Different Kinds of Counting

Greetings and welcome to another post about trying to make your time during this pandemic matter, written at the last minute because I can’t manage to make my time during this pandemic matter. No one’s perfect. Anyway. I guess I have some thoughts to share with you, make of them what you will.

There are a few different meanings to the word “count” and I’d like to take a sec to have a few moments with a selection of them. First, a look at probably the default meaning for most people. Count as in numbers as in, I can count to ten.


So that old song Minnie the Moocher, you may know it from The Blues Brothers, has a great line. Like, my favorite from the song, it’s kind of haunting.

She had a million dollars worth of nickels and dimes, she sat around and counted them all a million times.

Makes me feel a whole lot less positive toward the idea of counting, I don’t know about you. I have this maddening image of a woman slouching lower and lower, scowling deeper and deeper, body dwindling away while the piles of coins slosh and shift, building up piles that inevitably collapse only to be counted again.

Please don’t think it’s an exaggeration when I tell you that that is low-key what I envision whenever I think about millionaires and billionaires. My mind doesn’t generally linger on the image (thank goodness) because I’m aware that people actually aren’t caricatures but even so. It’s  still kind of gross to me to think about a person, one person, having that much money.

It reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Oscar Wilde, for those of us without piles of coins to count (as much as we might still be obsessed with counting what little we have). He said, “Who, being loved, is poor?”


Number two way to think about counting (hahaha yessss number twooooo, it’s like I’m counting!): people counting, like, people mattering.

I think I’ve talked about this on here before and with good reason. Probably most people have gotten to the point that they at least pay lip service to the idea that all humans matter. That we should all count. There’s an easy and lazy way to say this in democracies because you can simply say, “Look, we vote and all votes count the same.”

I think that’s ridiculous for a lot of reasons but even taking it at face value, you’re saying that you must vote to count. This question is very relevant with the US Census occurring recently (and ongoing??) and it makes me recall the debates about what questions they would ask, specifically about citizenship. It was a super clear signal that they weren’t interested in the first kind of counting that I talked about, the plain old numbers kind, but instead were pursuing an agenda meant to limit the people who count in this second way.

Makes me think of equality and equity. The former being where you treat everyone the same and the latter where you treat everyone the way they need to be treated. Example: wheelchair ramps because some people have different mobility needs, treating everyone as though they could climb stairs isn’t actually good for society.

That’s what I think whenever people try to come up with conditions for ‘counting’ in any way. First, that they make a big show about equality as a way of actually ensuring a lack of equity. Second, that whatever they may say to the contrary, putting conditions on counting means that you don’t think all people count.

Also v relevant with regard to queer people and the church, but that’s a topic for another day.


Finally, thirdly, lastly, I submit this meaning of count to you: that which we mean when we say ‘make your time count.’

This is very related to the second point but with this difference: we can say whatever we want about who counts and who doesn’t (not that it makes one jot of difference) but we cannot say, corporately, whether our time mattered or not. That is one only for the history books.

As I discussed last week, for many of us, this time has been ripe with opportunities for personal growth. And not more pressingly but perhaps more lastingly, opportunities to change the world in powerful ways. That is how I encourage you to move forward: thinking about how to make all of this count in the grand scheme of things, however you might be able.


How do I love thee? Let me count the ways that you count. And may all our counting make a difference for people we will never meet.

Russia, Barbarism, and the Fiscal Implications of Beards

If you are less than familiar with Russian history–especially before the twentieth century– there are a couple major rulers that you ought to be at least nominally familiar with. Ivan. Peter. Catherine. Some of you may be aware that St Petersburg was all Peter I’s doing. You may not be aware that another of his landmark changes to Russia was making beards taxable. As in, you were really meant to shave off your beard and if you refused, you had to pay a fee to the government.

I was confronted with a distant relative of this kind of policy when I was in Turkey. I stayed with my friend and his father worked in the military; in order to go to the fancy restaurant that his family wanted to take me to, I would have to shave my few weeks’ growth of facial hair. I didn’t have a problem with shaving, I simply hadn’t brought a razor. But we decided to dine elsewhere in the end.

