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Confederacy “founded upon exactly the opposite idea”

I have learned April is Confederate history or heritage month. I didn’t grow up with any conflict over this part of the history of the Southern states. The culture and even language of the South was formed in part by our close association to  that “peculiar institution African slavery,” as Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens put it, but both can still be separated from our current lives. Also I was encouraged, though I don’t remember exactly how and when, to see the war between the states as a conflict over states’ rights.

The war was over states’ rights, but the fundamental right the Confederate states fought for was the right to build their economy on slavery. So any Confederate history month should look at the whole picture, not some lost cause of glamorized Southern noblemen whose Christian ideals made our country great.

In 2016, Jemar Tisby made a month of posts for April to spotlight some points of history that may be overlooked by those celebrating the Confederacy. One of them linked to Alexander Stephens’s speech in Savannah on March 21, 1861. I will quote from it a bit more than he did.

Stephens said Jefferson was right when he said the institution of slavery was the “rock upon which the old Union would split,” but he was wrong on how he viewed that rock. “The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with,” but believed it would pass away over time. To confront it directly was too costly, so our founding fathers hoped it would be washed away though the natural course of civilization over the next few decades.

Continue reading Confederacy “founded upon exactly the opposite idea”

April 9, 1940

Invasion Oslo
German troops march into Oslo, April 9, 1940

Today is a grim anniversary. It was on April 9, 1940, that Operation Weserübung (the Weser Exercise) was implemented by the German army against Norway and Denmark. There was resistance, some of it heroic, but it was no contest in the long run. For the rest of the war, Norway and Denmark would be occupied territory.

If you see the movie The King’s Choice, which I reviewed a few days back, you’ll get the gist of the story of how the government and the royal family fled Oslo and eventually went into exile. One element of the movie that hasn’t aroused much notice is the general fecklessness of the parliamentary leaders in response to the attack. There’s no surprise there; we don’t often look to politicians for valor and sacrifice. But there’s another element, not suggested in the film.

The parliamentary leaders weren’t entirely sure Hitler was the enemy.

The Norwegian government in the spring of 1940 was led by the Labor (Arbeider) Party. The Labor Party was by and large a wholly owned subsidiary of Josef Stalin’s Kremlin, which had been bankrolling it for years. Labor leaders in those days didn’t go to the loo without checking with their Russian handlers first.

During spring of 1940, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was in force, making Hitler and Stalin allies. So when the Germans marched in, the Labor leaders were inclined to greet them as friends. The only thing that prevented them from enthusiastically joining in the “Heil!” salutes was the Germans’ incredibly ham-handed conduct.

It wouldn’t be until June 1941 that Hitler would break the pact by launching Operation Barbarossa against Russian possessions. At that point Labor became solidly anti-Nazi, going carefully into denial about their earlier collaborationist sentiments. And so it remains, even unto this day.

The shadow of death

Had a strange phone conversation last night. It wasn’t as grim as that summary might suggest – it just had a sort of black humor quality.

One of my cousins died recently – much too young; sad story. Shortly after her death, I had a call from her brother, who wanted to talk, and I was happy to offer a shoulder. He was also concerned that he hadn’t been able to reach our last surviving mutual uncle. Uncle O_____ has had some health problems recently, and my cousin couldn’t find a number for him that worked. I promised I’d call him myself, since I’ve been in pretty regular communication with him, until recently.

I tried calling, and the numbers I had didn’t work.

After the funeral, my cousin called again, and I told him about my failure. My cousin suggested I go through Facebook (which he doesn’t use anymore), messaging O____’s grandchildren. I tried that and broke through. They said they’d pass the news on.

So last night O____ and his wife called me. Apologized for losing touch – they’ve been going through a difficult time of selling a house and relocating, on top of health issues.

