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January 1: Ecce Foreskin

[ 85 ] January 1, 2014 |

According to Christian tradition, January 1 marks the eighth day of Jesus’ life. Among other things, it is the day on which — following Jewish custom — the Son of Man would have been circumcised. And while the rest of his body would presumably have ascended to heaven on the third day after his gruesome execution, early followers believed it quite possible that he had neglected to retrieve his long-excised foreskin before taking a seat at his father’s right hand.

For medieval and early modern Christians, Jesus’ foreskin remained an object of peculiar veneration, with as many as eighteen different reliquary nubs of flesh competing for attention and honor. Charlemagne allegedly offered one to Pope Leo III as a gesture of gratitude for being crowned emperor in 800. Another, purchased from a vendor in Jerusalem at the end of the 11th century, was brought back to Antwerp as a souvenir from the first Crusade.

Nearly 300 years later, St. Catherine of Siena purported to wear the foreskin as a ring, while the 13th century Austrian mystic Agnes Blannbekin had an even more unusual relationship with the sacred relic. By Agnes’ own account, she tasted the carne vera sancta — the “true and holy meat” — numerous times during communion. As she revealed to an anonymous Franciscan scribe, she had long pondered the whereabouts of Christ’s foreskin until she experienced a revelation one year on the Feast of the Circumcision.

And behold, soon she felt with the greatest sweetness on her tongue a little piece of skin alike the skin in an egg, which she swallowed. After she had swallowed it, she again felt the little skin on her tongue with sweetness as before, and again she swallowed it. And this happened to her about a hundred times . . . . And so great was the sweetness of tasting that little skin that she felt in all limbs and parts of the limbs a sweet transformation. 

Similarly graphic, often erotic accounts helped assure that Agnes’ Life and Revelations would remain unpublished until the 20th century.

Like most Catholic relics, the Holy Prepuce was believed to possess extraordinary powers, including (not surprisingly) the enhancement of fertility and sexuality. And so in 1421, the English King Henry V retrieved one of the rumored foreskins from the French village of Coulombs to aid his wife, Catherine of Valois, in the delivery of their first son. Alas, while the relic may have helped bring the future King Henry VI into the world, it did his father little enduring good. The king died less than a year later, felled by dysentery.

The Reformation helped to undermine Catholic traditions of all kinds, including its centuries of speculation on the provenance and status of Christ’s foreskin. In 1900, the Church issued an edict than any discussion of the Holy Prepuce would result in excommunication and shunning; since the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s, Roman Catholics have not officially recognized the Feast of the Circumcision, though it continues to be observed in some Anglican and most Lutheran churches. The last public appearance of one of Jesus’ alleged foreskins took place in the Italian village of Calcata, which had hosted the tip of the Redeemer’s penis since 1557. Residents of Calcata and Catholic pilgrims continued to celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision until 1983, when thieves absconded with the foreskin and the jewel-encrusted box that contained it. Neither it nor any other alleged foreskins have ever turned up.


“Nostalgia admits no other remedy than a return to the homeland”

[ 169 ] December 6, 2013 |

The ignorant hayseeds at White American History Month — currently working their way through a bout of masturbatory frenzy over Nelson Mandela’s death — spent some time yesterday celebrating the work of the noted non-white supremacist Norman Rockwell. Since I have a tangential family connection to Rockwell, and since nostalgia is a suitable affliction for racists, I decided to have a bit of a piss at their expense.

I’m wondering which other artists’ fabricated versions of the national past have been systematically wrecked by Democrats and the progressive left. Which America do you want back?

When “the other perspective” is crowded with morons, there’s no reason to offer them a platform

[ 115 ] December 6, 2013 |


“The HPV vaccine is considered a life-saving cancer preventer, but is it a potentially deadly dose for girls?” This was the promo for Wednesday’s episode of Katie, Katie Couric’s daytime talk show on ABC. Couric, whose husband passed away from colon cancer, is known for being a relatively responsible journalist when it comes to health care issues, so despite this needlessly alarmist advertising, I held out hope that her show would demonstrate that no matter how adamant a very small group of people are that their health problems are caused by the HPV vaccine, there is no evidence that the HPV vaccine is dangerous. Sadly, my hopes were dashed as Couric spent a half-hour of her show drumming up fears that the vaccine will make you very ill or even kill you.

