Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Sunday Sermonette: Actually, you probably won't see a lot of sermons preached about this one . . .

Deuteronomy 20 is notorious, but it's one of those chapters that believers pretend doesn't exist. It does give some insight into the norms of the ancient world, but this sort of policy was certainly not universal. Empire builders generally, from Alexander to the Romans, allowed conquered people to keep their language and culture, but put governors over them and taxed them. The policy of total enslavement or extermination is extreme. Obviously, this is not the concept of God that most children are taught, but here it is. There are some contradictions with other Biblical passages, most of which I won't nitpick, but in Exodus 23 and repeatedly later, Yahweh says he will drive out these tribes before the Israelites get there, they won't have to fight them. "And I will send hornets before thee, which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite, from before thee. I will not drive them out from before thee in one year; lest the land become desolate, and the beast of the field multiply against thee. By little and little I will drive them out from before thee, until thou be increased, and inherit the land. ... They shall not dwell in thy land." I will also point out that the people singled out for extermination do in fact manage to stick around. The Canaanites are still there in Ezekiel.

20 When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you. When you are about to go into battle, the priest shall come forward and address the army. He shall say: “Hear, Israel: Today you are going into battle against your enemies. Do not be fainthearted or afraid; do not panic or be terrified by them. For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.”

The officers shall say to the army: “Has anyone built a new house and not yet begun to live in it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else may begin to live in it. Has anyone planted a vineyard and not begun to enjoy it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else enjoy it. Has anyone become pledged to a woman and not married her? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else marry her.” Then the officers shall add, “Is anyone afraid or fainthearted? Let him go home so that his fellow soldiers will not become disheartened too.” When the officers have finished speaking to the army, they shall appoint commanders over it.

10 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

 This appears to mean that the warriors can rape the women and children.

16 However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 Completely destroy[a] them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. 18 Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.

19 When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them?[b] 20 However, you may cut down trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until the city at war with you falls.

Fruit trees are more valuable than human life. 


  1. Deuteronomy 20:17 The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord, often by totally destroying them.
  2. Deuteronomy 20:19 Or down to use in the siege, for the fruit trees are for the benefit of people.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Bullshit Artist

It's a great puzzle to those of us who are sane how a rabid cult of personality formed around such a repulsive, stupid person as the ex-president. This puzzle sent reporters on innumerable safaris to Midwestern diners, although that was really the wrong place to look. Cultists actually skew moderately affluent, although they are mostly not college-educated. Yeah, we get that his boorish behavior, exhortation of violence, racism and misogyny were a feature, not a bug. They gave the cultists permission to express their own true feelings.

But there's more to it. Those people are hopeless. Their affinity for him is truly felt. They adore him because they are like him. However, there is another group who simply fell for his lies, and the lies of Faux News and the Vulgar Pigboy, amplified by the soulless algorithms of Facebook and Google. Some of them fell down rabbit holes into the Q insanity and other fantasies, which have been shattered by the mere fact of the Biden inauguration. But others simply fell for the false representation of the man, created by his unreality TV show and pumped up by his sycophants and his own boasting. People actually perceived him as competent and strong.

Of course he's an incompetent idiot and a sniveling coward. He's left the federal government a wreckage that it will take most of Biden's first term to repair. And his incompetence and indifference has killed a couple of hundred thousand of us, at least. But it isn't done killing us yet. There is no -- repeat no -- vaccine distribution plan.The Biden administration is going to have to create it from scratch. Quoth CNN:

The Biden administration has promised to try to turn the Covid-19 pandemic around and drastically speed up the pace of vaccinating Americans against the virus. But in the immediate hours following Biden being sworn into office on Wednesday, sources with direct knowledge of the new administration's Covid-related work told CNN one of the biggest shocks that the Biden team had to digest during the transition period was what they saw as a complete lack of a vaccine distribution strategy under former President Donald Trump, even weeks after multiple vaccines were approved for use in the United States.
"There is nothing for us to rework. We are going to have to build everything from scratch," one source said. Another source described the moment that it became clear the Biden administration would have to essentially start from "square one" because there simply was no plan as: "Wow, just further affirmation of complete incompetence."


A hollow man without a soul. 

Update: Well duhh. Of course the Administration claimed to have a vaccine distribution policy and they even had a document. The point is, it was totally inadequate and such as it was, it wasn't being implemented effectively. The states were pretty much on their own. This is because he spurned expertise and put unqualified sycophants in key positions. A bullshit artist, like I said.

Further update: If you watch Faux News, you will be disinformed. You might be better off reading the Wall Street Journal (yeah, it's Communist):

President Joe Biden has promised a more forceful U.S. government response to the coronavirus pandemic, and on his second day in office released a national strategy and signed 10 executive orders and other directives as part of the plan. Here is what we know about his plans to speed the vaccine rollout and beat back Covid-19 . . . To accelerate vaccinations, he said his administration will work with federal, state and local officials to set up thousands of community vaccination centers across the country and deploy mobile units to rural and underserved areas. Mr. Biden promised 100 federally supported centers by the end of his first month in office. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will help set them up, and the federal government will increase reimbursements to states deploying the National Guard to help with vaccinations. Mr. Biden also said he aims to increase the pace of vaccinations by making shots available at independent and chain pharmacies beginning in February.


