Reading Roundup: 2016

This was a really good year for books. Read all of these if you can make time.

mythandalusianparadise_frontcover_final1. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, Dario Fernandez-Morera. If you can only make time for one book on my list, pick this one. It’s a milestone in putting to bed the biggest academic myth of our time, and comes from a Harvard scholar, the last place you’d expect on this subject. We’ve been taught that Muslims, Christians, and Jews co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic hegemony in medieval Spain, where the reality is the opposite. Christians and Jews were treated horribly under Islam. As dhimmis they were subject to degrading laws that made life barely tolerable. Medieval Spain was a society in which the abuse of non-Muslims, slaves, and women was written into law and sanctified by holy writ. Even at its most prosperous the Caliphate of Cordoba was never a tolerant or humane society. None of this should be controversial, but university presses are a bit paralyzed; they want to avoid the charge of “Islamophobia” and so present Islamic domination (of even centuries ago) as relatively benign. The idea of Christian dhimmis being content under Islamic rule is as much a fantasy as that of American blacks happy as slaves in the antebellum south since their masters made them “part of their family”. Had there been no Islamic conquest, and Visigoth Spain was left to grow and interact with eastern Christianity, the Renaissance would have happened much sooner.

marginal2. A Marginal Jew: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, John Meier. If Meier is right, and unfortunately I think he is, then the parables aren’t the guaranteed voice of Jesus. Of the 32 stories, we can salvage perhaps four — yes, only four — with confidence: The Mustard Seed (God’s rule was already at work in human activity, and however small that seemed now, it would bear fruit on a huge scale in the end), the Great Supper (a warning that one’s place in the kingdom can be taken by those who never had any right to it), the Talents (along with sovereign grace and reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hell for refusing God’s demands contained in his gifts), and the Wicked Tenants (Jesus knew what awaited him if he confronted the Jerusalem authorities, and he accepted a destiny of irreversible martyrdom). All other parables, even the long-standing cherished ones — The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either shout a later creation, or can at best be judged indeterminate. Meier shows that the dominant view is a house of cards: there is no warrant for giving the parables pride of place in the teachings of Jesus. Full review here.

moh_and_cha_revisited3. Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy, Emmet Scott. The premise of this book is that without Muhammad, Charlemagne would have been inconceivable. Meaning that if not for the Islamic invasions of the seventh century, the medieval world as we know it would not have appeared. There would have been no “Holy” Roman Empire, and Western Europe would have remained fairly Roman under the continued influence and communication from Constantinople. The Viking raids wouldn’t have occurred, nor would there have been crusades or inquisitions. Without the Islamic example of slavery, contact with Indians in the new world may have unfolded differently, not to mention Europe’s relations with sub-Saharan Africa. That was Henri Pirenne’s thesis 80 years ago, and Scott improves on it with special attention to the archaeological record. It’s clear that the barbarian invaders weren’t mindless destroyers or ineffectual hold-outs, but rather they adopted Roman civilization to the extent that classical culture not only thrived but revived over against the deterioration of the third-fifth centuries. This state of affairs wouldn’t change until the second quarter of the seventh century, with the jihad invasions of the East, Middle-East, and North Africa. And from the ravages of Islam would rise Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire in response. This is essential reading for understanding the genesis of medieval Christendom. Full review here.

night-comes4. Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things, Dale Allison. I make a point of reading everything by Dale Allison, even when it goes outside my comfort zone. He’s a solid historical critic and well-rounded thinker that makes him equipped to tackle big theological questions. This book is about death and how we cope with the idea of it. The first chapter is a meditation on the fear of death, how we push for longevity, and how our increased longevity has effected our perception. In the days of Jesus, for example, life would have looked different if you could only hope to make it to 30 instead of 80. (Imagine, says Allison, how Jesus’ prohibition against divorce will look to a 500-year old Christian, if science ever gets us that far.) The second chapter deals with the resurrection, suggesting that no matter how physical (like the gospels) or spiritual (like Paul) we favor the idea, there’s no neat answer to the objections against both, though Allison leans more in favor of Pauline discontinuity between the old and new bodies. Modern cremation and organ donation, not to mention our increased detachment to the physical remains of loved ones, means that corpse-like resurrection becomes less important to modern Christians. The next chapter is about judgment, with a fascinating discussion of near death experiences and “life reviews”, which according to survivors forced them to watch the replay of their entire lives in an instant, and to grasp the consequences of everything they’ve done. Then there are chapters on the question of an afterlife. Like many of Allison’s books, Night Comes unnerves you no matter what you believe.

