Monday, October 29, 2018

Secret Edict Seventeen



The knock came against the great oak door, once, then again.  Not demanding, not a hammering, but precise and clear.  A polite, clear request.

The old woman roused herself from a half slumber.  A guest?  But none was expected.  Everything was such a mess.  She was such a mess.  She sighed, and spoke a word over her unbrushed and thinning hair.   It sorted itself into a semblance of order as she heaved her old bones upright.

"Who is it," she said, just loudly enough that the door could hear.

"Director Hermione Granger-Weasley, of the Ministry of Magic," thrummed the door, officiously.

The woman's eyes brightened with pleasure.

"Well, let her in!"

The door complied with equal pleasure, opening in a single well oiled motion, proudly unsqueaking.

A trim and neatly dressed woman in early middle age entered, her all-business demeanor slightly subverted by a barely controlled storm of grey and chestnut hair.

"Minerva," she said, with a soft smile. She approached, and took the old woman's proffered hand as she struggled to rise.  "It's been too long.  And please, sit, sit."

McGonagall returned the smile, and eased herself back down into her chair.  Hermione settled into onto the ottoman that had helpfully crawled up behind her.   The retired professor clapped her hands gently, and whispered a word, and a tea service floated across the room, the tray heaped with jellied biscuits and magically fresh scones.  A cup of perfect Earl Grey settled in on a side table.

"Would you care for some, my dear?"

"Yes, but not quite yet."

"Oh, Hermione.  It has indeed been too long.  How are you?"  Her eyes leapt to Hermione's hair.  "I mean, other than you all of a sudden going rather impressively grey."

Hermione gave a short snort at the familiar, friendly poke.  "Things are well.  And we shall talk, we shall, but..."

The old woman's lips pursed.  "A business call, is it?  Ministry business?"

"Only partially.  But yes, yes it is."

McGonagall laughed.  "Right to the point as always.  I'd expect nothing less.  We can talk pleasantries later, I suppose.  And it's nice to know my old bones are still useful to the Ministry.  You will stay for tea after, won't you?  Gryffinsrest is lovely, but, well.  One grows weary of being alone."

"Of course, Minerva.  That's mostly why I'm here.  For tea, and for you.  But business before pleasure."

Before McGonagall could reply, Hermione continued.  "I've been reviewing the Wizarding War Archives.  Part of a larger research project, of course.  The history I'm working on, you know, the one I mentioned the last time I was here.   I came across something, well, something that you did while working with the Ministry when you were part of that effort.  The files are incomplete, and it's...well...it's troubling me."  An uncharacteristic hesitancy entered her voice.  "I...it..."

"Well, out with it, my dear."

"What do you know about Secret Edict Seventeen?  I'd always wondered, you know, why it was that everyone wouldn't speak his name during his initial rise.  I mean, there was the fear, and I understood that.  But it seemed too...neat.  Too consistent.  Too accepted as the way things needed to be.  Must not be named?  But why?  Why did everyone just not say it, for so very long?

And then I stumbled across it in the archives, in the files of the Special Circumstance Team of the Ministry.  SE17.   Utterly secret, of course.  Only two dozen wizards appear to even have known of its existence.  The records, just fragments.  Most of them destroyed."

The old woman's voice, a firm whisper.  "SE17: Of Deepest Secret.  A Semiotic Dweomer, Contramaleficent, Antidynamus, Silentium, Polis Pacebis."

"You helped write it?"

"Yes, my dear.  Yes I did.  That's why my name is on it."

"And Secret Edit Seventeen was the real reason none of us could bring ourselves to speak his name, not until Harry started doing it?"

"Indeed."

Hermione leaned in closer.  "But why?"

"There came a point, my dear, when we realized that it was necessary.  We had no choice."

"I'm not sure I'm following, Minerva."

"It was at the height of his rise, you know, before that moment when he failed to kill Harry.  Before his curse rebounded and struck him down.  He was everywhere.  Every single page of the Daily Prophet, his name, his leering, confident face, his confident, lying words.  And if it wasn't about some horrid thing he'd done or said, it was an earnest writer or commentator reflecting on it or lamenting it or in full fledged panic about it.