Or Politico:

Biden officials complained during the transition that their efforts to gather information on the coronavirus response were stymied at times by Trump administration political appointees. Biden aides for weeks were unable to access Tiberius, the central government database used to monitor vaccine distributions, according to one transition official. They were also denied access to certain standing meetings related to the government’s response until a few days before Biden was sworn in.

Yet while few disputed the transition was rocky, officials working on the transition or familiar with its work said it was patently obvious that the Trump administration response was severely lacking, and it should have been no surprise to Biden’s team.

That is particularly the case with the vaccine pipeline, which has been at the center of weeks of finger-pointing between states and the federal government over the slow pace of vaccinations.

 Or The Hill:

States, counties and cities say they are running out of coronavirus vaccines, leading to canceled or postponed appointments for thousands of people even as the country tries to ramp up the pace of vaccinations. Health officials are desperate for clarity from the federal government on vaccine shipments, saying they need accurate numbers for planning weeks in advance. Instead, the figures have been coming in only a week at a time and have not been consistent.

The Biden administration has pledged to work with states to improve communication but for now is scrambling to figure out just how much vaccine is available. "Allocation and supply are critical areas that we did not unfortunately have much visibility into," Jeff Zients, President Biden's COVID-19 coordinator, told reporters. "We will work to provide projections on supply. We hear over and over from governors and local leaders that they just don't know what supply is coming and can't plan. We will absolutely, across the next few days, as we get our arms around what's going on, make sure that we are communicating with states and localities so they can prepare effectively," Zients added.




Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Wednesday Bible Study: Deja vu +

 Deuteronomy 19 is mostly repetition, but it does add a couple of new items, in a weirdly random way.

19 When the Lord your God has destroyed the nations whose land he is giving you, and when you have driven them out and settled in their towns and houses, then set aside for yourselves three cities in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess. Determine the distances involved and divide into three parts the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, so that a person who kills someone may flee for refuge to one of these cities.

This is the rule concerning anyone who kills a person and flees there for safety—anyone who kills a neighbor unintentionally, without malice aforethought. For instance, a man may go into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and as he swings his ax to fell a tree, the head may fly off and hit his neighbor and kill him. That man may flee to one of these cities and save his life. Otherwise, the avenger of blood might pursue him in a rage, overtake him if the distance is too great, and kill him even though he is not deserving of death, since he did it to his neighbor without malice aforethought. This is why I command you to set aside for yourselves three cities.

If the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as he promised on oath to your ancestors, and gives you the whole land he promised them, because you carefully follow all these laws I command you today—to love the Lord your God and to walk always in obedience to him—then you are to set aside three more cities. 10 Do this so that innocent blood will not be shed in your land, which the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance, and so that you will not be guilty of bloodshed.

This is a little different from the previous version, which specified three cities on each side of the Jordan from the beginning. The concept is kind of weird, however. It would probably be better to  make a law against the avenger of blood, and have a trial.

11 But if out of hate someone lies in wait, assaults and kills a neighbor, and then flees to one of these cities, 12 the killer shall be sent for by the town elders, be brought back from the city, and be handed over to the avenger of blood to die. 13 Show no pity. You must purge from Israel the guilt of shedding innocent blood, so that it may go well with you.

14 Do not move your neighbor’s boundary stone set up by your predecessors in the inheritance you receive in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess.

This is one of those weird random insertions.

15 One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.

16 If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse someone of a crime, 17 the two people involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the Lord before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time. 18 The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite, 19 then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you. 20 The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. 21 Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.


This is the so-called lex talionis, the law of retaliation. It is not clear whether the Israelites actually practiced this, knocking out teeth and performing amputations. Obviously it does not comport with modern ethical ideas.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The world's most thankless job

You have to read this lament by Daniel Dale, who was given the Sisyphean burden of keeping track of Donald Trump's lies by CNN. When he first started out in 2017, the Dumper was telling an average of 2.9 lies per day. By 2018, it was 8.3 and in 2019, they had to add a second reporter to the beat. As Dale recounts:

Trump's 2017 dishonesty tended to be impromptu ad-libbing. His 2018 dishonesty was much more scripted; he used serial lying as a deliberate strategy in the midterm elections. Then he used serial lying as a deliberate strategy in his 2019 Ukraine scandal. Then he used serial lying as a deliberate strategy in his response to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic -- holding daily "briefings" so wildly dishonest that CNN needed me to go on TV right afterward to debunk the nonsense viewers had just heard. 

People almost certainly died because of Trump's Covid-19 lying. And people died at the Capitol because of Trump's lying spree about the 2020 election. Though there was some solid absurdist comedy mixed into the President's dishonesty repertoire -- I couldn't help but be entertained by his imaginary "sir" stories about burly blue-collar workers crying in his presence -- there were always dark consequences, too.


