Old Man River

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Because of its importance to the region’s Māori people, New Zealand’s Whanganui River is legally a person, with rights, duties, and liabilities, including the right to be represented in court proceedings.

Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson said the river will be recognized as a person “in the same way a company is, which will give it rights and interests.”

Gerrard Albert, lead negotiator for the Whanganui iwi (tribe), said, “We have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that from our perspective treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as an indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management.”

In 2011, residents of Ecuador sued the provincial government of Loja on behalf of the Vilcabama River to stop a road-widening project that was forcing rocks and debris into the watershed. A “rights of nature” provision in Ecuador’s constitution permits people to sue on behalf of an ecosystem. A judge decided in favor of the river, and the municipality had to cancel the project and rehabilitate the area.

Cold Facts

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Victorian and Edwardian boys could send confidential questions to the Boy’s Own Paper and look for responses in the “Answers to Correspondents” column:

  • “We are not sure of the colour of the South-Eastern Railway Carriages. The paint is rarely visible owing to the thick covering of dirt by which it is concealed.” (July 28, 1888)
  • “Your insect was smashed in the post, but we have identified the fragments as those of Cetonia aurata, the common rose-beetle. Next time you send us a specimen, put it in a box.”
  • “You cannot safely treat rupture yourself.” (July 1888)
  • “It is extremely unlikely that Victor Hugo would ever answer any of your letters, even if we forwarded them. He has been dead quite some years.”

One of the editors, Scottish physician Gordon Stables, seemed to have a particular favorite remedy for health questions:

  • “Rise not later than 7 and cold tub immediately. In very cold weather massage yourself all over before turning out, and then with the rough towel after the cold tub. Breakfast at 8, but only after ten minutes in the open air.”
  • “Swimming in winter (Mac.). — Few can stand it, but judge for yourself if you can get a good reaction. Dr. Gordon Stables tells us that he joined his swimming club in December when a student. Keeps it up all the year round. Has swum for his life with his heavy clothes on in the Arctic regions. Took no hurt. Others might.” (January 1905)
  • (To a girl who “wanted to get strong like the boys”:) “You have tried the really cold tub and the B.O.P. dumb-bell exercises every morning before breakfast, my dear?”

When one boy said he longed for a fine pair of whiskers, he was told that “a really cold tub” was his only hope. A New Zealand reader who asked for something to help his nerves was advised to “take plenty of exercise in the open air and a cold tub every morning before breakfast.”

What if there was no tub in the house? “Douche yourself regularly 365 days a year in the mornings on rising, and 366 in any Leap Year, with 30 sponge loads of the coldest water obtainable. We presume there is somewhere around where you can do this with discretion.” (Footnote: “The water must be really cold.”)

To a boy in Northern Ontario: “On no account should you ever cut a circular hole in the winter ice to get a cold tub. You would certainly freeze to death very quickly but it is also probable you might well provide a tasty meal for some hungry seal lurking below. In your case, wait for the spring thaws.”

Stables didn’t mince words. In 1905 he wrote, “The children of the wealthy and well-to-do in cities are apt to be spoiled by pampering and coddling and over-feeding. Cargoes of such little fat boys would sell well in some parts of new Guinea, but in this country they do not assist in the very least to keep the crown on the King’s head.” To a boy inquiring about “bad habits” in 1902, he wrote, “Coffins are cheap and boys like you are not of much use in the world. We do not answer by post.” Admonished for this, he published a modified reply in the Boy’s Own Annual for that year: “If you go on as you are, there is nothing before you but an early and dishonoured grave. Pray God to forgive and help you to resist temptation.”

(Jack Cox, Take a Cold Tub, Sir!, 1982.)

In a Word

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diremption
n. a forcible separation; a tearing asunder

phronesis
n. practical judgment; the faculty of conducting oneself wisely

obsecrate
v. to entreat (a person) earnestly

rescribe
v. to write back; to write in reply

From Betty’s Weekly, Feb. 19, 1916:

Dear Betty — My boy has been in the trenches for six months, and expects to get furlough any moment. What I want to ask is that, if you were me, would you meet him at the station, or would you wait for him at home?

You ask me a difficult question, little girl, and I find it hard to advise you. Were I you I’d want with all my heart and soul to be the first woman my boy would see when he arrived. And yet, dear, the meeting him after all he’s been through would mean so much to me and to him, too, that I don’t think I could bear to see him in public. Really and truly, were I you, I’d wait for him alone somewhere — at home, if possible. Somehow, such a meeting is too sacred to be witnessed by anybody. But be sure you go to see him off when he leaves for the Front again, and be as brave as you can, dear.

Perspective

On Wednesday, July 6, he was engaged to sup with me at my lodgings in Downing-street, Westminster. But on the preceding night my landlord having behaved very rudely to me and some company who were with me, I had resolved not to remain another night in his house. I was exceedingly uneasy at the awkward appearance I supposed I should make to Johnson and the other gentlemen whom I had invited, not being able to receive them at home, and being obliged to order supper at the Mitre. I went to Johnson in the morning, and talked of it as a serious distress. He laughed, and said, ‘Consider, Sir, how insignificant this will appear a twelvemonth hence.’–Were this consideration to be applied to most of the little vexatious incidents of life, by which our quiet is too often disturbed, it would prevent many painful sensations. I have tried it frequently, with good effect. ‘There is nothing (continued he) in this mighty misfortune; nay, we shall be better at the Mitre.’

