Click on the title to read the reuters story. Its a bit of an eye opener. It should also ease the minds of many who worry about Syrian refugees, at least somewhat. Many of the Muslims running from Syria, what precisely nothing to do with Islamism. Rather they want Coca Cola, good jobs, art, music etc.
Sean Hannity recently interviewed Julian Assange. In the interview Hannity closed by hoping for the best for Julian Assange. This is all pretty cheeky coming from partisan hack like Hannity. Here is Hannity from 2010:
SEAN HANNITY: "All right. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will make an appearance before a British judge tomorrow. Now the appearance is related to sexual assault charges that he's facing in Sweden. Now this news comes just as there's word that Assange is apparently not done waging his war against the U.S., at least not yet."
"Revealing their identities, helping us and cooperating with us in our battle against the Taliban. These are real lives that are now in jeopardy and in danger. That was step one."
"Then 390,000 other documents were released. Many of them classified documents. And now we have this. What is -- why? Why didn't they go after this guy and why didn't they arrest him? Why didn't they stop this from being published when we had so much time to do it?"
"Why can't Obama do something about the WikiLeaks? We got this four months ago. You know, we can stop pirating a music and Hollywood movies, but we can't stop this guy from stealing highly classified documents that puts people's lives at risk?"
During Hannity’s September 6, 2016 interview with Assange, it was all praise and applause. “I do hope you get free one day.” Hannity said moistly.
Julian Assange must have been chuckling to himself at the spectacle of the now fawning Hannity, and indeed the entire FoxNews machine. Fox News is built on the idea of American Exceptionalism, America First, provided its Republican lead of course. Fox News, largely a propaganda are of the worst of US conservative politics champion essentially all the things that the narcissists Assange detests about the US. This isn’t to say that Assange likes much on offer by the Democratic wing of US politics either. Assange’s end game seems to be a destabilized US, or at least not a return to Bush II style politics. Assange likely views Hillary as a hawkish, Bush-lite. Assange is no friend of the US.
Hannity is probably not the only pundit to switch sides on the issue of the infamous Julian Assange. No doubt many highly liberal democrats are now castigating Assange as an enemy of the state now that Assange has switched ideological targets. I am not one of these. I’ve always distrusted Assange and thought his methods were incredibly dangerous. He may be an ideologue, or a narcissist or some combination, but he is no friend to the idea of a stable US.
France has toyed with the idea of banning the burqa at various times in the last ten or fifteen years. Now a few towns in France have banned the burqini. The burqini is essentially a spandex body suit, with a hijab or hair covering. The idea of bans has always been both appealing to me, and troubling. The weight of my feelings about the idea of a burqa ban in France slanted always toward unease and opposition, though not always intense unease. I’m a fairly sharp critic of Islam, but I often find myself defending Muslims from illiberal polices proposed by conservatives in the US, who seem to not want intense competition in the conservative, woman-hating theocracy game. Understandable given the historical context. Christianity’s collision with modernity has left it largely-though not completely- toothless. It just doesn’t manufacture zealots like it used to. Well, not violent ones anyway. Islam globally doesn’t seem to have this problem, and even in Western Europe Islam can reliably produce radicalized people, willing to get into trucks to drive over people, find firearms to shoot people, or deliver bombs, or be bombs to blow up their neighbors. But that is all on one side. The burqa ban doesn’t really, can’t really address concerns about terrorism. Muslim women just aren’t often sources of radicalized violence. Any ban of the burqa, or its sibling the burqini can’t really be justified by the idea that such bans would have even a mild effect on radical violence.
I mean I don’t like it, but should
it be banned?
