Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Trust, but do not verify

We are now heading into an extensive bout of lawgiving. I won't start in this chapter, which is just the warmup. Let me take a brief aside to refer you to the Awkward  Moments Children's Bible. We obviously won't get to Samuel for a while so this will give you a taste of what's ahead once the Israelites have kings and all that.

As I often note here, the parts of the Bible they teach in Sunday school, and the parts that get preached about, are highly selective. In fact Tufts professor Daniel Dennett has written a whole book about ministers who lost their faith when they went to the theological seminary and actually read the damn thing. Since they had invested in their education and don't have any other marketable skills, many of them are still preaching and leading congregations even though they know it's all a fraud.

Anyway, let's get on with it. This is Exodus 19.

 On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt—on that very day—they came to the Desert of Sinai. After they set out from Rephidim, they entered the Desert of Sinai, and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain.
As I have mentioned before, the identification of this feature with what is today called Mount Sinai is a late attribution. Some scholars put them elsewhere but again, it really doesn't matter since this is all fiction anyway.

Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you[a] will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
The theology is beginning to take shape. Going forward, there will be some variation and some backing and filling but the basic idea seems to be that there are other gods, but Yaweh is supreme, and he's chosen the Israelites to do the worshipping and perform the rituals that seem to keep him happy. This turns out to be at least as much a burden as it is a blessing, but at least it's coherent. On the other hand, we have no idea why he revels in all these sacrifices and making people follow a lot of silly rules and so on. But his whims reign supreme.
So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, “We will do everything the Lord has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the Lord.
The Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you.” Then Moses told the Lord what the people had said.
10 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes 11 and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12 Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not approach the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain is to be put to death. 13 They are to be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on them. No person or animal shall be permitted to live.’ Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they approach the mountain.”
Of course, exactly where the foot of a mountain begins is not well defined. It's a fuzzy boundary, so Moses is instructed to "put limits,"  presumably by posting guards. Note once again, as with the battle with the Amelekites, that these recently escaped slaves are somehow well equipped with bows and arrows.
14 After Moses had gone down the mountain to the people, he consecrated them, and they washed their clothes. 15 Then he said to the people, “Prepare yourselves for the third day. Abstain from sexual relations.”
KJV has "come not at your wives," which I am guessing is a more literal translation since he's usually speaking to the men. The New International Version supports this, having "Be ready for the third day; don’t go near a woman."
16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain[b] trembled violently. 19 As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.[c]
This obviously appears to be the description of volcanic activity, but Mount Sinai is not a volcano, nor are there any volcanoes in any place they might plausibly be. (There are volcanoes in Iran and western Saudi Arabia, although I don't believe there are any historic eruptions of the latter.) However, the authors of this (around 600 BC, remember) were no doubt familiar with descriptions of volcanic activity from Mediterranean seafarers. 
20 The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up 21 and the Lord said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish. 22 Even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them.”
23 Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us, ‘Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.’”
24 The Lord replied, “Go down and bring Aaron up with you. But the priests and the people must not force their way through to come up to the Lord, or he will break out against them.”
25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.
Okay, so Moses and Aaron get to go up and talk with God, but no witnesses are allowed. We're just going to have to take their word for it about what happens next. We apparently aren't expected to stop and ask why. God is capable of speaking to all of the people, but instead the plan is to confide in Moses and have him come down and give a report. We know it must be true because?

Footnotes:

  1. Exodus 19:6 Or possession, for the whole earth is mine. You
  2. Exodus 19:18 Most Hebrew manuscripts; a few Hebrew manuscripts and Septuagint and all the people
  3. Exodus 19:19 Or and God answered him with thunder


Friday, August 23, 2019

At last some good news

David Koch, one of history's greatest monsters is dead. The Koch brothers are the primary sponsors of climate change denial and were, in fact, largely responsible for the origins of denialism. Remember that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was founded in 1988, and the Framework Convention on Climate Change signed in 1992.

The Kochs’ key role in stopping congressional action on climate change is well-known, but longtime environmental activists, such as Kert Davies, the director of the Climate Investigation Center, credit Leonard with discovering that the Kochs played an earlier and even more central role in climate-change denial than was previously understood. In 2010, Davies authored a report, for Greenpeace, that labelled the Kochs “The Kingpins of Denial,” but he told me that he hadn’t realized that their role went as far back as 1991. . . .
According to “Kochland,” the 1991 conference was called “Global Environmental Crisis: Science or Politics?” It featured many of the same characters who have spread doubt about the reality of climate change and continue to challenge the advisability of acting against it. Among the speakers was Richard S. Lindzen, a professor of meteorology at M.I.T., who is quoted in the brochure as saying there was “very little evidence at all” that climate change would be “catastrophic.”
“Kochland” is important, Davies said, because it makes it clear that “you’d have a carbon tax, or something better, today, if not for the Kochs. They stopped anything from happening back when there was still time.”
Enjoy your oxygen while you still can.


Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Long Emergency: Physicians' Viewpoint

The New England Journal of Medicine, to their credit, has several open-access essays on the environmental crisis. A good part of the value-added from these is that they demonstrate the synergy among some important issues that aren't often considered together, and don't get a lot of attention in the corporate media.

