Monday, February 27, 2006

Hey, that was my Idea!

The AP reports that Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh are suing author Dan Brown of the Da Vinci code for copyright infringement. And who are Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh you ask? They’re the gentlemen that wrote a book called “Holy Blood and Holy Grail” which looked at the Mary Magdalene legends from a semi-historical perspective.

If I remember correctly, at least one of them was featured prominently in a History Channel show about the Da Vinci Code and Brown acknowledges their work in his book, so I’m a little uncertain what the heck suddenly made these guys believe that their copyright had been infringed.

Perhaps someone pointed out to them that if they get an injunction barring the use of their “copyrighted material” it could delay the release of the movie scheduled for May 19, 2006. Even if Random House isn’t interested in a settlement, I’ll bet Sony Pictures might be in order to avoid having the potential blockbuster languish in the can.

Looks like the American “Sue Whether its Justified or Not” virus has made its way over to England where the suit was filed.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Attack on the Askariya Shrine in Samarra

Let’s start with a statement that the attack upon the golden domed shrine in Samarra was an attack against the Iraqi people and an attack against humanity in general. Regardless of what one thinks about religion, the wanton destruction of a building with historical significance, cultural significance and that is viewed with veneration by millions of people is a crime, period, end of discussion.

Distress would be justified. Anger would be justified. A grim determination to find and bring the perpetrators to justice would be justified. But retaliation against people that most likely had nothing to do with the attack is most certainly not justified. It’s a sign of ignorance and barbarity.

Depending upon who you believe anywhere between 19 and 168 Sunni mosques have been attacked in response and some 111 people have been killed. The dead include Sunni clerics and three journalists who’s only crime appears to have been reporting on the destruction in Samarra.

Add this to the violence over the Danish cartoons and all I can say is WTF is wrong with these people? Civil war in Iraq always has been a real possibility and the events of the last few days haven't reduced the chances any. I think it’s time to start backing away from this cur, saying “nice doggie” while we’re doing it, until we get a chance to bolt and get the hell out of there.

We definitely DO NOT want our guys in the middle of another civil war like back in Vietnam. What was it the man said back then? Oh yeah, “The colors of a civil war are louder than command.”

I don’t think we can stop this thing if it isn’t going to stop itself, so let’s make like a shepherd and get the flock out of there as soon as possible.

What that country needs is a strong secular leader that would keep the religious fruitcakes under control. What’s that you say? Doesn’t that describe Saddam before we stuck our nose in and kicked him out you ask? Now that you mention it, I think it does. What’s the old truism, “a people get the leaders they deserve?”

Given the recent antics, not only in Iraq, but across the whole Muslim world, Saddam might have been too good for them.

Convicted of Insulting Religious Beliefs?

Yup, that’s what, according to Reuters, happened to a man in Germany that was selling toilet paper with “Koran” written on it. Apparently the man also sent some of the tissue to German TV stations and mosques and called the Koran a “cookbook for terrorists.”

The man was given a one year suspended sentence and 300 hours of community service. It seems that “insulting religion” is a criminal offense in Germany punishable by up to three years in prison.

Geez, I wonder if that’s three years for each count and what’s the definition of an “insult?” Maybe I should plan on staying out of Germany for the foreseeable future?

I think I need to go buy my copy of the 1st Amendment something nice. Maybe I could get it some flowers or perhaps a box of chocolates?

The Abortion Battle Lines

In didn’t take long for things to heat up in the Abortion Access arena did it? First, the newly constituted court agrees to consider the Federal Partial-birth Abortion ban that has already been declared unconstitutional by three Federal District Courts.

And now the South Dakota Legislature has essentially thrown down the gauntlet by passing a bill that appears to ban all abortions and doesn’t include safeguards when the health of the mother is jeopardized. Assuming Governor Rounds signs the bill, and almost everyone thinks he will, it will be immediately challenged by Planned Parenthood of South Dakota and we’ll be off to the races.

Let’s be logical for a moment shall we? Everyone agrees that what has come to be called “partial-birth abortion” is a gruesome medical procedure. I've had the misfortune to see the diagrams illustrating the procedure and I can't think of too many things I am more emotionally opposed to than that! However, when a late term pregnancy needs to be terminated, either due to a health risk to the mother or a loss of fetal viability, it is, according to most doctors, the safest approach. It is used in less than 1% of all abortion procedures.

The Republican Congress, based upon its extensive medical expertise (*cough, cough*), has taken it upon itself to declare that the procedure is never medically necessary. To my mind that is beyond arrogant and totally unjustifiable. Unless the high court is willing to declare that the life of a late term fetus takes precedence over the life and health of its mother, I don’t see how they can uphold this law. Allowing a gaggle of politicians in Washington, or a state capital, to decide what medical procedures are necessary is simply ludicrous.

As far as the South Dakota bill is concerned, I’m certain it will be declared unconstitutional in Federal District court, or at least parts of it will, and it too may ultimately get to Washington and the nine Supremes. This would be an opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade or significantly expand the cases under which abortions may be regulated. However, again, unless the high court is willing to declare that the life of any fetus takes precedence over the life and health of its mother, which makes absolutely no sense because if the mother dies, so does the fetus, I don’t see how they can uphold this law, at least not as it presently reads, either.

California Executions Grind to a Halt

Executions in California are effectively stopped following two anesthesiologists balking at taking a role in an execution that may have required more action than simple observation.

Based upon a ruling by Federal District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel in response to a 8th Amendment Cruel and Unusual Punishment claim, California could either (a) bring in doctors to ensure the prisoner had been properly anesthetized prior to injecting the paralyzing and killing agents in the standard three chemical approach, or (b) skip the usual paralyzing and heart-stopping drugs and perform the execution with an overdose of the sedative.

It was option (a) that was being attempted when the two anesthesiologists balked so California decided to switch to option (b). Fogel approved the switch BUT put the additional requirement on (b) that the sedative be administered by an individual licensed to inject medications intravenously. Only doctors, nurses and medical technicians can do that in California and the state couldn’t locate anyone that was willing to do so in order to execute a man.

What’s the start of the oath again? Oh yeah, “First, do no harm.”

If it wasn’t a matter of life and death and therefore an absolutely critically serious topic, it would begin to make Laurel and Hardy look like Shakespeare. Talk about capricious? Now folks can’t be executed in California using the same methods that Texas uses on a regular basis simply because in Texas it doesn’t involve people in the medical profession.

So effectively California now has a judicial moratorium on executions and joins Illinois, with an executive moratorium, and New Jersey, with a legislative moratorium. Well at least we’ve got all three branches of government involved.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Bill Maher is Back

The first show of the new Bill Maher season premiered last Friday. I missed it Friday but caught the replay on Monday night.

Bill had interviews with Russell Feingold and Fred Barnes, a conservative commentator that has written a book claiming that George Bush is a “rebel.” The roundtable consisted of actor Eddie Griffin, reporter Helen Thomas and Iraq advisor Dan Senor as the conservative sacrificial lamb.

The interview with Russ focused first upon campaign finance reform as brought about by the McCain-Feingold bill and then upon the tendency of the Bush administration to assume powers for itself in defiance of both law and tradition. The format consisted of Maher flipping up fungo balls for Russ to whack. I thought Russ did pretty well (how could he not with Maher playing shill?) until he brought the Democratic Party into the conversation. Yes Russ, you need to be a loyal Democrat BUT let’s not remind everyone about that too often.

Hmmm, McCain-Feingold, what a presidential ticket that would make. Then in eight years we could go with Feingold-Obama for the next eight years. That would work for me.

Fred Barnes’ book is entitled “Rebel-in-Chief: How George W. Bush Is Redefining the Conservative Movement and Transforming America.” Fred Barnes is one of the bobbing talking heads at Fox News and his book is a yay-yay Dubyah treatise worthy of Harriet Miers (Oh George (*clutches hands and blinks eyelids rapidly*)).

