It’s been a long time between posts, though not due to slacking. I’ve been working on a novel I’d forgotten about, which is now finished and on sale at Amazon. This is my first eBook and I like the idea — you write the book you want without interference from an agent or a publisher (I’ve published three books via traditional means so have some experience here).
Doing it yourself, of course, means you not only write and edit the book (which, on the downside, can result in overseeing the hopefully rare typo; plus there’s no cash advance) but you also do the promotion work, which primarily involves trying to get book reviewers to take a look. It turns out there are hundreds of reviewers out there — mostly bloggers — who will consider indie books, so getting in touch with them takes a fair amount of time.
There are a few more weeks of promotion work to do, after which I will turn to the next profile for Alive Without Permission, which should be with banjo ace Mark Olitzsky. Spring will be along soon and the hills will ring with string music. Few play it better than Mark.
I’ve also been busy working on new music and have four CDs worth waiting to be recorded. With any luck enough books will sell to get the first project underway — a five song collection featuring a terrific singer named Buttafly Vazquez. I’ll keep everyone informed.
Meantime, if you want to check out the new book (cover above — the carboy contains the blood of Uncle Shupe, a strange person who hopes to be cloned) — please go to: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007133JXO. This is a somewhat odd tale about a Washington political fanatic who goes sane and leaves town, only to be pursued and destroyed by his enemies. It includes many hot-button topics: terrorism, cloning, sex change, religion, UFOs, grave robbing, cannibalism, slavery, racism — and True Love! It’s much funnier than you might expect, and all for $2.99 — the price of a happy hour pint.
Lastly, for something new to read here’s a review I did for The Wall Street Journal (I re-inserted a line or two the editors mischievously cut) on a book about scapegoating, one of humanity’s greatest passions.
THE BLAME GAME
Truly honorable people—in the wake of some monumental botch—fall on their swords. Most of us, however, would prefer that someone else be chosen to take the hit. In “Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People,” British writer Charlie Campbell traces the habit of buck passing back to the Garden of Eden, where Eve, an apparently gullible person with far too much time on her hands, blamed a talking snake for persuading her to pick the forbidden fruit, thus unleashing our continuing pageant of sorrows.
Whatever our other shortcomings, humans have a profound talent for designating fall guys for problems and disasters that we ourselves are responsible for or that we simply do not understand. As Mr. Campbell observes in this brief and entertaining book, there might not always be a cure for what ails humanity, “but there’s always a culprit.”
Mr. Campbell traces the word “scapegoat” to William Tyndale’s 1530 English-language translation of the Bible. Tyndale used the word to describe a ritual found in Leviticus in which two goats representing Israel’s sins were sacrificed to appease the celestial authorities. The translator himself shared a similar fate in Henry VIII’s England. He was eventually condemned as a heretic and strangled—then burned at the stake for good measure.
Scapegoating and religion have kept close company, according to Mr. Campbell, a former editor at the Literary Review. Christianity’s central figure can be viewed as a scapegoat, taking on humanity’s sin and in the process earning a trip to Golgotha. Early believers were blamed for various disasters and accused of hideous behavior, including incest, cannibalism and child murder—accusations, Mr. Campbell adds, that Christians would later level against their own adversaries. “Ultimately our imagination is relatively limited when it comes to wickedness,” Mr. Campbell writes, “and the authorities trot out the same list of accusations towards minorities they wish to demonize.”
Jews, perhaps the eternal scapegoats, catch it in the neck even from people they’re trying to help. When Crusaders set out in 1096 to retake the Holy Land, Mr. Campbell says, they stopped off in the Rhine Valley and slaughtered Jews—”many of whom had lent the money the Crusaders needed to set out on this religious quest in the first place.” Mass murder can also be seen as a very effective way to cancel a debt.
The list of wrongdoing that Jews have been blamed for is quite expansive, Mr. Campbell reminds us, including poisoned wells and crops, missing children and the Black Death, though Pope Clement VI issued a bull relieving them of responsibility for the last horror. Instead, he chalked it up to “a misalignment of the planets,” as Mr. Campbell explains, “which is as close as the Church will ever get to saying that it, like the rest of us, just doesn’t know.”