Sorenson and Gracia-Trebenino discuss an epidemic that is largely ignored in the United States. Agricultural workers in tropical climates are experiencing radical increases in the incidence of chronic kidney disease and renal failure. While the cause is not fully understood, it appears to be linked to rising temperatures resulting in heat stress and dehydration. This is one more indication that the climate emergency will reduce agricultural production, and render large areas of the planet unsuitable for agriculture and even uninhabitable.

Another inconvenient truth the corporate media largely ignores is that CO2 is not the only harmful emission from burning fossil fuel. Ultra-fine particles -- especially so-called PM2.5, which are microscopic, are inhaled into the alveoli and can pass into the blood stream -- kill people. Actually a lot of people. Every 10 μg per cubic meter increase on a given day raises mortality by 0.68%. A microgram is 1 millionth of a gram. These particles are totally imperceptible. You cannot see them or smell them. There could be trillions of them in the space between you and the person next to you and you would be completely unaware of it. The highest concentrations are within 100 meters or so of highways, and of course airports and truck terminals and other places where poor people are likely to live.

Of course we know what the current administration is doing: pretending none of this is real and eliminating efforts to combat it, in order to satisfy the psychopathic greed of wealthy Republican donors.

J.H. Dunk and colleagues, in discussing the history of physician activism around environmental issues, remind us that the climate crisis has been fully understood since the 1980s, and that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988. In other words, for 30 years we've been doing essentially nothing while we have known full well that we were running headlong toward unimaginable catastrophe.

You don't need any more reason to devote the very worth of your being to ridding us of the Chosen One, King of Israel. Fast. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

This really happened

The (ostensible) President of the United States cancelled a state visit to Denmark in a hissy fit over the country's refusal to sell Greenland.

He also that the 70% of American Jews who vote Democratic are either ignorant or "disloyal." Disloyal to what, exactly?

Then he re-tweets that says the Israelis think he's the King of Israel and the second coming of God -- please note that Jews do not believe in the first coming of God -- from a guy who:

[W]as a leading proponent of the conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.[25] At one point, Root falsely claimed that Obama was not a student at Columbia University;[4] at another point, in an interview with Sean Hannity, Root said that he believed that Obama was a “foreign exchange student” at Columbia.[5] Root has described Obama as a “Marxist, anti-American, anti-Israel, globalist, middle class-hating, Muslim sympathizer”.[5] He also claimed that Obama was gay, called him “Bathhouse Barry” and said that he had info from Obama’s “friends in Chicago” about Obama’s “sordid past”.[5] He has described Obama as a “Manchurian candidate”, possibly hired by the Bilderberg Group to destroy the United States and “kill all of us”.[5]

He promoted conspiracy theories around the murder of Seth Rich, and at various times suggested that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Hillary Clinton, Donna Brazile, Bill Clinton, Eric Schneiderman and John Podesta were involved in the murder.[5]

During the white supremacist Unite the Right rally, Root falsely claimed that the white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. who killed Heather Heyer was “such B.S. Probably paid actors & infiltrators hired by Soros. No conservative I’ve ever met commits violence. EVER.”[5]

Root tweeted in the aftermath of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting: “This is a real thing. Clearly Coordinated Muslim Terror attack. PRAY for our Vegas police. PRAY for victims. VERY bad. Awful.”[26] It was later confirmed that the shooter was 64-year-old Mesquite, Nevada, resident Stephen Paddock.[27] Root then defended his original claim by tweeting: “Terrible day. Liberal fools criticizing me 4 reporting what I hear DIRECT from police & credible news sources. I report it as I hear it.”[28]

Root argued that Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is motivated by “penis envy”, because “Mueller’s is smaller than Trump’s.”[5] 
 The Resident is utterly batshit  insane. The worst part is that we're spending all our time talking about the madness of King Donald instead of a whole lot of stuff that really, really matters.

Also, too, at some point he'll get around to asking why that marine with a briefcase is following him around all the time.

And also, it is not the case that I only publish comments I agree with. It is the case that I do not publish comments that are asinine, offensive, or gibberish. I try to maintain a reasonably respectable level of discourse here. The reason most Black people vote for Democrats is because the Republican party is the party of white racism. I don't think that has to do with some misplaced concept of "identity" on their part, I think it's because they aren't stupid. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Constitution

U.S. political culture sacralizes the Constitution. The United States was actually somewhat unusual in that a bunch of people sat down and consciously wrote a blueprint for government of a newly founded nation. European governments evolved, and many do not have any written constitution at all. Written constitutions are the norm for newly liberated former colonies, although many of them have gone through military coups or other upheavals that resulted in wholesale replacement of the document, often more than once.