In response to Bill’s incredulous attitude about Dubyah being a “rebel” while still putting the welfare of big business ahead of the welfare of us poor schnooks working for a pay check, Barnes claimed that Bush was rebelling against the political establishment and the foreign policy establishment.

Yo, Freddie, being incompetent in domestic and foreign affairs isn’t rebelling, it’s just being ignorant and/or dumb. You should have entitled your book “Rebel without a Brain.” That would have made a lot more sense and maybe you would have gotten better than a two star review.

In the roundtable, Dan Senor tried to defend the disappearance of $9 billion in Iraq by saying we couldn’t wait until we had 1st World accounting procedures in place. How about a few thousand laptops with Excel running just to keep track of who got what? We could have done the formal accounting later. You can get a decent laptop for $500 so ten thousand of them would have cost about $5 million which is a drop in the bucket compared to $9 billion!

On the other hand, Senor spent 15 months in Iraq and I'll listen to anyone who's done that, and I understand that often things are much easier said than done, but $9 billion? Come on!

I do give Dan credit for making the point that the press corps tends to focus on trivia. As an example he pointed out the tremendous amount of interest in the Dick Cheney shooting incident to the exclusion of everything else that was occurring at the same time. Helen Thomas seemed to disagree. Yes Helen, the Vice President shooting someone is news but not to the exclusion of more important events. I have to agree with Senor on this one. This is another symptom of the American Press abdicating its responsibilities to the Republic. It’s so much easier to focus on trivia than substance.

As for Bill’s New Rules, the most important was Bill making the point that most American’s have “given the finger” to privacy a long time ago so we shouldn’t be all that upset at the NSA listening in on conversations if it can prevent the explosion of a nuclear device in an American city.

Perhaps, but I’d still like to be able to control how much of my privacy I surrender. The fact that I reveal some things in a blog doesn’t mean there isn’t a whole bunch of stuff I keep to myself.

Bush Sticks to his Guns on Port Deal

Whoa, Dubyah is threatening to veto any legislation delaying or preventing the taking over of U.S. Commercial Port operations by Dubai Ports of the UAE. Somebody must be making LOTS of money on this deal.

Dubyah’s claim that we need to build strategic partners in the Middle East and the Pentagon’s claim that the UAE has been a dependable ally are sort of irrelevant. Joe Biden hit the nail on the head when he said that the opposition demonstrated “a lack of confidence in the administration.”

Yeah, that sounds about right. I wouldn’t trust these guys to change a light bulb never mind insure that having an Arab company responsible for port operations isn’t going to make our security nightmare even worse.

While I’m sure that neither the UAE nor Dubai Ports is planning any terrorist operations, there is the issue of sleepers. If we know anything we know that Al-Qaeda is pretty good at covert operations and it would be a very large mistake to underestimate them. An Arab owned and run company that manages sea ports would be a pretty darn good place to insert a sleeper or two and wait for an opportunity.

If Al-Qaeda only consisted of blue collar working stiffs this wouldn’t be too much of an issue. Low level workers are not likely to be shipped around that much. But we know that the organization also has its share of middle class, well educated members that might very well have worked their way into management positions by now who might be in line for a promotion and transfer to a new operation.

I’m sorry boys, but I’m not convinced you did an adequate job. Why should I be? You haven’t done anything else right since you’ve been in office!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Ecclesiastes 12:9-14 and Job 42:7-17

And now for something totally random. Why? Because I feel like it, I’m bored, the Winter Olympics are godawful dull and I REALLY don’t want to get into the claim by Arab-Americans that bias and bigotry, not security concerns, are behind the uproar over a deal that would give an Arab Company from the UAE control over commercial operations at six U.S. ports. No, its security concerns all right. Trust me on that one.

These passages, Ecclesiastes 12:9-14 and Job 42:7-17, strike me as tails tacked on to the books long after the original authors of Ecclesiastes and Job ceased to wander the Earth.

The style of these passages is so jarringly different from the rest of the book they purport to bring to a close, that when you read them, it’s like finding vinegar at the bottom of a bottle of fine wine. There ain’t no way the same men that wrote Ecclesiastes and Job wrote these closing passages.

I find this to be especially true with Ecclesiastes and it sort of annoys me as I think this is my favorite book in the bible. Oh boy, let’s do Most Favorite and Least Favorite things in the bible! Or at least let’s do it for the Hebrew Scriptures as there’s more to choose from there. The envelope please!

Most Favorite Book: Ecclesiastes minus Ecclesiastes 12:9-14 which I don’t think was part of the original anyway.

Least Favorite Book: Hmmm, I’ll have to go with Joshua as I remember the first time I read it I declared Joshua a war criminal and the book on the verge of being pornographic.

Most Favorite Character: King David. Who else? If he was good enough to be God’s favorite, who am I to pick someone else?

Least Favorite Character: Jephthah. The man was an idiot, a complete idiot. I always pictured him as the stereo-typical all brawn and no brains type.

Most Favorite Story: David and Goliath although I do understand that David technically had the advantage. The range of his weapon was greater and he could carry a lot more stones than Goliath could spears. What I liked was that David, with no battle experience at the time, didn’t go running off screaming in terror when Goliath took his first step toward him.

Least Favorite Story: Jephthah and his Daughter. I have nothing good to say about this story just like I have nothing good to say about Jephthah. I have to admit though, that the Rape of the Concubine is a close second.

Least Understood Story: Judah and Tamar. In my opinion this is the weirdest tale in the whole book. I don’t get it at all. It’s stories like this one that lead me to believe that most of the tales are based upon some actual event. No one could make something this ridiculous up! What was really scary the last time I read the story of Judah and Tamar was that I immediately realized that it probably was thought to be from the J source. I checked and I found out that I was right or at least that's the category the story has been placed in by biblical scholars that hold to some form of the Documentary Hypothesis.

Story that Raises the Most Eyebrows: David and Jonathan. What was going on here we wonders, yes my precious we does? These two sound like they would have given Alexander and Hephaestion a run for their money. A close second is David and Bathsheba. Shame on you Davey, shame on you!

Most Favorite Quote: Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion! – Ecclesiastes 9:4

Least Favorite Quote: Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys – 1 Samuel 15:3

Quote that has caused the Most Misery: When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said, "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers." – Genesis 9:24-27. This passage was used first to justify slavery and later to justify segregation.

Biblical Name I’m Most Likely to use for a Character in a CRPG: Elhanan. He was a member of David’s Guard and he slew Lahmi, the brother of Goliath, in battle. As a matter of fact I’m playing a Warrior Nord named Elhanan in Morrowind at the moment.

Ok, that’s enough of that, I’m tired of this game. Let’s remember that my opinions tend to be quite elastic on topics like this and next week I might give different answers to some of these questions. It might well depend upon what was the last thing I read as every time I read a book of the bible, I trip over something that either I hadn’t noticed before, or I hadn’t understood the significance of before.

Banning Gays from Adopting

It seems the next step on the Christian Right’s agenda is to control the configuration of families. After successfully getting Gay Marriage banned in a number of states through the passage of state laws or constitutional amendments, USA Today reports that there are initiatives in 16 states to ban adoption by Gay Couples.

Actually, I view this as a good thing. It’s not that I’m against Gay’s adopting, I’m not. I’m hoping that the Christian Right will eventually push too far and the inevitable backlash from the American public will put them out for the count.

Most Americans are fair minded people, lazy and ignorant, but fair minded. It takes a lot to get the average American to pay attention. But once the meandering herd of voters has been alerted, it doesn’t take long for the stampede to occur that tramples intolerance and unfairness. In an impromptu poll at USA Today, with 15,000 votes, some 62% of respondents were in favor of Gay couples being allowed to adopt.

If we can just get the average American to understand the injustice of relegating Gays to second class citizenship, how badly broken the Death Penalty is and what scientists really believe about evolution, we could end the discrimination, join the rest of the civilized world in rejecting capital punishment and safeguard the future of science in this country.

