Charity, Mercy and Sin

From the introduction to “ Poverty and Charity in Past Times” by Mark Cohen (Journal of Interdisciplinary History 35.3, 2005, p. 354)”, an analysis of Catholic confraternities in the 16th century :

Traditionally, Catholic poor relief was shaped by the overlapping but distinct concepts of “charity” and “mercy.” “Charity” could exist between equals (neighbors, friends, and family), and “mercy” entailed transactions between the strong and the weak, the prosperous and the poor, etc. The evidence of mercy provided a soul’s defense at the Last Judgment; to neglect them was to court damnation. The rules of many Catholic institutions, including confraternities, were designed to ensure that Christians performed good deeds systematically. Many theologians validated good deeds even to the benefit of unworthy persons, regardless of any undesirable social consequences. Critics have argued that these Catholic doctrines encouraged dependence, palliated poverty, and probably fostered a class of professional beggars who traded on the belief that almsgiving was vital to salvation.

And an analysis of subsequent Protestant activities:

Catholic societies retained and expanded certain kinds of institution that were alien to most Protestant communities: hospitals for abandoned children; pawn banks, which lent money to the needy at moderate interest rates; and convent-like institutions for women whose honor was threatened or lost. Behind them, arguably, lie variations on the principle of tolerating a lesser evil to avoid a greater one. Protestant poor relief was an instrument for creating a disciplined society in which overt sinfulness was repressed, even though all human beings remained sinners. Catholic poor relief was more willing to accommodate sin and bring it to the surface—the better to counter it through conversion and penance—within the processes of redemptive charity.

Why framing matters

Lewis Hyde’s introduction from Frames from the Framers: How America’s Revolutionaries Imagined Intellectual Property:

The linguist George Lakoff has been insisting for some years now that progressives need to improve the way they frame their issues. Conservatives have become very good at framing– ”the death tax,” “partial-birth abortion,” “the ownership society”–and, Lakoff argues, once a debate is joined in terms set by the frame, the debate is lost. You can speak of taxation as a way for groups to empower themselves toward worthy ends (schools, bridges, libraries), or you can speak of taxation as an oppressive tool of Big Government. When you let the debate begins in the Big Government frame, you never get your library funded.

If we turn from death and taxes to intellectual property and the public domain we’ll see that the entertainment industry has also been very good at framing its issues. Here is a typical assertion: “There’s no difference in our mind between stealing a pair of shoes in a shoe store and stealing music on-line. A theft is a theft is a theft.” If in fact there is a difference between downloading a digital MP3 file and stealing a pair of shoes this “theft frame” has neatly erased it and sealed the erasure with a tautology.

Many people think that there is a difference, of course, but what alternative frame might reveal it? In what imaginative or discursive universe should we be having our discussion about file sharing? Is a song really a pair of shoes? What is the apt rhetoric here? What metaphors should guide us?

We participate, they profit


The International Fund for Agricultural Development published Good Practices in Participatory Mapping [PDF] last summer. In it they mention Sherry Arnstein’s A Ladder of Citizen Participation (JAIP, Vol. 35, No. 4, July 1969, pp. 216-224).

There is a critical difference between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power needed to affect the outcome of the process. This difference is brilliantly capsulized in a poster painted last spring [1968] by the French students to explain the student-worker rebellion.  The poster highlights the fundamental point that participation without redistribution of power is an empty and frustrating process for the powerless. It allows the powerholders to claim that all sides were considered, but makes it possible for only some of those sides to benefit. It maintains the status quo.

Arnstein introduces a ladder typology whose subject matter is all too familiar:


The bottom rungs of the ladder are (1) Manipulation and (2) Therapy. These two rungs describe levels of “non-participation” that have been contrived by some to substitute for genuine participation. Their real objective is not to enable people to participate in planning or conducting programs, but to enable powerholders to “educate” or “cure” the participants. Rungs 3 and 4 progress to levels of “tokenism” that allow the have-nots to hear and to have a voice: (3) Informing and (4) Consultation. When they are proffered by powerholders as the total extent of participation, citizens may indeed hear and be heard. But under these conditions they lack the power to insure that their views will be heeded by the powerful. When participation is restricted to these levels, there is no follow-through, no “muscle,” hence no assurance of changing the status quo. Rung (5) Placation is simply a higher level tokenism because the ground rules allow have-nots to advise, but retain for the powerholders the continued right to decide.