These dark consequences included death threats against reporters -- and physical assaults as well, though Dale doesn't mention it. As he says elsewhere,  years of dishonest propaganda from Fox News, right wing radio and social media had poisoned Republican voters minds so they were primed to absorb the uninterrupted stream of bullshit from their Dear Leader as if it were sacred revelation. 


And sadly, the corporate media generally were simply unable to deal with this appropriately because of the conventions they had absorbed in saner times. We can't have a functioning society, let alone a democracy, if 40% of the population lives in an alternate reality. We must find a way to fix this.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Big Gummint

So I saw a CNN reporter interviewing a Booger Boy or a Crude Boy or a boy of some such ilk. She asked him the obvious question, why was he moved to protest the outcome of the presidential election while carrying a loaded semi-automatic rifle?

He responded that you need to get permission from the government to do anything. You need permission from the government to build a house, or start a business. I suppose he might have gone on to say that you need permission from the government to carry your loaded semi-automatic rifle into the grocery store. This reminded me that a prominent citizen of my town said in 2016 that he was going to vote for a certain orange reality TV star because the town had required him to get a permit for a gravel pit, or more precisely it was the neighboring town that gave him trouble about building a road to the gravel pit.

I expect these people to have room temperature IQs, but I still find this puzzling. As far as I know the candidate in 2016, and the president for the past 4 years, has never publicly addressed the issue of building permits. It would make little sense for him to do so since in general, they have nothing to do with the federal government.* Zoning and building codes are promulgated and enforced by municipalities within parameters set by the states. As they do not entail interstate commerce, the federal government generally cannot get involved because of the 10th Amendment. As far as I know Joe Biden has never taken a position on building permits either, so this seems a strange motivation to violently storm the Capitol.

That being established, why are building permits required? Is this not an unconscionable assault on our God-given liberties? First, as I noted in our last installment, one reason for zoning regulations and I now add, also building codes, is that what you build affects your neighbors. That's why land is designated for certain uses, there are required set-backs from the property line, there might be regulations to maintain the historic character of a neighborhood, height restrictions, and so on. That doesn't mean I necessarily agree with every actually existing regulation, I'm just saying there is a defensible rationale for them. You might not like them, but if you violate them, your neighbors will be unhappy. That's why you also are not allowed to punch them or shoot them.

Another reason for building codes is consumer protection. Most people don't know anything about construction and they might decide to hire a contractor who is cheap, and then have their roof collapse after the first snowfall, or blow off in a hurricane. Wiring has to be done up to code because otherwise the house might catch fire, and the fire company will have to come and put it out and maybe risk their lives rescuing you and your parakeet. Your plumbing needs to be properly hooked up to the municipal sewer system, or a properly designed septic tank, for obvious reasons. If the house is poorly insulated, it will be impossible to heat and it will also cause high emissions of carbon and other pollutants. And so on.

What these libertarians can't seem to understand is that there is more than one person on the planet, i.e. not just themselves. Again, I don't know what this has to do with the presidential election, but I'm just sayin'.

*In very rare cases, a building project might come up against a federal regulatory issue such as protection of surface waters or endangered species. I thought I should mention that because some doofus would otherwise likely quibble.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Sunday Sermonette: True and False Prophets

Like most of the chapters of this sermon of Moses, this one has multiple components. The first  repeats for what must be the fourth time (I haven't been keeping track) the assertion that Levites have "no inheritance" but are entitled to a portion of the sacrifice. The idea of their having no inheritance does not have the literal meaning it would in our society. They can indeed own real estate and there is even land set aside on the outskirts of the towns for their agricultural use. And as this very chapter says, they can own and sell ancestral property, although they can give it up and enter the service of the temple full time. What this means, as far as I can tell, is that there is no territory specifically set aside for their tribe.

18 The Levitical priests—indeed, the whole tribe of Levi—are to have no allotment or inheritance with Israel. They shall live on the food offerings presented to the Lord, for that is their inheritance. They shall have no inheritance among their fellow Israelites; the Lord is their inheritance, as he promised them.

This is the share due the priests from the people who sacrifice a bull or a sheep: the shoulder, the internal organs and the meat from the head. You are to give them the firstfruits of your grain, new wine and olive oil, and the first wool from the shearing of your sheep, for the Lord your God has chosen them and their descendants out of all your tribes to stand and minister in the Lord’s name always.

If a Levite moves from one of your towns anywhere in Israel where he is living, and comes in all earnestness to the place the Lord will choose, he may minister in the name of the Lord his God like all his fellow Levites who serve there in the presence of the Lord. He is to share equally in their benefits, even though he has received money from the sale of family possessions.

As I say, he did have an inheritance as we understand the term.

Occult Practices

When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. 10 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead.