The Arab Port Deal

Some things just leave you staring with your mouth open. The Bush administration has approved a deal that would give the responsibility for port operations in the U.S. to an Arab company?

There comes a time when the degree of incompetence flies past ludicrous and majestically wings its way toward LEGENDARY! Dubyah and his gang that can’t shoot straight have managed that questionable feat.

Let’s recap shall we? First and foremost, let’s not forget that September 11, 2001 happened on this President’s watch.

Then we have the inability to catch Bin Ladin or even keep track of his general location.

Let’s move on to the fiasco with the WMD that didn’t exist in Iraq, the insurgency quagmire that excursion has led to and, despite the billions and billions being made by corporations, shall we say, “friendly” to the administration, the criminal lack of proper equipment and armor for the troops on the ground. Of course this is not to mention the $9 billion or so that is unaccounted for in Iraq!

This is the President that refused to meet with the mother of a dead soldier camping alongside his farm. What was the problem Dubyah? Could it possibly have been that you couldn’t justify to Sandy Sheehan why we were at war? But you made it up to her when she got booted out of the State the Union address for wearing an anti-war T-shirt didn't you?

Then let’s move on to the lack of response to Katrina followed by a Key Stone Cops worthy late performance which included the mismanagement of more billions of dollars, but again, more than a few administration friendly companies experiencing a windfall that had their stock holders dancing in the rubble.

This is an administration that has a disdain for science. It denies the effect of human endeavors on global warming despite warnings from thousands of scientists. Not only does it ignore the warnings, it actually has the nerve to try and muzzle those that disagree with its faith based and big business friendly “scientific conclusions.” And that’s not to mention that the fearless leader of the crew, Dum-dum Dubyah, thinks Intelligent Design should be taught alongside evolution!

This is an administration that actually had the unmitigated gall to put a candidate forward for a seat on the Supreme Court based primarily upon her religious affiliation and admiration for the biggest disgrace ever to sully the oval office.

Now shall we move on to the fact that this is an administration that believes its ok to listen in on the conversations of American citizens with unauthorized wiretaps, has authorized the torture of prisoners and doesn’t have a problem with its candidate for Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, LYING to the Senate during his confirmation hearings.

And last, but not anywhere near least, this is an administration that holds “by invitation only” public sessions from which any dissenting positions are barred.

And that’s only the serious stuff. If we get into the silly crap the situation begins to take on a resemblance to a Three Stooges feature film. If I was going to get into this stuff I would start with ex-Attorney General John Ashcroft draping the bare breasted statue of Justice and end with Dick Cheney shooting his hunting partner! Yeah Dick, we believe there was no booze involved in the incident, of course we do.

Now they want to turn over the administration of U.S. ports to an Arab company from the UAE? You have got to be kidding me? Stereotyping be damned, this is just plain stupid and asking for trouble. How could anybody have voted for this pack of jackasses? Oh yeah, that’s right, they defend “moral values.” When what two adult males (or adult females) do to each other in their own bedrooms becomes more of an election issue than the safety of our children, the lives of our soldiers and the future of the planet, something is seriously wrong in this country.

Monday, February 20, 2006

David Irving Pleads Guilty

David Irving, the self made British Historian, has pleaded guilty to charges of denying the Holocaust in Vienna. Irving has been in jail in Austria since November on charges stemming from speeches he gave 17 years ago declaring that the Auschwitz gas chambers were a myth.

Irving has had a rather tumultuous career. This is the man that was instrumental in exposing the “Hitler Diaries” as fakes in the 1980’s and this is also the man whose military history books used to be required reading at West Point. Unfortunately his admiration for Hitler and his flirtation with extreme right wing Holocaust Denial groups sent his career into a crash dive in the 1990’s. He hit rock bottom in 2000 when he lost a libel action against Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University and Penguin Books over Lipstadt’s 1994 work, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.” In her book not only did Lipstadt identify Irving as a "Holocaust Denier,” but also accused him of distorting history in his books. Actually, if the truth must be told, she just about called him a bald faced liar.

Irving sued and, when Penguin Books surprised everyone by refusing to settle, acted as his own lawyer in anticipation of a triumphant confrontation between himself as lawyer and Lipstadt as witness. Irving only made one mistake; he sued in British Court where he couldn’t force her to testify rather than in a U.S. Court where I’ve been led to believe he could have. As a result Penguin’s legal team never let the mild mannered academic anywhere near the stand and substituted strong willed historians, that resembled velociraptors, who ripped Irving, his books and his attempts at playing solicitor to shreds. About the only thing Irving accomplished was he annoyed the judge.

The old saying that anyone who defends himself has a fool for a client was never truer than in this case. The result was a disastrous decision that every uncomplimentary thing Lipstadt said about Irving was TRUE. This essentially destroyed his credibility as a historian and left Irving saddled with 2 million pounds of dept. This led directly to his declaring bankruptcy in 2002.

Now, as a result of his guilty plea, the Vienna Court has handed Irving a three year sentence.

Gee, I’m amazed I remembered all that. I followed the case pretty closely having actually bought (and read) one of the 4,000 or so copies of Lipstadt’s book actually sold prior to the libel suit. I also read the court decision and D.D. Gutenplan’s book “The Holocaust on Trial,” which was about the libel case.

While I don’t sympathize with Holocaust Deniers, there is the little matter of people being entitled to their opinion. Like I’ve said before, Freedom of Speech means defending speech that you don’t particularly care for or it’s hollow.

On the plus side Irving has apparently seen the error of his ways and now concedes that the Holocaust did in fact occur and he was wrong to doubt the existence of the gas chambers.

Excuse me while I go curl up in the corner with my copy of the 1st Amendment again. I hope Irving gets a suspended sentence (if they have those in Austria). Nobody deserves to go to jail for simply being mistaken and Irving, aside from his inexplicable attraction to the denial position, always struck me as a man with useful historical insights and some worthwhile things to say.

Death Penalty Update

Despite more and more law enforcement and legal professionals declaring the Death Penalty in the U.S. broken for any number of reasons, the machinery of execution grinds on.

With eight executions, including four already in Texas, before the end of February the pace is well ahead of last year which had only five executions through February. Pennsylvania, which has executed a total of three prisoners since 1976, has six scheduled in the first half of 2006. South Dakota, which has never executed anyone under its current law, has a volunteer scheduled for execution in August. Texas already has as many executions planned through July as it carried out all of last year. We appear to be going in the wrong direction again.

If the South Dakota execution occurs, that will reduce the number of states with Death Penalty statutes that have never actually had an execution since 1976 to four, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey and Kansas. Connecticut dropped out of the group last year when it executed a volunteer.

On the sanity front, ex-special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, hardly a flaming liberal given that he’s the Dean of Christian Pepperdine Law School, has expressed concerns over how the Death Penalty is being applied saying that the public does not want it applied with “arbitrariness and caprice.”

In Georgia, an American Bar Association committee reviewing the Georgia Death Penalty was so upset at its findings that not only did it recommend a moratorium on executions, but also a moratorium on the prosecution of Death Penalty cases! Georgia has no executions scheduled so far in 2006. Georgia had three executions in 2005 and has had thirty-nine since 1983.

I keep coming back to the position that we’re just not smart enough to properly administer something as complicated and permanent as the Death Penalty. As far as I can see there is always some degree of uncertainty, and in some cases a significant degree of uncertainty, because what we call “evidence” isn’t nearly as conclusive as we would like it to be, and if you screw up, there ain’t no way you can fix it.

Somebody must have understood this somewhere along the line which is why the appeals process is so long, so convoluted and therefore so expensive. Then we get the Republicans that want to make the appeals process less expensive by streamlining and shortening it but without doing anything to make it more effective! Let’s see, we have an arbitrary and, based upon the number of Death Row inmates exonerated by DNA testing, inaccurate process now, so let’s speed it up to save money which should make it…even more arbitrary and inaccurate!