Further up the ladder are levels of citizen power with increasing degrees of decision-making clout. Citizens can enter into a (6) Partnership that enables them to negotiate and engage in trade-offs with traditional power holders. At the topmost rungs, (7) Delegated Power and (8) Citizen Control, have-not citizens obtain the majority of decision-making seats, or full managerial power.

Obviously, the eight-rung ladder is a simplification, but it helps to illustrate the point that so many have missed - that there are significant gradations of citizen participation. Knowing these gradations makes it possible to cut through the hyperbole to understand the increasingly strident demands for participation from the have-nots as well as the gamut of confusing responses from the powerholders.

Though the typology uses examples from federal programs such as urban renewal, anti-poverty, and Model Cities, it could just as easily be illustrated in the church, currently facing demands for power from priests and laymen who seek to change its mission; colleges and universities which in some cases have become literal battlegrounds over the issue of student power; or public schools, city halls, and police departments (or big business which is likely to be next on the expanding list of targets). The underlying issues are essentially the same - “nobodies” in several arenas are trying to become “somebodies” with enough power to make the target institutions responsive to their views, aspirations, and needs.

The motion of gifts

While referencing something in David Boyle’s The Little Money Book (my current read), I came across another Lewis Hyde essay, this time entitled “ Some Food We Could Not Eat” included in Money and Faith, edited by Michael Schutt.

This essay is also an adaptation of the first chapter of Hyde’s The Gift; I have quoted just a small piece of the wonder of the full essay, that I encourage to read in its entirety. For example, the sentence “When property is hoarded, thieves and beggars begin to be born to rich men’s wives.” is not included below:

When the Puritans first landed in Massachusetts, they discovered a thing so curious about the Indians’ feelings for property that they felt called upon to give it a name. In 1764, when Thomas Hutchinson wrote his history of the colony, the term was already an old saying: “An Indian gift,” he told his readers, “is a proverbial expression signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.” We still use this, of course, and in an even broader sense, calling that friend an Indian giver who is so uncivilized as to ask us to return a gift he has given.

Imagine a scene. An Englishman comes into an Indian lodge, and his hosts, wishing to make their guest feel welcome, ask him to share a pipe of tobacco. Carved from a soft red stone, the pipe itself is a peace offering that has traditionally circulated among the local tribes, staying in each lodge for a time but always given away again sooner or later. And so the Indians, as is only polite among their people, give the pipe to their guest when he leaves. The Englishman is tickled pink. What a nice thing to send back to the British Museum! He takes it home and sets it on the mantelpiece. A time passes and the leaders of a neighboring tribe come to visit the colonist’s home. To his surprise he finds his guests have some expectation in regard to his pipe, and his translator finally explains to him that if he wishes to show his goodwill he should offer them a smoke and give them the pipe. In consternation the Englishman invents a phrase to describe these people with such a limited sense of private property. The opposite of “Indian giver” would be some  thing like “white man keeper” (or maybe “capitalist”), that is, a person whose instinct is to remove property from circulation, to put it in a warehouse or museum (or, more to the point for capitalism, to lay it aside to be used for production).

The Indian giver (or the original one, at any rate) understood a cardinal property of the gift: whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again, not kept. Or, if it is kept, something of similar value should move on in its stead, the way a billiard ball may stop when it sends another scurrying across the felt, its momentum transferred. You may keep your Christmas present, but it ceases to be a gift in the true sense unless you have given something else away. As it is passed along, the gift may be given back to the original donor, but this is not essential. In fact, it is better if the gift is not returned but is given instead to some new, third party. The only essential is this: the gift must always move. There are other forms of property that stand still, that mark a boundary or resist momentum, but the gift keeps going.

