Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Wednesday Bible Study: Sing that Thing!

Scholars believe that the song of Deborah and Barak is much older than the rest of the book in which it's embedded. In fact, many believe it is the oldest text in the Bible. Certainly it is the oldest Hebrew poem. Since I don't know Hebrew, I can't tell you anything about the rhyme and meter, which the translators don't attempt to indicate. Of course we don't know anything about the music either. 

 

Whether the existence of this more ancient text indicates that it is related to any real events of course we can't know, but I point out that the song does not accord with several of the factual details in the preceding chapter. Factual consistency was obviously not much of a concern to the people who compiled the Tanakh. The idea that it is all to be taken literally is a modern Christian invention. That Jael is the most blessed among women for murdering a guest in his sleep is kind of interesting. Sisera's army had been destroyed, he was not a danger to anyone, and supposedly he sought refuge with Jael because they were allies. But with the Israelite victory, she evidently saw which side her bread was buttered.


On that day Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang this song:

“When the princes in Israel take the lead,
    when the people willingly offer themselves—
    praise the Lord!

“Hear this, you kings! Listen, you rulers!
    I, even I, will sing to[a] the Lord;
    I will praise the Lord, the God of Israel, in song.

“When you, Lord, went out from Seir,
    when you marched from the land of Edom,
the earth shook, the heavens poured,
    the clouds poured down water.
The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai,
    before the Lord, the God of Israel.

“In the days of Shamgar son of Anath,
    in the days of Jael, the highways were abandoned;
    travelers took to winding paths.
Villagers in Israel would not fight;
    they held back until I, Deborah, arose,
    until I arose, a mother in Israel.
God chose new leaders
    when war came to the city gates,
but not a shield or spear was seen
    among forty thousand in Israel.
My heart is with Israel’s princes,
    with the willing volunteers among the people.
    Praise the Lord!

10 “You who ride on white donkeys,
    sitting on your saddle blankets,
    and you who walk along the road,
consider 11 the voice of the singers[b] at the watering places.
    They recite the victories of the Lord,
    the victories of his villagers in Israel.

“Then the people of the Lord
    went down to the city gates.
12 ‘Wake up, wake up, Deborah!
    Wake up, wake up, break out in song!
Arise, Barak!
    Take captive your captives, son of Abinoam.’

13 “The remnant of the nobles came down;
    the people of the Lord came down to me against the mighty.
14 Some came from Ephraim, whose roots were in Amalek;
    Benjamin was with the people who followed you.
From Makir captains came down,
    from Zebulun those who bear a commander’s[c] staff.
15 The princes of Issachar were with Deborah;
    yes, Issachar was with Barak,
    sent under his command into the valley.
In the districts of Reuben
    there was much searching of heart.
16 Why did you stay among the sheep pens[d]
    to hear the whistling for the flocks?
In the districts of Reuben
    there was much searching of heart.
17 Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan.
    And Dan, why did he linger by the ships?
Asher remained on the coast
    and stayed in his coves.
18 The people of Zebulun risked their very lives;
    so did Naphtali on the terraced fields.

19 “Kings came, they fought,
    the kings of Canaan fought.
At Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo,
    they took no plunder of silver.
20 From the heavens the stars fought,
    from their courses they fought against Sisera.
21 The river Kishon swept them away,
    the age-old river, the river Kishon.
    March on, my soul; be strong!
22 Then thundered the horses’ hooves—
    galloping, galloping go his mighty steeds.
23 ‘Curse Meroz,’ said the angel of the Lord.
    ‘Curse its people bitterly,
because they did not come to help the Lord,
    to help the Lord against the mighty.’

24 “Most blessed of women be Jael,
    the wife of Heber the Kenite,
    most blessed of tent-dwelling women.
25 He asked for water, and she gave him milk;
    in a bowl fit for nobles she brought him curdled milk.
26 Her hand reached for the tent peg,
    her right hand for the workman’s hammer.
She struck Sisera, she crushed his head,
    she shattered and pierced his temple.
27 At her feet he sank,
    he fell; there he lay.
At her feet he sank, he fell;
    where he sank, there he fell—dead.

28 “Through the window peered Sisera’s mother;
    behind the lattice she cried out,
‘Why is his chariot so long in coming?
    Why is the clatter of his chariots delayed?’
29 The wisest of her ladies answer her;
    indeed, she keeps saying to herself,
30 ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoils:
    a woman or two for each man,
colorful garments as plunder for Sisera,
    colorful garments embroidered,
highly embroidered garments for my neck—
    all this as plunder?’

31 “So may all your enemies perish, Lord!
    But may all who love you be like the sun
    when it rises in its strength.”

Then the land had peace forty years.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Physics?

Before I get to today's post, an administrative note. The reason Mojrim gets his comments published, even though we don't always agree, is that he is not a moron. To get your comments published, you don't have to agree with me, you need to have something intelligent and interesting to say. -- C.

I have actually never taken a single physics course, in high school or college, which I believe does not make me exceptional. But I've had a subscription to Scientific American since I was 13 and I'm curious, so I try to understand that stuff as best I can. Modern physics is completely mathematical, however, so qualitative explanations are really just a sort of shadow play of what physicists are really doing. 

 

This is really not the case for biology, or chemistry. Yes there's math involved but you can get a pretty good intuitive grasp of biological and chemical phenomena without it. In my own discipline of sociology and public health research, we use a lot of statistics, some of it quite complex, but the purpose is mostly to test hypotheses. Once you find an association, you can explain it without the analysis of covariance equations. 

