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chaldean

“Liberal and democratic principles are worth nothing here [in Iraq]. Islam does not say that all men are equal.” Amal Nona

You cannot state the truth more concisely than that.

Nona is a Chaldean Catholic archbishop who “doesn’t have a diocese anymore. He doesn’t have a church. ISIS destroyed all that, and his people are scattered. But he’s not afraid to speak forthrightly, even when ISIS was at his doorstep.” (“Happy Warriors”)

The Chaldean Catholic Church is no stranger to persecution. They are descendants of the Assyrians who maintained the faith through the Muslim conquest up until today. They are a courageous people, but that is not the subject I wish to address here.

As the archbishop alludes, the reason that Western nations have been utterly unsuccessful in transplanting democracy to countries with Islamic majority populations is that democracy is alien to their worldview.

To the literalist Muslim (i.e. those who accept the words of the Quran at face value), it’s ludicrous to claim that Christians are equal to followers of Islam. Even without appealing to detailed Sharia law, the simple notion that infidels should possess the same rights as the followers of Allah is foolish, or worse. They are dhimmi—second class citizens, at best and actively persecuted and martyred, at worse.

This is the default setting for Islamic nations. Just look at Turkey and Egypt, two nations with actual democratic governments. The terrorist Muslim Brotherhood continues to exert destructive influences in both, and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used the excuse of the recent coup attempt to further destroy the vestiges of democracy (e.g. free speech) which he has long been undermining. Egypt is currently enjoying a respite after removing Mohamed Morsi, a man with a similar, anti-democratic agenda.

Retired military analyst Ralph Peters recently penned a frightening (and I believe accurate) appraisal of where Erdoğan will take his nation.

The ragtag ISIS caliphate is merely the forerunner of the more ambitious caliphate to come. It’s coming in Turkey.

The immense and destructive crackdown underway in Turkey now, with at least 10,000 Turks taken into custody and as many as 100,000 others dismissed from their positions—not only soldiers, but judges, civil servants, police and academics—isn’t an end-game. It’s a beginning. . . .

Erdoğan didn’t need a reason for this pre-planned purge. He had his reasons and his lists of names. He needed an excuse. The failed coup was a gift.

Now we’re witnesses to the destruction of Turkey’s secular society and the forced-march reversion to religious regimentation and obscurantism, to intolerance and oppressive fundamentalism. This is the triumph of mosque over modernity, not of the rule of law, but of its supersession.

Professors have been forbidden to leave the country. The government demanded the resignation of all the deans of higher-level schools and universities. Book-banning is on the way, and book-burning wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

To those of us in the West, including numerous Muslim immigrants who have recognized the universal benefits of freedom of conscience and equal rights, the historic interpretations of government based on the Quran seem disconcerting. Part of the reason they seem unfathomable, is because we do not take the time to study them. Nor do we listen to the voices of minority populations who have been long subjugated and deprived of what we deem basic human rights.

Archbishop Nona, and others like him, need to be heeded. His warning about the challenge of translating democratic principles, points to the proper beginning place: education. It is no accident that the Muslim countries with the highest educations and most moderate (i.e. non-fundamentalist) adherents replicate democratic freedoms most consistently.

I consider the best course for promoting peace to be educating all people, and encouraging freedom of conscience, especially when it comes to religion and speech. And I recognize that the statement with which we began remains a vital fact that must be recognized at the outset of that effort. The following observation appeared in an article last year.

The lust for power corrupts religion, just as the quest for piety is vulnerable to hubris. As Cengiz Erdoğan, a CHP [minority political party] member who runs a car repair workshop, put it to me: “He’s power-hungry and he’s dedicated to the Islamist way.” Or, as C.S. Lewis once warned: “Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst.”

The principles guiding Democracies and Republics arose in the Western world. There they found fertile soil. Yet even here in the West, we see on a daily basis that democracy is fragile. Tolkien and Lewis scholar, Joseph Laconte, wrote an “optimistic” essay about the 2015 elections in Turkey. Erdoğan had been prevented from achieving an absolute majority.

The danger, at least for the moment, has been averted. . . . [Some Turks fear] Erdoğan’s early reformist talk was a mere façade for his hardcore Islamism.

That may be reason enough to cheer Turkey’s election results: they offer the hope that corrupted religion will find it harder to derail the nation’s experiment in democratic self-government. More than hope, of course, will be needed. For if secular authoritarianism has left the stage in Turkey, its religious counterpart is waiting hungrily in the wings.

