican Party is changing and metastasizing into something fundamentally un-democratic and truly awful.  Looking at their efforts to dismantle government, rob the state, roll back fundamental constitutional protections, and destroy our international alliances, it is perhaps finally time to use the F-word.

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Indeed, President Trump is an obvious and self-avowed fascist. He makes no pretenses about it.  He openly denounces the press, threatens political opponents, espouses violence, and gleefully supports white supremacists.  Additionally he lies endlessly about everything, trusting that his propaganda mouthpieces will concentrate on other stories to feed to his imbecile brownshirt supporters.  Based on Occam’s razor, he is most likely operating on orders from Russian superiors (he squandered his family fortune, and then misrepresented his crooked finances to increasingly dodgy investors till all that was left for him was to launder money for Russians).  Trump throws everyone under the bus and talks garbage about them…everyone except for Vladimir Putin.  Why would that be?

So I am no fan of Trump, however, this year, he is not on the ticket.   Instead we must concentrate on the other portions of government which are in play tomorrow.  The founders left us a system of checks and balances to constrain the crimes and excesses of unfit executives.  These systems do not work if weak, foolish, and pusillanimous legislators refuse to engage the failsafes.  This is the situation we are now in.  The Republicans in Congress have abdicated all responsibility for the national well-being. They are like the sycophantic senators of the Roman Empire after the Republic fell: they still have the trappings and appurtenances of high office, but all they do is eagerly acquiesce to the whims of Caligula and Nero.

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Vote them out. They all must go.  Vote against the Republicans in congress, even if they once allocated a highway in your district 27 years ago, or served in the Air National Guard, or went to the same school back in the fifties.  Unless you are a billionaire, they care nothing about you and are only looking for ways to take away everything you have. First they will take away your healthcare and then your property and then they will squeeze you dry for their robber-baron friends.

After Mitch McConnell’s successful theft of a Supreme Court seat, and the recent elevation of abusive and unfit apparatchiks to the Supreme Court, there will be no succor from an illegitimate Supreme Court.  If congress does not immediately push back against the rot in the White House, elections will most likely not be free in 2020.  This may be the only chance for voters to prevent tyrrany from breaking the world’s oldest and most powerful democracy–maybe for a generation…or maybe forever.

This is a pretty grim picture.  I did not paint it.  You can see it by looking out the window or picking up any international newspaper.  I suppose we all crafted it together by letting monopolies pour money into Washington and by pursuing our own short-term self-interest (and by letting fear get the better of us).  Historians know that democracies are fragile.  Our democracy is in real peril from within, perhaps for the first time since FDR assumed the mantle of life dictator. Indeed this might be the most extreme challenge to our institutions since the Gilded Age or the Civil War.  There is only one way to fix democracies. So vote! And drag every registered voter you can find to the polls.  If you love Trump and think he is America’s radiant savior, vote! (and maybe check in with the neurologist). If you are like me, uneasy with the Democrats, but appalled by the treasonous perfidy of he Republicans, then vote! Let us throw the GOP out of power so it can rediscover bygone virtues in the wilderness.  We will work on fixing the many many things that need fixed (and on crafting a new paradigm that better suits the changed times) once the house is not on fire.

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No series about the cities of the dead would be complete without a visit to the world’s most populous country, China.   Because of China’s 5000 year+ uninterrupted cultural history, there are some extraordinary examples to choose from, like the Western Xian tombs, or the world famous Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, a circular tomb with a circumference of 6.3 km (3.9 miles) and an army of more than 7000 life-sized earthenware soldiers (they don’t build ’em like that anymore, thank goodness).  However for artistic reasons, Ferrebeekeeper is going to highlight the most well-known tomb complex in China–the Ming tombs which is a compound of mausoleums built by the emperors of the Ming Dynasty from 1424 to 1644 on the outskirts of Beijing.  Indeed today the tombs are now in a suburb of Beijing, surrounded by banks, residential housing parks, and golf courses.

