Monday, December 22, 2014


I glanced over at the newspaper someone was reading at the next table in the library, and saw this:
From the point of view of a Cowboys fan, I imagine, the word would be "victory" or "success," not "disaster."  Which is why I keep laughing, albeit bitterly, at sports fans.  One fan's disaster is cause for another's celebration, so why should I take either side seriously?  I had a vague impression that one trait of an adult is the recognition that the world doesn't revolve around one's own provincial or personal associations.  If my beloved dumps me, I can reasonably be very upset, even take to my bed for days of weeping.  But if I think that the rain outside shows that the universe is weeping with me, I'm childish at best, delusional at worst.  Yet the sports fans I know have no such perspective.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Bringing Cuba Under Our Wings

Daniel Larison has written several good posts on President Obama's move to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba.  Today he took Marco Rubio to task for saying the predictable stupid hawkish things about it:
There is no good reason for the U.S. and Cuba not to have normal relations today, and so we should have them. If the U.S. refused to have normal relations with every state because of its authoritarian character or the abuses it has committed, as Rubio claims to want, it would have to shut down its embassies in half the countries around the world.
But then he wrote something just about as absurd as anything Rubio had said:
That is especially true in those states that mistreat their people and govern in an authoritarian and abusive fashion. These are the states that most need to be opened to outside influences, and they are the states that are often the most opposed to the U.S. Having diplomatic representation in these countries not only helps to secure U.S. interests there, but it also provides an opening for communication with the people of that country.
I know Larison knows better than this, because he wrote in this very piece that "The U.S. maintains normal relations with all kinds of governments, including some of the very worst in the world."  I go further than that, and want to stress that the US has excellent relations with numerous very repressive governments, indeed with "those states that mistreat their people and govern in an authoritarian and abusive fashion." Far from viewing this state of affairs as a distasteful Realpolitik necessity, our rulers are quite enthusiastic about right-wing dictators.  I doubt Rubio is an exception to this rule.  It's simply false that such states "are often the most opposed to the U.S."  Sometimes, yes, they are; but often they are quite friendly with us.

Once we've removed a turbulent, excessively democratic government, we train the new regime’s police in techniques of torture. I don’t know if it’s still true that there’s a positive correlation between a state’s human rights abuses, positive investment climate, and the amount of US aid it receives, but it was true until the 1980s at least. Far from opening such countries to outside (presumably ameliorating) influences, good relations with the US protects them from such influences. Apologists for this tendency, who are of both parties, tend to adopt an extreme cultural-relativist position: Oh, Those People don’t feel pain the way we do, life is cheap there, they don’t understand Democracy, and besides, we can’t play cops to the whole world.  Openness to outside influences goes both ways, too: the US generally manages to resist such influences that would curb our abuses.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Custer Was a Hero to Most ...

Custer was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me ... well, I guess not.  I was kind of fascinated by him as a kid, probably because the imagery of the doomed last stand is powerful stuff, and read several books about him and his dreadful end as I grew older.  Eventually I could no longer see him as a remotely good person, let alone a tragic victim.

I was looking around on Youtube the other night, and found this clip:

That's Buffy Sainte-Marie in the miniskirt and go-go boots, and the Man in Black, Johnny Cash, both of them openly mocking our wounded warriors and fallen heroes on the national TeeVee!  I don't object to this myself, but I can't help wondering how it went down in the more timid days of network television in the 60s.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Outrage Is Our Most Important Product

So the US Senate finally released its long-promised report on torture during the first years of Bush's War on Terror, defying warnings by alarmists that it would set off a wave of anti-American violence.  As Daniel Larison pointed out:
There was no such concern among hawks about the foreign policy implications of torturing people when it was being done, and they expressed no similar worries that other U.S. actions would provoke violent responses. If one raises the possibility that aggressive U.S. actions in other parts of the world could have dangerous consequences for Americans later on, that is normally denounced as 'blaming' America. Strangely enough, that doesn’t seem to apply when there is a chance of exposing our government’s egregious abuses to public scrutiny and having some small measure of accountability for those abuses.
I've been bemused by the reactions among liberals.  Jon Stewart was reportedly so shocked! shocked to learn that there was torture going on it made him want to vomit.  No one who was an adult during the 2000s, even in America, can credibly claim not to have known about the US practice of torture at the time: even before the Abu Ghraib revelations, there were plenty of reports of rendition and torture in the media.  There was even a fair amount of debate throughout the decade in mainstream as well as marginal media.  Nominal liberals like Jonathan Alter and Alan Dershowitz advocated the use of torture before the end of 2001, and urged then-new President Obama to continue the proud tradition.  Stewart is old enough to remember all this, so I presume he's going for theatrical effect.