Even the Quibbler, my gracious, he was even there, mixed amongst all the delightful Lovegood silliness.  His name, carried by every owl, spoken of in every tavern, souring the froth of a first year's first taste of butterbeer.  His name, whispered and shouted and muttered until it was all you could think about.  All you could dream about.

And with the endless repetition, there was the fear.  It was palpable, that fear, among those of us who knew what he was and could become, and fear became the curse itself.  Among the Death Eaters, the name was power, pure power.  It affirmed them, told them they were important, sang to them a dark song, a song that tore at everything the Wizarding world was and had been, and put their hatred up in its place.

For months, my dear, months, it grew.  Until, finally, some of us working with the Ministry realize that it was..."

Hermione settled back, her head nodding slowly.

"A spell.  His name was a spell."

McGonagall's eyes twinkled behind the thick crystal depth of her lenses, a flicker of a prim smile on her thinning lips.  "Precisely.  Nice to see your years in Ministry bureaucracy haven't dulled your lovely mind, Hermione.  His name itself was a subtle spell, one no-one at the Ministry was ever able to replicate or grasp.  I was part of the team that found it, that worked to break it, and...well...we just couldn't."

"But a Secret Edict?  Minerva, shouldn't we have been told?  Why hide it?"

McGonagall sighed, a gentle deflation of her age-slightened frame.

"Of course, ideally, yes, people should have been told.  Flitwick argued for more openness, because of course he did.  Filius was such an idealist, even more so than most Ravenclaws.  His goblin side, no doubt.  But ultimately...no.  In the end we realized that it could not be so.  His spell was crafted against such countermeasures.

Do not think of X, we would say, because X is a secret dark curse blighting your soul, we would say.  'His name is a spell, one that builds his power each time you speak it,' the Prophet would publish.  'Beware!'  And everyone would know it...and we would only have made it worse." 

"Worse?"   Hermione frowned.  "How?"

"The minds of muggles...forgive me, dear...and wizards are not so different.  Telling everyone not to think the word of his name...the word of the spell...would only magnify the collective incantation.  Experiments at the Ministry confirmed it. "

"Like saying, don't think of a Nimbus 5500," said Hermione, softly.  "And all you can think of, at that moment, is..."

"Is this year's most excellent broom," finished McGonagall.  "Yes.  That's quite it.  It's a spell that preys on that same basic weakness of the human mind, our fundamental reliance on the symbols that both represent reality and allow wizards to cast the spells that shape it."

"And so the Edict was meant to quiet things?  To weaken the fear?  To still the power that the endless cycling of his name-spell gave him?"

McGonegal sighed again.  "That was the Ministry's intent.  SE17 wasn't just a regulation, of course, or even a law.  It was a spell in its own right.  Complex and deep, and one that required a dozen of us to cast."  She paused, considering something.

"I had my part, of course, particularly as the Ministry came to the decision to cast it.  But the design of it, the intricacies of the casting?   That was mostly Severus.  I'm not quite sure if it worked. But for a while, it seemed to make a difference.  His face, gone from the Prophet.  The Quibbler, back to babbling about oddities.  Evil things happened, but his name wasn't bound to them.  Talk grew less.  For a while, it weakened him.  People felt, well, almost normal again.  Even with all of the terrible things going on."

"And then he made the mistake of trying to kill Lily's little baby boy.  He didn't make many mistakes then, my dear.  I'd like to think that our dulling his power blinded him to his inevitable failure.  To the trap he was setting for himself and his blighted, fragmented soul.  Perhaps, in a small way, it helped."  She paused.  Hermione sat still, watching her.

"Perhaps," said Hermione, breaking the silence.

The old professor cupped her tea in the papery flesh of her hands, feeling the warmth of the Earl Grey within.  She sipped it, and gave a short exhalation of pleasure.

"Oh, that's nice."

Hermione's lips pursed, puzzling over something, her mind busy beneath her partially contained mop of graying frizz.

"Minerva?"

"Yes, my dear?"

"We haven't used his name, not once, this entire conversation."

