Humanist links

A couple of links to pass along to humanists and fellow travelers:

Niels K. Petersen is on a bit of a roll, and this time covers a recent English-language paper on 18th c. Italian humanist and Archbishop of Trani, Giuseppe Davanzati. Sr. Davanzati went on a tear, it seems, and savaged the vampire panics paralyzing the Hapsburg Empire in the 1730s. The original letter was only published posthumously, in 1793, and even today, is only available in the original Latin and in scholarly Italian translations. A choice quote from Davanzati:

Anyone with a little common sense, so to speak, can clearly realise that the Devil plays no role in a story like that of these vampires; it is all a human creation, or at most a sort of tiresome illness, such as the plague, or some other epidemic disease.

Nonetheless, Davanzati was  a product of his time, and his endless dances around the political and religious realities of his position. For which, read the whole thing.

Meanwhile, historian and closet Fortean Mike Dash inadvertently pokes a few holes in the vaunted Buddhist Exception that some atheists inexplicably cling to, with his tale of venality, violence, vengeance, and venom that lead to the suspicious deaths of four Dalai Lamas (Dalais Lama?) in the early 19th century.

Very superstitious

One of my favorite bloggers, Niels K. Peterson, recently posted about the historical meanings of superstition, in a post called .”The product of superstitious and false beliefs.”

Humanists, atheists, and skeptics have a problem. And the problem is that they are limited to communicating using language. This is an English-language blog, yet, for the most part, all Indo-European languages face the same problem. We want to talk about things, using language, but language is a horrible medium for talking about things. Superstition is an especially egregious word, as its a direct borrowing from Classical Latin, and occurs in many Indo-European languages, not to mention the New Latin in which so many Medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment texts were written.

Niels’s post is about a very specific sort of problem: When 18th. c. commentators describe vampires as a superstition, what the hell do they mean by superstition? It’s a remarkably non-trivial problem.

Enny ful knows what “superstition” is, right? Black cats, rabbit’s feet, walkin’ under a ladder, Friday the 13th, innit?

Sadly, no.

The Wikipedia article actually provides a fairly decent overview of the historical changes in meaning of the word “superstition.”

For those atheists and skeptics who turn their glassy eye on American religious fundamentalism, it’s tempting to adopt the Classic view of superstition, and accuse fundamentalists of magical thinking. This, of course, is precisely the opening that Catholic theologians and “sophisticated” apologists are waiting for. Like I said in a previous post, never let the enemy define the terms of the argument.

Niels writes of the transitional period between Moderism and early Enlightenment thinking in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where superstition meant different things to different people, depending on their political and philosophical fortunes. It’s important to recognize that we here in the early 21st c. have our own political and philosophical fortunes at stake as well.

“Superstition” is one of those words, like Bronze-Age, medieval, and so many others, that should prompt you to reach for your gun.

“Real names” and magical thinking

Well, if this isn’t a night for posts to the new ol’ blog.

Many years ago, a lifetime away, I made friends with a Jamaican who was in graduate school with my then wife.

Sondra was a brilliant intellectual and a frequent guest in our home. We had got into a conversation during one dinner party about music, and when I mentioned that I had an undergraduate degree in Jazz Studies and about 9 credit hours of graduate work in composition, she asked me if I would speak to her son, who was considering pursuing a music performance major once he graduated high school.

Now, I knew Sondra (not her real name) and her oldest son Michael (not his real name). I’d met Sondra’s lover Geoffrey (not his real name) and her daughter Liz (not her real name). This was while Sondra was pregnant with Nicholas (not his real name). But when I first went to visit them in their own home, Sondra (not her real name) was now Sheila (not her real name) and her son Micheal (not his real name) was now Raymond (not his real name). Liz (not her real name) introduced herself as Abby (not her real name).

I floundered around for a bit, not knowing what to call anyone. “Oh,” say Sondra/Sheila (not her real names), “It’s an old Jamaican tradition. We have one name we use outside the home, and then we have a house name. It’s okay. You’re not Jamaican. Just use whatever name your comfortable with.”

