Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

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).

Thursday, August 01, 2019

The Horserace

I try to discourage off-topic comments. Since people are interested in the Democratic presidential candidates, I'll provide a chance to discuss them here.

I have mixed feelings about the televised debates. They do promote some discussion of policy, which the corporate media would otherwise scrupulously avoid. Unfortunately the short time segments given to each candidate don't allow for any sort of in-depth explanation; the candidates get a chance to say something about the policies they favor but not a real chance to advocate for them or help the public really understand the issues. We're still pretty much limited to sound bites and bumper stickers.

Some of the candidates' presentation values matter for the job of president. Obviously the racist, violent, misogynistic and bullying rhetoric of one politician I can think of appeals to some voters and repels others. Since the president is a role model and a tone setter for public discourse, all of this does matter to the political culture and the future of the nation. So voters should get a chance to size up the candidates as moral voices. Being able to think on one's feet, having an extensive grasp of policy-relevant information, and just seeming like a leader are all relevant to how a candidate is likely to perform in office, but can also be misleading. That some people perceive that Joe Biden is showing his age does matter, but it's hard to be sure if the impression is really valid.

Often, however, the corporate media decides who "won" a debate based on meaningless theater -- a snappy one-liner, body language, energy level. I'm glad Nixon "lost" to Kennedy because of his five o'clock shadow and sweaty upper lip, but Al Gore "losing" to George W. Bush because he looked at his watch did not make me so happy.

Anyway, the debates are necessary and they're going to happen in the general election so we might as well choose someone who can do well. Which brings us to the real issue, which is that what we really care about is November of 2020. I would certainly prefer some of the democratic candidates to others, but I will vote for the Democratic nominee regardless. What matters to most Democratic primary voters is who has the best chance to become president. I think that's largely speculative, however. We don't really know how the electorate is going to respond to a full throated progressive candidate versus a cautious squish, in the context of Vladimir Putin ratfucking and Republican race baiting. People make assertions one way or the other but they don't really have any evidence.

Personally I'm not endorsing anybody right now. I'm waiting till the field shakes out and some of the dust settles. Also, too, there are likely to be some really big shoes dropping in the next few months. We don't know what the political landscape will look like. But I draw your attention to the epidemic of Republican members of Congress retiring. It may be that they know something.

Update: Check out this Ruben Bolling cartoon. It's not about debates specifically but it's relevant.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

On Religion

I thought I would elevate the discussion in the comments on the previous post to the front page. Approaching religion from the standpoint of science, we find that the origins and possible functionality of religion are still controversial. This overview is 10 years old but I don't think the state of the art has changed very much.

Obviously neolithic, and indeed paleolithic people had morality. They had to live together cooperatively after all. We are a social species and sociality requires rules. This is true as well of bonobos and wolves, although we usually apply the word morality only to human patterns of social behavior. Archaeological evidence suggests that these early societies also had some form of religion, although as the linked article by Elizabeth Culotta discusses, this is in some dispute. In any event hunter-gatherer bands known to modern anthropologists have beliefs we would call religious, although they are quite different from the religions of complex societies. Rather than an all powerful deity, who prescribes rules and rituals, they perceive sentience and agency in natural phenomena, and may include belief in unseen beings of various kinds that can influence events. They don't have priests.  Some have shamans who have the power to communicate with supernatural beings or manipulate supernatural forces, but they don't dictate rules for behavior, or condemn or absolve sins.

Psychologists have found various human tendencies that may help account for the origins of religion. Specifically, we do have what seems an innate tendency to attribute phenomena to agentic causes. However, this does not get us from the animism or pantheism of simpler societies to the elaborate theologies, priestly hierarchies, rules and rituals of the religions of large-scale civilizations.

Some do see a functional imperative in this development of religion. Religious doctrine and priestly authority reinforces the secular authority of rulers, and enforces conformity to people's assigned social roles. (Sometimes the priests and the rulers are the same people, sometimes they are allies.) This is seen as necessary to get people to surrender their freedom to the requirements of complex society. In other words the basic morality of people in a small-scale society is insufficient to make Ur and Babylon and Rome work.

However, it does not necessarily follow that this means religion is actually good, or even necessary. Nowadays we have successful secular republics in which shared values and expectations are sufficiently functional without recourse to religious authority. Perhaps we had to go through a period of religio-political authoritarianism to get there. Certainly that's what happened historically. But we don't need it any more.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Men of the cloth

No, this is not The Onion. A charitable organization exists to provide help to priests who abused children, and it has the backing of prominent clergy.

For nearly two decades, a small nonprofit group called Opus Bono Sacerdotii has operated out of unmarked buildings in rural Michigan, providing money, shelter, transport, legal help and other support to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse.
And while powerful clerics have publicly pledged to hold the church accountable for the crimes of its clergy and help survivors heal, some of them arranged meetings, offered blessings or quietly sent checks to this organization that backed the abusers, The Associated Press has found.
Over the years, Opus Bono brought on as employees or advisers at least three clergymen accused of sexual abuse, and offered sympathizers a tax-deductible, anonymous method of sending money to specific accused priests.
When serial pedophile Jason Sigler, a former priest, was sent to jail for abusing dozens of minors, Opus Bono was there for him, with regular visits and commissary cash, said a former employee. When another priest, Gregory Ingels, was criminally charged with abusing a teen, Opus Bono made him a legal adviser.
Well, it makes sense. These holy men don't deserve the ill treatment they have received. Just ask Judge Steven Sword, who gave a light sentence to a Church of God pastor who repeatedly raped his own daughter, because the perpetrator "is a good Christian man."

