Monday, May 30, 2011

They Did Not Die For Our Freedom

Fervent US nationalism made an understandably dramatic spike following the events of September 11. Now, almost ten war-filled years later, we in the US come again to Memorial Day. Established following the American Civil War, the federal holiday today commemorates men and women who have died while in US military service.

These people--daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, friends--died in combat. They died in campaigns of aggression and defense. They died prepared and by surprise. They died in bravery and in fear, in clarity and confusion, instantly and after great suffering. They died because they volunteered, or because they felt pressured, or because they didn't really know what they were getting into. They died because there was a fight, because others planned a fight. They died as part of a strategy, one formulated far away in a board room and another drawn close by in the dirt.

Commemorate the dead and gone. Yes. Remember, too, those left behind--the families, the survivors, the planners. But I wonder also whether we ought to be more outraged than we appear to be.

*  *  *

I'm tired of receiving mass emails and Facebook posts urging us to remember and thank those who "died for our freedom." The patriotic souls behind these emails and posts are almost always not mourners or even vets themselves. Yet these folks publicly instruct us all to pause in solemn reflection before biting into our hot dogs. They lecture us: because of those who died and are dying, we can sit comfortably in our yards and share a cookout on this day. Had the soldiers not fallen in military service, we would be unable to have these hot dogs. Indeed, without the sacrifice of the killed, our lives now would be very different.

I don't buy the sanctimonious, self-righteous posturing that drives this Memorial Day moralizing. I don't buy it because it consents to the dead and to their manner of death as givens. But is it enough simply to remember the dead? Is it enough just to feel bad for the widower and the orphan? Does a momentary scowl in honor of the mother and father who lost their precious child give proper weight to this holiday?

No. I say, no. No, again.

May I suggest that we have had enough people die for "our freedom," whatever that is? May I put forth the proposition that we need more of us to live for "our freedom," whatever that is? Should we ask why our soldiers--and "theirs"--are killing and being killed? Should we not all read Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" every Memorial Day?
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots 
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Dulce et Decorum est / Pro patria mori, it is sweet and right to die for your country. The words, taken from an ode by Horace, become exposed as a lie. The reality of war and war-mongering reveal that we embrace that star-spangled lie with all joy.

But some of us think it is neither wonderful nor honorable to die for one's country.

Do we want people to die fighting? Do we want people to kill others? If the answer is no, then why don't we do more than simply remember the dead? Why don't we do more than just place a flag in our street? Why don't we do more than pause before scarfing down the burgers and chips?

In other words, why don't we pressure our governments and our leaders to cease making war? Why don't we voice outrage at what we have lost in our dead, and what misery their loss has created?

Commemorating the dead is a self-serving yet otherwise impotent gesture. If the dead really mean anything to us, we'll try to make our leaders more accountable for using non-violent means to improve safety and quality of life--locally and globally.

If instead we are content to shed mere tears and to do nothing else on behalf of those who killed and were killed in military activity, then we are like the crowd of people in Mark Twain's "The War Prayer," who ignore the words of the aged messenger:
O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle -- be Thou near them! With them -- in spirit -- we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe.

O Lord our God,

Help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells;

Help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead;

Help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain;

Help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire;

Help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief;

Help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst,

Sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter,

Broken in spirit,

Worn with travail,

Imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it –

For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord,

Blast their hopes,

Blight their lives,

Protract their bitter pilgrimage,

Make heavy their steps,

Water their way with their tears,

Stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!

We ask it, in the spirit of love,

Of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts.

Every Memorial Day, we offer Twain's sardonic prayer to those we fight and to ourselves. Tacitly, unconsciously, we accept the fate voiced in these words, and we approve of it.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Kuzari: Belief and Evidence (and Bias, Oh My!)

Per the discussion in the latest Kuzari post, I’ve agreed to provide greater detail about how the Sinai story in Exodus—that is, the story of a divine revelation before the masses—began and developed. I'm still working on developing that content, so it will come in one or more future posts.

