Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The book for learning Chancery hand

The First Writing Book: Arrighi's OperinaThe First Writing Book: Arrighi's Operina by John Howard Benson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is well worth the effort required to locate and acquire a copy of this old book on writing in the Chancery hand. The author was a master carver and calligrapher who translated the first and still widely considered the finest manual of Chancery writing, the "Operina" of Arrighi. While Arrighi's manual is public domain and can be downloaded for free on the internet, Benson's book includes an introduction and translation entirely hand-lettered with copious notes on both the English and Italian versions that add advice on continuing practice. This, this is the one to get.

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Saturday, February 04, 2017

Down with Kings and Inherited Power

Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived. 1

Down with monarchy, argues Paine as he continues in Common Sense, for all humans are created equal and only afterward are divided up into rulers and subjects. He rejects monarchy and hereditary succession in particular.

Inherited power does nothing to ensure wisdom or goodness, and opens the door just as easily for the unprepared, the foolish, or the jackass to assume power.

In our plutocratic culture, many are persuaded to the idea that wealth is equivalent to merit, as when people affirmed that they voted for Donald Trump because they perceived him to be a successful businessman; whereas in fact, although Donald Trump has been involved in a number of business ventures, his wealth was inherited and given his business record, without inherited wealth we would not know who he was and he certainly would not have ascended to the presidency. In our time, inherited fortunes convey liberty, opportunity, and power to any fortunate jackass without regard to merit or virtue. Another way to "inherit" the nexus of wealth and power is to assume leadership in the apparatus of big business. Popular culture consistently portrays the wealthy as better connected and best fit for power, glamorizing the idea of a ruling class.

From among these [capitalists and managers], the few tens of thousands who sit on two or more boards form a pattern of interlocking directorships among the major banks and nonfinancial corporations. This network, together with the top-level political and cultural leaders aligned with it, can fairly be called the ruling class.

...The ruling class is bound together into a coherent social force by common networks and institutions that allow the ruling class to rule - to give strategic guidance to society. Thank tanks, elite university research and policy centers, exclusive social and political organizations, media and cultural institutions, all interact to create an environment in which debates lead to policy formulation and political processes that broadly reflect the corporate interests at the center of the network. 2

One way people improperly try to "claim" Thomas Paine for their ideological projects is to assume where he would stand on current affairs. I am wary of such misuse of him, but I can easily imagine things he might say about the character of power in our time, not to mention the expansion of executive branch powers, at a later stage of capitalist development, simply by applying his principles to present-day institutions.

For instance, he easily dismisses normative claims about "constitutional monarchy," the idea of a parliamentary legislature and monarch as the executive. Paine simply looks at history and asks whether Locke's promise was fulfilled, whether this led to rule of law rather than rule of the tyrant. The answer is not ambiguous.

I write this on the very day that a new, autocratically-minded president has been actively (and quite purposefully) working to de-legitimize any checks on executive power, from the press to the judiciary. The way has been paved by past presidents widening their authority, much in the way Paine saw constitutional monarchs gradually extending their power so as to circumvent checks and balances on them.

When the executive disciplines the republic instead of the other way around, we are bending the republic - and it will break.

1 From Common Sense, Thomas Paine, 1776.
2. From The Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret, Michael Zweig, 2012.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Paine on Society vs. State

Lately I have been digging into Thomas Paine's writing again. He is so often cited and so rarely read.

His most famous pamphlet, Common Sense, opens with his unique distinction between society and government:

Some writers have so confounded society with government as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.

Society in every state is a blessing, but government in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kinds are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows, that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others. 

This was a distinct proposal about the legitimacy of power. Many of the founding generation believed, as many seem to believe to this day, in a natural aristocracy, that people born into wealth and certain networks had best lead the country. Paine is having none of that. He sees a robust civil society consenting, out of prudence, to government for the security of all, since human virtue cannot be counted upon to serve all human needs. As he felt society was too large for direct democracy, and humankind not able to govern itself as yet, he concluded that representative democracy, a democratic republic, was the appropriate form of government as subordinated to the needs of a distinct civil society. His notion of society assumes relative equality of status and wealth, free of oppression: poverty, caused by privilege and wars waged by monarchs, unjust taxation, and so on were not only unjust but unnatural.