For at least the ten thousandth time, it’s worth pointing out that “debating” the science on vaccine safety and efficacy is about as fruitful or necessary as debating the veracity of the moon landing. Perhaps next week, Couric will host a thoughtful discussion on children’s dental care. Yes, she encouraged her own children to brush their teeth several times a day, but some people have concerns that deserve a balanced hearing. Most young people who die unexpectedly, for example, have brushed their teeth with fluoride toothpaste [insert “precious bodily fluids” joke here] sometime in the previous 24 hours. That ominous correlation deserves a closer look. Indeed, perhaps other correlations will emerge when we do. There’s no way to know for sure. We’re simply asking questions.

See also Phil Plait and Seth Mnookin, who was evidently considered as a guest on the show before the producers realized they weren’t very good at their jobs.

“…the Chief Magistrate of a great and confiding people was suddenly struck down…”

[ 124 ] November 22, 2013 |

While everyone is busy commemorating the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald, you morons the Mob, the CIA, Castro, the Freemasons, the Rothschilds, Marilyn Manson, and the Reverse Vampires, let’s pause briefly to remember William Henry Harrison, our first presidential stiff, felled by an alliance of germy-handed office-seekers, pre-scientific medicine, and being old as fuck. Harrison’s death was an odd national affair altogether. Though certainly known well enough to Whig voters and electors around the nation (especially for his over-hyped 1811 victory over Tecumseh and the Shawnee) he was primarily a creature of the emerging Midwest—a believer in internal improvements, a stable banking system, a solid protective tariff, and Indian removal executed with slightly more tasteful methods than the party of Jacksonian Democracy. Harrison enjoyed his new job only long enough to deliver a gaseous, 8000-word inaugural address, meet with hordes of groveling patrons looking for federal employment, and summon Congress into early session to deal with “sundry important and weighty matters.” (The national economy had shat its knickers four years earlier, and Harrison was among those who believed a restoration of the National Bank would help relieve the ongoing depression.) After contracting some sort of pneumonia-inducing virus or bacterial infection in late March 1841, Harrison submitted himself to the good work of his doctors, who—between sessions of jabbing him with a lancet—barraged him with leeches, snakeweed, castor oil and opium.

When “Granny” Harrison at last went toes-up on April 4, the nation had to figure out how to properly mourn a president who had died in office and who’d achieved literally nothing other than verifying (with his election) the emergence of a competitive two-party system and demonstrating (with his inauguration) the successful transfer of power to a new administration—the latter, having taken place seven times already, being something of an underwhelming accomplishment by this point. Nevertheless, Harrison’s death was by most accounts a shock to the country (here’s a description of his funeral), and it provoked an outpouring of non-specific grief. Eulogies focused on the inopportune passing of a good man from a good family with a long record of public service and a dying wish—left to the living to fulfill—that government remain useful and effective. This one happens to be my favorite, with its odd “one dies, get another” message:

The operation of our system never seemed happier than at this very moment. In the season of a wide exultation, the Chief Magistrate of a great and confiding people was suddenly struck down. What then? No confusion follows—no trepidation—no revolutionary outcry—no rush to arms. The government moves right onward. Not a wheel stops. Not a jar is felt. One name indeed is blotted out—to thousands, a dear and honored name. Another is written in its place, and all is quiet as before. Meantime, the nation puts on her weeds awhile and silently deplores her loss. Again, she puts them off, and goes joyously forth like a strong man armed or a giant panting for the race.

Harrison’s poor wife, Anna—who had been ill herself prior to the inauguration and never left Indiana Ohio (thus making her the only First Lady never to set foot in the White House)—was eased in her grief by a $20,000 pension and Congressional franking privileges, which she enjoyed for the rest of her life.

Meantime, the nation did sally forth “like a strong man armed.” Harrison’s Vice President, John Tyler, was among other things not much of a Whig. A slaveholder, erstwhile Democrat and future Confederate, Tyler was affiliated with the Whigs only because he loathed Andrew Jackson, not because he shared a political vision that aligned well with party leaders like Henry Clay or Daniel Webster. As a Whig apostate, he was much less concerned about the perils of national expansion than his predecessor, and he looked to the annexation of Texas—the dickthrob du jour of the Slave Power—to enlarge the national domain and secure for himself a political future. His fellow Whigs had stricken him from their ranks, and Tyler—now cast adrift in a highly partisan political culture—imagined that perhaps his old party might reward him with the Democratic presidential nomination in 1844 if he were able to deliver on the Texas question. Long story short, the Democrats joined the Whigs in thwarting Tyler’s ambition, but Tyler nevertheless secured the passage of an annexation resolution during the final, lame-duck weeks of his accidental presidency. And with the ruthlessly expansionist Democrats restored to power with the election of “Young Hickory” Polk, war with Mexico was all but assured a year before it actually began in the Spring of 1846. The Whigs would have one last go at the presidency—botching that effort as well, electing the soon-to-be-dead Zachary Taylor in 1848—before slavery and nativism ripped the party to shreds.

