saturday, noodling around

I don’t know what you did last weekend, but I drove 75 miles to the small former coal town of Humeston, Iowa. Why? Because there’s a tiny cafe. Almost every small town has some sort of tiny cafe or diner. But this one–the Grassroots Cafe–serves a grape salad that’s so good you want to lie on the floor and kick your feet in the air. And the bread pudding would make angels weep that it exists for mortals on the earthly plane.

The Grassroots Cafe

Humeston is a really small town. Population: 465 in 2020. It was the home of the Humeston and Shenandoah Railroad, which in 1881 ran 113 miles from Humeston to (guess where) Shenandoah, Iowa. In its glory days, the H&S RR ran 14 classic 4-4-0 steam locomotives, hauling mostly coal, grain, livestock and occasionally passengers to the slightly larger town of Shenandoah, where the railroad joined up with the Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska Railway system. (You may be wondering, “Greg, old sock, what is a 4-4-0 locomotive?” I wondered the same thing and I googled it. You can do the same thing. Don’t be lazy. And stop calling me ‘old sock’.)

This is Humeston.

By the late 1920s, the H&S RR was beginning to fade. The advent of the automobile (and, more importantly, the truck), combined with improved roads, the gradual decline of local coal, and the beginnings of the Great Depression, strangled the small railroad business. The railroad died slowly and in sections, but by the mid-1940s, during the Second World War, it was essentially gone. As the railroad died, so did the town’s population.

Humeston, near the cinder bike path.

Although the railroad is gone, the track left behind became Iowa’s first rails-to-trails bike path. Thirteen and a half miles, from Humeston to Chariton. Unfortunately, it’s also Iowa’s worst-maintained bike path. About half of it is gravel and cinder; the other half is…well, just grass. Sometimes overgrown grass. It’s doubly sad because it’s one of the few bike trails with covered bridges.

Humeston

On arrival in Humeston, I gave in to an impulse. Sometimes you just have to give in to your impulses. You know how it is. You’re on the road, you see a train, you pretty much have to say, “Train” out loud, even though anybody with you can see the damned train. Same with horses and cows (and, I don’t know, maybe sheep? Yeah, probably sheep). Even if you resist saying it aloud, there’s a part of you that’s thinking and wanting to say “Cow” when you see a cow. It just happens.

The photographic equivalent of saying “train” or “cow” is shooting your reflection in a window.

First photo in Humeston

Obviously, I gave in to that impulse. My first thought was that Humeston should be photographed in black-and-white (why yes, I DO have an app I use just for b&w photography–doesn’t everybody?). But the day became so sunny and bright (though still brutally cold) that I quickly abandoned that idea and shifted to my standard photo app.

Selfie with Humeston bench.

And my first photo was, yes, a reflection selfie. There’s no point to it; you just have to do it sometimes. Usually, you do it once and that’s enough; you won’t have to do it again for weeks or months. The impulse has been fulfilled and you can get on with your life. But there are occasions when the itch just doesn’t feel properly scratched until you’ve done it a few times.

Yes, three (3!) reflection selfies in Humeston.

So I wandered around on the streets of Humeston briefly (briefly because 1) it was savagely cold and 2) there isn’t enough of Humeston to wander around at length). It feels like a small town, to be sure, but it doesn’t feel like a small town in decline. Sure, some of the shops are empty, and some are a wee bit worse for wear, but everybody I met was cheerful and there was a sort of bright enthusiasm to the limited commerce. The aisles of the general store (yes, there’s a general store) were so exuberant that they were almost hallucinatory.

Tripping in Humeston.

As much as I love to visit small towns, I always find myself wondering what it would be like to grow up in one–and deciding it would be awful on so many levels that you’d need an abacus to count them. I have absolutely nothing to base that on, and the people I know who grew up in small towns generally have nice things to say about the experience. But damn.

On the way home from Humeston, we passed through the town of Lucas, Iowa, where we saw this charming little brick building. Of course, we decided to stop and look.

Lucas is so small it makes Humeston feel like a metropolis. Before it was a town, it was just a station on the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad line. The station was established in 1866. A decade later, the Whitebreast Coal and Mining Company sank a mine near the station. There was a rich deposit of coal, and by 1880, they’d opened a second coal mine and created a company town. If you’re not familiar with the concept of a company town, it’s basically a town in which practically everything–all the stores, the housing, the local services–are owned by a single company that’s also the sole (or at least the primary) employer. If you wanted to buy a shirt or a loaf of bread, if you wanted to have a boil lanced or a tooth extracted, you paid the money you earned from the company back to the company, before returning to the house you’ve rented from the company.

