Tuesday, April 27, 2010

I'll Try To Remember My Passport When I Go See the Grand Canyon

Even the Arizona Republic, no liberal left rag with a very conservative editorial page, comes out forcefully against the new bust 'em and book 'em law in Arizona. They do so for quite conservative reasons.

And, of course, there's always Jon Stewart:

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Arizona, the "meth lab" of democracy. Ouch!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Open Scouting

Paul Theroux has an excellent essay on the Boy Scouts and their troubles written from the point of view of someone who grew up in the Scouts and loved the experience. He calls for an end to the ban on gay kids and atheist kids in Scouting.

My own experiences with the Scouts were very mixed. I was not a good one. I was drafted unwillingly by my father, determined that I should become the Eagle Scout he never was. I made it as far as First Class with maybe 3 merit badges. I hated the uniform, the scout manual, the ceremonies, the hierarchies, etc. However, I had a great time, for all the reasons Theroux describes. I loved hiking and all the nature lore. I loved being able to look at trees, flowers, critters, and rocks and know something about them (a real geek pleasure). If my troop was something of a gung-ho Hitlerjugend squad, then in all fairness it was more the fault of the community sponsoring the troop than the Scouts themselves. That part of Dallas wanted Hitlerjugend. Besides, I learned my first real lessons in friendship versus conformism in that troop. The "bad scouts" turned out to be my best friends in the troop who helped me to survive and enjoy the experience.

Since their announced ban on gay kids and atheist kids, the Scouts have drifted sadly into right-wing waters. Now they have a pedophile scandal. It's hard to remember that the Scouts were once a very forward-looking institution that desegregated itself long before the country desegregated. As early as 1967, the Scouts published pamphlets instructing troops on how to fully include the handicapped.

While they didn't mean a lot to this suburban draftee, they perform very valuable services in poor and minority neighborhoods providing a fellowship to kids who would otherwise be isolated from each other and from their communities, and prey to street gangs.


The Scouts taught environmental responsibility and consciousness long before the word "environmentalism" was ever coined. In Texas, that was no small accomplishment. Nature in Texas is very hard to love. It's mean, ornery, and ugly. It's rattlesnakes, fire ants, tornadoes, drought, and mesquite trees with 2 inch long poison thorns. Suburban white kids like me hated it and went to war with it constantly. The Scouts taught us to look at undeveloped Texas as something other than real estate to be sold, property to be developed, or natural resources to be exploited. The Scouts taught us to see all those coyotes, lizards, and black widow spiders as neighbors entitled to respect and to live in peace, that they had much more to fear from us than we did from them. They taught a "live and let live" approach to nature at odds with the "search and destroy" attitude we cherished toward rattlesnakes and armadillos. The Scouts actually did a very good job of this. Our troop prided itself on leaving behind campsites that hardly looked like they were ever inhabited, they were so well cleaned up before we left. Future real-estate developers once happily cleaned trash out of creeks and parks.

Bet Against the American Dream!

Members of the cast of Avenue Q sing a tribute to all those aspiring John Galts called "Bet Against the American Dream." You can sing along here.

The economy collapsing like a dying star,
No one will know 'til it's on NPR,
And who cares?

Our system: Socialism for the rich (government subsidized risk) and raw capitalism (no credit, no charity, you're on your own, sucker) for everyone else.

To give you an idea how far to the right the political center has shifted, anyone remember Richard Nixon's Family Assistance program of 1969 that proposed a guaranteed national income? Can anyone imagine anything remotely like that being seriously considered today by anyone other than the Green Party? The very idea! Sharing my hard earned money with a bunch of shiftless dead-beats! Only radical America-hating socialists like Thomas Paine and Dr. Martin Luther King ever seriously entertained the idea of a guaranteed national income.

Hat tip to Frank Rich and to NPR.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Thing is Actually Going Up

Here is the proposed design for the new 1 WTC

Here it is under construction. It is now higher than in this photo. I love watching buildings under construction. It's so fascinating. These days, I'm frequently I'm disappointed when they are finished.

Well what do you know? The new World Trade Center is actually starting to rise downtown. 240 feet of it now stand down at Ground Zero. Mercifully, it is now known as "One World Trade Center" instead of "The Freedom Tower." Contrary to everyone's expectations, it is now attracting the attention of a lot of potential tenants, and there is real competition to see who gets the contract to manage the thing. It is owned, and being built, by the Port Authority.
They are also making progress on the 9/11 Memorial and on the transportation hubs.

I have very mixed feelings about the design of the building. It's a big improvement over what was there before. It's a good design, but also a conventional design. It looks like every other skyscraper around the world these days. The weakest part is that brutal looking base.

