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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The "rule of thumb" myth

Saturday's National Post has a book review that unfortunately perpetuates the myth that the phrase "the rule of thumb" refers to an ancient statute in English common law that allowed a man to beat his wife as long as he didn't use a rod or whip thicker than his thumb. As Christina Hoff Summers, author of Who Stole Feminism points out, this mistaken belief is "an example of revisionist history that feminists happily fell into believing. It reinforces their perspective on society, and they tell it as a way of winning converts to their angry creed." Writers should be more careful about using this politically-charged folk tale to illustrate a point.

In the Post's review of Wendy Moore Crown's biography of the Countess of Strathmore, Araminta Wordsworth writes:
In telling the countess's story, the author has done nothing less than illuminated the punitive rules that underpinned Georgian society. It is shocking to realize that the elegant women who look out of Gainsborough or Reynolds' paintings became their husbands' chattels on marriage and could legally be beaten by their spouses. The only proviso, a celebrated jurist mandated, was that the stick be no thicker than a man's thumb.

Shocking indeed, especially since the "rule of thumb" anecdote is a complete crock, and the celebrated jurist referred to said no such thing. I'll leave it to Hoff Summers to explain:
As it is told in the opening essay in one of the most popular textbooks in women's studies, Women: A Feminist Perspective, "The popular expression 'rule of thumb' originated from English common law, which allowed a husband to beat his wife with a whip or stick no bigger in diameter than his thumb. The husband's prerogative was incorporated into American law. Several states had statutes that essentially allowed a man to beat his wife without interference from the courts."[49]

The story is supposed to bring home to students the realisation that they have been born into a system that tolerates violence against women. Sheila Kuehl, the feminist legal activist who had played a central role in launching the "Abuse Bowl" hoax, appeared on CNN's "Sonya Live" four months after the incident, holding forth on the supposed history of the rule and acclaiming the New Feminists for finally striking back: "I think we're undoing thousands and thousands of years of human history. You know the phrase 'rule of thumb' that everybody thinks is the standard measure of everything? It was a law in England that said you could beat your wife with a stick as long as it was no thicker ... than your thumb." [50]

Columnists and journalists writing about domestic violence were quick to pick up on the anecdote.

The colloquial phrase "rule of thumb" is supposedly derived from the ancient right of a husband to discipline his wife with a rod "no thicker than his thumb." (Time magazine, September 5, 1983)

A husband's right to beat his wife is included in Blackstone's 1768 codification of the common law. Husbands had the right to "physically chastise" an errant wife so long as the stick was no bigger than their thumb - the so-called "rule of thumb." (Washington Post, January 3, 1989)

Violence against women does not have to be the rule of thumb - an idiom from an old English law that said a man could beat his wife if the stick was no thicker than his thumb. (Atlanta Constitution, April 22, 1993)

The "rule of thumb," however, turns out to be an excellent example of what may be called a feminist fiction. [51] It is not to be found in William Blackstone's treatise on English common law. On the contrary, British law since the 1700s and our American laws predating the Revolution prohibit wife beating, though there have been periods and places in which the prohibition was only indifferently enforced.

That the phrase did not even originate in legal practice could have been ascertained by any fact-checker who took the trouble to look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, which notes that the term has been used metaphorically for at least three hundred years to refer to any method of measurement or technique of estimation derived from experience rather than science.

Read all of Hoff Summers' article for a fascinating history of the origins of this myth and it's many political misuses.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sherlock Holmes - action hero?

Guy Ritchie's upcoming movie Sherlock Holmes will have Arthur Conan Doyle rolling in his grave, judging by the trailer.

Some great actors have tackled the role of Sherlock Holmes, notably Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett. My personal favourite was by Christopher Plummer in Murder by Decree (1979) opposite James Mason as Dr. Watson (and featuring a cameo by Sir John Gielgud as Prime Minister Salisbury). Fans of Conan Doyle's cerebral, asexual hero can be fanatical about his portrayal in film, so I expect a lot of chatter about Ritchie's version, to be released at Christmas.