Lucas selfie with optional shop cats.

By 1890, there were 1300 people living and working for the Whitebreast Coal and Mining Company in Lucas. But here’s the thing about coal. Once you dig it up, it’s gone. A coal mine without coal is just a big fucking hole in the ground. The last productive coal mine in the Lucas area closed in 1923. By 1930, the population had dropped to about 500. In the 2020 census, the population was only 172.

Dr. Bell’s office.

There were three antique/craft stores in Lucas. None of them were open during our brief stop, nor was the John L. Lewis Mining Labor Museum (union organizer John Lewis apparently got his first job as a coal miner in Lucas). I doubt that Doc Bell is still in business, but his office is still standing. If you look, you can recognize the bones of the old company town that existed here a century ago.

That was my Saturday. A day spent not doing much of anything–just noodling around in small towns, thinking about stuff, shooting shop-window selfies. In other words, a day well spent.

anocracy

The CIA (yes, that CIA) sucks in massive amounts of data and information from a whole galaxy of sources. One of those sources, when it comes to assessing the stability of a nation, is the Center for Systemic Peace. You’re probably asking, “Greg, old sock, just what the hell is this Center for Systemic Peace…and is that really it’s actual, no-shit name?”

Yes, that really is its name. The CSP was founded in 1997 to conduct “research and quantitative analysis in many issue areas related to the fundamental problems of violence in both human relations and societal-systemic development processes.” Basically, they evaluate a nation’s stability by looking at stuff–like the spectrum of social conflict, the methods of governance, and the various responses of the population. The CSP does this for just about every nation state that has a population of over half a million. Also, stop calling me ‘old sock’.

One of the CSP’s metrics for national stability is what they call a ‘polity score’. It measures ‘regime authority’ on a 21-pont scale with a zero point at the center: -10 being an hereditary monarchy, +10 is a consolidated democracy. They tend clump nations into three groups: 1) autocracies (-10 to -6), anocracies (-5 to +5), and democracies (+6 to +10).

Now I suspect you’re asking, “Greg, old sock, what the fuck is an anocracy?” Good question. At the high end (+5) an anocracy is a form of government that’s democratic but has autocratic features; at the low end (-5) it’s an autocratic government with some democratic features.

Why am I telling you all this? Two reasons. First, the CIA uses the CSP as a tool for understanding how fucked up nations are. They have their own reasons for doing this, of course, some of which are almost certainly nefarious, but the CSP metrics are universally seen as pretty damned reliable. The second reason I’m telling you this is because the US, for most or our history, has been either a +9 or a +10. For a long time, the US was the world’s longest continuing democracy.

This is insurgency

Now we’re not. According to the CSP, under the Comrade Trump administration the polity score of the US dropped to a +5, which drags us right out of the democracy zone and dumps us in with the anocracies. How’d that happen? You can find the CSP’s abbreviated political history of the US here.

It’s sad that the US is now just a high-functioning, democracy-leaning anocracy. What makes it all very much worse, though, is that anocracies are much more susceptible to insurgencies, and nations that with active insurgencies are more likely to slide into an actual civil war. And we’re seeing overt signs of a growing insurgency movement in the US.

Depending on which poll you look at, somewhere between 17-38% of folks who identify strongly as Republicans believe the use of violence to ‘restore America’ is acceptable or necessary. Every state in the Union has at least one civilian armed militia movement. Some militia groups are national–the Oathkeepers, the III Percenters, the Proud Boys, etc. Members (and supporters) of militia groups have engaged in anti-government ranging from the insurrection on 1/6/20, to a plot to kidnap the Democratic governor of Michigan and put her on ‘trial’, to threatening the lives of local election or school board official. These aren’t just crimes; they’re insurgent actions.

The III Percenters are insurgents

Again, the US is still at the high end of anocracies. We can claw our way back into the realm of full democracies. But there’s no guarantee we will. At this point, the Republican Party is effectively acting as the political wing of an inchoate collective of insurgent groups, all of whom want to install some form of right-wing authoritarian government. Since Senators Sinema and Manchin have given the GOP the power they need to suppress voting, the odds of the US sinking lower on the polity scale have increased.

The Oathkeepers are insurgents

It’s hard for me to even say this–mainly because this should be unthinkable–but we may be witnessing a cascade of events that will be the end of representative democracy in the United States. And because it should be unthinkable, most of the people in the US aren’t thinking about it at all. Most of us are just assuming everything will go on just about as it always has. And maybe it will. But I’m not confident about it. I keep thinking of the closing stanza of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men.

