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Monday, January 21, 2013

Scalia's hat and the establishment of religion

by John MacBeath Watkins

Did you notice the hat Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wore to the inauguration?

It is a replica of this one:

from Hans Holbein the Younger's portrait of Sir Thomas More. From Kevin Walsh:
The hat is a custom-made replica of the hat depicted in Holbein’s famous portrait of St. Thomas More. It was a gift from the St. Thomas More Society of Richmond, Virginia. We presented it to him in November 2010 as a memento of his participation in our 27th annual Red Mass and dinner.
Now Thomas More was famously a martyr of conscience. Specifically, he died for the principle that the Pope should be able to tell a temporal ruler what to do. In short, he was a martyr for the separation of church and state. He was against it. A constitution that bars the establishment of religion would have been anathema to him, and the society that bears his name wants religion to dictate laws about reproductive health.

The Catholic Church canonized  More and set July 9 as his feast day. The Aglican Church has not folloewd suit.

What a lovely way to show contempt for the 1st amendment.



While these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing

" For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth." -- Barack Obama

by John MacBeath Watkins

President Obama's second inaugural address will surely be remembered as a speech that very clearly identified the gay rights movement with the women's rights and civil rights movements, and his party with good treatment and citizen's rights for all Americans. It was a strikingly appropriate speech for this president to give on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The quoted line at the top of this post is essentially the rationale for the civil rights movement and the gay rights and womens' rights movement. It refers to this line from the declaration of independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness
John Locke said it differently in his Second Treatise on Government:
Sect. 87. Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrouled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power, not only to preserve his property,that is, his life, liberty and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men; but to judge of, and punish the breaches of that law inothers, as he is persuaded the offence deserves, even with death itself,in crimes where the heinousness of the fact, in his opinion, requiresit.
Usually, this is shortened to the right to life, liberty, and property. All three, in Locke's view, were expressions of the right to property, which he defined as including your life. As we've discussed before, I view Locke's focus on property as an understandable failing in Locke's philosophy. By attaching his radical notions about rights to the established body of law relating to property, and asserting that we all hold property in our own bodies, he was in effect arguing for a huge expansion in rights, and took away one of the arguments against universal suffrage.

I like the Declaration's broader definition better. After all, what makes us happy? Once a certain level of material comfort is achieved, we want to be able to establish the meaning of our lives, our place in it, and gain the respect of those around us.

As the piece linked in the above paragraph mentions, the men participating in the Selma sanitation worker's strike carried signs that said "I am a man." They were striking, as much as anything, for the right to define themselves, and not be defined by others.

The president also placed great emphasis on the social contract.
But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.
 That is a theme you will find throughout liberal theory, and even Mitt Romney's Republican Convention speech, though it consisted in large part of trashing President Obama, gave a nod to the unity of the American people.

But Locke and the other thinkers that gave us our way of life didn't just give unity a nod. They viewed the social contract as  essential to people being able to enjoy their rights. Hobbes, contemplating the end of the 30 Years War, which depopulated parts of Europe as badly as the Black Plague had, called life without the social contract " solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short."

Jean-Jacques Rousseau said freedom was "obedience to the law that one has prescribed to oneself," (though not to be a law unto oneself; the means he prescribed for arriving at these laws required the social contract.)

The president's calls for us to move forward together come at a time when gun rights advocates are emphasizing their theory that the second amendment exists as a sort of self-destruct mechanism if they disagree with their government.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) addressed supporters in a frantically toned email on Monday, warning them of a looming effort to snatch up their guns.
"You and I are literally surrounded. The gun-grabbers in the Senate are about to launch an all-out-assault on the Second Amendment. On your rights. On your freedom," reads the opening of the email, according to The Hill.
"[T]hey're coming for your guns," the email exhorts.
And Michael Scheuer wrote:
At day’s end, then, the 2nd Amendment exists to permit American citizens to perform the “duty” Jefferson describes by resisting and defeating with arms a federal government that knowingly produces a “train of abuses and usurpations” that is designed “to reduce them under absolute Despotism.”
So how did the founding fathers respond when Americans tried to use their guns this way in the Whiskey Rebellion?  
The Washington administration's suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion met with widespread popular approval.[99] The episode demonstrated the new national government had the willingness and ability to suppress violent resistance to its laws. It was therefore viewed by the Washington administration as a success, a view that has generally been endorsed by historians.[100]
In short, George Washington used a "well-regulated militia" to suppress those who thought they should use their weapons to gaurantee their freedom. Where did he get that idea?
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
He drafted people into a militia to ensure the security of a free state. Would the supporters of the Whiskey Rebellion have wished to live in a state with no laws or taxes? No, they just objected to that one tax, which had been passed by duly elected representatives. They were, in fact, objecting to taxation with representation, which is a rejection of the social contract.