Having only seen the trailer, here's my review: WTF? Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes? That's just wrong on so many levels. Wasn't Tom Cruise available? Jude Law as Watson? And what's up with the sword-fighting, the occult rituals, the kinky S&M sex scenes, the acrobatic stunts (like diving out of the Parliament Buildings into the Thames)? Holmes fighting bad guys with nunchucks? Has Ritchie actually read any of Conan Doyle's Holmes stories?

The appeal of Conan Doyle's hero is his unnatural ability to solve crimes by brainpower, deduction and the scientific method. Holmes handcuffed naked to a bed by a tart in a bustier? Well, I never.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

"Hairy-shirted eco-ism at its very worst"

Jeremy Clarkson at the Sunday Times on Honda's new hybrid car, the Insight:
It’s terrible. Biblically terrible. Possibly the worst new car money can buy. It’s the first car I’ve ever considered crashing into a tree, on purpose, so I didn’t have to drive it any more.


And the sound is worse. The Honda’s petrol engine is a much-shaved, built-for-economy, low-friction 1.3 that, at full chat, makes a noise worse than someone else’s crying baby on an airliner. It’s worse than the sound of your parachute failing to open. Really, to get an idea of how awful it is, you’d have to sit a dog on a ham slicer.

So you’re sitting there with the engine screaming its head off, and your ears bleeding, and you’re doing only 23mph because that’s about the top speed, and you’re thinking things can’t get any worse, and then they do because you run over a small piece of grit.


Of course, I am well aware that there are a great many people in the world who believe that the burning of fossil fuels will one day kill all the Dutch and that something must be done.

They will see the poor ride, the woeful performance, the awful noise and the spine-bending seats as a price worth paying. But what about the eco-cost of building the car in the first place?


The nickel for the battery has to come from somewhere. Canada, usually. It has to be shipped to Japan, not on a sailing boat, I presume. And then it must be converted, not in a tree house, into a battery, and then that battery must be transported, not on an ox cart, to the Insight production plant in Suzuka. And then the finished car has to be shipped, not by Thor Heyerdahl, to Britain, where it can be transported, not by wind, to the home of a man with a beard who thinks he’s doing the world a favour.

Why doesn’t he just buy a Range Rover, which is made from local components, just down the road? No, really — weird-beards buy locally produced meat and vegetables for eco-reasons. So why not apply the same logic to cars?


But let me be clear that hybrid cars are designed solely to milk the guilt genes of the smug and the foolish.

(HT: Ed Driscoll)

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Open letter to the Republican Party

The Sensuous Curmudgeon has some advice for Republicans south of the border. There's a lesson here for Canadian Conservatives who want the CPC to be a party of social conservatives:
As our party is going though a much-needed period of introspection, please consider that there was a time when this party stood for the Constitution, the rule of law, national defense, free enterprise, limited government, low taxes, balanced budgets, and individual rights. We still honor those principles; but those who now govern have no concern for or even understanding of such matters.

While the other party has been winning elections and undermining everything we have traditionally valued, what issues dominate our political discourse? Our party has been talking about sex and religion.


Any of these sex or religion topics would be a fine subject for a sermon; but experience teaches us that they are not issues that will propel a party to national leadership. Regional, yes; national, no. A successful political party should understand this, but it seems that we don’t. That is why, at the moment, we are not a successful political party.

If a politician’s principal issues are sex and religion, and he wants to campaign with a bible in one hand and his carnal concerns in the other, that’s his choice; but he should know that this approach — although thrilling to a vocal faction of the party — isn’t attractive to a broad majority of the population. If you feel that you must campaign on those issues, please do it as a member of the other party. In most parts of the country you’re going to lose either way, but you’ll still feel good, and at least you won’t be hurting us.

(HT: Little Green Footballs)