So why has the idea of a burqa ban even kind of appealed to me? Because even if you factor out terrorism, Islam is, from the perspective of a secular humanist, a multifaceted problem. It tends to be conservative in nature, taking a dim view of classical liberal ideas (by liberal I am referring to the ideas of John Stuart Mill, and the civil libertarians- not to be confused with the confusing modern libertarians). The luminaries of Islam seem to look at freedom of speech, of the press, with a bit of skepticism, if not outright derision. The idea of a separation between Church and State seems anathema to many Muslims. Fortunately for the West, Christianity grew up in the shadow of state power, and that guarded that power jealously. As such the framers of Christian doctrine had to thread the needle vary carefully. Christian leaders certainly wanted temporal power, and influence, but they also wanted to avoid being annihilated, and so the bible is replete with face saving ways for the Church and the people it influenced to exist within a State. Islam doesn’t seem to share this evolution. It evolved not in the shadow of another power, but was the power that grew. That is probably an oversimplification readers can correct in the comments section.
In western Europe, perhaps more than the US, Islam tends to toward a conservative view of its scriptures. Women are less than men, must be chaperoned, must be covered. Communities are insular. It is that insularity, coupled with religious conservatism that has always made me question whether or not Muslim women in Western Europe really have much of a choice in the matter of what they wear. If you can be shunned, beaten or in cases that aren’t rare enough, even be killed, and have few avenues of redress if you are bullied or tyrannized by family and community how much choice can you really be said to have in the matter of what you wear? This treatment of women, has very real costs for women in Islamic communities. Being chaperoned means they cannot speak freely with doctors, police, or other care givers. Face covering deprives people dealing with Muslim women of a very key piece of human communication, as well as making it sometimes difficult to know even to whom you are speaking. But really my major concern, above all the troubles the burqa might create in western societies, is the idea that women wearing them may not really want to wear them but feel they have no recourse. The choice to wear a burqa, or even the less restrictive burqini may not really exist. This is largely why I sometimes find myself not as strenuously objecting, while still objecting, to calls for bans. In these moments I wonder if a ban were passed would it not provide Muslim women a breathing space to exercise their own autonomy.
But wait, would you ban this?
Thinking honestly about a subject means entertaining doubts though, and so I continue to have this debate with myself every time calls to ban burqas come up. To this mix I can now add the burqini which has actually been banned from beaches in some French towns. While I think all these woman hating clothes are awful I can’t support a ban on them because such a policy would necessarily violate a person’s right to practice their religion, while unfairly singling Muslims out. One can’t imagine that the ankle length denim skirts worn by women in hardline Pentecostal communities represents an overabundance of choice for the women who wear them. Yet, we are largely silent on the matter of those women. It is hard to imagine a way any ban on Muslim dress can foment meaningful changes in the conservative attitudes about women that seem rife in Islam. Such bans, will only increase insularity, prevent Muslim women from interacting with a broader community, and increase opposition to secular governance, and secular values. It would probably also represent a source of radicalizing propaganda. On top of this bans would necessarily penalize the people I would most like to help, Muslim women. Banning the burqa, and burqini would mean that Muslim women would go out less, enjoy less.
Paul Manafort is a lobbyest. In some more honest moments Manafort will admit that "influence peddler" is, at least, a somewhat apt description of what he does. He is currently the chairman of Donald Trump's imploding presidential campaign. This week the New York Times published a story about Manafort that can only be damaging to the Trump campaign mired as it is in links to Putin's Moscow.
In the Times article Manafort's name appeared, along with names of companies he sought business with, in a secret ledger used by the ousted President Victor Yanokovych. If the handwritten ledger is to be believed, Manafort received 12.7 million dollars in undisclosed cash payments between 2007-2012. The special investigators trying to untangle the web of corruption that characterized Yanukovych's Putin friendly, administration are quick to point out that the ledger doesn't constitute direct evidence that Manafort actually received these payments. Unsurprisingly, Manafort denies ever receiving off the books cash payments. For me though, the cash payments are the very least of my concerns. That Yanokovych would be corrupt and make illegal payments to people whom he wanted to influence, or have influence others is hardly surprising. Corrupt folks do corrupt things. Interestingly, Manafort's shady business in the Ukraine was why McCain chose not to hire him in 2008.