And that is the objection of the Tea Party, who are, in fact, a subset of Republicans.

This is what our president suggests we get beyond. His reference to people having to wait for hours to vote was a reference to vote suppression tactics intended to rig elections. This, like the tea party, is a reflection of ethnic panic at a time when the demographics of our country are changing so that  soon, non-Hispanic whites won't be a majority. In Ronald Reagan's day, a candidate getting 59% of the white vote would have won a presidential election. That will never again be enough, but Americans will have to agree who is an American in order for this country to work.

Historically, divisive, polarized politics been a problem when there's a lot of immigration. But it is inconceivable that we can have a nation with sufficient unity if we don't extend civil rights to all our citizens.Our polarized politics have everything to do with this, and it is a disease that we get over.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Empire or Borg? American hegemony and the bad economics of empire

by John MacBeath Watkins

Is America an empire?

Not too long ago, I discussed this on line with several of my (mostly)Canadian and antipodean friends. (The thread started on a different topic, begun by a Canadian, but soon drifted, and the discussion continued on to this thread.)

The case for saying it is seems obvious. Bases all around the world staffed be a "defense" department financed with nearly as much money as the rest of the world combined spends on its militaries, economic interests that span the globe, and foreign policy that can be high-handed. 

But what is an empire? In our series on the strangeness of being human, we've discussed the fact that words are the meanings we use to think. Sloppy use of language leads to sloppy thinking, so it seems to me that it's fairly important that we don't allow language to become vague and nebulous.

Traditionally, an empire a group of people with a common identity, such as a nation, that conquers and dominates other peoples with other distinct identities to extract wealth from them. It does not supplant or absorb them, nor does it give them a voice in the running of the empire. The classic empire is the Roman one.

The British Empire came close to this model, but supplanted  native populations in North America and Australia. However, those territories never gained seats in the British parliament. Instead, they calved off into separate countries, loosely linked by cultural and political ties. It therefore acted like an empire even as it supplanted native populations, treating even people of English descent as separate rather than absorbing them into Britain. This in fact was the major complaint of the Declaration of Independence:

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.


You will be assimilated.
As the British Empire weakened, other colonies split off to be separate countries, whether, like India, they had a different culture or, like America, Canada, and Australia, they were versions of the mother country's culture. This was the devolution of the British Empire, which can hardly be said to exist any more, but may still be devolving.

America has acted rather differently. Those territories it overtook and absorbed became first territories, then states, a process that seems still to be happening in the case of Puerto Rico. Where we invaded and did not absorb the new territory into the polity, we've gained little benefit and proved inept at dominating foreign peoples. The prime example here is the Philippines. We tried, we really did, but we suck at empire. More recently, neoconservatives have had an ambition to achieve empire, which is part of why we invaded Iraq. And how did that work out for us?

Neoconservatives, with organs such as The Project for the New American Century, have argued for a more unilateral and militaristic approach to foreign policy, an approach, in fact, better suited to an empire. It would be an approach more like empire building efforts of the past, such as the Spanish-American War, than the accomplishments we look back on with the greatest pride, such as World War II.