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The First Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the Hongwu Emperor, whose rags-to-riches story has no obvious equivalent in history, is NOT buried in the Ming tombs (although don’t forget to follow this spooky link to read about his horrifying excesses), nor is his successor, the Jianwen Emperor, who was usurped and vanished from history.  However the third and greatest Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the mighty Yongle Emperor is buried there.  The Yongle Emperor chose the spot according to principles of Feng Shui (and political calculus) and he and 12 other Ming dynasty emperors were interred there along with a dynasty worth of empresses, concubines, favorite princes, et cetera etc.  Each of the 13 mausoleums has its own name like the Chang Ling Mausolem, which is tomb to the Yongle Emperor, or the Qing Ling Mausoleum which is the final resting place of the Tai Chang Emperor.

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Some of the subjects of past Ferrebeekeeper posts can be found buried in the Ming Tombs–like the Jiajing Emperor (who is in the Yong Ling Mausoleum, if you are keeping track of this at home).  Considering how much mercury that guy drank, he is probably perfectly preserved somewhere in there glistening like the silver surfer even after all of these years.

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I say probably, because we don’t know.  Only three of the 13 tombs have been properly excavated and explored by archaeologists (these known tombs are the tombs of the Yongle Emperor, Longqing Emperor, and the Wanli Emperor).  In 1644, the whole necropolis was looted and burned by Li Zicheng, the first (and last) Emperor of the ill-fated Shun Dynasty, but, fortunately, he seems to have burned and looted tombs the way he set up kingdoms–very badly and incompletely.  This means there are ten whole tomb complexes of China’s richest greatest emperors which are awaiting the archaeologists of the future (probably…it is always possible that one of China’s more recent autocrats secretly looted everything and sold it to dodgy collectors or hid it under his bed). Imagine the unknown treasures awaiting discovery!

The first paragraph alluded to the artistic merit of this graveyard, and I really meant that.  Just look at the beauty of the Sacred Way in the top photo (this is the main entrance to the tombs which Emperors would traverse when visiting the spot to pay homage to their predecessors) or the ceremonial chamber form the Ding Ling Tomb (which is the third image down).  Best of all, we have an amazing painting (below)! Look at the this beautiful watercolor map/landscape painting from the late nineteenth century which shows the entire tomb complex (the painting itself belongs the Library of Congress).  Naturally, if you click the painting it will not blow up to full size here (thanks to the hateful anti-aesthetic nature of WordPress).  However here is a link to the original image at Wikipedia, you can expand it to immense size on your computer and take a personal tour of one of the world’s most lovely and historically significant tomb complexes.

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Persepolis (pictured above) was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, the great Persian Empire which ruled the near east from around 550 BC to 330 BC (when Alexander the Great swept through and conquered it).  Persepolis was apparently a rather strange city—an imperial showplace of palaces, temples, and stately grandeur, but with very few inhabitants, at least compared to the thriving Persian cities of Babylon, Susa, and Ecbatana. Archaeologists are still arguing about whether it was a palace complex, an administrative center, or a seasonal city for high Zoroastrian festivals.  Whatever the case, Persepolis’ strange quasi-urban nature is a good segue to today’s featured location: Naqsh-e Rustam, a Persian necropolis which is located 12 km (7.5 miles) from the site of Persepolis (both locations are high in the mountains of what is today the Fars province of Iran).

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Naqsh-e Rustam, the cemetery of Persian emperors, had even fewer inhabitants than Persepolis, and mostly those inhabitants were (and still are!) deceased. The most important tombs are four large tombs cut high into the living rock of the cliff face.  These are the tombs of Darius I (c. 522-486 BC), Xerxes I (c. 486-465 BC), Artaxerxes I (c. 465-424 BC), and Darius II, the great emperors of ancient Persia. The facade to Xerxes tomb is pictured immediately below.