I've written before on the idea that this is unique among the world's commercial developments in that it is fraught with symbolism. It is a big commercial development, but it's also the final resting place for over a thousand people who perished on September 11th and whose remains were never found or identified.

Modernism in architecture was created by and for commercial and domestic use. It did not completely replace classicism as public and commemorative architecture until after World War II (the first such building was probably the UN headquarters on First Avenue). In this project, all those uses are combined. We'll see how it turns out.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Florence: The Rise of the Commune Part 1

Above is the city council of Dayton, Oregon. Most city governments are pedestrian affairs of basic maintenance of schools and infrastructure with the occasional excitement of having to referee between competing factions. In much of the Western world, city and town councils made up of local citizens elected for short terms are the norm. Most of the time, we don’t think about local government except when it steps on our feet, or when we want something from it. We take it for granted. And yet, such councils are the seed from which mighty republics and great political careers grow. Florence was one of the first places where citizens took responsibility for governing themselves since the end of the Roman Empire.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, the local archbishop was officially in charge of the government of Florence. He depended on armed local nobles for the power to enforce the law. They rarely gave him their cooperation unless it was in their interest. Faced with an ineffectual government from the Church, and extortion from the nobility, Florentines, like the inhabitants of many other medieval cities, began taking the responsibility for governing into their own hands. With the arrival of dramatic growth and prosperity in the 13th century came the power to face down and finally destroy the rule of the feudal nobility in the city.

Florence, like most other medieval cities, organized its population by trade. Each trade had its association, the guild. The guilds collectively assumed the responsibility for governing the city. The collective government of the city by all of the guilds was known as the Comune or commune. The city government of Florence is still called the Commune (as are the governments of a lot of older European cities). The word “commune” here has nothing to do with any kind of socialist utopia. It is a practical word describing the collective government of the city by its citizens in various trades.
In Florence, the guilds were not equal, and when the city’s economy boomed in the 13th century, they became even less equal.
What each guild was depended on the trade. All guilds set professional standards and looked out for the interests of their members. All guilds gave their members political representation in one form or another. Guilds for the poorer trades tended to be largely mutual aid societies. Guilds for the middle trades like carpenters and ironworkers tended to act as labor unions. Guilds for the very wealthy trades such as bankers and manufacturers tended to act as economic cartels. All the guilds sought to limit economic competition, especially from outside the city.

Guild stemmi on a ceiling of the Palazzo Spini, Florence

stemma of the Arte dei Fabbri, the Iron Workers' Guild

stemma of the Arte dei Calzolai, The Shoemakers' Guild

Florence through most of its early history was a small town. Ancient Roman Florentia was a small garrison town founded by Julius Caesar to protect some major north Italian trade routes that intersected there. Florentia was small, but it was prosperous. Early Medieval Florence was a very small town built on the remains of the earlier Roman city. At one point in the 9th century, the population of the city was less than a thousand people. Throughout the 11th and 12th centuries, Florence was a backwater on the Arno River overshadowed by the great maritime republic of Pisa and by Lucca, the home of the Tuscan Grand Dukes.

By the end of the 13th century, Florence was one of the largest cities in Europe, the dominant city in Tuscany, and one of the major powers on the Italian peninsula, eventually making once mighty Pisa into a Florentine dependency. The growth of Florence was sudden and explosive, perhaps the first city to experience such rapid growth in wealth and population. The reason for that growth was unprecedented. It wasn’t because of foreign trade or military conquest; it was because of business, manufacturing and commerce.
The waters at that point on the Arno River turned out to be perfect for the washing and dying of wool. There were abundant deposits of alum necessary for dying in Florentine territory. There was also a very large rural population from which to draw a labor force. Numerous cottage looms sprang up and soon coalesced into the largest textile-manufacturing center in Europe.

Andrea Pisano, Weaving, 14th century

Carding, Dying, and Spinning Wool, 14th century French illumination

Spinning and Weaving Linen, 14th century French illumination

Raw wool from Spain and England arrived in Florence through Pisa and Adriatic ports to be turned into finished wool cloth to be sold back to the rest of Europe. Flax arrived from France and Flanders to be woven into bed linens and pillows for the continent and beyond. Cotton was imported from Egypt and North Africa to be made into underwear for both Christendom and Islam. Even silk from China arrived in Florence to be turned into highly valued silk fabric by the city’s skilled weavers. The Florentines figured out how to cultivate silk worms, ending the Chinese monopoly on silk.