 

What's more, findings in these fields don't completely upend our intuitions. True, evolution upended millennia of belief, but even though some people reject it, the idea is not terribly hard to understand, if you're willing to listen to an explanation. The idea of chemical bonds makes intuitive sense, and you can represent molecules with ball and stick diagrams that anyone can comprehend. We see chemistry happen in our kitchens every day so we know it's real.


Physics is different, however. The claims modern physicists make about reality are just bizarre. Light consists of particles called photons, but it is also a wave. Photons travel at light speed, which is the highest attainable speed in the universe, and nothing that has mass can ever quite get there. They are waves in what's called the electromagnetic field that permeates the universe. They are one of a group of particles called bosons that carry two other elementary forces, called the strong and weak force; plus the Higgs boson that endows particles called fermions with mass. They in turn are classified as quarks or leptons. Quarks interact with bosons called gluons and W and Z bosons. Gluons carry the strong force, a kind of attractive/repulsive force called color charge. However, unlike electrical charge, which is either positive or negative, it comes in three varieties that physicists call red, green and blue, or anti-red, anti-green and anti-blue so there are really six. For an agglomeration of quarks to be stable, it must have all three varieties and hence be white or "colorless," or consist of two quarks of a color and its anti-color. Protons and neutrons are each made of three quarks, while the two quark combinations are called mesons. 


I could go on but it just gets weirder and weirder. In fact everything I've just written kind of seems like gibberish.  Here's the Wikipedia into to the standard model if you're interested. Then there's Einstein's theory of gravity, which is that massive objects warp space-time. Some 13.8 billion years ago, space-time emerged from an infinitesimal point, along with its mass-energy content, and expanded until we got where we are today, with all kinds of crazy shit that went down along the way. Now, I believe all this, because a whole lot of really smart people have invested immense sums of time and money figuring it out and proving it to their satisfaction; and at least some of it is necessary to make microchips and the global positioning system, which do appear to work,  although we don't need quarks for that or any other practical application, at least so far.


But why? Maybe the question makes no sense, it just is what it is, but the human mind can't help but generate that unsatisfied feeling. It all seems arbitrary and pointless. And I think that's how it seems to the average person. So people tell themselves other stories that are more satisfying, more comforting, and easier to grasp. But we need to be able to live with mystery, and no that for now at least many questions are unanswered. Just don't make up answers, accept that there is a whole lot we don't know.



 

Monday, June 21, 2021

Whiteness

 We have the classic race vs. class debate going on in the comments. I have also received (and not published) a mind-boggingly absurd comment arguing that slavery was not a fundamentally racist institution. 

 

Let me say first that in my view it really isn't possible in the United States to separate the issues of class and race. The basic reason why we have never developed an effective workers' party and had a relatively weak labor movement and a very limited socialist tradition compared to most of western Europe is because the working class has been divided by race. Yes, there have been attempts to organize along class lines and across racial lines, from the CIO to ACORN. As a former ACORN organizer, I can tell you that the racism of poor white people is absolutely vicious and it is agonizingly difficult to get them to see past it. I'm talking Philadelphia here, not Birmingham, by the way. Yes,  there are exceptions and there are occasional cases of the scales falling from people's eyes, but at a large scale this is really the fundamental problem of U.S. society. It should go without saying that class also correlates with race, albeit far from perfectly.


As for the history of racism, that is actually interesting and may come as a surprise to many people. The concept of a white race or white racial identity is fairly modern. In an important essay in The Guardian, Robert P. Baird lays out the history of whiteness.


Still, with only slightly exaggerated precision, we can say that one of the most crucial developments in “the discovery of personal whiteness” took place during the second half of the 17th century, on the peripheries of the still-young British empire. What’s more, historians such as Oscar and Mary Handlin, Edmund Morgan and Edward Rugemer have largely confirmed [W.E.B.] Du Bois’s suspicion that while xenophobia appears to be fairly universal among human groupings, the invention of a white racial identity was motivated from the start by a need to justify the enslavement of Africans. In the words of Eric Williams, a historian who later became the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, “slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery”.

 

In short, plantation owners in the British colonies depended on indentured labor, including that of white people; but Christians could not be kept in perpetual bondage. Africans, who were not Christian, could be. But then, to ward off uprisings:

The plantation owners initially sought to protect themselves by giving their “Christian” servants legal privileges not available to their enslaved “Negroes”. The idea was to buy off the allegiance of indentured Europeans with a set of entitlements that, however meagre, set them above enslaved Africans. Toward the end of the 17th century, this scheme witnessed a significant shift: many of the laws that regulated slave and servant behaviour – the 1681 Servant Act in Jamaica, for example, which was later copied for use in South Carolina – began to describe the privileged class as “whites” and not as “Christians”.

 

This happened because Christian leaders insisted on converting the Africans to Christianity. But this "required the colonialists to think in a new way. No longer could their religious identity separate them and their servants from enslaved Africans. Henceforth they would need what Morgan called “a screen of racial contempt”. Henceforth, they would need to start thinking of themselves as white."

 

And with the concept of whiteness came the concept of white supremacy. Who counted as white expanded over time. It didn't originally include Irish or eastern European people, for example. And the ideology of white supremacy required evocation of Biblical and scientific authority. You should read Baird's entire essay, I can't do it justice by summarizing. So read it. It's important.