We are fond of asking “what if” questions about presidents who croak in office. What kind of reconstruction policy might Lincoln have pursued? Would FDR have used atomic weapons over Japan? Would JFK have deepened our involvement in Vietnam? Would Nixon have been evicted from office if the famously carnivorous White House raccoons hadn’t gotten to him first? And so on. But it’s perhaps also worth asking how a non-dead William Henry Harrison reshapes American history. If Harrison doesn’t succumb to pneumonia, it’s entirely possible that the Whigs keep their shit together long enough to elect Henry Clay in 1844; certainly, the Democrats would have ridden the Texas issue with whip and spur, and maybe the Liberty Party still siphons away enough Clay voters in the North to keep him out of the White House. But if the Whigs had spent four years actually governing as a coherent party and not struggling against the fake Whig Tyler, their chances of winning in 1844 would have been vastly improved. If Clay—or another Whig—had won that year, there would likely have been no Texas annexation (at least not then, and possibly not ever); with a Whig in office, there would also certainly have been no war of conquest with Mexico. And with no war against Mexico, there would have been no room to renew the debate over slavery’s expansion, no precedent of “popular sovereignty” in New Mexico to guide Stephen Douglas toward the Kansas-Nebraska Act, no party disintegration in the 1850s, and quite probably no civil war two decades after Harrison’s inauguration.

Or maybe everything goes to hell anyway. Americans were some ghastly violent motherfuckers in the 19th century, and it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t have found some way to devour one another eventually. But at least William Henry Harrison didn’t have to live to see it.

Besides, everyone knows Lincoln was a fascist anyway…

[ 99 ] November 13, 2013 |

Oh, for fuck’s sake:

Abraham Lincoln, a Democrat?

So says a plaque at a public university in Lincoln’s home state of Illinois, where, since 1905, students at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago have seen the nation’s 16th president — and quite possibly its most influential — honored as a democrat.

“This building is dedicated to public service honoring the memory of Abraham Lincoln,” the inscription reads. “Democrat.”

The explanation for this inscription is simultaneously banal and rather more complicated than it would seem. As the university pointed out (for what seems not to have been the first time), the plaque used the word “democrat” because indeed “Lincoln was an advocate for democracy — the political or social equality of all people. The word was not chosen to reflect a political affiliation.” The latest organization to obsess over the plaque is something called Turning Point USA, which appears to be a project founded by middle-aged dudes hoping to inspire college students and other younger folk to work themselves into a grand mal over the size of the national debt. Charlie Kirk, the group’s founder, is determined to learn the truth about Obama’s birth certificate the inscription’s provenance. “Before we go hard at it,” he explains, “we want to know if this is the original plaque, or was it replaced, because it might have eroded due to corrosion.”

The university’s explanation makes a good deal of sense, but as it happens, Democrats in 1905—especially (but not exclusively) Northern ones—were often quite content to appropriate Lincoln as one of their own. Republicans of course laid first claim to the man, but by the 1890s progressive Democrats like William Jennings Bryan were loudly quoting Lincoln’s various pronouncements on the rights of labor among other subjects; anti-imperialists were harvesting from Lincoln’s Mexican War speeches to condemn McKinley’s war in the Philippines; the national party hosted dinners and other gatherings under the auspices of the so-called Jefferson-Jackson-Lincoln League; and Democrats like Ohio’s John Lentz were arguing that the Republican Party had essentially squandered their rights to Lincoln’s legacy. Agrarian and urban radicals were even credulously circulating an apocryphal bit of text they called “The Lincoln Prophecy,” in which Lincoln had supposedly warned that corporations would soon be “enthroned” and the “money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign” by suffocating the people and aggregating wealth in the hands of a tiny few. (Lincoln’s “prophecy” was an obvious forgery, but it continues to play people for suckers to this day.) Most horrifically, even Democratic Lost-Causers like Thomas Dixon, D.W. Griffith, and Woodrow Wilson adopted Lincoln as a segregationist avant la lettre—a man who, had he lived, would have treated the South gently and accepted its reassertion of mastery over emancipated slaves. Most Southern Democrats would continue to loathe or ignore Lincoln’s memory for years to come, but there were not a few who discovered something they might admire about him.