I've also been reminding liberals who've indulged in outrage over Fox News's attacks on the report that it wasn't only Fox that warned of the dire consequences that would follow if the world were told that what they'd known had happened all along, had happened.  Fox was part of a chorus with CNN, the New York Times, and USA Today.  Some liberals were thrilled when John McCain dusted off his anti-torture credentials.  I teased a few of them by accusing them of endorsing him for the Presidency in 2016, since they'd used a similar line when a few writers pointed out that even Ron Paul was right about a thing or two.  I also had to remind them that the US was supporting, fostering, and practicing torture on a bipartisan basis long before George W. Bush took office.  They also like to forget Obama's role in shielding the torturers from accountability for most of his presidency.  (Remember "Reflection, not retribution"?  That's down the memory hole, along with "Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!")  But posturing is so much easier, and more fun, that informing oneself.

Today Larison linked to a story in the Washington Post which reported that the "bitter Mideast" has reacted to the Senate report with a "shrug."  But you know, life is totally cheap in the Mideast, so they don't really care about torture -- they just hate America, because Islam.
... Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy [explained].  “This seems like run-of-the-mill stuff in the sense that this is what people expect of the U.S. They would be surprised if it wasn’t the case, and that’s a product of years of deep anti-American sentiment,” he said.
See, the "deep anti-American sentiment" couldn't possibly be the result of US violence, whether direct or by proxy, in the region.  They just hate us for our freedoms, I guess.  Or for our Freedom Fries.
Arab governments might have been expected to seize on the report, but their reaction too was muted. That’s in part because many U.S. allies in the region were directly complicit in the rendition and interrogation programs. Also, nearly all Arab governments have long employed similar brutality against their own political prisoners.
“Clearly everyone’s disgusted by it, and I’m sure the extremists will leap on it as evidence of American perfidy,” said Theodore Karasik, a regional expert who serves as senior adviser to Dubai-based Risk Insurance Management.
Well, the report is "evidence of American perfidy"; but then, so is the consistent US support for repressive regimes in the Mideast and elsewhere, another troublesome fact that has the effect of winning recruits to Islamist insurgent groups. Again, as Daniel Larison says, the hawks and their defenders never think that invasion, mass murder, torture, and indefinite imprisonment without trial might produce bad consequences for the US.  It's not as if the world's people need Senate reports to know what the US and its allies are doing to them -- their noses are ground in it every day.  Only Americans can maintain blissful ignorance about what is being done in our names, and throw tantrums when our sleep is disturbed.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Providential Coincidences

At the public library recently I came across a book called Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time (HarperCollins, 2010) by Kristin Swenson, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.  I leafed through it and thought it looked like a convenient summary of current research and knowledge about the Bible for laypeople, so I checked it out.  It turned out to be a book I could recommend to people who wanted such a summary, and I was gratified to find that it had little information I didn't already know.

There was one thing I disagreed with strenuously, though.  In her discussion of Moses and the Exodus, Swenson tries to find a factual basis for the ten plagues that Yahweh sent to nudge Pharaoh into letting his people go.
Whether or not the plagues of Exodus] really happened is a question we cannot answer for certain. There is no reference to such events in Egyptian sources, and, as noted above, historical accuracy did not seem to be the biblical authors’ primary aim. Although two psalms also list the plagues, they do so in a different order and each includes only seven (probably reflecting a liturgical function), but not exactly the same seven.

One of the most convincing theories of how these events may have transpired presumes a seasonal situation gone bad. Flagellate organisms from Lake Tana worked their way into the Nile during the annual flooding period and sucked up all the oxygen, killing the fish. Frogs migrated out of the flooded river as they normally would but were infected by bacteria, Bacillus anthracis, possibly exacerbated by the decomposing fish.