Friday, February 17, 2006

New Jersey Moves toward the Brink

The question of Gay Marriage is before the New Jersey Supreme Court. In a suit filed by seven Gay couples, the plaintiffs are charging that not allowing Gay Marriage is a violation of the state’s prohibition of discrimination based upon sexual orientation.

A state Appeals Court ruled 2-1 against the suit but everyone always knew that the final decision would be made by the New Jersey Supremes. The Appeals Court ruling was based upon the position that the issue of Gay Marriage should be decided in the Legislature and not the Courts. However, in a very strong dissent Judge Donald G. Collester said that a definition of marriage that excludes homosexuals robs same-sex couples “of constitutional protections and deprives them of the same rights of marriage enjoyed by the other individuals of this State, even those confined in State prisons.”

The weakness of the decision and the strength of the dissent leads me to believe that the Appeals Court in fact concluded that the same sex marriage ban is a violation of the New Jersey State Constitution but they preferred to leave the responsibility of correcting the situation to either the State Supreme Court or the State Legislature.

New Jersey is a good venue for fighting this round because based upon a recent Zogby Organization poll 56% of folks in New Jersey FAVOR same sex marriage and, perhaps more importantly, some 67% oppose a constitutional ban.

I’ve yet to hear a really good argument against Gay Marriage. The argument that the legislature should decide sidesteps the whole concept of an independent court as a protector of the rights of the minority.

The argument that marriage is by “tradition” between one man and one woman doesn’t particularly impress me. If we were ruled by “tradition” Jim Crow would still rule the South and Blacks would still be sitting in the back of the bus (Does it worry you that the same region of the country that supported first slavery and then segregation is now the region where opposition to Gay Marriage is the strongest?).

And then there is the “slippery slope” argument that allowing Gay Marriage would lead to all kinds of aberrations such as polygamy and group marriage. All “slippery slope” arguments are fallacies. They strike me as either a sign of desperation or a sign of ignorance so I’m not buying this one either.

So what’s left? Let’s be honest shall we? The REAL reason there is such an organized opposition to Gay Marriage can be traced to certain interpretations of the Bible. Some folks consider homosexuality immoral and they don’t want society to imply its ok by allowing same sex marriage. The Bible doesn’t actually address same sex marriage because the men writing it could never, in their wildest dreams, have imagined such an issue would ever come up. That sort of let’s you know God didn’t dictate the book as he WOULD have known that the question was going to be a hot topic some day.

While there are a number of passages that are quoted as condemning homosexuality, the most straight forward appear to be Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13.

Leviticus 18:22 - Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.

Leviticus 20:13 - If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

I’m certainly not going to argue biblical interpretations as, assuming the translations are reasonable (because there are those that argue the translations are misleading), these seem fairly clear cut about what they are declaring a no-no. However I will challenge the idea that, even if accurately interpreted, these are a valid argument against Gay Marriage.

Let’s start with anyone that is going to REALLY follow what this says should be calling for the execution of all homosexuals! Oh wait, what’s that you say? I’m confused? I don’t understand that while the Hebrew Scriptures established a covenant that included a state and therefore needed to be concerned with earthly punishments, the New Testament establishes a covenant that does not include a state, is not concerned with earthly punishments and therefore the death penalty portion of Leviticus 20:13 doesn’t apply? Then why are there so many people who call themselves Christians trying so hard to impose their view of morality on the state?

A more general problem with both Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 is they only apply to those which accept one of the two covenants don’t they? If two Gay Atheists want to get married, why shouldn’t the state allow them to do so? All Atheists and Agnostics, not to mention members of other religions, are depraved and going to hell anyway aren't they? So what's the harm? I’m sure no Christians are gay (*cough, cough*) so the issue is moot isn’t it?

The bottom line is I have no problem with anyone who thinks homosexuality is immoral. If that’s your opinion, feel free not to engage in homosexual acts and even feel free to express what you think. But WHY do you feel obligated to relegate those that don’t agree with you to second class citizenship? Why is there this need to convert an opinion into law? I just don’t get it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Oh Willie!

According to the AP Willie Nelson has released a recording of the song "Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly (Fond of Each Other)" to iTunes.

I guess this is in honor of Brokeback Mountain because, yes it’s a Gay Cowboy song, and they’re not just happy that the cattle drive is over and they can get all the things, like good griddles, love and kissin’, that they been missin’. As a matter of fact these guys probably didn’t miss anything out under the lonely sky before the toasty campfire.

I’d heard Willie refer to this title before on Bill Maher but I didn’t know it was a real song! I thought he was kidding. According to the AP the song includes lyrics such as "What did you think all them saddles and boots was about?" and "Inside every cowboy there's a lady who'd love to slip out."

LOL! Oh Willie! Willie Nelsen has been one of my heroes since he recorded "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys." They used to put up a “sing along” on the scoreboard at Giant’s Stadium so we could sing to the Dallas Cowboys when they were in town back in the 80’s. Being a part of 75,000 half-drunk fans serenading Dallas with "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” was an experience not to be missed.

Now Willie has recorded an ode to Gayness on the trail! Here’s hoping this pisses off the Christian Right more than the movie itself. Attaboy Willie!

Evangelicals and the Law

“Evangelicals and the Law” is the title of a book review in The New Republic by Noah Feldman of a book by Jay Alan Sekulow entitled “Witnessing Their Faith: Religious Influence on Supreme Court Justices and Their Opinions.”

Sekulow’s book apparently makes the claim that the religious beliefs of the Justices has been the primary factor driving court decisions and that this is the way it should be. Feldman criticizes the inaccuracy of the historical argument and expresses his dismay at the opinion that religious belief, rather than the Constitution, should be the paramount factor in determining Supreme Court cases.

I also detected a bit of surprise, on Feldman’s part, that someone like Sekulow, an influential Constitutional lawyer that regularly appears before the High Court, among others, can hold such an opinion.

I’m not surprised and I’m glad to see that slowly, but hopefully surely, it is beginning to dawn on people that Conservative Evangelical Christianity represents a very real threat to American Democracy.

Why be concerned about Sekulow when Tom DeLay holds the same opinion? In a May, 2001 article in the Washington Post DeLay was described as having as his agenda “building a more God-centered nation whose government will promote prayer and worship and the teaching of values” and was quoted as saying he wants to “bring us back to the Constitution and to Absolute Truth that has been manipulated and destroyed by a liberal worldview."

This is the man that taught an adult school class based upon Charles Colson’s, “How Now Shall We Live?” which asserts that only Christianity can truly explain the human condition and reform America's government and culture. DeLay is also the witless one that blamed Columbine on the teaching of Evolution! Remember that phrase "Absolute Truth." It becomes important a paragraph or two further on.

Feldman makes the observation that “It is today not impossible to hear the argument that God's law ought to be implemented directly in the United States,” points out that the Chalcedon Foundation advocates the adoption of biblical law by the state after Americans have converted to Christianity and quotes Kevin Clauson, president of Christ College as saying “We cannot trust man (individually or collectively); we must trust God and His immutable law. If civil magistrates will not apply the Old Testament law, then what will they apply? The law of man. If we will not be ruled by God, we will be ruled by tyrants."

What Clauson misses is that what he calls the “immutable law” of God is really simply what men have decided should be the law of God. Clauson would have us exchange a potential tyranny by politicians for a guaranteed tyranny by priests. I’ll take my chances with the former as at least most politicians (DeLay and Dubyah excepted) don’t think they’re doing God’s will.

Now while a lot (most?) Evangelical Christians understand that you shouldn’t try to impose your personal beliefs upon society, a lot (most?) don’t. The U.S. was envisioned by the founders as a secular society. Unfortunately too many in the U.S. have lost that vision, believe that the government is based upon “Christian Principles” (which it isn’t) and would like nothing better than to impose what they view as “God’s Law” upon society.