Nevertheless, I want to respond in the meantime to Dovid Kornreich, who says:
I commend you on your bravery and honesty. I’m glad you acknowledge that there is a need to provide a (probable!) alternative explanation to the mass revelation belief in order to justify ignoring it.
Thanks for the commendation, Dovid. I do acknowledge the need to explain my opinion and to justify it as well as I can.

However, let me be very clear on several critical points:
  1. I am not “ignoring” belief in a mass revelation and I never have. Indeed, my entire series on Kuzari seeks to pay extraordinary attention both to the belief and to what inferences can reasonably be drawn from it. 
  2. I also acknowledge that people do believe and have believed that a mass revelation occurred at Sinai. At the same time, I reject the idea that there was an actual divine mass revelation because (a) we don't have sufficient evidence to support such a claim, and (b) divinities are fictional.
  3. Dovid, if you think I'm going to provide an "alternative" explanation for the mass revelation belief, as if your explanation is the "default" or "standard" one, then I must protest. There is no default or standard explanation. 
  4. We are better served by dropping the idea of "probable," at least for now. Our focus should be on accounting for the evidence we have. We have evidence of the Sinai story: the Bible relates the story. Later commentators discuss it. We have evidence that in some historical periods the story was believed to be historically accurate. Let's talk about the evidence first and then think about which explanations seem more probable than others
It's not biased or prejudicial on my part to reject the actuality of the divine mass revelation when we don't have sufficient evidence of it. All that we have is the Torah and later commentaries. What we don't have but need is one or more first-hand accounts written for the purpose of communicating a reliable description of real events as they occurred. Even in a case such as having an account, the reliability of the writer and text must be scrutinized.

It's also not biased or prejudicial on my part to reject the idea that deities (deliberately plural) are real-world entities. To my knowledge, no one has shown that they are. I accept that they could be real in the sense that counts; that is, I am open to the possibility that . But until we get a clear demonstration of what a divinity actually is and does in a real-world context, I don't see how it's reasonable to assume they exist (or ever have).

The questions asked of me concern belief in Sinai. When did it start? Why? How did it develop? I will try to answer these questions as best I can. The question is not whether Sinai is true. If this latter question means something like "Did Sinai happen exactly as reported in the Torah I read today?" then I must answer "no." Now, the modern incarnation of "traditional" Judaism takes it as foundational that the answer to the question is "yes." To his credit, Dovid Kornreich expresses willingness to explore this foundation:
Please be aware that this is a two-way street. I myself admit that I too have the burden to justify ignoring all the thousands of religions' claims to the truth in favor of the one I was born into.
I appreciate this. Truly, I do. Indeed, I would be most interested to learn why you ignore and/or reject the following claims, as I assume you do (please forgive me if I am incorrect on this):
Claim 1: Jesus Christ was the only begotten son of the Jewish God. Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

Claim 2: Muhammad was the messenger of God, and the Qu'ran is the eternal and uncreated speech of God.

Claim 3: Mahaguru Parthasarathy, and Indian man, proves the existence and divinity of Vishnu by being an avatar of the god.
I am mostly interested in the underlined parts and the basis upon which you ignore/reject these claims. I thank you. As I said, I'll post further discussions on early Jewish belief in the Sinai story as soon as I can.

Pablo Casals, "Song of the Birds"

Casals: "We have to leave it to the ignorant and the stupid to point out faults. We have to be glad of any bit of beauty."
This time of year, my morning run gives me audience to the wonderful music of the birds. Since I was a boy, I've loved the song of the chickadee especially. Maybe it's a Massachusetts thing.

A different and no less exhilarating birdsong is "Song of the Birds" ("El Cant dels Ocells"), performed by cellist-musician-human extraordinaire Pablo Casals.

Should you be interested in a summer read, I heartily recommend Joys and Sorrows, Casals' quasi-autobiography.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Crime Pays: Rapture, Doom, Prophets, and Profits

Doomsday prophet Harold Camping of Family Radio International says the world will really end (seriously this time, no kidding) on 21 October 2011. But here is all you really need to know:
Camping offered no clues about Family Radio's finances Monday, saying he could not estimate how much had been spent advertising his prediction nor how much money the nonprofit had taken in as a result. In 2009, the nonprofit reported in IRS filings that it received $18.3 million in donations, and had assets of more than $104 million, including $34 million in stocks or other publicly traded securities.
Some types of crime pay very well.