As we have discussed previously, there is no evidence that any of the inhabitants of the Levant practiced human sacrifice. The part about sacrificing a son or daughter in the fire may actually refer to a purification ritual, or may just be a slander. Of course many Israelite characters in the Torah and later in the Tanakh interpret omens. Viz. Joseph and Daniel, and are not detestable to the Lord.

12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. 13 You must be blameless before the Lord your God.

The Prophet

14 The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so. 15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. 16 For this is what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.”

17 The Lord said to me: “What they say is good. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. 19 I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name. 20 But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.”

21 You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” 22 If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.

 Who is the prophesied prophet? Well, it could be Samuel, Ezekiel or Jeremiah, or all of the above.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

More on property

As I wrote recently, the concept of private property is a social construct. It isn't a fact of nature, "out there" to be discovered. It's an invention. The social conventions about what can and cannot be property, and what rights inhere in various kinds of property, and who can own what property, vary from time to time and place to place. And possession of property is not inevitably or inherently just.

In the United States, for example -- as in many other times and places -- people could be property. The people who were owned, of course, had no property rights. Slave owners maintained that depriving the of the right to own other people who violate their liberty, and their political rights to govern their own states as they saw fit. Even today some people claim that the principle of liberty gives them the right to discriminate against people of African descent, that equal employment or housing or public accommodation laws are contrary to freedom. As one can readily see, that would depend on one's point of view.

The property rights of slave owners may seem to have been unrestricted. They could rape or kill their slaves if they wished, and they often did. But they were restricted after all, in that they could not dispatch their slaves to assault or steal from other white people. And that brings us to the inescapable point that property rights are always and everywhere limited, for the obvious reason that how you use your property can affect my use and enjoyment of my own. If you erect a building on your property that blocks the sun from my garden or blocks my view of the valley, you have deprived me of some of the use of my property. If you build a lead smelter next to a golf course, you have destroyed 100% of the value of the golf course. That is why there are zoning laws -- to protect some property rights by restricting others.

So liberty for one person inevitably means loss of liberty for another. The essential nature of property is not that it incorporates a universal principle the respect of which answers all arguments. On the contrary, laws and conventions regarding property trade off one set of interests against another. They are determined by political power, not by nature or a deity or any abstract principle. Keep all this in mind as we continue to review the Great Transformation and the origins of our society.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

The Capitol

As a youth, I worked for about a year for Congress Watch, which was Ralph Nader's lobbying arm. (It isn't clear that it still exists in any meaningful form.) That meant I spent a lot of time in the congressional office buildings and the Capitol, doing the menial task of distributing position papers. Believe it or not, back in those days they were mimeographed. When I lived in D.C. I also became a demonstration organizer. I did non-violence training, trained and supervised demonstration marshals. I participated in the anti-nuclear demonstration after the Three Mile Island meltdown, which was held at the Capitol.  So I have some information that might help you think about the recent unpleasantness. 


As most people know, or should know, the Capitol building was constructed largely by enslaved men. The current configuration is a major expansion of the original. The original House and Senate chambers became too small, occasioning the additions. The original House chamber is now Statuary Hall. The old Senate Chamber has been preserved as a museum. The Supreme Court originally met in the Capitol but now has its own building across the street to the east. The Supreme Court chamber is also now a museum.


The only members of congress who have offices in the Capitol today are the leadership, including the Vice President of the U.S. as president of the senate. The remaining members have offices in separate congressional office buildings (COBs), of which there are six. This is also where the hearing rooms are, and the gyms, cafeterias and hair salons. They are connected to the Capitol building by tunnels, with little toy trains the members can ride if they wish.


The leaders also have offices in the COBs, which is where they meet with members of the public. Their Capitol offices are not generally open to the public and there are no directories or signage to show people where they are. They are not at all easy to find. The original Speaker's office was just outside the House chamber, but it has been combined with two other offices to improve ventilation, creating what is called the Speaker's Lobby where members hang out and can schmooze with reporters and lobbyists. 

You will often read that the new president is sworn in on the Capitol steps, but this isn't really true. The famous steps, which are where the public normally enters, are on the east front facing the Supreme Court building. The West Front, where inaugurations take place, has a large platform, really a raised state, facing the national mall. There are steps leading up to it on the sides, but it isn't the Capitol steps. Other public events are held there, including permitted demonstrations. (I suppose this will no longer be the case.) The West front provided the stage for the Three Mile Island demonstration, and I spent it on the platform.

An ordinary condition of demonstration permits on the mall and other federal properties including the Capitol grounds and the Ellipse is that people are not allowed to carry flag sticks, or any other sort of rigid pole. There are inevitably large numbers of three or four different kinds of police -- Capitol Police, D.C. Police, Park Service, Federal Protective Service -- making sure of it. Another ordinary condition of demonstration permits is that the organizers provide marshals -- like me -- to make sure the crowd stays orderly and defuse any confrontations, and also provide emergency medical services. So what happened on January 6 wasn't only that there weren't enough Capitol police on hand. The entire demonstration should have been illegal and all of those flag-carrying participants should have been stopped and their flagpoles confiscated while they were on the Ellipse and certainly before they ever got to the Capitol. That would be standard procedure even for a demonstration of pacifist monks. 

