Given the opportunity to go back in time to the summer of 2001 and invest in the manufacture of American flags, would you? I suppose that the question needs a bit more detail: You have the technology to go back in time, but only to the summer of 2001. While you are there, the only thing you can do is buy stock in a company that makes American flags and decorative magnets for automobiles. You have no power to substantially change any events and buying the stock does not change anything about the present except for how much money you have. Do you buy that stock?
I suspect that there are two common responses to this hypothetical: “Of course. I’d be foolish not to collect big ol’ dividends from the giant uptick in American flag sales,” and “No. The recent proliferation of flag-waving distresses me. Sights of streets lined with the national flag look shockingly similar to images from Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. Over-the-top nationalism and militarism is a serious problem in this country and I want nothing to do with it.”
Early 19th century American sculptor Horatio Greenough offers another reason not to invest in the mass-marketing of American flags: when the flag is everywhere, it loses any special meaning. (It is important to note that Greenough’s complaint came at a time when seeing five American flags in a single day seemed excessive; he could scarcely have imagined the modern applications.) Greenough’s essay Aesthetics in Washington includes a section entitled The Desecration of the Flag. Therein, Greenough explains why he thinks that the flag has no place at taverns or peepshows or even private homes: the flag is desecrated by being used simply as an ornament by anybody and everybody. It is a very special symbol and to have it plastered everywhere greatly diminishes how special it is.
Some might argue that as a free and democratic people, Americans have a right to use the flag however they see fit. Greenough seems reluctant to allow that. But he doesn’t have to. Even if people do have a right to use the flag, that doesn’t make it right. People have a right to “excessive beer-drinking and other gluttonies”, but that doesn’t mean that they should. Asserting the right to fly the flag or be rude or to curse is just bootstrapping simple barbarism to the noble concept of freedom, something the flag once stood for.
Beer of the Week: Tucher Helles Hefe Weizen - This past summer, I saw several American flag beer cans. Can anybody honestly say that using the flag as a marketing gimmick for cheap beer doesn’t cheapen the flag itself? Greenough would be disgusted to see the American flag in the form of a crumpled Budweiser can on the side of the road. Astute observers will notice that the design of the Tucher Helles Hefe Weizen can is patterned after the flag of Bavaria. But Tucher’s can has a problem that even worse than it’s dubious use of the Bavarian flag; the can claims this beer is brewed “in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot.” I seem to mention this former law quite often. I know that it is just a marketing tactic to make the beer sound natural and pure, but when it is patently false it just irks me. Wheat was not an acceptable ingredient under the Reinheitsgebot (neither was yeast, but that is another issue,) so it is impossible for a hefeweizen to comply with the law. False advertising not withstanding, the beer is alright. It is light and cloudy and it smells of banana. The flavor matches the smell exactly, which is actually a bit of a shame because it doesn’t really have any spice or bite at all; it is just sweet and smooth. It is missing something, but what it does have is pretty good.
Reading of the week: The Desecration of the Flag by Horatio Greenough – This is the second reading choice from an author mentioned in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s English Traits. Therein, Emerson wrote that “Greenough was a superior man, ardent and eloquent, and all his opinions had elevation and magnanimity.” He was also, by Emerson’s account, very handsome. The Desecration of the Flag is a section of an essay entitled Aesthetics in Washington, which also includes an interesting architectural critique of the Washington Monument.
Question of the week: Would you go back in time and invest in the flag company?
Alternatively: Is it not profoundly ironic that many of the people who would purchase American flag underpants or special edition American flag beers are the people who claim the most respect for the flag itself? (Unfortunately, I suspect that this hypothetical person is not self-aware enough to express his opinions about the flag in this way: “Flag burning should be a crime and I regard it in no way hypocritical that I leave shit stains on a pair of boxers that are designed to look like Old Glory.”)
Nearly everybody is familiar with the myth of Icarus, the youth who flew too close to the sun on man-made wings and plunged into the sea when the heat caused the wings to fail. I just typed “flew to” into Google and the first auto-complete suggestion was “flew too close to the sun”. That is a real testament to how thoroughly ingrained the story of Icarus is in our culture. Even more evidence of how deep this story is embedded in our collective consciousness is the way that Icarus appears in pop culture. When George Constanza on Seinfeld got dumped because he brought a cold cut sandwich into bed, he told Jerry that he “flew too close to the sun on wings of pastrami.”