The biting insects should probably be understood as mosquitoes – not “gnats,” as in many translations. They would have reached unbearable numbers as the high floodwaters receded. As for the flies, well, just imagine all those decomposing critters. It’s possible that at this point, the livestock, which had been safely secured some distance from the floodwaters, became infected with the same anthrax as the frogs. According to Greta Hort, it was transmitted by the fly Stomaxys calcitrans, which bites people and animals alike – perhaps explaining the boils. As for the storm, such weather isn’t common in Egypt, but it isn’t unheard of, either. Swarming locusts are more common, and the occasional khamsin (Arabic for an intense sandstorm) would have made the day seem dark as night. The most likely period for these events would have been August to May, a bit longer than the narrative suggests. The biblical story isn’t explicit about duration [192].
This is euhemerism, an ancient and popular critical tactic which tries to get rid of miracle stories by postulating that the events described actually happened, but were misunderstood or gradually enhanced with marvelous additions.  (Or that gods were originally human heroes whose exploits were exaggerated in the retelling.)

Euhemerism has been used to debunk mythology and to defend it.  James Barr wrote in Fundementalism (Westminster Press, 1977) that euhemerism was common in conservative evangelical writing in the 1950s and 1960s, but it also turned up in conservative scholarship of the same period.  And, of course, euhemeristic explanations of the Star of Bethlehem circulate every year during Christmas season.  In his review of a respectable scholarly 1955 commentary on the gospel of Mark by Vincent Taylor, for example, Morton Smith criticized
T.'s insistence that the tale "has not yet attained the rounded form of a Miracle-story proper and stands nearer the testimony of eyewitnesses" (ib.) - who fundamentally misunderstood what happened. This objection applies to T.'s treatment of all the major miracle stories. As already noted, 'vivid details' lead him to conclude that every Markan story of Jesus' miracles (except the blasting of the figtree) is told from eye-witness tradition. At the same time, he will not admit that any of the major miracles happened: Jesus did not walk on the sea, but waded through the surf by the shore (p. 327) ; his apparent cure of the Syro-Phoenician's daughter (p. 348) and his apparent stilling of the storm (p. 273) were providential coincidences ('brilliant timing,' Moule, ib.) ; and so on. So Mk.'s 'narrative is everywhere credible' (p. 318) as to everything but what Mk. meant to narrate. Clearly, this position is the product, not of criticism, but of the conflict of two apologetic techniques - to defend Mk. directly by accepting his stories, and to defend him indirectly by getting rid of his miracles.*
The trouble with this strategy is that it tends to rely on "providential coincidences" and "brilliant timing."  In the case of the plagues of Exodus, then, Moses just happened to dip his staff into the Nile at a time of year when it was going to run red anyway (and the credulous Egyptians, who'd observed such changes before, were taken completely by surprise), and the rest of the "plagues" were just a natural sequence of events that followed in their turn.  This sequence of plagues can't be used to verify or date the Exodus, then, since it would probably have occurred numerous times in Egyptian history.

This explanation also falters because, as Swenson admits,
If these nine plagues really did happen in a manner that can be explained as natural events, the tenth cannot.  Try as we might (and there are some imaginative theories out there), the tenth and final plague, the death of the firstborn, defies natural explanation.  In the story, God instructs the Hebrew people to slaughter a lamb and spread its blood on their doorways before roasting and eating it.  That would mark which households to spare as the LORD passed through Egypt, killing firstborn children and even firstborn animals… [192].
Her authority for this "convincing theory," the Danish scholar Greta Horst, seems to have been bolder.  I haven't read Hort's articles** completely yet, but I noticed that she did attempt to speculate on a "natural" explanation for the killing of Egypt's firstborn.  That should be interesting, because it would also have to explain why smearing blood on the doorframes of the Israelites' houses would protect them.  (The story also includes one of those charming revelations of Yahweh's moral character, for he "gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Furthermore, the man Moses himself was greatly esteemed in the land of Egypt, both in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants and in the sight of the people" [Exodus 11:3], but he "said to Moses, 'Pharaoh will not listen to you, so that My wonders will be multiplied in the land of Egypt.' Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh; yet the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the sons of Israel go out of his land [Exodus 11:9-10]."  In other words, it wasn't Pharaoh's fault that he didn't free the Israelite -- Yahweh made him do it, in order to let him show off his power some more.)

Of course the plagues look like "natural events." If Yahweh or any other god (including Nature) sends epidemics, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, droughts, etc., then it's possible to describe those events in naturalistic terms.  The question for believers, however, is whether those events were literal acts of their gods, and if so, what message the acts were meant to convey.  Science can't answer that question; but believers disagree among themselves about the answers.