With the rise of manufacturing came a demand for credit to buy supplies and to pay workers. Another industry rose to meet this demand, banking. Florence became the dominant banking center of Europe. The Florentine gold coin, the Florin, was the benchmark currency of Europe for centuries.

Front of the Gold Florin showing Saint John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence.

Reverse of the Florin showing the Florentine Giglio or Lilly.

The Palazzo Portinari in Florence, once home to a major banking family, today it houses a bank.

Much that we take for granted in financial transactions was a creation of Florentine banking: denominated currency, checks, receipts, and double entry bookkeeping. Florentine banks had agents in cities throughout Europe and into the Middle East, as far away as London, Lisbon, Moscow, Cairo, and Damascus. Florentine bankers were the major lenders to the Papacy, and to kings and nobles throughout Europe. Florentine banking families eventually became the new nobility of the city, forcing out the old feudal nobility.

By the middle of the 13th century, the city’s most powerful guilds were three, the Arte della Lana, the wool manufacturers, the Arte della Calimala, the textile merchants, and the Arte del Cambio, the bankers.

Luca della Robbia, Emblem of the Arte della Lana, The Wool Manufacturers' Guild; whenever you see the Lamb of God in Florence, chances are it's the emblem of the Lana

The Eagle of the Arte della Calimala, The Cloth Merchants' Guild

Stemma of the Arte del Cambio, The Bankers' Guild

Palazzo of the Lana in Florence

These three guilds dominated the city government and wrote their domination into the city’s constitution. The remaining guilds gave their members political representation, but were largely excluded from executive and judicial positions.
Most of the city’s workforce remained unrepresented and disenfranchised. The legions of weavers, carders, and workers in the textile industry were completely unrepresented. They were legally forbidden to organize. Attempts to do so would be severely punished. This huge disenfranchised population would assert its power and briefly take over the government in the 14th century. The powerful resentment of that large sullen mass would be very useful to the political players of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, from the Medici to Savonarola, and arguably played a role in the final destruction of the Republic.

Another major force in Florentine politics was la famiglia, the family. I don’t mean family in the sense of the 20th century American domestic model of parents and children. I mean family in the old Roman sense of a kind of tribe or nation of blood ties with its own rites and traditions. Florentine families were major forces in the city’s political and economic life. They were the centers of huge networks of patronage and influence. At first, the most powerful families were the old feudal nobility like the Alberti and the Donati families. By the end of the 13th century, they were supplanted by a new commercial nobility of manufacturing and banking families, the Peruzzi, the Bardi, the Albizzi, the Pazzi, the Strozzi, the Ruccellai, etc. Loyalty to la famiglia came first, and loyalty to the city came second. Everything up to and including treason could be countenanced to advance the interests of the family.

The Florentine Palazzo reflected the institution of la famiglia.

The Palazzo Spini

The 13th century Palazzo Spini by the Ponte Santa Trinita is a huge fortified bulk, and an expanded version of the old feudal tower, asserting the prestige and power of this neighborhood family.

The Palazzo Davanzati, 14th century, the beautiful loggia on the top floor is a 16th century addition

Here is the 14th century Palazzo of the Davanzati family, now preserved as a museum. The second floor, the piano nobile, was the main floor containing the public rooms of the palazzo.

One of the public reception rooms on the piano nobile of the Palazzo Davanzati

Windows of the Piano Nobile of the Palazzo Davanzati

Here in these large chambers, the pater familias received visitors like a head of state receiving petitioners and ambassadors (later, the Medici would actually receive foreign ambassadors in their palazzo on the Via Larga).
The upper floors were the private living quarters of the family sometimes housing 3 or 4 generations under the same roof.

Bedroom on the upper floors of the Davanzati Palazzo with the original 14th century decorative fresco work.

The constitution of the Florentine Republic was a system of familiar and mutual mistrust. An executive committee of “priors” made most of the policy and legal decisions. Eligibility was usually confined to certain old and wealthy families and to membership in one of the 3 great guilds. There was the Council of Eight responsible for criminal justice, and a Capitano del Popolo who commanded the militias responsible for internal and external security. There were other consultative councils like the Council of Twelve made up of the 12 most eminent citizens officially playing an advisory role. The head of state was the Gonfaloniere who governed with the Priors.
Offices rotated quickly. Two months were usually the upper limit on office terms. Frequently, lots were drawn to choose electors and office holders. There was the deceptively democratic institution known as the Parlimento. The bell of the Palazzo Signoria summoned all who were eligible to vote and hold office to the Piazza Signoria. Officially, a herald or a magistrate read aloud a proposed constitutional change, and the assembled people voted on it by acclamation. As we might imagine, this procedure was notoriously vulnerable to manipulation and intimidation. The magistrate might mumble and read quickly through the proposed legislation while heavily armed soldiers (sometimes mercenaries hired by one faction or another) ringed the perimeter and posted on the rooftops with crossbows and longbows to make sure the assembled citizens voted as they were expected.
Throughout the history of the Florentine Republic, there was a constant struggle between those who wanted to expand the franchise and those who wanted to restrict it further. During most of its history, the Republic was an oligarchy ruled by the very wealthiest. The large majority of the city’s inhabitants remained disenfranchised and voiceless. And yet, in its turbulent history, Florence would produce some of the world’s first genuinely representative democratic institutions.