Why, you may be wondering, would two governments in different centuries in different parts of the world have such regulations relating to beards? Answers, as for most historical things, are not simple but if you’re asking me–and asking me for the short version–I’d tell you it’s because of this amorphous idea that in many ways has run much of the world for the past several hundred years: “the West.”

I am not the person and this is not the place to fully unpack what all might be contained in that moniker. Indeed, I would argue that fully unpacking it is impossible, or at least incredibly contextual. But for our current needs, I think the beard example suffices. At the time of Peter the Great, the important people of western Europe did not wear beards whereas the important people of Russia did. Peter sought to change his country into a western European one (in everything but literal geography) and so made his beard declaration.

I recently watched a video on European history in which John Green said, “For centuries, Russia was seen by western Europe as both European and not, an Other that was to be doubly feared because it wasn’t fully other.” In other words, Russians showed the rest of Europe that “civilization” is a sham; we are all of us bearded in one way or another, our ways of behaving are all too similar for calling some barbarians and others noble. And when you’ve built your identity on being the only civilized guys in the neighborhood, that’s scary.

Sometimes, we fear people not because they are different from us but because they are similar. We cast others as barbarians to explain their actions but in doing the same actions ourselves, we create elaborate descriptions of the “civilized” manner in which we are doing them. We comport ourselves in such a civilized fashion that it never occurs to us that anything we do could be other that civilized. Barbarians, on the other hand, cannot help but perform barbaric actions.

Taxing beards will make you money. Though many will probably shave, some people are likely to continue their beard-wearing proclivity in spite of the cost. But such a tax will not actually change your people. It will not transform them from barbarians into civilized people. It will not take Russians and make Europeans of them. Because people are people, we are we.

We make war whether we are clean-shaven or hairy. We fall in love whether we speak English or Persian. We get angry whether we worship the divine or do not believe in it at all. We weep and laugh and dream and hope. When we are told that someone is different from us–or like us, but not quite–be skeptical. Be more than skeptical, actually. Strike back against that idea, that any people should be treated as less.

I hope you do recognize that that is the inevitable end point of calling people Them–they are less. Set apart, worthy of discrimination, a burden, a plague. It’s okay if they die. It’s okay if we kill them. Anyway. What am I trying to say?

Differences matter but the people who tell us that They are not Us are just trying to tax your beard.

Again. And Again. And Again.

This is a very depressing post. It is, in basically every way, inadequate to the task it undertakes. It is not an exhaustive treatise either on my thoughts and knowledge or the subject area at large. It is a plaintive cry into the internet, where such cries are about as useful as they are satisfying. Nevertheless, I can only hope and pray that speaking is better than silence. And hope and pray for a better world

In the season following Thanksgiving, it seems appropriate to say a few words. Not directly about that holiday–the misrepresentations and illegitimacy of which is discussed here, among a number of other places. While the spirit of the holiday seems innocuous enough to me, a white American, and I think the concept of thanks-giving is worth celebrating, the day is plagued by a kind of rose-colored and deliberate ignorance. It’s not exactly what I’m here to talk about but it’s relevant and I encourage you to educate yourself.

The summer after my senior year of high school, I spent two weeks on a mission trip in Kigali, Rwanda. My senior capstone course for undergrad was called “Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing.” For graduate school, I completed a program in Race, Ethnicity, and Conflict. All this to say that the definition of genocide is one of those things that I have memorized because of course.

…intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such…

Sometimes people are like, “That’s genocide” and I’m like, probably not, actually. Other times, people are like, “That’s a bad thing” and I’m like it’s genocide. You get into things like “acts of genocide” and ethnic cleansing. There’s a lot to unpack and this is not really the place. All the same, I just want to say something about it because it has been weighing on me.

Something you hear a lot, usually in reference to the Holocaust, is “never again.” Something you see a lot if you spend any amount of time looking at the world around you is again. And again. And again. Historically, whether you look at native peoples in the Americas, the Herero in German Southwest Africa, Armenia around the First World War, or the Nazis and Japanese in the Second. Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Myanmar right now. Certainly acts of the Islamic State. Possibly the Uighur detentions in China and the war in Yemen. So many places, so many people.

I don’t know, exactly, what can be done. Would I support committing money and lives to a military intervention? I don’t know, possibly. Do I feel powerless? Yes. Do I think that anything I might do would have negligible effect, if any? Probably. Should something be done even so? Yes.