What I find odd is that although euhemeristic explanations have also been offered for some New Testament stories, as I've indicated, Kristin Swenson only resorts to the tactic in writing about the Exodus.  She must know that it's a dubious approach, largely discredited in scholarship about religion.  The nineteenth-century theologian David Strauss mounted a strong attack on it in his Life of Jesus [1835-36, translated into English by George Eliot*** in 1846], which provoked a shitstorm of condemnation from the orthodox.  (Another act of God, no doubt.)  Yet euhemerism moves.

* Morton Smith, "Comments on Taylor's commentary on Mark."  Harvard Theological Review 48: 21-64, page 36.
** Greta Hort, “The Plagues of Egypt,” in two articles published by Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 69(1-4) (1957): 84-103; and 70(1-2) (1958): 48-59.
*** Yes, that George Eliot.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Darwinian Apostles' Creed

I've mentioned before, and agreed with, the argument that you shouldn't judge a religion by its worst adherents, but by its best.  I still agree with it, up to a point, though as always the first question is how to decide who the best adherents are.

But, as I say, only up to a point.  Dismissing the "worst" adherents of a religion is often an evasion.  If a religion makes supernatural claims, as Christianity does, then it's fair to ask why the Holy Spirit fails to cleanse and purify and set straight the hearts of so many Christians.  But even without the supernatural baggage, it seems to me fair to notice that a religion doesn't manage to transmit its high ideals to most of its adherents.  Along the same lines, atheists who talk as though the absence of belief in God clears away irrationality, superstition, and magical thinking all by itself, are setting themselves up for a fall.  Atheists, of course, have no central authority, no organization to set doctrine and practice and inculcate them into the laity.

On the other hand, I think it's useful to look at the middling adherents of a religion, just I think it's useful to look not only at the best works of art but at the mediocre and even bad ones.  You can't see the virtues of an outstanding work if you can't see the background. against which it stands out

This is why I was interested as well as entertained by the discussion under this meme, posted by the liberal-Democrat site Daily Kos on their Facebook page on the 155th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species.

Something seemed off to me in that quotation, partly because it's not an accurate description of how natural selection works, so I looked around and sure enough, the quotation is not from Darwin.  It's a paraphrase of Darwin by a teacher in management studies, which explains to me why it sounds like it was said by a motivational speaker.  Leon Megginson, the likely author, probably didn't claim to be quoting Darwin, but somewhere between 1964 and 1982 the paraphrase came to be treated as a direct quotation.  It was even inscribed in letters a foot high on the floor of the California Academy of Sciences.  This writer says that the Academy removed Darwin's name from it but evidently kept the text, which is too bad because the text will still convey an inaccurate picture of natural selection to students who see it.

So, what do the Facebook followers of Kos have to say about this meme?  They loved it.  Some samples:
Well, so much for the GOP!!!

They cannot die off soon enough. If ever a species should have gone extinct before its time...

The Pope got your message loud and clear , Mr. Darwin !

I guess if you look at politics from a Darwinian point of view, and seeing as the rich and powerful are the ones with the most to lose from change, you can understand why they fear change so much. Thus the term conservative and its ideology.

Well thank you, President Obama for hanging in there!
... In other words, thanks to President Obama for resisting change?

A few commenters pointed out that the quotation is bogus.  No one so far of the people who like the quotation have acknowledged that.  Predictably, since it's Daily Kos, many of them have interpreted it as a prophecy of the downfall of the American Republican Party.  (Just as conventional religious believers see current events reflected in Holy Scripture.)  Some commenters have pointed out that the GOP is currently managing change pretty well, having won control of Congress and many state-level governments besides.  This also rolls off the backs of the true believers.

While culture, such as our ability to create artificial environments so that we can live in regions that would otherwise kill us, certainly has played a role in human survival, that's not "managing change."  ("Manage change" is one of those empty phrases beloved of motivational speakers and gurus.  Does it mean to respond creatively or passively to change, or does it mean to make change happen?  What kind of "change" are we talking about here?)  Nor does functioning in an organization have much to do with natural selection.   Success in Darwinian terms means reproductive success, not climbing the corporate ladder.  A CEO with a multimillion-dollar paycheck who doesn't have offspring who in turn have offspring, is "unfit" for evolutionary purposes.