— James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791

Decorum

In Notorious there’s a strangely chaste scene of passion in which Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant hold one another, gaze into each other’s eyes, and declare their love, but only intermittently kiss. Grant even places a phone call during the clinch. The reason is the Hays code, a set of moral guidelines that Hollywood had adopted in 1930. Among other things, it declared that:

The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld … Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown.

The practical rule was that a screen kiss must not last more than 3 seconds. So Alfred Hitchcock simply toed that line. Bergman later recalled, “We just kissed each other and talked, leaned away and kissed each other again … the censors couldn’t and didn’t cut the scene because we never at any one point kissed for more than three seconds … we nibbled on each other’s ears, and kissed a cheek, so that it looked endless.” In fact it lasted two and a half minutes.

Personal

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Victorian England had a vogue in “confession albums,” in which friends asked each other to record their answers to such questions as “What do you consider the most beautiful thing in nature?” and “What peculiarity can you most tolerate?” According to Evan Kindley in Questionnaire, “They functioned as a kind of intimate currency among the literate classes,” sometimes serving as a prop in courtship rituals.

And occasionally some prominent intellectuals submitted to them. Here’s Karl Marx:

The quality you like best: Simplicity
In man: Strength
In woman: Weakness
Your chief characteristic: Singleness of purpose
Your favourite occupation: Glancing at Netchen [his cousin]
The vice you hate most: Servility
The vice you excuse most: Gullibility
Your idea of happiness: To fight
Your idea of misery: To submit
Your aversion: Martin Tupper [an English writer of moralistic verses]
Your hero: Spartacus, Keppler [Johannes Kepler, the astronomer]
Your heroine: Gretchen [of Goethe’s Faust]
The poet you like best: Aeschylus, Shakespeare
The prose writer you like best: Diderot
Your favourite flower: Daphne
Your favourite dish: Fish
Your maxim: Nihil humani a me alienum puto [Nothing human is alien to me]
Your motto: De omnibus dubitandum [Doubt everything]

Some other responses: Friedrich Engels’ idea of misery was “to go to a dentist,” Arthur Conan Doyle’s present state of mind was “jaded,” and Oscar Wilde’s distinguishing characteristic was “inordinate self-esteem.”

The F-Scale

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1947 Theodor Adorno devised a test to measure the authoritarian personality — he called it the F-scale, because it was intended to measure a person’s potential for fascist sympathies:

  • Although many people may scoff, it may yet be shown that astrology can explain a lot of things.
  • Too many people today are living in an unnatural, soft way; we should return to the fundamentals, to a more red-blooded, active way of life.
  • After we finish off the Germans and Japs, we ought to concentrate on other enemies of the human race such as rats, snakes, and germs.
  • One should avoid doing things in public which appear wrong to others, even though one knows that these things are really all right.
  • He is, indeed, contemptible who does not feel an undying love, gratitude, and respect for his parents.
  • Homosexuality is a particularly rotten form of delinquency and ought to be severely punished.
  • There is too much emphasis in college on intellectual and theoretical topics, not enough emphasis on practical matters and on the homely virtue of living.
  • No matter how they act on the surface, men are interested in women for only one reason.
  • No insult to our honor should ever go unpunished.
  • What a man does is not so important so long as he does it well.
  • When you come right down to it, it’s human nature never to do anything without an eye to one’s own profit.
  • No sane, normal, decent person could ever think of hurting a close friend or relative.

Adorno hoped that making the questions oblique would encourage participants to reveal their candid feelings, “for precisely here may lie the individual’s potential for democratic or antidemocratic thought and action in crucial situations.”

“The F-scale … was adopted by quite a few experimental psychologists and sociologists, and remained in the repertoire of the social sciences well into the 1960s,” writes Evan Kindley in Questionnaire (2016). But it’s been widely criticized — Adorno and his colleagues assumed that any attraction to fascist ideas was pathological; the statements were worded so that agreement always indicated an authoritarian response; and people with high intelligence tended to see through the “indirect” items anyway.

Ironically, the test’s dubious validity might be a good thing, Kindley notes: Otherwise, “If something like the F-scale were to fall into the wrong hands, couldn’t it become a vehicle of tyranny?”

Podcast Episode 194: The Double Life of Clarence King

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American geologist Clarence King led a strange double life in the late 1800s: He invented a second identity as a black railroad porter so he could marry the woman he loved, and then spent 13 years living separate lives in both white and black America. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the extraordinary lengths that King went to in order to be with the woman he loved.

We’ll also contemplate the dangers of water and puzzle over a policeman’s strange behavior.

See full show notes …

Not So Fast

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In 1700 the body of John Dryden was arrested pending payment of his debts.

Before 1804 the cadaver of a debtor could be held hostage by the creditor until the dead person’s loved ones could pay the arrears.

Finally in the case Jones v. Ashburnham, Lord Ellenborough declared that the practice was “contrary to every principle of law and moral feeling. Such an act is revolting to humanity, and illegal, and, therefore, any promise extorted by it could never be valid law.”

FWIW

How to get a boy to kiss you, from the advice column in Mirabelle, Nov. 18, 1961:

Here’s a trick a very pretty film star swears by. Look deep into your boy’s eyes. Fine, now you have got his attention. Drop your eyes to take a lingering look at his lips and then raise your eyes to his again. It’s practically irresistible.