Sunday, October 6, 2019

Cancel My Subscription, Sir or Madam!

Of course, this is nothing new. But for me the important part is that many people, not just on the wacko Right, believe that if you're rich it means you're smart. Whatever it means, it doesn't mean that, and I'm not talking about Donald Trump, who's an easy target. I mean also people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, the Clintons, Barack Obama, the entire Bush Crime Family, Howard Schultz, Michael Bloomberg, and Warren Buffett. Among others. The rich aren't smart; it might even be that having all that money makes them dumber, because it insulates them from the consequences of their stupidity.

Read some of the replies in the thread, which point out that not only does Australia have universal healthcare, they have a 45% capital gains tax, a $19 minimum wage, etc. It's common to try to refute these little details by pointing out that Australia isn't all that rich or powerful compared to the US; but I'm not the person who hopes to escape Socialism in the US by emigrating to Australia, this billionaire is. Except that he's lying, like almost everybody who says they'll emigrate if Bush or Obama or Trump becomes President.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Apologetics for a New Millennium, Same as the Old Millennium

It's fun to peek from time to time at the present state of fundamentalist Christian apologetics.  I've begun reading Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture's Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ by Darrell L. Bock and Daniel B. Wallace (Thomas Nelson, 2010), and it doesn't seem that much has changed in the past fifty years -- longer, really.

Bock and Wallace are both academics, professional scholars, but they begin Dethroning Jesus with some rather lazy arguments.  Bock recounts how he debated John Dominic Crossan "in front of a packed house at Southern Methodist University" (page 2).  Crossan, a member of the notorious Jesus Seminar, told the audience of a study of college students who were asked where they were the Challenger Space Shuttle blew up, and were asked again three years later.  Not only did their memories change, but:
Afterward, the students were asked to compare their testimonies and choose the one they liked best. The study noted that most students preferred the description they gave three years after the event rather than the initial account they gave immediately after the event. [Crossan's] point in citing the study was to say that memory becomes distorted over time [page 2].
I notice that we're already getting some distance between the original study and the account I've quoted here: we have Bock's memory of Crossan's description of the study.  No reference is given for the study itself, and though I've heard of similar research that led to similar results, I'd like to be able to have a look at the actual report.  Because memory can indeed become distorted over time, and as we'll see, Bock doesn't actually dispute this, it would be nice to have some backup.  (A cursory search on Youtube didn't bring up anything, but I'll look again.)

Here's how Bock remembers his rebuttal of Crossan:
I noted that two very important points were missing from his discussion of the experiment at Emory. First, it took place in a culture that has developed distance from the use of memory. We have video footage and computers now. Second, those who were asked at Emory had no stake in what was being recalled. I raised the question of what might have happened had the NASA astronaut corps been asked to go through the same exercise, since their lives would be at stake in the shuttle’s fate. The analogy was that those who followed Jesus paid a great price for their belief. Their families probably disowned them. Many even lost their lives for their faith. They likely would have been marked by such an event, and thus their memory was likely to be better. Quite a gap existed between college students and NASA astronauts when it came to the shuttle. The astronauts were more like the martyrs of the first generation of faith.
This is a standard fundamentalist move, brought up-to-date for the space age: because the early Christians suffered, "even lost their lives for their faith", their account of Jesus is trustworthy.  If you accept this argument, however, one must ask about non-Christians who lost their lives for their faith, often at Christian hands.  Many Jews chose martyrdom rather than convert to Christianity, so by Bock's logic, this counts against the truth of Christianity and for Judaism.  Further, most Christian martyrs had no personal memory of Jesus' ministry, so their tenaciousness can not be explained by fidelity to what they had seen and heard and touched.  And what of those Christians who chose life over martyrdom, probably outnumbering those who chose to die?  Notwithstanding its enduring popularity, Christian martyrdom is not an argument for the truth of the New Testament.

More could be said about Bock's attempt to recast the focus to the "astronaut corps" instead of the students.  The astronauts who died in the Challenger disaster could hardly repeat the experiment, since they were dead.  (The same is true of the Christians who died for their beliefs.)  In the absence of evidence about the other astronauts' memories of the disaster, this move can only be seen as an attempt at distraction.  (I'll try to find a study I read about, of children who'd survived school shootings; as I remember it, if they were near the shooters, they remembered that they were far away from him; if they were not near, they remembered being closer and in greater danger.  There are obvious parallels to some of the gospel material here.)