P.Z. Myers points out the real punchline, however:
Sure, everyone is laughing at Harold Camping now, except his followers, who are undeterred. But you're missing the real joke. Look at every Abrahamic religion, with their myths of prophets and favored peoples and fate. Look at the crazy conservative church in your town, that preaches homophobia and anti-science and supports Israel because of the Armageddon prophecy. Look at the liberal Christian church down the street from you that has the nice Vacation Bible School and puts on happy plays for the older kids, and also teaches that one day you will stand before a great god and be judged. Look at your family members who blithely believe in death as a mini-apocalypse, in which they will be magically translated into another realm, again to be judged.

It's the very same rot, the poison of religion that twists minds away from reality and fastens them on hellish bogeymen. They're demented fuckwits, every one, and the big lie rests right on the fundamental beliefs of supernaturalism and deities, not on the ephemera of one crank's bizarre interpretations.
The punchline is not the crankpot huckster like Camping, it's the "normal" huckster at your local house of worship.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Kuzari Returns!

Maybe I'll answer you with a "laser" instead of with a voice. Wouldja like that?
According to Dovid Kornreich, the following summarizes my explanation of "how millions of Jews have come to believe the truth of Traditional Judaism":
The story of mass Divine revelation started out as a small scale, untrue, but plausible story. After is [sic] was accepted, it evolved and grew imperceptibly into the full blown version we have today.
CLARIFICATION: Kornreich is not referring specifically to my argument, as he was not aware of it at the time he wrote the above-quoted part. My point is that the view articulated by Kornreich is supposed to represent the kind of argument that I make, an argument dependent on the "evolutionary myth hypothesis." I apologize to Dovid Kornreich and my readers for being so unclear in my language as to mislead.

Unfortunately, the summary misses the mark widely from my position. I do not, for example, have much of anything to say about how the Sinai story "started." Indeed, I wonder if "started" even captures the nuance and complexity of what might have actually happened.

Stories in transmission are like hills. Just as we are hard-pressed to identify precisely how many grains of sand may be taken away before we no longer have a hill, so too are we hard-pressed to identify the moment in time when a particular story, as we know it, truly starts. With the Sinai story, we have the compound problem of trying to identify not only when the story began but also when it became interpreted in such a way to distinguish Judaic religion and community. The story could have been around a long time before someone said, "Don't you realize what this means? God spoke to our ancestors and so to us. God and all of us are bound together in a compact!"

In addition to voicing an origins claim I don't actually make, Kornreich's summary presents the "evolving myth hypothesis" as a progression. The problem with this presentation is the same as in other "ladder of progress" models:

Rudolph Zallinger's "March of Progress"

Scientists such as Stephen J. Gould have rightly criticized images such as Zallinger's "March of Progress" (1965) for implying that human biological evolution happened in a linear, sequential fashion. Human evolution is not a movement toward a predetermined “ideal form." The march of progress idea, then, can be misleading to the non-specialist.

Similarly, Kornreich's summary of the "evolving myth hypothesis" erroneously implies that the development and acceptance of "the story of mass Divine revelation" progressed in a linear, sequential way. I do not hold that Sinai was once a simple story that slowly changed and became ever more fantastic until it acquired all of the characteristics we find in Exodus. What's more, my own words do not imply such linearity and sequentiality:
Someone did not make up the Sinai story complete and unalterable at one time, for this is a modern sense of how stories are made and circulated. It was more like many people communally developing and interpreting back-stories for already existing rituals and practices.... The Sinai story was not a conspiracy but the ongoing evolution of culture. And it was not just the evolution of culture but the evolution of cultural texts.
The key difference between what I actually say above and what Kornreich thinks I am saying boils down to the idea of "growth." I am not talking about growth; I am talking about re-interpretation. I suspect, and it's only a suspicion, that Sinai changed not so much in context but in the approach people took to it and in the meaning people attached to it. I've never been talking about a true story becoming false or a false story becoming more fantastic: I've been talking about a story--who knows how true--gaining new significance.