Tribal peoples usually distinguish between gifts and capital. Commonly they have a law that repeats the sensibility implicit in the idea of an Indian gift. “One man’s gift,” they say, “must not be another man’s capital.” Wendy James, a British social anthropogist, tells us that among the Uduk in northeast Africa, “any wealth transferred from one subclan to another, whether animals, grain or money, is in given away again, not kept. the nature of a gift, and should be consumed, and not invested for growth. If such transferred wealth is added to the subclan’s capital [cattle in this case] and kept for growth and investment, the subclan is regarded as being in an immoral relation of debt to the donors of the original gift.” If a pair of goats received as a gift from another subclan is kept to breed or to buy cattle, “there will be general complaint that the so-and-so’s are getting rich at someone else’s expense, behaving immorally by hoarding and investing gifts, and therefore being in a state of severe debt. It will be expected that they will soon suffer storm damage….”

The goats in this example move from one clan to another just as the stone pipemoved from person to person in my imaginary scene. And what happens then? If the object is a gift, it keeps moving, which in this case means that the man who received the goats throws a big party and everyone gets fed. The goats needn’t be given back, but they surely can’t be set aside to produce milk or more goats. And a new note has been added: the feeling that if a gift is not treated as such, if one form of property is convened into another, something horrible will happen. In folk tales the person who tries to hold on to a gift usually dies; in this anecdote the risk is “storm damage.” (What happens in fact to most tribal groups is worse than storm damage. Where someone manages to commercialize a tribe’s gift relationships the social fabric of the group is invariably destroyed.)

…Many of the most famous of the gift systems we know about center on food and treat durable goods as if they were food. The potlatch of the American Indians along the North Pacific coast was originally a “big feed.” At its simplest a potlatch was a feast lasting several days given by a member of a tribe who wanted his rank in the group to be publicly recognized. Marcel Mauss translates the verb “potlatch” as “to nourish” or “to consume.” Used as a noun, a “potlatch” is a “feeder” or “place to be satiated.” Potlatches included durable goods, but the point of the festival was to have these perish as if they were food. Houses were burned; ceremonial objects were broken and thrown into the sea. One of the potlatch tribes, the Haida, called their feasting “killing wealth.”

To say that the gift is used up, consumed and eaten sometimes means that it is truly destroyed as in these last examples, but more simply and accurately it means that the gift perishes for the person who gives it away. In gift exchange the transaction itself consumes the object. Now, it is true that something often comes back when a gift is given, but if this were made an explicit condition of the exchange, it wouldn’t be a gift….This, then, is how I use “consume” to speak of a gift—a gift is consumed when it moves from one hand to another with no assurance of anything in return. There is little difference, therefore, between its consumption and its movement. A market exchange has an equilibrium or stasis: you pay to balance the scale. But when you give a gift there is momentum, and the weight shifts from body to body.

I must add one more word on what it is to consume, because the Western industrial world is famous for its “consumer goods” and they are not at all what I mean. Again, the difference is in the form of the exchange, a thing we can feel most concretely in the form of the goods themselves. I remember the time I went to my first rare book fair and saw how the first editions of Thoreau and Whitman and Crane had been carefully packaged in heat-shrunk plastic with the price tags on the inside. Somehow the simple addition of airtight plastic bags had transformed the books from vehicles of liveliness into commodities, like bread made with chemicals to keep it from perishing. In commodity exchange it’s as if the buyer and the seller were both in plastic bags; there’s none of the contact of a gift exchange. There is neither motion nor emotion because the whole point is to keep the balance, to make sure the exchange itself doesn’t consume anything or involve one person with another. Consumer goods are consumed by their owners, not by their exchange.

The desire to consume is a kind of lust. We long to have the world flow through us like air or food. We are thirsty and hungry for something that can only be carried inside bodies. But consumer goods merely bait this lust, they do not satisfy it. The consumer of commodities is invited to a meal without passion, a consumption that leads to neither satiation nor fire. He is a stranger seduced into feeding on the drippings of someone else’s capital without benefit of its inner nourishment, and he is hungry at the end of the meal, depressed and weary as we all feel when lust has dragged us from the house and led us to nothing.