The old woman raised her chin.  Lowering her glasses, she narrowed her eyes and gave Hermione a piercing look, one which sparked and danced with a lingering fire.

"No, my dear.  No.  We have not."

Monday, October 15, 2018

Of Silence in an Evil Time


It was a sermon remnant, an odd outlier that required attention.

I was reflecting on the book of Amos, one of the fiercest prophets of justice in the Hebrew scriptures.  Most of the message worked with what I was preparing, reflecting on how socioeconomic power disparities create additional suffering in times of ecological crisis.  And, of course, how pleased Jesus is at all the unnecessary suffering our greed creates.

A nice, light, sermon, in other words. 

But one verse from Amos just stuck in my soul's craw.  It didn't mesh.  It needed more attention.

"Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time."

From one of the fiercest and loudest prophetic critics of greed and injustice in scripture, that was...strange.  "Enigmatic," as my study bible so helpfully offered.

I mucked about in commentaries for a bit, and found the sort of disagreement that tends to arise when scholars are really just kind of spitballing at something. 

A minority suggested that this meant that the "prudent" folk are privileged cowards, who from their cowardice refuse to take up the mantle of condemning injustice.

Many, though, took it a different way, because prudence is a fundamental biblical virtue and all. 

The wise soul offers what can be heard, and speaks when there is hope that a soul might listen and be moved.  Wisdom does not speak to hear the sound of its own voice, or from a place of ego, or from desire to control.  It speaks to teach, and to improve, wherever such an opportunity arises.

In times when evil walks loud and proud on the earth, it is the wise course of action to lay low and say little.  Why?  Because evil does not listen.  Evil is sure of itself, even more deeply so when it holds the power for which it hungers.  Evil will not be moved, or changed, or turned.  The words of the wise...or of a prophet...mean nothing to the fool, the bully, or the tyrant. 

In such a place and time, wise words are both pointless and very potentially dangerous.

Reading back deeply into historical commentaries, this seems to be the consensus.

Not a particularly reassuring consensus, I'll admit.

But one worth hearing, particularly in our current cultural context.  If we're in a moment in our life together where patience, grace, and justice are parsed as cowardice, weakness, and treason?  How can we meaningfully speak truth to those who wish to hear only their own power?




Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Edifice Comes Down

It was going to be days of work.

There, on a wall of our little brick rambler, the English ivy had grown out of control.  Nearly all the way to the roof, a great thick mass of it, with tendrils and growth extending out two to three feet from the side of our house.

What had first looked like our house was rocking a lovely-English-cottage-look had started looking more like we were going for Abandoned-Ruins-of-an-English-Cottage-after-a-Global-Pandemic. 

Which isn't the best look.

It had to come down.  I waited the summer out, because, well, there were birds nesting in it, and I'm a softie.  The idea of dislodging a nest and seeing sad little doomed chicks was motivation enough to procrastinate a while.

But once the last brood of sparrows and chickadees had grown and flown, it was finally time.

I'd cut the roots last month, hoping to weaken it.  But English ivy is a fierce critter, and it happily continued to grow in the absence of roots and soil.  No browning of leaves.  No real change.  It'd have to be mano-a-tendril.  I figured days of painstaking removal, up and down the extension ladder, chiseling away at it with a flathead screwdriver and shears, peeling away the clinging rootlets inch by inch.

For an hour, then another, I labored in the back of the house, up and down the ladder, doing just that.  In the incongruous late September heat, I sweated and sweated.  The plant was tough.  It was going to take as long as I had thought.

Then, dripping sweat and staring up at the verdant jungle affixed to the side of the house, I got an idea.  I bundled and then pulled at a group of large vines at the base.  Just a wee bit of tug of war, because I wanted to loosen it.   Maybe that would work faster. 

More came down than I expected.  One particularly large clump peeled away from the wall, all the way up, the vines borne down by their own weight.  They were all woven up together, a thick mat of interconnections. 

And I thought, hummm. 