Bock returns to his second point:
Add on top of this the fact that Judaism was a “culture of memory,” for that is how the Jews passed on stories, and the appeal to a modern analogy at Emory looks less plausible. This difference over memory parallels the way Jesus is remembered and discussed today. Some are skeptical about memory and Jesus, arguing that Jesus has been formed largely in the image favorable to those doing the remembering. Others argue that Jesus’ presence and teaching were so powerful that they were well remembered by people who were used to passing on teaching orally. In many ways, this book is about that debate. It is a debate that rages in our culture as people speak about who Jesus was and what he taught.
I'm a bit surprised that a professional New Testament scholar could get so much wrong, but then Bock isn't the first I've encountered.  Judaism in Jesus' time relied on written sources to pass on stories: it was unique among pre-Christian religions in its reliance on Scripture, which means "writing."  Literacy wasn't as widespread in those days as it is now, but reading the Torah in synagogue was a regular part of Jewish worship.  True, the written text was used as a springboard for oral commentary, but that is true today among Christians too, and that commentary could range widely beyond the letter of the text.  There's a genre of Jewish biblical interpretation, haggadah, which retells the written biblical stories with a great deal of variation and invention, but those retellings have also been written down.  And the earliest Christian evidence we have are written documents, the letters of Paul, written a decade or more before anyone bothered to write the gospels.

If you accept the traditional authorship of the gospels, you have to cope with the fact that the evangelists provide as many as four discordant versions of Jesus' life and teaching -- five, if you include Paul's accounts of the first Eucharist and the resurrection.  That "culture of memory" was not all that reliable, even for preserving material that we know was of first importance to believers.  There's been a resurgence of attention to "oral tradition" in New Testament scholarship in the past couple of decades, but it seems to be as much about variation in the church's use of the Jesus tradition as about preserving historical data, and it doesn't give much support to apologists like Bock.

Still, reading these arguments gave me a warm feeling of familiarity: Bock's arguments are invalid, but they bring back memories of other invalid defenses of Christianity that I've encountered over the past forty years.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Not a Son of San Francisco

I just read Lillian Faderman's Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death, published in 2018 by Yale's Jewish Lives series.  It's a smooth read, less detailed than Randy Shilts's The Mayor of Castro Street (St. Martin's Press, 1982), but with a longer perspective.  Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated more than forty years ago, and a lot has changed since then.

I only read Shilts' book once, decades ago, and don't remember much about it, so this is a point he may have covered; but as the series name indicates, one of Faderman's concerns is Harvey Milk's Jewishness.  Though he was mostly non-observant, he reveled in his New York Jewishness (see Faderman, page 4) and often drew explicit analogies between being Jewish and being gay.  I also knew how controversial he was as a San Francisco politician, often with good reason as Faderman shows.  But what you might call the gay Democratic establishment in San Francisco, notably the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club.  It doesn't make much sense to refer to the Toklas club as the Old Guard, since it was founded in 1971, two years after Stonewall and only a couple of years before Milk began running for public office in San Francisco; but their mentality was clearly Old Guard.

Faderman says a couple of times that "major politicos of the gay establishment continued to regard [Milk] as an interloper with a New York accent and a kind of pushiness that they they also associated with New York" (122).  The members of the San Diego Democratic Club "found him loud, 'New-York-in-your-face,' presumptuous, abrasive - a know-it-all who had the audacity to speak for all gays" (189).  I might be overstepping to detect anti-Semitism in this reaction, if only because some of Milk's enemies, such as David Goodstein, were also Jewish, but it seems that most of them were A-gays who thought it was tolerable to be a Jew as long as you had class.  And I couldn't help thinking, as I read this material, of similar criticisms of Bernie Sanders today.  Despite Sanders's long political career, he's still seen as a presumptuous, abrasive, know-it-all upstart by 'respectable' people.  Just a thought.

Monday, September 30, 2019

The Stupid Burns in a Screaming Conflagration

I'm opposed to capital punishment, but this made me reconsider.

First, of course, the prattle about "superpower."  People keep using this word, I do not think it means what they think it means.  If you could only have "an innate sense of right and wrong" by being born on Krypton or exposed to Z-rays, then humanity would be doomed.  I'm not even sure what a sense of right and wrong is, to be honest, but it appears to be a normal part of the human endowment.  But the reference is basically empty blather, because people disagree widely about what is right and wrong, and even when they agree they don't always act on it.  Acting on what one believes to be right is not universal, but it's not a superpower either, any more than athletic ability, artistic ability, or (redundantly) singing or dancing superbly.  These are all human abilities, and they are distributed on something like a continuum: individuals have more or less of them, it's rarely if ever either/or.

Second, Sanders has not been right about everything.  To give just one example, he parrots the lies of US propaganda against the legally elected, legitimate government of Venezuela, though he stops short of endorsing military action to bring the regime change about.  There are actually quite a few people who've been better on such matters than Sanders has been, and even they are not perfect.