Something very, very strange happened.

*I also took part as a trainer and marshal in a march on the Pentagon against intervention in Central America, and several other large demonstrations, as well as being in charge of stage security for the Gay Pride festival in two different years.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Wednesday Bible Study: Three things

As it is so often, the division into chapters is fairly arbitrary. Deuteronomy 17 has four pieces, the first of which is just a fragment repeating for the 14th time that sacrificial animals must be unblemished. Why this is so important to the Big Guy, who knows?

The second calls yet again for the execution of apostates. You know what I think of that, I and all my friends would be dead. Fortunately, this law is no longer in effect. I don't know if the Rabbis addressed this at all in the Talmud, or if it just quietly faded away. 


The third is about jurisprudence, but it's awfully vague. It first refers to "your courts," which are evidently local institutions but it doesn't say anything about them or how they work. If a case is "too difficult" for them to judge you're to take it to the appellate court, as it were, which is associated with the Temple. But again, no information about how the judge is appointed or what the judicial procedures may be.

The fourth is interesting. It basically says the King's head shouldn't get too big for his crown. Not too many wives, not too many horses, not too much gelt. Although this pretends to be a command for the future, since this was written at the beginning of the Second Temple period, there had in fact been many kings already. One has to wonder if it isn't a reaction to actual history. BTW, apparently Egypt is where you go to get horses. Not sure why they Israelites couldn't breed them.

Do not sacrifice to the Lord your God an ox or a sheep that has any defect or flaw in it, for that would be detestable to him.

If a man or woman living among you in one of the towns the Lord gives you is found doing evil in the eyes of the Lord your God in violation of his covenant, and contrary to my command has worshiped other gods, bowing down to them or to the sun or the moon or the stars in the sky, and this has been brought to your attention, then you must investigate it thoroughly. If it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, take the man or woman who has done this evil deed to your city gate and stone that person to death. On the testimony of two or three witnesses a person is to be put to death, but no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting that person to death, and then the hands of all the people. You must purge the evil from among you.

Law Courts

If cases come before your courts that are too difficult for you to judge—whether bloodshed, lawsuits or assaults—take them to the place the Lord your God will choose. Go to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office at that time. Inquire of them and they will give you the verdict. 10 You must act according to the decisions they give you at the place the Lord will choose. Be careful to do everything they instruct you to do. 11 Act according to whatever they teach you and the decisions they give you. Do not turn aside from what they tell you, to the right or to the left. 12 Anyone who shows contempt for the judge or for the priest who stands ministering there to the Lord your God is to be put to death. You must purge the evil from Israel. 13 All the people will hear and be afraid, and will not be contemptuous again.

The King

14 When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” 15 be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses. He must be from among your fellow Israelites. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not an Israelite. 16 The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” 17 He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.

18 When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. 19 It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees 20 and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Continuing the Great Transformation: Property

For libertarians, property rights are the most sacred value. They will often make arguments to the effect that taxation is theft, as are any laws or regulations that constrain their ability to do with their property as they wish, or reduce its value. Obviously, when pressed, they will agree that there are limits. Just because you own a gun doesn't mean you're allowed to shoot me. Sometimes you'll see a formulation to the effect that you should be able to do whatever you like with your property as long as you don't harm others.

It shouldn't take a profound thinker to see that as soon as you concede this, you have created a vast space of disputable problems, paradoxes, and reductio ad absurdum. Your magic key to the problem of rights and justice has melted like a snowball on a hot stove. But before we get to that, I need to say something about the concept of property fundamentally.

The concept of property, and the rights thereunto pertaining, is not out there in nature, like the rocks and the trees and the stars, waiting to be discovered. In fact there are many different concepts of property and they are all social constructions, specific to a time and culture. The native Americans, before the Europeans came, had no concept that land could be owned. People might have an understanding with neighboring groups about the right to exploit certain territory, or there might be conflicts about it, but there was no individual ownership of land and there could also be areas in which anyone could come and go freely. For this reason, initially they did not understand what the Europeans were doing when they exchanged good for land. Of course, more often, the Europeans just took it. We'll get back to that. To this day nobody owns the oceans. Although international treaties have given nations exclusive rights to exploit their coastal waters, nobody owns those either. In general, nobody owns rivers or large lakes. But different rules could be invented that would change that.


In foraging societies, generally speaking, if there is a successful hunt, or someone comes on a trove of edible plants, nobody owns the the carcass or the nut trees. The people share the resource. Of the meager possessions of the band, we may presume that some intimate items such as clothing or a favorite tool or toy or weapon were understood to pertain to an individual in some way; and shelters pertained to families, although they were largely impermanent. But other tools and resources were held in common. 