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

ADDENDUM (1/28): It appears that Uncle Joe’s move to the Oval Office has allowed the US to claw its way up from a 5 on the Polity Scale to an 8. We are now a middling, shaky democracy. Yay?

new year bullshit

Okay, look, this whole New Year bidness? It’s bullshit. I mean, sure, we live in a culture that requires us to establish metrics for Time. But basically, I’m with Thomas Mann on this: Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunderstorm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. The objective differences between December 31, 2021 and January 1, 2022 are trifling.

Even if we agree that there are valid reasons to demarcate one year from another, the only reason January 1–a date right in the middle of the fucking winter–is considered the first day of a new year is because Julius Caesar yanked the old 10 month Roman calendar and imposed a new, improved 12 month one. He added a couple of months, clever boy, one of which was January–named for Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings and endings, the god of gates and doorways, the god of transitions. Caesar made the imperial decision that the first day of the new month would be the first day of the new Roman year. I’m not saying he deserved to be stabbed to death for that, but c’mon, what an arrogant prick.

Generally, folks living in the Roman Empire at that time (which was seriously huge, by the way) felt a new year began at some point around the Vernal Equinox. Which totally makes sense. It’s around the end of March, winter is over, the land begins to come alive again, leaves grow on trees, plants bloom, days are longer, everything is new. So when Caesar imposed this new calendar on the empire, common folks mostly ignored it. They continued to celebrate a seasonal new year rather than a calendar-based one.

Then three hundred years or so later, Christianity came along and sort of fucked things up. When the Roman emperor Constantine decided that Christianity was the Official Religion of Rome (which is a whole nother story), all his generals and high ranking officials had to become Christian if they wanted to advance their careers. That meant supporting the nascent Church, and supporting the Church meant adapting pagan holy days to Christian holy days AND marking them on the Roman calendar.

Still, hardly anybody celebrated January 1 as New Year’s Day. It was celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. You may be asking yourself how Romans decided that Jesus was circumcised on January 1, which is a reasonable thing to ask yourself. What happened was a Roman historian named Sextus Julius Africanus, after some serious consideration, decided Jesus was probably conceived around the Vernal Equinox. That’s why Christmas is mostly celebrated on December 25, nine months later. And according to Jewish law and tradition, eight days after a boy is born his parents hold a bris. What’s a bris? It’s a ceremony in which a mohel comes to the family’s home, snips the foreskin off the boy’s penis, then everybody has a nice meal. Eight days after December 25 is January 1.

Now, there’s a whole weird, uncomfortable history dealing with early Christianity and circumcision which isn’t worth going into (so much of history has been shaped by the relationship men have with their dicks). There’s a whole sub-genre of art devoted to Jesus getting snipped. The important thing, though, is that over time the Christian discomfort over the celebration of Jesus being separated from his Holy Foreskin morphed the event into a celebration of the New Year.

This is why folks are putting on pointy party hats and blowing horns and getting high school drunk tonight. Because Yahweh decided Abraham should be circumcised and Julius Caesar wanted a better calendar and a Roman historian made a wild guess about when Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit and Constantine decided to become a Christian and early Christians became awkward and uncertain about circumcision so instead of celebrating a bit of foreskin-snipping they fell back onto celebrating Caesar’s arbitrary decision to start a new year in the middle of the fucking winter.

It’s all bullshit. The sun rises, the sun sets, the earth orbits the Sun, tilts on its axis, we have seasons. And basically, that’s it. Some folks just need an excuse for a party.

sunday — this beautiful world

Sunday morning, early October, chilly but sunny, not a cloud in the sky, very little wind. Who wouldn’t want to go for a bike ride? Now, I know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking, “Greg, old sock, you always want to go for a bike ride.” First, stop calling me ‘old sock’. Second, well, yeah.

My brother-in-law, who’ll I’ll call “Jeff” (on account of that’s his name) and I started our ride in a little Iowa town called Mingo. I am NOT making that up. It’s an old coal-mining town, named after the Mingo tribe of the Iroquois nation. The Mingos, by the way, didn’t call themselves Mingos; that’s what the neighboring Algonquin tribes called them. It’s a corruption of the Algonquin term mingwe, which apparently means ‘sneaky’. But they weren’t sneaky enough to escape the notice of ‘progress’. As part of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, any remaining Mingos in Iowa were required to shift themselves to Kansas. Why? As President Andrew Jackson said at the time,

“What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms?”