So I made a larger bundle of four or five of the largest severed taproot vines I could find.   I bound them together with a heavy rope.  And then I pulled.  Some came away.  And pulled a little more.  There was the sound of rootlets rending, as thousands of them failed.  And then really put myself into it, heaving and tugging, worrying it back and forth like a terrier.

My efforts and the weight of what I'd torn loose combined.

And the entire wall peeled away in one giant mass, like flesh peeling from a particularly bad sunburn.  Like a green glacier calving.

What had to be half a ton of it, crashing down in a cloud of dust and pollen in which I blinked and coughed. 

I stared at what I'd done.  Well, sort of done. 

Almost nothing remained on the house.  Once the weight of the great interwoven edifice of ivy started working against it, the collapse was startlingly sudden.  Almost dangerously sudden.

There's a metaphor in there somewhere, I fear.



Friday, October 5, 2018

Rest In Power


It's a benediction, one I hear of late, among a subset of bright eyed bolshy droogs for whom faith and the polis are conjoined.

It is invoked over the mortal remains and memory of the passed, as a blessing politic for those who have struggled for power in this life.  I understand it, and the earnest intent that drives it.

But I hear it through another filter, in the voice of an old, mad friend.  When the benediction is offered, I hear his words:
And do you know what “the world” is to me? 
Shall I show it to you in my mirror? 
This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end; a firm, iron magnitude of force that does not grow bigger or smaller, that does not expend itself but only transforms itself; as a whole, of unalterable size, a household without expenses or losses, but likewise without increase or income; enclosed by “nothingness” as by a boundary; not something blurry or wasted, not something endlessly extended, but set in a definite space as a definite force, and not a space that might be “empty” here or there, but rather as force throughout, as a play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many, increasing here and at the same time decreasing there; a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing, eternally flooding back, with tremendous years of recurrence, with an ebb and a flood of its forms; 
out of the simplest forms striving toward the most complex, 
out of the stillest, most rigid, coldest forms striving toward the hottest, 
most turbulent, most self-contradictory, 
and then again returning home to the simple out of this abundance, out of the play of contradictions back to the joy of concord, still affirming itself in this uniformity of its courses and its years, blessing itself as that which must return eternally, as a becoming that knows no satiety, no disgust, no weariness: 
this, my Dionysian world of the eternally self- creating, the eternally self-destroying, this mystery world of the twofold voluptuous delight, my “beyond good and evil,” without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal; without will, unless a ring feels good will toward itself— do you want a name for this world? 
A solution for all of its riddles? 
A light for you, too, you best-concealed, strongest, most intrepid, most midnightly men? 
This world is the will to power—and nothing besides! 
And you yourselves are also this will to power—and nothing besides!”   
― Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power

I struggle to hear it as anything but a curse.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Church, The Amish, and Health Care Provision

And all of a sudden, just like that, my family was vulnerable.

The income that was the supermajority of our household revenue was gone, as my wife stepped out of an unsatisfying, overstressful position and started up her own business.  The transition time wasn't what concerned me, because we're fiscally prudent and deeply conservative financially.

We never spend above our means, and keep a healthy reserve of savings for emergencies or job transitions.

We had plenty of reserves to carry us until her new business found its legs.

But what we couldn't handle, should it happen, would be any significant medical emergency.  One major injury, one unexpected and unwelcome diagnosis, and even the nearly two years of reserve we keep on hand wouldn't be enough.  A lifetime of prudence and caution with money would mean nothing when that first hospital bill came in.

Well, maybe the first.  But not the second, and then the fifth, and then the eighth, all utterly indecipherable, all for the same procedure.

One twist of ill fortune, and it would be hard not to avoid bankruptcy, because that's America right now.

I'd stepped out of my denomination's health and pension plan a couple of years back, because the burden on the congregation just seemed too great.  As costs for health insurance expanded and expanded, they were biting into our mission, and as my wife had coverage, I figured, why not?  I blanched at the idea the church should pour resources into a benefit I neither needed nor used.

That was true up until our coverage vanished.

I approached the lay leaders of my little church, because, well, my wife and I were a little freaked out.  And they, well, it was humbling how willing folks were to step in and commit the resources to help my family.