And so here we are. This may not be a particularly Christmasy topic but I’ve felt for a while that I ought to say something. These words probably don’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. My readers, I don’t imagine, walk international halls of power with authority to respond to anything I say. I don’t know that I really expect you to do anything about it, other than perhaps read world news a little more often.

I guess in all my learning in the subject area, I have two general knowledge take-aways for you. First, do not think that the Holocaust is somehow unique in the story of human history. While it has many unique aspects, it follows naturally from a long chain of events. Second, do not think that it could not happen again. Do not think that it could not happen here. Do not think that ‘never again’ was a promise the world ever expected to keep.

And, because I firmly believe in hope: let us all work toward a world in which such crimes never happen again.

A Love of Books

I have found another link in the chain of my past lives in the person of Richard de Bury (24 January 1287 – 14 April 1345). He seems to have been an exceptional man and I can only hope to approach his love of books as epitomized in his grand work, The Philobiblon. Writing and subsequently reading this work, which I’d like to discuss at some length, appears to be about the best possible use of anyone’s time in the fourteenth century.

I just need you to be prepared for what will follow. I will elaborate upon that volume and that is all that the rest of this post contains.

First, I would like to share with you the titles of the twenty chapters because each and every one is so wonderful and delightful.

  1. That the Treasure of Wisdom is chiefly contained in Books
  2. The degree of Affection that is properly due to Books
  3. What we are to think of the price in the buying of books
  4. The Complaint of Books against the Clergy already promoted
  5. The Complaint of Books against the Possessioners
  6. The Complaint of Books against the Mendicants
  7. The Complaint of Books against Wars
  8. Of the numerous Opportunities we have had of collecting a store of books
  9. How although we preferred the Works of the Ancients we have not condemned the Studies of the Moderns
  10. Of the Gradual Perfecting of Books
  11. Why we have preferred Books of Liberal Learning to Books of Law
  12. Why we have caused Books of Grammar to be so diligently prepared
  13. Why we have not wholly neglected the Fables of the Poets
  14. Who ought to be special Lovers of Books
  15. Of the advantages of the love of Books
  16. That it is meritorious to write new Books and to renew the old
  17. Of showing due Propriety in the Custody of Books
  18. Showeth that we have collected so great Store of Books for the common Benefit of Scholars and not only for our own Pleasure
  19. Of the Manner of lending all our Books to Students
  20. An Exhortation to Scholars to requite us by pious Prayers

This guy seriously loved books and, therefore, is a hero. Loving books was neither a common nor a generally acceptable pastime in medieval England.

I must confess, I have not read The Philobiblon in its entirety. However, I have perused a large number of quotations and have found them, one and all, to be exceedingly correct and meaningful and wow. I will not here present all of them but I do want to call a couple to your attention.

How highly must we estimate the wondrous power of books, since through them we survey the utmost bounds of the world and time, and contemplate the things that are as well as those that are not, as it were in the mirror of eternity.

The chapter goes on to relate how, in books, the whole of the world is opened to us, from digging minerals and jewels from the earth the the North Pole to the Milky Way. Through history and the lessons of those who came before; through  science and a growing understanding of the world around us; through diligent study of literature and scripture–a mind and a world are opened.

An argument oft repeated in his work is that the whole of wisdom is contained in books, and thus the title. You may know that philosophy comes from the Greek for love of wisdom and, accordingly, philobiblon is the love of books.

This second quotation, which I encountered via a picture of the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library as inscribed over an entrance, inspired my journey of getting to know the venerable Richard de Bury. It says,

Books alone are liberal and free, they give to all who ask, they emancipate all who serve them faithfully.

LAlibrary

Books cannot give you everything in life, I confess. But what they can give, they will provide without fail. The freedom of the mind is the freedom of the soul, and books are one of its favorite tools. A love of books has always served me well. In times of loneliness or companionship, melancholy or joy, faith or doubt; reading has seen me through. May we all be grateful for the gift of books without which life would be that much darker. Books are not perfect but they are, I think, perfecting. They continuously add to the global body of knowledge and they lift us as a society when we need lifting.

They give to all who ask.