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Not many cities have only 4 long dead inhabitants. Indeed, the site of Naqsh-e Rustam was sacred long before the Achaemenids carved their unearthly mausoleums. The oldest carvings are dated to around 1000 BCE and thought to be from the Elamite kingdoms.  Later on, the monarchs of the Sassanid dynasty (the empire which stood in counterweight opposition to Imperial Rome) also carved great reliefs there.  These illustrate battles and victories.  In the middle of the complex is a mysterious cubic tower known as the Ka’ba-ye Zartosht.  It was made at the same time as the tombs and is presumably a Zoroastrian sacred building, but nobody really knows what is was originally for.

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I wrote about this astonishing place, because I was struck by the majesty and remoteness of the great tombs carved out of living rock, but now that I have started writing, I realize that Naqsh-e Rustam strains any definition of a city (other than as a place of great human-crafted edifices).  The urban culture, the political hegemony, and the sheer human labor required to craft such a site are obvious from the 2500 year old architecture, but the bigger questions about why humans make the things we make, or even about why the Persians organized their great civilization in this fashion are not answered by the haunting graves an monuments.

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It is getting to be the end of October and there is no reason to wait any longer for our special annual Halloween series–a series of posts about a specific unsettling yet evocative topic (which hopefully speaks to broader themes of life). In years past, Ferrebeekeeper’s Halloween edition has featured topics such as the mother of monsters, flowers of the underworld, flaying, serpents, and (a particular favorite) the undead! Where do we go from those awesome, spooktacular topics?

As you can see by glancing at the category cloud to the left, Ferrebeekeeper’s biggest new category is cities (or maybe you can’t see it, if you are looking at a cellphone or a particular browser or something…sadly, Ferrebeekeeper understands WordPress less by the day, but that doesn’t change my urban fixation).

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Once, not long ago, cities were rare or non-existent(try to imagine that), yet, as humankind continues to relentlessly expand, all the world is becoming one continuous city.   To thoughtful people who worry about the future of the biosphere, this fact represents a horror of a whole different magnitude than imaginary monsters, spooky gardens, or even the all-too-real homicidal maniacs of yore.  The forests, the steppes, the coasts, the farmlands, even the uncompromising desert…they are all going.  What we are left with is a homogeneous sprawl of concrete and plastic habitats where people drive their deadly benzine buggies from one identical shop to the next (or simply sit all day in taupe offices staring at screens filled with hateful numbers and rules for rich people).  It is a truly chilling dystopia–and it is here already!

So, up until Halloween Ferrebeekeeper will feature lost and destroyed cities, necropolises, evil metropolises, and twisted urban horror, but for this introductory post, I will just present…[scary melodramatic music] an infographic map! [disembodied screaming].

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Here is the United States reassembled and blocked out by land use. Upon initial perusal, this graphic (from Bloomberg, 2018) seems pretty encouraging. Cows! Forests! Wilderness! National parks! Our great empty continent will be the land of the free forevermore!  Yet, as we concentrate more on what is really there, it is increasingly astonishing.  There is a lot of pink and red! If the United States were a garden and the map’s pink and red bits were statues, we would say it was a statue garden.  Admittedly, the non pink and red portions of the map convey their own shocking aspects as well.  How come a 30th of our nation is given over to economically unfeasible and environmentally unsound ethanol production? What the devil is a Weyerhaeuser? GOLF? Seriously? I have never met anyone under 50 (or anyone who was not a white dude) who ever even played it. Now I am not without sympathy for middle-aged white dudes. Yet apparently this dumb game takes up more space than say, Connecticut.