Frames for Copyright

Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift, has a wonderful essay entitled _Frames from the Framers: How America’s Revolutionaries Imagined Intellectual Property _about the differing perspectives on copyright present during the drafting of the US Constitution. I have written of historical perspectives on copyright before, but Hyde outlines 3 different frames in which creative works and copyright existed (via BoingBoing):

1. The common gift from god:

The oldest model, I suspect, is one that takes the fruits of human creativity to be gifts from the gods, the muses, or the ancient ones and, as a corollary, takes it that such works therefore should not be bought and sold (nor can they be exactly forged, plagiarized, or stolen). Such was the traditional understanding for medieval Christians, their dictum being Scientia Donum Dei Est, Unde Vendi Non Potest–“Knowledge is a gift from God, consequently it cannot be sold.” To sell knowledge was to traffic in the sacred and thus to engage in the sin of simony. Reformation Protestants were particularly sensitive to simony, having charged the Catholic church with the buying and selling of ecclesiastical preferments and benefices. Martin Luther said of his own created works, “Freely have I received, freely I have given, and I want nothing in return.”

I suppose that in the present moment if you were a Lutheran choir director who download hymns for your congregation and the music industry sued, saying that the work had been copyrighted and that “theft was theft,” you ought to be able to shift the frame by replying: “simony is simony.” I doubt that you’d find much support in the American legal tradition, however, even in its early years. Reformation ideas about knowledge had been considerably altered by the time the founders framed their own.

2. Ownership of the Landed Estate:

The second frame does not necessarily conflict with the religious background of the “common stock” [or “free as the air”] frame, but its point of departure is decidedly of this world, more focused on the problem of freeing individual talent from patronage and also, therefore, more at ease withcommerce. Here the dominant metaphor was the landed estate, an image that had the advantage, for partisans of strong intellectual property rights, of borrowing from people’s assumptions about real estate. “We conceive [that] this property is the same with that of Houses and other Estates,” declared London booksellers when first threatened with a limit to the term of their copyrights. They beg the question, of course, of what exactly we assume such property entails (there are many kinds of estates, as we shall see in the next section), but as with most compelling frames, the intuitive response is what matters, not complexities hidden beneath the surface. Shouldn’t all property, even a bookseller’s copyright, be “safe as houses”?

3. Monopoly:

Monopoly had a marked historical meaning for early theorists of intellectual property, seventeenth-century Puritans having begun their argument with royal power over exactly this issue. As the historian and statesman Thomas Babington Macaulay explains in his History of England, Puritans in the House of Commons long felt that Queen Elizabeth had encroached upon the House’s authority to manage trade having, in particular, taken it “upon herself to grant patents of monopoly by scores.”  Macaulay lists iron, coal, oil, vinegar, saltpetre, lead, starch, yarn, skins, leather, and glass, saying that these “could be bought only at exorbitant prices.”

Macaulay doesn’t list printing in his History, but it was the case that in the late sixteenth century the Queen’s printer, Christopher Barker, held monopoly rights to the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and all statutes, proclamations, and other official documents. And Macaulay does mention monopoly in his 1841 Parliamentary speech in opposition to a proposed extension to the term of copyright. “Copyright is monopoly, and produces all the effects which the general voice of mankind attributes to monopoly,” he said, asking rhetorically if the Parliament wished to reinstate “the East India Company’s monopoly of tea, or … Lord Essex’s monopoly of sweet wines”?

The understanding of copyright as monopoly was not Macaulay’s invention; it was almost as old as copyright itself. In 1694 John Locke–a strong supporter of property rights in other respects–had objected to copyrights given by government license as a form of monopoly “injurious to learning.” Locke was partly concerned with religious liberty, the laws in question having been written to suppress books “offensive” to the Church of England, but mostly he was distressed that works by classic authors were not readily available to the public in well-made, cheap editions (he himself had tried to publish an edition of Aesop only to be blocked by a printer holding an exclusive right). “It is very absurd and ridiculous,” he wrote to a friend in Parliament, “that any one now living should pretend to have a propriety in … writings of authors who lived before printing was known or used in Europe.” Regarding authors yet living, Locke thought they should have control of their own work, but for a limited term only. As with Macaulay, his framing issue was monopoly privilege, not property rights.