Florentine writers from Dante to Machiavelli complained about the factionalism of Florentine politics, how families, guilds, and other factions put their self-interest ahead of the common good of the Republic. Dante was a victim of this factionalism. When the Guelf Party split into “Black” and “White” factions, the “Blacks” won the power struggle and the “Whites” were proscribed. There was no such thing as a “loyal opposition” before the 18th century. Losers went to prison, to their deaths, underground, or into exile. The “Blacks” put Dante’s name on a list of those to be arrested and executed. He spent the rest of his life wandering from city to city as an impoverished exile. He was so disillusioned by the experience that he renounced his Guelf allegiances and became an enthusiastic Ghibelline. He was convinced that Florence’s salvation lay in a princely autocrat.
Machiavelli also suffered at the hands of Florence’s factional politics. He noted how political turmoil was always an occasion for settling private scores. He faulted Florence for having no system for indicting public officials for wrongdoing, unlike the Roman Republic. He observed that those wronged at the hands of corrupt and vindictive public officials had no recourse but to challenge the whole regime, even if that meant treason. Factionalism played a decisive role in the coup d’etat in 1512 that restored the Medici to power and caused Machiavelli to lose his position as Chancellor of the Republic and to end up in poverty and obscurity.

Florence was a medieval city with uniquely modern problems: a rapidly expanding population, expanding wealth, and rising expectations. These were responsible for the turmoil and unique creativity of Florentine politics and culture. Venice was a stable aristocratic state with a closed franchise. Other states like Perugia and Genoa were in a constant state of turmoil beset with battling claims of families and factions. Inhabitants in these cities had no real stake in these fights, but constantly checked the direction of the political winds for the sake of safety. Florence faced the very modern problem of meeting the rising expectations of prosperity and enfranchisement of its citizens. Florence argued and fought out the issue of oligarchy versus democracy for the first time since the collapse of the Roman Republic. They were keenly aware of this precedent, and of the unique nature of their city’s politics. They were even aware of the uniquely modern economic conditions of rapid economic expansion that created this situation. The Florentine Republic at its end in 1530 will be partly a medieval throwback, a city state in an age of rising nation states, and partly a bold look into the future, the politics of popular sovereignty and social contract.

In the 13th century, Florence’s neighbors watched its sudden and rapid growth with alarm. Florence would forge its identity as a state in the crucible of war and catastrophe. By the end of the 14th century, those very familiar words “Liberta!” and “Popolo!” (Liberty and People) would become the rallying cries of the Republic.

The Giglio di Firenze today on Florentine government stationery

A Florentine drain cover.

I'm Canceling That Trip to Phoenix

I don't want to spend time in a state where almost all my students would be required to show ID. Walking while brown without papers is not a crime or even immoral. Singling out people who are brown to show papers is immoral and should be a crime.


Digby points out that cops in Arizona will almost certainly be stopping and demanding papers from a lot of blond blue-eyed pale faces to avoid charges of racial profiling and to maintain the pretense of color-blindness in this law. That will hurt tourism and the convention business without any Latino boycott.
Floyd and Myrtle from Sheboygan will be parking the Winnebago in Taos from now on if they get stopped and ordered to prove their citizenship in Tuscon.

Anyone else remember the days when Lee Atwater and Ronald Reagan said that Latinos were Republicans?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day: Our Everything

Here it is, everything we know and everyone who we love, hate, or feel indifferent towards, all of it.

Our whole world is nothing more than a thin blue layer of gas and water clinging to a volatile ball of molten rock.

Here are the Earth and Moon viewed from Voyager. Outside that thin layer of blue gas and water is nothing, a black vacuum with radiation and the occasional rock floating around. And this goes on beyond our imagining. That little blue ball in the ocean of darkness is the only place we have to live.