This type of re-interpretation happens often enough. The battlefield at Gettysburg gets dedicated by Abraham Lincoln and becomes a symbol of both the Civil War's bloodiest battle and the very principles at the root of the conflict. William Shakespeare gives Henry V a speech that consecrates the Battle of Agincourt as a signature of one phase in the Hundred Years' War. Woodstock becomes romanticized as three days of peace, love, and music--the legacy of peaceful, dope-smoking kids who wanted the world to be a better place. Watergate becomes a lasting symbol of the US government's covert activities and its friction with America's stated principles. We know all too well that later interpreters and nationalist interests co-opt events; co-optation and re-interpretation hardly make up the implausible scenario that Kornreich suggests.

And we know that at least some of the Torah derives from a narrative matrix common to societies and civilizations of the Ancient Near East, such as Egypt and Mesopotamia. I'll list only a few points of similarity:
  • The Ipuwer Ammonitions,  an Egyptian text going back to 2345-2181 BCE has analogies to the ten plagues.
  • The Egyptian god Atum/Atom has conceptual similarities with the god of Moses.
  • Sargon of Akkad's myth of origin has many parallels to that of Moses.
  • The story of Sinuhe matches the Midianite adventures of Moses in several spots.

There's a world of difference, then, between the position Kornreich ascribes to Kuzari critics like me and the one I actually hold. Indeed, I'm not even sure we can responsibly grant his assumption that "millions of Jews have come to believe the truth of Traditional Judaism." Which Judaism is the "Traditional" one, hmm? Is it the Judaism of the Chabadniks? The Judaism of the Charedim? The Judaism of the American reformers? The Judaism of the Karaites? The Judaism of the Modern Orthodox? The Judaism of the Reconstructionists? What about the Judaism of Jacob Frank?

Contra Kornreich, I see no monolithic truth and no monolithic Judaism. What's more, Sinai (Exodus 19:17-20:18) remains a story with an uncertain interpretation:
With Moses and then Aaron seemingly as the sole exceptions, all Israel keeps its distance from Sinai and remains “far off.” The people see smoke and feel shaking, as if they are before a volcano. What did Israel hear? Certainly, they heard the shofar. What of God did they hear? Only sound. Moses later reminds Israel that when they encountered God at Sinai, “You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deuteronomy 4:12).

While Jewish tradition has maintained that God spoke the first two commandments directly to Israel (but see Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, II.33), this seems to be an interpretation that is not explicit in the text itself. In abject fear and standing from afar, Israel pleads to Moses, "You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die." We might suppose that the Israelites actually hear nothing directly from God, if we accept the speaking Moses as being literal:
The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between the Lord and you at that time to declare to you the word of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain. He said, "I am the Lord your God . . ." (Deuteronomy 5:4-6; emphasis added)
In this regard, the biblical claim of God's direct interaction with Israel is like later miracle accounts, such as the risen Jesus appearing to a few followers. The singularity of Sinai, in other words, may be highly exaggerated.
Torah interpretation, too, has a history. In my ongoing blog series on James Kugel's How to Read the Bible, I have mentioned the centuries-long transition in the approach to reading the Bible:
This traditional way of reading the Bible and understanding what it really is, says Kugel, derives from the efforts of the Bible's earliest interpreters:
[T]his whole way of approaching the Bible is the product of its ancient interpreters. There is little in the biblical texts themselves to suggest that they were intended to be read in this fashion. Nevertheless, that is how they came to be read, and it was this way of reading that made the Bible what it was for so many centuries, a divine guidebook full of instruction and wisdom, yea, the word of God....Disquieting as it may be, one is left with the conclusion that most of what makes the Bible biblical is not inherent in its texts, but emerges only when one reads them in a certain way, a way that came to full flower in the closing centuries BCE.
With Sinai as with all, plurality abounds. The persistent claim of Kuzari proponents is that Sinai is a different kind of story, a story that because of its content could not have arisen and developed the way that other stories do. This argument is bunk. I have shown that it is at least plausible that the Sinai story arose and developed just as other stories do, despite its grandest content. What seems obvious to me is that resistance to the idea that Sinai is just a story derives from a combined bias for theism and against any idea perceived to threaten orthodox religious belief.