Whether Manafort received unreported cash or not, the story produces some more troubling links to Putin's Russia as well as a willingness on the part of people of power and influence close to Trump, and whose opinions Trump values, to be deal with some awful, awful people. Manafort and his firm have represented some reprehensible people and regimes over the years. Prior to his firm's work advising Yanokovyvh and helping him win election, Manafort and his firm also represented Philippine dictator, and all around piece of shit Ferdinand Marcos. But representing less than savory characters, and trying to win influence for them is a big part of what Manafort does. This is part of the problem of course.
But Manafort's close association with Putin friendly oligarchs and presidents coupled with his association with Trump cast many of Trumps own pro-Putin, pro-Russia comments in a harsher light. Trump's financial ties to Russia are significant in their own right. What conclusions can we draw from Manafort's close ties Russia with the fact that the Trump campaign forced the GOP to soften its platform on the annexation of Crimea? Or onn Trump's less than supportive ideas about NATO? What of the growing consensus that Russia hacked the DNC to benefit Donald Trump? We probably can't say anything too concrete, but surely Trump's associations must fail to inspire confidence.
It may be premature to suggest this but I suspect a Trump administration might ape the Yanokovych Administration. State coffers would be raided, and funneled into private hands, and those hands are likely to be Russian ones.
Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior is the latest examination of early Christianity by Bart D. Erhman. Erhman continues in this his latest work to expand on themes he has written about in earlier books. His academic interests lie primarily in the ways the earliest manuscripts of Early Christian writings (from the gospels -canonical and non-canonical- letters etc) as well as the writings of historians contemporaneous with early Christian communities can tell modern historians about the historical Jesus. That is to say he is interested in the way these writings can tell us about the Jesus who actually lived -not the one described in the gospels or other writings Erhman is also deeply interested the way these early writings can inform historians about Early (and shockingly diverse) Christian communities. Erhman is deeply intrigued by the hunt for a more accurate historical Jesus.
Having read many of Erhman's lively, humane and informative books I must confess to a certain growing skepticism about the hunt for the Historical Jesus utilizing clues found in old manuscripts. The logic of the methods, a discussion of which would take us too far a field, seem defensible, and the arguments for what constitutes evidence quite clever and very seductive. This is to say that the arguments made by those using ancient texts to build a skeletal picture of what the actual Jesus was like are very convincing. The problem is that they are largely impossible to test. I can not overstate how the methods of these textual critics are incredibly plausible and logically sound, but I think an honest appraisal of what the earliest manuscripts of the Gospels, as well as other early writings, can tell us about the actual Jesus is this. The Gospels can't tell us very much about who Jesus actually was. Mostly what these earliest writings can tell us about is who the early Christian communities thought Jesus was as well as what they thought his mission was. Interestingly, on these points not even the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), agree.
The work of scholars like Erhman with these early texts have produced -in very broad outline- the following picture of the historical Jesus. Jesus, most biblical scholars tell us, appears to have been an apocalyptic preacher, who preached that the end of the world would come with in the life times of his followers. He is thought to have ran afoul Rabbinic elders, or Roman law, or both and this led to his death. Historians like Erhman tell us that for his offenses Jesus found himself at the mercy of the rather unpleasant, and largely unmerciful Pontius Pilot, was likely unceremoniously executed and dumped in a mass grave. For a more compelling presentation of this case, as well as a deep and thoughtful examination of Erhman's argument, complete with his evidence I will direct you to the superior Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. I bring up this interpretation only to set Erhman's context. This picture of Jesus comes up a lot, and Erhman doesn't waste a great deal of text defending what is largely a consensus view among historians, the majority of which, according to Erhman, seem to think that outline is the most plausible picture of the historical Jesus given the evidence.
Erhman on Early Christian communities, and early Christian writings, indeed on the logic and conclusions of Textual Criticism is hard to beat. All of his books contain interesting insight into the history and myriad, inconsistent and often mutually exclusive understandings of Jesus held by diverse groups of early Christians. In this, Jesus Before the Gospels is no different. It is often fascinating and includes some very important rebuttals to the methods of literalists. This book exposes their hypotheses to the cruel light of history. However, despite some very strong material this is Erhman's weakest book. The book feels like it is having arguments with several different factions, and its closing chapter is the very definition of tilting at windmills. All that said, the short version of my review is this. Flawed, and scattershot, but probably worth your time. Now to address to some particulars.
