Tag Archives: Chesterton

The ‘Obscure Move’ rule

Many of you are familiar with Chesterton’s fence: wherein he will not allow anyone who says ‘I don’t see the purpose for that gate’ to take the fence down. Rather, the man who understands why the fence is there might be permitted to take it down.

I propose a variation on that theme, but with the mechanisms of a political campaign. But I need a new analogy, and so I will use the game of go.

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We will call this the ‘obscure move’ rule. For this example, perhaps some knowledge of go ranking will be helpful. There are amateur ranks called ‘kyu’ and there are professional ranks called ‘dan’. At the IGS (a go server) that I play on sometimes the ‘amateur’ levels start at ‘beginner’ and then the first ranked ones are 17k at the bottom and 1k at the top. These are roughly 10 in steps of 10 point differences in skill. I play at about the 9k level currently (though I have been up closer to the 6k before I got rusty). So, say for example, that I am playing a 2k… and as we play the 2k plays a move that makes no sense to me. There are all sorts of moves on the board that seem to me to be more important to play at this point. I know from experience (when playing a 12k for example) that the most common response form most people is to assume that the better player just made a mistake. I, on the other hand, will spend as much time as I can afford on the game timer trying to figure out why that move was so important to the better player. I assume that I don’t understand the move because the player sees things that I cannot.

To take this a little further, lets say you are an average person… (by definition, this is the most likely place to find people, intellectually or in go playing ability…) and lets say that you are watching two people play a game of go and as far as you can tell the game seems tied. Then black makes a move that seems to be unimportant or a mistake to you. This move is obscure to you, it is the eponymous ‘Obscure Move’ and you want to rant about why it makes no sense.If your criticism is: ‘I don’t know why black just did that, but these other moves were much better’ I shall ignore you and all your subsequent analysis. You haven’t even tried to understand the move. If, on the other hand, you go and think for a while and come back with ‘I think black was trying to accomplish so and such but these moves would have yielded a better outcome’ I shall give you my full attention.

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That is from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight election forecast. And I am tired of hearing people say ‘I don’t know why Trump doesn’t have a ground game… I don’t know why he doesn’t buy ads… I don’t know why he doesn’t have tons of paid staffers for his campaign! He will clearly lose without these things! Obviously! Because Romney dumped a ton of money and lost, so obviously more money must be spent to win!’ Perhaps these people are right, perhaps Trump has no idea what he is doing. But before they speak so stridently, these strange people who insist that Republicans must continue to run their campaigns the same way they keep losing their elections really ought to at least try to come up with a reasonable explanation for the ‘Obscure Moves’ they are criticizing.

As for me, if money and ads won elections, the Republican Nominee would be named Bush. And perhaps staffers are actually parasites on the funds raised for their political cause… If anyone would do a cost/benefit analysis one would think that Trump might have done so, and decided that the return on investment for staffers is nil. As for the ads… I suspect that Trump might be the only candidate who really groks the American people’s short attention span. If ads actually yield a return on investment, perhaps all the conventional wisdom of ‘define your opponent early’ is wrong, and most Americans decide based on the last 2-3 weeks… maybe Trump is letting the voters get sick of Hillary ads and is deciding which states actually make sense to play ads in. Maybe this is an electoral version of holding ones fire until you can see the whites of the eyes… Maybe not. Maybe Trump is incompetent, but at least I don’t start with that assumption and then presume that the strategic choices are incompetent. I look for the possible competent/intelligent strategy possibilities first, then make a judgement as to the possible efficacy of the strategy.

So, when you encounter an ‘Obscure Move’ take your time to try and understand why it might be a good or even brilliant move before you conclude that it was a mistake.

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English

I have often marveled at the incredible variability of the English language. Languages like French, Spanish, Italian, are all fluid Latinate (duh 🙂 ) and melodious. However, on the other side of the Danube the unconquered (by Romans) German language is rough and tough and percussive. English has always amazed me with its vast range of musically expressive textures. The same language can be hard, it can be musical, it can be sing-song. English is like a fist fight, like a swallow’s flight, like a ship sailing, and like a lovers song. In the hands of a poet, it can be anything. A great poet makes the words tell the same tale both with meaning and with their music. Witness, John Donne, Holy Sonnet XIV:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The very sound of the words beat on the ears. (You really should read them aloud, even if just to yourself.) English itself batters you. And yet, the same language can sound soft and sibilant:

(Courtesy of my rival on the Sonnet Duel)
Spendthrift:
The spring has been a brief one, and a hot-
A spendthrift thief of subtle season’s change.
Flowers not yet meant to bloom are caught
Within the raging torrent- and the range
Of Summer’s rate proceeds immoderate
Without the ordered, dignified procession
Of seemly grace. Thus in my mind’s estate
Such prodigality of contemplation
Is displayed, that all my thoughts have bloomed,
And prematurely blows the seeded breeze.
And I am left to mow the leaves and sneeze
And burn my compost thought ‘til all’s consumed.
But hope in this; though now the seeds are Sorrow
Still yet they sow another Spring tomorrow.

Lastly, if you listen to the music in this part of The Ballad of the White Horse (yes, this is another disguised post about this poem 🙂 ) as if you do not know what the words mean, you can hear the Alfred’s courage, sometimes soft and sometimes bold, the variation of percussion and strings (Or the variation of pizzicato, tenuto, and even martele.)

And slowly his hands and thoughtfully
Fell from the lifted lyre,
And the owls moaned from the mighty trees
Till Alfred caught it to his knees
And smote it as in ire.

He heaved the head of the harp on high
And swept the framework barred,
And his stroke had all the rattle and spark
Of horses flying hard.

“When God put man in a garden
He girt him with a sword,
And sent him forth a free knight
That might betray his lord;

“He brake Him and betrayed Him,
And fast and far he fell,
Till you and I may stretch our necks
And burn our beards in hell.

“But though I lie on the floor of the world,
With the seven sins for rods,
I would rather fall with Adam
Than rise with all your gods.

“What have the strong gods given?
Where have the glad gods led?
When Guthrum sits on a hero’s throne
And asks if he is dead?

“Sirs, I am but a nameless man,
A rhymester without home,
Yet since I come of the Wessex clay
And carry the cross of Rome,

“I will even answer the mighty earl
That asked of Wessex men
Why they be meek and monkish folk,
And bow to the White Lord’s broken yoke;
What sign have we save blood and smoke?
Here is my answer then.

“That on you is fallen the shadow,
And not upon the Name;
That though we scatter and though we fly,
And you hang over us like the sky,
You are more tired of victory,
Than we are tired of shame.

“That though you hunt the Christian man
Like a hare on the hill-side,
The hare has still more heart to run
Than you have heart to ride.

“That though all lances split on you,
All swords be heaved in vain,
We have more lust again to lose
Than you to win again.

“Your lord sits high in the saddle,
A broken-hearted king,
But our king Alfred, lost from fame,
Fallen among foes or bonds of shame,
In I know not what mean trade or name,
Has still some song to sing;

“Our monks go robed in rain and snow,
But the heart of flame therein,
But you go clothed in feasts and flames,
When all is ice within;

“Nor shall all iron dooms make dumb
Men wondering ceaselessly,
If it be not better to fast for joy
Than feast for misery.

“Nor monkish order only
Slides down, as field to fen,
All things achieved and chosen pass,
As the White Horse fades in the grass,
No work of Christian men.

“Ere the sad gods that made your gods
Saw their sad sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale,
That you have left to darken and fail,
Was cut out of the grass.

“Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.

“For our God hath blessed creation,
Calling it good. I know
What spirit with whom you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God’s death the stars shall stand
And the small apples grow.”

Now all of these reflections on my mother-tongue (I don’t see why only foreigners get to use that expression about the language they are raised with. Besides, I know about 20 Greek words 🙂 ) were triggered by a wonderful article about how we owe the richness of the English language to a little thing that happened in A.D. 1066… ok, maybe not so little, but the Norman invasion, and subsequent subjugation of the Saxon kings and nobles left us a strange hybrid language. (Many other things too, of course.)

The English language is unusual in that we have different names for farm animals in the field or byre, and the flesh of these animals when they appear on the table. In Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe, a Saxon peasant explains that the oxen, calves, swine and sheep are good Saxons tended by Saxons when alive, but turn into Norman-French when they are ready to be eaten as beef (or beeves), veal, pork and mutton.