Unfortunately, what political minorities in Turkey feared, is now coming to fruition, with a vengeance.

A Positive Postscript from the Chaldeans

Christianity rejects the notion that any person possesses greater worth than another. In the Christian world there are no castes . . . there are no dhimmi.

Each and every life is precious. In fact, the Good Shepherd is not content to keep the faithful ninety-nine under his protection, he leaves them to go out in search of the one—the individual one—that has strayed.

Chaldean Christians have some of the most ancient roots in Christian history. Despite the fact that most the Assyrian Christians have been driven from their ancestral homes, and are unlikely to ever be allowed to return, they have retained their hope. That is because they do not place their faith in humanity or their own strength. The following description of Archbishop Nona comes from another article.

I’d even go so far as to say that before me is a happy man. Indeed, he tells me: “We were always a minority. We always knew it was not important what we have but what we do. The Lord shows us how it is important to be happy in all situations.”

He emphasizes that the Christian has no other identity than as a Christian. The Gospel is what you want to conform your life to, he says. “For us, we want to practice our identity. We are not another identity. Our identity is to live like Jesus Christ.”

There is no other life, he says, for a Christian. Christ becomes everything, and so there is no life without Christ. “I think all our problems lie in this point: that in our life, sometimes we forget to live like Jesus. It’s not theology, it’s reality.”

It is not difficult to hear echoes of C.S. Lewis in his words. And these come not from a mutual acquaintance between the two . . . rather from a common acquaintance with the Messiah.

In the end, it’s not about theology, philosophies or human political institutions. It’s about a Redeemer.

_____

The icon above is of Saint Addai (Thaddeus of Edessa). He was a missionary to Mesopotamia, and contributed to the Divine Liturgy used by much of the Eastern Church. The image portrays Addai presenting the Mandylion to King Abgar of Edessa.

policePolice are entrusted with the power and authority to protect the innocent. That very power provides them with the opportunity to abuse that trust.

Recent events in the United States have drawn to the world’s attention the fact that human beings are incapable of providing perfect law enforcement. That should come as no surprise since, due to our fallen nature, we can do nothing perfectly.

C.S. Lewis never wrote a treatise specifically about law enforcement, but he did refer to it on a number of occasions. This week I thought it might be beneficial to consider a number of his insights. The final quotation relates a specific experience Lewis had with responsive police and a rather unresponsive judiciary.

Lewis had an impressive knack for using familiar images to illustrate biblical principles. In the following example he uses police, an occupation recognized by all, to display the absurdity of the logic of skeptics of Christianity.

If the universe is teeming with life, this, we are told, reduces to absurdity the Christian claim—or what is thought to be the Christian claim—that man is unique, and the Christian doctrine that to this one planet God came down and was incarnate for us men and our salvation.

If, on the other hand, the earth is really unique, then that proves that life is only an accidental by-productd in the universe, and so again disproves our religion. Really, we are hard to please. We treat God as the police treat a man when he is arrested; whatever He does will be used in evidence against Him. (“Dogma and the Universe”)

Let us now consider a few of the principles easily gleaned from Lewis’ writings.

Law Enforcement is a Normal Occupation

In that sense, police are no different than any other member of the community. C.S. Lewis illustrates that truth by including them in a list of “regular” occupations.

Dr. Pittenger would be a more helpful critic if he advised a cure as well as asserting many diseases. How does he himself do such work? What methods, and with what success, does he employ when he is trying to convert the great mass of storekeepers, lawyers, realtors, morticians, policemen and artisans who surround him in his own city? (“Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger”)

Law Possesses a Vital Function

The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden—that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time. (Mere Christianity)

In his essay “Vivisection,” Lewis mentions in passing the role of law enforcement in society. We have assigned to them the responsibility of investigating suspicious behavior to determine whether it conforms to the law of the land. And they do so according to whatever guidelines or restrictions the government (presumably of by and for the people) levies upon them.

In justifying cruelty to animals we put ourselves also on the animal level. We choose the jungle and must abide by our choice. You will notice I have spent no time in discussing what actually goes on in the laboratories. We shall be told, of course, that there is surprisingly little cruelty. That is a question with which, at present, I have nothing to do. We must first decide what should be allowed: after that it is for the police to discover what is already being done.