To my mind, the greatest of all Western landscape artists, and the most thoughtful about our life within the landscape, was Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Here are his surviving 5 paintings of the seasons. Hannah Arendt's description of our life in the world as "metabolizing with the Earth" comes to mind when I look at these pictures.

The Harvesters


The Dark Day

Hunters in the Snow

Return of the Herd

Toujoursdan reminds us that we really have nothing to congratulate ourselves for this Earth Day. For all of our consciousness-raising, we've done nothing to really change our habits of consumption and expansion. I recently heard a science journalist talk about "climate engineering," how scientists are now seriously discussing it, but only because they do not expect anyone to do anything serious about carbon emissions until it's too late. Climate engineering is a last resort. The scientists do not see any real movement despite the rhetoric, and are very skeptical that anything will be done before a real catastrophe happens, such as a change in rain patterns that disrupts the monsoon cycle in southern Asia.

Perhaps we'd rather hug trees than save them.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Princes of the Church Over Us All

...at least in our air space flying first class.

Madpriest has a scoop about African Bishops flying to the Global South Bash in Singapore in first class seats paid for by American right-wing funders. He found this news on an African Anglican blogsite.

Albert Chama, who is now in Singapore, is accompanied by Bishops William Mchama of Eastern Zambia and Godfrey Tawonzi of Masvingo, Zimbabwe, also with travelling them is the Rev’d Christopher Mwawa of Malawi. The cost of first class flights and accommodation for the four of them amounts to the value of approximately a whole year’s pay for all the currently unpaid priests in Zimbabwe and Lake Malawi! Pictures of the bishops in all their glory fronting the magnificent St Andrew’s Cathedral in Singapore are available on our blogsites.

It is not clear where the monies have come from to support this venture but they are assumed to be from conservative and schismatic North American Anglicans? These are currently pursuing a fissiparous agenda in their battle against the American Episcopal Church and a disruptive and schismatic programme in the Anglican Communion.

Neither is it clear where Albert Chama’s authority to attend on behalf of the Central African Province has come from? By agreeing to attend the Conference in Singapore Albert Chama has allowed the Province to be counted as supportive of the schismatic movement. This has happened with neither Provincial synodical approval nor support from the other bishops.

Understandably, voices of dismay and anger are now being raised against the acting Dean for the profligate waste of money that could have been so much better spent.

Ironically, the new letter from the Diocesan Secretary of Lake Malawi once again asks donors for desperately needed money for the Diocese and gives banking details for transfers. Thanks to acting Dean Chama’s unwise junketing trip in South East Asia support and donations, which come largely from the U.K. and the U.S.A. and from the very churches which the Global South Conference has been called to condemn, are likely to be in short supply.

The hard-working clergy of Zimbabwe and Lake Malawi will need to go on scratching a living from their smallholdings in order to survive.

I suppose we should be grateful that the princes of the Church are not taxing the peasants mercilessly. However it seems that the peasants are very unhappy with their prince.

As far as I'm concerned, this is the whole Anglican schism in a nutshell, a princely coup. It is a bishop-driven war on an increasingly independent and assertive laity. Hostility to gays and women is a pretext, a flag for the threatened bishop boys' club to rally around. The Episcopal Church with its 200 year old democratic polity represents the biggest threat. It attracts global anti-American resentment making it an easy target. So now these princes of the Church are traveling in style (funded by wealthy right wing Americans determined to destroy the Episcopal Church) to Singapore to consider how to expel the North Americans for being themselves.

Frankly I don't think the rest of the Anglican Communion will bite. I think expelling the Episcopal Church and the Canadians would be more trouble than it's worth causing splits in other churches (like the Church of England perhaps). Much as some churches may resent American money from the Episcopal Church, they relish even less being tied to the strings that come from the right wing oligarchy funding ACNA and its international efforts. A large part of the Episcopal money comes from collection plates. The larger part of ACNA's money comes from a handful of checkbooks.

And of course there's not one penny for the defense of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimalanga in Malawi as they face long prison sentences for daring to marry.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Disengaging the Right

Digby over at her blog has a lengthy and interesting commentary on an article by Julian Sanchez, a conservative intellectual who criticizes the right wing takeover of conservatism and its media echo chamber. Sanchez argues that this "hermetically sealed" discourse makes the conservative movement intellectually weak and very vulnerable.
Digby points out that the experience of being proved wrong at best has only slowed down the right wing momentum, but certainly hasn't stopped it. She argues, and I think rightly, that clearly reasoned and articulated ideas have precious little to do with the far right, that they really don't have any new ideas, or any ideas at all. I tend to agree. The power of the right wing movement has nothing to do with ideas. It's about deeply irrational passionate atavistic feelings. It appeals not to reason but to tribal passions, "I want my America back!" As writers from Thucydides to Machiavelli to Hannah Arendt have all pointed out, those are what really drive history and politics. The challenge to Enlightenment liberalism is how to harness those passions and direct them to constructive and benevolent ends. The French Revolution failed in that task. The American Revolution succeeded, but only partially.

