Are you Queen Thud?

Marie Antoinette's execution

Marie Antoinette’s execution

So here’s a big surprise. On October 16, 1793, Marie Antoinette was convicted of having been Queen of France. Revolutionary justice being what it is, she was executed the same day.

The whole farce lasted just three days, from the opening of the trial on the 14th; four if you count the part of a day her lawyers had to prepare her defence. (Or perhaps flee; defending Marie Antoinette in the face of Robespierre’s frenzied rage is far more likely to do you harm than her good.) Which shows what such trials are worth.

I don’t just mean trials by French revolutionaries, although obviously they worked on the verdict first, trial afterward premise that tyrants find so helpfully tidy. I mean the whole genre of trying people for offenses that are not, at bottom, judicial at all.

The real charge against Marie Antoinette was having been part of an unjust regime and social order. The actual formal charges included incest which again tells you what sort of proceeding it was. But she was actually convicted of depletion of the national treasury, conspiracy against the internal and external security of the State, intelligence with the enemy, all of which amount to saying she was Marie Antoinette and had the same friends and attitudes after being deposed as beforehand.

What sort of “trial” do you hold to determine that sort of thing? And there’s no question that to face such charges is to be convicted of them unless you can prove mistaken identity in a big hurry. There was no question that Marie Antoinette had been the wife of Louis XVI and had not used the post to conspire to overthrow the monarchy, abolish the established church, dispossess the nobility and so forth. And perhaps that’s a crime against history or even humanity. But it’s not a crime against any statute in force at the time.

To say so is not to say that whatever is written is legitimate. Far from it. The French Ancien régime was rotten to the core. But what do you do when you oust a tyrant from within or by war from without? It’s like the problem of what to do with the Nazi leadership in 1945. (Sorry, another Hitler analogy, but he was kind of important in an instructive way.)

Obviously you don’t say oh well chaps, you had a good run, off you go. But nor does it make much sense to charge someone with having been Himmler because the trial is rendered a farce by the fact that he is obviously guilty of mass murder, genocide, warmongering and oppression and needs to die. The trial basically goes “Are you Heinrich Himmler?” “Ja.” Bang!

Oddly, to proceed with legal formalities under the circumstances does not elevate the proceedings, it debases the law. Especially if you join forces with Stalin’s bloodstained henchmen to do it. Or Robespierre’s. There might be some point in trying lesser functionaries to determine how aware they were of what was going on. But the disagreement between revolutionaries and the establishment, or between one warring government and another, is philosophical rather than legal.

Had it been up to me I’d have deposed Louis XVI and sent him and his family into obscure exile somewhere. And I’d have shot Robespierre. Repeatedly. But if she was so bad that she deserved to die, I think it’s appropriate as it would have been with the Nazis to say that we regard them as having transgressed basic moral laws in such a way that any trial would be a summary farce so we’re skipping the farce and going straight to the summary. Blindfold? Cigarette? Goodbye!

Personally I regard Marie Antoinette as a sad and deluded rather than a wicked person. And no, she never did say “Qu’ils mangent les brioches”; it was a rural legend that attached itself to any rich important person regarded as badly out of touch with reality, which in fact she was. Her trial was a pathetic as well as an evil farce. And even she deserved better. France certainly did.


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Wish I’d said that – October 16, 2016

“It is a very different matter when a religion, in the real sense of a binding thing, binds men to their morality when it is not identical with their mood.”

G.K. Chesterton, The Catholic Church and Conversion, quoted by David Beresford in Gilbert Magazine Vol. 8 #5 March/April 2005


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Do you realize that’s unsafe?

Perhaps we need a reality show “Bold Visionary or Reckless Moron?” Or perhaps not, since we have history.

I was prompted to this sage and witty armchair philosophizing by the thought that on October 15 1863 the first submarine to sink a ship, the Confederate vessel H.L. Hunley, did… what? What do you suppose the first submarine, a hand-cranked experimental iron sort-of-floating tomb, did?

If you say “it sank” congratulations. You get a B. If you say “it sank, killing its inventor” you get an A-. And if you say “it sank again, killing its inventor H.L. Hunley” you get an A+.

