Thursday, June 21, 2007

Danger? What danger?

So I was reading this blogpost from the Instapundit Glenn Reynolds's "lovely and talented co-host," his wife Helen Smith, and I supposed I'd better weigh in, since I bought the book in question last week. It's The Dangerous Book for Boys, and Dr. Helen's post did two things for me: first, it noted the upcoming publication of The Daring Book for Girls, a companion book of sorts; and second, it made me roll my eyes at the willingness of some folks to see sexism behind every door and under every throw rug. (Not Dr. Helen - Cathy Young, on whose post Dr. Helen was commenting.)

I have children of both genders, so I'm thrilled that the wonderful Dangerous book has a possible Daring commadre. Because I loved Dangerous. I haven't finished reading it yet - but man alive, just its table of contents sold me. Seven poems every boy should know! Spies - codes and ciphers! Making a paper hat, boat, and water bomb! First aid! Extraordinary stories - part one: Scott and the Antarctic! Coin tricks! Tanning a skin! Grinding an Italian nib! (Hang on, I want to check that one out right now.)

Okay, grinding an Italian nib is a little... arcane. And it's not the only thing contained herein that a whole lot of boys (and girls, and men and women) might not find all that interesting. (I myself found that particular bit very interesting indeed; I'm just not willing to try it with any of my good pens! I thought it'd be about actually making a quill pen, which I've always wanted to try. Not as if there's a dearth of goosefeathers around my house...) But the overall flavor of the book, both at the table-of-contents level and at the level of the actual articles and essays, is delicious. And dangerous in only one sense:

This book is about concepts, skills, even values, that are on the verge of passing into history, a place I don't believe they belong, because too many people disagree with me. I think I've written on heroism once or twice; today's heroes must be antiheroes, or minimally have Size 13 EEE feet of clay, or their stories aren't told. Scott's Antarctic expedition failed, it's true, both in its goal to be first to the Pole and for its members to return alive - but the attempt was great, and kids should know the story undistracted by petty details. There is plenty of time to learn whether Scott and Oates squabbled on the way south, or whether Shackleton was a dilletante, or whatever (I made up both of those irrelevancies); but the value of the story is in the determination of the men to overcome hardship, to win one of the original great races, to return triumphant, and failing that, at least to die well.

I think every kid should make invisible ink. I think every kid should be familiar with the biggies of Shakespeare. I think every kid should know what a mackeral sky means (that a warm front is coming - rain in a couple of days, if the clouds have enough moisture in them). I don't think calling a book The Dangerous Book for Boys is either sexist or a significant barrier to any girl; I think (boys and girls being what they are, society today being what it is) a book called The Daring Book for Girls is less likely to be seen in a boy's hands than the other way around, because, for instance, girls can wear skirts or pants, but a man in a kilt still attracts attention in today's United States, however unfairly. I'm looking forward to Daring, and I plan to photocopy good parts for my boys if need be.

Basically it comes down to this: I want my kids, all of them, to be brave, virtuous, resourceful, polite, and determined, among other things. If Dangerous and Daring help, even a little, to counteract the effects of The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, then they have a place in our library. (Like all the Harry Potter books, which celebrate the virtues I'm trying to teach.)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Remembrance of things past

Specifically, Bill Whittle of Eject! Eject! Eject!. I have yet to figure out exactly who or what he is; I know he's a pilot, I know he's a TV producer, I know he's an essayist. He takes forever (longer even than I do!) to come up with a post, but when he does, it's so persuasive and so full of insight (that paradoxically seems utterly self-evident) that somehow you come away from it thinking that he didn't tell you anything at all that you didn't already know, but you want to go out and tell other people to read what he wrote anyway.

I seldom write in the second person because I don't like to make assumptions about other people's reactions, and saying "You do this" and "You do that" sounds an awful lot like making those blanket assumptions. But there were 650 comments attached to the post I just finally got around to reading, and the reactions of as many of them as I could get through seem to bear up my own (the man's fans are as passionate as any Beatlemaniac).

The post: Tribes, from September 2005. Its hook is Katrina, but its theme is much larger: Whittle divides society into the Pinks and the Greys, and uses the old military analogy of sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs to good effect. Here we go:

On the subject of disasters man-made and natural, one more thing from INSIDE 9/11 [a TV documentary -ed.] rings a powerful bell with me. At the very end, as Osama makes his way out of Afghanistan and into hiding, he tells an Al Jazeera reporter his motivations for the 9/11 attack. In his own words, to the friendly folks back home, he explains that his goal was to hurt America so badly that we would have no choice but to go after him and start the world-wide jihad that would result in him becoming the new Caliph, ruling from his recently completed palace outside Kandahar. He had seen much of the Pink tribe in his formative years, seen weakness and retreat in places like Somalia. He thought he had our number, but he made the mistake of having perhaps the least Pink individual in modern history in the White House when he made his move. He made a worse mistake in flying his murdering deathbots into a town that looked Pink, that was painted Pink from head to toe, but whose foundation was rock-solid granite Grey.