I make a point of distinguishing between right wing and conservative. Conservatives, like liberals, are a product of the Enlightenment, though they may be reluctant to admit it. They are the spiritual descendants of Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson, and of the Classical Economists of the early 19th century. Remember that advocating for free and unfettered market capitalism was considered a "liberal" position not too long ago. Those who do so today sometimes call themselves "Neo-Liberals." Julian Sanchez, and the recently exiled David Frum, are conservatives in this sense. We can argue, and argue productively, with conservatives because we both share the Enlightenment heritage of reason and fact.

Right-wingers are passionate extremists driven by the power of myth and emotion. Like Digby, I think engaging them in rational argument is a waste of time. They only use those engagements as an opportunity to mock and bully. Engaging their notions in debate gives those notions a dignity that they don't deserve. It's like trying to argue with someone who is convinced that space aliens built Rockefeller Center (I'm sure there are a few out there). I think the best tactic for dealing with the right is mockery, and Jon Stewart is a brilliant master of calling their notions out and exposing them as foolish, hypocritical, and selfish. As another famous liberal-progressive who refused to dignify bullshit with argument once said, "against the assaults of laughter no wall can stand" (Mark Twain).

I think the big ongoing weakness of left-liberals is our reluctance, or inability, to recognize the power of myth and emotion in politics, especially in Anglo-American politics. Aside from beating back the right with mockery, liberals are most effective when we claim national symbols (and rightly so since we created a lot of them from the Pledge of Allegiance to "America the Beautiful"). We are always so shocked and surprised when confronted by frothing angry mobs in the grip of passion when we really shouldn't be. What we really should be doing is what George Washington said we should be doing, raising a standard, a flag, around which people may rally. The idea that all people have a share in their town, their state, and their nation, and that their community is not the private estate of any monarch, oligarchy, sect, or tribe, and that they are citizens and not subjects or chattel, is something to feel very passionate about.

Here is Digby's conclusion:

I'm quite certain about the high intellectual quality of liberalism and the notion of a democratic republic. I am extremely uncertain, to paraphrase Franklin, about whether or not we can keep it.

As long as we continue to engage modern conservatives and take their ideas seriously, we continue to provide them intellectual and political status they neither deserve nor should have. Again: you don't argue theology with a Bible thumper who tells you the world was literally created in 6 days. Not even William Jennings Bryan was so ignorant and stupid. You laugh at him. And you most certainly make sure he gets nowhere close to obtaining a seat on a local school board, let alone hold national power. And, as Howard Dean so intelligently understood, you challenge the rightwing and Republicans everywhere.

So what do you think?

UPDATE: Don't ever get in a pissing contest with Jon Stewart:

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Monday, April 19, 2010

Fifteen Years Ago Today

Oklahoma City, April 19, 1995

I worry that this could, and might, happen again.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Hans Kung Writes an Open Letter to the Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church

Raphael, "The Disputation of the Holy Eucharist," (the title is apocryphal, the original title was Theology), 1510

This open letter to all the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church was published in the Irish Times.
Here is its conclusion:

With the church in deep crisis, this is my appeal to you, venerable bishops: Put to use the episcopal authority that was reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council. In this urgent situation, the eyes of the world turn to you. Innumerable people have lost their trust in the Catholic Church. Only by openly and honestly reckoning with these problems and resolutely carrying out needed reforms can their trust be regained. With all due respect, I beg you to do your part – together with your fellow bishops as far as possible, but also alone if necessary – in apostolic “fearlessness” ( Acts 4:29, 31 ). Give your faithful signs of hope and encouragement and give our church a perspective for the future.

With warm greetings in the community of the Christian faith,

Yours, Hans Küng

Go to the link and read the entire letter.