The lesson of the story seems obvious; Icarus fell because he overreached. If he had only been more cautious, he would not have crashed into the sea and drowned. But “don’t fly too high” is only part of the moral. In Ovid’s retelling of the ancient myth, Icarus’s father Daedalus warned about flying too high but also about flying too low. Flying too close to the sun would scorch the wings, but flying too close to the sea would weigh them down with moisture. “Take the middle way,” he cautioned, “Travel between the extremes.” With that advice, the story really appears to be about moderation. And moderation happens to be a popular topic on this blog.
The dangers of being immoderate are especially acute as we move into Lent. On one hand, there is Mardi Gras, during which many people engage in all manner of excess. (Like that one Fasnacht Day that I ate an entire box of donuts.) If the reports are true, there are a few cities that really go to extremes. But the excesses of Fat Tuesday are followed by the austerity of Ash Wednesday and Lent. As I have pointed out before, abstention is immoderate. There is certainly value in giving up something for Lent as a way to focus on what really matters. But focusing on the abstention itself is just another kind of excess. So if you are going to give something up for Lent make sure that you apply yourself to ordering your soul and don’t dwell on the thing that you are missing.
Beer of the Week: Mythos – Sometimes the beers I review have nothing to do with the reading. This time, however, is an obvious slam dunk. From the time I saw Mythos on the shelf, I knew that I’d have to read Ovid. The can informs us that Mythos is “the World’s Most Famous Hellenic Beer.” Of course since Greece is not exactly known for its beer, this honor is not quite as impressive as it could be. This pale lager has a pleasant aroma that is somewhat malty. The flavor is understated, with some light grass notes and a bit of lingering hop oil in the finish. It is primarily a good beer for quenching thirst since it goes down like water. As a light, drinking beer, there is nothing wrong with it. It is not exactly mythical in quality, but it is appropriate for a sunny Mediterranean beach.
Reading of the week: Metamorphoses by Ovid, Bk VIII:183-235 - There was a time when every educated American was well acquainted with Ovid. Unfortunately this has changed considerably. As noted above, the stories are still part of our culture but their origin is not known by most people. I mentioned that “flew too close to the sun” came up right away on Google. What I didn’t mention is that most of the results for that search were “who flew too close to the sun?” The underlying story is there, but the details are mostly forgotten.
Question of the week: What is the most that you could give up without dwelling on the loss?
I recently received a letter in which my friend announced his intention to stop arguing with people when they say that they do not like winter. He is convinced of the correctness of his love for winter and anything that is already true and right does not need to be defended. There is no need for him to argue because being right is its own victory.
To the extent that winter means skiing and hot apple cider with rum, I think that it is clear how winter is wonderful. To the extent that my breath freezes in my mustache and my neighbors never shovel their sidewalk, winter is dreadful. Luckily, when winter becomes overly oppressive, we are at liberty to turn our minds to warmer subjects and grant ourselves respite from winter’s weary ways.
So if you are cold and longing for fairer weather, imagine a sunny day with a warm and gentle breeze. And from the top of a lush green hill, you look down on a sparkling, blue lake. Along the cost of the lake are myriad golden daffodils fluttering in the aforementioned breeze, almost dancing.
Doesn’t that sound pleasant? Doesn’t it sound familiar? It should; after all, that is the scene that William Wordsworth conjures in the poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. In the poem, Wordsworth claims that he imagines the daffodils when he is “In vacant or in pensive mood,” but I wouldn’t be surprised if he also turns his mind to that beautiful spring day when he gets fed up with winter.
Beer of the Week: Kunstmann Lager – I’ve never been to South America, but I have been led to believe that it is currently summer there. So I’ve decided to pair this reading with a Chilean beer. Kunstmann Lager is very clear and light. It is alright, but somewhat weak in the flavor department. One can taste hints of the same malt flavors found in Kunstmann Bock and Kunstmann’s Pale Ale, however, it is not quite as good as either of those two. It really is a decent beer and is better than many similar beers, but it is still my least favorite so far from this Chilean brewer.