So we're going to be fine, but the thought lingers in my mind:  why is this the responsibility of the church?  Why should they be responsible for providing health insurance?

The argument could be made that it is a Christian responsibility, that a community should care for individuals who have committed their lives to serving Jesus.  Feed the oxen as they tread out the grain, as ol' Uncle Paul would put it, and be sure they've got access to a bovine dental plan, too.

While there's some truth in that, there's also the truth that we don't extend similar care to all members of a church.  Which Christian among us *shouldn't* receive health care?  Is a pastor more worthy of that care than any other member?

I'm not.  No member of my church is unworthy of medical care.  No member should fear for their children's well being, or their own.

And therein lies a conundrum.

Providing health insurance to employees could be seen as extrinsic to the core mission of congregations.  It's the church compensating for a societal failing, one that is immaterial to our core mission.   It's the same burden that falls on every business in America, as employers large and small are forced by ideologues to absorb a cost that is unrelated to the product or service they provide.  It's the burden that sits heavy on countless entrepreneurs, who have a great idea for a new business but are forced to remain in less satisfying work because individual insurance is too expensive.

The analogy, as I see it, has nothing to do with compensation practices.  It's about the provision of a basic need.  No enterprise that involves humans can operate effectively if said humans are rendered incapable of participation.  It's why you need a viable network of roads for commerce.  It's why you need power, water, and communications infrastructures.  Some of that can be provided by utilities, of course.  But utilities are...ideally, at least...regulated by government.

Why, again, are congregations and employers responsible?  Because of a governmental failure, one that shifts the costs of care into the least efficient...and thus most profit-heavy...model of service provision.

Given that the most efficient approach to care involves the largest possible pools of individuals, single-payer is just inherently superior.

But as much as I wrestle with the idea that my sweet little church should have to absorb my health care costs, that principle got me to thinking. 

If "the larger the pool, the more efficient the system," why *wouldn't* churches offer health care?  I mean, not just to employees, we Jesus-gigolos who get paid to do the church thing, but to every single member?

As much as I think...from both the research and personal experience in the worry free environment of countries that have nationalized health care...that it's the best way?  Healing the sick and care for the ill among us is very much a Christian thing.

Jesus, as I recall, did it all the time.

In researching the dynamics of the Amish for my recent novel WHEN THE ENGLISH FALL, Amish health care provision was an interesting subnarrative.  The Amish do not participate in any "English" health care plans, because of course they don't.  They also don't participate in social security, or stand for the National Anthem, because they're Amish.

If you're Amish and mildly ill, you either rely on home remedies or pay for doctor's care out of pocket.  If that cost becomes burdensome, the community or settlement pitches in.  When they require hospitalization or find themselves seriously ill, the Amish fall back on a more formal system of mutual support: the Amish Hospital Aid plan.

Operated entirely by the Amish, the AHA is crisis insurance that covers 80% of all medical expenses,with the remaining 20% picked up either by the family out of pocket or by medical support reserves sustained by the congregation.  Cost are staggeringly low.  For individuals, it's $125 a month.  For families?  Total cost is $250 monthly.

There are reasons for this.

First, it's just crisis coverage.  Hence the "hospital" part of the plan.

Second, the AHA has a large pool of participants, and actively negotiates price discounts with hospitals and care providers.   With large families, many are young, and all engage in a lifestyle that is physically active.

Because the Amish are Amish, that negotiating stance also includes a 100% guarantee that there will never be any accusations of malpractice, or malpractice lawsuits.  No lawyers, ever, period.  As far as the Amish are concerned, doctors are flawed human beings trying their best, and if a mistake is made, so be it.  For a hospital administrator, that's pretty much your ideal patient.

Third, the AHA has extremely low overhead costs.  By "extremely low" I mean zero.  None.  It's run by a board (all men, because, you know) and hundreds of local administrators.  They are paid nothing.  All of them are volunteers.  Their participation is viewed as a religious obligation and fundamental duty to their Ordnung.  Bureaucracy is kept to a minimum, and only the barest and most essential processes are implemented.  All it has to do is work, and that's fine.