Perhaps what's needed at this point is a better understanding about how stories and legends begin. Stay tuned....

Monday, May 16, 2011

Kugel's HTRTB (Part 9): Reading the Bible Beyond the Text

Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg Germany (1517), sparking the Protestant Reformation and transforming sola scriptura into a central idea of the reform. In How to Read the Bible, James Kugel's thesis criticizes the assumptions of sola scriptura about how the Bible was created and how it should be read.

We continue to work through Chapter 36 in James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now.

This ninth installment of the series steers us toward the conclusion of Kugel's chapter. We have several subsections yet to go, but the argumentative turn is fully made in this subsection. Last time, we learned about the liberal approach to Scripture, which seeks to reconcile the Bible and the conclusions of modern biblical scholarship. Although we have had quibbles with Kugel in past installments, in the last one, a more serious fissure seemed to emerge. I wrote:
In the end, Kugel is ambivalent toward the liberal stance. It seems not to have reconciled the biblical document and the Good Book, and what's more it seems unable to square that particular circle. Kugel leads us, then, back to the Bible's first readers, back to when the words of the Bible were "all-important." A perceptive reader may detect a hint of sarcasm in my last sentence, as I wonder if Kugel is here lapsing into an idealistic, idyllic picture of a "pre-Fall" Bible, when its words and meanings were united and whole. Now, I am not being altogether fair, as Kugel does not completely make this lapse, yet he certainly seems to approve of the interpretive view that privileges words and meanings. If the liberal view is troubled by the Bible's seeming lack of historical veracity, the ancient interpreters know no such trouble. As Kugel summarizes the ancient view once again: "the events of the past are one thing, but the words of Scripture are quite another, and it is the words that count for us."
I note later on in this installment that I probably overlooked the nuance of what Kugel was doing. For now, we will examine "Scripture's Changed Meaning," where Kugel uses all that has come before to start answering the question he had posed earlier:
what do we do now that we are aware that there is more than one Bible? We understand both the original meanings of the texts and the religious meanings later attended to them, so how, then, is one to relate to Bible knowing all this?
Kugel is rightly dissatisfied with attempts by modern biblical scholars and theologians "to build a bridge between the true, historical reality as they [i.e., scholars and theologians] know it, including the original meaning of various biblical texts, and the way of reading those same texts...reading the Bible not as history but 'for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.'"

The bridge succeeds insofar as it connects the modern reader to a mode of interpreting that for a long time has allowed the Bible to remain important and relevant through sweeping social and cultural changes, and across all sorts of societies as well. Yet the bridge wobbles and cracks in light of another assumption often brought to reading the Bible: the absolute border "between the biblical and the postbiblical, between the prophet and the interpreter." To get right to the point, our Bible canon and way of reading it--long-standing and effective though they may be--are postbiblical and subjective. They cannot be claimed as the canon and approach used in the biblical era or by the prophets, and that's a problem because that era and those people are more authoritative. We may be mistaken; their view must prevail, as Kugel puts it:
But if you believe that the Biblical is good and the postbiblical is at least irrelevant and perhaps corrupting, then the form of the text that sits on the border between the two [time periods] cannot take precedence over earlier forms.
The Bible we have and the way we read it, in other words, cannot overcome the problems posed by history and interpretive history. We saw this conflict before in Kugel's discussion of the liberal approach to Scripture, where the biblical text is taken as the primary and sometimes only authority. But if you take the biblical text as absolutely true and inerrant, then what do you do when serious doubts arise about historical accuracy and veracity? If there was probably not a global flood or a real Moses, then can the Bible still be taken as authoritative?

Kugel begins at this point to build his solution to addressing these problems of history. The foundational point--which we have heard before--is that
it was not principally the rearranging and interpolating done by editors that turned these ancient writings into Scripture, but the whole tradition of interpretation that emerged toward the end of the biblical period.
From this premise, Kugel undoes the idea of "the Bible alone." In other words, he argues that biblical authority, for modern readers who wish to accept it, will rest not only on the Biblical words and meanings but also and very importantly on the "peculiar way of reading and interpreting" brought by the community of believers in the 300 or so years before the common era.