By contrast, what notions of civil society prevail today? To what extent do we embrace the idea of living a public life in which our happiness and liberty derive meaning in relation to the happiness and liberty of others? We seem, to the contrary, to be ever more privatized and clannish (sometimes people say "tribal," yet many tribes model society, so I am loath to use it as an antonym).

We are a plutocratic culture, viewing conspicuous wealth as a sign of success and worth. We believe, as many in the founding generation did, that the "well born" are better suited for leadership than those who toil; many of my countrymen would be comfortable with John Jay's old assertion that those who own the country ought to run it. Elections are competitively financed and require candidates who are wealthy and/or elicit large donations from wealthy individuals and corporations, and who seem uncannily to find that the best course for society aligns with the interests of capital and profit.

Over my lifetime, watching politics I have seen the abandonment of every republican principle in the pursuit of raw power, and an insistence by our chief executives - the last three in particular - that unchecked power is necessary for the safety of society.

As Paine proceeds to critique the British constitution for its mockery of checks and balances, I wonder if he could look at our system as it is in practice today and say that our system of checks and balances is less absurd - or that we even operate with meaningful, explicit consent of the governed.

We - speaking here of civil society, the commons, the governed - had better get clear on this. It may already be too late to reverse the courses we seem to be following towards catastrophe, both politically and ecologically. Amid talk of resisting the corporate coup that seems to have seized the levers of the republic, we need to sharpen our analysis, as Paine writes:

...Any prepossession in favor of a rotten constitution of government will disable us from discerning a good one.

He was referring to the British constitution and its flaws. Our own Constitution has flaws of its own, but more to the point we have allowed so many precedents that circumvent the rule of law, in the interest of an economic system that demands the negation of civil society to an extent the founding generation could not have foreseen, that injustice and the thirst for power have bent the very light by which we see. But it is our sacred responsibility - part of the natural order of things, Paine might agree - to discipline government, not the other way around.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Morning Coffee: Facebook Hygiene

Just having a bit of fun with my friends about Facebook "friend" requests.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Opinions Are Balloons: Social Media Manifesto for Conversation

A question I've heard asked more than once this week is, "How is Thanksgiving going to be? What if people bring up politics?" There seems to be a higher-than-usual degree of anxiety about this, although who knows. 
What I suggested to one person is that it is not so much what we talk about as how we talk about it. If politics is too painful or contentious, something else might be best, but I would actually recommend finding a topic where other views or opinions are present and practice the art of conversing and comparing differences. 
Coincidentally, I recently felt the need to make a statement about a culture of conversation for my Facebook page. Perhaps there is a thought here that might be of use:
Welcome to “my” page on Facebook. I put “my” in quotes because obviously none of this is mine: I don’t own this platform or how it is designed. As Facebook users, it is important to remember that we are not the customers - we are the product. Facebook is a business that caters to advertisers, who pay for the opportunity to advertise at us. 
Nonetheless, many of us find Facebook useful for staying in touch with friends and family; networking; sharing items of interest; or some combinations of these things. I use Facebook for all of these purposes. I use my page to post articles on a range of topics of interest to me, and that I think some people who see my Facebook page would also find of interest. Sometimes I state my opinions. Most of what I post is set to universal access, meaning anyone can see it. I don’t post secrets on the internet. If I don’t want it published, I don’t publish it. Some of my personal life comes through in funny stories about my kids or statements about my feelings on personal topics, but for the most part this is for people who like to read and write. 
It is also a place for people who like to converse, discuss, and even argue a little bit. And here is where I feel a need to state some ground rules. In doing so, I realize I am also proposing a bit of a manifesto for the art of conversation on social media. So be it. Feel free to share your thoughts and/or share this note if you think it is worthy. 
I grew up in a household where it was assumed that people can compare different points of view, disagree, and even question each other a little bit (not too much, but a little bit), in the spirit of conversation. This works really well when participants buy into it, and think of conversation as a way to build something no one could have experienced on their own, and a way to test ideas or propositions with people who can be trusted not to attack you personally. 
So please know that I am not trying to convert anyone to my point of view, anger anyone, or engage in combat. I may say that an argument is weak or foolish, but if you are a human being, you matter in my book. I exhibit human failings, misunderstand things, sometimes let my sarcastic thoughts grab the mike - but generally I try not to be a jerk. People are free to disagree with me, and I actually appreciate it when it is done in the spirit of discussion instead of trying to win me over to something, belittle me, or accuse me. What a gift it is when someone says, “I follow that. I arrived at a different conclusion. Here is where I am coming from.” There is nothing offensive or defensive about this, it’s just people comparing notes on what they’ve seen and how they think. We need more of this, I would suggest. 
In fact, that was once considered to be a function of conversation and written letters. (Yes, written letters - the original “text message” - and an art I still practice.) Social media is a tool that can be used for these purposes and that is one way I attempt to use it. When we lament social media’s impact on culture, we rarely point out that people are engaging in written arguments. Look at this, we’re writing! If half of this activity were in written letters, the USPS would be loaded. (And the arguments would probably be better.) However, a general lack of experience at this art is frequently evident.