[Also, I apologize to our international readers: I would love to see the world this way, but it looks like the metrics might just not be there yet.  We will have to take the United States as an exemplar for the moment]

Anyway, this is a long introduction for 2018’s Halloween special: Cities of Horror and the Dead (which will get more spooky and less preachy as we go on).  This is also a good starting post for really thinking about how cities are inexorably growing and how we are engineering them to be asphault dead zones.  I live in a city (indeed, THE City), but I worry about what the planet will be like if Earth becomes more of an ecumenopolis. Cities can be more scary than any place I know of.  Yet if they come out weird and creepy it is because they were poorly put together.  The scariest horror movies I know are the ones where the protagonist chases the monster straight into the mirror.  What could be worse than finding out you are not the hero, but a villain? Cities are that mirror. Let’s see what we can see in their shining dark depths.

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Ferrebeekeeper recounts a lot of mythological stories and religious tales–using almost the same voice as we use to tell non-fictional stories.  However, it is critical to remember that such folklore and mythology is not true…at least not in the same way as history or science are real (and even those reality-based disciplines are shot through with ambiguity and factual inadequacy: truth is a very lofty ideal indeed!).  Instead religious tales tell a complicated moral or ontological truth about our species by means of symbolism.  How we interpret this symbolism is all-Important.

I had a classics professor in college who gave us a reading about the Punic War from Livy.  Livy (who himself lived in politically fraught times) prudently cited the failure to properly observe the state religion as one of the reasons the Romans lost a huge Punic War battle (or as Livy stated it: the Romans failed to sacrifice enough to the gods of Olympus).  On the midterm, the professor asked why the Romans lost the battle and many students dutifully regurgitated Livy’s exact answer in their little blue books.  “I was surprised to find so many pantheists in this class!” said the professor as he handed back the books and explained why readers need to think carefully about what they are reading (and also why so many students did not have the grades they expected).

It might seem like I am writing about this subject because of dissatisfaction with some aspect of contemporary religious sentiment. For example, based on their actions and pronouncements, many contemporary Christians seem to believe that the central message of Christianity is that they (fundamentalist Christians) are always right about everything and God will take them to heaven to live in happy bliss when they die (even as he casts all of the people they personally dislike (and pretty much everyone else) into eternal hellfire).  Gods are a metaphor for the self—unless you happen to be devout; in which case your god is an actual magical entity who cares about you personally but mostly despises everyone else.

Ahem, anyway…Instead of talking about whether evangelical Christians fail to understand Christ’s message of kindness and giving, I wanted to draw people’s attention back to a Greco-Roman story we told here a while ago—the story of Asclepius, god of healing.  Asclepius was the son of the beautiful and terrible god Apollo (whose myths always fascinate and horrify me).  According to the myth, Asclepius mastered healing to a profound degree previously unknown to mortalkind.  Through study and devotion, he obtained the ability to alleviate all of people’s suffering, anguish, and illness.  His art was so profound that he could even stop death itself.  Unfortunately, Asclepius became so great as a healer that he lost sight of the healing itself.  He began to think of himself as one of the gods.  He was originally drawn to medicine out of sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.  But success changed him and he began to only heal those who gave him enormous amounts of gold.  Because of this Zeus hurled a thunderbolt at him.  Asclepius was incinerated utterly. His quasi-divine healing prowess vanished from the earth because of his hubris and people were thrown back into lives of suffering and death.

Now here is my point.  I suppose if we had a devout pantheist here they would say “Zeus is all powerful and Asclepius offended him by trying to imitate that power!  Hubris will always be punished. All hail Zeus!”  Since the pantheists are pretty much gone though (except maybe in my history class), we can look at the story on its own.  Asclepius was a human, and he his mastery of healing represents humankind’s surprising ability to master this subject to an enormous degree.  But Asclepius was arrogant and selfish.  He started to misuse his healing arts for profit. When he stopped caring about being a physician first and began to lust for gold and power instead of wisdom, his healing art was lost and everyone suffered.  The story has a patina of magic, but it is a metaphor about real things. Indeed, it should seem intimately familiar to any American who has been forced to contend with our for-profit healthcare system (even before the contemporary American medical industry mixed up the staff of Asclepius with Hermes’ rod of commerce). Seem from that vantage, the story of how Asclepius was destroyed when he forgot his true purpose doesn’t just sound like an ancient Greek myth about hubris.  It sounds like a rebuke to contemporary healthcare companies which are so stingy, cruel, and greedy that they are shortening people’s lives.  Worrying about gold instead of research and healing didn’t work out so great for the greatest physician.  Perhaps it is a mistake in contemporary medicine as well.