In Democracies Police are Generally Trustworthy

Lewis acknowledges that there are places where the police are frequently corrupt and perhaps even brutal. But he reminds us that we who live in democratic nations should be grateful for the normal behavior of those who serve in law enforcement.

The decline of ‘religion’ is no doubt a bad thing for the ‘World.’ By it all the things that made England a fairly happy country are, I suppose, endangered: the comparative purity of her public life, the comparative humanity of her police, and the possibility of some mutual respect and kindness between political opponents.

But I am not clear that it makes conversions to Christianity rarer or more difficult: rather the reverse. It makes the choice more unescapable. When the Round Table is broken every man must follow either Galahad or Mordred: middle things are gone. (“The Decline of Religion”)

Is it inappropriate to note how prophetic Lewis’ observation was that the secularization of Western culture would also erode political civility?

“Police States,” by Contrast, are Evil

In his preface to The Screwtape Letters, Lewis divulges where he found some of his images for his infernal milieu.

I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.

C.S. Lewis’ father was an attorney. But not just any sort of solicitor. He was a Police Court Solicitor, an important role which had as one of its purposes allowing a person who was arrested on suspicion of a criminal offense to consult with a lawyer while in initial police custody.

Lewis describes in his autobiography how his father regaled him and his brother Warnie with stories about curious police-court happenings. At the same time, Lewis confesses to his father’s struggle to relate to his boys after the loss of his wife when they were still young. Confessing that he frequently found his father’s conversations with his young sons confusing, he writes:

The man who, in his armchair, sometimes appeared not so much incapable of understanding anything as determined to misunderstand everything, was formidable in the police court and, I presume, efficient in his office. He was a humorist, even on occasion, a wit. (Surprised by Joy)

Corrupt Governments Corrupt the Police Force

One of the characteristics of police states is that they have extensive networks of “secret police,” who are often imbued with extraordinary prerogatives. One such malevolent presence plays just such a role in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Searching for Mr. Tumnus, the Pevensie children are discovered by Mr. Beaver. When they inquire of Lucy’s friend, the faun, he says:

“Ah, that’s bad,” said Mr. Beaver, shaking his head. “That’s a very, very bad business. There’s no doubt he was taken off by the police. I got that from a bird who saw it done.”

That explains the note the children had discovered at Mr. Tumnus’ ransacked home.

The former occupant of these premises, the Faun Tumnus, is under arrest and awaiting his trial on a charge of High Treason against her Imperial Majesty Jadis, Queen of Narnia, Chatelaine of Cair Paravel, Empress of the Lone Islands, etc., also of comforting her said Majesty’s enemies, harboring spies and fraternizing with Humans.

signed MAUGRIM, Captain of the Secret Police

LONG LIVE THE QUEEN!

One more passage reveals how quickly the deceitful captain can vacillate between threatening and gracious poses. Edmund has arrived at the Witch’s castle is been confronted by Maugrim.

“If you please, sir,” said Edmund, trembling so that he could hardly speak, “my name is Edmund, and I’m the Son of Adam that Her Majesty met in the wood the other day, and I’ve come to bring her the news that my brother and sisters are now in Narnia—quite close, in the Beavers’ house. She—she wanted to see them.”

“I will tell Her Majesty,” said the Wolf. “Meanwhile, stand still on the threshold, as you value your life.”

Then it vanished into the house. Edmund stood and waited, his fingers aching with cold and his heart pounding in his chest, and presently the gray wolf, Maugrim, the Chief of the Witch’s Secret Police, came bounding back and said, “Come in! Come in! Fortunate favorite of the Queen—or else not so fortunate.”

The Police Can Solve Problems

Yes, the example below comes from his novel The Silver Chair, but it is too good to overlook. Lewis is skilled at teaching through his fiction as well as in his essays.

This excerpt come from one of the Chronicles of Narnia, and Aslan has just returned Jill and Eustace to England, where there was a “corrective” encounter with some school bullies. The headmistress calls the police, and we join the scene . . .

When the police arrived and found no lion, no broken wall, and no convicts, and the Head behaving like a lunatic, there was an inquiry into the whole thing. And in the inquiry all sorts of things about Experiment House came out, and about ten people got expelled.

After that, the Head’s friends saw that the Head was no use as a Head, so they got her made an Inspector to interfere with other Heads. And when they found she wasn’t much good even at that, they got her into Parliament where she lived happily ever after.