Even more, Darwin's theory is not about individuals or political parties, it's about species.  (Note the commenter above who referred to the Republicans as a species.)  It is species that adapt, or fail to adapt, and species that persist or die out.  All individuals die; it's the species -- a statistical abstraction that evolutionary theorists still have trouble defining -- that Darwin was concerned with.

It's not a big deal that so few people recognized that the Darwin quotation in this meme isn't genuine, though it's still significant since liberal secularist Democrats like to see their opposite numbers as gullible fools who'll believe anything they're told.  What matters is that so many pledge their allegiance to Darwin and Evolution, but have no idea what Darwin's theory actually says. Whether human beings and dinosaurs coexisted, for example, is not part of Darwin's theory; it has more to do with geology in any case, but it's an empirical question, not a theoretical one. (For that matter, I suspect that contrary to what orthodox Darwinians like to say, it's possible to do valid biological research on the details of evolution without understanding -- or even believing -- the theory as a whole.)

I don't have any real numbers, of course, but this meme and the reactions it inspired support my suspicions of poll numbers about belief in Evolution versus belief in Creationism.  (Just in passing, the percentage of Americans who subscribe to Creationism, according to Gallup, dropped from 46 to 42 percent since 2012.  That number has held fairly steady for "the past three decades.")  That a certain number of Americans say they believe that human beings evolved doesn't tell me anything about their grasp of evolutionary theory, and I have heard from enough people who clearly misunderstand the theory to wonder.  (Gallup asked its respondents to declare how "familiar" they are with the theory of evolution, but that's no help.  Thirty percent of those who said they were very familiar with the theory also believed that God guided the process, while thirty-four percent left God out of it.)  "I believe that Man Evolved, without help from God" is a declaration of faith, not evidence of scientific literacy.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Shoot the Arbiter

It's funny, the flexible relation many people have to authority.

Today someone complained on Facebook that there are too many books with the title Something Rich and Strange, referring to a review of such a one in the New York Times, a collection of stories by Ron RashThe comments quickly focused on the reviewer's calling the collection an "anthology," which should mean a collection of work by a variety of authors instead of just one.  Thus:
The distinction between "anthology" and "collection" is so clear and obvious that the inability of major venues to acknowledge it makes me want to poke my eyes out with a fork.

Okay, I probably wouldn't got that far. Even so . . .
Another commenter, a novelist, chimed in:
It is dismaying to see it in the NYT ... I sort of count on them to help keep the roof from leaking
The next commenter, a distinguished writer, critic and academic, replied that
the NY Times gave that task up back in the seventies when they finally gave up as well on their "Information Desk," a service where you could phone in, ask any question you wanted, and generally get an answer pretty much immediately from one of the twenty-five or so smart people in that office at the time, with a few reference books and a couple of encyclopedias in with them, whose job it was to answer such queries. I called them up once, when I was twelve, to find out the meaning of "serendipity" (because it wasn't in my dictionary back then) and the person who answered the phone told me, without missing a beat, all about "The Three Princes of Serendip," its sixteenth century publication date in Venice, and its coiner in English, Horace Walpole. Neat . . . The NY Times may still be the paper of record, but it is no longer an arbiter of American English and hasn't even aspired to that for some fifty years.
Well, who can blame the Times, really, for abdicating that position?  First, in 1961, Merriam-Webster published its Third New International Dictionary, a "descriptivist" work that the Times and other establishment publications attacked editorially and in reviews.  The Times declared its intention to use only the Third's 1934 predecessor, though the writer Bergen Evans mischievously showed that the Times regularly allowed usage that the Second rejected, and only the Third accepted.

But the Enemies of Language weren't done with the Times.  Gay activists pressured the Grey Lady to refer to them as "gay," rather than "homosexual."  In 1987, their campaign succeeded.  So, with Authority crumbling, why shouldn't the Times simply decide that Anything Goes?  

Still, I'm not so sure it has done so.  Arbiters are entitled to change their minds, though they pretend they don't.  What the last writer I quoted objected to was that the "arbiter of American English" had made a decision he rejected.  But if the Times really is such an authority (and who appointed it to that office, anyway?), then who is he to challenge it?  I happen to agree with the "anthology" / "collection" distinction, but I have no authority.  As I said, it's funny how people will invoke this or that person or institution as Authority -- until it makes a decision they don't like.  Like it or not -- and I don't, particularly -- the New York Times regards "anthology" and "collection" as equivalent.  Language changes.