Andrew Jackson was more fucking savage than the Mingos, and a LOT of us would prefer a country covered with forests. Anyway, Mingo now is a sneaky little town of about 300 white people and a small biker tavern (as opposed to a cyclist pub). We did NOT have a beer at the Greencastle Tavern because 10:30 in the morning is too early to drink. And besides, the tavern wasn’t open yet.

Just outside of Mingo.

This bike trail is called the Chichaqua Valley Trail. You might assume that’s because it runs through the Chichaqua Valley. Silly rabbit. There is no Chichaqua Valley. There is, however, a 25-mile-long series of oxbows and bottomlands called the Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt. The oxbows are the isolated remains of the South Skunk River, which coal companies ‘straightened’ in order to facilitate barges transporting coal from mining towns like Mingo. More ‘progress’.

That straight line is the current channel of the South Skunk River

The Skunk River got its name a couple hundred years before the Mingo arrived in this part of the country. The French voyageurs, exploring and trapping beaver, asked the local Meskwaki tribe what the river was called. They were told the river was Chichaqua. The natives were referring the smell of the wild onions and cabbage that grew along the riverbanks. They’d also used that term to describe skunks. So we can thank the confused French for the Skunk River.

Like so many Iowa bicycle trails, the Chichaqua Trail follows an old railroad line. This was the Wisconsin, Iowa & Nebraska Railroad, originally built in 1885 to haul coal and livestock throughout the Midwest. You can actually gauge your progress along the trail by watching for old railroad mile markers that show the distance to Kansas City. Unlike most rails-to-trails bike paths, which tend to be incredibly straight and incredibly dull, this trail is full of curves and turns. One bicycle trail guide describes it as ‘serpentine,’ which may be a tad too elegant, but isn’t entirely wrong.

One of the many bridges.

It runs mostly through farmland and woods. It’s a quiet trail. Even on a perfect autumn Sunday afternoon, we saw very few other cyclists. For the most part, all you hear is the wind and the sound of your tires on pavement or rattling over the many wooden bridges. There are a LOT of bridges–some small, some extensive. The trail crosses over creeks, drainage ditches, oxbows, and the South Skunk River. I don’t know how many bridges there are; I forgot to keep count after the first nine.

Another bridge.

We tend to think of bike trails on old railroad lines as being flat–and they generally are. When there are hills, early railroad builders tended to rely on long slow inclines. Really long inclines. There’s a section of the trail that winds uphill for just about four miles. And I mean it winds. You can only see a few hundred feet in front of you, so you have no grasp of just how close–or how far away–you are from the top. It’s not steep, but it’s fucking endless. You start to believe…to hope…that you’ll be able to see the top around the next bend in the trail, And each bend in the trail crushes that hope. You won’t see any photos of that hill, because there was no way I was going to stop.

Bridge over the South Skunk River

After about 15 miles, we reached the town of Bondurant, named for the first white person who settled there (Alexander C. Bondurant–I don’t know if he did anything worthy or important other than being white and deciding he’d gone far enough west and decided to just stop traveling). Eventually the Chicago Great Western Railway Company built a depot there–which has been reproduced as a rest area for cyclists. It’s very nice. Bathrooms, picnic tables, repair station, drinking water. All very pleasant, but Jeff and I made straight for Reclaimed Rails–a bike brew pub just off the trail.

One of the best things about cycling in Iowa is the advent of the bike brew pub. Beer and bikes are a natural pairing. The sugars and salts in beer help you absorb fluids more efficiently than water alone; you’d have to drink a lot more water to get the same hydration effects of beer. No, I’m serious. THIS IS SCIENCE, people. Beer also has almost as many antioxidants as red wine, and that helps your leg muscles recover. And hey, it’s cold and it tastes good.

Along the Gay Lea Wilson Trail, a man fishing.

After hydrating and dosing ourselves with antioxidants (mine was a nice malty Märzen), we set off again. After a few miles, we turned off onto the Gay Lea Wilson Trail, named for the advocate who came up with the idea of a series of bike paths and trails through central Iowa. Unlike the rails-to-trails bike paths, which were based on direct routes for transporting goods, the Gay Lea Wilson trail weaves in and out of semi-rural areas and suburbs. It’s designed to transport people, making it easy for folks (and families) to access the trail and travel by bike to places they want to visit. Places like libraries and parks and picnic areas and playgrounds and…well, brew pubs.