Police are Not Soldiers

In the following passage, Lewis shows an astute awareness of the actual role of the Roman soldier in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day. They were certainly an occupation force, but their role in garrison was not to be “soldiers,” but rather to be “peacekeepers.” They were to maintain law and order, the so-called Pax Romana.

And because the whole difficulty for us is that the natural life has to be, in a sense, ‘killed,’ [Jesus] chose an earthly career which involved the killing of His human desires at every turn—poverty, misunderstanding from His own family, betrayal by one of His intimate friends, being jeered at and manhandled by the Police, and execution by torture. (Mere Christianity)

Lewis does the same thing in his essay “Modern Translations of the Bible,” where he compares the common* nature of the Greek used to write the Scriptures with the Incarnation.

The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language . . . It is a sort of `basic’ Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language. Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us.

The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary literary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other.

C.S. Lewis’ Experience with the (In)Justice System

In 1957, Lewis wrote an essay** about a personal experience with the British judicial system. I choose to close with this selection because it is quintessential Lewis. He uses a fine critique of the treatment of criminals to also acknowledge his personal sinfulness. In this true story, the police do their job admirably. The judge . . . not so much.

Not long ago some of my young neighbours broke into a little pavilion or bungalow which stands in my garden and stole several objects—curious weapons and an optical instrument. This time the police discovered who they were. As more than one of them had been convicted of similar crimes before, we had high hopes that some adequately deterrent sentence would be given.

But I was warned: “It’ll all be no good if the old woman’s on the bench.” I had, of course, to attend the juvenile court and all fell out pat as the warning had said. The—let us call her—Elderly Lady presided. It was abundantly proved that the crime had been planned and that it was done for gain: some of the swag had already been sold.

The Elderly Lady inflicted a small fine. That is, she punished not the culprits but their parents. But what alarmed me more was her concluding speech to the prisoners. She told them that they must, they really must, give up these “stupid pranks.”

Of course I must not accuse the Elderly Lady of injustice. Justice has been so variously defined. If it means, as [Athenian sophist] Thrasymachus thought, “the interest of the stronger,” she was very just; for she enforced her own will and that of the criminals and they together are incomparably stronger than I.

But if her intention was—and I do not doubt that the road on which such justice is leading us all is paved with good ones—to prevent these boys from growing up into confirmed criminals, I question whether her method was well judged. If they listened to her (we may hope they did not) what they carried away was the conviction that planned robbery for gain would be classified as a “prank”—a childishness which they might be expected to grow out of.

A better way of leading them on, without any sense of frontiers crossed, from mere inconsiderate romping and plundering orchards to burglary, arson, rape and murder, would seem hard to imagine.

This little incident seems to me characteristic of our age. Criminal law increasingly protects the criminal and ceases to protect his victim. One might fear that we were moving towards a Dictatorship of the Criminals or (what is perhaps the same thing) mere anarchy. But that is not my fear; my fear is almost the opposite.

According to the classical political theory of this country we surrendered our right of self-protection to the State on condition that the State would protect us. Roughly, you promised not to stab your daughter’s murderer on the understanding that the State would catch him and hang him.

Of course this was never true as a historical account of the genesis of the State. The power of the group over the individual is by nature unlimited and the individual submits because he has to. The State, under favourable conditions (they have ceased), by defining that power, limits it and gives the individual a little freedom.

And so we see that Lewis shared a concern that has only become accentuated among many today. When the State abuses its prodigious power, and especially when it revises the role of those in law enforcement, transforming them into “enforcers,” we are in dire straits.

Thankfully, that has not yet transpired in most democratic lands. Still, the possibility of such decay has not been eliminated, and wisdom suggests that we remain vigilant should we see things sliding in that direction.

_____

* On the subject of the commonness of the language God uses to speak to us, you may wish to read my column on “Vulgar Christianity.”

** “Delinquents in the Snow” is included in the readily available collection, God in the Dock.

Free C.S. Lewis Course

November 10, 2015 — 11 Comments

hillsdaleA free college course about C.S. Lewis? Too good to be true? No, it’s for real . . . and it’s offered by a well respected American College that traces its roots back more than 170 years. (Note, for the Europeans reading this, that makes it quite mature here in North America.)

Hillsdale college is currently offering its online course, “An Introduction to C.S. Lewis: Writing and Significance” at no charge. Here is the link to the enrollment page.