Any historical approach to Christianity is bound to be met with a strong fundamentalist objection. Erhman has never shied away from meeting these objections and in this book he addresses several hypotheses offered by biblical literalists/fundamentalist in defense of the idea that the bible represents strong historical evidence.
Are the Gospels reliable historical documents?
The canonical Gospels, and indeed the non-canonical gospels, were not written by eye witnesses to the events in question. While each gospel has a name attached, no one knows who wrote any of them. None were written by anyone who knew Jesus, or knew anyone, who knew someone who knew someone who knew Jesus. Nor can they be said to be entirely independent documents. The first gospel to be written, probably between the years 66-70, The Gospel of Mark, forms at least one source for the Matthew and Luke (both written, sometime between 80-100 AD). These three form the Synoptic Gospels, and while some startling differences and inconsistencies exist between them, they are not with out similarity. This is unsurprising. Two of them draw on Mark as a source, and seem to share another source as well. The Gospel of John, is much different than its canonical brethren, shares no sources with the Synoptics and seems to have a completely different message. It is also the last of the canonical Gospels to be written, between the years 90-110. These dates and their language of origin -decades later and Greek- strongly suggest that no one responsible for their production were eye witnesses to the events they purport to describe. Indeed, it would be hard square the actual ending of Mark, as written in the earliest and best manuscripts with an authorial witness. It will likely surprise some readers to learn that the original ending of Mark is at 16:8. The women flee the tomb and tell no one what they saw because they were afraid. Most scholars agree that this was the original ending. If that is so, and the gospel represents accurate history, how then did the author learn of the fleeing women who told no one what they saw? The author of the text clearly wasn't there. Problematic eh?
The non-canonical gospels were all written much later and also don't provide any reliable information about Jesus. In aggregate, the gospels, are not primary sources of historical data, at least not regarding the history, ministry or life and death of their central figure. One thing that gospels may help interested historians understand is the communities that produced the gospels. What did these communities think was true about Jesus? What social context helped shape these views of Jesus?
To give an example of how social context changed the Early Christian understanding of who Jesus was and what he preached, we can see, over time a dwindling of focus on an immediate end times message. From Mark to John, that preoccupation seems to dwindle as the idea of a swift return within the life time of Jesus' generation becomes less and less tenable with each passing year after Jesus death. By the time John is written it is hard to believe they can hold space as accurate representations of Jesus' message in the same book.
There is much more I could say here, but Erhman says it much better than I do.
Eye Witness reliability. The difficulties of memory and observation.
Before we proceed take the following test. Its important, how many times do the players in white pass the ball?
Did you get the right answer? Did you see everything the first time? A statistically significant percentage of people don't see everything that occurs in the video. That fact alone should increase one's skepticism at the idea of eye witness reliability.
If you have talked about the bible at length with fundamentalists you will often be presented with the idea that the gospel accounts are produced by eye witnesses. I know I have personally heard "Eye witness testimony is the most reliable testimony there is."
Lets leave aside what we just learned about the consensus of modern biblical scholars, which holds that none of the writings of the New Testament have been produced by any eye witnesses, or even anyone who spoke to eye witnesses. The question that we need to ask is this. Is eye witness testimony reliable? Incidentally, those who like to use this defense, seem strangely uninterested in the answer to this very germane question. Rather they like to cite judicial reliance on this kind of testimony.
Erhman, citing actual research on eye witness reliability, and the accuracy of memories demonstrates that eye witness testimony is actually the least reliable form of evidence there is. Most people convicted of crimes and later exonerated via DNA evidence, for instance, were convicted wholly on the basis of eye witness testimony. Eye witnesses reliably get what they witness wrong, and their memories of actual events get worse over time.