Jesus wants you to rape children.

 

Monday, July 29, 2019

The Long Emergency: Arctic on Fire

While we indeed ought to pay attention to Twittler's racism initiative and other really important stuff like Lori Laughlin's birthday, you (and the CNN editors) might look up from your devices long enough to notice that the arctic is on fire, with more than 100 intense fires burning and pumping as much CO2 into the atmosphere as the nation of Belgium.

An even more intense heatwave is coming to the arctic which is expected to accelerate the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and the arctic sea ice, which is already at a record low for the date. The earth has just experienced the hottest June since record keeping began and is about to finish the hottest July.

The emergency is now.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Where TF are we?

The first part of  Exodus 15 is a psalm, and then the action resumes. Here is the song:

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord:
“I will sing to the Lord,
    for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
    he has hurled into the sea.
“The Lord is my strength and my defense[a];
    he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him,
    my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
The Lord is a warrior;
    the Lord is his name.
Note that this is not this concept of God as savior is not about redemption of sin or eternal life: it's about physical violence in defense of the chosen people. His attributes are strength and defense. He is a warrior.

Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
    he has hurled into the sea.
The best of Pharaoh’s officers
    are drowned in the Red Sea.[b]
The deep waters have covered them;
    they sank to the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, Lord,
    was majestic in power.
Your right hand, Lord,
    shattered the enemy.
“In the greatness of your majesty
    you threw down those who opposed you.
You unleashed your burning anger;
    it consumed them like stubble.
God is exalted for his power of mass murder.

By the blast of your nostrils
    the waters piled up.
The surging waters stood up like a wall;
    the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea.
The enemy boasted,
    ‘I will pursue, I will overtake them.
I will divide the spoils;
    I will gorge myself on them.
I will draw my sword
    and my hand will destroy them.’
10 But you blew with your breath,
    and the sea covered them.
They sank like lead
    in the mighty waters.
11 Who among the gods
    is like you, Lord?
Who is like you—
    majestic in holiness,
awesome in glory,
    working wonders?
Again, this religion is not monotheistic. "Who among the gods is like you, YHWH?" this passage asks. His distinction is that among all of the Gods, he is the most murderous. SAB offers a catalog of God's  murderous acts.
12 “You stretch out your right hand,
    and the earth swallows your enemies.
13 In your unfailing love you will lead
    the people you have redeemed.
In your strength you will guide them
    to your holy dwelling.
14 The nations will hear and tremble;
    anguish will grip the people of Philistia.
15 The chiefs of Edom will be terrified,
    the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling,
the people[c] of Canaan will melt away;
16     terror and dread will fall on them.
This is not a benevolent God, except toward the Israelites. He intends to continue his campaign of mass murder, this times against all the peoples of Canaan, in order to give their land and possessions (not to mention their young women) to the Israelites. 

By the power of your arm
    they will be as still as a stone—
until your people pass by, Lord,
    until the people you bought[d] pass by.
17 You will bring them in and plant them
    on the mountain of your inheritance—
the place, Lord, you made for your dwelling,
    the sanctuary, Lord, your hands established.
18 “The Lord reigns
    for ever and ever.”

19 When Pharaoh’s horses, chariots and horsemen[e] went into the sea, the Lord brought the waters of the sea back over them, but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground. 20 Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. 21 Miriam sang to them:
“Sing to the Lord,
    for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
    he has hurled into the sea.”
This is the first time we have heard of a woman being called a prophet, and in fact Miriam one of the relatively few women who has been given a name at all so far. It is of some interest that in Orthodox Judaism, until recently, men and women dancing together was generally frowned upon. Here the women dance separately, for what it is worth, but apparently it's fine that the men are watching them. (A timbrel is a tambourine, same thing.) 

22 Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. 23 When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.[f]) 24 So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?”
Again, Shur and Marah are not the names of any known real places. The writers obviously have a vague idea of geography at best, but since the people wind up at a place called Mount Sinai* in fairly short order, it must be that they did not cross the Red Sea per se but rather the Gulf of Suez. Otherwise they would now be in what is today Saudi Arabia and they would have had to travel all the way up the east coast of the Gulf of Aqaba (very nearly setting foot in Canaan) and back down the west side. Possibly the writers simply consider the Gulf of Suez part of the Red Sea and don't make a distinction. However, an alternative theory is that they were indeed in what is today Saudi Arabia and "Mount Sinai" does not refer to a place in the modern Sinai peninsula at all but rather to some place east of the Gulf of Aqaba. (Scroll down to the section headed Edom/Nabatea for this explanation.) In any case, it really doesn't matter since the entire story is fictional anyway.
25 Then Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became fit to drink.
Another one of those cases where God can't just do the miracle, he needs to have Moses use a prop. No, I don't know why.
There the Lord issued a ruling and instruction for them and put them to the test. 26 He said, “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”
27 Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water.
Again, there is no such place as Elim, as far as we know.

* There is a range of hills or small mountains in southern Sinai. The feature called Mount Sinai today actually consists of three peaks, of which the tallest is called Saint Catherine. 

Footnotes:

  1. Exodus 15:2 Or song
  2. Exodus 15:4 Or the Sea of Reeds; also in verse 22
  3. Exodus 15:15 Or rulers
  4. Exodus 15:16 Or created
  5. Exodus 15:19 Or charioteers
  6. Exodus 15:23 Marah means bitter.