atheist-muslim5. The Atheist Muslim, Ali Rizvi. This book is the best example I know of how to criticize religion — and with a razor when necessary — without attacking people in the process. Rizvi begins with Thomas Jefferson who launched the first U.S. international war against Islamic jihadists who were for no apparent reason attacking U.S. ships sailing into the Mediterranean. Jefferson wanted to know why, and in the words of the Muslim ambassador, they were simply doing as Muhammad commanded, that it was the Muslim right to wage war on all nations who didn’t acknowledge Islamic rule, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Muslim who died in battle for this cause would go to paradise. This was two centuries ago, long before ISIS or Al-Qaeda, the Iranian revolution, modern drone strikes — and long before any established “U.S. foreign policy”, which is not what calls forth jihadist warfare in any case. Rizvi refutes false dichotomies (with zingers like “saying that culture is the problem and not religion is like saying, ‘It’s not falling out of the airplane that kills you, it’s the ground.’”), and suggests that what makes the Qur’an so dangerous is that it combines the worldly violence of the Old Testament with the afterlife violence of the New. His chapter on free speech, and the necessity of defending even hate speech, is unassailable. This is a book that anyone can and should learn from, even if you don’t particularly identify with atheism (as I don’t). Full review here.

chaos6. Harnessing Chaos: The Bible in English Political Discourse since 1968, James Crossley. I like the use of 1968 as a benchmark. I was born that year and it probably says something about me. Crossley calls it “the key moment of historical chaos” that triggered huge cultural shifts worldwide. Fury over Vietnam. Flower power. Hippies and drugs. And the backlash to all of this. Crossley focuses on the impact of this chaos in the U.K. and on four evolving English views of the bible: (1) the Cultural Bible of western heritage and literature, (2) the Liberal Bible of democratic thought (freedom of conscience, rights, and consensus against tyranny), (3) the Neoliberal Bible of Margaret Thatcher (individualism, free trade, the priority of the market and individual responsibility against state power for the common good and elimination of poverty), and (4) the Radical Bible of liberation theology (socialism and revolutionary transformation). It’s an excellent chronicle of how politicians and public figures use the bible, and confirms my long-standing opinion that the Judeo-Christian tradition is saturated with ideas that lend themselves to both socialistic and individualistic values in almost equal measure. Be sure to get the revised (2016) version, which improves on the 2014 with a chapter covering the past two years, especially David Cameron’s speeches upholding the Neoliberal Bible while Jeremy Corbyn’s invoke the Radical Bible. I’d love to see Crossley write a book like this focused on American politics.

seven myths7. Seven Myths of the Crusades, Alfred Andrea & Andrew Holt (editors). This was published in 2015 but I read it this year. If you want to know what specialists say about the crusades without reading dense tomes this is exactly the book for you. It’s easily accessible and grounded in peer-reviewed scholarship. It corrects longstanding myths about the crusades, like being greedy unprovoked attacks on a benign Muslim world (the Christian holy wars were defensive responses to Muslim conquests of Christian land, and they were economically suicidal expeditions), anti-Jewish (the church never preached a crusade against the Jews, though some crusaders turned things in this direction), or the western equivalent of the Islamic jihad (jihad is a permanent state of being, tied to the warlord example of Muhammad; the crusades were unique events requiring the papal approval, voluntary, tailored for medieval knights whose profession was sinful to begin with, and they were never seen as essential to Christianity). It’s an economical book that packs useful information in short space, and to my surprise, many people have thanked me for recommending it. Further notes about the book here.

paul-behaving-badly8. Paul Behaving Badly: Was the Apostle a Racist, Chauvinist Jerk?, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. For an evangelical book I have to admit it handles Paul pretty evenly. The authors apply the idea of a “trajectory hermeneutic”, where biblical principles that initially have little effect produce significant change over time. So if Paul required women to be submissive and dress appropriately in certain contexts, he also considered women to be his missionary colleagues, not to mention deaconesses, which means that his teaching was at least in a direction of liberating women. Same with slavery: in antiquity it was the natural backbone of society, with rigid lines between slaves and masters, and Paul could never have condemned the institution and be taken seriously. But he did teach that slaves and masters were brothers on equal footing in the Christian family, and because of that, masters can’t assault their slaves with impunity. Paul at least pushes in a direction of protection and liberation of slaves. On the subject of homosexuality, Paul’s trajectory is in the negative direction. In Roman culture homoerotic sex may have shamed the passive male, but it celebrated the dominant (penetrating) one. Paul condemned both active and passive roles, pushing in a direction of more restriction rather than liberation, even concluding — though the authors frankly avoid this unpleasant point — that sodomites are “worthy of death”. On whole this is a balanced treatment that helps one understand the importance of trajectory hermeneutics, and why it’s not the case that scriptures are malleable to the same degree, or in the same direction, on any issue.

assholes.jpg9. Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump, Aaron James. Now that Trump has been elected, this book is more sobering than entertaining. On the one hand, it’s true that much of Trump’s success owes to American anger with the establishment, income inequality, leftists who make honest discussions (about free speech, Islam, etc.) difficult, and other things. That’s understandable; he’s an outsider to a system that has failed us. But he isn’t a competent or humane outsider. He’s an asshole, and recognized as such even by his fans. How does an ass win the presidency? “To sum up my answer,” says James, “he flashes between different asshole types, boorish one moment, self-aggrandizing the next, then bullshitting, all while managing to be very entertaining. Trump is a stunning, even likable showman. His display of the asshole arts — as schoolyard bully, or cutdown boxer — is unrivaled, and its own spectacle. The question is then why enough of us are not flatly revolted. My answer is that we — most of us — really like an ass-clown. We are drawn to him even in revulsion, and his supporters forgive or overlook his transgressions. Our pleasure in the spectacle leaves us unsettled in our feelings and him free to do pretty much as he likes.” He’s about to plant his worthless ass in the Oval Office, so get ready for the worst next month. Full review here.