Another 15 miles or so took us to our final stop: Brightside Aleworks, a fairly new craft brew pub that has a relaxed vibe closer to a coffee shop than a beer joint. We’d ridden about 33 miles altogether. Aside from the brutal four mile uphill stretch, it was a nice way to spend a day. It was fun. And the beer was cold and welcome (I had a biscuity, slightly sweet Irish red).

That’s the thing about cycling. It’s fun. Sure, it’s good for you. Fresh air, healthy exercise, all that. But mostly it’s fun. That’s why I ride. Bugger exercise; I ride because it makes me happy. Because it’s one of the best ways to see the world you live in. You get to meander along at whatever pace you want (well, fucking hills excepted) and be a part of the landscape, rather than just passing through it in a car.

Dr. K.K. Doty (who doesn’t seem to exist on the internet other than as the author of this quote) wrote: Cyclists see considerably more of this beautiful world than any other class of citizens. A good bicycle, well applied, will cure most ills this flesh is heir to. Most ills. Not all ills. But most. It’s a bicycle, not a miracle machine.

Well, maybe a miracle machine. Small miracles in a big world. It’s enough.

yeah, it did

You know what’s annoying? You probably do, but I’m going to tell you anyway (which is undoubtedly annoying). What’s annoying is folks who ought to know better–and maybe actually do know better–repeating the same stupid shit. They continue to claim to be absolutely shocked at the completely predictable outcome of the US/NATO adventure in Afghanistan.

“It didn’t have to be this way,” they say. And yeah, they have a point–but it’s a very narrow one. The moment the Bush administration decided to step beyond its simple, achievable objective of eliminating the influence and capabilities of the al Qaeda network, they created an inevitable monkeyfuck situation.

It didn’t have to be this way. Yeah, it did–as soon as we decided to ignore 1700 years of history, it had to be this way. When we decided to engage in a conflict against multiple ethnic and tribal cultures we don’t understand, that operate on traditional rules and norms unknown to us, that have values and ethics that are often alien to us, and that have goals that are foreign to us, it had to be this way. We didn’t understand Afghan Rules, and we were too lazy/arrogant to bother to learn about them. I said this back in April, when President Uncle Joe announced the withdrawal date: Forget it Joe, it’s Afghanistan.

It didn’t have to be this way. Yeah, it did–when we implemented a style of combat that was heavily dependent on sophisticated technology and massive firepower in an environment that’s hostile to any machinery more complex than a Toyota pickup and has a mountainous terrain that moderates the effectiveness of firepower. Military tech is great, but that shit is expensive and it breaks. We made it all worse by training the Afghan army to fight an American-style high tech war, then failed to train them to maintain the tech required to support it.

This terrain is fucking nightmare for an invader.

It didn’t have to be this way. Yeah, it really did–when we decided to impose a Western style centralized democracy on a diverse group of tribes and clans that have zero experience with democracy. In fact, many/most of them reject the notion that they all belong to a single nation. They don’t think of themselves primarily as Afghans. The Tajiks speak Farsi and generally identify as Tajiks, not as Afghans; the Balochs speak Balochi and identify by any of dozens of local tribal or clan affiliations, not as Afghans. The same is true of the Uzbeks and the Hazara and the Kyrgyz and all of the other tribal groups. (See the Editorial Note at the end.)

Various ethnic/tribal/clan groups that make up Afghanistan

It didn’t have to be this way. Yeah, it did–when we brought an American football mindset to fight against a fútbol mindset. In football, orders are given by a coach who isn’t on the field of play. Those orders are sent to a single player who relays the commands to the others and controls the ball. The other players each have a specialized skill set and very specific roles to play; they wear complex specialized gear and follow their orders. Most of the players never touch the ball, only a very few can achieve the goal. After each play, the action stops, the team regroups and waits for the next set of orders. In fútbol, the play never stops, the players don’t depend on gear to protect them, the players learn to recognize situations and adapt their play to the immediate situation, they shift roles easily and often as the situation changes, no single player controls the ball, at any given moment any player can assume temporary control, and they’re all capable of scoring. Football is about a rigid centralized command structure, and following strict orders. Fútbol is about decentralized flexibility and quick idiosyncratic responsiveness to changing situations.

It didn’t have to be this way? Yeah, considering all the bad choices we made, it did. It was a monkeyfuck almost from the start.

EDITORIAL NOTE: I’m too lazy to count and categorize the various ethnic and tribal groups that comprise what we like to call Afghanistan, but the CIA collected a list in 2005. Many of these groups speak their own language, have their own unique identity, have their own cultural norms, have their own conflicts/feuds/vendettas with other groups. There is no United States of Afghanistan; anybody who thought we could create one was an idiot.

it’s going to be awful

It’s going to be awful for women and girls. It’s going to be awful for almost everybody, but the return of a Taliban ‘government’ in Afghanistan is going to be particularly and singularly awful for women and girls. And it’s going to become awful for them really quick. We’ll see a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan before the end of the year.