After scuppering one prototype to avoid its capture by Union forces, the inventors produced a second that sank in Mobile Bay in February 1863. So they built the Hunley, which actually sank a coal barge before some dimwit stepped on the dive lever with the hatches open on August 29, 1863, drowning five of eight on board not including himself. Then on October 15 Hunley took her down in the intended manner to demonstrate a simulated attack and… and… do you see anything? No, I don’t. Shouldn’t she be back up by now? Is that a ripple? A swimmer? Nope. Um… maybe we better send down some divers.

Sure enough, the Confederates salvaged Hunley, and in place of the original plan to dive under an enemy ship towing a “mine” on a rope, they stuck a ram with a bomb on the end on her. And by golly, on February 17, 1864, Hunley rammed, exploded and deep-sixed the steam-powered 12-gun sloop Housatonic. And sank with all hands again.

It’s not quite clear why. It may have been a malfunctioning charge on the ram, she may have been run down by a Union vessel, the crew may have asphyxiated. There are so many possibilities. And that’s really my point.

On the one hand, to get into the Hunley even to test it was manifestly an act of insanity. On the other, if it weren’t for that brand of insanity we wouldn’t have submarines, blimps, airplanes and a lot of other things we don’t have because for every genius vindicated during his life or shortly after he perished in his invention, there are 50 guys who remain cranks, some with a Darwin Award asterisk beside their crankery.

So, Bold Visionary or Reckless Moron? Or could it just be that a lot of these guys were both? It sure looks that way from my armchair.


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You haven’t won since when?

The 1908 team

The 1908 team

Woo hoo! On this date in history the Chicago Cubs beat the Detroit Tigers 2-0 to win the world series. On October 14, 1908.

No, no, I have nothing against the Tigers. True, they were once bitter rivals of the Toronto Blue Jays. But hey, I always figured the other city is full of kids desperate to see their team win too. Something to do with sportsmanship or some such virtue.

Nor am I especially a fan of Chicago the place or Chicago sports teams although, again, I have no great animus against them. I just want to see the game played well, both technically and in the proper spirit. Which it often isn’t these days regardless of the sport you have in mind. But I digress.

The point is, I’m cheering for the Cubs because their glorious victory in 1908, back-to-back with 1907 after losing the 1906 series at the end of a modern-era-record .763 winning percentage, was… um… their last World Series win. That’s right. They haven’t won a title in over a century. They haven’t even won the NL championship in 71 years. The last time they played in a World Series, losing to the Tigers incidentally, was the same year World War II ended.

I bring it up not to make myself feel better about being a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. Though their inability to win a Stanley Cup since 1967 does seem a mere blip by comparison now that I come to think of it. Rather, it’s because of a question I have asked myself periodically about the Leafs, namely, would they win if I were their coach?

Now you laugh. But seriously, they’re a big-market team loaded with talent, looking really good on paper a lot of years. How do you make that sort of team lose so consistently that they become a joke? (You know, that photo of a skeleton in a Leafs jersey with a pennant. Ha ha ha.) Does it take some special ability, knowledge and force of character, so that if someone lacking hockey talent, ability or leadership were “in charge,” so to speak, the players would just go out and win on their own? I truly wonder.

It’s a disquieting thought, especially to management. But imagine that I had been blessed with temporary immortality and the irrevocable managership (managerhood?) of the Cubs back in 1909. For a hundred and seven years I’d have sat here on the bench saying things like “Pitch him high and tight, low and away” and “Get the bullpen up” when the starter walked three straight guys and “Slide, slide” when it was obvious the runner should slide, and making 16 consecutive strange signals whose basic message to the runner on first was “Steal if you think you can, but don’t be a doofus”. And a bunch of elite athletes would have gone out there and done the stuff they do like catching line drives and bunting to advance runners and hammering three-run home runs. Year after year.

Surely in one of those years, with me sitting on the bench looking wise and not interfering with them, they would have won a title. At least an NL title if not a World Series. It’s like the theory that a monkey throwing darts at a stock page would outperform most highly paid mutual fund managers. If you don’t know already, or guess from what your own savings are doing, I’m afraid I have to tell you that it’s pretty well attested that random choices would be an improvement. And by the same token, a monkey throwing darts at coaching options for the Leafs, or the Cubs, would have done better than their actual managers and coaches have.