Reading of the week: I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth – The reading last week was from English Traits by Emerson. I was so impressed with the people that Emerson got to meet personally, that I’ve decided to read works by many of them. So here is the first of a series of readings inspired by English Traits: a lovely little poem about flowers and the ability to “flash upon that inward eye” and imagine beautiful scenes.
Question of the week: Where is your “happy place”?
Today I watched a marathon of the television show Shark Tank.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, if I remember high school English class correctly, was a close friend and mentor of Thoreau. He also had a correspondence with Walt Whitman. Whitman, it seems, was acquainted with Oscar Wilde. (And if the rumors are true, they were “well acquainted”, if you catch my drift.) But Emerson’s connections did not stop there.
In his book English Traits, Emerson describes meeting and conversing with a number of great artists and literary figures of his day: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, William Wordsworth, Thomas de Quincey, and more. I suppose that it should not be shocking that these sorts of gentlemen would move about in the same circles, but I still find it remarkable that so much talent and intellectual power should be found among a small group of people who know each other. It calls to mind Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle and Theophrastus, although those gentlemen were all in the same city*.
Even more interesting than the people Emerson met was the conversations that they had. In English Traits, he describes conversations about a wide range of topics, from poetry and politics to art and architecture. These men were not just writers, they were well educated and extremely well rounded intellectuals. Reading this book has made my painfully aware of my own educational deficiencies. I imagine being introduced to Emerson and the conversation flagging. He, naturally, would want to talk about modern trends in art and philosophy. I would sheepishly admit that I know nothing about either subject and ask if he’d ever seen Shark Tank.
Beer of the Week: Köstritzer Schwarzbier - One would expect me to pair an English beer with English Traits. However, I chose a German beer to help make up for something that Emerson missed out on. When he traveled Europe, Emerson did not visit Germany because Goethe was already dead. Not only did Emerson not get to meet Goethe, he didn’t get to drink delicious German beers! “Schwarzbier” means “black beer”, and Köstritzer lives up to the name. It is not quite as black as pitch, but very little light makes it through when the glass is held up to the light. The aroma is mostly malty. The flavor has plenty of influence from the dark-roasted malt, but there is also a nice balance of hops to round out it out. The feel is light and refreshing for a beer this dark. Overall, this is a very nice beer.
Reading for the Week: English Traits by Ralph Waldo Emerson – This selection of English Traits includes Emerson’s account of his meeting with Walter Savage Landor (to whom he was introduced by the very well known American sculptor Horatio Greenough.) They discussed everything from ancient art to entomology. What an fascinating conversation that must have been.
Question for the week: What is the reason that there are apparently so few thoroughly rounded intellectuals these days? Is it because of increased disciplinary specialization?
My college experience included a mandatory music tutorial. Singing was a big part of the class. Everybody was required to learn and sing works by Mozart, Palestrina and, naturally, St. John’s alumnus Francis Scott Key.
Although every single student was required to take this course, rumor has it that some professors refused to teach it on philosophical grounds. Their objection was not that it was an unfair requirement or that the forced singing was cruel; their objection was that the music was too good. These professors were non-Christians, and since the bulk of the music we studied was religious, they were concerned that the beauty and power of the music would break down their rational defenses against religion. Being forced to listen to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion over and over might undermine their reason and and convert them. Music is that powerful.
Nobody seemed concerned that listening to Don Giovanni over and over might turn them into amazing lovers.
Beer of the Week: Warsteiner Premium Verum -”Verum” means “truth”. Whether the name implies that it is “truly premium” or a “true pilsner”, I do not know. Perhaps the meaning could be that this is “true beer”. Although a bit light on both smell and flavor, I could get behind the claim that this is “true beer.” This seems like a very solid, if not exceptional, European pilsner; and to me a good pilsner is true beer.
Recording for the Week: Ave Verum Corpus by Wolfgang Mozart – Instead of a reading this week, there is an audio recording. There are plenty of wonderful pieces of music that I could have used to illustrate the point about the power of music, but I could not pass up the opportunity to pair Premium Verum beer with Ave Verum Corpus. Not being able to understand Latin is no defense against the power this piece of religious music. The music is so beautiful that the words simply must be right; how can something so wonderful be wrong?
(Then again, the titular “magic flute” in Mozart’s great opera has been claimed by some to be little more than a thinly veiled dick joke. So beautiful music doesn’t always carry with it profound truth.)