Here’s the basic problem. According to a Barna Group study in 2002, 70% of Evangelicals believe in “Absolute Truth.” They equate "Absolute Truth" to their religious beliefs which are based upon their interpretation of the Bible which they hold to be the"Word of God."

Whew! There are lots of assumptions there starting with the assumption that the Bible is anything more than a collection of myths and legends with a little historical framework thrown in and ending with the assumption that their interpretation of the Bible is the correct one.

In comparison, only 25% of non-Evangelical Christians, 27% of Agnostics & Atheists and 16% of non-Christians believe in “Absolute Truth.”

When you’re convinced that you’re on the side of the angels and are implementing God’s will, it’s a little tough NOT to want to impose what you know absolutely to be true on everyone else. People like Delay, Colsen, Clauson and the Chalcedon Foundation only have our best interests at heart (*cough, cough*).

What these folks are missing, or don’t care about, is that the “Absolute Truth” they believe in ain’t necessarily so. Even other Christians can’t agree on the definitions so what chance have they got of convincing anyone else? They don’t have any chance. The only way they can accomplish their objective is through force; through the imposition of their “Absolute Truths” on all the rest of us whether we like it or not and, as a necessary corollary, the suppression of anyone else’s “truth.”

If you don’t consider this a threat to American Democracy and the principles of the Constitution, then I’d like to know why not?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

I Hate Snow!

I have 20 plus inches of the miserable white stuff on the ground and Dick Cheney shot his hunting partner. What's wrong with this picture? When God created the universe I wish he had come up with a better idea than snow! Why not have chocolate come down from the sky when it's cold out? What's with the damn snow?

Now, as for Cheney, how many vacations do Dubyah and his cronies get anyway?

Oh yeah, one other thing. The Winter Olympics are godawful dull!

Friday, February 10, 2006

More on the Mohammed Cartoons

This topic is beginning to challenge the nomination of Samuel Alito as my major obsession for the past year.

At least the U.S. media has ended its silence and we’re beginning to arrive at what appears to be something of a reluctant consensus. Jyllands-Posten shouldn’t have published the cartoons, but they had every right to do so. That may sound like a contradiction, but it isn’t. It is the basic foundation of freedom of speech. I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

No mainstream U.S. media has, to my knowledge, published the cartoons (although as you can see below, some U.S. cartoonists, such as Daryl Cagle, are making their position known). This is not much of a surprise as the U.S. press is probably too busy polishing that yellow streak up its back.

The only poll I’ve seen on the topic was an impromptu (and therefore very unscientific) Internet poll by Mercury News. When last I checked some 1,500 people had voted and 74% were saying that the media should publish the cartoons. However the percentage has been steadily dropping. Earlier it was as high as 83%. I’m not exactly sure what, if anything, that means.

President Bush continues to decry the violence when he’s not wagging his fingers at the Danes for daring to publish something so offensive. The New Republic, in an article by Peter Beinert, claims that the Europeans have a hard time taking religion seriously while in the U.S. the right to be openly religious is considered precious. Yeah, that’s why I’ve been considering moving to Europe. I have a hard time taking religion seriously too.

Allow me to make a point or three. If the Danish editor had asked me about the cartoons before he published them, I would have advised him not to do it unless he had a legitimate reason for doing so. But what’s a legitimate reason? It’s subjective. What I consider legitimate you may not and vice versa. If after the cartoons were published, but before the violent reaction, I didn’t feel the editor’s reasons were legitimate, I would have criticized the publication while recognizing the right of the editor to have a different opinion. However the reaction changed the focus of the conversation. No longer was the topic the questionable publication of some cartoons, it became the assault on democracy inherent in the Islamic reaction.

The reaction demonstrates the enormous gulf between Western Culture and Islam. The violent reaction extended well beyond religion into politics. The West has learned, through sad experience, that this volatile mixture leads to oppression and an environment that will suffocate human rights. We called it the Dark Ages and have been trying to crawl out from under this particularly virulent form of religo-political tyranny for 400 years.

Of course not everyone wants to be free of the Dark Ages. Europe shipped most of those folks our way so it’s managed to climb further out of the quagmire. In the U.S. progress has been hindered by the Fundamentalist Christians among us and the notion that religious freedom somehow implies that either freedom of speech does not include what is offensive to religion or, even if it is included, it’s bad manners to say anything offensive to religion. In the Muslim world the journey out of the Dark Ages either hasn’t even begun or has been completely stopped, and any progress undone, by the Islamic Fundamentalist movement.

Here’s a flash for you kiddies. Freedom of speech and religion are not really compatible. Most religions would like nothing better than to stifle speech that opposes religious dogma or speech that criticizes or ridicules religious beliefs. Convincing everyone that it’s bad manners to criticize religion is a velvet handcuff approach toward accomplishing the same thing. This sets up an off balance situation where religion is free to criticize whatever it wants to but no one is allowed to criticize religion. The next step, already a reality in the Islamic world, is that no one will be able to even disagree with whatever religion says. If religion says chewing gum is bad, then not only won’t you be able to chew gum, you won’t even be able to argue that maybe it’s not bad!

Too extreme? Not really, take a look at the ways things are in Iran and the way they were in Afghanistan. Then you might want to look up the history of Massachusetts Bay Colony where the lovable Puritans held sway. That’s why even if you don’t like what’s being said, you have to defend the right to say it regardless of who it offends or what their reaction is likely to be.

It is only a strong secular society that can insure the continued existence of democratic principles including the freedom of religion. In Islam they don’t consider democratic principles important; in Western Europe they understand that democracy can only flourish in a secular society. What scares me is that this simple truism is NOT understood as well as it should be in the U.S. even by those of us that are not particularly religious. The Christian Right is even openly hostile to the idea of a dominant secular society.

Beinert, in his New Republic article, says that Europeans equate “modern and democratic” to secular while folks in the U.S. do not. Beinert seems to think that the U.S. attitude is a good thing. I have to disagree. It’s a very bad thing. This attitude may very well represent the greatest threat to our democratic freedoms that has ever existed.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Graf-Wellhausen Theory

I am constantly amazed by the depth of my own ignorance. This latest trip around O’Hoolihan’s barn began with an off-hand reference to the Graf-Wellhausen Theory. I don’t even remember the context of the reference but it led me off on a twisted journey through the basics of biblical scholarship as it relates to the Hebrew Bible.

Even someone who is semi-illiterate can tell that there is something strange about the first few books of the Hebrew Scriptures called the Pentateuch, or Torah, and consisting of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. There are, despite what the average Evangelical Christian will tell you, contradictions, sometimes in close proximity, as well as duplications and strange breaks in thought and story line. The style of the text also varies, sometimes within the same book. It’s almost as if two distinct stories were merged like shuffling a deck of cards.

Well that’s what the Graf-Wellhausen Theory hypothesizes. Only it says not just two stories but four, plus some adjustments and insertions by the redactors that did the actual merging.

By tradition the first five books of the Bible were written by Moses. The Graf-Wellhausen Theory says that isn’t even remotely possible and the majority of scholars apparently agree. This is a bigger whack against Fundamentalist Christianity than Evolution! As Apologist Don Closson from Leadership U. says, “since other Old Testament authors affirm Mosaic authorship, as do numerous New Testament writers and the early church fathers, the veracity of the Bible as a whole begins to crumble if Moses is not the author of the Pentateuch.”

This is the same old “argument from consequences” that Fundamentalists are so fond of. First they scare the reader into thinking his religion and salvation are at risk and then they heave a life line of arguments refuting the source of that risk that the reader is desperate to grab on to regardless of whether or not the arguments make any sense. In this case the arguments against Graf-Wellhausen seem to consist primarily of coming up with ingenious ways to resolve the contradictions and anachronisms, claiming that this scholar or that scholar has produced a devastating refutation of the theory, without ever identifying exactly what that refutation was, and saying the bible says Moses wrote the Torah so it must be so.