As Professor Campos compellingly argues, the Constitution of the United States is not an object that anyone should hold sacred or even particularly admire. The occasion for his essay is the NYT's 1619 project that examines the history of slavery in the U.S. and the long shadow it casts today. It seems that many conservatives are objecting to this, on the grounds that honest discussion of history will undermine the legitimacy of the Constitution. That seems a typical conservative habit of thought -- pretend that inconvenient truths do not exist. As Campos summarizes:

The original Constitution failed so badly that an exceptionally bloody civil war had to be fought in order to amend it (The amendment itself took place at literal gunpoint: a historical detail that our rhapsodes of the original document tend to pass over in discreet silence).
As [Ian] Millhiser also points out, that amendment process then failed again in short order, as the South won the peace after losing the war. [Disenfranchising African Americans for the next 100 years.]
We are very much living with the consequences of that postbellum victory today, in the form of increasingly extreme forms of minority rule. In twenty years, 35 states full of old white people will send 70 senators to a body in which 70% of the nation’s population — the relatively younger, relatively non-white, relatively economically productive part of the population — will be represented by all of 30 senators.
This is not an accident. It is, like the election of Donald Trump, a direct product of the original constitutional design.
The sad truth is that we are stuck with it, however. The amendment process would require those 35 states full of old white people to go along with surrendering their privilege. Campos doesn't see a way out of this. Do you?

And give me a fucking break. Pointing out white privilege, and efforts to defend it, is not racist. Defending white privilege is racist. 

Further give me a fucking break. Some of my best friends are white.



Sunday, August 18, 2019

Portland, by request

PZ Meyers rounds up the news about the neo-Nazi rally in Portland. They did get the favorable attention they wanted from the Great Orange Turd, but otherwise it was evidently totally pathetic, if one can feel any pathos for them.

Sunday Sermonette: Getting organized

We've had a bit of lawgiving so far -- the Passover commemoration and keeping the sabbath, in particular. The lawgiving is about to get going big time, but before God starts rolling out the edicts, we interrupt the story for a blast from the past, offering some avuncular advice. This story seems a bit of an awkward grafting, as did the previous episode featuring Zipporah, and one wonders if this might be imported from a separate story that was really about the Midianites. Anyway, it seems anodyne but it raises some interesting questions. Here goes.

Now Jethro, the priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moses, heard of everything God had done for Moses and for his people Israel, and how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.
After Moses had sent away his wife Zipporah, his father-in-law Jethro received her and her two sons. One son was named Gershom,[a] for Moses said, “I have become a foreigner in a foreign land”; and the other was named Eliezer,[b] for he said, “My father’s God was my helper; he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.”
Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, together with Moses’ sons and wife, came to him in the wilderness, where he was camped near the mountain of God. Jethro had sent word to him, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons.”
Now, we might well ask how Jethro knew where to find them in the wilderness. Maybe he called Mo on his satellite phone? Actually, we already know that the Midianites trade across the Sinai (remember Joseph?) so this does possibly make sense. Note, however, that Jethro did not have to cross the Red Sea or the Gulf of Suez to get here.
So Moses went out to meet his father-in-law and bowed down and kissed him. They greeted each other and then went into the tent. Moses told his father-in-law about everything the Lord had done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians for Israel’s sake and about all the hardships they had met along the way and how the Lord had saved them.
Jethro was delighted to hear about all the good things the Lord had done for Israel in rescuing them from the hand of the Egyptians. 10 He said, “Praise be to the Lord, who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh, and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians. 11 Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.” 12 Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and other sacrifices to God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat a meal with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.
This is actually pretty interesting. Jethro is not an Israelite but he recognizes the greatness of YHWH. This is the first suggestion that YHWH might be a universal God, although he is not yet the One God, but merely greater than the others. However, even if the Midianites start worshipping him, I have to ask, what's in it for them? He chose  the Israelites and there's no indication that he's going to do bupkis for the Midianites, and they aren't getting his laws either. (The assertion that there is in fact only one God does not appear until Deuteronomy, in case you're waiting for it. Even then, it's inconsistent. You'll have to be patient!)

I will just also note that while Moses seems glad to see his father in law, there is no indication that he has the least interest in his wife and sons.
13 The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening. 14 When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?”
15 Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. 16 Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and instructions.”
17 Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. 19 Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. 20 Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave. 21 But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22 Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. 23 If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.”
This seems to be sensible advice. Large societies do of course require delegation of power. The Israelites have been slaves so now they need to figure out how to govern themselves. However, only armies are organized according to such arithmetic rules -- corps, division, brigade, battalion, company . . .  Societal subunits are normally geographic or, in the case of a nomadic people such as the Israelites still are at this point, familial. We already know that the Israelites are composed of several tribes, and they have even been named in Genesis. We also know from historical and even extant Middle Eastern societies that the tribes in turn consist of clans and they have their own chiefs who gain authority by a combination of heredity and politicking. It is very unlikely that Israelite society was ever structured in this way, by top-down appointment of officials from among an undifferentiated mass. So I find the existence of this passage difficult to explain. 
24 Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said. 25 He chose capable men from all Israel and made them leaders of the people, officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 26 They served as judges for the people at all times. The difficult cases they brought to Moses, but the simple ones they decided themselves.
27 Then Moses sent his father-in-law on his way, and Jethro returned to his own country.

Footnotes:

  1. Exodus 18:3 Gershom sounds like the Hebrew for a foreigner there.
  2. Exodus 18:4 Eliezer means my God is helper.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Context and Nuance, Part 5

I worked for 15 years at a community based organization in Boston that was founded as a public health agency targeting the Latino population. We eventually had offices in Boston, Lowell and Brockton, and began to offer behavioral health and clinical case management as well as community health promotion programs. I was one of the few Anglos who worked there, but I don't know that I was exactly more of a minority than everybody else. My co-workers were of Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican, Ecuadorian, Venezuelan, Argentinian, and eventually also Haitian and Brazilian ethnicity as we expanded the communities we served. We didn't discriminate of course, we had non-Latino clients, but the mission was to offer culturally and linguistically competent services for people who couldn't find them elsewhere.