 

 

 



Sunday, June 20, 2021

Sunday Sermonette: A surprising anomaly

Female characters so far have been fairly scarce. We all know about Eve and the apple, of course. Sarah is named but we never really learn anything about her except that she's apparently sexually attractive and got jealous of Hagar -- a slave who was oppressed and mistreated. God noticed and gave her protection. (Of course, he didn't do anything about slavery and concubinage in general, in fact he was all for it.) Jacob's wives Rachel and Leah get a fair amount of play. They exert what agency they can within the limitations of their gender role. Rachel resorts to quite a bit of deception and manipulation. Zipporah has a brief appearance in the bizarre interlude in which she throws the bloody foreskin at Moses. Miriam organizes a song and dance party when the people escape Egypt. Rahab, in the book of Joshua, exercises independence and agency as a practitioner of the oldest profession, the course open to a woman. And the story of the daughters of Zelopehad is told twice. 


The real point of the latter story is to actually to maintain a male line of inheritance -- as is the story of Onan, who refused to impregnate his brother's widow as the baby would not be considered his, so God whacked him. In fact, patriarchy is the basic architecture of the entire story up until now. For the most part, women's names aren't even mentioned in the begats. Patrilineage defines the tribes and clans which are the fundamental structure of society and a major obsession of the Torah and Joshua. Then, all of a sudden, we get this. I find it surprising that this story is so little known. .Deborah is a common name but I doubt that many people know where it comes from. In fact the story of Samson, that comes later in Judges, is much better known. Then, in the second part of this story, we have another woman exerting agency, though I must say she doesn't seem very nice. Anyway, it is just presented as perfectly normal that a woman Judges Israel, and commands an army. Don't worry, it won't happen again.


One further comment: It's pretty surprising that God sells the people to Jabin, King of Hazor, since Joshua long ago killed Jabin and exterminated Hazor in Joshua 11. It's a miracle!


Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, now that Ehud was dead. So the Lord sold them into the hands of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. Sisera, the commander of his army, was based in Harosheth Haggoyim. Because he had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the Lord for help.

Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading[a] Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided. She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’”

Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”

“Certainly I will go with you,” said Deborah. “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 There Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali, and ten thousand men went up under his command. Deborah also went up with him.

11 Now Heber the Kenite had left the other Kenites, the descendants of Hobab, Moses’ brother-in-law,[b] and pitched his tent by the great tree in Zaanannim near Kedesh.

12 When they told Sisera that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, 13 Sisera summoned from Harosheth Haggoyim to the Kishon River all his men and his nine hundred chariots fitted with iron.

14 Then Deborah said to Barak, “Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?” So Barak went down Mount Tabor, with ten thousand men following him. 15 At Barak’s advance, the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera got down from his chariot and fled on foot.

16 Barak pursued the chariots and army as far as Harosheth Haggoyim, and all Sisera’s troops fell by the sword; not a man was left. 17 Sisera, meanwhile, fled on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because there was an alliance between Jabin king of Hazor and the family of Heber the Kenite.

18 Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Come, my lord, come right in. Don’t be afraid.” So he entered her tent, and she covered him with a blanket.

19 “I’m thirsty,” he said. “Please give me some water.” She opened a skin of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him up.

20 “Stand in the doorway of the tent,” he told her. “If someone comes by and asks you, ‘Is anyone in there?’ say ‘No.’”

21 But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.

22 Just then Barak came by in pursuit of Sisera, and Jael went out to meet him. “Come,” she said, “I will show you the man you’re looking for.” So he went in with her, and there lay Sisera with the tent peg through his temple—dead.

23 On that day God subdued Jabin king of Canaan before the Israelites. 24 And the hand of the Israelites pressed harder and harder against Jabin king of Canaan until they destroyed him.

Footnotes

  1. Judges 4:4 Traditionally judging
  2. Judges 4:11 Or father-in-law

Thursday, June 17, 2021

I'm for it . . .

 but it isn't going to happen, at least not this year. I got the following from the Drug Policy Alliance:


Today, on the 50th anniversary of Nixon declaring the “war on drugs,” Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman and Cori Bush have officially introduced the Drug Policy Reform Act, a bill to federally decriminalize ALL drugs that they unveiled earlier this week at the press conference the Drug Policy Alliance hosted. DPA has been a strategic partner on the development of this legislation and will be actively advocating for its passage in Congress.

 

DPA’s Executive Director, who is currently testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on why we must end and begin repairing the damage of the war on drugs, released the below statement:

 

“With the introduction of this bill, we have the opportunity to begin turning the page on the drug war and start a new chapter today — one in which the systems we have in place in this country begin providing people support, instead of punishment, and where everyone is entitled to the same respect and human dignity no matter what their relationship with drugs is,” Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance said. “While the bill itself won’t end the drug war wholesale, it does put it on notice and ends the number one excuse law enforcement has to harass, surveil, assault and even kill Black, Latinx, Indigenous and low-income people. We may have endured 50 years of terror as a result of these intentional and racist policy choices, but that doesn’t mean we have to settle for 50 years and one day of it. It’s time to end this now.”

