Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Bonfire of the Vanities

Here's Anne Lutz Fernandez on the epidemic of book banning, which is affecting not only schools and public libraries but even commercial bookstores and publishers.  There are some complexities here which she doesn't really address, so I'll give it a try.


Obviously  there can be legitimate debate about what books schoolchildren should be assigned to read, and also what should be available to them in the school library, although these are certainly not the same question. Assigned readings need to be age appropriate, and they need to include what is acceptable to a wide range of the community. Children are being made to read it and it seems that parents in principle have a right to object. That said, in my view and that of most people who share democratic and liberal values, they ought to be exposed to a range of ideas and viewpoints, including those of people their parents don't agree with, all the more so the older they get and the more capacity they have to think for themselves. We can debate what the limits of that range are, but it should include most of what is intellectually respectable and factually accurate. Finally, of course, what is available in the library should include material that you might not want to assign.

Public libraries of course hold a lot of material which is intended for adults, but I suppose the question of what material intended for children should be there isn't radically different from what should be in the school library,, and we can also debate what adult materials children of various ages should have access to. It's not so simple as "anybody who doesn't children to have uncontrolled access to some particular book in the school or public library is an enemy of freedom." I can certainly think of examples I would support. 

But. In the first place, what you want for your children is not what everybody else wants. Giving every individual a veto over what is in the library is going to take away other people's rights and freedoms. Our cultural ideal of free speech means you're just going to have to put up with a whole lot of stuff you don't like. In the second place, it's important for that stuff you don't like to be there and be available, and you really ought to read it yourself. I've already said here many times how sick and tired I am of people yelling about communism who don't have the slightest idea what it means or what range of beliefs have come under that label. The same goes for fascism. Das Kapital and Mein Kampf are both in the library for good reason. There are many interpretations of history, and if you want to understand history in a sophisticated way you need to check out more than one. You can't legitimately decide that you don't like A People's History of the United States if you haven't read it.


In the third place, most of what people are trying to ban now is just books by and about non-white and gay people. That's it. People don't want their children to know what life is like for those people and that they are actually human. People also don't want their children to learn true and accurate history because they think it might disturb their children, or shatter some sort of unquestioning faith that they are supposed to have, even though it's based on fallacy. 

Finally, I do believe that society needs to move on from some beliefs of the past which we now know to be false. The earth is about 4 1/2 billion years old. Life evolved over more than 3 million years, and we have a good understanding of how that happened. The wrath of God is not the cause of natural disasters. The history recounted in the Bible is largely fictitious. Race is a social construct, not a scientific reality. People do not choose to be gay, or transgender, it's just how they are. I could go on. The point is, there are facts that some people want to deny. Nope. You don't get to do that.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Sunday Sermonette: Nope, never happened

The Book of Kings does tell us that Asa became king of Judah, and that he eliminated shrines to foreign gods. However, contrary to what we read below in Chronicles 14:3,  1 Kings: 15 says "Although he did not remove the high places, Asa’s heart was fully committed to the Lord all his life." The Book of Kings entirely omits the succeeding story about the invasion by Zerah and the great battle. 

The Cushite kingdom is traditionally associated with Ethiopia, and the KJV identifies Zerah as Ethiopian, but the NIV translators don't tell us where they think he came from. It is of course inconceivable that anyone in those days would have led an army from Ethiopia to the Levant, which would have required crossing the Red Sea and then marching through the entirety of what is today Saudi Arabia and Jordan; or alternatively marching through Egypt. Look at the map, you'll see this is preposterous. So who knows where this guy actually came from, but on the other hand it is probable that nothing like this every happened. That an otherwise historically unknown king from that region could have raised an army of 1 million is absurd, but Asa's army of 580,000 is equally preposterous -- that number far exceeded the likely entire population of Judah. 

Who knows why this ridiculous story pops up here. It's likely just a grossly exaggerated version of some minor conflict. Mareshah, where this battle purportedly took place, is in a sparsely inhabited area southwest of Jerusalem.