It was probably inevitable, given that every foreign entity that’s tried to invade/rule Afghanistan has failed. It’s not because the Taliban are a superior military force; it’s because of 1700 years of Pashtunwalie warrior culture and tradition. They know they don’t have to win a war. They just have to keep fighting and eventually their foreign enemies will leave. Five years, ten years, twenty years–doesn’t matter. Ultimately, they’ll get tired and leave.

The problem for women and girls in Afghanistan is that the Pashtunwali culture–the norms and values that makes the men such dedicated warriors–is also deeply misogynistic. We’re talking about a pre-Islamic tribal code of conduct–a way of life that persisted even as Islam became the accepted religion. Regional tribal groups violently resisted any attempt to organize them into a nation. It wasn’t until the 1880s, when Abd al-Raḥmān Khān became the Emir, that Afghanistan had an actual centralized government. It was Abd al-Raḥmān who made Islam the national religion. But it’s important to understand that Islam is layered over Pashtunwali culture–and 1700 years of tradition, that shit’s hard to break.

We’re going to see a return of gender apartheid in Afghanistan (not that it’s ever completely left). Women and girls over eight years old will have their mobility severely restricted; they won’t be allowed in public unless accompanied by a man who is either their husband, a blood relative, or an in-law. In public they’ll be required to wear some form of full-body covering (“the face of a woman is a source of corruption”), and they’ll be required to be quiet or soft-spoken (“no stranger should hear a woman’s voice”). At home, windows at street level will be painted over or screened to prevent women from being visible from the street; women may even be banned from standing on second story balconies. Medical care for women will be sketchy at best; male doctors are generally prevented from treating women patients and women doctors are actively discouraged from practicing medicine. And, of course, women and girls will be discouraged–or actively forbidden–from receiving education. It’s going to be awful for women and girls in so many ways.

I should note that some women freely choose to cover themselves. We see it in Western cultures as well. There are valid reasons for that choice. The problem is never how women choose to dress; the problem is having a patriarchal society deciding how women are allowed to dress.

Let me say it again, because this is something that can’t be glossed over. When the Taliban takes over, it’s going to be completely fucking awful for women and girls in Afghanistan. We have to face that reality, as ugly as it is. But we also have to consider a response. How do you change 1700 years of tradition and culture?

This isn’t about Islam. All religions have conservative branches, and all conservative branches tend to impose restrictions women and girls. The more conservative, the more restrictive. Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism–it doesn’t matter. But if we (and by ‘we’ I mean specifically the US and generally all of Western society) want to improve the lives of women and girls in Afghanistan–and if we want that improvement to endure–I believe we have to work within the bounds of organized religion. Sadly, religious change is almost never quick.

First, we need to fund Islamic NGOs to help provide health care for women and girls who live under purdah. But if we want to see systemic improvement in the lives of women and girls in Afghanistan, we need to address issues within religion. I suggest we need to encourage moderate madrassas–to fund and encourage moderate imams to open Islamic schools in Afghanistan in order to teach a slightly less misogynistic form of Islam. As moderate forms of Islam take root, then more liberal, women-centric practices can gradually be introduced. I’m not a fan of incrementalism, but perhaps feminism-creep–a slow, steady expansion of the rights and freedoms of women and girls–is the most practical approach.

The Afghan Girls Robotic Team

I hate saying that. I fucking hate it. I hate it because it means writing off this generation of Afghan girls and women as lost. It means accepting that the lives of the next generation will likely be only somewhat less awful. But looking at the long, bloody history of that region, I can’t think of any other way to begin creating a better life for Afghan women.

I find myself thinking about the Afghan Girls Robotic Team. Seven teen-aged girls from Herat, they developed a solar-powered robot that could help farmers with seeding; in response to the pandemic, they built a prototype ventilator from parts of an old Toyota Corolla. And they did that during a war, under circumstances that were already restrictive to girls. Think what girls like this could do in a society that actively encouraged them. What’s going to happen to them when the Taliban take over?

It’s almost too awful to think about. Which is why we need to think about it.

john kenna and three spoilers

Yesterday the House of Representatives passed legislation to remove the statues of leaders and soldiers of the Confederate States of America from the National Statuary Hall Collection in the US Capitol. The vote was 285 to 120. The 120 members of Congress who voted to keep the statues of Confederates were all Republicans.