If I had gotten my 2000 voting wish and Al Gore had been president that day, would he have been Grey enough to knock that entire regime over and carry the fight to the rest of the region? Or would he have issued Stern Warnings and Worked With Our Allies and gotten the UN to Issue a Major Ultimatum?

I don’t know.

But I do know, that there, in his own words, the wolf said why he did what he did: he wanted to provoke War with the US, and would do whatever was necessary to accomplish it. And if we had not given him this war, he would have kept striking until he got what he was looking for. Nothing about US foreign policy, no word about injustice for the Palestinians or Evil Corporations or any of that. No, he said he wanted to start a war with the US. And so he has it. And he would have done whatever he had to do to get it.

And they will strike again, and those silent, dogged sheepdogs who have succeeded so many times in the dark silent hours will miss a scent somewhere, and more people will die and that's what we can expect. Not dying of Influenza or Black Death, not being steamrollered under Nazi jackboots or watching Mongol hordes swarming towards us over the horizon as we run for the city walls. None of that. Only this.

And when they come, storms man-made and natural, what will the sheepdog/sheep ratio be? Enough?

Let me briefly review the sheep/wolves/sheepdogs thing, because while parts are obvious, others could stand a little illumination. One particularly noteworthy part is that sheep generally don't like sheepdogs. (See Babe for instance.) Yet sheepdogs, historically, were the only thing preventing the wolves from picking off the sheep at the edges of the herd. I think a lot about shepherding analogies, because I attend a church with actual sheep, and am of a sect that puts great stock in the whole Good Shepherd thing; it's easy for us moderns to read "shepherd" and think "Bo-Peep" rather than "unwashed, lanolin-stinking roughneck sleeping on the ground for months and killing predators with a stick." Those shepherds in the Christmas story? The ones abiding in the fields by night? First off, it means that Jesus's birth didn't happen in the winter because -

Well, have you seen Brokeback Mountain? Those shepherds were a lot like the shepherds of Jesus's place and time: hard-bitten guys who didn't shrink at either dark nights or sharp claws or snow in June. But they brought the herd back down at the end of summer, because even the worst sheep owner knows that winter in the uplands will kill his sheep. So the Jesus shepherds were living in the fields because it was summer.

Anyway. Shepherds aren't necessarily nice to sheep; they just protect them with their lives. (At my church, the amateur shepherds complain bitterly about the bleeping rams, whack them with the food bucket to keep them at a distance, and generally go about their shepherding duties because they do indeed want the sheep to live, even if sheep as individuals are not their favorite people, so to speak.) Sheepdogs - as Whittle's essay points out - look a lot like wolves, share a lot of heritage and instinct with wolves, and are even less beloved of sheep than shepherds. But they too live to protect the sheep.

Here's the important part: the sheep are able to live in denial of their haplessness in the presence of the danger that surrounds them (or used to, at any rate). They carry on, bleating and eating, heedless of the wolf, because there's a mean shepherd who makes them go where they don't want to and there are vicious dogs that nip at them and keep them in a bunch.

Whittle's point is that, as humans, we may be born with or without the capacity for violence, but it's possible for both the naturally non-violent and the naturally violent to be "good." Sheep, he says, are not weak, and they also greatly outnumber both their protectors and their enemies; they're just not able, on some level, to hurt or kill. The wolf is. The sheepdog is. But the sheepdog husbands his capacity for violence, saving it to use against the wolf.

How does all this get to the Pinks and the Greys, the Tribes of Whittle's theme? Pinks are sheep. All of them are sheep. But not all sheep are Pink. Because we're humans and not in fact sheep, we can choose whether and when we'll support the sheepdogs, even if we ourselves don't share their capacity for violence. (A sidenote that's maybe not so "side": a preponderance of Whittle's commenters either termed themselves sheepdogs, hoped that they were, or wished that they were. I'm in that camp too. I find that a little weird - predictable, but weird nonetheless.)

So the other day I heard the reprehensible Daniel Schorr holding forth on Putin's recent invitation to the Bush (Sr.) family getaway at Kennebunkport. Schorr actually said that Putin and his ilk would not view this unprecedented invitation as conciliatory and diplomatic but as weak, and cautioned (all right, scolded) Bush about it. Where, oh where, was this point of view where Iran was concerned? How about Kim Jong Il? Go back a little - Saddam Hussein himself? I don't listen to Schorr unless I happen to turn the radio station at an inopportune moment and haven't eaten recently (among sort of mainstream radio folk, only Garrison Keillor is as hard on my digestion), but I think I can say definitively that he was not advocating a tough-guy stance when Ahmadinejad was publicly praying for the coming of the twelfth imam by the expedient of wiping out Israel. Daniel Schorr: Pink sheep. George Bush: sheepdog, possibly forced into the role against his preference (I think that's the case, based on his general softness on just about every issue except Islamist terror) but nonetheless willing to accept great personal rancor and significant physical risk in order to protect Schorr from his own damn self.

Believe it or not, my posts aren't as long as Whittle's.