 

Actually, Nixon declared the "war on  [some people who use some] drugs." Just so we're clear, some people use psychoactive chemicals in ways that are detrimental to themselves and others. For example, people drink and drive, or they drink enough to harm themselves physically, or impair their ability to work or be good parents. But we learned the hard way that criminalizing alcohol use did more harm than good. We haven't banned tobacco either even though it's still the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. Now more and more states are legalizing cannabis -- although let's get real, law enforcement was never interested in white suburban kids or college students who smoke pot. Marijuana possession was only a crime for Black and Latino people, for the most part.


But what about really dangerous drugs like opioids or methamphetamine? 

 

The plain truth is that the harmful consequences of opioid dependency are almost entirely a consequence of its illegality. Illicit opioids are expensive and difficult to obtain, which means that people who are dependent on them spend most of their time and energy trying to obtain them, and the money needed to do so, which often leads them to commit property crimes. Injecting is a way to get more bang for the buck but it's also a way to get HIV, myocarditis, and lots of other bad consequences. It turns out, however, that if people just take buprenorphine or methadone every day, they can go ahead and live perfectly normal, healthy lives. 

 

I might add that the opioid epidemic is of course iatrogenic, a fancy word meaning that doctors caused it. Most people who are prescribed opioids don't go on to have any problem with them, but a few do, and that's a risk that the manufacturers underplayed and doctors didn't recognize. Nevertheless it's not a moral failure, it's a change in brain chemistry that creates compulsive use. Treating people as criminals is no different from criminalizing diabetes or cancer. It's just cruel and ignorant.


For meth, unfortunately, there is as yet no really effective pharmaceutical treatment, and it's a difficult dependency to overcome. So don't start! Nevertheless, again, making criminals out of people who are compulsive users is not in the least helpful. 


Unfortunately, few or no Republicans and probably not all that many Democrats will go along with sweeping decriminalization right now. But at least we're having the conversation.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Wednesday Bible Study: The first Groundhog Day

The structure of most of Judges is cyclical. The people start marrying outside of the tribe, and worshiping other Gods, so Yahweh sells them into slavery. Then a Yahweh-fearing champion arises, slaughters the slavers, and they are restored in Yahweh's favor until the champion dies and the whole things is repeated. There are some variations, a couple of the quite notable, but that's true of the Groundhog Day movie as well. What seems quite odd is that even while they are enslaved for years and decades, the Israelites still seem to have a well-equipped army for the Judge to command. You'd think the slavers would be smart enough not to let them keep it. Anyway, here goes. I'll have a couple of comments along the way.


These are the nations the Lord left to test all those Israelites who had not experienced any of the wars in Canaan (he did this only to teach warfare to the descendants of the Israelites who had not had previous battle experience): the five rulers of the Philistines, all the Canaanites, the Sidonians, and the Hivites living in the Lebanon mountains from Mount Baal Hermon to Lebo Hamath. They were left to test the Israelites to see whether they would obey the Lord’s commands, which he had given their ancestors through Moses.

The Israelites lived among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. They took their daughters in marriage and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods.

Othniel

The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord; they forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asherahs. The anger of the Lord burned against Israel so that he sold them into the hands of Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram Naharaim,[a] to whom the Israelites were subject for eight years. But when they cried out to the Lord, he raised up for them a deliverer, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, who saved them. 10 The Spirit of the Lord came on him, so that he became Israel’s judge[b] and went to war. The Lord gave Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram into the hands of Othniel, who overpowered him. 11 So the land had peace for forty years, until Othniel son of Kenaz died.

Ehud

12 Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and because they did this evil the Lord gave Eglon king of Moab power over Israel. 13 Getting the Ammonites and Amalekites to join him, Eglon came and attacked Israel, and they took possession of the City of Palms.[c] 14 The Israelites were subject to Eglon king of Moab for eighteen years.

15 Again the Israelites cried out to the Lord, and he gave them a deliverer—Ehud, a left-handed man, the son of Gera the Benjamite. The Israelites sent him with tribute to Eglon king of Moab. 16 Now Ehud had made a double-edged sword about a cubit[d] long, which he strapped to his right thigh under his clothing. 17 He presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab, who was a very fat man. 18 After Ehud had presented the tribute, he sent on their way those who had carried it. 19 But on reaching the stone images near Gilgal he himself went back to Eglon and said, “Your Majesty, I have a secret message for you.”

The king said to his attendants, “Leave us!” And they all left.

20 Ehud then approached him while he was sitting alone in the upper room of his palace[e] and said, “I have a message from God for you.” As the king rose from his seat, 21 Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the sword from his right thigh and plunged it into the king’s belly. 22 Even the handle sank in after the blade, and his bowels discharged. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it. 23 Then Ehud went out to the porch[f]; he shut the doors of the upper room behind him and locked them.

Nice guy. God sure has a strange way of communicating.

24 After he had gone, the servants came and found the doors of the upper room locked. They said, “He must be relieving himself in the inner room of the palace.” 25 They waited to the point of embarrassment, but when he did not open the doors of the room, they took a key and unlocked them. There they saw their lord fallen to the floor, dead.

26 While they waited, Ehud got away. He passed by the stone images and escaped to Seirah. 27 When he arrived there, he blew a trumpet in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went down with him from the hills, with him leading them.

28 “Follow me,” he ordered, “for the Lord has given Moab, your enemy, into your hands.” So they followed him down and took possession of the fords of the Jordan that led to Moab; they allowed no one to cross over. 29 At that time they struck down about ten thousand Moabites, all vigorous and strong; not one escaped. 30 That day Moab was made subject to Israel, and the land had peace for eighty years.