I tell you all this to make a couple of points. The first is that ethnic and racial categories are constructed by the dominant culture. "Latino" or "Hispanic" is a label that immigrants get when they come to the United States. People from the predominantly Spanish-speaking countries of the Americas do have some commonalities, particularly a history of Spanish colonialism. The commonality of the Spanish language means that there are some news media outlets and even popular TV programs that are available throughout Latin America, as well as movies; but there are also much more localized media. So there is some sense of shared identity, but also of distinctiveness.

Latin American countries are multi-ethnic, in often bewildering patterns. Let's consider Mexico. Most Mexican people have mixed European and indigenous American ancestry. They are called mestizo, which means mixed, although Google translate rather disturbingly returns "half blood," and gives as synonyms "mongrel" and "crossbreed." It doesn't have such a pejorative connotation. Mexico doesn't have a strict caste system, or at least doesn't admit to it, but people of predominantly European ancestry do tend to be of higher social status. 

In any event the Spanish didn't import African slaves to Mexico, they used the indigenous people as a semi-enslaved workforce. Although the indigenous population was decimated by disease, it was not nearly exterminated as in the U.S., so indigenous heritage remains much more influential in the culture. This includes the predominant religion, which is Catholic (the Europeans' God was obviously badder than Quetzalcoatl) but is really syncretic and retains distinctive elements. And in parts of the country, particularly the south, indigenous people remain unassimilated; many people in those regions do not speak Spanish. Some of the people who come to the U.S. to work in the fields in California in fact speak little Spanish.

Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans have African heritage; the indigenous people of those islands were nearly exterminated and little of their influence remains. Argentinians actually have a lot of Italian and other European heritage from immigration after independence from Spain. I could go on but you get the idea. These folks come to the U.S. and all of a sudden they're an undifferentiated mass of "Hispanics."

The second point I want to make is that being a non-Latino in the midst of a Latin American mixing bowl was not somehow an unpleasant or oppressive experience. It was wonderful. It was fun and adventurous and enlightening. I learned Spanish, I learned about people's history and culture, I learned how to adapt (what time does a 2:00 meeting actually start?) and I felt welcomed and embraced.

So, Proud Boys, what the fuck is your problem if people of direct and exclusive European descent are no longer in the majority in the U.S.? You aren't being "replaced," you're still here. Nobody's making you go anywhere. You just live in a more interesting, more diverse and more dynamic country. You can even learn some Spanish if you want to and it will open up new adventures for you. Why does this disturb people? I honestly don't get it.

Monday, August 12, 2019

The Long Emergency: The arctic is on fire . . .

. . . but the corporate media in the U.S. haven't noticed. I looked at the web sites of every major news outlet today and saw absolutely nothing about this. So I'll link to The Guardian. Sure, the Brits have their own problems but they can still stop gazing at their own navels long enough to notice this.

A spate of huge fires in northern Russia, Alaska, Greenland and Canada discharged 50 megatonnes of CO2 in June and 79 megatonnes in July, far exceeding the previous record for the Arctic. The intensity of the blazes continues with 25 megatonnes in the first 11 days of August – extending the duration beyond even the most persistent fires in the 17-year dataset of Europe’s satellite monitoring system.
The smoke cloud covers 5 million square kilometers -- larger in area than the entire European Union. It is depositing soot on what's left of the ice, accelerating the melt.  The fires this year alone have discharged as much carbon into the atmosphere as 36 million automobiles.

This is what's called a positive feedback loop. It's what climate scientists have long feared but were reluctant to incorporate into their models because the effects seemed speculative -- until now. It's happening. Iceland is preparing for the time soon to come when it will be ice free. Will they have to change their name? This New York Times article refers to "the massive, centuries-old ice sheets of Greenland and the polar regions." In fact the Greenland ice sheet is the last remnant of the arctic ice sheet and it is not centuries old: it is almost 2 1/2 million years old. At the rate we're going, it will be gone in less than 1,000 years, and while you probably aren't planning to be around for that you probably are planning to be around for the global food shortages and killer heat waves that are coming soon.

I'm sorry to be a downer but I am writing this because I want to inspire action. Sure, do what you can to reduce your own carbon footprint but that isn't going to save your ass -- only political action will. So get out in the streets, get out the vote, yell and scream at your congresscritter, and do whatever it takes to get rid of the putrid, stinking excrescence occupying the office of president. 

Update: China is the nation with the most carbon emissions, but they are working to eliminate them and they appear to be ahead of schedule on their Paris commitments. The U.S. needs to assert leadership, both politically and technologically, if we are to save our sorry butts.


Sunday, August 11, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Bizarro World

There are numerous candidates for most bizarre passage in the Bible. The circumcision of Moses's son is right up there, for example. Exodus 17 is actually two episodes -- remember that the division into chapter and verse was done my Medieval monks and does not represent any indigenous property of the text. The first story is well known, though it is rather strange. The second story, however . . . deeply, profoundly wacko. Here goes.