Of course, a careful reader might also ask whether I was being completely honest when I said that this post has nothing to do with Christianity in contemporary America.  This particular myth about somebody who incurs a terrible all-consuming price for losing their compassion is Greek—but the moral seems… familiar. A great rabbi once asked a seemingly hypothetical question “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” I don’t believe in souls as real things.  They are symbolic of what is eternal and all-important in our little lives as pieces of the great gestalt of human life.  Perhaps the question could be interpreted as, “what if you lose the most important aspect of yourself by being greedy and power-hungry?”  The story of Asclepius provides a ready answer to that question.  Perhaps the New Testament has similar answers, which people are overlooking.  Physicians need not lose their healing.  Christians need not abandon what is truly divine within Jesus’s words.  Perhaps the Romans need not even lose the great battle, but we are all going to have to focus a bit harder on the complicated symbolic aspect of the text.

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I am back from the bosky hills and verdant dells of West Virginia and SE Ohio and I have a lot of new ideas and stories to share.  Thanks Mom and Dad for the lovely visit and all of your kindness. Also, I want to thank Dan Claymore who did a superb job in my absence.  Dan understood the purpose of Ferrebeekeeper and matched the tone beautifully (although that Japanese fishmarket made me anxious for the oceans and our flatfish friends). Because of his excellent work, I realize I should take more vacations.  Dan also confided in me that he found the project intimidating because of the perspicacity of the polymath readers…so, as always, thank YOU!

When I travel, I carry a little book and a tin of pens and colored pencils (my tin is shaped like a sarcophagus and is interesting in its own right, but more about that later).  I like to quickly draw little colored sketches of what pops into my head or what is in front of me. Sometimes there are realistic. Sometimes they are utterly fanciful.  They are sometimes silly and occasionally sad.  I have dozens of volumes of New York drawings, but I figured I should share all the little sketches I made on my trip (unfortunately nobody posed for me–so there are no portraits). Keep in mind that these are sketches–so they are quick and imperfect.  For example, I drew the one at the top in the car as my family and I went to a wedding in the central mountains of West Virginia, and half way through I realized I didn’t have a dark gray pencil.  Roads are hard for me too (as are straight lines in the moving car).  Maybe this says something about the unnatural yet astonishing nature of our highway infrastructure.

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In the car, I also drew this humorous drawing of a gnome kingdom.  My mother was describing a nuclear weapons facility somewhere which she visited during her Pentagon career, and I apparently misheard the name.  This delightful misunderstanding engendered a whole didactic gnome world. Fribble Fribble!

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This drawing is the corner of the yard at home with autumn cornfields beyond.  Vinnie the barncat is sneaking onto the right corner, catty-corner from the old Amish farmstead.  I wish I could have captured Vinnie better, but Rory the obstreperous adolescent poodle chased him off, before I could catch a better likeness.

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No Ferrebeekeeper sketch collection would be complete without a magical flounder.  This one apparently has a direct connection to the underworld.  More about that in later posts.

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Speaking of the underworld, here is a little drawing of the world beneath the topsoil.  There is a lungfish, a brumating turtle, a mole, a mummy, and an ant colony, but beneath these ordinary items is a whole gnome kingdom.  Don’t worry! I don’t believe in gnomes. Their tireless tiny civilization really represents bacteria to me…oh and humans civilization too (artistic allegory is more of an art than a science).  This macro/micro dichotomy is captured by the shoes of a full sized (albeit anachronistic) human at the top left.