I must admit, then, that my earlier criticism of Kugel was misguided. He was not leading us to earlier texts, forerunners of the canonical Bible. Neither was he leading us to blithely dismiss the serious charge of the Bible's non-historicity--the increasingly clear picture that the Bible does not describe historical reality in many cases. Rather, Kugel was bringing us to a choice. That choice is how we wish to read the Bible. Do we wish to follow the way Christian interpreters Paul or Jerome read the Bible? Do we wish to follow the way of the "anonymous group of Jewish interpreters" who in Kugel's special sense created the Bible from 300 BCE to the start of the common era? In any case, we cannot and do not read the Biblical text apart from ways of interpreting.

And what of the historical veracity problem? Kugel's argument here, I think, is that the value and efficacy of the Bible in the great change from 300 BCE onward never relied on faithful historical reconstruction. Historical veracity, in other words, is a serious problem only in a Protestant sola scriptura or text-centric interpretive matrix. The next subsection will present the way of interpretation deriving from Jewish tradition.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Wednesday Comedy: Conservapedia

Clinton: "Those guys crack me up!"

Conservapedia, the people who brought us the Conservative Bible Project. Comedy gold, my friends, comedy gold.

On Barack Obama:
Barack Hussein Obama II aka Barry Soetoro (born in Honolulu, August 4, 1961) grew up outside the mainstream of Black America and had little in common with African-Americans social, political, and cultural experiences.

Obama reportedly was born in Honolulu, Hawaii to Barack Obama Sr. and Stanley Ann Dunham in 1961, however questions remain about the Obama's natural born citizen status. Obama's birth father, a natural born citizen of Kenya was a Marxist, while Obama's maternal family had roots in other progressive left and atheist traditions. Obama later was to make the rather ostensible claim to the Chicago Sun-Times religion editor Cathleen Falsani on April 5, 2004, "I'm rooted in the Christian tradition." In point of fact, Obama was reared in the Islamic faith while living with his mother and stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, in Jakarta, Indonesia in the mid-1960s until the early 1970s. It is believed Stanley Ann Dunham moved to Hawaii with the young Obama about 1970 or 1971 where he attended the elite Punahou School and graduated in 1979.
On liberals:
A liberal (also leftist) is someone who rejects logical and biblical standards, often for self-centered reasons. There are no coherent liberal standards; often a liberal is merely someone who craves attention, and who uses many words to say nothing. Liberalism began as a movement for individual liberties, but today is increasingly statist and, as in Europe, socialistic. Liberalism has changed over the years and degenerated into corruption. For example, FDR, one of the few great democratic Presidents, firmly believed in private sector unions, but vehemently opposed and condemned public sector unions, stating that the idea of collective bargaining can't be transferred to the public sector, as that would result in the government being unable to carry out its duties. Yet today, decades later, democrats and liberals are almost in bed with public sector unions, as they "donate" money to the re-election campaign in exchange for more taxpayer money in their wallets and fluffed up pensions.
On conservatives:
A conservative adheres to principles of personal responsibility, moral values, and limited government, agreeing with George Washington's Farewell Address that "religion and morality are indispensable supports" to political prosperity. Former President Ronald Reagan said, "The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom."

The sine qua non of a conservative is someone who rises above his personal self-interest and promotes moral and economic values beneficial to all. Alternatively, a conservative is willing to learn and advocate the insights of economics and the morality of the Bible for the benefit of all, recognizing that the Bible is the most logical book ever written.
On hell:

To Christians, Hell is a place where the souls of the wicked are punished eternally for all the sins they perpetrated during their lifetime on Earth. Since all have sinned (Rom 3:23), Hell can not be avoided on one's own merits, but through the love gift of Jesus one can know, love, and serve God and share eternity with Him in Heaven.