The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?”
But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”
"Put the Lord to the test" is translated as "tempt the Lord" in the KJV. In any case the thrust of this story is that God is ultimately persuaded to provide water because of the people's discontent. The idea that God can be tempted (or tested) comes up several times later in both the Tanakh and the Gospels. (As always, the place names in this story are not real.)
Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah[a] and Meribah[b] because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Again, God needs Moses to use a prop in order to produce the magic. He couldn't just direct them to a spring, or make the water flow himself. There is actually a different version of this story. It is retold in Numbers 20, but there Moses is ordered to "speak to the rock," although he does ultimately also strike it with his stick.  There is what appears to be a reference to this event in Deuteronomy 33, although it is somewhat obscure.

The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.”
Okay. This is already weird. Amalek, as I'm sure you don't remember, was a grandson of Esau, so these people are cousins. However, God chose Jacob so too bad.  The Amalekites appear again a few times, as inhabitants of the Negev in what is today Israel. So what the heck are they doing in this wasteland in Sinai where there is no food and no water unless you happen to be the beneficiary of a God who keeps you alive through miracles? And why the heck do they attack the Israelites?
10 So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. 11 As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. 12 When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. 13 So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.
Until a few weeks ago, the Israelites were slaves, remember? They would not have been allowed to possess weapons, and according to the events of this tale there is no conceivable way they could have gotten any. Even if they did have weapons, they have had no occasion to use them for 400 years and would have no idea how to fight a battle. Fortunately, despite these disadvantages, they can win by means of some remote control magic. As long as Moses keeps his arms raised, they win! It doesn't matter whether he's holding them up on his own -- he is physically unable to do that for long enough to complete the victory, so his brothers hold his hands up.  You will have to decide for yourselves what the point of this may be.
14 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven.”
Well, no. We will meet them again several times, their name will be quite familiar actually.
15 Moses built an altar and called it The Lord is my Banner. 16 He said, “Because hands were lifted up against[c] the throne of the Lord,[d] the Lord will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation.”
One suspects that this passage was interpolated here to justify the later hostility toward the Amalekites. Remember that all this was written some 2,000 years after these events supposedly happened.  That it makes no sense whatsoever is apparently not a concern.

Footnotes:

  1. Exodus 17:7 Massah means testing.
  2. Exodus 17:7 Meribah means quarreling.
  3. Exodus 17:16 Or to
  4. Exodus 17:16 The meaning of the Hebrew for this clause is uncertain.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Context and Nuance, Part 4

We have reviewed the labels sociologists use for various socially constructed categories. I have not yet mentioned gender, which is obviously at least equally important, but I want to keep the number of moving parts manageable for now.

Racial categories can vary from time to time and place to place, but because the theory of race is that it's inherited they are generally pretty rigid -- you're stuck in the category you were born into -- and they can also be more or less coextensive with caste. For example, people imported from Africa and their descendants were categorized both by race and caste throughout much of the nation's history. However, the nature of the coextensive  caste category did vary. Africans were slaves in the antebellum South but they were emancipated before the Civil War in the northern states and, while they faced discrimination and disadvantage, did have the status of citizens. The status of former slaves and their descendants remained a strictly defined inferior caste status in the South after the Civil War until the rebellion of the 1950s-60s and now the caste distinctions in the South are much attenuated, but the legacy of disadvantage and discrimination continues to leave most African Americans in a lower class position.

A further complication is that people can be of mixed ancestry, which means that the physical markers of race and caste may be ambiguous. Although the theory of the Southern racial caste system was that any amount of African heritage made a person a Negro (which was at one time the inoffensive term), it wasn't always apparent, and people could choose to "pass" as white, and some even forgot that they had Black ancestors. Sally Hemmings was an enslaved woman who had children of Thomas Jefferson. He emancipated them in his will and over the years, some of the descendants chose to be Black, and some chose to be white. Families even splintered over these choices.

Another complication is that people have immigrated from Africa, and people of African descent have immigrated from the Caribbean. They are ethnically distinct from the descendants of slaves in the United States, and there are culturally distinctive Haitian, Jamaican, and other ethnic enclaves in U.S. cities. To most white people, however, Black race is the most salient marker and they don't much distinguish. However, ethnicity is a fluid category. One's physically apparent signs of race may restrict the ethnic communities to which one has access, it is possible to assimilate to an ethnic community other than the one into which you were born. So people of African or Afro-Caribbean origin may end up living in the same communities as African-Americans, going to the same churches, and eventually their descendants may not particularly remember that their grandparents were actually from the Haiti.

This actually happened to Barack Obama. He was raised by his white mother and grandparents, but eventually he married an African-American woman, attended a predominantly African-American church, and lived in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. He could do that because his physical appearance made it possible.

Similarly, immigrants from European countries other than England were originally ethnically distinct, and may even have been relegated to an inferior caste, as were the Irish. But over time, since their physical appearance didn't strongly mark them, they could assimilate into an undifferentiated mass of whiteness. Distinctly Italian ethnic enclaves still exist in some U.S. cities, but other people of Italian descent have little distinct ethnic identity. Being of Irish descent no longer means much of anything in the U.S.