Yet there has been little lack of certitude in history’s scapegoating efforts, some of which may strike readers as laughable despite the horrendous results. Fifteenth-century Dutch scholar Johann Wyler, a witch expert, calculated that there were 7,405,926 witches, “divided into 72 battalions, each led by a prince or a captain.” Another estimate put the number at 1.8 million. While most witches apparently escaped detection, some 50,000 were killed.
Mr. Campbell’s descriptions of executions are suitably grim, though he also takes a look on the bright side. While the Middle Ages were especially rough times for the accused, they were plush times for a certain type of entrepreneur. Witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins made a killing in the trade in the mid-1600s, earning 20 shillings per conviction (a month’s wages for a laborer). On one red-letter day he sent 19 witches to their deaths. Impoverished towns might spend a big portion of their budgets on witch extermination. This was not an exact science. The famous “swimming” test bound witches and lowered them in water. If they floated, they were guilty. If they drowned, they were innocent. (Sorry—we meant well!)
Mr. Campbell trots out other popular scapegoats—communists, financiers, the devil in his various guises and even inanimate objects, including a bell that innocently tolled away in the Russian town of Uglich until a prince was assassinated there in 1591, after which it was shipped off to Siberia, a cursed object, to languish for several centuries.
Yet Mr. Campbell’s strangest examples feature animals. He tells the story of a storm that ravaged the Hebrideani sland of St. Kildain 1840. A Great Auk, rare in those parts, was seen walking on the beach; it was captured and put on trial for instigating the fatal storm. The Auk, already a flightless bird, was found guilty and stoned to death. In a similarly vengeful spirit, a Parisian cow was executed in 1546 for having amorous relations with a man, though common sense indicates that the man was likely the aggressor. In a nod to fairness, both were hanged, then burned.
Mixing metaphors, insects have endured a similar scrutiny as scapegoats. Mosquitoes, flies and ravenous weevils have been threatened with excommunication by the church. A killing frost would usually solve the problem. But in southern France, the church put the local weevils on trial for a crop blight. The trial went on for eight months, during which time the weevils were granted a plot of land for sanctuary.
While we might like to believe that humanity has outgrown its addiction to scapegoating, Mr. Campbell reminds us otherwise. Economic downturns, he writes, “are extraordinarily complex and hard to fathom, yet that does not deter the blamemongers.” Bankers take much of the blame because “they are regarded by the public as being overpaid.” They may certainly be blamed for a revived interest in urban camping.
When bankers won’t do, creative minds come up with even more exotic malefactors. Author and lecturer David Icke, a former British soccer player and Green Party spokesman, teaches that “the world is run by a secret cabal of giant shape-shifting extraterrestrial lizards known as the Babylon Brotherhood.” This group, he says, includes both President Bushes and troubadours Kris Kristofferson and Boxcar Willie. There is apparently a good market for this viewpoint: Mr. Icke has written 18 books, and his website reportedly gets 600,000 hits per week.
Athletes sometimes play the role of the scapegoat, especially if they blow a scoring opportunity that would have clinched the game, as Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff did in his team’s recent loss in the AFC championship. Mr. Cundiff, who partially blamed a scoreboard error for making him rush the kick, might argue that losing, like winning, is a team effort. Soccer star Andrés Escobar, blamed for scoring a goal against his own team in the 1994 World Cup game, might argue the same, if he had not been murdered in connection with his gaffe.
Finally, there are politicians, who get blamed for a lot, sometimes wrongly. But they may also be the world’s pre-eminent blame shifters—demonizing rival politicians with eternal vigilance. Mr. Campbell does acknowledge exceptions to prominent leaders dodging blame. He cites Robert E. Lee’s post-Gettysburg mea culpa: “All of this has been my fault. I asked more of my men than should have been asked of them.” Then again, the architect of Pickett’s Charge had cause for humility.
Mr. Campbell cannot be accused of writing a ringing endorsement of our species. But he has made it clear that many of us operate on a revised version of the Golden Rule: Do unto others what should probably be done unto you.
—Mr. Shiflett is the author of the recently published novel “In the Matter of J. Van Pelt.”