When the lords of medieval manors established their holdings, they did so by force of arms. When Europeans seized land in the Americas, they did it the same way. In modern capitalist societies, many fortunes, such as that of the Kennedy family, originated in criminal activity, and regardless, much property is inherited. Much more is the result of pure luck. We can see right away that there is a moral problem with declaring an absolute or even a presumptive right to property: most of it is demonstrably ill-gotten. Much else is of questionable provenance, as the rules by which one becomes entitled to profit or other forms of gain have to be invented, and people can disagree about what they ought to be. In other words, property rights freeze in place a situation which is demonstrably unjust to begin with. 


While you contemplate all that, I'll get to that vast space of disputable problems, paradoxes and reductio ad absurdum next time.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Some true facts about the First Amendment

Here's it is. I may talk about the religion part later, but now I'm just going to deal with the rest of it.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.


This is some of what the First Amendment does not require:


  • It does not require Simon and Schuster to publish your book.
  • It does not require the New York Times to publish your editorial.
  • It does not require any person, corporation, university or other entity that owns or controls a medium of communication to allow you to use it to say whatever you want, or for that matter to use it  at all.

The courts have found, in general, that because Congress shall make no such law, and the executive is charged with taking care that the laws be faithfully executed (hence it's the executive, duhh), there can be no law that gives the executive the power to abridge the freedom of speech or of the press etc., therefore it can't do that.  The 14th Amendment extends the guarantees of the Bill of Rights to the states, so this now applies to them as well.  

However, speech (written as well as verbal) can be used for ends which are otherwise illegal. Therefore, the Amendment is not a license for blackmail, extortion, criminal conspiracy, fraud, or terroristic threats. Furthermore, a person who is harmed by false and defamatory speech may have cause for civil action. Public institutions, such as state institutions of higher education, that ordinarily allow their resources to be used for communicative persons by campus organizations, or rent them out, are burdened by the Amendment to some extent, but private universities are not -- although they may have values that militate for tolerance of diverse views. However, as one might easily imagine, speech that conflicts with other of their values presents a need for balance. One of those values, for example, might be truth, although not in the case of, say, Liberty University.

I hope this clears up any confusion. One might think that libertarians, above all others, would respect the right of the owners of newspapers, broadcast outlets, theaters and auditoriums, and social media platforms, to the unrestrained use of their own property.

Update: In response to Mojrim's comment, Michelle Goldberg discusses this problem here. If you can't read it because of the paywall, I'll just say that she ends up concluding:

But the answer isn’t to give Trump his beloved account back. [Russian dissident] Navalny pointed out that Trump’s ban seems arbitrary because so many other bad actors, including autocrats, Covid deniers and troll factories, still have access to the service. He called for platforms to create a more transparent process, appointing committees whose decisions could be appealed. That would be a start.

In the long term, tech monopolies need to be broken up, as Elizabeth Warren has proposed. Singer described the tech barons who finally took action against Trump after enabling him for years as “rulers of a kingdom that abdicated their responsibility for a long time.” This time, with Trump, they ruled judiciously. But they shouldn’t rule over as much as they do.

I'm not sure that is really a total solution, however.






Theological Interlude

 Katherine Stewart, a reporter who covers the religious right, has an essay in the NYT to which I commend your attention. If you can't access it because of the paywall, Paul Campos excerpts and discusses it here. Stewart explains what Josh Hawley's project really is. Why did he try to get Congress to overturn the results of the November election?

Yesterday, a comment on my Sunday Bible post, I quoted from Matthew 25, and I noted that most Christians do not actually believe what it clearly, literally says: that salvation is dependent on good deeds. As Hawley explains:

In multiple speeches, an interview and a widely shared article for Christianity Today, Mr. Hawley has explained that the blame for society’s ills traces all the way back to Pelagius — a British-born monk who lived 17 centuries ago. In a 2019 commencement address at The King’s College, a small conservative Christian college devoted to “a biblical worldview,” Mr. Hawley denounced Pelagius for teaching that human beings have the freedom to choose how they live their lives and that grace comes to those who do good things, as opposed to those who believe the right doctrines.

It may be surprising that Christians reject what the Gospel says are the words of Jesus, but they do. It has been a classic debate among Christian theologians whether salvation is by faith or by works. (Calvinists say it's neither, that God chose who to save at the beginning of time and there's nothing we can do about it.) In this debate, faith has won out, at least among the most politically active branches of Christianity and notably those who have supported the soon-to-end presidency of someone who is not himself a Christian and whose entire life is a tissue of sin.

The reason is that they are Christian dominionists -- their goal is theocracy.  To further quote Stewart:

In other words, Mr. Hawley’s idea of freedom is the freedom to conform to what he and his preferred religious authorities know to be right. Mr. Hawley is not shy about making the point explicit. In a 2017 speech to the American Renewal Project, he declared — paraphrasing the Dutch Reformed theologian and onetime prime minister Abraham Kuyper — “There is not one square inch of all creation over which Jesus Christ is not Lord.” Mr. Kuyper is perhaps best known for his claim that Christianity has sole legitimate authority over all aspects of human life.