Hat tip to Grandmere Mimi

Friday, April 16, 2010

Florence: Up From Anarchy


The modern world is a cold impersonal place. It is over rationalized with all kinds of institutions from governments to businesses to religions thoroughly bureaucratized. As a consequence, many different forms of Anarchism, are enjoying a new life with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the old Communist versus Capitalist conflict. They run the whole gamut from far-left Anarchism that wants to abolish the very idea of private property to far-right Anarchism, which argues for private property, for “sovereignty,” as the sole organizing principle for society. Both presume the absence of any kind of state. Their common enemy is “statism.” Neither side explains exactly what they mean by what the state is, who is the state, how the state got there, and where does society end and the state begin. I presume they mean things like laws and courts, legislatures, policy making bodies, civil services, and enforcement agencies like the police and military. In those things reside the wickedness of the modern world, a huge out-of-scale world filled with baffling complexity and numerous constraints upon individuals. The Anarchists have a point. The modern world is vast, governed by impersonal and seldom benevolent forces, a world where individuals are alienated from each other and from themselves.

Anarchism pervades our culture. In a world that is so out of scale, it is small wonder that people dream of some fate other than anonymous futility in a vast bureaucratic society. The desire for excitement, to “feel alive,” to be and do something memorable is so deep that the distinction between fame and infamy seems to have disappeared. People will do great good or great evil just to be famous and remembered. So much entertainment from movies to games is about warrior fantasies of one kind or another, violence as a breakout from the boredom and anonymity of an over-organized world.

Anarchism may be one of many “untried ideals” in our political thinking, and breakout lawlessness may pervade our dreams, but anarchy, the condition of complete statelessness and lawlessness, is a recorded historical experience. Florence experienced anarchy in the early Middle Ages, and experienced it for almost 4 centuries. Florence had no real government or body of law during this whole period. What did that experience really look like?

San Gimignano

feudal towers, San Gimignano

Few tourists dining in the restaurants of San Gimignano enjoying the wines and cuisine of Tuscany know the dark history behind the many towers that loom over the town. These early Medieval skyscrapers rose above streets that were far meaner than anything we have today. Every north Italian city once bristled with these towers, hundreds of them. Bologna still has a few left. You can find the stumps of these towers in every northern Italian city if you look for them. Florence is filled with the remains of these towers. They are everywhere if you know what to look for.

The Donati Tower, Florence

Remains of a feudal tower among the rooftops of Florence

Northern Italy was the only place in Western Europe where urban life survived the collapse of the Roman Empire. It was the most densely populated part of Europe at a time when large areas of Western Europe were becoming depopulated and reverting back to wilderness.

These towers were fortresses. They belonged to families that had their own private armies, and frequently waged war on each other. These military noble families made their fortunes through extortion, by shaking down merchants and shopkeepers, by blocking roads and charging tolls, through collecting protection money from the surrounding inhabitants. They constantly fought with each other over turf. When the fighting became fierce, these families and their soldiers would retreat into these towers and pull up the ladders for protection. Families kept their precious possessions in these towers, and used the towers to announce to the rest of the city who ruled in a particular neighborhood.

The other inhabitants of the city lived at the mercy of these feuding families. They lived in crowded tenements along very narrow winding alleys.

An old Medieval street in Florence

Volta dei Girolami, Florence, in a 19th century photograph

Whereas the noble families lived in towers of stone and had their own wells, everyone else lived in half-timber wattle and daub structures vulnerable to fire and flooding. For water, most of the inhabitants depended on the local river. The dark narrow streets were filthy, full of garbage, raw sewage, and animals, dangerous and crime-ridden. Disputes and criminal offenses were usually settled by vendetta, leading to generations-long pointless warfare between families and clans. Long before the first outbreak of the Plague, diseases such as typhus and cholera cut through these tenements like a scythe every summer. Due to the constant warfare between clans over turf, one day’s safe area would be another day’s no-man’s-land. To find anything similar today, we would have to travel to places like Somalia, southern Yemen, or the eastern Congo.

Cities like Florence were prey to the many foreign armies that fought over possession of Italy in those years. Cities suspected of disloyalty, or collusion with an enemy could face savage reprisals. Armies could, and did, burn down cities and put their inhabitants to the sword. The German leader Totila was comparatively merciful destroying the city walls of Florence and killing the local bishop and other leading citizens when he punished the city for its support of the Byzantine armies.

Totila destroys the walls of Florence

Cities tried to avoid such calamities through diplomacy, through a combination of bribes and flattery toward whatever prince had an army in the region. Citizens rarely agreed among themselves over who would speak for them, and there was always the risk of an alienated faction conspiring with a rival army and betraying the city. The task of negotiating usually fell by default onto the one surviving institution from the Roman Empire that had near universal legitimacy, the Church.