Note again that Eglon has strangely made the decision to let his Israelite subjects keep their army, which then massacres the entire Moabite force.

Shamgar

31 After Ehud came Shamgar son of Anath, who struck down six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad. He too saved Israel.

This is a weird interpolation. Why was it necessary to massacres Philistines? And how did this guy manage to do it all by himself with a pointed stick? 

Footnotes

  1. Judges 3:8 That is, Northwest Mesopotamia
  2. Judges 3:10 Or leader
  3. Judges 3:13 That is, Jericho
  4. Judges 3:16 That is, about 18 inches or about 45 centimeters
  5. Judges 3:20 The meaning of the Hebrew for this word is uncertain; also in verse 24.
  6. Judges 3:23 The meaning of the Hebrew for this word is uncertain.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

You never see a correlation like this . . .

 ... in social science. Well, almost never. From Seth Masket:


Image 

The correlation coefficient (Pearsons r) for this association is .867. Defining the correlation coefficient in mathematical terms is a bit complicated -- it's the sum of the products of the difference from the mean of x and y for each observation, divided by their standard deviations. If the variables were completely unrelated, it would be zero; if they were perfectly correlated, it would be 1. As you can see, it's very close to 1 -- all of the observations are close to the straight line, called the regression line. Where Biden got 30% of the vote, less than 50% of adults have gotten a shot. Where he got 70%, more than 80% have gotten a shot.

 

Just looking at this doesn't tell you why these variables are so closely related. It obviously isn't that voting for Biden causes you to get a vaccination. But something about the states where people voted for Biden, or the people who voted for him, or both, are associated with getting vaccinated. Getting vaccinated is good because then you don't get sick and you don't make your neighbors sick. But the extent to which this association is a function of choice vs. opportunity we don't exactly know.

 

 



Monday, June 14, 2021

Peter Hotez is shrill

 He beginneth:

The initial United States government response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic was marked by a frequent disconnect between government policies and the recommendations of scientific experts. A disinformation campaign from the Trump White House convinced many Americans that COVID-19 injuries and its death toll were exaggerated, leading many to ignore public health recommendations (1). Those who dismissed the severity of COVID-19 were more likely to shun face masks and ignore recommendations to socially distance from non–household members (2). Such individuals were more likely Republicans than Democrats by a wide margin (2), and under a flag of health or medical freedom, an outright defiance of masks and social distancing came to symbolize allegiance to President Trump (1). This contributed to the rampant spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infections, which have taken the lives of one-half million Americans (1). Misguided ideologies from populist regimes in Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua, Philippines, and Tanzania bear varying degrees of resemblance to health freedom and contribute to the global COVID-19 death toll (3). Here, I explore the anti-science movement in America, emphasizing our unique historical connections to health and medical freedom.

 

I do have one bone to pick with him. He starts the story off with Thompsonism in the early 19th Century, writing that  Samuel Thompson "created a system that listed six leading botanical treatments requiring no medical training to administer (5). Indeed, Thompson often mocked the existing medical establishment, and his followers were successful in repealing medical licensing laws (5)" Well yes, but the existing medical establishment was well worthy of mocking. Medical orthodoxy at the time was the humoral theory of the ancient Greeks, and orthodox treatment consisted of blood letting and violent emetics. At least Thompsonism did little, if any, harm.

 

However, the story changes in the late 19th Century as medicine did acquire a legitimate scientific basis. The long history since then of resistance to science based medicine on vaguely articulated grounds of "freedom" is largely associated with the right, including extremists like the John Birch Society. Hotez recites the history, but doesn't really try to explain it, and I also find it difficult to understand the impetus behind this particularly category of nonsense. No, competent adults don't have to accept any medical treatment they don't want to, but associating not believing in scientific findings with "freedom" is another matter. And not getting your children vaccinated is an assault on them and your neighbors. That isn't freedom, it's crime. And I really don't get it.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Sunday Sermonette: Judgment

Judges 2 is metaphysically and chronologically confusing. God has promised to drive everyone out of the promised land but as we have seen that doesn't actually happen. Now he sends and angel with an explanation, it was actually the Israelites who apparently failed to fully execute, and somehow left some pagan altars undestroyed. Therefore God is going to leave some of the other people around, evidently as a temptation. After a while they succumb to the temptation and start worshiping other gods, so Yahweh makes them pay. But Yahweh also somehow "raises up" judges to keep them on the straight and narrow. We get no explanation of how these judges are appointed or exactly what their role is in society, but evidently there isn't any clear rule of succession so in between judges we get more apostasy. Yahweh is pissed off about this but he also intended for it to happen. You figure it out.

Anyway this chapter is actually introductory. We'll get more specifics as to the names of these judges and what they actually do, however there is no explanation of how they get themselves appointed or why they don't have successors. 


The angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bokim and said, “I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land I swore to give to your ancestors. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.’ Yet you have disobeyed me. Why have you done this? And I have also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; they will become traps for you, and their gods will become snares to you.’”

When the angel of the Lord had spoken these things to all the Israelites, the people wept aloud, and they called that place Bokim.[a] There they offered sacrifices to the Lord.

Disobedience and Defeat

After Joshua had dismissed the Israelites, they went to take possession of the land, each to their own inheritance. The people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel.

Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of a hundred and ten. And they buried him in the land of his inheritance, at Timnath Heres[b] in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash.

10 After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. 11 Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. 12 They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger 13 because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. 14 In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. 15 Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress.