So, if you were to begin by asking, in Monty Python style, “what have the Normans ever done for us?” you might first reply that the most enduring consequence of the Conquest is the richness of the English language, with its Anglo-Saxon base and Franco-Latin superstructure. This mixture gives us a huge vocabulary, and many words with essentially the same meaning, yet a different shade of emphasis: fatherly and paternal, for example.

Civilization Vs. Chaos

Sorry if this is a little rusty. It has been a while due to the all-consuming graduate school. 🙂

Without further ado, I wanted to write about the world crisis, because I am such a salient and insightful commentator. The world is in crisis, so they say. Many people who are not willfully avoiding the issues are calling this a clash of civilizations. Definitely worth reading in this class is the article by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in Newsweek, Muslim Rage & The Last Gasp of Islamic Hate.

However, I an not convinced that clash of civilizations is the right term for today’s crisis. For instance between 264 BC to 146 BC (Dates from the History channel, not a great source, but I think they can manage that.) there was a true clash of civilizations. This between Carthage and Rome in the three Punic wars. Another real clash of civilizations was during the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens. One might also count the clash between America and Japan in WWII. However, these clashes of civilizations have something in common that today’s world does not. They have two recognizable opponents. Today, we have a clash of chaos and civilization.

Everyone who calls the murderous attacks ‘protests’ are on the side of chaos. Everyone who rationalizes the murder of Theo Van Gogh, the recent attacks on American diplomats, and even the 9/11 mass murders are aiding and abetting chaos. Of course there are the most direct agents of chaos, Al Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Iran, Syria… All this makes me think of a section of ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’ about the fall of Rome. (Ok, I admit, this whole post was all a cover for me to quote my favorite poetry at length.)

For the end of the world was long ago,
And all we dwell to-day
As children of some second birth,
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgment day.

For the end of the world was long ago,
When the ends of the world waxed free,
When Rome was sunk in a waste of slaves,
And the sun drowned in the sea.

When Caesar’s sun fell out of the sky
And whoso hearkened right
Could only hear the plunging
Of the nations in the night.

When the ends of the earth came marching in
To torch and cresset gleam.
And the roads of the world that lead to Rome
Were filled with faces that moved like foam,
Like faces in a dream.

And men rode out of the eastern lands,
Broad river and burning plain;
Trees that are Titan flowers to see,
And tiger skies, striped horribly,
With tints of tropic rain.

Where Ind’s enamelled peaks arise
Around that inmost one,
Where ancient eagles on its brink,
Vast as archangels, gather and drink
The sacrament of the sun.

And men brake out of the northern lands,
Enormous lands alone,
Where a spell is laid upon life and lust
And the rain is changed to a silver dust
And the sea to a great green stone.

And a Shape that moveth murkily
In mirrors of ice and night,
Hath blanched with fear all beasts and birds,
As death and a shock of evil words
Blast a man’s hair with white.

And the cry of the palms and the purple moons,
Or the cry of the frost and foam,
Swept ever around an inmost place,
And the din of distant race on race
Cried and replied round Rome.

I think only a few commentators are talking about today’s events in these terms. But there is no civilization for America and her western (and eastern) allies to clash against, only chaos, and one or two billion hungry and angry people. With this mind, Alfred’s question in the ballad resonates with me:

“When our last bow is broken, Queen,
And our last javelin cast,
Under some sad, green evening sky,
Holding a ruined cross on high,
Under warm westland grass to lie,
Shall we come home at last?”

Of course, here I can only think of the 9/11 Cross:

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And the answer, from St. Mary (well… Chesterton) in part reads:

“The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.

“The men of the East may search the scrolls
For sure fates and fame,
But the men that drink the blood of God
Go singing to their shame.

“The wise men know what wicked things
Are written on the sky,
They trim sad lamps, they touch sad strings,
Hearing the heavy purple wings,
Where the forgotten seraph kings
Still plot how God shall die.

“The wise men know all evil things
Under the twisted trees,
Where the perverse in pleasure pine
And men are weary of green wine
And sick of crimson seas.

“But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.

“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

Note: All quotes from The Ballad of the White Horse are copied from Project Gutenberg. Also, there is an analyst, a little nutty in a Libertarian sort of way, who proclaims half the world ‘Chaostan’ and since I read a number of his ‘Uncle Eric’ economy books, and this came up, I am sure it influenced my thinking.  Also, more importantly are Mark Styen America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It and David Goldman’s How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too)