Research demonstrates that humans are actually fairly terrible observers and that our memories are quite malleable and prone to error. Erhman, with compelling use of evidence demonstrates that even if the New Testament produced by eye witnesses -it wasn't- their writing wouldn't be reliable without external corroboration. Erhman, in this book, only briefly addresses the subject of independent corroboration, but he does note that history contemporaneous with Jesus is silent. Erhman has addressed this paucity of external corroboration in the previously mentioned Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.
The problem though, well explored by experts in the field of memory, and observation like Elizabeth Loftus is that false memories are easy to generate, impossible to distinguish from memories of real events and that the way we remember events is often influenced by social context and social pressure. Our presentation of our memories can even be influenced by how we want to be perceived within that social context. Researchers in this fascinating and troubling field have managed to implant false memories in subjects that subjects were unable to distinguish from real memories, and have documented the way in which our memories of events, even significant and visceral events (where were you when the space shuttle Challenger exploded say, or what were you doing when you learned of the attacks on 9/11) change significantly over time. Human memory isn't like a film reel laying down a perfect record of history. Erhman citing several studies demolishes confidence in eye witness accounts. Prior to the writing down of the Canonical Gospels, the Early Christians, being Jews would have faithfully preserved their history and understanding of Jesus because they were a part of an oral culture and oral cultures are much better at preserving history and have better memories than literate cultures.
Another argument from fundamentalists that Erhman addresses is the alleged reliability of oral traditional cultures vs literate cultures. Oral cultures preserve history quite well, we told. Again, this hypothesis is offered without any actual evidence in support. Erhman again produces actual academic research that demonstrates that not only is it untrue that members of oral cultures have memories superior to literate cultures (the memories are more or less equal) oral traditions change all the time at the whim of the story teller. Sometimes the gist of the cherished traditions is preserved, but just as often it is not. The reasons for the changes are myriad, but chief among them is that story tellers are also entertainers and they tell their tales under a host of constraints and pressures. Anthropological research seems to suggest that oral cultures are actually much worse at preserving sound accounts of their history than literate societies.
I don't want to give away too much of what Erhman explores here. He does a great job and you should definitely read his more compressive accounts and not my summary.
The Bad But is memory the right word Bart?
While I found this book quite interesting, I kept arguing with its use of terminology. Specifically I found his use of the word "memory" quite problematic. How do we remember Jesus? How do we remember Lincoln? In the case of the latter, which Erhman uses by way of example, why do different groups of people remember Lincoln differently?
I was never very comfortable with this language. For instance, Erhman frames many of his accounts of Jesus in the following way, why did the author of X remember Jesus in this way? I kept asking the book, is "remember" the right word in this context? Lets imagine the author of The Gospel of John for a moment. It seems unlikely "remember" is the right way to describe the action of an author that has no actual memories of Jesus. The author is transcribing stories of other people, or stories in his community, or stories he is making up about Jesus rather than "remembering" events about Jesus witnessed by the author. No author in the New Testament was "remembering" things about Jesus they were telling stories they heard, making them up, or discussing something else entirely.
In a very early chapter of this book, Erhman pits two flawed "memories" of Jesus against each other to illustrated some of what he will be discussing in the book. One "memory" is that of Reza Aslan's as depicted in his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which holds that Jesus was a bit of radical, who like most Jews of his day detested Roman rule, but also thought he would rule the Jews once the yoke of Roman rule was cast off. The Jesus Aslan sees is one that is fairly sectarian, contradictory, with strong political ideas. Set against this "memory" of Jesus is Bill O'Reilly's "memory" of Jesus. O'Reilly's "memory" of Jesus is one who is conservative and annoyed with Roman taxation. Obviously right?
Its unclear how either author's account of Jesus can qualify as memory rather than an attempt, none too subtle it must be said, to validate ideology with a tendentious bit of history. Is it really fair to call these stories memories? Some people might, but given the grounding in the work of the scientists of memory it seems like his use of words like "remember" and "memory" are ill advised, and, ultimately, a bit confused, as well as confusing. At the very least this usage seems imprecise.