16 Then the Lord raised up judges,[c] who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. 17 Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. They quickly turned from the ways of their ancestors, who had been obedient to the Lord’s commands. 18 Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them. 19 But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.

20 Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and said, “Because this nation has violated the covenant I ordained for their ancestors and has not listened to me, 21 I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations Joshua left when he died. 22 I will use them to test Israel and see whether they will keep the way of the Lord and walk in it as their ancestors did.” 23 The Lord had allowed those nations to remain; he did not drive them out at once by giving them into the hands of Joshua.

Footnotes

  1. Judges 2:5 Bokim means weepers.
  2. Judges 2:9 Also known as Timnath Serah (see Joshua 19:50 and 24:30)
  3. Judges 2:16 Or leaders; similarly in verses 17-19

Friday, June 11, 2021

The Promised Land

For many years, when I lived in the Boston area, I was an activist for Palestinian rights. I haven't been involved in that work for some years now, and I don't really have the time or bandwidth to invest in it these days. But the recent confrontation -- sparked by efforts by the Israeli government to evict Palestinians from their homes in Jerusalem -- does compel me to bring it up. Here in the U.S., the corporate media presents an entirely one-sided and distorted story, about an imperiled Israel beleaguered by irrationally hateful terrorists, motivated solely by bigotry. Quite the contrary, it is the project of the Israel government to drive the Palestinians from the last of their land, and they use terrorism as a principal means. Yes, it is legitimate to label Hamas a terrorist organization: they do attack innocent civilians. But so do many Israeli extremists, and the Palestinians suffer vastly more civilian casualties than do the Jewish Israelis. Note that there are many Israeli Arab citizens, so the distinction is not actually one of nationality.


Anyway, as I say I don't have the bandwidth to argue about this right now, so I'll outsource to David Shulman. Please read the whole thing, I'll just pull a couple of quotes to get the basic idea across.


As several astute commentators have suggested in the last weeks, Benjamin Netanyahu’s grand strategic plan, shared, implicitly, with sections of the Israeli right, was to keep Hamas alive as a constant threat to Israel. Ensuring that the Palestinians remain divided between the ineffectual remnants of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the extreme Islamicists of Gaza is one way, possibly the only way, to allow the Israeli program of annexation, domination, and expulsion on the West Bank to go forward. . . .

I experience the ever more intrusive tentacles of the occupation, in the form of vicious settlers and mostly hostile soldiers and police, nearly every week when my fellow activists and I are in the Palestinian territories to protect, as best we can, Bedouin shepherds and the small-scale farmers and herders of the South Hebron hills. Levels of settler violence against Palestinians and human rights activists have increased exponentially over the last several months.In the occupation system, settlers are above the law.

 

This is the true situation. Israel is not threatened existentially, or even with anything more than the sort of low level violence experienced in most of the world. But Palestine is indeed threatened with extinction. That is the goal of the Israeli government. And the U.S. condones it. It's a damn good thing I moderate comments -- in the U.S., most people do not dare to say what I just did, for fear of being called antisemites, and even losing their jobs. But it is the truth.

 

 

 

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Saving money on health care

As I note here from time to time, health care -- which for various reasons I prefer to call medical services -- costs a helluva lot of money. Enough to make you sick. Health care spending grew from about 7% of the economy in 1970 to almost 18% today, about $11,600 per person. That’s more than any other country. In fact it’s about twice the average of the wealthy countries. But we get less for it. We don’t live as long, and by most indicators we aren’t as healthy, as people in those other countries that spend far less on health care. 

 

There are a few reasons for this that I've talked about before and I'll get to again soon, but for now I'll just talk about the ideas people have for addressing this problem, which seem to focus a lot on reducing use of "wasteful, "unnecessary," or "low value" services. That's not crazy. Americans do get a lot of medical interventions that aren't worth it, or are actually useless, or do more harm than good. One reason doctors keep doing these is because it's what they've always done and it's hard to teach and old dog new tricks. Also worth noting is that doctors do them because they get paid for it; and that patients sometimes demand it. One way to overcome this problem seems intuitively obvious: insurers can just not pay for it.


Unfortunately, it's not so easy. See the recent debacle of United HealthCare announcing that it will no longer pay for non-emergency visits to the Emergency Department. (United is one of the largest commercial insurers in the U.S., but they do a lot of Medicaid and Medicare Advantage business, so there are tax dollars at stake as well as private insurance premiums.) They had to at least delay the policy after a firestorm of criticism.


Here's the setup. ED visits generate huge bills, maybe $5,000 or more just for showing up, regardless of what the problem turns out to be or the actual services provided, which are just billed on top of that. United figured that if they could get people to go to urgent care or wait till their doctor's office opened in the morning, they'd save money and be able to increase their profits and lower their prices to attract more business. There are two reasons why this doesn't work, one of them fairly obvious and the  publicly acknowledged cause of the backlash; the second less obvious and less talked about.

As my colleague Megan Ranney notes in the linked article, the people who hie themselves to the ED don't know if they have an emergency until they get there and the experts tell them. If people are afraid their insurance claim will be denied and the hospital will turn around and send them a bill for thousands of dollars, they'll decide that chest pain is just heartburn after all and maybe end up dead. Many great minds have thought long and hard about what sorts of messages or information to give to lay people about when they should and should not go to the ED and nobody has figured out how to do this without endangering them. We just aren't qualified to make the judgment safely and reliably.