Then we started catching up. There was a lot of catching up to do. Continue reading The shadow of death

The snows of April

Shoveling snow
Photo credit: Filip Mroz

If you’ve had your head oriented in the right direction today, you probably caught the sound of Midwesterners bewailing yesterday’s snow storm. These April storms, though hardly unprecedented, always seem (as T. S. Eliot noted) “cruel.” The vernal equinox passes. Easter has been celebrated. Now what’s left of the snow is supposed to decently fade away, like old soldiers. Instead we got a nice big container load of it, and the drive to work this morning was a white-knuckler (coming home was fine. The April sun was strong enough to clear the streets and dry them off too).

But I looked at it all, and I thought of my ancestors (you do that when you have no offspring, I guess). And I thought, “A spring like this might have meant starvation to those folks. By this time of year those old peasants had nearly eaten through their stored winter food. The dried cod was running low, the flatbread was moldy and mouse-nibbled, the barley porridge was getting to be more water than meal. If you couldn’t hunt something or catch some fish soon, the pickings would be lean. You might have to eat the seed grain, or slaughter one of the pigs you’d planned to breed.

So I really haven’t got any cause to complain. My food problem is eating too much of it. Continue reading The snows of April

The Westfjords of Iceland

From Atlas Obscura, a nice article, with several impressive photos, about a photographer’s trip to Iceland.

“The Westfjords suffer from extreme weather during the winter months, and after the global financial crash of 2008, many of the properties have been abandoned,” Emmett says. “These structures are often small and empty but amazingly atmospheric, full of the strange sense of other-worldliness you often find in derelict buildings, but that strange feeling is matched by the landscapes that surround them, so you get a double dose of magic. I was totally in my element.”

It doesn’t appear in the photos, but many buildings in Iceland are covered in corrugated steel. It holds up well against the constant high winds.

It’s pronounced “nee-norsk.”

Ivar Aasen
Ivar Aasen, creator of Nynorsk

From Literary Hub, via Dave Lull: An article on why Norway has two official languages.

Still, no one is talking about getting rid of Nynorsk entirely; and if you live in Western Norway, it’s the majority style. While the idea of teaching just one writing standard circulates in the media every few years, it’s always kicked back because it would probably be the nail in the coffin for Nynorsk. So students reluctantly continue sitting double exams every year, and the Norwegian Language Council requires 25 percent of all government documents to be in Nynorsk, although diversity compliance is poor. The idea of Samnorsk—a common Norwegian—is intriguing: that we could merge these two styles together and create something that represents everyone. It’s a nice notion, but at the rate that Nynorsk is dwindling from use, the problem may well solve itself soon enough.

The last time I visited family in Norway, my cousins gifted me with a book of Nynorsk word endings.

Commitment (in two senses)

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Photo by Mikhail Vasilyev

I’m still keyed up about my sudden admittance to the ragged outskirts of the movie industry. For all I know, this translation experiment will be a failure, culminating in shame and derisive laughter. And yet it seems to be going pretty well so far. Which leads me to ponder, after the manner of a script doctor, where this plot line in my life started.

It was a summer in the 1970s. I’d recently graduated from college, though I was still living in an upstairs apartment on campus. The woman I had fallen in love with, more than any other before or since, had recently left the country. I had a strong feeling that I’d never see her again (I was almost right), and that I would be forever sad and alone (I nailed that one). So what was I to do with the shards of my hardly-begun life?

I resolved to do two things. I would write a novel, and I would learn Norwegian.

My true motive for writing the novel was (I’m pretty sure) to Show Her. I would be a great and famous literary figure, and she would kick herself for missing out on a good thing every time she saw me guesting on the Carson Show.

That didn’t work out very well. The novel would be finished – eventually – and it would be published, about 20 years later. But to date it has failed to make me a beloved cultural icon.

My motive for learning Norwegian, I think, was that I had a vague idea that someday I’d travel to Norway, where I’d meet a wonderful woman who’d be impressed that I spoke her language and make me forget my sorrows.

That hasn’t worked out very well either.

But I stuck with the plan, by gum. And now the two of them together have snagged me an interesting job.

At this point, I suppose, I should close with a hackneyed meditation on the importance of perseverance.

