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.

Something, something

My psychotherapist had to cancel for tonight. We’re down to two sessions a month (progress!), so that means unless I reschedule, I’ll go a month between sessions. A bit dubious about that, but I’m not really up for the whole “intimacy” discussion we’re supposed to have, especially since I sincerely don’t think I’m the problem here. I realize that’s a difficult case to make, but in past relationships, I certainly remember all the times I was there for my partner — a helping hand, a calm voice during panic, a listening ear. But I also remember all the times when I needed a calm voice, reassurance, a helping hand, and all I got was rolling eyes and deep sighs and “we need to talk.”.

I sincerely don’t think the problem is my emotional unavailability — I think it’s the emotional unavailability of the people I choose to partner with. But there’s not a lot a therapist can do with that, especially as I am currently “uncoupled.”

Atheist politics and technocracy

No time for a full post, but here’s a comment I wrote in response to a post on Friendly Atheist:

I’m a bit reminded of the technocracy movement that sprang up in the early 20th c. Nowadays, people use the word “technocrat” as a pejorative, especially when talking abou the EU. But there was a time when technocracy was a going political philosophy that, ultimately, went nowhere.

The problem is that you still need to have democratic involvement in defining what the actual problems are, before you start advocating solutions. Rationalists are very good at coming up with pragmatic solutions, but not everybody agrees on what the problems are. In the absence of democratic voices defining the problems, technocracy quickly becomes autocratic and authoritarian.

Suppose that, democratically, the people focus on “too much diversity” as a problem. Rationalists can come up with a workable solution to that problem, but the solution is not likely to be pleasant. Or suppose the problem is “not enough nationalism,” or “too many taxes.”

Likewise with atheists/secularists. Solving societal problems is easy, if everyone buys into it and places their trust in the experts. Defining the problem is the tricky bit.

Trayvon Martin

I don’t care how dark the image is, and I don’t care how badly a 17-year-old tries to look tough. He’s got a baby face. I had a baby face when I was seventeen. I grew a beard. I looked like a baby-face with a beard. (I look like a baby-face with a beard today, 31 years later. Beards are awesome, but ineffectual.)

There’s only one way that a grown adult could have found Trayvon “suspicious-looking” and threatening, and it starts with r and ends with acism.

What does Trayvon Martin look like? To me, he looks like a sweet boy, probably awkward around girls, too smart for his own good, and desperate to be something he’s not. Of course, now he’s dead, which is something he authentically is, and always will be.

I’m a white dude who lives in a majority black neighborhood (cf. the fictional Ernest Valdemar, Francophone resident of Harlem, NY) in a major metropolitan center; I live just down the street from a magnet school for inner-city high achievers, and I see kids like Trayvon all the time on the sidewalk outside my condo, usually full of high spirits and bravado, which, last time I checked, are not capital offenses.