But there's another reason why this won't work. It's asking the wrong question and trying to solve the wrong problem. The problem is not that it costs more to get service in the ED than at an urgent care clinic or a primary care office. In fact it doesn't, or at least not very much more. The diagnostic exams and tests, and whatever prescriptions they write or referrals they make cost about the same. Those are called the marginal costs of providing services. The problem is that it costs a boatload of money to keep the ED open. It has to be ready at any moment to take care of people with gunshot wounds, horrific injuries from motor vehicle crashes, perforated intestines, Ebola virus, actual strokes and heart attacks  . . .  . That means keeping a staff of highly trained personnel and a lot of fancy equipment on standby all the time. And the way they pay for that is by applying a big fat fixed fee to every visit.


Suppose United's plan worked, and their customers started making half as many ED visits. Presumably United's competition would follow suit. They'd have to or they'd lose business to United, which can now charge lower premiums. To keep the doors open, the hospitals would have to jack up the fixed fee from $5,000 to $10,000, and United would have to pay it whenever there was what they recognized as a real  emergency. They wouldn't save a penny. But apparently I know more about this than their executives. There's probably a better way to do this, but United's brilliant idea isn't it.


 

 

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

Wednesday Bible Study: Judge THIS

If you thought Joshua was gruesome, wait till you read Judges. There's still plenty of genocide, but there's also more violence that is up close and personal. The first chapter is more or less a continuation of the sort of action we saw in Joshua, except that Joshua is dead so now it's Judah who carries out the massacres. It even repeats a couple of the stories we have already read, but now they're cutting off the thumbs and big toes of a captured king. As for Yahweh's omnipotence, sorry, sometimes he can defeat the other people in Canaan and sometimes he can't, depending on the military technology they have. Hmm. 


Sorry for the late post, I've had technical problems all morning.


After the death of Joshua, the Israelites asked the Lord, “Who of us is to go up first to fight against the Canaanites?”

The Lord answered, “Judah shall go up; I have given the land into their hands.”

The men of Judah then said to the Simeonites their fellow Israelites, “Come up with us into the territory allotted to us, to fight against the Canaanites. We in turn will go with you into yours.” So the Simeonites went with them.

When Judah attacked, the Lord gave the Canaanites and Perizzites into their hands, and they struck down ten thousand men at Bezek. It was there that they found Adoni-Bezek and fought against him, putting to rout the Canaanites and Perizzites. Adoni-Bezek fled, but they chased him and caught him, and cut off his thumbs and big toes.

Then Adoni-Bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off have picked up scraps under my table. Now God has paid me back for what I did to them.” They brought him to Jerusalem, and he died there.

The men of Judah attacked Jerusalem also and took it. They put the city to the sword and set it on fire.

After that, Judah went down to fight against the Canaanites living in the hill country, the Negev and the western foothills. 10 They advanced against the Canaanites living in Hebron (formerly called Kiriath Arba) and defeated Sheshai, Ahiman and Talmai. 11 From there they advanced against the people living in Debir (formerly called Kiriath Sepher).

12 And Caleb said, “I will give my daughter Aksah in marriage to the man who attacks and captures Kiriath Sepher.” 13 Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, took it; so Caleb gave his daughter Aksah to him in marriage.

14 One day when she came to Othniel, she urged him[a] to ask her father for a field. When she got off her donkey, Caleb asked her, “What can I do for you?”

15 She replied, “Do me a special favor. Since you have given me land in the Negev, give me also springs of water.” So Caleb gave her the upper and lower springs.

16 The descendants of Moses’ father-in-law, the Kenite, went up from the City of Palms[b] with the people of Judah to live among the inhabitants of the Desert of Judah in the Negev near Arad.

17 Then the men of Judah went with the Simeonites their fellow Israelites and attacked the Canaanites living in Zephath, and they totally destroyed[c] the city. Therefore it was called Hormah.[d] 18 Judah also took[e] Gaza, Ashkelon and Ekron—each city with its territory.

19 The Lord was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had chariots fitted with iron. 20 As Moses had promised, Hebron was given to Caleb, who drove from it the three sons of Anak. 21 The Benjamites, however, did not drive out the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem; to this day the Jebusites live there with the Benjamites.

22 Now the tribes of Joseph attacked Bethel, and the Lord was with them. 23 When they sent men to spy out Bethel (formerly called Luz), 24 the spies saw a man coming out of the city and they said to him, “Show us how to get into the city and we will see that you are treated well.” 25 So he showed them, and they put the city to the sword but spared the man and his whole family. 26 He then went to the land of the Hittites, where he built a city and called it Luz, which is its name to this day.

27 But Manasseh did not drive out the people of Beth Shan or Taanach or Dor or Ibleam or Megiddo and their surrounding settlements, for the Canaanites were determined to live in that land. 28 When Israel became strong, they pressed the Canaanites into forced labor but never drove them out completely. 29 Nor did Ephraim drive out the Canaanites living in Gezer, but the Canaanites continued to live there among them. 30 Neither did Zebulun drive out the Canaanites living in Kitron or Nahalol, so these Canaanites lived among them, but Zebulun did subject them to forced labor. 31 Nor did Asher drive out those living in Akko or Sidon or Ahlab or Akzib or Helbah or Aphek or Rehob. 32 The Asherites lived among the Canaanite inhabitants of the land because they did not drive them out. 33 Neither did Naphtali drive out those living in Beth Shemesh or Beth Anath; but the Naphtalites too lived among the Canaanite inhabitants of the land, and those living in Beth Shemesh and Beth Anath became forced laborers for them. 34 The Amorites confined the Danites to the hill country, not allowing them to come down into the plain. 35 And the Amorites were determined also to hold out in Mount Heres, Aijalon and Shaalbim, but when the power of the tribes of Joseph increased, they too were pressed into forced labor. 36 The boundary of the Amorites was from Scorpion Pass to Sela and beyond.