Now, I agree with Sanders on most issues.  I voted for Sanders in the 2016 primaries, defend him against centrist Dems' false accusations, and will vote for him in the 2020 primaries.  I've made some small donations to his campaign this year.  If he wins the nomination, I will vote for him in the general election as well.  It is possible to support and vote for a politician without indulging in ridiculous fantasies about him or her.  On the contrary, uncritical and delusional support and adulation for politicians or other public figures have a lot to do with the problems we have now.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Pure Journalism

Another quickie.  I just finished reading Kevin M. Kruse's One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (Basic Books, 2015).  It's a fun, informative read, and here's another passage that I wanted to pass along.

In 1954, President Eisenhower signed a bill adding "under God" the Pledge of Allegiance.  Though he was enthusiastic about the new law, he chose not to make a photo op of the signing.  Members of Congress, however, did, with a rally on the Capitol steps.
CBS broadcast the event live on television, with Walter Cronkite leading the coverage of what he called “a stirring event.” “‘New glory for Old Glory’—a wonderful idea,” he said. “Maybe if we all remember to display our flags today and every special day, we will remember more clearly the traditions of freedom on which our country is founded.”
This tickled me, because I see so much complaint about today's news media mixing reporting with propaganda.  Cronkite himself is largely remembered as a role model, except for the one time he expressed doubt about the US invasion of Vietnam.  Not, of course, because he objected to the war itself, but because we weren't "winning" it.  Yet here Cronkite gushed, and nobody seems to have cared.  I bet that it wasn't the only time.

I speculate that the reason this was okay, but complaining that we weren't winning in Vietnam was "editorializing," is that in this case he was supporting US policy, whereas on Vietnam he was criticizing it.  Make sense?

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Will Charlie Brown Get to Kick the Football This Time?

The move is still in progress, but it means I'll be driving a lot.  Yesterday I caught most of NPR's The 1A, and I noticed something again that had been lurking in my mind for a while.  The 1A's anchor asked one his pundit-guests if Donald Trump was going to follow through on something -- the rumored $15 billion for Iran, or the ban on flavored vaping, something like that.  I don't remember the answer, because it occurred to me what a stupid question it was, that it would have been stupid even before Trump became Oligarch-in-Chief, and that a lot of time is wasted on such questions in the news media. 

In Trump's case it's always a tossup whether he'll remember to do what he says he will anyway, so it seems especially useless to ask such a question about him.  But the trouble is bigger than one senescent, blustering buffoon.  The mission of news coverage, it seems to me is to report what has happened, not to "predict" what might.  That's not just because media fortunetelling is usually wrong, remarkably so since there are a lot of pundits out there and one or two of them ought to come up with an accurate prediction just by accident.  There's also no accountability for their predictions.  Indeed, elite media get very pissy if anyone questions them about spectacular failures, like those involving the financial crash of 2008 or the 2003 invasion of Iraq or Hillary Clinton's 2016 electoral defeat.

I'm sure this sort of pointless prediction is nothing new, and I don't know whether it's more common than it used to be, but I have no doubt that it's a waste of time, especially when the standard of actual news coverage is so low.  The worst examples turn up in discussion of our endless election season, but as the question about Trump shows, it's not limited to electoral politics, and it's most wasteful when the question is basically unanswerable, as most predictive questions are.  I wonder what would happen to a pundit-guest who declined to answer such a question and declared it useless; I suppose such a person would not be invited to return, but then such a person would probably not be invited on in the first place.

As a side note, former US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power paid The 1A a visit earlier this week.  Power is a vile opportunist, of course, and an apologist for the crimes of the US and its clients, which is why The 1A billed her as an "idealist."  I haven't listened to the segment but will try to.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019


I'm not sure why I have resisted writing all month -- I mean, really, have you seen the news? -- but I'll try to do better.  One excuse is that I'm about to move to a new apartment at the other end of the state, after twenty-six years in the same place, and as the big day approaches my stress level increases.  But I am still alive, and I've been wasting a lot of time to keep my mind off the coming cataclysm.

Among my diversions has been Youtube, and I recently discovered what I can only describe as the Beavis and Butthead of Classical Violin: Brett and Eddy, two Chinese-Australian violinists, who have gained millions of viewers as they trash their own field and, indeed, the world.  They have a line of "merch" and their slogan is Practice practice practice but given the amount of time they must spend before the camera and editing the results, I wonder how much practicing they actually do. 

Why Beavis and Butthead?  Because that's their sensibility, down to Brett pulling his hoodie over his head.  Maybe not in this one, which I post for the sensibility.  Despite my personal lust for geekboys, I have to admit, I rarely make it all the way through their videos; this is one of the shorter ones, though it's still kind of excruciating.

This one is actually entertaining, because their guest is more engaging than they are.

So... that is probably it for September, unless I surprise myself very pleasantly.  But I'll be back.