Now I should mention religion. Religion can be a strong component of ethnicity, and religious communities may also be relegated to an inferior or disfavored caste status. People who don't think about these issues very deeply may more or less conflate caste, race, ethnicity and religion in thinking about, say, Jews or Muslims. In fact these religions are of course highly diverse, include people of may different ethnicities, and are not properly described as racial categories at all. Believe me, it is not the case that all Jews are descendants of Jacob, Rachel and Leah or indeed, of anybody from the Middle East.

Okay, next time I'll get to the "Hispanic" concept, and then to the current socio-political problems of race and ethnicity in the U.S.


Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Context and Nuance: Part Three

Having said something about race, I will now turn to the concepts of caste, class and ethnicity. These intersect with race in complicated ways, but we need to unpack the individual parts and try to get a shared understanding of them before we try to put them back together.

A caste is a socially constructed category that is strictly inherited, and assigns people to differential status. The caste system of India is well known. Historically, people inherited quite specific occupations, including priest, warrior, and waste collector. People whose caste assigned them to menial jobs were otherwise despised and ritually unclean. But European feudalism wasn't all that dissimilar although the categories were broader. You had nobility, free commoners who were generally artisans or merchants, and serfs. In the United States, obviously, enslaved Africans constituted a caste, as did formerly enslaved African-Americans in the post-war years, particularly in the former Confederate states. This status has gradually eroded -- e.g. African-Americans can now be admitted to Harvard or elected Governor -- but of which a substantial legacy remains and in the minds of some people is still fully operative.

Class is a more fluid category. It is not strictly inherited but most people stay more or less in the class to which they were born. People like rags to riches stories but they are highly unrepresentative. Marx defined class in relation to ownership of the means of production, but capitalism has evolved somewhat since his day. Once people get rich by whatever means they tend to own stock or other productive assets but economic status is determined by other means as well. There is obviously a big lifetime earnings premium to higher education. Some people in professional or management roles can wind up with the big bucks by moving up in the ranks. Thanks to mass media, a very small number of performing artists or athletes can score big as well. Then you have professionals (like me) who make a pretty good salary and might be able to save enough to last through retirement; and the majority of people who pretty much live hand to mouth.

Some people inherit a large fortune, and they tend to think they deserved it. That includes people like George W. Bush, the Koch brothers, and the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. People who grow up in middle class households generally have access to higher education and wind up about where their parents were. In the postwar years, blue collar workers assumed their children would end up better off than they were and this tended to be true until about the 1980s when working people pretty much got stuck. And, if you're born into poverty, you'll probably stay there but again, class is not a strict category like caste and some people do move up or down in life.

Ethnicity, broadly speaking, refers to shared cultural identity. It used to be that many nation states were ethnically largely homogeneous, e.g. the Scandinavian countries -- well, if you ignore the Sami. But we tend to notice ethnicity more when it refers to sub-national groups. They may be distinguished by language and other shared history within nation states that have been cobbled together (viz. Belgium, all African countries), be immigrants and their descendants who may or may not speak the dominant tongue; or be conquerors or the remnants of conquered people. The origin of some ethnic groups, such as the Irish Travelers, is unclear. 

We tend not to think of the dominant culture as an ethnicity because we take it as the referent. Anglophone European-Americans are the dominant culture in the U.S. so we think of "ethnic" groups as everybody else, but that's obviously a form of blindness. I was at a conference one time and I met with a group interested in issues relevant to Latinos. (I'm not Latino but I worked for a Latino CBO at the time.) There was an old white guy there who said, literally, "I always wanted to have a culture. When I was growing up there were Hispanic kids in the neighborhood and they had a culture and I didn't, and I wanted one." Uhh, dude, I've got news for you.

Where there is a dominant culture, ethnicity is defined in its terms. People who come to the U.S. from the Spanish-speaking countries of the Americas are defined as "Hispanic" or "Latino." But before they crossed the U.S. border, they were Chilean or Argentinian or Mexican, and they also belonged to some sub-national group within that context. For example, I have friends who were Argentinian Sephardic Jews, Ecuadorian cholos (which essentially means acculturated indigenous people), and Mexican mestizos -- people of mixed European and indigenous heritage. But they're all Hispanic now, whether they like it or not.

All of these categories, as I say, can intersect in complicated ways. I'll close for now and take that up next time.




Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Context and Nuance: Part Two

People often talk past each other because they are using the same words with different meanings, and they don't even know it. Words often have more than one meaning, and even a single dictionary definition generally has fuzzy boundaries. Furthermore, many words are laden with factual assumptions that the interlocutors -- the people who are trying to communicate with each other -- may not agree about, without even realizing it.

For example, what does "American" mean? In some contexts, it refers to the original inhabitants of the North and South American continents. It is more likely in current public discourse in the United States to refer to a citizen of the U.S., or perhaps any inhabitant of the U.S., or for some people a sub-set of U.S. citizens who are in one way or another considered to be "real" Americans. Of course the adjective does not only apply to humans, but to every other category of noun including values, norms, and beliefs, and people may have very different ideas about what those are. It can also be an adverb. When people are trying to communicate but using the word with different intended signification, they won't achieve mutual understanding.

So let's talk about race. All Homo sapiens, every one of us, are descended from people who walked out of Africa and into Asia about 80,000 years ago. They made it to Southeast Asia and Australia by about 45,000 years ago, to Europe around 40,000 years ago, and to the Americas only about 15,000 years ago, according to the linked article, although that's on the late end of estimates I am familiar with. In evolutionary terms, that's the blink of an eye. Populations in different parts of the world acquired some differences in the distribution of superficial characteristics where there was very strong selection pressure. Most obviously people who lived in hot sunny climates tended to have more melanin in their skin.