I have limited experience with Jamaicans outside Sondra (which is the name I decided to stick with). Perhaps there’s a tradition of house names in Jamaica; perhaps there’s a tradition of outside-the-house names in Jamaica. Or perhaps Sondra’s Maroon/South Asian family had an African-diaspora tradition that they’d preserved in the face of modernity, or perhaps it was a familiocentric quirk. I’m not an Afro-Caribbean anthropologist. What I do know is that these were dear friends, generous in spirit, and I never had any problem identifying anything regardless of the names attached.


Among the ancient northern Europeans, there was an elaborate folklore involving “true names.” If you knew something’s true name, you had power over it. Magic involved learning the true names of things.


When I moved to Cincinnati back in the days when there were newspapers, I noticed a very strange quirk about the Cincinnati Enquirer. Whenever they had an article about a black rapper who had adopted a stage name, they would always add a parenthetical gloss on the performer’s “real name”: “50 Cent, whose real name is Curtis James Jackson, yesterday said . . . . ” I mean seriously, what kind of bullshit is that? Is anyone’s knowledge enriched by knowing that Curtis James Jackson III performs under the stage name 50 Cent? And why, for gawd’s sake, did the Cincinnati Enquirer not extend the same courtesy to Madonna Ciccione, Archy Leach, or Samuel Clemons?


With the rise of social media (okay, I realize it’s been years, but I’m old), there’s been this weird emphasis on “real names.” All the major social media sites run automated checks against various registered accounts, compare them against white pages entries, etc. and try to determine a “real name.” Real names are magical thinking. The folkloric story that my Jamaican friend gave me about house names involved demons, God, and whatnot. But it was all magic. We’ve now programmed magical thinking into web-bots. Apparently, there are such things as “true names,” and these true names have magic power.


I like Ernest Valdemar. Poe’s character is largely a cipher, which allows me to read all kinds of things into it. I first adopted the Valdemar avatar a) when avatars were de rigeur on the Internet, and b) when I was suffering from as-yet undiagnosed chronic obstructive apnea. I loved the literary quality, and as an undiagnosed apnea sufferer, the idea of a transfixed corpse with full mental function was particularly apropos.

For a while I had a Blogger blog under that name, where I blogged on popular culture, and the horror genre in particular. At that time, there were very few horror bloggers, and I had developed a certain following. But then zombie movies went mainstream, my sleep deprivation turned dangerous (falling asleep in traffic), and I couldn’t maintain it.

It’s been ages since I’ve seen a good exploitation film or read some really engaging horror fiction (not for lack of trying), but I really like the character. Just like Sondra’s family had house names and public names, I really like the name Ernest Valdemar. It’s still me. Get used to it, Internet.

I hate social media

I have a long history of despising social media.

So, some time ago, I created a Twitter page using the Ernest Valdemar avatar I like so much, which I shortly abandoned. Then, when blogs started moving to Disqus, I started using my Twitter account to comment using Disqus.

Earlier tonight, I was trying to find out my total “likes,” so I went to to see if I could find out. (It’s well over a hundred likes for a bit over 20 comments, but I wanted the actual numbers.) Disqus reminds me that must’ve drunkenly created a Disqus account a few years ago. I guess at the email address and password, and then I’m in.

But here’s the thing — I really want to comment on Disqus using my Twitter account (which matches my new WordPress account), but now Disqus is convinced that I’m a drunk several years younger than I actually am, and no matter how often I log out and say “comment using twitter,” it keeps posting me under my meatspace name. I’ve very carefully crafted an online identity with much more credibility than I actually possess, and I want to continue to cultivate this persona.

Another abortive comment, or, history still matters

So, here’s another case where I started to comment on a blog post, and then thought better of it. Al Steffanelli is a good guy, but he suffers from the same historical, linguistic and literary blindspots as so many FtBers. In an otherwise thoughtful blog post, he writes:

The United States of America is not a Democracy. We are a Democratic Republic . . ..

And then a few paragraphs later:

Religion clouds the judgment of the believer and distorts the already unbalanced concept of Democracy – “majority rule” – by reinforcing it with a divine rebar.