Footnotes

  1. Judges 1:14 Hebrew; Septuagint and Vulgate Othniel, he urged her
  2. Judges 1:16 That is, Jericho
  3. Judges 1:17 The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord, often by totally destroying them.
  4. Judges 1:17 Hormah means destruction.
  5. Judges 1:18 Hebrew; Septuagint Judah did not take

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

The Iraq war

I found some old files in my basement from the days when I wrote the Today in Iraq blog. They reminded me of how much I used to follow, research and write about the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was a big part of my political and intellectual life for many years. It makes one despair to see how it's gone down the memory hole.


Here are facts which are now generally understood and acknowledged even by many people who were enthusiastic supporters of the war, including some who were in substantial part responsible for it, such as Colin Powell. I'd have to spend the afternoon going through that 3 foot stack of papers to document everything I'm going to say here, but if anyone cares to deny it I'll just say that the historical record is clear, and you are in a category very similar to Holocaust denial. Rather than actively denying it, our political and journalistic establishment has chosen to forget it.


If you ask what this is  doing on a blog about public health, you shouldn't have to think very deeply to find the answer. In public health we use the term syndemic, which is a portmanteau of synergy and epidemic, to refer to two or more health conditions that interact to create a cluster of health problems concentrated within a particular population. Originally this referred mostly to diseases that mutually increased susceptibility, but it is now understood in a much wider sense. For example, a community may face a high prevalence of injection drug use, which increases the risk for HIV, overdose, and many other diseases; and is associated with economic decline, community disintegration, crime and violence. War is perhaps the ultimate syndemic.


Obviously, in a war, people get blown up and shot, which is not good for them. But that's just the beginning. They face the destruction of essential infrastructure, from housing to potable water to medical services; economic catastrophe that may lead to hunger and starvation; loss of friends and family, grief and fear and depression; and yes, infectious disease epidemics. You can easily think of more. Casualties of war always greatly exceed those directly caused by combatant weapons. Because of the enormous and amorphous scope of these effects, estimates of civilian deaths resulting from the Iraq war range wildly, from 150,000 to over 1 million; and that's not counting the secondary civil war and the war with the Islamic State, direct consequences of the war initiated by the U.S. For every death there are uncountable wounds, both physical and psychic.


We can also count the public health cost to U.S. troops. The cost in dollars for medical and disability costs alone is credibly estimated to be up to $1 trillion. That says nothing of the cost in bereaved families and ruined lives, which is unfathomable.


This happened because Richard B. Cheney, George W. Bush, Colin Powell and others around them organized a massive campaign of lies in support of an illegal war of aggression -- a crime against humanity. Cheney entered office with the goal of invading Iraq (not clear about Bush -- he appears to have largely been a stooge), as was asserted entirely openly by the so-called Project for the New American Century, a neo-conservative group with which he was associated. 


In January 1998, PNAC published an open letter to President Bill Clinton arguing that “containment” of Iraq “has been steadily eroding,” jeopardizing the region and potentially beyond. “Given the magnitude of the threat, the current policy, which depends for its success upon the steadfastness of our coalition partners and upon the cooperation of Saddam Hussein, is dangerously inadequate.”[18] PNAC followed up a few months later with an open letter to Senate leader Trent Lott (R-MS) and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA), arguing that the “only way to protect the United States and its allies from the threat of weapons of mass destruction [is] to put in place policies that would lead to the removal of Saddam and his regime from power.”[19]

 

Note that this was almost 4 years before the 9/11 attack. All they needed was an excuse, and they got one. Iraq and Saddam Hussein of course had nothing whatever to do with 9/11; on the contrary Osama bin Laden despised Saddam as a heretic and would have used his head for a soccer ball if he had the chance. Bush administration rhetoric vaguely tied Saddam to 9/11, but was much more explicit about claiming that he had so-called "weapons of mass destruction" that posed an imminent threat to the United States. This is commonly portrayed a an "intelligence failure" but it was nothing of the sort. The intelligence agencies knew that he did not possess nuclear weapons or the capacity to develop them; they were less certain about chemical and perhaps biological weapons but a) these are battlefield weapons, not "weapons of mass destruction," and b) many nations had such weapons or the capability of producing them, including the United States. Cheney set up a personal pipeline to people in defense intelligence to feed him dubious or ridiculous information from known liars and characters associated with Iraqi exiles who were urging the invasion.

 

I'll say more about the catastrophe that followed, including innumerable specific war crimes and grotesque incompetence. For now I will say that all the people associated with this plot, including obviously Bush and Cheney, are guilty of crimes against humanity. But they are still welcome in elite society, and we even see many of them as talking heads on corporate media from CNN to MSNBC. I will also say that during the campaign to sell the war, the U.S. corporate media was totally credulous, including very notably the New York Times. Reading European media, you would have thought you were on a different planet. They all knew it was lies, and they said so. But there has been no accounting.