So while this week’s minor rumble over the Lincoln plaque at NEIU has nothing to do with anyone actually caring about history, there’s nevertheless some interesting historical questions that could be—but won’t, sadly—make their way into the conversation.

It’s not the context…

[ 192 ] November 7, 2013 |

American Orientalism is alive in Southern California, where Coachella Valley High School has really outdone itself:

The current mascot is based on an “angry Arab” design unveiled in the 1950s. The scowling face was meant to be a fearsome front for the football team, said Art Montoya, 74, one of the directors of the alumni association

But that was decades ago. The context of the design has faded, and it is easy to see why this unflattering “cartoon” character could be seen as offensive today, he said.

The Arab mascot is a mainstay at football games, joined by belly dancers during halftime shows. Murals on the high school buildings show an Arabian couple riding a book as if it were a magic carpet and a school logo flowing out of a genie’s lamp.

As with the Redskins nickname, there’s no “context” in which imagery like this could ever have made sense as anything other than a gesture of grotesque racism. The “context” that bred this particular iteration of the mascot was a decade in which white Americans were reading transparently racist novels like Leon Uris’ Exodus, which portrayed Arabs as foul-smelling, joyless miscreants — the “dregs of humanity” — who happened to be perched on culturally and economically valuable real estate. It’s depthlessly absurd to pretend that imagery like this evolved from any sense of “admiration” of or historical connection to Arab people, as the school’s principal contends, and it’s silly to pretend that replacing this odious caricature ought to be preceded by some kind of reasonable, measured community dialogue in which two equally-weighted perspectives are offered the chance to make their case. Longevity is a poor alibi for racist dipshittery.

“Pieces of meat passed high overhead…”

[ 37 ] November 2, 2013 |

Farewell to George Thomas Thornton, an American visionary who understood that few dreams are worth pursuing that don’t involve dynamite and the rotting carcasses of charismatic megafauna.

While Thornton’s decision to obliterate a sperm whale in November 1970 would, decades later, bring him lasting internet fame, he was also very much a product of his own, dreamier historical moment. Operation Plowshare was in mid-swing, as the George Thorntons staffing the Atomic Energy Commission imagined using nuclear blasts to excavate harbors, widen canals, stimulate natural gas flows, and rupture oil shale deposits. Nuclear blasts, so far as I’m aware, were never seriously considered as instruments for carcass removal or as a means of dispersing carrion for seagulls and crabs, but Americans are well known for their failures of imagination. George Thornton offered us a brief glimpse into a better world; we are diminished for having chosen not to follow him.


Treason in Defense of Scientific Management

[ 133 ] November 1, 2013 |

I must admit that I don’t find this at all surprising:

Caitlin C. Rosenthal didn’t intend to write a book about slavery. She set out to tackle something much more mundane: the history of business practices. But when she started researching account books from the mid-1800s, a period of major economic development during the rise of industrialization in the United States, Rosenthal stumbled across an unexpected source of innovation.

Rosenthal, a Harvard-Newcomen Fellow in business history at Harvard Business School, found that southern plantation owners kept complex and meticulous records, measuring the productivity of their slaves and carefully monitoring their profits—often using even more sophisticated methods than manufacturers in the North. Several of the slave owners’ practices, such as incentivizing workers (in this case, to get them to pick more cotton) and depreciating their worth through the years, are widely used in business management today.

Though it appears this is all news to historians of business, historians of slavery have been pointing this out more or less since the 1970s. In an oft-cited 1973 article in the Journal of Economic History, R. Keith Aufhauser pointed out that the task system — usually regarded as less brutal than gang labor — enabled plantation overseers to calibrate particular jobs to the capabilities of particular slaves, and that the meager forms of autonomy available to the enslaved within the task system (e.g., small garden plots and other “rewards” for obedient labor) enabled managers to assert greater control over the enslaved. Historians since the 1970s pretty well demolished Eugene Genovese’s assertion slavery was a feudal anomaly within an emerging bourgeois capitalist economy, and I can’t think of any recent work on slavery that hasn’t emphasized slavery’s ruthless capitalist aspects. Then again, classic business histories like Alfred Chandler’s Visible Hand and Daniel Wren’s Evolution of Management Thought had utterly nothing to say about the genealogical relationship between slavery and scientific management, so I suppose it’s a promising sign that business historians like Rosenthal are finally catching up….

Today in “Wingnuts Reading Tweets”

[ 51 ] December 19, 2012 |

I’m just going to have to assume that in ordinary, grammatically complex conversations with actual human beings, these folks are simply unable to carry on for longer than five minutes without pissing themselves with rage.