I’ll concede that it is just barely possible to resolve the discrepancies, duplicates and anachronisms, such as Moses listing the Kings of Edom hundreds of years before Edom existed, because my definition of “possible” is extremely flexible. But most non-fundamentalists, including other believers, would have a hard time accepting these resolutions as little more than wishful thinking. Let me put it this way, I've yet to locate a "scholar," that isn't a Fundamentalist Christian Apologist, that still thinks Moses wrote the Pentateuch.

So what does the theory say exactly? I alluded to it in my earlier post on the Two Creation Stories; according to the Graf-Wellhausen Theory, which is also called the Documentary Hypothesis, there are four basic texts that form the Pentateuch called J, E, P and D.

The J, or Jahwist, source is believed to have originated in the Southern Kingdom of Judah and to have been written sometime between 950 BCE and 800 BCE. The E, or Elohist, source is believed to have come from the Northern Kingdom of Israel and to have also been written sometime between 950 BCE and 800 BCE. J and E are believed to have been combined just after the fall of the Northern Kingdom around 722 BCE.

The D, for Deuteronomist, source is believed to have been written sometime during the reign of King Josiah of Judah around 620 BCE and to consist of not only the Book of Deuteronomy but also Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings. Some scholars associate D with the book of laws “discovered” in 2 Kings 22. D is believed to have been a ploy to justify Josiah’s reforms as well as a demonstration of what a great guy Josiah was, as opposed to the past kings of Judah and Israel. In other words, Josiah had himself a publicist.

The final source is the P, for Priestly, source. Wellhausen originally theorized that it was the latest source from around 530 BCE. However others argue that it was written much earlier, perhaps during the reign of King Hezekiah, around 700 BCE.

Most scholars seem to agree that the final editing and combination of the stories, including a significant update to D called Dtr2, reflecting the kings after Josiah and the reasons for the fall of Jerusalem, occurred between 530 BCE and 400 BCE.

Over the years scholars have added to, modified and adapted the details of the Graf-Wellhausen Theory, buts its core has essentially remained intact for the past 120 years. Professor Richard E. Friedman, in his excellent book "Who Wrote the Bible," even attempts to deduce who, if not by name, then at least by occupation, wrote the source texts.

The theory is based upon techniques of Textual and Literary criticism, in other words, observation, inference and deduction. To be honest with you, I don’t know what to make of this. If you read “scholarly” descriptions of the Documentary Hypothesis you get definitive statements as if somewhere there’s a mathematical treatise as well as tons of forensic evidence justifying the faith of academia in this hypothesis. There isn’t. It is purely based upon the inferences and deductions made from the literary and textual study of the Hebrew Bible. If you read Fundamentalist descriptions, you can hear the indignation generated by a theory that essentially undercuts the veracity of the Bible and, by extension, Fundamentalist Theology over the last 400 years or so.

Compared to this, The Theory of Evolution is one of Fundamentalist Christianity’s best buddies. One saving grace is, while this theory is widely known in academic and theological circles, the general public is mostly oblivious to its existence and implications. I agree with Closson, the veracity of the bible as well as the veracity of Conservative Christianity does crumble in the face of this hypothesis.

A second saving grace is that even a heathen like me is having a hard time accepting this theory as definitive. The most I’m willing to concede is that most scholars seem to think that some form of the Documentary Hypothesis is probably valid. There is considerable disagreement about the details and as new information is discovered, or new techniques developed, the theory will probably continue to evolve and adapt. Biblical scholars have developed a biography of the Pentateuch based upon literary criticism, logical inference and circumstantial evidence. This biography may be little more than a fantasy, a meme that perpetuates itself from teacher to student in universities in Europe and the United States. On the other hand, it might be pretty close to the truth.

This theory is much, much weaker in terms of evidence than something like Evolution and if we can’t get Fundamentalists to accept that, they’re never going to accept that this theory may even be remotely possible. This is why these people are so dangerous. They will hold onto their beliefs regardless of the evidence and constantly come up with, sometimes reasonable but often ludicrous, rationalizations as to why their pre-determined beliefs are unquestionably true. In their minds there can be no doubt. They can’t seem to live with any degree of uncertainty. At least not in relationship to religion.

I don’t accept the Graf-Wellhausen Theory as definitive (then again I’m not convinced the Theory of Relativity is definitive so don’t go by me) but I do recognize that, given its wide acceptance by lots of very intelligent people that know a lot more about this than I do, it may very well be pretty close to reality.

Someday we’ll talk about archaeology and its relationship to the bible but I’m still trying to sort that out in my own mind. It’s one thing to imply that the story of David was written down 400 years after David lived and probably contains considerable legend. It’s something entirely different to claim that David never existed! I’ll never accept that conclusion because even if David didn’t exist, he should have.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Grey’s Code Black

Apparently the strategy of ABC was to ensnare a number of males watching Super Bowl XL by advertising that got everyone asking themselves what the heck a “Code Black” was?

Well it sort of worked. I hung around for the beginning with a nagging suspicion that it was some kind of bomb threat. They almost lost me 2 minutes into the show with what I can only call a female’s conception of a male fantasy. Sorry, but I’d really rather not get into a shower with three chicks at the same time.

It finally turned out that some bozo had managed to shoot himself with a replica WW II bazooka and some paramedic had her hand inside the bozo and holding something to prevent the shell from exploding. Or so the show implied.

I don’t think so. If I remember correctly a bazooka shell had a warhead that exploded on impact. I’m pretty sure it didn’t have a pin like a hand grenade. So if it hasn’t exploded yet, it probably isn’t going to any time soon. Once I found out what it was I lost interest and left, but I hear the paramedic bailed out and now one of the regulars is holding down the fort with her hand inside the patient. Again, I don’t think so. If the paramedic was preventing an explosion by holding something down, I suspect it would have gone boom as soon as she let go.

Just out of curiosity I went to the show’s forum to see if anyone was questioning the rationale. I did see one person who sounded a little skeptical about the hand switching bit but most were blubbering about how “intense” the show was and how they were “shaking all over” while watching it. Are these people serious? It’s a freaking TV show!

Super Bowl XL

Don’t talk to me. I knew I should have gone with Pittsburgh. Final score Steelers 21, Seahawks 10.

There are three types of games that drive me to distraction. Games where one team seems to do everything right but just can't put up points. Games where one team seems to do everything wrong except for a few really big plays and games where it seems like the referees had more to do with the final score than the players. Super Bowl XL had a touch of all three.

The BIG one was the phantom holding penalty which erased the Seattle first down on the 1 yard line. That could have led to a 17-14 lead. Oh well, thems the breaks. Holding penalties, like pass interference, can sometimes be a bit subjective and I’m not the one that has to make the decision in the blink of an eye.

I think Hasselback played well but Alexander was a bit of a disappointment. He had a fair game but never really made his mark. On the Steeler side we had what I can only call a team effort. Lots of folks just did their job.

Alas it appears that the bus has made its last stop. If that’s the case, so long Jerome, we’ll miss you.

Now let’s talk commercials. Overall the ads were ho-hum except for two. The best was the Bud Light “Magic Fridge” commercial and second place goes to the Diet Pepsi stunt double commercial with Jackie Chan.

With the Super Bowl over, I can start saving my pennies for my 2006 tickets. WOO-HOO!! I wonder who Coughlin will go for in the draft?

The Terminator

Somehow I managed not to see this movie in the 22 years since it was made. While waiting around for the start of Super Bowl XL, I caught it on one of the cable stations.

Not a bad flick, but what I found interesting was the closed temporal loop in the plot. Kyle teaches Sara about fighting the cyborgs, Sarah will teach their son John, who in turn will eventually teach Kyle. It’s a closed loop; nobody actually creates the knowledge.

This is one of the paradoxes of time travel and probably the strongest argument against it being possible as it can lead to impossible situations, and even impossible objects. Consider the example of the young MIT scientist who inherits a gold ring from his elderly landlady. The young scientist then discovers a means of time travel, travels back in time and meets a young girl that he falls in love with. Stricken that he has to return to the future and never see her again, he gives her the gold ring. She, of course, turns out to be the elderly landlady.