As a Presbyterian, that's almost unfathomable.  A complex system that operates without bureaucracy?  What strange witchery is this?

More details and interesting nuances can be found in this recent study by the National Institutes of Health, which I wish had been around when I was working on my manuscript.

There are other denominations and orders that do similar things, of course, and those models of mutual aid are equally fascinating.

In the context of a national debate that is locked down by blind ideology and a health care "system" that is perversely oriented towards both inefficiency and profit maximization, it's a countercultural model worth reflecting upon.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

De Nile is a River in Egypt

An Open Letter to My Fellow Egyptians

From Amen-Ra, Chief Press Adviser, Court of Ramses

Look.

You guys need to get a grip.  Everywhere I go these days, I hear people panicking, going on and on like it's the end of the world.  This is nothing more than hysteria, plain and simple, and if you stopped for a moment to really think about it, you'd see things like I do.

I mean, the word on the street is that somehow this has something to do with the Hebrews, and not "letting them go."

But do you have any idea what impacts "letting them go" would have on the economy?  You can't just abandon slaves like that.  Our whole system of production and transportation relies on human chattel.  Who'd be left to build?  Who'd be left to cook and clean?  Who'd be left to slop through the mud in the fields?   It'd be a catastrophe.  Clearly, that kind of radical change is not possible.  An ideal, perhaps.  But right now we can't be wrapped up in impractical, pie-in-the-sky dreaming.

If that's what this were, but honestly, it isn't.  It's more pernicious than that.

Honest free-thinking Egyptians can't buy in to the hysteria fomented by Moses and his cronies, who are clearly manufacturing this "crisis" for their own benefit.  Think for yourselves!

I mean, let's look at this with a critical eye.

So the Nile turned red, and there was a big fish die off.  I mean, this happens all the time.  Totally normal.  Dead fish are always washing up places, and sometimes when there's a big rain upriver, the clay washes into the water and it looks red.  Not blood.  And sure, a friend of your uncle swears the water was really blood, but he's the same guy who swears Osiris told him to invest in five wheeled chariots, and we know how that worked out.

Next thing, y'all are panicked by frogs.  I mean, frogs.  We live by a river.  Of course there are frogs.  Sometimes more.  Sometimes a lot more.  But really, is that any cause for freaking out?  No.

Then there were those mosquitoes.  I mean, yeah, annoying, but totally normal.   Nothing to see.  Did I mention before that we LIVE BY A RIVER?  Sweet Bouncing Baby Bast, what's wrong with you people?

Then your cow got sick, and your neighbors goat died.  Which is sad for the cows, and not great for the economy, I'll admit, but sickness just happens.  What, you think cows don't get sick sometimes?   That, plus boils?  It's not any fun.  Granted.  I'm no fan of boils.   But when was the last time you went ten minutes without seeing a skin disease?  We live in the bronze age, for Ra's sake.  Most of us are mud encrusted 24/7, and that mud ain't clean.  Half the time, I'm not sure it even is mud, if you know what I'm saying.

The hail thing?  Hail on fire?   That was pretty weird.  I was a little baffled myself at first.  But there's a totally reasonable explanation.  Clearly, it was one of those shooting stars, one that collided with Ra's mighty sun chariot on the way down.  The more that I think about it, the more obvious it is.  That happens all the time.

And, yeah, it's been a little weird here in the darkness.  But Ra does what Ra wants, and if he's taking a break, that's just what the gods do.  And anyway, that totally works with my chariot theory, which...let me tell you...is also shared by many people who know what they're talking about.  Don't panic.  Don't curse the darkness.  Just light an oil lamp, and carry on.  Really, it's nothing at all unusual.

Things just are what they are, and this is all completely normal.  The very last thing we need to do now is change our pattern of life just because some rabblerouser types are creating a false narrative about "Yahweh" and "destruction."  We know they're just doing it out of self-interest, and to sabotage our Egyptian way of life.  Which we love!  Why should we change?  I can think of a thousand reasons why we shouldn't.

This whole "nine plagues" thing is just a manufactured, overhyped, and completely false narrative.  Believe me.

As the firstborn son of an old and noble family, you can trust me on this.