(SPOILER #1: The Confederate States of America was an illegal and unrecognized breakaway entity of eleven US states that, from February 8, 1861, to May 9, 1865, fought in a bloody, armed rebellion against the legitimate government of the United States of America in an effort to maintain an economic system grounded in human bondage.)

The statues include:

CSA President Jefferson Davis — owned 113 slaves; believed the right to own black slaves created the foundation for white equality (I’m not making that up).
CSA Vice President Alexander Stephens — owned at least 30 slaves; said the Confederacy was built upon “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
CSA Gen. Joseph Wheeler — owned as many as 300 slaves; in Dec. of 1864, when hundreds of liberated slaves followed Union Gen. Sherman’s forces on their ‘March to the Sea’, Wheeler’s troops came across app. 600 former slaves stranded by US forces on the banks of the Ebenezer Creek — they killed and drowned many, captured and resold the rest back into slavery.
CSA Gen. James Z. George — owned app. 30 slaves; believed African slaves should be treated ‘fairly’ but weren’t capable of ‘responsible citizenship’; changed Mississippi’s post-war constitution to enable illiterate white men to vote while excluding illiterate blacks.
CSA Gen. Wade Hampton III — owned app. 3000 slaves; post-war he was elected governor of South Carolina with help of the Red Shirts militia, which used violence to suppress black voting; an estimated 150 black freedmen were murdered during the campaign.
CSA Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith — owned an unknown number of slaves, one of whom (likely his half-brother) accompanied him as a servant during the Civil War (and later became Jacksonville, Florida’s first black doctor); Smith was the last CSA general to surrender.
CSA Col. Zebulon Baird Vance — owned 18 slaves; believed emancipation of black slaves was a threat to white purity; said the mind “recoils in disgust and loathing from the prospect of intermingling the quick blood of the European with the putrid stream of African barbarism.”
CSA soldier John E. Kenna — owned 0 slaves; joined the Confederate Army at age 16, after the war became a politician noted for improving the Kanawha River navigation system and defending the president’s power to fire executive branch officials.
CSA soldier Edward Douglass White — owned app. 60 slaves; after the war he took part in the Battle of Liberty Place–an attempted insurrection against the Reconstruction state government of Louisiana by the Crescent City White League, a paramilitary terrorist organization made up largely of Confederate veterans; they occupied the statehouse, armory, and downtown for three days before arrival of Federal troops that restored the elected government; he was eventually appointed to the SCOTUS, where he voted to uphold Jim Crow laws stripping black Americans of civil rights.

You may be wondering 1) why the National Statuary Hall even has statues of men who betrayed their nation in the defense of slavery, and 2) why anybody would support keeping the statues of traitors in the Capitol Building (especially after that building had been assaulted by an insurrectionist mob attempting to disrupt the legitimate election of a new president). The answer to both of those questions is as follows: a lot of Republican politicians are massive assholes and/or racists who are okay with folks overthrowing the legitimate government if it will put Republicans in charge.

(SPOILER #2: 121 Republicans in the House voted also against certifying Arizona’s electoral outcome and 138 House Republicans voted against certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral outcome even though both states certified their election results as legitimate.)

I’m glad the statues are being removed…but I’m also a tad troubled by the inclusion of John Kenna. The resolution pertains to statues of “any individual who served voluntarily at any time as a member of the Armed Forces of the Confederate States of America or of the military of a State while the State was in open rebellion against the United States.” And yeah, that’s John Kenna, right there.

John E. Kenna

Here’s why I’m troubled. Kenna was just a grunt. An enlisted soldier. But his statue is being treated as equally offensive as that of the president of the Confederacy and the military leaders of the CSA. Kenna was only 16 and had little education when he joined the CSA, he never held any high military rank, neither he nor any of his family owned slaves, there’s no written record of him promoting slavery or white supremacy before or after the war. But his statue is being given the same treatment as the statue of Jefferson Davis.

Did Kenna fight on the wrong side of the war? Absolutely. But he was just a kid. Did he fight against the legitimate government of the United States? Yep, he did. But he was just a kid. Did he fight in favor of an economic system that dehumanized black people? Yes, he surely did. But he was just a kid. Did he believe slavery was right? I don’t know…maybe. Probably, since he grew up with it and didn’t know any better because he was just a kid. My guess–and I admit I have nothing at all to base this on–is that Kenna had no more sense of what he was fighting for or against than the kids who fought in Vietnam. My guess is John Kenna went where he was told to go, shot who he was told to shoot at, and did what he thought was his duty.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it. You make choices, even as a kid. And you own those choices, even if you were acting out of ignorance. John Kenna volunteered to put on the uniform and fight for the Confederacy. So his statue has to go. Has to.