In addition to being a first class college today, Hillsdale has a very distinguished past. Founded in 1844, its leadership in the anti-slavery cause allowed it to host two speeches by Frederick Douglass. The first was delivered during the Civil War itself.*

C.S. Lewis offered a fascinating twist on the injustice of slavery. In an essay entitled “Equality,” written 80 years after Douglass decried slavery at Hillsdale, Lewis advocated democracy as an imperfect philosophy. I agree with his inference that despite its shortcomings, it is the least-flawed form of government.

I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. . . . I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people—all the people who believe advertisements, and think in catchwords and spread rumours.

The real reason for democracy is . . . Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

This is the barest example of C.S. Lewis’ keen mind. Enrolling in the course will certainly introduce participants to much, much more.

Like most online resources, this class is offered for personal growth. While a certificate is offered to those who complete the course, it doesn’t result in formal college “credit.” That said, the course could also be of great benefit to a motivated high school student.

Formal studies, even those like this one for which we set a personal pace, are worthwhile. Not only do we profit from the wisdom of the team of professors. Most of us also benefit from the discipline a course offers. Left to our own devices, most of us would not end up with the well-rounded familiarity with Lewis’ work that this class promises.

Shared Wisdom from Douglass and Lewis

One contemporary author noted a parallel thought in the writings of these two men. Thomas Sowell is a distinguished thinker and a talented writer. (Traits he shares with these two gifted authors.) On his website** Sowell has an extremely selective collection of quotations, on which he pairs the following. The first was written by Frederick Douglass and the second by C.S. Lewis.

Everybody has asked the question. . . “What shall we do with the Negro?” I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are wormeaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! (Frederick Douglass, “What the Black Man Wants”).

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. (C.S. Lewis, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”).

I think Sowell’s connection of these two excerpts is quite perceptive. Although he is an economist by PhD, I regard him as a brilliant sociologist as well.

Education is a worthwhile pursuit. It is one embraced by Douglass, Lewis and Sowell. Hillsdale’s invitation to enroll in this course allows all of us to engage in the same meaningful exercise. After all, learning is one of the pleasures that makes life truly worth living.

_____

* You can read about Douglass’ speeches at Hillsdale College here.

** This link will take you to Sowell’s website.

Common People

April 8, 2014 — 6 Comments

narnia shieldNone of us like to be considered “common.” No surprise; it’s not a complimentary adjective. We prefer to think of ourselves as exceptional . . . and, if not extraordinary, at least special.

In our democracies, with the possible exception of monarchies where the terminology may still exist, we’re no longer referred to a “commoners.” In fact, in the United States we can even design our own coats of arms!

If you want to add a “title” to your legal name, you can follow the example of some Americans who actually name their sons “Sir.” (Believe it or not, in 2012 it was the 998th most popular male name in California. Then there’s also “Prince Michael ‘Blanket’ Jackson II,” but let’s not go there.)

Owning a noble name is no prerequisite to possessing value. A well known quotation from C.S. Lewis dispels the misassumption that any human being is common or lacking in value. Every person is precious. Every person. And, no matter how tiny you ever feel on your most dejected day, you are special . . . precious . . . and (literally) unique!

There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.
(The Weight of Glory).

As I was considering this subject I came across a less familiar, but equally true, comment from Lewis. He was writing during an age when class distinctions in Europe were still implicit. He turned the matter on its head in a wartime essay entitled “Private Bates.” Here Lewis says that the very things the “elite” esteem reveal just how slavishly they follow appearances.

We must get rid of our arrogant assumption that it is the masses who can be led by the nose. As far as I can make out, the shoe is on the other foot. The only people who are really the dupes of their favourite newspapers are the intelligentsia. It is they who read leading articles: the poor read the sporting news, which is mostly true.

There’s much truth, I think, to Lewis’ observation. Or, perhaps that is merely my blue-collar upbringing speaking.

Let’s close our thoughts on “common folk” with a rarely read piece of poetry from Lewis’ Spirits in Bondage. (This was a pre-conversion collection, and is the only work of C.S. Lewis that is currently in the public domain.)

Thank God that there are solid folk . . .

Who feel the things that all men feel

And think in well-worn grooves of thought

Whose honest spirits never reel

Before man’s mystery, overwrought.