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This is a quick impression of a sunset which was SO beautiful.  If only I could truly have captured more of its sublime luminescent color….

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This is my parents’ pond, which I love more than I can tell you.  Unfortunately a big drip came out of my dip pen and made the ducks look monstrous.  There is a hint of autumn orange in the trees.  This is another one that frustrates me, because reality was so pretty.

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I watched the second half of a documentary about the circus on PBS.  It seems like the circus was more important and central to our nation than I knew (although I should have guessed based on current politics).  I represented the performers as abstract shapes, but the overall composition bears a debt to Cimabue and his Byzantine predecessors.

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Finally here is a picture from the tarmac of John Glenn airport in Columbus.  Naturally the plane moved away as soon as things began to get good. By the way I really enjoyed my flight and I am always surprised that people are so angry about flying.  For the price of a moderately fancy dinner, we can rocket across the continent above the clouds at hundred miles an hour.  We travel like the gods of Greek mythology except people serve us coffee and ginger cookies and, best of all we can truly see the earth from a towering perspective–which is the subject of my last picture which I scrawled as we looped back across Long island west to LaGuardia (I’m glad I am not an air traffic controller).  Sadly this picture did not capture the beauty and complexity of Long Island Sound, and Queens (nor even the lovely billowing cumulus clouds) but at least it made me stare raptly out the window at the ineffable but disturbing beauty of the strange concrete ecosystem we are building.

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Let me know what you think of my little sketches and, now that summer vacation is out of the way, get ready for some October horror and Halloween fun! Oh! Also get ready for Dan Claymore’s book about a human gumshoe in the dark robot future.  It will be out before you know it, and it is going to be amazing!

 

Earth. The blue planet, home of gentle water and thriving life. A rare jewel hurtling through a cold, ancient explosion of dust and gas. Our home. But what the heck does it look like? Satellite imagery has gifted us with an objective view of our planet, and it truly is beautiful. We are indeed unique among the stars. Thank you, science (and, ahem, the cold war space race).

But I’m speaking about our mental understanding of where we live. The shape of the Earth within us. How continents and countries, oceans and seas, exist in our mind’s eye, influencing our affections and prejudices. Our identities depend very much on how we imagine our literal place on Earth. Who we are is where our feet touch.

Try as we might, we’re not great at doing this. The good news, as usual, is we’ve made some extraordinary art in the attempt to know our place.

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The above is a world map created by Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn Muhammad al-Farisi al Istakhri in the year 1193. Not much is known about Al-Istakhri apart from this map and a book with the Tolkienesque title Kitab al-masalik wa-al-mamalik (Book of Routes and Realms). But Al-Istakhri was hardly alone. The 10th century was full of ambitious Islamic mapmakers and world-definers, curious people unafraid of the wider world; a sad contrast to the cringing tribalism so common across the globe today. While I can’t make heads or tails of this map as a piece of cartography, I would be proud to have it painted on the hull of my spaceship. If I had one.

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No, this isn’t a wrinkled stretch of petrified rhino hide. It is actually a 14,000 year old map! Discovered in a cave in Abuantz, Spain, the stone engraving has mountains, streams, large rivers, and shows choice spots for hunting and foraging.  There are even ibex herds marked in the stone, their 14,000 year old grazing habits recorded for all time.

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This is the world as seen by the medieval Christians living in the 1300s. It figures then, that it was drawn using biblical time as its guiding geological principal, instead of the more typical concept of physical space. This more of a spiritual map than an Earthly one. Beginning at the top with Christ looking down upon the Earth, the viewer takes a descending journey from the Garden of Eden all the way down to the Strait of Gibraltar and the Pillars of Hercules. In the center: Jerusalem. To the right: Africa. Note (if you can on these tiny images) the hideous beasts and frightening monsters lurking along the coasts and at the margins, ready to devour any pilgrim foolhardy enough to venture beyond the watchful eye of the Christian God.