John E. Kenna

But we don’t have cheer for it. We can celebrate the removal of the leaders of the Confederacy, the men who knew what they were doing and why. But when we remove Kenna’s statue, we need to remember the reality that enlisted personnel are tools that our leaders use for their own purposes.

(SPOILER #3: Think about John Kenna when you hear that South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem has authorized a Republican billionaire to fund the deployment of her National Guard troops to the Mexican border at the request of Texas Republican Gov. Gregg Abbott.)

curiosity and ragnar the cheesemaker

I have a morning routine, which rarely changes (because, you know, it’s in the morning and I’ve just awakened and and any activity that requires actual thought is probably beyond my capabilities). Greet the cat, check the perimeter (with the cat), feed the cat, ingest some form of caffeine, pet the damned cat, read the news, read more news, continue to pet and feed the fucking cat, consider reading email, decide against reading email, check Twitter, check Facebook.

By the time I reach the ‘read more news’ point, I’m moderately awake, properly caffeinated, and curiosity has kicked in. That generally results in me doing some level of research about what I’m reading. For example, this morning I saw something about ‘cult’ television shows. Not shows about cults; shows with cult audiences. No, wait…that sounds like the audience members are in a cult. Like everybody in the Order of the Solar Temple gathers around the television in the afternoon to watch Jeopardy. I’m talking about television shows that are obscure or generally unpopular with mainstream audiences, but still attract a devoted fan base. Somebody mentioned a British show called The Strange World of Gurney Slade. Which sounded weird and interesting, so I did some research and learned…well, that it was weird and interesting.

My point, if you can call it that, is that at some point in the morning, my need to read the news gets hijacked by my need to know and understand random stuff. This morning it was a few minutes of Gurney Slade. Then, on Twitter, I came across this simple question: Did Vikings make cheese? And my morning was gloriously ruined.

First, the question itself is wonderfully weird. You have to wonder what sparked the question. I assume it wasn’t just an idle thought; something caused this person to wonder if Vikings made cheese. Maybe they wanted to know what foods Vikings packed for a long voyage, maybe they were curious about Vikings and lactose intolerance–I don’t know. But it was an interesting question. But my immediate response was delight at the notion of a Viking cheesemaker. Some hirsute guy who, instead of setting off with the crew to raid the coast of Britain, decided, “Naw, I’m going to hang here and make a cheese.” Ragnar the Cheesemaker.

That led me to wonder how the process of making cheese was discovered, which eventually led me to read a sentence that not only took up much of my morning, but will likely haunt me for the rest of my life.

Cheese may have been discovered accidentally by the practice of storing milk in containers made from the stomachs of animals.

Okay, if you’re anything like me, you immediately started asking critically important questions. Who the fuck thought it was a good idea to store milk in the stomach of an animal? Who first said, “Dude, we got all this milk and we got no place to store it. Fetch me the stomach of an animal, please.” Who thought it was a good idea to store anything at all in the stomach of a dead animal? Who conceived of animal stomachs as prehistoric Tupperware containers? Somebody, while gutting an animal, must have had the idea, “Hey, let’s hang on to this stomach…we can clean it out and store stuff in it!”? Where would you keep the empty animal stomachs you plan to use later to store milk? And who, having left that first batch of milk in an animal stomach long enough for it to curdle and separate into curds and whey, thought, “Fuck it, I’m eating it anyway.”?

Medieval cheesemakers

My research also brought me to an article entitled Make Butter Viking Style, but I had to stop reading almost immediately, because of this:

Step One: Bring the crème fraîche up to room temperature and whisk it as if making whipped cream.

I am not convinced this is how Vikings made butter. I could go on (and believe me, I did), but you get my point. This has been my morning. Cat, Miami condo collapse, infrastructure agreement, some GOP bullshit about the military, cult television shows, Vikings, cheesemaking, animal stomachs, butter production. Every morning is like this for me. I’m completely fucking worthless from about 0700 to maybe 1000 hours, because of stuff like this.

And the worst thing about this? I have absolutely no use at all for what I’ve learned this morning. The odds of Gurney Slade or the history of cheesemaking (or, lawdy, the evolution of storage containers) ever coming up in conversation are astronomical. But this stuff will rattle around in my head for hours (or days or decades) and possibly spill out at some wildly inappropriate moment.