14 [a]And Abijah rested with his ancestors and was buried in the City of David. Asa his son succeeded him as king, and in his days the country was at peace for ten years.

Asa King of Judah

Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He removed the foreign altars and the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles.[b] He commanded Judah to seek the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and to obey his laws and commands. He removed the high places and incense altars in every town in Judah, and the kingdom was at peace under him. He built up the fortified cities of Judah, since the land was at peace. No one was at war with him during those years, for the Lord gave him rest.

“Let us build up these towns,” he said to Judah, “and put walls around them, with towers, gates and bars. The land is still ours, because we have sought the Lord our God; we sought him and he has given us rest on every side.” So they built and prospered.

Asa had an army of three hundred thousand men from Judah, equipped with large shields and with spears, and two hundred and eighty thousand from Benjamin, armed with small shields and with bows. All these were brave fighting men.

Zerah the Cushite marched out against them with an army of thousands upon thousands and three hundred chariots, and came as far as Mareshah. 10 Asa went out to meet him, and they took up battle positions in the Valley of Zephathah near Mareshah.

11 Then Asa called to the Lord his God and said, “Lord, there is no one like you to help the powerless against the mighty. Help us, Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this vast army. Lord, you are our God; do not let mere mortals prevail against you.”

12 The Lord struck down the Cushites before Asa and Judah. The Cushites fled, 13 and Asa and his army pursued them as far as Gerar. Such a great number of Cushites fell that they could not recover; they were crushed before the Lord and his forces. The men of Judah carried off a large amount of plunder. 14 They destroyed all the villages around Gerar, for the terror of the Lord had fallen on them. They looted all these villages, since there was much plunder there. 15 They also attacked the camps of the herders and carried off droves of sheep and goats and camels. Then they returned to Jerusalem.


  1. 2 Chronicles 14:1 In Hebrew texts 14:1 is numbered 13:23, and 14:2-15 is numbered 14:1-14.
  2. 2 Chronicles 14:3 That is, wooden symbols of the goddess Asherah; here and elsewhere in 2 Chronicles

Friday, January 27, 2023

American Exceptionalism

Prof. Campos points out something that we don't seem to see mentioned in the public discourse. Americans are many times more likely to be killed by police than people in any comparable country. For your convenience, I'll reproduce the graph he provides, from the Prison Policy Initiative:



I mean, this is incredible. I don't know if anyone has done rigorous studies to try to explain it, but very obviously, something is wrong here. I should note that while Black people are more likely to be killed by police than white people, even taking them out, the disparity is still nearly as large.

:One fact that is also true, that may help explain it, is that police in the U.S. are far more likely to encounter civilians who are armed. But they often kill unarmed people, and just because people have a firearm doesn't necessarily mean they are a threat. Here's an NPR story that focuses on police killings of Black people, but again, everyone is at risk. 

Obviously, there is a problem with the culture of policing in the U.S. Police training is essentially military training. Trainees are taught to perceive every civilian encounter as potentially threatening, and they are taught to shoot to kill if they perceive any danger. People who go into the profession because they are bullies who like to push people around and humiliate them, even people who are psychopaths, are protected by the culture of solidarity. Of great importance, the vast majority of police calls could be better handled by mental health professionals and social workers. There is no need for a man with a gun to show up at all. Many cities now have programs to dispatch such teams for appropriate situations, and they have been very successful.

Anyway, we need to take this seriously. We do have a big problem, one that other countries don't have. 

Update: To be clear, the police do not have the right to shoot people only because they are fleeing. Shooting a fleeing person in the back is murder, whether or not they are a suspect and you are a police officer. It is also murder to shoot and kill somebody merely because they are armed. As most conservatives believe, fervently, citizens have a right to bear arms, and that is not a reason for the police to shoot them. Viz. Philando Castile.