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Lastly, the most “accurate map in the world”. I don’t understand the science of how this was achieved, but you can find it here: http://www.authagraph.com/projects/description.

If you’re anything like me, this map is almost as alien and confusing as the others. My eye doesn’t know where to go! My brain rejects what it sees! My red-blooded American heart is shocked and offended! Look at Africa. Now look at Europe. King Leopold would’ve had an aneurism looking at this map. Shame he didn’t, the bastard. How can we be decent––or merely responsible––tenants when we don’t understand the rooms of the house?

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Today’s post is solely an infographic from the web–but it is a powerful infographic that bears a great deal of attention.  Above are the current nations of the Earth represented by population rather than landmass.  This population cartogram  was created by Max Roser to make people think more clearly about the real nature of the world’s human population.  Each little block represents half a million people.  Countries which loom large in world attention effectively vanish (like Russia, where mismanagement and grief are causing the population to shrink) yet countries which don’t appear in the shrill daily newscasts–places like Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Indonesia–are revealed as titans.  You can find the original in this article (which is fortunate, since WordPress will undoubtedly make reading the version above effectively impossible), along with a number of additional fascinating graphics.   We will talk more about the meaning of some of this later on, but for now it is worth just scrutinizing the cartogram and marveling at a world where Madagascar is bigger than Australia.

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Do you know the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal?  It is in the Bible in the First Book of Kings Chapter 18.  Israel was then ruled by King Ahab who was unduly influenced by his fancy Phoenician wife, Jezebel, (a Baal worshiper!).  Because of the royal couple’s idolatry and persecution of God’s chosen prophets, the land suffered three years of drought and was turning into a desert.  The great prophet Elijah had been in hiding during this time, but, as the drought changed the political climate (in addition to the real climate), he revealed himself for a dramatic supernatural face-off with the 450 prophets of Baal atop Mount Carmel.

The terms of the contest were thus: the prophets of Baal and Elijah would each sacrifice a bull and cut it to pieces and lay it on their respective altar (repairing the neglected altar of Yahweh is a big part of this story…but I will leave the altar-repair instructions out).  Neither camp would light the burnt offerings themselves:  instead they would pray to the respective deities for fire.

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The prophets of Baal went first (which sounds optimal, but think of how this always goes in the Olympics).  They prayed all day–indeed Elijah mocks them at noon suggesting their god must be busy thinking or important doing divine things or just couldn’t hear them.  At the end of the day, at sacrifice time, their bull was unconsumed by divine fire.

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Elijah then sacrificed his bull and laid it out upon the altar.  He then soaked the sacrifice with four barrels of water, which filled up a shallow trench he had dug around the altar. When these preparations were complete, Elijah called upon the God of Israel as described in the Bible

36 And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word.

37 Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again.38 Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God.40 And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.41 And Elijah said unto Ahab, Get thee up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of abundance of rain.42 So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees…

So why am I telling this story? Is it a parable about wicked leaders and their foreign consorts? Is this a story about divine wrath concerning a king’s corruption and God’s complete control of the weather?  Is this about how even the most revered religious traditions sometimes need to be tested by evidence-based criteria? Am I perhaps somehow suggesting that our own land has been given over metaphorically (or maybe literally) to Baal and his charlatan acolytes?

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No! Of course not! Our very own evangelical leaders have assured us from their private jets and mega-churches that our national leadership is exactly as it should be. This post is just an excuse to show some crazy art concerning prophetic contests!  Look at these wild pictures!  I particularly like the Baal worshipers–it is a shame what happened to them, but, after all, this is only a story. I, for one, certainly don’t believe in Biblical literalism.

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(Speaking of pictures, WordPress has made it impossible for me to properly label images without causing them to go off-center such that they are half obscured, but this last picture is by Lucas Cranach, about whom I have written much).