This goal supersedes all other considerations. Blatant lies, terroristic threats  and actual violence are perfectly justified in pursuing it. At this point I commend your attention to newly elected Republican Rep. Peter Meijer, of Michigan who tells us that some of his Republican colleagues voted to overturn the election because they feared for the safety of their families if they did not. I need say no more.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Sunday Sermonette: The pilgrimage festivals

Most of Deuteronomy 16 simply reiterates the commandments in Exodus 23, repeated in Exodus 34, to keep the so-called pilgrimage festivals. In Hebrew these are called Pesach, the Passover; Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks; and Succot, the Festival of Tabernacles (or booths). The Torah puts these festivals in future tense, because it pretends to have been written in an imaginary past before the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, but of course the Torah was actually written in the Second Temple period so the pilgrimages had been occurring for some 300 years, before being interrupted by the Babylonian captivity and destruction of the First Temple. 

The pilgrimage festivals required all of the men to go to the Temple and make sacrifices. It is not clear whether the women and other family members accompanied them. Since the destruction of the Second Temple, the pilgrimages no longer take place, but these festivals are still celebrated locally, with a new set of traditions. Notably, the Pesach is largely celebrated at home, with a ritual family dinner, so all are indeed included. This is unusual as most observances, in Judaism as in other religions, are centered in the house of worship. There is some dispute about the origins of the Seder tradition, but it is first found in the Mishnah, not the Tanakh. The construction of booths for Succot was specified in Exodus, and many Jews who are able still do so.

There is a bit tacked on to the end of this chapter about judges being honest, and a reiteration of the prohibition against idols, which seems to be the most important thing of all to Yahweh.

16 Observe the month of Aviv and celebrate the Passover of the Lord your God, because in the month of Aviv he brought you out of Egypt by night. Sacrifice as the Passover to the Lord your God an animal from your flock or herd at the place the Lord will choose as a dwelling for his Name. Do not eat it with bread made with yeast, but for seven days eat unleavened bread, the bread of affliction, because you left Egypt in haste—so that all the days of your life you may remember the time of your departure from Egypt. Let no yeast be found in your possession in all your land for seven days. Do not let any of the meat you sacrifice on the evening of the first day remain until morning.

You must not sacrifice the Passover in any town the Lord your God gives you except in the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name. There you must sacrifice the Passover in the evening, when the sun goes down, on the anniversary[a] of your departure from Egypt. Roast it and eat it at the place the Lord your God will choose. Then in the morning return to your tents. For six days eat unleavened bread and on the seventh day hold an assembly to the Lord your God and do no work.

The Festival of Weeks

Count off seven weeks from the time you begin to put the sickle to the standing grain. 10 Then celebrate the Festival of Weeks to the Lord your God by giving a freewill offering in proportion to the blessings the Lord your God has given you. 11 And rejoice before the Lord your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites in your towns, and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows living among you. 12 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and follow carefully these decrees.

The Festival of Tabernacles

13 Celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles for seven days after you have gathered the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress. 14 Be joyful at your festival—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites, the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns. 15 For seven days celebrate the festival to the Lord your God at the place the Lord will choose. For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.

16 Three times a year all your men must appear before the Lord your God at the place he will choose: at the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Festival of Weeks and the Festival of Tabernacles. No one should appear before the Lord empty-handed: 17 Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the Lord your God has blessed you.


18 Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. 19 Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent. 20 Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.

Worshiping Other Gods

21 Do not set up any wooden Asherah pole beside the altar you build to the Lord your God, 22 and do not erect a sacred stone, for these the Lord your God hates.


  1. Deuteronomy 16:6 Or down, at the time of day

Friday, January 08, 2021

Flushing the Orange Excrescence

Once the White House is sufficiently sanitized for Joe Biden to move in, he will face a daunting list of tasks to fix the damage done in the past four years to public health and health care. I'll address the public health issues anon -- a lot of it to do with the EPA, but much else also. Today, however, Larry Levitt writing for the JAMA Health Forum provides us with a list of items Biden has already promised in his campaign platform, and other initiatives he could pursue with a Democratically controlled congress.

Because of the absurd complexity of health care financing in the U.S. -- which gets us less for our money than any other nation on earth --  and given the obstacles to achieving radical simplification, the list is necessarily long and disparate. But these measure generally have the intent of making health care more affordable, accessible, equitable, and cost-effective.  Here's the Big Enchilada, that Levitt kind of buries in his bullet list:

Creating a public option health plan administered by Medicare that would be available to anyone, including free coverage for people with low incomes in states that have not expanded Medicaid under the ACA.

Bada bing, bada boom.  Let us suppose this can get by Joe Manchin, who is about to become the King of the United States. Further let us suppose that it turns out to be cheaper than private insurance and just as good if not better. Our century long battle will be over. Don't hold your breath, but don't give up the fight either.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

My two cents

I don't know that I have anything useful to add to what many others are saying, probably better than I can. But I want to unpack a few essential points.