Yet not unfaithful nor unkind

With work-day virtues surely staid

Theirs is the sane and humble mind

And dull affections undismayed.

O happy people! I have seen

No verse yet written in your praise

And, truth to tell, the time has been

I would have scorned your easy ways.

But now thro’ weariness and strife

I learn your worthiness indeed

The world is better for such life

As stout, suburban people lead.

“In Praise of Solid People”

Spirits in Bondage

Government & Baboons

July 30, 2013 — 11 Comments

I recently read an interesting article about battling terrorism from an international base in Djibouti. Many African nations have joined those from Europe and North America in trying to protect vulnerable villages from the ravages of violent extremism.

However, as readers of Mere Inkling know, we don’t deal with political matters here. Everyday life, yes. Writing and self-expression, of course. Faith, definitely. Imagination, most certainly. Current events are also on the table for consideration, insofar as they relate to the aforementioned subjects.

Politics though, as a subject in and of itself, is not on the Mere Inkling menu.

With that in mind, I want to share a passage from the Air Force magazine article. In a description of “a recent personnel recovery mission in Ethiopia,” it says,

The HC-130s landed at night on a pitch-black airstrip, but first had to make a “clearing pass” to scare a congress of baboons and a pod of hippopotamuses off the runway.

Quite a picture. However, the image itself only made part of the impression left on me by this sentence. More lasting was the reminder of what a group of baboons is called.

C.S. Lewis wrote a fascinating essay about government entitled “Democratic Education.” One of many of its many kernels of wisdom is this: “Democracy demands that little men should not take big ones too seriously; it dies when it is full of little men who think they are big themselves.”

Returning to the subject of animals, the second chapter of Genesis tells us,

Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed[f] every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field.

So, Adam named the animals, and I imagine that after her creation, Eve helped her husband refine some of those appellations. What I don’t know is this—exactly who decided how we label groups of the same species?

I would point out how apropos baboons being referred to as a “congress” is . . . except for two considerations. (1) The connection would be lost on many readers whose governments have parliaments, and (2) It turns out this is actually an error. The actual word for baboon bands is a “troop.” So much for their unfortunate association with an organization that has lost the confidence of nine out of ten Americans.

Here are a few of the familiar and unfamiliar collective nouns for a variety of animals, with some brief comments and questions.

Lions | Pride – Aptly named!

Prairie Dogs | Coterie – I never considered prairie dogs snobbish.

Kittens | Intrigue – I should have learned that from simple observation.

Finches | Charm – They really do, don’t they?

Wombats | Wisdom – Wisdom to Aussies, a mystery to me.

Pekingese | Pomp – Well, perhaps just slightly elitist.

Cobras | Quiver – Logical, given the prospect of meeting a group of vipers.

Peacocks | Ostentation – Much nicer than the “pride” option.

Barracudas | Battery – Same as electric eels, I suppose.

Crows | Murder – A term familiar to most literary folk.

Bullfinches | Bellowing – Huh? Sounds more hippopotamusish.

Cows | Kine – Have to thank the medieval English for this one.

Seabirds | Wreck – Beware when they fly overhead.

Bacteria | Culture – And what kind of civilization have they ever built?

Deer | Gang – Must be the teenagers, before they become a herd.

Cockroaches | Intrusion – Accurate, repulsive and ominous.

Guillemots | Bazaar – What’s a guillemot, and what is it selling?

Cormorants | Gulp – Didn’t their momma’s teach them to chew?

Cheetahs | Coalition – Wouldn’t “a ‘sprint’ of cheetahs” sound better?

Woodpeckers | Descent – Am I missing something here?

Clams | Bed – Not much else to do in the clam-world.

Turtledoves | Pitying – Meaning they take pity on us, not vice versa.

Bobolinks | Chain – Cute, but lost on Americans where they’re known as reedbirds or ricebirds.

Snails | Walk – Someone’s lacking a bit in creativity here.

Ravens | Unkindness – Speaking of unkind, who labeled them this?

Flamingoes | Stand – Come on now, isn’t that a bit obvious?

Giraffe | Tower – I guess the flamingoes aren’t the only ones.

Lice | Flock – That is way too nice a word for those vermin!

Alligators | Congregation – As a pastor, I simply don’t want to go there.

This is way too much fun, but I’d better stop now so I can revisit this theme in a year or so. Until then, if you learn who gave that unkind name to groups of ravens, let me know.