 

 

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This post is a week overdue, and in our weird funhouse media environment, that might as well be eternity (I suppose I should really be writing about Burt Reynold’s death now…and maybe in a way I am). Yet the larger ramifications of this eulogy are bigger than just one moment, and since none of our leaders said quite the right thing, we have to piece meaning together on our own as the wreaths wither and the pomp dissipates.

Like a lot of American, I have been thinking about John McCain’s funeral and the legacy of one of the most eminent national leaders of our era.  My feelings about McCain’ politics are complicated and are undergoing revision (indeed, my feelings about America’s “great era” during the second half of the twentieth century are likewise complex and undergoing change).

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But this post isn’t about politics as such. As is traditional for a funeral piece, it is about larger issues of character and value.

During the horrible 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump famously cast aspersions on John McCain by saying “He’s not a war hero…He was a war hero because he was captured? I like people who weren’t captured.” The implication was that McCain was some sort of loser–one of the ultimate insults in Trump’s big book of putdowns (which the swindler apparently has held onto since primary school).  I stand against Trump and the dangerous poisons he has injected wholesale into our political system, yet his imputations against McCain are worth examining…for McCain’s life was indeed deeply shaped by loss.

McCain was born into the shiny luster of deep brass: his father and his grandfather were both admirals in the U.S. Navy and it was always clear his life too would follow a path of naval service and leadership.  But that path often veered into strange and horrible territory of loss and failure, to wit:

He lost his freedom during a disastrous war which we lost.

He lost years of his life to torture, deprivation, and cruel mind games.

He lost the Republican primary in 2000 (possibly due to dirty tricks) and he lost the presidency itself in 2008.

He lost his political party to Trumpism (although whenever Trump’s runaway train finally blows up, whatever Republicans are left, if any, will cravenly say that they always were always McCain style mavericks who were never fully with the Donald).

He lost a battle with cancer and he lost his life.

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Yet McCain’s life was not defined by these losses.  He kept stepping around them and he kept on swinging to the end.  McCain never gave up.  He kept on trying even despite mistakes, setbacks, or naked misfortune.  If we told young John McCain in the Hanoi Hilton that he would survive and become a wild success–titanically rich, internationally known, and one of the great legislators of his day—he might have doubted us, but, clearly, he kept grasping forward despite pain and despair.  The Navy’s (seldom used) motto is “Semper Fortis” which can be alternately translated as “Always Courageous” or “Always Powerful”.  These different interpretations can have different…or even opposite meanings, but McCain tended to prefer the former even when it was at the expense of the latter.

One of the most pernicious forces in life is loss aversion which Wikipedia defines as the “tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains.”  Loss aversion makes people value things incorrectly. The fear of losing one’s crummy medical care makes one avoid taking steps which would provide better medical coverage.  The fear of losing one’s dead-end job makes it hard to conceive us the endless possibilities for meaning and success. The fear of losing national prestige leads us down a paranoid and brutish path which self-evidently forfeits moral leadership.

Undue fear of loss is undue FEAR, or, to be blunt: people who are excessively afraid of losing things become cowards, and cowards do stupid, crazy things.

We have all lost things in life…things which haunt us. Lately we have lost things as a nation too.  Most disastrously we have lost our ability to stand up for honor and fairness even if it hurts us in the short term.  If we let this haunting fear creep into our hearts we will lose more things: our hard-won social gains, the great scientific discoveries of tomorrow, international prestige and the inestimable (albeit imperfect) boon of Pax Americana.  We could even lose our democracy, and end up with a thing that is called a republic but which is not truly a government representative of the people’s wishes.

John McCain is gone. We have lost him (and I suspect even his detractors and opponents are already starting to feel that loss), but we can honor him in the way that he would appreciate best.  We can learn from our losses and then put them behind us without letting them change who we really are or make us afraid to do what is right. That would be a true legacy, towering above a name on some building or highway.  America claims to be the Home of the Brave.  In his best moments, John McCain was indisputably brave. Let us all partake of this inheritance and try to be braver.

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