Question for the week: Almost everybody has felt music effect their mood, but has it ever effected your reason?
This is a very popular time of year for people to go on vacations. You can tell by all of the beach photos showing up on your facebook feed. So (aside from drinking beer) what is the best way to relax while on holiday?
Turn of the century astronomer Simon Newcomb had a few thoughts on the subject. In his essay The Extent of the Universe, Newcomb writes that “Bodily rest may be obtained at any time by ceasing from our labors, and weary systems may find nerve rest at any summer resort;” but that is merely physical rest. To rest the mind and the soul he prescribes contemplation of the night sky:
“I know of no way in which complete rest can be obtained for the weary soul—in which the mind can be so entirely relieved of the burden of all human anxiety—as by the contemplation of the spectacle presented by the starry heavens.”
The movements of the heavenly bodies are regular, ordered and unchanging. (Well, not exactly unchanging, but Newcomb points out that the amount of change over the whole history of human existence has been all but imperceptible.) This is why the astronomer Ptolemy asserted that the study and contemplation of the skies instills the soul with “the sameness, good order, due proportion, and simple directness contemplated in divine things.”
So even if you don’t get a chance to go on a fancy vacation, pick a clear night when you can lie on your back with a beer in hand (be careful when trying to drink in that position) and marvel at the beauty and order of the heavens. “The thinking man who does this under circumstances most favorable for calm thought will form a new conception of the wonder of the universe.”
Beer of the week: 5,0 Original Export – Despite only 5.2% alcohol it does taste more strongly of alcohol than the 5.0% 5,0 Original Pils. The whole brand is about making beer as cheaply as possible, so it is hard to be disappointed. It isn’t very good, but is exactly what it aims to be: a drinkable, very cheap beer. (No surprise that it is a product of Oettinger.)
Reading of the week: The Extent of the Universe by Simon Newcomb, Excerpt – In the hundred or so years since Mr. Newcomb died, tremendous advances and discoveries have occurred in the field of astronomy, but that is no reason to stop reading his work. The philosophical truths about the contemplation of the heavens remain unchanged.
Question of the week: Why does Newcomb think that the contemplation of the heavens can relieve anxiety while Pascal claims that thinking about the vastness of space fills him with dread? Is the difference in how they are thinking about the subject? Or is it due to a fundamental difference in the men themselves?
I like hunting, but I need justification for ending a life, even the life of a small rodent. In my mind, there are two valid reasons for hunting: use (including meat, leather, other useful animal bits) and pest control. Killing an animal for a trophy or simply for the thrill seems extremely wasteful to me.
My father hunts foxes and coyotes, and this requires a different justification: competition. Since my father primarily hunts deer and small game, he is in direct competition with coyotes and foxes. He reasons that if he doesn’t kill the coyote, the coyote will kill the deer that he wants for himself. I don’t buy that as a justification for killing foxes or coyotes.
In the first place predators play an important role in population control. And population control, you may remember, is one of the reasons for hunting in the first place. My father wants all the deer to himself, but there are already too many deer. The deer population in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is so high that there are more deer-car collisions here than in almost any other state. So from a simple balanced ecosystem stand-point, we want more predators, not fewer.
My second (and more aesthetic) objection to hunting predators is that it doesn’t seem sporting. If I shoot a rabbit I eat it, but hunting is still primarily for sport; and shooting your competitors is simply not according to Hoyle. If killing the competing predators is acceptable, then is the next logical step shooting other hunters? Perhaps Dick Cheney wasn’t a terrible shot with atrocious gun-handling habits; he just wanted all of the game for himself.
Beer of the Week: DAB Original by Dortmunder Actien Brauerei: I thought that the “A” in “DAB” was for the word “aktion” (action); that’s why I have paired this beer with an action-packed hunting reading. However, the word is actually “actien” (joint-stock?). Oh well. The beer itself is good, but not remarkable. It is much better than comparable American macro-brews, but this German macro has its own mass-production stamped all over it.
Reading for the Week: War and Peace by Count Leo Tolstoy – Book Seven of War and Peace includes a grand wolf hunt. After the wolf is captured, the hunters move on to small game. The dogs in the hunt are worth entire villages and their owners are keen to test them against each other.
Question for the week: Given the cost of equipment, travel and time off work,how expensive is a pound of game meat really?