The community of people who frequently read and comment on this page include people from various social classes, gender and racial identities, occupations, philosophical outlooks, and political orientations. You are all human beings I value, and I ask that people engaging here try to engage in a similar, humane spirit. Compare different opinions by all means. No attacking one another, please; no personal insults please; if you feel the spirit of this ground rule has been breached, state your case and let us give it due consideration. I will delete as needed; I am happy to say I rarely need to wield my zapper.
Occasionally, I am asked about my Buddhist practice, since I am unafraid to disclose my positions about some issues, and I state them with confidence. Is this incompatible with Zen practice? That’s a really good question and something I have taken time to reflect upon. I think this question reflects an assumption that argument must be contentious: a fight to assert ego rather than a way to communicate and explore. 
First of all, beware of cliches about Buddhists. People who practice Buddhism have a range of opinions and they can discuss them just like anybody else. I've met Buddhists with liberal opinions, conservative opinions, and socialist opinions. Some Buddhists are comfortable discussing personal opinions, some prefer not. Some go as far as to participate in activist politics, whereas some refrain even from voting. The content of a person's opinions has nothing to do with being a "good" Buddhist. Zen, in particular, is about paying radical attention to why you do the things you do. Why discuss opinions? How is it beneficial to the project of awakening with all sentient being(s)? Is it about puffing up yourself, or contributing something to a communal good, or what?
As my friend Jason, who is now a zen teacher himself, sometimes asks: do you use your opinions or do your opinions use you? 
One thing practice has helped me see is that my opinions are not part of my identity or my skin, that there is nothing to be defensive about if someone disagrees with you or questions you. Opinions cause suffering when we feel a need to defend them as if we were defending our body. Clinging to opinions is suffering. If you're not clinging to opinions and being defensive, you can play with your opinions, turn them upside down, go at them with an axe. 
Thinking clearly and well allows us to nurture principle and act on it courageously. That’s good for me and I hope good for you. Yes, social media easily lends itself to insulating ourselves into like-minded groups and living in a bubble; but it can also be used for engaging and exploring the world in ways I can’t with just my books. And if a defensive reaction does appear, aha! An opportunity to examine something! On a daily basis - I emphasize daily - I observe tiny defensive reactions in myself about the funniest things. Generally, they have to do with personal interactions rather than written arguments. 
If you ever have the opportunity to work with a zen master, defensiveness will be the big obstacle. Zen masters pop every one of our precious balloons; it's what they do. Clinging to the balloons is suffering. If you're not attached to the balloons you can play with them or not as you choose.
I'm not a zen master or playing that role, but I enjoy conversation and I use my space on Facebook for that activity. No one is required to participate. I don't ask that people agree with me. I like learning more about the person and perhaps the issue we are discussing.