But that’s only one possible lesson. Another is a similarly hackneyed bromide: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.”

Fortunately, insanity is no handicap in the film industry.

The Norwegian word for ‘translator’ is ‘oversetter’

From time to time on this blog, thanks to Phil’s patience and longsuffering, I review movies and TV shows. Sometimes they’re foreign productions, often Scandinavian ones. One of my most frequent complaints about foreign films is the poor quality of the English translations.

It appears I’ll now be in a position to do something about that problem.

Briefly stated, I responded a couple days ago to an inquiry in a Facebook group, asking for people with Norwegian translation skills and writing abilities. I figured I might as well take a shot, and today I have an agreement to work as a freelancer with Meteoritt (Meteorite), an Oslo-based company that does translation, closed captions, and subtitles for film and television productions.

They’ve got me working on a very interesting project right now – but I can’t tell you what it is. There’s a non-disclosure agreement, for reasons that make sense once you get involved. When the project is released, I’ll be able to tell you I worked on it.

Some of you may be asking (as I asked myself) “What will that mean for your novel-writing?”

Well, in the short run, it will make it difficult.

But in a few months, if things go as I expect, my day job situation is likely to change. At that time I’ll probably be in a position to spend more time on the novel.

Maybe all this won’t work out. Maybe I’ll find the company incompatible, or the work too challenging. But if it prospers, it could set me up for my old age in a very agreeable manner.

I’m very happy about this.

‘Lost Conquest” documentary

Here is a link to a recent documentary (a little over an hour) about Viking enthusiasm in Minnesota, concentrating on the Kensington Rune Stone. I am not in it; I was in the throes of graduate school when it was made. But several friends and acquaintances of mine are featured. I missed the Midwest Viking Festival this past summer, but hope to make it again this year. See it here.

“Bill” by Wodehouse

Were you aware that, aside from being the funniest writer in history, P. G. Wodehouse helped invent the American musical comedy?

He and another Englishman, Guy Bolton, came to America early in the 20th Century to write for Broadway. At that stage, the theaters were running translated, Americanized versions of Viennese operettas. And that’s what Wodehouse and Bolton did at first. Then they branched out and began to write original plays of their own.

For one of those (now forgotten) shows, Wodehouse wrote the lyrics to a song named “Bill.” The production failed, but years later Jerome Kern (one of their collaborators) and Oscar Hammerstein dusted it off and inserted it into their production of “Showboat.” Thus it became the only Wodehouse song that remains in the songbook today.

Here it is.

“Let bookworms gnaw his entrails…”

Are you troubled by “friends” who borrow your books and never return them? Or return them soiled and dog-eared? Atlas Obscura reports on a book that describes the drastic measures medieval librarians employed — placing curses on the heads of book thieves and mutilators.

“These curses were the only things that protected the books,” says Marc Drogin, author of Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses. “Luckily, it was in a time where people believed in them. If you ripped out a page, you were going to die in agony. You didn’t want to take the chance.”

Read it all here.

Christian Smith: Higher Ed is Full of BS

You’ve probably heard Christian Smith quoted in a sermon or lecture within the last decade, even if you don’t know who he is. He’s the one who gave us the label “moralistic therapeutic deism” as a descriptor of what is commonly taught in American churches. Earlier this month in a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Smith describes the state of American higher ed in words I don’t expect pastors will quote so freely. He lists 22 things that are worthless in our university system.

Calling out the BS is not about my personal experience, limits, or feelings. It is not even only about the unconscionable fact that countless millions of students are receiving compromised and sometimes worthless college educations, as sickening as that is. Ultimately, we must grasp the more dreadful reality that all of this BS in the academy is mortally corrosive of our larger culture and politics.

It’s tragic, he says, but his contemporaries have probably lost all understanding of that concept.

No, the idea of tragedy is incomprehensible in institutions drifting in a Bermuda Triangle marked by the external-funding addictions of the STEM fields, the obsequious scientism of the social sciences, and the intellectual fads, ideological doctrines, and science-envy that captivate and enervate the humanities.