Tilting at Windmills.
The final chapter of the book looks like nothing so much as a whine. In recent years the rise of the Nones (that demographic that choses not to affiliate with any organized, or even disorganized religion) has led to a more serious examination of the hypothesis that Jesus never existed at all. To the Historical Jesus project we find, counter posed, an increasingly popular Jesus Myth Project. The latter project finds Jesus to be about as probable as Hercules, and unlikely to have actually existed. The Jesus Myth faction suspects, not with out strong arguments and evidence, that Jesus is a bit of an amalgam of local, similar mythologies that were thick on the ground in first century Palestine. It has become clear that Erhman has felt a bit harried by this branch of thought (he recently wrote an entire book rebutting it). Another pressure brought on, I think, by the rise of the Nones, and certainly a rise in the percentage of out of the closet atheists, is a disinterest in the actual history of Jesus. Atheists are, Erhman thinks, by and large, are disinterested in the bible and find lengthy studies of it, and indeed studies of the Early Christian community, to be huge wastes of time. Erhman spends paragraph after paragraph justifying to this group (I think) the importance of his field. The bible and its central figure represent, Erhman argues, a gigantic influence on Western Culture. Jesus may be the most important figure in history (this claim feels incredibly parochial to me but it is true that Jesus's figure has been influential on the world stage).
It is unclear to me that Erhman is actual correct here. In the first place, atheists, especially those in the west are actually quite familiar with the Bible. Many even find its evolution quite fascinating whether they think Jesus was an actual person in history or not. This brings me to Erhman's worst argument though for taking the Bible seriously.
Erhman goes on a lengthy tirade in which he points out that the bible is interesting simply as literature and is worthy of study whether or not it is accurate history. In this he is almost certainly correct, though mileage will vary with the claim that the bible actually represents great literature. Some passages are certainly well rendered in certain translations, but I doubt anyone could make a convincing argument that the begats of Genesis could ever make for exciting reading. On the whole though, I agree with Erhman. Like all great mythology Judeo-Christian mythology certainly provides a careful reader plenty to chew on. But Erhman then makes a slew of apples to oranges comparisons that feel, to use an uncharitable description, desperate.
Shakespeare is interesting even if Shakespeare wasn't the author or sole author.
Does great literature have to be true contain truth?
Mythology is interesting because it contains ineffable truths about humanity.
You can fill in any such deflection you have heard probably, because Erhman's list is long and exhaustive.
Erhman though makes a claim about the figure of Jesus that can only be true if he is a real character in history who was actually who the myths say he was. Erhman argues that we should be interested in the New Testament specifically is because Jesus was one of the great moral teachers of history. Really? Certainly this cannot be said unequivocally because Jesus also said a lot of immoral things (leave your family, give no thought for the 'morrow, lest you hate your family etc) that can only be wise things to do if, in fact he is who the tales say he is. A great deal of Jesus' wise and moral counsel hinges on the question of his historical accuracy.
But consider another great moral teacher: Spider-Man. Nothing Spider-Man says or does stands or falls on his actual existence. Spider-Man's moral teachings stand on their own whether or not he actually lives in New York using his great power with great responsibility. This is not the case with Jesus. His status as a great moral teacher rises and falls with, at least in large part, on whether or not he existed and was who he, or least his writers say he was. Erhman's literary deflections can't really change that fact. The Bible is more interesting than other mythologies only because so many people believe it is the inspired word of an all powerful deity.
I just recently discovered Sarah Haider. I think she is an important voice, engaged in a difficult discussion about Islam. Like many American liberals who are engaged she gets attacked from many sides.
A biologist trapped in the mental health field. I am interested in Evolutionary biology, ecology and conservation. In addition to that, I am an active competitor in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (I am a purple belt under Marcello Monteiro, a third degree black belt under Ricardo De La Riva). I like hikeing, birdwatching, camping and all things outdoors.