So summarize:

  1. Joyce Carol Oates wonders NRA members might become outraged enough to support new gun laws if — using “if” in a first conditional clause —”sizable numbers” of them had their heads mounted on sticks experienced gun violence in their own lives.
  2. Marg Helgenberger notes — using the auxiliary modal “can” when she clearly meant to use the related auxiliary modal “could” — that we could “only hope” that if such unforeseen horrors were to actually transpire, experience might prove a tonic to ideology. As Adorno wrote once, “The splinter in your eye is the best microscope magnifying glass.”*


* Note: I am TOTALLY NOT calling for everyone to immediately begin stabbing NRA members in the eye.**

** OK, maybe I am just a little.***


[Added: And I neglected to mention that in Helgenberger’s tweet, she specifically concluded that NRA gang-bangers would be unswayed by experience. Thus, even if someone were to line them up, offer them a handful of cornmeal, and shoot them like old country mules, they would still advocate for unrestricted gun rights. So far from inciting violence, we have someone glumly noting that it would nevertheless serve no useful pedagogical aim. If, that is, someone were actually to demand blood. Which would, of course, be completely rude and irresponsible.]

The stupidest fucking thing you’ll read in the next five minutes

[ 47 ] December 14, 2012 |

Shorter Ace of Spades:

We could prevent mass shootings by laughing at the perpetrators’ tiny penises.

I’m not sure how many lobes of my brain I need to excise in order to understand this, but apparently what ails our national culture is a collective failure to ridicule people based on heterosexist fables about satisfying the wimmin. Remarkable.

No, Lincoln did not have a “secret plan” to liquidate slavery

[ 44 ] November 28, 2012 |

It’s probably not worth adding to Scott’s corrective observations on Connor Kilpatrick’s Jacobin post, but since I’m currently working on a manuscript about Lincoln in American fiction, I’m more or less helplessly drawn to the ways that Lincoln has been appropriated by historians as well as novelists and filmmakers for every conceivable political aim. As Donald Fehrenbacher once explained, “in the whole gamut of American politics, no reactionary is so blind, no revolutionary is so militant, no misfit so freakish that he cannot find a place in Abraham’s bosom.” So, for example, Thomas Dixon — author of the novels that inspired Griffith’s Birth of a Nation — wrote a hilariously unreadable novel asserting (in the 50th anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation, no less) that Lincoln was a lifelong white supremacist who would have either deported or segregated free blacks had he not been unwisely murdered. Kilpatrick’s regard for Lincoln, by comparison, is drawn from an extensive body of historical and imaginative literature arching back to the 1930s Popular Front that posed Lincoln as an instrument of class warfare — liquidating, as Kilpatrick notes, an enormous proportion of the nation’s wealth and presiding over the greatest social revolution in American history. (The “Red Lincoln” historiography survives today, in affectionate as well as neo-confederate varieties. Dixon’s white supremacist Lincoln has substantially less cultural vitality these days, at least so far as I’m able to tell.)

In any event, the “true” or “real” Lincoln is an elusive thing; he had, as one of his biographers noted, an “essential ambiguity” that makes him perpetually available for reinterpretation. So when someone insists, as Kilpatrick does, that Lincoln had a “secret plan” to abolish slavery when he entered the office in 1861, we have to wonder how he arrives at such a precise understanding of Lincoln’s motives. Kilpatrick quotes Lincoln as vowing that “the powder in this bombshell will keep dry and when the fuse is lit, I intend to have them [the South] touch it off themselves,” destroying slavery in the process.

The problem with this interpretation, of course, is the context for Lincoln’s words.

Read more…

The Wretched of the Earth

[ 79 ] November 13, 2012 |

Robert Barnwell Rhett would be embarrassed to learn that his self-parodying ideological heirs are, it seems, actually pleading with the Twelfth Imam to set them the fuck free already. The White House petitions — which you can read here — are just as faithful to the rhythms of grammatical and punctuational orthodoxy as you’d expect from people who can actually imagine an independent Kansan Republic. But for the love of Christ, these people could use some truth:

There’s only one way to be a first-class citizen. There’s only one way to be independent. There’s only one way to be free. It’s not something that someone gives to you. It’s something that you take. Nobody can give you independence. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it. If you can’t take it, you don’t deserve it.

What do you say, people of Wyoming? It’s time to stop singing and start swinging.

(Now as for Alaskans, we’re a peaceful people who believe in fair dealing and compromise, and we’re not beyond politely asking for stuff. In that spirit, my students crafted this during tonight’s session, and we’re optimistic that it will receive a proper hearing.)

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