Now I’m not saying I have the sports acumen, judgement or temperament of a monkey throwing darts. Not even. But I suspect I could do a better job of coaching a team than a lot of people who actually do it simply by knowing I’m less fit than a simian equipped with sharp objects and hence not actually coaching much. Give the occasional pep talk, utter banal advice like “Play the man, not the puck” and “Cover the pass, let the goalie handle the shot” and “Get in there and give it all you got” and watch passionately motivated professional athletes do what they love and do best, work things out in the huddle or the locker room and, once every 40 years or so, do it better than any of the other teams.

Anyway, I’m open to job offers. Because the way things are going with both teams, they’re going to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to people who consistently make those same athletes perform below .500, way below random, below anything fans can understand or stand.

If the Cubs win this year, and in fairness I should note they were 1st in the NL Central Division, had the best record in the NL and indeed in all of Major League Baseball in 2016, won the Division Series and may well go on to break one or even both their toxic streaks this year.

If so I’m still hoping the Leafs will call. I have my darts all packed.


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Wish I’d said that – October 14, 2016

“A man of my sort, who has traveled about the world in rough places, gets along perfectly well with two classes, what you may call the upper and the lower. He understands them and they understand him. I was at home with herds and tramps and roadmen, and I was sufficiently at my ease with people like Sir Walter and the men I had met the night before. I can’t explain why, but it is a fact. But what fellows like me don’t understand is the great comfortable, satisfied middle-class world, the folk that live in villas and suburbs. He doesn’t know how they look at things, he doesn’t understand their conventions, and he is as shy of them as of a black mamba.”

Narrator Richard Hannay in John Buchan The 39 Steps


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Bet after Alef but only after Eliezer

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

Some years ago while visiting Israel I tried to learn a bit of Hebrew. It didn’t really work very well. I picked up a few phrases like “More coffee” and “First, a bathroom” and “My friend will pay” and discovered that roughly half the letters in their consonant-heavy alphabet involve a guttural “ch” sound and that although Hebrew famously has no vowels, it does. But it’s amazing that all around me people were yammering on fluently in it, including immigrants who hadn’t spoken a sentence of it before making Aliyah or their escape.

I mention it not to underline my linguistic lack of virtuosity. Rather, it’s to stress how amazing it is that the first known Hebrew conversation in the modern world took place on October 13 of 1881. To be sure, Hebrew was spoken and sometimes even understood in synagogue rituals and I’m sure some pedants showed off by conversing in the ancient tongue of their people through the centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132-136 AD and the dispersal of Israel. But everyday Hebrew lapsed gradually into silence by about 400 AD.

In this of course it is not alone. Who speaks Gothic today, or Phoenician? But Hebrew rose again, in one of those developments we take too readily for granted because we know it happened instead of noticing how weird it is. It revived, and became again the language of a people in exactly the same way that Cornish didn’t despite being a boutique revival project.

Could anyone reassemble Assyria today? Or any number of kingdoms once far larger and prouder than Israel? Yet the nation and the language were both restored by people who may indeed have qualified as “stiff-necked” but in a good way. Especially Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, né Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman, who was part of that first-ever ancient-modern Hebrew conversation and whose son Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda (who changed his name to Itamar Ben-Avi for reasons not relevant to his narrative) was the first native Hebrew speaker in a thousand years and a darn lonely kid because of it. He grew up to be an ardent Zionist and advocate for Esperanto whose total lack of success reminds us again what a miracle it is that Hebrew did revive.

The family had a terrible time getting other people to agree to speak only Hebrew, and were ostracized by the ultra-Orthodox for using it for non-sacred purposes. But they persevered and I can tell you that when I was in Israel, an enormously multilingual and cosmopolitan place for the most part, constantly welcoming immigrants speaking Spanish, Russian or Amharic and needing a lot of help to match that first halting, pointed 1881 chat, we did get into some corners so obscure that we found unilingual people… speaking only Hebrew.

Ben-Yehuda laughs last. Gutturally, I imagine. But long and loud and rightly so.


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