This is another closed temporal loop and there are two problems with this story. The first problem is who the heck made the ring? The second is what’s going on with the entropy of the ring? It should be increasing over time until it eventually wears out, which would mean that the loop is not exactly the same each time and will eventually break with unpredictable results.

So, be a little careful if you think you’ve figured out a way to travel through time.

Friday, February 03, 2006

U.S. State Department Sides with Muslims

Reuters reports that the U.S. State Department has taken a position in the Mohammed Cartoon controversy.

State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper said "We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable."

If I had any doubts before, I’m sure I’m right now. If the OBJECTIVE was to incite religious or ethnic hatreds then I would agree but that wasn’t the objective.

Again, I ask the question why I, or a Danish newspaper, or a French newspaper should be restricted in its freedom of expression because of somebody else’s religious taboo? So a religion can get anything censored simply by declaring it offensive? Think about the implications of that for a second.

What ever happened to the idea that while I may not agree with what you say, I'll defend to the death your right to say it? When did somebody pass an exception for religious taboos?

Since when did "respect for religion" trump "freedom of the press" and "freedom of speech?" DID SOMEONE REPEAL THE 1ST AMENDMENT WHILE I WASN'T WATCHING?

Why doesn’t it surprise me that the Bush administration would take such a position? The Bush administration, like Fundamentalist Christianity, only recognizes freedom of expression for those that agree with them.

First the High Court of South Africa strikes down laws against same sex marriage as discriminatory while in the U.S. defense of marriage laws relegate gays to second class citizenship. Now it’s Denmark, Norway, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy and even the goddamned French that have the courage to stand up for freedom of the press and freedom of expression in the face of religious blackmail while our government sides with the religious fruitcake element and our press stays silent or even agrees with the government.

DAMN, I wish I lived in a country where FREEDOM RINGS like Denmark or South Africa!

Add to this that nobody said boo about Cindy Sheehan being kicked out of Dubyah’s State of the Union address just because she wore an anti-war T-Shirt and I have to admit that at this moment I’d much rather be Danish.

On the positive side though is that now I can consider moving to Copenhagen as well as considering moving to Amsterdam.

The U.S. Press and the Mohammed Cartoons

Someone finally made a point about the U.S. media being silent on this whole Mohammed cartoon fiasco and it was the Agence France-Presse (AFP) of all people. The quotes reported by the AFP from U.S. editors were less than encouraging.

Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post: "If I were faced with something that I know is gonna (sic) be offensive to many of our readers, I would think twice about whether the benefit of publication outweighed the offense it might give.”

That’s a reasonable position but Fred baby, don’t you think that defending the freedom of the press and freedom of expression from censorship based upon a religious taboo has significant benefit? I think the quote from France Soir is right on the mark.

“Imagine a society that added up all the prohibitions of different religions. What would remain of the freedom to think, to speak and even to come and go?"

Keith Richburg, the Washington Post’s foreign editor: "This is a clear example where people would find those offensive so we don't see any particular reason to do it just for shock value”

What about for news value so your readers can see the cartoons and judge for themselves whether the furor is justified or not? Since when is a non-believer required to adhere to the restrictions followed by the faithful? I eat pork (or I would if I liked pork) even though the faithful aren’t supposed to, and I drink wine even though the faithful aren’t supposed to, so why can’t I draw, and publish, a cartoon of Mohammed or Jesus or Buddha or Mithras?

Peter Gavrilovich of the Detroit Free Press: "I don't think we would run a cartoon in this newspaper that would be deemed offensive to any religious figure.”

So according to Peter the press should self-censor itself when religious figures are involved. Tell me Peter, you wouldn’t have a problem running a cartoon which might offend a sports figure, an entertainment figure, a politician or just plain folks, so what is it that you think gives a religious figure some kind of special dispensation?

Heaven help us if we ever have to rely on Peter and the Detroit Free Pree to defend the 1st Amendment.

[Erase those last comments. Peter's quote was out of context. What he meant was that cartoons wouldn't be printed on the news pages. The editorial pages would be a different matter. I guess we can depend on Peter and the Detroit Free Press to defend the 1st Amendment.]

The Sacramento Bee was still thinking about it (they tend to be laid back in California) and the New York Times declined to comment.

A while back I commented on the failure of American Journalism to properly inform the American public about the actual standing of evolution within the scientific community (The Failure of American Journalism). I think not taking a stand for free expression on this cartoon fiasco is more evidence that the American press has developed a large yellow streak down its spine.

What the hell ever happened to the press being the most vociferous defender of the 1st Amendment? Are freedom of speech and freedom of the press only ok when it doesn’t offend somebody’s religion? Those whirling sounds you hear are John Peter Zenger and Edward R. Murrow spinning in their graves.

The Oscars

Would you like to hear something really pathetic? I haven’t seen any of the Oscar nominated pictures this year. Not any nominated for best picture, not any nominated for an acting performance and not any nominated for best direction. Heck, I had to get all the way down to “Best Art Direction” before I found a movie I’d seen.

I’m in a rut. I really need to get out more, I really do. That being the case, maybe I’ll just be quiet and go sit in the corner.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Flap over Cartoons

Maybe I should consider Copenhagen rather than Amsterdam?

The Muslim world is in an uproar over the publication of cartoons depicting Mohammed which first appeared in a Danish newspaper, were reprinted by the French daily France Soir and now are appearing in other European newspapers as a sort of struggle between “free speech” and “religious taboos.”

An editorial in France Soir observed “Imagine a society that added up all the prohibitions of different religions. What would remain of the freedom to think, to speak and even to come and go?"

Yeah, that’s true enough, but is there a line which shouldn’t be crossed? I’d be the first to say that criticizing religious beliefs is ok. The idea that somehow criticizing religion is impolite and should be avoided under any circumstances is one of the defense mechanisms that religion has established over the centuries which stack the deck in its favor.

But is there a difference between criticism and ridicule? Sometimes criticism can take the form of ridicule but there is also ridicule for the sake of ridicule. Is there some line that shouldn’t be crossed?

I think each of us has his own line that he won’t cross, but that’s a personal thing. You can’t establish any general rule because once you try to do so you run into the problem of who decides what’s acceptable and what isn’t? I adamantly reject the idea that somehow it’s in the ear of the recipient and statements which offend anybody should be avoided. That’s Political Correctness run amuck.

Since I’m not willing to surrender my right to decide what is appropriate and what isn’t, the only possible approach is anything goes. However, I reserve the right to criticize what you choose to say. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. Three or four hundred years of preachers raining fire and brimstone down upon us with impunity is enough.

As for these particular cartoons, I managed to locate them on the Brussels Journal web site and found them to be pretty tame. I just loved the one shown above about trying to stop the suicide bombings because paradise ran out of virgins.

In an impromptu Internet poll, some 83% of the respondents said that the Muslim reaction was unjustified. I’ve also noticed that American editorials and politicians are sort of keeping their mouths shut on this one which, in my opinion, is a little cowardly. I’ll bet you if the cartoons were ridiculing Jesus and Christianity, the howls of outrage would be deafening from some quarters.

Which is perfectly ok, no one says anyone has to accept criticism or ridicule of their beliefs quietly. Howling in indignation is perfectly acceptable. Yelling for censorship or punishment so people can’t say things you don’t like in the future, isn’t.

The foundation of free speech is the idea that while I may not agree with what you say, I'll defend your right to say it. I defend the right of the Danes, the Norwegians and even the French to criticize, ridicule and even blaspheme if they choose to do so. Which may be the first positive thing I've ever found to say about the French.

I don't expect the religious among us to like the idea. As a matter of fact I'd be terribly disappointed if people like the Christian Right in the U.S. weren't totally pissed off over it.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Did Jesus Exist?

While we wait for Judge Gaetano Mautone in Viterbo Italy to decide whether a parish priest there should stand trial for saying Jesus existed, what do you say we review the evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person?