Of course people tended to interbreed with other people who lived close to them, but there weren't any strict boundaries, except for people who lived on remote islands or other geographically isolated places.  Gene frequency variance was much greater among people in any geographically defined group than it was between groups. Most geographic definitions would be essentially arbitrary of course, as people on the edges of the defined area would be interacting with people on the edges of adjacent areas. Once seafaring became possible, contact between southern Europeans and northern Africans became commonplace. As the Roman Empire at one time included parts of Europe, Asia and Africa people from all of those regions became Roman citizens and soldiers. The Roman Emperor Septimius Severus was born in what is today Libya. Here is a portrait of his son, the Emperor Caracalla:

Caracalla

Caracalla was a murderous thug, but he did grant citizenship to all the free inhabitants of the empire. The concept of "race" as we understand it today arose in the context of European exploration and colonization of other parts of the world beginning in the 1400s. For reasons of geography and historical accident (see Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, which probably should have been named Horses, Germs and Steel, but regardless) Europeans acquired the technology to conquer people in distant lands. They needed a justification for their conquests (something it never even occurred to the Romans was needed), so they came up with the idea that people were classifiable into a small number of races, of which Europeans were of course superior. The broad race categories the census asks about today are roughly similar to the classic categories, although lumping and splitting has of course varied.

So the idea of race is a social construct. That doesn't mean it isn't real in the sense that social facts are a kind of fact. It is a social fact, for example, that I am a college professor. That's a kind of thing that is real, but it has only existed in modern times, and could one day cease to exist. It requires that society produce it, and it takes its specific form in a given time and place. It was something else in France in 1850.

More to come.

Monday, August 05, 2019

Context and Nuance: Part One

Neil DeGrasse Tyson got seriously ratioed (as the kids say) for tweeting that the average 48 hour death toll from various causes exceeds that from the two recent mass shootings (never mind that they actually happened 13 hours apart .) His statistics are approximately accurate, although the claim of 500 deaths from medical errors is highly disputed. (It's complicated, but it's for another day. The definition of medical error is debatable, and ascertainment is difficult. This number is probably much too high, in the sense that it would be impossible to reduce it by a huge amount.) The death toll from influenza is also largely beside the point since most influenza deaths are terminal events for people who already have a low life expectancy.

It is probably salutary to remind ourselves that in the scheme of things, the death toll from these events is just a blip, and in fact it's a small proportion of firearm-related deaths. I was among those who reminded my readers that the death toll from the Sept. 11 attack was essentially undetectable on an annualized basis, though it very definitely spiked the homicide rate. But that was because politicians including John McCain were calling Islamic terrorism and "existential threat" to the United States, which was absurd, and using that kind of language to justify some appallingly wrong and harmful responses.

White nationalist and other forms of racism really are an existential threat. The point that Dr. Tyson appeared to miss is that we are horrified not simply because 31 deaths occurred, but because these deaths, or at least 22 of them and many more in various previous incidents, are the most highly visible manifestation of a far broader and more deeply destructive phenomenon. Yes, violent Islamic radicalism is a comparable excrescence, but it is quite rare in the U.S., and it can hardly be said that people are too little aware of it. Let me try to make some distinctions, which I know often generates outrage in these emotionally fraught situations.

First there is the question of mass murder by firearm, what are called mass shootings. People define these in all sorts of ways, with different numerical thresholds for deaths, sometimes excluding domestic or gang violence. Family and gang violence incidents often produce four or more deaths, and account for the bulk of mass shootings so defined. But mass firearm murder of eight or more people is more likely to involve assaults on strangers, and is much rarer. However, it is getting a whole lot less rare. There was exactly one such incident in all of the 1960s. (The Texas Tower massacre, of unknown motivation but possibly the result of a brain tumor.) Here is Prof. Campos's tally since then:

1970s: 0
1980s: 6
1990s: 6
2000s: 7
2010s: 12 and counting

These include (after 2000) Islamic, radical Christian, and White Supremacist violence; and violence of unknown or imponderable motivation, sometimes by people diagnosed with psychosis (e.g. Gabby Gifford and Aurora movie theater attacks) and sometimes of unclear origin, for example the Sutherland Springs church and Las Vegas massacres.

There is a very clear and highly effective way to prevent such incidents. That is to eliminate semi-automatic weapons from civilian ownership. Done. Problem solved. At Boy Scout camp, they had us shoot at targets with a single shot, bolt action rifle. That's what hunters used  and still use. You pull back the bolt, slip in one round, close the chamber, shoulder the rifle, aim and shoot. If you want to take another shot, you have to do it again. If I'm hunting deer, that's all I need. Fowlers often used double barrelled shotguns and they get two shots.

There is a lot of talk about banning "assault rifles," but that is properly ridiculed. The term doesn't have any specific meaning and it doesn't matter anyway. What matters is that you can put a magazine on your semi-automatic weapon holding ten or twenty or thirty rounds, whether or not it's an "assault weapon," and fire them all by pulling the trigger as fast as you can. The police got to Connor Betts in Dayton less than  a minute after he had started firing but he'd already had time to murder nine people and shoot two dozen more. If he'd had the rifle they let me play with in Boy Scouts, the total toll of dead and injured would be one.