Twenty-four dollars

This weekend was Boston’s first book festival. I purchased The Little Money Book by David Boyle (“What is money? What is it really worth? Who decides?”). The following is from the opening chapter (“Why publish this book?”) and is a speech delivered to European heads of state by a representative of South American indigenous communities:

I, Guaicaipuro Cuatemoc, have come to meet with the participants of this meeting.

Here I, descendant of those who have lived in America for 40,000 years, have come to meet those who met us 500 years ago.

My brother, the European usuurer, asks me to repay a debt of treachery from a Judas I never authorized to put me up for collateral.

My brother, the European hypocrite, explains to me that all debts must be paid with interest even while he buys and sells Human beings and entire countries without their consent.

I have been discovering these things. I too claim payment and I too claim interest.

Proven it is, in the archives of native peoples, by paper upon paper, receipt upon receipt, and signature upon signature, that between the years 1503 and 1660 there arrived at San Lucas de Barrameda 185,000 kilos of gold and 16,000,000 kilos of silver from the Americas.

Those 185,000 kilos of gold and 16,000,000 kilos of silver should be seen as the first of many, many friendly loans from the Americas towards European development. The contrary would be to assume war crimes and not only immediate recompense, but indemnity for damages, pain and suffering.

Such a fabulous transfer of capitol was no less than the beginning of a ‘Marshall Tesuma’ plan, to guarantee the reconstruction of a barbaric Europe, ruined by wars against (a very civilised) Islam.

So. To celebrate the Fifth Centennial of the IOU, we can ask: have our European brothers made rational, responsible or even productive use of these amounts so generously advanced by the International Indo-American Fund?

Sadly the answer is —‘no’. In the campaigns they squandered it — in the battles of Lepanto, in invincible armadas, in third reichs, in every form of mutual extermination.

They have been unable, despite a 500 year moratorium, to repay the principal and interest, let alone to live free of the further dividends, the raw materials and cheap energy exported and continually provided to them by all the ‘third world.’

This deplorable vista corroborates Milton Friedman’s view that a subsidised economy can never function and obliges us, for their own good, to demand payment of the principal and interest that we have waited so generously for all these centuries to reclaim. Let it be clear that we do not stoop to charging the villainous leech rates of 20% and up to 30% that our European brothers charge the peoples of the third world. We merely require the return of the precious metals advanced, plus the modest accumulated interest of 10% for a period of 300 years with a two hundred year period of grace.

On this basis, and applying the European formula for compound interest, we advice our (discoverers) that they owe us, as initial payment on the debt, a mass of 185, 000 kilos of gold and 16,000,000 kilos of silver. As for the interest, we are owed 440, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000 kilos of gold and 38, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000 kilos of silver (or 1% of the mass of the Moon). At the rates of mid 2002 that equates to a total of $391, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000.

To infer that Europe, in half a millennium, has not been able to generate sufficient wealth to pay off this modest interest, would be to admit the abject failure of its financial system and the demented irrationality of the premises of capitalism.

Such metaphysical questions, however, do not disturb us Indo-americans.

But, what if we were to require the signing of a Letter of Intent to discipline the indebted peoples of the Old World, and to oblige them to fulfill their obligations by means of rapid privatisations and fiscal restraint, as the first step in payment of this historic debt….

This speech is heavily reprinted in Spanish, but not in English (other than a NSFW MySpace page with an ass-on-plexiglass background)

Not another Rogue’s nest


The following is from the 1824 edition of Zadok Cramer’s The Navigator on Island 94:

No. 94, Stack or Crow’s nest Island, six miles below 93,

Has been sunk by the earthquake, or swept off by the floods; but just below where it stood is a high sandbar, covered with young willows, and is about the middle of the river. This bar may grow into another Crow’s, but it is to be hoped, not into another Rogue’s nest. The river here bears hard against the head of the bar, and also against the right hand bank–channel right side near to the island, thence draws toward the right hand shore.