On the other hand, a lot of people have defensive reactions about their opinions: “Don't bop my balloon!!” They will take disagreement personally. Their instinct is to fight, to use argument as a way to hit at the person instead of explore the topic. That's when it is time to step back. This would happen in my household growing up. Occasionally a conversation would become contentious; a friendly argument would not feel friendly anymore. That’s when it’s time to make tea, pour wine, switch to something else, step back. If you do not trust my intentions or my honesty, if you are not willing to read slowly and process before reacting, if you are interested in "winning" something, if you are making false statements about what I wrote, then we are not engaging in the same activity, and besides wasting our time it can damage our personal relationship. That would be sad and pointless.
So let’s review:
  • Opinions are balloons, and balloons are for bopping, flicking, deflating, and popping.
  • Opinions are not who we are but we can use them to express relationships, aspirations, and value.
  • Differences are not a threat to you and actually exist to help you explore who you think you are.
If these statements seem strange, it is because our culture is on a very different track. The logic of market relations and exchange value has contaminated the way we conceive of social relations. Our culture emphasizes individual achievement over collaboration and commonwealth; personal heroics over collective action; top-down authority over ground-level solidarity. Utility and profit dominate humanistic values. It is a condition that has paved our slide into an increasingly authoritarian society.
But I’m a guy who still writes letters by hand, reads, meditates, engages in art and politics, and I use this space as an extension of that project. Conversation is a key value here. If you are entertained by trolling and verbal combat, excellent - there are places for that elsewhere. 
Now that (I hope) we understand each other, I hope you will write me a note. Ask questions, comment, tell me a story. 
Oh, and if you want to give written letters a try, fire away and I promise to write back to you (this includes international letters): Algernon D’Ammassa, P.O. Box 84, Deming, NM 88031 USA.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Of Mike Pence's Evening at the Theatre - and Authoritarian Culture

Vice President elect Mike Pence scored tickets to see Hamilton on Broadway, and good for him. I hope he enjoyed the show.

As you may have heard, his presence was noticed and much of the audience booed him. It was enough of a distraction that the cast of the show decided to address it rather than ignore it, and they addressed the Vice President in-waiting with a respectfully worded, earnest, and humane statement about the concerns that led to the boos.

Before we proceed further with this case, here is a link to where the statement can be read and viewed. It is important to be aware of what they said, because a lot of the kibbitzing suggests to me that some people are formulating their conclusions without regard to what was said - just the fact that they had the audacity to speak to the Leader.

This was certainly the reaction of President-elect Donald Trump, who immediately demanded that the cast apologize to Pence for this, despite the fact that the performers actually stopped the booing and channeled the energy into more constructive words. For his part, Pence - who was never in physical danger - smiled and seemed unphased. He's been in this business for a while.

It has been interesting to see journalists (like Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times) and artists, including some who identify as liberals, falling into an authoritarian trap here. For instance, musician Steven Van Zandt typifies the line of argument in this article. Since Van Zandt enfolds the basic shape of the argument, I'm going to respond directly to him.

Van Zandt's case is basically logical, but as a theatre artist I take issue with his two central premises:

* Feeling comfortable and safe from real world issues is not part of the contract when you go to the theatre. This idea that theatre is an intellectual "safe space" is news to me and generations of actors, playwrights, directors, designers, and choreographers who came before me.

* Since Van Zandt is addressing the cast of Hamilton, I assume what he is describing as a "bullying tactic" is the curtain speech that was addressed to Pence - which, again, was respectful and humane and called for the audience to stop booing. What Steve calls "bullying" was actually a polite address to a person in a position of considerable power, and which we once were taught to believe is an inalienable right.

There have been suggestions that Pence should have been allowed to enjoy a private evening of entertainment. Oh no, sorry, no no. The theatre is not your living room at home: that's a private space. The theatre is a public space. And Presidents and Vice-Presidents don't get to go out in public and not be President or Vice-President. Out in the world, you are always "on." It is part of holding office.

We really must resist the conflation of a respectful, humane statement of concern addressed to a person of considerable power (the second highest office in the republic), at a time where there is well-founded public fear about the incoming government, as somehow being "bullying." The right to address our office holders in such terms is a self-evident right that supersedes deference to authority.

It is especially disquieting to observe an artist yield that distinction so readily. I suppose he thinks he is being fair and balanced; but he is actually being too deferential to authority, and this is a symptom of our creeping authoritarian culture: when bias towards authority, protecting them from criticism, begins to feel "neutral." 

If Mike Pence has the mettle to stand in legislatures and seek laws forcing women to organize funerals for aborted pregnancies and allowing shopkeepers to refuse service to gays, and defend Donald Trump's categorical threats against entire religious groups and nationalities, he can jolly well handle an articulate statement of concern proffered by an artist who is every ounce as much a citizen as Mike Pence.