There is no defensible, nay no discernible reason why it should be legal to sell semi-automatic weapons to civilians, or why civilians should be allowed to own them. Their only purpose is mass killing of humans. Eliminating them would have no effect on hunting or most target sports. Biathlon requires, I believe, 5 rounds, and there may be some other limited and manageable exceptions. (They are lightweight and low powered.)

However, that isn't going to happen in my lifetime.

Turning now to the rising tide of violent racism, as I say it is terrifying and a true existential threat to our nation regardless of whether it results in more mass killings. I will discuss that next.




Sunday, August 04, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Zero Michelin Stars

I may post again today about current events, but first we need to keep plowing through the literally true, inerrant word of God. -- C

The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt.
Again, these names do not correspond to any known real places. Remember that the Sinai peninsula and Mount Sinai are so-called because people decided much later that these must be where these events took place, but they weren't called that at the time and some people still have alternative hypotheses about where exactly we are. My hypothesis is that the authors didn't really know or care, this is an abstract space.
In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
KJV has the more famous "fleshpots" instead of "pots of meat."  The authors seem to have forgotten that the people have their herds with them. From Exodus 12: "37 The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Sukkoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. 38 Many other people went up with them, and also large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds. 39" To be sure, the animals have to eat also, but what we would expect in this situation is for the people to start killing and eating the animals before they begin to starve themselves.


Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.”
So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?” Moses also said, “You will know that it was the Lord when he gives you meat to eat in the evening and all the bread you want in the morning, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we? You are not grumbling against us, but against the Lord.”
A tactic commonly used by rulers who claim divine authority. If you complain about us, you are really complaining about God, which makes you heretics. Maybe Moses and Aaron shouldn't have led them into this wasteland to begin with.
Then Moses told Aaron, “Say to the entire Israelite community, ‘Come before the Lord, for he has heard your grumbling.’”
10 While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked toward the desert, and there was the glory of the Lord appearing in the cloud.
11 The Lord said to Moses, 12 “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.’”
13 That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was.
Moses said to them, “It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat. 16 This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Everyone is to gather as much as they need. Take an omer[a] for each person you have in your tent.’”
If you muck around with your favorite Internet search engine, you will see that people have various "scientific" theories about what this stuff might be. That is absurd because a) there is no scientific explanation for some process that could provide food for a million people in the middle of the desert, night after night and b) this is supposed to be a miracle, remember?

Also, minor problem: what about the animals? 
17 The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. 18 And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.
Now here's an interesting problem of interpretation. Evidently the people's welfare is unrelated to their effort or ability. The lazy slobs who don't bother to exert themselves end up with exactly as much as the most industrious. What do you think that means?
19 Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.”
20 However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them.
This message also seems surprising. Thrift and saving are both useless and contemptible. You must consume everything you have, immediately.
21 Each morning everyone gathered as much as they needed, and when the sun grew hot, it melted away. 22 On the sixth day, they gathered twice as much—two omers[b] for each person—and the leaders of the community came and reported this to Moses. 23 He said to them, “This is what the Lord commanded: ‘Tomorrow is to be a day of sabbath rest, a holy sabbath to the Lord. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.’”
24 So they saved it until morning, as Moses commanded, and it did not stink or get maggots in it. 25 “Eat it today,” Moses said, “because today is a sabbath to the Lord. You will not find any of it on the ground today. 26 Six days you are to gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will not be any.”
27 Nevertheless, some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather it, but they found none. 28 Then the Lord said to Moses, “How long will you[c] refuse to keep my commands and my instructions? 29 Bear in mind that the Lord has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Everyone is to stay where they are on the seventh day; no one is to go out.” 30 So the people rested on the seventh day.
31 The people of Israel called the bread manna.[d] It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey. 32 Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Take an omer of manna and keep it for the generations to come, so they can see the bread I gave you to eat in the wilderness when I brought you out of Egypt.’”
33 So Moses said to Aaron, “Take a jar and put an omer of manna in it. Then place it before the Lord to be kept for the generations to come.”
34 As the Lord commanded Moses, Aaron put the manna with the tablets of the covenant law, so that it might be preserved. 35 
Uh-oh. The tablets of the covenant law don't exist yet! And they won't until Chapter 31, well in the future.
The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to a land that was settled; they ate manna until they reached the border of Canaan.
Even if the stuff tastes like wafers made of honey, eating nothing else, day after day, for forty years sounds completely appalling. It is evidently nutritionally complete for humans. We have to conclude that they are also feeding it to the ruminants, but evidently the people aren't eating the cattle or milk, for some reason -- most likely because the authors have forgotten about them.
36 (An omer is one-tenth of an ephah.)

Footnotes:

  1. Exodus 16:16 That is, possibly about 3 pounds or about 1.4 kilograms; also in verses 18, 32, 33 and 36
  2. Exodus 16:22 That is, possibly about 6 pounds or about 2.8 kilograms
  3. Exodus 16:28 The Hebrew is plural.
  4. Exodus 16:31 Manna sounds like the Hebrew for What is it? (see verse 15).