The creek empties in on the right side, just above the two settlements. The Washita heads not far from this place, on which is a considerable settlement, 40 miles distant, and to which from hence is a cut road. It is thirty miles to Moorehouse’s settlement on that river.

Crows’s nest or Stack island was very small, and stood in about the middle of the Nine Mile reach. A large bar had formed just below where the island stood, but it also has given way to the current, and is no more.

Four miles below this island (No. 94,) is a sandbar in a right hand bend–channel on the left of it.

I love the slant rhyme humor: “This bar may grow into another Crow’s but it is to be hoped not into another Rogue’s nest.” The print is below.


Kick in the baud

human channels

From the book pile: the graphic above and quote below are from Future Developments in Telecommunications, 2nd edition by James Martin, 1977 (“NEW completely rewritten”).

A given piece of information is conveyed to humans, sometimes using a low transmission capacity and sometimes a large capacity.

If we watch five minutes of a television talk show a message may be conveyed to us. To transit television digitally (with PCM encoding) requires 92.5 million bits per second. The five minutes therefore take 5 x 60 x 92.5 million = 27.5 Billion bits. More compact signal encoding can reduce this somewhat.

The same message may be conveyed in speech in five minutes of conversation over a telephone line. If the line is digital (PCM), operating at 56,00 bits per second, this uses 5x 60 x 56,000 = 16.8 million bits. In fact it uses twice this because a typical PCM telephone transmits in both directions together so that the parties can both talk or hear each other.

Human conversation is highly redundant, and if the person with the message to convey had been better organized he might have spoken it in 120 words, taking one minute. This would have needed 3.36 million bits.

The 120 words could have been sent by data transmission. Using the coding that is typical today, this would need 4800 bits. If a tighter code had been used (5-bit Baudot code instead of 8-bit ASCII) 3000 bits would have sufficed. If message compaction techniques had been used, the message could have been sent in less than 1000 bits.

Apologies for the title of this post.

Leverage your nonprofit status

My boss pointed me to the NY Times obituary of Elizabeth Clare Prophet (a featured radiobituary on Bubbles in the Think Tank):

In the late 1980s, Mrs. Prophet issued warnings of an impending nuclear strike by the Soviet Union against the United States. More than 2,000 of her followers left their homes and gathered at the church’s compound near Corwin Springs, Mont., near the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park. There they began stockpiling weapons, food and clothing in underground bomb shelters.

Mounting tensions with local residents subsided when the predicted attack did not occur, and church members began returning home. At the same time, **a looming face-off with the United States government was averted when church leaders agreed not to store weapons in return for a reinstatement of the church’s tax-exempt status, **which had been revoked in 1987.

And yet the IRS claims that “charitable, educational, religious, scientific, literary, fostering national or international sports competi- tion, preventing cruelty to children or animals, and testing for public safety” are the only exempt purposes…

An ample account

As the 4th anniversary of this blog nears (November 12) I’ve been revisiting research that was near impossible when I began it. The namesake of this blog was Island 94, formerly sitting within the Mississippi River, which I was introduced to through the very excellent book When the Mississippi Ran Backwards by Jay Feldman. When I first started this blog, it was very difficult to find primary sources through the internet. Fortunately, many libraries and archives have worked to digitize their collections and make them available online. Because of that there is a lot more to say about this blog’s namesake and inspiration.


The title page above is from Zadok Cramer’s The Navigator, a navigational aid published when the Mississippi was a navigational challenge—before the Army Corps of Engineers pulled the snags, built the levees and made it all into a generally uninteresting commercial thoroughfare. It is from the 1824 edition published after Cramer’s death and after the absence of the Island 94 for which this blog is named.

As you can tell from the ample account given even on its title page, this book is from a day when to publish something, you had to really mean it.