Compared to our failure to dominate the Philippines, consider what happened when we conquered half of Mexico in the 1850s. California has become our most populous state by about 12 million souls more than its nearest rival, Texas, also formerly part of Mexico, and the entire Southwest is prosperous and fully integrated into the American polity. The 14th Amendment made it clear that people born there are American citizens. Two presidents, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, have come from there. In fact, I like to think that our tendency to assimilate shows that we are not the empire in Star Wars, we are the Borg in Star Trek, next gen.
Some scholars have maintained that America is a different kind of empire, a hegemonic empire, which uses soft power as well as military might to get its way and prefers installing friendly governments to ruling countries directly. This is less an accusation than a goal for neoconservative thinkers, who want to assert our national greatness with unilateral military action. As pointed out in Mistaking Hegemony for Empire: Neoconservatives, the Bush Doctrine, and the Democratic Empire, after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, "With the obvious evidence of American vulnerability, it became easy to legitimize a course of action that, absent the terrorist attacks on the country, would have smacked of old-fashioned imperialism."

When they spoke of American exceptionalism and national greatness, this is what they were thinking of.
 
The problem is that hegemony depends on the soft power of being considered worth emulating. American wealth and culture have seemed worth acquiring to many abroad, which made our way of life seem appealing, and far more appealing, in fact, than such rivals as the Soviet Union. The problem with relying on the use of unilateral force, as the Iraq debacle has demonstrated, is that the imperial actions undermine cultural hegemony, resulting in making the nation less secure, as the blowback from the use of force makes the country's way of life seem less appealing and even worth attacking. Grondon calls this a counter-hegemonic reaction.

But why is America so bad at empire? One answer would be that this is not the moment in history for multinational empires, but that just begs the question, "why not?"

Part of the problem is that in a democracy, voters lose patience with the military engagements required, but I wonder if that would be the case if they saw real benefit from these adventures.

Empires belonged to a time when the capitalist way of life had not fully evolved. The East India Company existed to extract wealth from India and bring it to England. Manufacturing in India was limited by law, because India was part of the empire specifically to supply the mother country with raw materials to manufacture. Modern corporations do not feel such loyalty. They often have shareholders all over the world, and are happy to relocate manufacturing wherever it will earn the most for their shareholders. Whether to repatriate income earned abroad is a question of taxes to be paid and where investments must be made.

You cannot have an empire in the old-fashioned sense if you cannot rely on your merchants to use the state's power to enrich the state. Wars to serve the interest of companies uninterested on bringing wealth back to the country that wages them are parasitic, because the taxes to pay for them do not come from the wealth they generate. Eventually, voters become aware that if they benefit, say, Transocean, one of the world's largest drilling contractors, it won't matter that the company started in Alabama. It's now headquartered in Switzerland, and contributes as little to the American tax base as it possibly can.

In fact, the company had good reason to move its headquarters, as it was  facing charges om America under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and ended up paying more than $13 million to settle the matter. Such interference might serve the needs of a nation, but not those of a corporation.

Large companies often are larger economic actors than whole countries, never mind the agencies designed to regulate them. Not only did the replacement of a national merchant class with multinational corporations deprive nations of any real benefit from the nationalism of merchants, they now find themselves often outmanned and outgunned by corporations.

The British Empire fell because it became obsolete. For the same reason, American efforts to form an empire, coming later in the evolution of capitalism, failed because empires as a form of economic organization were economically obsolete.

But that does not mean that America is morally superior to empires. Read War is a Racket, by Gen. Smedley Butler if you doubt me. Plenty is done by our nation that smells pretty bad. Nor does it mean that we are less powerful than an empire. Our military is easily the most powerful in the world.

But unlike an empire, if a host nation asks us to remove our military presence, we leave. We don't do this because we are pure of heart. We do it because it doesn't actually pay most of the time to throw our weight around. In fact empire destroys hegemony, and hegemony is what we are actually good at.

The Soviet empire, which really consisted of Russia dominating the Ukraine and Eastern Europe, was quite good at subjugating its client states. It failed, however, to generate the kind of wealth non-empires and nation states that had shed their empires were able to after World War II. We may well look back on it as the last of the multinational empires

But I wonder, is it just the multinational empire that's been left on the scrap heap of history?

Empires worked because there was a cycle, vicious or virtuous, depending on your point of view, that reinforced them. You spent money on your military, conquered turf, and the economic gains more than paid back your investment in treasure and blood. 
 