Contrary to popular belief, outside of the Gospels, there really isn’t a whole lot of evidence that Jesus actually lived. This doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The absence of evidence is only meaningful if one can state with assurance that there should be evidence. Given the time that has passed and the curious habit that Christianity developed of destroying documents they didn’t like (along with the poor schmuck that wrote the document if he was still around and they could catch him), it’s not that surprising that even if there was lots of independent evidence at one time, there isn’t that much left. Who knows, maybe there was a whole section dedicated to pagan writings on Jesus of Nazareth in the Library of Alexandria? The destruction of the library by Christian fanatics still stands as one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, crimes against humanity ever recorded. Besides in the scheme of things, the ministry of Jesus probably wasn’t much of a blip on the screen of the Greco-Roman world.

So what independent evidence does exist? Most Apologists, as well as most historians, would list five documents, Tacitus, Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius and the Talmud. Some Apologists would also add three more documents, Thallus, Lucian and the Letter of Mara Bar-Serapion. That’s about it.

Thallus – I don’t even consider this evidence. It refers to Julius Africanus in the 3rd century referring to a pagan historian by the name of Thallus who recorded a solar eclipse which Africanus claims was a mistaken interpretation of the darkness that occurred during the crucifixion. We don’t know exactly what Thallus said, we’re not sure when he said it nor can we even be sure that it had anything to do with the crucifixion. Weight = 0.

Lucian – This is a reference in a satirical play to Christians and whom they worship. It doesn’t mention Jesus. If anything this is even weaker than Thallus. Weight = 0.

Mara Bar-Serapion – This letter contains the rhetorical question “What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King?”

This is certainly suggestive however the dating of the letter is uncertain and could be from well into the second century. So even if the “wise King” is a reference to Jesus, it could be based upon common knowledge.

The letter also contains the rhetorical question “What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras?”

This didn’t happen. The men of Samos didn’t burn Pythagoras so this sort of renders the document less than reliable as evidence for anything. Weight = 0.

Pliny the Younger – Writing to the Emperor Trajan in 106 CE, Pliny describes the practices of Christians including that they sang “a hymn to Christ as to a god.”

Again this doesn’t mention Jesus by name and could simply be based upon common knowledge. I don’t see this as meaningful evidence. Weight = 0.

Suetonius – Writing around 120 CE, this historian makes the statement “As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.”

The first question is of course the spelling. “Chrestus” was in fact a fairly common name. On the other hand it was not unusual for “Christus” to be confused with “Chrestus.” Keep in mind that we are referring to a time when virtually all information was transmitted verbally. It also wouldn’t make much sense to the average Greek or Roman to talk about “the anointed” so many people apparently assumed that “Chrestus” was more accurate even when “Christus” was used.

The second question relates to whether Suetonius was referring to a contemporary person, which, unless the second coming already occurred and everyone missed it, couldn’t have been Jesus. There is nothing in Jesus’ teaching, that I’m aware of, that would instigate the Jews to make disturbances so if this is a reference to Jesus, it’s being made from ignorance and can’t be relied upon. Weight = 0.

The Talmud – There was considerable friction between Christianity and Judaism during the first few centuries of the Common Era so it’s not surprising that references to Jesus within the Talmud are less than complimentary. I don’t think it’s necessary to go into the details, let’s just say that an alternative explanation for the “Virgin Birth” is provided.

The sources are also from well into the second century and beyond so they really can’t be viewed as very strong evidence for the existence of Jesus. However there doesn’t appear to be any question that Jesus did in fact exist and this point can’t be ignored. Weight = 1.

Tacitus – This historian, writing in the early second century about Nero blaming the burning of Rome on the Christians, makes the statement “Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius.”

Now at first glance, this looks somewhat definitive, but if one looks a little closer, some questions come up. First of all Pontius Pilate was a Prefect and not a Procurator. A minor point perhaps but it would have been important to a Roman. This error makes it rather unlikely that Tacitus’ source was an official Roman document unless he was being careless and quoting the document from memory.

Second is that the information about “Christus” could have just been from common knowledge of the day.

Third, is that it is possible that the sentence referring to “Christus,” is an interpolation. The full sentence reads.

"Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular."

If the sentence is removed, the document still makes sense and, in fact, flows better. While it’s hard to believe that a Christian interpolator would refer to Christianity by such unflattering terms as “pernicious superstition,” “mischief,” “hideous” and “shameful,” a pagan interpolator during a subsequent period of suppression might.

Still, I find it hard to ignore this reference altogether. Weight = 1.

Josephus – This is by far the most famous, and potentially the strongest, independent evidence for the historicity of Jesus. There are two distinct references. The first, known as the Testimonium Flavianum, occurs in Antiquities 18.3.3.

"Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, [if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.] He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. [He was the Christ;] and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, [for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him;] and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day."

There are three opinions about this passage; that it’s completely genuine, that it’s completely a later Christian interpolation and that’s it’s a partial Christian interpolation represented by the bracketed phrases.

I dismiss the idea that the passage is completely genuine because Josephus, a Pharsaic Jew, would NEVER have called Jesus “the Christ” nor claimed that he rose from the dead and most certainly he would not have said that “the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him.”

The arguments for a partial interpolation are simply that the passage still makes sense once you remove the obvious Christian sentiments and is not unlike other side comments that Josephus inserted in the main text in those days before footnotes were invented.

Arguments for a total interpolation include observations related to unusual (for Josephus) word usage, the impression that the next paragraph seems more logically tied to the paragraph preceding the Testimonium and the fact that the passage is not referenced by any Christian writer prior to Eusebius in the 3rd century CE. At least one critic has claimed that the style of the passage is closer to the style of Eusebius than Josephus. Given that Eusebius’ view on morality when “defending the faith” was, shall we say, a tad elastic, this opens up some interesting possibilities.

As an example of unusual word usage, the word translated as “worker” is the Greek word poietes, the root of the English word "poet." While technically the meaning is simply "one who does,” in Josephus' day it had already come to mean literary poets and this is how Josephus uses the word everyplace else.

Personally I’m not terribly impressed by the arguments that the passage is a total interpolation. I think it’s most likely that it’s a partial interpolation by some monk who was outraged that a reference to Jesus didn’t include any references to his divinity. Weight = 5.

The second reference is in Antiquities 20.9.1, a passage about an illegal trial held by the High Priest Ananus which resulted in the death of James the Just among others.

“…so he (Ananus) assembled the Sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others;”

There are a number of arguments that this is an interpolation. One is that it was accidental and caused by a proof reader making a margin notation that the James mentioned here was the brother of Jesus.

Another argument is that Josephus would not have expected his primarily Roman readers to recognize Jesus nor the term “Christ” without some explanation. Josephus is famous for going off upon, sometimes multi-page, tangents in similar circumstances. This would be especially true if the reference in 18.3.3 was a total interpolation, but since I don’t think it is, I don’t find this argument terribly compelling.

What I find as the most persuasive argument against this being genuine is simply that this was a strange way for Josephus to have picked to identify this particular James. James the Just had a reputation all his own as an upright and righteous Jew. A reputation so strong that his downfall was generally believed to have angered God so much that it led to the fall of Jerusalem. King Agrippa and Albinus, the new Roman governor, weren’t thrilled with Ananus either and stripped him of the High Priesthood although this may have been more because Ananus called the Sanhedrin together illegally than because of the death of James.

Overall I think it more likely than not that this is an interpolation, but I could very well be wrong. Weight = 1.

So, of the nine possibilities I find three weak pieces of evidence and one strong piece of evidence. Is this enough to conclude that Jesus really lived, taught and died in 1st century Palestine? Yeah, I think these references, when added to the Synoptic Gospels, provide evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person.

As to whether he was Lord, Liar, Lunatic or just some poor schnook that got carried away with the apocalyptic message of John the Baptist and paid the price, I have no idea.