The Christian and Muslim religious traditions often emphasize the Gehenna aspect: Hell is extremely hot and filled with fire and brimstone. Opinion varies on the question of whether, while Hell itself is eternal, experience of it purges away the sins of sufferers to the point of eventual redemption. See purgatory. A minority of Christians do not believe in an eternal Hell as punishment, believing instead that the souls of the wicked are annihilated. This view, which is directly contradicted by Scripture, is referred to as Annihilationism. Other deniers of Scripture question whether Hell has a literal burning fire, or it is merely separation from God and therefore has the same torment as if there were a burning fire. This view has been supported by writers such as J.P. Moreland, although the Bible clearly contradicts this view and other symbolic interpretations of Hell. It is clearly a real, physical place where the wicked are punished for their sins.
On Ronald Reagan:
Ronald Wilson Reagan (February 6, 1911 - June 5, 2004), served as the 40th President of the United States of America from 1981 to 1989. He was the 33rd Governor of California (1967–1975), following a successful career in film and television. He has been universally hailed as one of the greatest American Presidents and the main inspiration for the conservative movement from the 1970s to the present.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

See? People Do Declare to Be True That Which Can Easily Be Proven False!

I mentioned yesterday that "People lie all the time, quite convincingly, even when they know they could easily be caught in the lie." And even if we don't think are lying, necessarily, people can quite easily spread falsehoods and misinformation.

Exhibit A, Penn Jillette:
Yesterday, around 3 p.m., a trend started emerging on Twitter. People began reciting a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that seemed strangely apt for this occasion:
"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy."
The first person to cite it on Twitter was the famous magician/Libertarian Penn Jillette, but the words quickly went viral, and the source got lost in the shuffle. The only problem? As Megan McArdle pointed out in the Atlantic, Martin Luther King never said that. Actually, the quote from MLK about enemies is:
"In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
How did this other quote get misattributed to King? As McArdle says in her piece, "It's a bit too a propos. What 'thousands' would King have been talking about? In which enemy's death was he supposed to be rejoicing?" She also wonders, "Why? What do you get out of saying something pithy, and getting no credit for it?"

Penn admits to being the originator of the quote on Twitter, though he claims it got messed up when he cut and pasted from a longer piece by King. I'm not sure if I believe him; I have a strong suspicion Penn just made it up in order to see how many people would blindly follow along and quote it as fact, without ever checking on the sources. After all, this is the guy who created the documentary "Penn and Teller: Bullshit!" and the subsequent Showtime series about how easy it was to dupe people.

Update: The source of the quote is a Facebook message by Jessica Dovey, where she goes on to quote Martin Luther King Jr. In this context, it's easy to see how a cut-and-paste job could have accidentally attributed the source to King. Congrats to Jessica, whose Facebook wall post is one of the more famous sayings on the Internet today. Salon has reached out to Penn Jillette for comment, but has yet to receive a response.
The lesson? A claim should not be considered true just because it could easily be proven false. If you don't do the work of actually researching and see if it is false, you may be misled.

Teachers Deserve Competitive Salaries and Benefits

From 1995 through 2002, I taught over two dozen college classes in English. Most of my experience was in introductory composition, but I also taught short-fiction, business writing, and linguistics (my favorite).

I left teaching in 2002 for a non-academic position after a year of adjuncting at a local college and supporting one of the school's programs. In that year, I also worked at another place teaching English as a Second Language to Korean children. Although I taught only a couple of hours per night, the pay rate was significantly higher than the college gig. Neither situation offered benefits. My total annual income was about $28-$32K.

It was a joke, that salary.

After teaching, my first full-time job was $38K per year, plus benefits. I thought at the time that the money was great. What's more, I enjoyed being able to drive from the workplace at the end of the day and not have to continue working into the night. When I taught, I felt mentally and emotionally indentured around the clock with grading, class preparation, conferences, student issues, and school issues.

As I got smarter about the non-academic job market and my own marketability, I moved ahead quickly enough. My salary increases went something like this: 38 -> 41 -> 74 -> 88 -> 95. I pull in low six figures now. I have decent benefits. I work at the office and at home, too, yet I have a semblance of work-life balance.

I recently returned from a trip to my old university, where I had just passed my doctoral candidacy exams. My dissertation director was telling me about how the university was committed to offering at least $50K to new hires in the department. Imagine that, only $50K for a person with a doctorate and a full teaching load.