As capital becomes increasingly globalized, it strives more and more for the enviable position of the free rider. Even those things that a nation state can provide that will ensure productivity, such as a good transportation network and a well-educated workforce, the rational corporation will try to avoid paying for. Ultimately, the globalization of capital will undermine the nation state. Should we  ever have a global government, it will be because global capitol will need a global tax  base to pay for the infrastructure it needs.
 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Left handed darkness: Bias and the "sinister" among us

by Jamie Lutton

For the last year, I have been following the debate online, in local papers and Yahoo, over gay marriage. I noted an edge of hysteria and paranoia as anonymous people raged against  'unnatural' gay marriage, and gays in general.  I had an epiphany.  The debate about the rights of, and persecution of gay people  is one of the most tragic examples of people objecting to someone who is 'born that way', but there at least one other. 

One of the more curious is prejudice against left-handers. Consider, for a moment,  the meanings we associate with synonyms for left, such as sinister and gauche.
     

Of course, we left-handers (I am one of 'them') have been allowed to marry and serve in the armed forces, but until very recently, we ran a gauntlet beginning in infancy, for the 'right' to use our left, or gauche/sinister. hand.

Mainstream culture, in most times and most countries have been made so uncomfortable by left handedness that most 'lefties' were forced to convert to right handedness so they would be "normal"
    
As you read this, reach out without thinking, and pick up a cup or pen near you, or open a door. Pick up a pen and pencil and write something down.  Without thinking, you usually do this with using one hand...or the other.
            
This is 'handedness', and most people are right handed.  But not all. But notice; it that decision to use one hand, mostly, instead of the other is innate.
          
Not trained, not taught. Innate. We knew this now, and accept this without questioning.
    
But left handed people have been punished for thousands of years.  The majority culture in nearly all places and times, the right handed, in their intolerance and paranoia, could not stand to have some minority among them use their left hand instead of their right.
            
The percentage of people who are born left handed now is about 11%. Until recently, however, about half have been converted into being right handed by adulthood, due to great pressure in school and at home to force children to use their right hand instead of their left.

Converting a child to using the 'correct hand', the right hand, is an agonizing experience for a child, and often lead to dyslexia,  depression, and lifetime of stuttering.
           
There is a nearly universal world cultural obsession to convert the left handed, and to harass those not converted..
      
The left hand can not be held up to take an oath,  to shake hands, to eat or to write.  Using the left hand was  viewed with suspicion, and punished severely.
           
In Western cultures alone, as recently as the 1970's it was habitual to 'break' small children of using their left hand, to convert to their right. It was seen as a good thing to do, without question.   Parents who loved their children, teachers who were supposed to  instruct children 'correctly' would severely punish for trying to write with their left hands.
      
In the book The Left Stuff: How the Left-Handed Have Survived and Thrived in a Right-Handed World Melissa Roth notes that stigma against lefties runs deep: "Stories are plentiful of ‘caggie handers’ trying to eat or to write, only to have their left hand whipped, scalded, sat upon, shouted at and even balled into a stump with duct tape".
 
In the early 20th century  left handedness was identified as a 'pathology' by 'medical experts'.   Some Eugenics ''experts'' (this is the same group that later bred the madness that was Nazism) said that being left handed was associated with 'criminal genes', and advocated that left handed people be weeded out of the population as 'inferior".
             
The cruel confusion was between 'innate' behavior and 'willed' behavior.
    
Little children were treated as if they 'chose' to be left handed, and needed to be 'corrected' and converted into right-handedness.
       
Left handedness was associated by 'experts' to mental illness, shortened lifespan, and many 'medical disorders', including homosexuality (!!!!) They were thought to live less long as they were considered 'clumsy', more prone to heart attacks and disease.
     
Any of this history sound familiar?
    
These practices seem barbaric to us, in 2013.  Accommodation is made for left handed people nowadays. The bias against lefties has faded away in Western culture. Five of the last eight presidents, including Bush Sr,,  Barak Obama and Bill Clinton are left handed. How sinister!
          
But  a political "right"  so eerily similar, the right to gender identification and sexual preference  is still controversial, and the battles for rages fiercely today. .
              