The local bishop usually took charge of the city government since he was the only one whose authority was recognized as legitimate by all the warring clans and families. Florence’s first bishop was a protégé of St. Ambrose, Saint Zenobius. The city had 2 martyr saints, neither of them native to the city. Saint Reparata and Saint Minias were Palestinian Christians who fled to Florence to try to escape the persecution under the Emperor Decius, and instead met their deaths. Saint Ambrose himself spent time in Florence, and founded the church of San Lorenzo. In Florence, as in most cities, the bishop was respected, revered, and largely ignored. He had to rely on those who already had power in order to even pretend to govern. The appointment of his successor was always a cause for conflict between the church and rival princes and nobles.

Giovanino del Biondo, Saint Zenobius, in the Cathedral of Florence

Anonymous 14th century Florentine Master, Saint Minias the Martyr

remains of the ancient church of Santa Reparata beneath the floor of the nave of the Florence Cathedral

In the 9th century, the Church decided to do something about this chaos. Pope Leo III proclaimed a German tribal chief to be Augustus, Emperor of Rome, and gave him the name of Carolus Magnus, or Charlemagne. Over the years, there emerged a dispute about who was supreme in this attempt to revive the Roman Empire, the Emperors who succeeded Charlemagne, or the Popes who gave them their crowns and declared them legitimate. That argument grew into the dominant political fight of the early Middle Ages. Those who aligned themselves with the Emperor were the Ghibellines. Those who sided with the Pope were the Guelphs.

The fight between Emperor and Pope came to a head north of the Appenines from Florence at Canossa. The castle at Canossa belonged to the widow of the Duke of Tuscany appointed by the German Emperor, Countess Mathilda. Her brother was Pope Gregory VII. The German Emperor Henry IV tried to appoint his court chaplain bishop of Milan without consent from the Pope. The Pope refused to recognize the appointment. Henry retaliated by calling for a church council to depose Pope Gregory. The Pope then excommunicated Henry and released all of his subjects and vassals from their vows of loyalty. It was at Canossa that Henry stood outside the castle gate begging for the Pope’s pardon.

Pope Gregory VII, Henry IV, and Countess Mathilda of Tuscany at Canossa


Florence remained steadfastly loyal to the Pope and the Countess during the whole ordeal, and for their loyalty, the Countess temporarily moved her official residence from Lucca to Florence.
Florence would remain firmly Guelph in its political loyalties, even after the issues that generated that party passed into history.

Andrea di Bonaiuto, detail from The Church Militant and Triumphant, from the "Spanish Chapel" (old chapter hall), Santa Maria Novella, Florence, c1350

This detail from a 14thc century fresco in Florence by Andrea di Bonaiuto beautifully proclaims the medieval political ideal that emerged out of the chaos of the early Middle Ages. Pope and Emperor together preside over the great task of government and state, the project of Christian salvation. Both are God’s appointed representatives on earth, responsible for the defense and welfare of Christ’s Flock. A vision of the as yet still incomplete Florence Cathedral represents the Church Militant on earth, and before it Pope and Emperor sit enthroned with their bishops and nobles assuming responsibility for the care and salvation of Christian souls.

The first great building in Florence since the end of the Roman Empire was the Church of San Miniato, begun by the Archbishop of Florence, Hildebrand, in the 11th century over the traditional burial site of Saint Minias the Martyr.

San Miniato al Monte, Florence

It is the earliest surviving example of the Florentine architectural tradition of using colored marble both inside and out. It is a magnificent example of the conservatism of Medieval Italian taste. It is very different from contemporary Romanesque churches in France and Germany with their spires, westworks, and soaring stone vaults. The Italians remained loyal to the early Christian basilican church prototypes still to be seen in Rome. The façade is very different from the complex sculptural facades of contemporary French or German church fronts.

San Miniato, facade

It is a flat planar façade of colored marble, the prototype for what will come later in Florence. On the inside of San Miniato, we see columns and capitals recycled from ancient Roman Florentia (not all of which fit together) supporting the nave arcades.

San Miniato, interior

San Miniato, interior arcades, note the mismatched columns and capitals

Those arcades hold up a timber ceiling in the tradition of early basilican churches. Vaulted ceilings seemed foreign to the Italians. In the apse is a 13th century mosaic showing Christ receiving Saint Minias in Heaven.

San Miniato, apse mosaic

It is in the Byzantine style. The Italians remained deeply loyal to Byzantine art and culture for centuries after the Byzantine armies left Italy. Italian cities like Pisa and Venice regularly employed Byzantine artists, and sent them on to places like Florence. As splendid as this church is, it is modest compared to the great cathedral churches rising at the same time in Pisa and Lucca. San Miniato rises on the slope of a hill overlooking Florence, proclaiming the end of the anarchy that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, and the return to something like civilized life.

San Miniato on the hilltop in the distance viewed from the city