I left teaching for many reasons. I left academia generally because I didn't see a fast enough path to fair compensation. I wanted to earn what my students would earn. I wanted to have money to buy a home and raise a family. I wanted all of this sooner rather than later.

This is the context from which I read Eggers and Calegari in their NYT piece, "The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries." Here's the money part (pun intended):
At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers’ salaries have declined for 30 years. The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.

So how do teachers cope? Sixty-two percent work outside the classroom to make ends meet. For Erik Benner, an award-winning history teacher in Keller, Tex., money has been a constant struggle. He has two children, and for 15 years has been unable to support them on his salary. Every weekday, he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a forklift at Floor and Décor. He works until 11 every night, then gets up and starts all over again. Does this look like “A Plan,” either on the state or federal level?

We’ve been working with public school teachers for 10 years; every spring, we see many of the best teachers leave the profession. They’re mowed down by the long hours, low pay, the lack of support and respect.
I have relatives and friends in the military or on a police force. I respect these professions, but the people in them can be over-the-top with the "respect our sacrifice" lines. Teachers sacrifice every bit as much as soldiers and cops, yet they get no social respect whatsoever.

There's no heroism in a sacrifice you don't make willingly, and so I left teaching as a full-time vocation. Why should I have left money on the table? Why should I have denied myself to a lifestyle similar to that of my peers? Why should I have condemned myself to decades of financial strain? I still teach a literature class at the local college on some mornings, but basically I am out of the profession. Too bad. It's good and important work. I bet lots of our best and brightest would love to teach if the opportunity were made competitive with non-academic positions.

Kugel's How to Read the Bible: Index of Posts

Here is the current list of posts in the series on Chapter 36 in James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now.

More to come!

Monday, May 02, 2011

Osama Dead = Jesus Lives!

He's dead! No, he's risen! No, he's dead. Ah, now I'm not sure. Whatever.

Watch how this happens.

Last night the media erupted with news that Osama Bin Laden has been tracked down and killed by American forces. President Obama went on national television and proclaimed that Bin Laden is dead. I believe him. Why should I believe Obama? Because no one in their right mind would declare to be true that which can easily be proven false.
Now consider the case for Christ. In the months and years following the crucifixion Jesus’ disciples proclaimed that he was alive. I believe them, because, again, no one in their right mind would declare to be true that which can easily be proven false.
And finally:
I am unable to deny the resurrection. To do so requires a leap of blind credulous faith that I simply cannot manage.
Now, I have confidence that the report of Osama's death is accurate. My point is simply that a crappy reason for believing the report is "no one in their right mind would declare to be true that which can easily be proven false."

It is demonstrably true that people in their right minds can and will lie even if their lies can be easily uncovered. It happens all the time in homes, between buddies, in police interrogations, and everywhere else.

In any case, the proclamation for the living Jesus was never easy to prove false. Hey, I saw Elvis Presley shopping at the mall yesterday. Prove I didn't.

About as much time has passed between Elvis's death and now as had passed between Jesus's death and the earliest Gospels. Add to this the fact that we don't know the level of the Gospel reports. That is, we know they certainly ain't first-hand accounts. Are they second-hand? third-hand? embellished?

We could go on--and I have in earlier posts--but I'm not trying to engage the argument above. A cursory reading is enough even to intuit that it's nonsense.

I would have preferred to see Osama in a US courtroom

One wonders if it will be possible to conclude these never-ending wars.

Jerry Coyne articulates my thoughts precisely:
And the sight of Americans driving around Washington, D.C., honking their horns and shouting “USA! USA!” is unseemly and embarrassing. bin Laden was a vicious criminal who killed many innocent people, and his death does constitute a type of justice. I would have preferred a trial—although its outcome would have been inevitable—rather than execution, but there was presumably no choice. But his summary execution was a necessary evil, not an excuse for a party.
Maybe a trial on US soil would have been a farce on both sides. I don't know. Still, I find it hard to be "happy" that he was killed. I don't mind it, certainly, but I cannot help seeing the terrorism, the wars, the profiteering, the grandstanding, the religious fervor, the rhetoric, the maimed, the scarred, and the dead. I have no idea what to celebrate.