Tuesday, March 28, 2006

An odd reason to lie

The corruption trial of ex-Governor George Ryan was nearly derailed (and may yet be aborted) because two jurors lied on their questionnaires. They didn’t acknowledge potentially disqualifying history. One of them has felony convictions for drunk driving, and once had to be rousted from his home by the SWAT team, where he was holed up with unlicensed shotguns. The other has been arrested several times on drug charges. Both have been removed from the jury, which has been deliberating for several days, and replaced by alternate jurors. (This procedure may not survive appeal; the alternative is a mistrial.)

What baffles me is why they lied. Most people want to get out of jury duty, especially when it’s a big case that could last for months. Yet these people lied their way onto the jury in just such a case.

The Y1K Panic

Here's an example of the Flamingo's wriggling: this essay by medieval historian Richard Landes of Boston University. It explores the reaction of French scholars to his work on the extent and the remarkable social effects on Catholic Europe and especially France of the millenialist panic of 1000 A.D. That there was such a panic was proposed by the 19th century French historian Jules Michelet. Later historians rejected the idea, citing the almost complete absence from contemporary chronicles of any mention of such a panic.

Then after WW II, the Annales school of French historians began to pursue “social history.” They looked to what the great mass of people commonly believed and thought (and did), and how those beliefs and thoughts and doings changed. This school found “a vast and profound cultural mutation” at the turn of the millenium.

Landes, building on their work, and using the memoirs of the monk Ademar of Chabannes, revived the idea of a millenial panic, and then linked it to the social changes. He even goes so far as to assert that the panic (and the reaction to its fizzle) triggered developments which made French culture the seed of medieval and then modern Europe. These developments flowed through the masses and not the rulers. The absence of explict millenial-panic references can be explained, too: the clerics who composed the chronicles preferred to forget about this embarrassing episode.

That’s something I never thought of, never even imagined. One element of Landes’ argument is that calendric millenarianism (wait for the year 1000) was used over and over again in earlier centuries to discredit self-appointed prophets and messiahs who preached an imminent Day of Judgment. This bill came due, eventually, and the impact was enought to shake up the whole society.

Or so Landes argues. About half the essay is about the radical change in French history in the 1990s, when the “vast mutation” thesis was repudiated, and how this led to Landes’ rejection by French historians, including a couple of books devoted to refuting him. Landes argues that this was due to the French elite’s discomfort with society being changed by the commons.

Friday, March 24, 2006

What the name signifies

One of the episodes in Alice in Wonderland is the Queen of Heart's croquet game. Like everything in Wonderland, the game is absurd. The balls are curled-up live hedgehogs, which unroll and walk away when they feel like it. The arches are the Queen's playing-card soldiers, bent over double. They too move about at will. And the mallets are flamingos: the player cradles the flamingo's body with the neck and head hanging down to strike.
The chief difficulty Alice found at first was in managing her flamingo: she succeeded in getting its body tucked away, comfortably enough, under her arm, with its legs hanging down, but generally, just as she had got its neck nicely straightened out, and was going to give the hedgehog a blow with its head, it would twist itself round and look up in her face, with such a puzzled expression that she could not help bursting out laughing…
Robert Heinlein used this as a metaphor for his narrator's reaction to Nevia, the world where half of the action of his seems-like-heroic-fantasy-but-is-really-SF novel Glory Road is set.
Like Alice trying to cope with the Flamingo, every time I thought I had it licked, it would wiggle loose.
That's how I see the world today: every time I think I have it grasped, it wriggles loose. Something turns out to be wildly different from what I had come to expect. When I encounter such a surprise, I'll blog about it here.