We are all (or should be) familiar with the torment gay citizens have experienced at the hands of their families, their community and their government. this torment is so severe that many  gay people fled to cities where their was a large population of gays, hiding in plain sight, fleeing from the harassment and even death threats they receive from the general population .
       
Even today, gay (and transgender) persons are regularly beaten, abused, fired, disinherited, even murdered by their families of origin as young people, when they 'come out' or are 'discovered'. .
        
Gay citizens in the USA and elsewhere are standing up and saying "no more'. They testify to lives filled with shame and self hatred, of having to hide who they are. These personal histories, plus intense political action and agitation over several decades are beginning to win gays 'a place at the table'.
            
This struggle is no means over; worldwide the oppression of gay people is still the norm.  in Uganda there is a fierce debate right now about the right of gay people to even live.
 
And in this country, there are whole organizations, mostly God based, that make money converting gay people; that conversion is  seen as necessary for a person to lead a respectable life.
               
When will this cruelty end? For lefties, the struggle is not over. In many countries, being left handed is still severely punished, and the children are still forced into conversion,  to write and use their right hand only.
       
In Russia, mainland China, Asia and Africa most children are still forced to use their right hand, and punished, even beaten when they used their left hand.
    
We have a world wide vicious problem of oppression of young people who are left handed - or, as I contend here, gay.
   
And for both, it begins in early childhood.  It does not matter if you are a Muslim in Iran or Saudi Arabia, live in a small town in the South or in Central or South America,, if you are born left handed or gay, even today, you will be discouraged or physically punished for using the ''wrong'' hand or are attracted to the 'wrong' sex.
       
This punishment, leading to the torment of  children, causing great and permanent mental distress, needs to be addressed.  The obsession of the dominant culture to 'convert'  must be addressed.
    
The dominant culture, in living memory, wanted lefties to ''pass' as right handed, to be accepted in their culture. If they 'insisted' on being left handed, they are  severely harassed, especially when they are young and in their parent's (and school system's) power. .
          
Religious leaders need to say that Left handed people are God's children, perfect as they are, as much of the persecution stems from religious as well as cultural reasons.
   
Political leaders need to do so, as well. Barack Obama needs to speak out for the rights of left handed people, to encourage world leaders to tell their citizens to stop tormenting their children for using the 'wrong' hand.   
        
It is now clear to me that we are just emerging from an age of barbarism, cruelty and paranoia, and that much still needs to be done.
         
Children and young people, who were at all 'different' be they left handed, or gay, need protection from the paranoid dominant culture. They both need to be protected from being forced to convert, or at least pretend to, and stay in the closet.
         
We must address the mores of that culture that seeks to be punish people who are different as wrong or 'sinful', and needed to be controlled and converted.  This cruelty of the dominant culture must be confronted whenever it re-appears.
           
The right to be oneself, and not be forced to change some part of oneself to please the dominant culture must be respected.
      
Left handed people and gay people are natural allies. We lefties must remind ourselves and others about the cruelty of attempted conversion. This is a futile and cruel practice that can lead to depression and despair. Small children should not be repeatedly and endlessly tormented for being who they are, gay or left handed.
     
Left handed people must step up, and know their history. Study the oppression of lefties; it will only take a few minutes using Google, though the testimony is quite extensive and well researched. .
         
As long as any of us, gay or left handed, are tormented for being ourselves, no one is free of harassment and torment.
       
Time to bring the barriers down, and spread reason and justice to all corners of the Earth, so no child is faced with a lifetime of unjust suffering, osterization and misery; from suffering from being forced to convert, or hide our true self from others.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Fairies, dim memories of memories

by Jamie Lutton

               
I was at work last week at my bookshop, when a woman traded in her daughter's books that she had outgrown. Among them were a lot of flimsy children's books with fairy folk in them, readers meant for first or second graders. Fairies, always girl fairies, having various adventures.

We all 'know' what fairies look like. Tinkerbell. Tiny, about three inches high or so, in skimpy outfits,  magical, temperamental, with wings like dragonflies.