First and foremost, we must be very clear about the nature of the Republican party. Reporters must be clear about it, as must Democratic politicians and people in leadership positions who are not members of the cult. The institutional party -- the Republican National Committee, it's various campaign finance arms, the Senate and House leadership, governors, associated mass media (notably Fox News, also others) and the major donors -- have one purpose only. That is to wield power on behalf of plutocrats. Because very few voters would support a party that exists only to assure that wealthy people don't pay taxes and are free to poison your water and air, pay workers a pittance and even kill them, they pretend to care about more popular ideas, such as white supremacy and theocracy, and they manufacture cultural resentments.

Because their sole purpose is power, they are resolute enemies of democracy. They use every means they can to prevent people from voting who are likely to vote against them. They gerrymander congressional and state legislative districts. Because of structural defects in the Constitution, they don't need a majority of the votes to hold power, but they do all they can to subvert elections anyway. They also lie, constantly and shamelessly, and they do so with impunity because they are served by sophisticated propaganda organs (again, notably Fox News but also others). They also have impunity because of the conventions of the corporate media, which for reasons no-one fully understands refuse to call political candidates and office holders liars even when they blatantly lie.

We therefore have an epistemological crisis in the country. Close to half the people hold false beliefs, simply because their cult leaders told them what to believe. They believe, for example, that Donald J. Trump won an electoral landslide in November and the election was stolen by a vast conspiracy. This is an absurd lie, but six U.S. senators and more than 100 representatives voted not to accept the electoral votes from two states. The only reason for singling out those particular states is that their electoral votes went to Joe Biden. This was a seditious act and at the very least their respective bodies should expel them all.

Before they could cast those votes, however, a mob of  the people who constitute the Republican party's core supporters -- white supremacists, fascists and religious fanatics -- stormed the Capitol, drove the members of congress from the House chamber, trashed the building, and threatened the people's elected representatives with death. Their purpose was to support a coup d'etat, and they were acting on direct orders from their leader Donald J. Trump. They had declared their intentions publicly, well in advance, but there was no security force in place to prevent their actions, even though peaceful protests in the District of Columbia and around the country had been met with overwhelming force and violence for the past many months. They were allowed to leave the building and walk away freely, with their weapons and in many cases objects they had looted. 

This coup attempt was unsuccessful, but it is likely to be followed by others. Senators Hawley and Cruz knew what they were doing, and right now, there is nothing to stop them from trying again. The nation is shamed before the world, but it is up to Americans to repair the horrific damage to our republic. The German people failed. We must not.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Wednesday Bible Study: Odds and Ends


Deuteronomy 15 consists of three pieces. Two of them echo ideas from Leviticus but with important differences -- in fact quite major contradictions. One, as far as I can recall, is essentially novel.

15 At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you.

In Exodus and Leviticus, every seven years was a "sabbatical year" in which the fields had to be fallowed. The Jubilee year, in which debts were cancelled, was prescribed in Leviticus 25 as happening every seven sabbatical years, that is every 49 years. But here debts are cancelled every 7 years.

However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. For the Lord your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.

Here the chapter contradicts itself. There need be no poor people among you, but verse 11 says there will always be poor people.

If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. 10 

Again, in Leviticus it would be the 49th year, not the 7th, that created the problem. 

Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. 11 There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.

12 If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. 13 And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. 14 Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.

16 But if your servant says to you, “I do not want to leave you,” because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, 17 then take an awl and push it through his earlobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life. Do the same for your female servant.

18 Do not consider it a hardship to set your servant free, because their service to you these six years has been worth twice as much as that of a hired hand. And the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do.

19 Set apart for the Lord your God every firstborn male of your herds and flocks. Do not put the firstborn of your cows to work, and do not shear the firstborn of your sheep. 20 Each year you and your family are to eat them in the presence of the Lord your God at the place he will choose. 21 If an animal has a defect, is lame or blind, or has any serious flaw, you must not sacrifice it to the Lord your God. 22 You are to eat it in your own towns. Both the ceremonially unclean and the clean may eat it, as if it were gazelle or deer. 23 But you must not eat the blood; pour it out on the ground like water.

In Numbers 18, the sacrifice of the firstborn is given to the priests to eat, not eaten by the people who give the sacrifice. Addressing the Levites, God says:

14 “Everything in Israel that is devoted[b] to the Lord is yours. 15 The first offspring of every womb, both human and animal, that is offered to the Lord is yours. But you must redeem every firstborn son and every firstborn male of unclean animals. 16 When they are a month old, you must redeem them at the redemption price set at five shekels[c] of silver, according to the sanctuary shekel, which weighs twenty gerahs.

17 “But you must not redeem the firstborn of a cow, a sheep or a goat; they are holy. Splash their blood against the altar and burn their fat as a food offering, an aroma pleasing to the Lord. 18 Their meat is to be yours, just as the breast of the wave offering and the right thigh are yours. 19 Whatever is set aside from the holy offerings the Israelites present to the Lord I give to you and your sons and daughters as your perpetual share. It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord for both you and your offspring.”