So, what’s my problem:? Democracy has never, ever, in the history of forever, ever been defined as “majority rule.” Throughout history, democracies have been of two types: Athenian democracies, where suffrage is limited to citizens, who make up a distinct minority of residents, and Constitutional democracies, in which the rights of minorities enjoy legal protection. The United States is a democracy of the second type.

The whole “majority rule” thing is a slippery-slope fiction invented out of whole cloth, first by monarchists like Thomas Hobbes, and later by glibertarians looking to win closing-time discussions at the bar. When I see the “political compass,” I reach for my gun. When I hear “America is not a democracy,” I punch in the codes that activate the red button.

“Majority rule” (or more traditionally, “mob rule”) is a pernicious lie, totally unsupported by history, and frankly, you won’t even find it in dictionaries. Fucking dictionary definitions! Is that what we’re reduced to?

History is your friend, accuracy matters, and never let the bad guy define the terms of the argument.

Why history matters

I started to reply to this post from Daniel Fincke, and then realized that I’d veered seriously off-topic. But it’s a little mini-rant I’d like to save and refer back to, so here’s the comment I elected not to submit:

I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the lack of historical perspective from a lot of atheists. It’s frustrating to hear an atheist claim that theology hasn’t come up with a new argument since Aquinas, while at the same time offering the same arguments as Lucian. Clearly, rehashing centuries-old arguments isn’t going to be productive.

And the so-called Bronze Age beliefs of today’s religious people are at most 20-25 years old. (Remember when Jimmy Carter was the quintessential evangelical Christian? Remember when the Middle East was dominated by Socialists?)

The more I learn of history — quite recent history — the more I realize just how ephemeral and plastic religious beliefs are. And this means that history is atheism’s friend, because history tells us that the particulars of religious belief are beside the point.

More on misanthropy

So, okay, I should go to bed, but I realize that I’ve left the question of misanthropy open since my last post on that topic. If misanthropy isn’t the dictionary or wikipedia definition, then what is it?

A couple of weeks ago, I was surfing Wikipedia for vaudeville-related topics (as one does) and I came across the Wikipedia entry for William Frawley. You remember William Frawley, right? Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy? This quote from the Wikipedia article kind of blew my mind:

Both Ball and Arnaz agreed that it would be great to have Frawley, a motion picture veteran, appear as Fred Mertz. Less enthusiastic were CBS executives, who warned of Bill’s frequent drinking and instability. Arnaz immediately told Frawley about the network’s concerns, telling him that if he was late to work, arrived drunk, or was unable to perform because of something other than legitimate illness more than once, he would be written out of the show. To the contrary, Frawley never arrived at work drunk, and in fact mastered his lines after only one reading. Arnaz eventually became one of the misanthropic Frawley’s few close friends.

So, it turns out that William Frawley — consummate entertainer in vaudeville and Poverty Row character actor — married once as a young man, was shortly divorced, and subsequently had very few close friends and no known lovers.

Contrary to what you may want to believe, this is not a terribly uncommon occurrence. A broken heart is a very real thing, and not an invention of romantic literature. Broken men are largely invisible in our culture, although you can often find them haunting dive bars during the day or right at closing. Broken women are even more invisible, but I’ve no doubt they exist.

I have such a broken heart. It’s not a rational thing, and it’s not a thing that fits neatly into the DSM-V. It fits much more neatly into Victorian and Edwardian fiction; you find it in ghost stories and the works of Hawthorne, Bierce, and Poe. Sure, you can shoehorn that kind of behavior into categories like depression or neurosis, and prescribe medicine for it, but I think the literary models provide a better description.

So, when I say I’m a misanthrope, this is what I’m talking about. I have largely withdrawn myself from the society of humans, because human society does not meet my needs. Oddly, since I’ve reconciled myself to being a misanthrope, my moods are much more stable, and I can choose where and when I interact with people, which gives me a much-improved sense of personal autonomy. At the same time, I realize that asocial people have much worse physical and mental health outcomes than misanthropes. But I can’t quite bring myself to be so mercenary about my relationships with others, in no small part because I realize that Other People deserve autonomy as well, and I’m not sure that exploiting others to further my physical and mental health is an ethical thing to do.

On the other, other hand, I see these kinds of unethical relationships around me all the time, and I’m somewhat astonished that the Normals see nothing wrong with this.