Falero Luis Ricardo Lily Fairy, 1888


But fairies did not always look like this.  This is a construct that comes from Ireland's myths and stories about 'the little people'.  During the Elizabethan era, this was transmitted south into English mythology, mostly because.   Shakespeare picked this up, and put 'fairies' into his play A Midsummer Night's Dream. The Fairy king and queen are full, human sized, but their attendant fairies are small, invisible, and can sit in flowers.  In Shakespeare's The Tempest, you still have a human sized 'fairy' Ariel, who is more like the older fairies ' magical, invisible, mischievous, but the fairies of A Midsummer Night's Dream prevail in cultural memory, influencing story telling from then on.

Fairies are then said to be tiny, usually invisible to humans, occupying the night world,  dangerous, spiteful, willful.   But centuries before that, fairy folk were human sized,  that feared 'cold iron' and 'cold steel'.  They lived on the fringes of human society, had to be placated with gifts,  and they lived in another world, 'fairy world', passing back and forth into both.

They also were a focus for romantic fascination. As the old religions were suppressed by the new Christian Church, they were morphed into tales of the 'fairy folk.'

A ballad, Thomas The Rhymer, by an anonymous bard centuries before Shakespeare, gives a good example of this. The 'Queen of Elfland'  appears as a beautiful woman dressed in green, on a white horse covered with hundreds of little bells. After an enchanted kiss, she kidnaps Thomas, and shows him  the three paths, the path to hell, the path to heaven, and the path to fairyland.  .

In another source, a laie, or epic song   written by Maire of France in about 1190, for both the French and English court.  Titled Lanval,  in it the fairy princess had takes a lover who was a poor knight in King Aurthur court, and showers him with gifts. He is forbidden to say where is gifts come from, or to reveal that she is his lover.  Maidens and married women in the court try to seduce him, and he is punished by Guinevere for refusing his advances, an obvious copy  of the tale of Potiphar's wife and Joseph in the book of Genesis, 39 7.

When he is on trial, as he has been libeled  by Guenevere, he refuses to speak of his fairy lover, saying he has no lover, till he his threatened with death. He then confesses all.  At this moment, magically out of thin air, the fairy princess shows up on horseback to rescue him, has him jump on the back of his horse, and whisks him off to Avalon, and he is seen no more on Earth.

In both cases the 'fairy princess' rides on horseback and whisks the mortal man away. In Thomas the Rhymer to 'fairyland' and in the lais by Marie De France, to Avalon. This is a reversal of most ancient romances where the man rescues his fair lady. The gist of this is that fairies, or 'elf queens' are not only human sized, but dread powerful creatures who must be obeyed by mortal men. .

Looking further back in history, past dark ages and the Roman occupation of England, these 'fairy folk' seem to be cultural memories of bronze aged Celtic peoples, who were in the British Isles and lingered the longest there, holding out from the waves of invasions from the European continent of Anglo Saxons, and, later, Norman people. Driven back to mountain side and deep forest, the local peoples remembered them as 'magical', hiding from 'mortal man', disliking 'cold iron' the weapons used by the  invaders.

Lingering on in memory, as beautiful and fearful adversaries,. mostly women, who would melt into 'thin air' or retreat over the hill.

We would have more of the stories about them and their ways, if the Norman French Christan church had not burned the Anglo Saxon books, as they were suppressing the culture that was there before the 1066 invasion. Only fragments remain, mostly known from writings that refereed to them by the Norman monks as they suppressed them.

So, the tiny fairies that occupy children's books are dim memories of memories, of people who occupied the England before waves of exterminations destroyed them and the stories about them..

In the poem Thomas The Rhymer, the Elf queen is the direct inspiration for both the 'bad magical witches' in the Narnia stories by C.S. Lewis, and Galadriel in The Lord of The Rings by Tolkien.  The 'elf queen' in this old ballad, and others like them, casts a long shadow on twentieth century epic fantasy.

Each generation retells the stories of the fairy folk, one way or another.

Sadly, only a few traces remain in everyday life of the Celts that came before the Norman French, before the Anglo-Saxons.

Have you ever seen someone knock on wood, and it has to be real wood, when they say out loud something bad that might happen? In England they 'touch wood'. 

This is one of the last traces of summoning the spirits of the trees to protect you from a bad outcome, the fairy folk.