Pulling Down the Veil: Myths, Illusions and the Taboo

The meme is as follows: ten books or bodies of research that either correct common myths or beliefs, engage taboo subjects, or illuminate the human condition in a surprising way. On my list the topics are drawn from the fields of biblical studies, rape fantasies, neuroscience, the crusades, lies and deceptions, drug addiction, and the wild west.

mythandalusianparadise_frontcover_final1. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, Dario Fernandez-Morera. 2016. The historical myth of our time is the medieval age of Islamic tolerance, especially in Spain where the three faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism supposedly co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic hegemony. The question is why this myth persists even among experts if it’s so thoroughly false. Jews and Christians were anything but protected under Islam. As dhimmis they were subject to a whole raft of degrading laws that made life barely tolerable. It was a society in which the abuse of non-Muslims, slaves, and women was written into law and sanctified by holy writ. Even at its most prosperous the Caliphate of Cordoba was never a tolerant or humane society. Perhaps, the author suggests, university presses don’t want to get in trouble by presenting an Islamic domination (of even centuries ago) as anything but positive, and that ongoing fears of “Islamophobia” paralyze academic research. But seriously, to promote the idea that Christian dhimmis were content under Islamic rule is as preposterous as saying American blacks were content as slaves in the antebellum south since their masters made them “part of their family”. Had there been no Islamic conquest and Visigoth Spain left to grow and interact with eastern Christianity, the Renaissance would have happened much sooner. This is the book we’ve been waiting for, and that it came from a Harvard PhD is quite a surprise.

bivona2. Rape Fantasies, Jenny Bivona. 2008-2012. The data accumulated on rape fantasies since the ’70s has been considerable, but the subject is so taboo that you can’t find a professional book about it. Jenny Bivona should write one. Her research in the last decade has put to bed common theories about rape fantasies — that they are supposedly pathological and can be blamed on rape-culture conditioning or guilt-ridden sexual repression. In fact, she finds, women who fantasize about being raped often have more positive attitudes toward sex and high self esteem. Bivona has considered no less than nine theories which have tried explaining the puzzling phenomenon. Puzzling because it’s usually not pleasant to imagine being harmed. I.e. To imagine getting into a car accident, or suffering from cancer, isn’t pleasant. But many women (31-57% of them) enjoy rape fantasies that would be traumatic and repulsive if they happened as imagined in the real world. The most plausible theories seem to be those of sympathetic activation (biological arousal resulting from negative feelings), and adversary transformation (psychological excitement provided by negative feelings), which combine and cause negative feelings to co-occur with, or convert into, good ones. Bivona’s research hints at bio-psychological paradoxes that we’ve only begun to grasp.


3. Waking Up, Sam Harris. 2014. It’s curious that an atheist of Harris’s reputation would co-opt the term “spirituality”, but you quickly see why. I doubt there is a better word for the experiences he covers in this book, which are attained by the meditation techniques of Buddhism (the safest way) though also the more risky highways of psychedelic drugs (like MDMA and LSD). These mind experiences are caused by changes in consciousness that are so severe they break the illusion of the self, and this, according to Harris, is the key to spirituality: the cessation of all thought. When we completely stop thinking — believe me, it’s much more difficult than it sounds — we can be happy without needing to become happy in the transitory way of fulfilling our various desires. Successful meditation dissolves the illusion of the “I” self and causes thoughts to appear as discrete objects while emotions are accentuated, like love — boundless love even for strangers. You no longer feel like there is an “I” perched in your head behind your eyes, looking out of a body you control. This isn’t new-age quackery, but secular spiritualism grounded in neuroscience. If meditation can produce egoless communion, good will, and improved mental health, that’s a skill worth honing.

paul and palestinian judaism

4. Paul and Palestinian Judaism, E.P. Sanders. 1977. I started reading this book for the fun of it (during a fateful ice storm in the winter of ’91), after a Christian relative told me, apropos Rom 7, why he thought the purpose of the law is to “break you and lead you to Christ”. I found that a curious explanation for moral regulations, but then I wasn’t raised Lutheran. Reading this book showed me what biblical scholars do when they’re at their best in understanding the ancients on their own terms. In the case of ancient Jews, what we think of as legalism was mostly alien to their way of thinking. In Paul’s case, he broke with Judaism by opposing the law and Israel’s special place in the divine cosmos, but not because of a supposed legalism or because Judaic religion was inherently problematic; and certainly not because Paul couldn’t keep the law himself (a practicing Pharisee he’d been perfectly righteous by the law). It was because Christ’s bizarre victory over evil made everything else so trivial that nothing was sacred anymore. As a result, Paul began digging himself into holes explaining why the sacred used to be — and then desperately out of these holes, the steepest slopes being those of Rom 7 and 11. This was the myth-breaker that hooked me in the field of biblical studies.

206285. Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, David Livingstone Smith. 2004. That 60% of people tell 3 lies for every 10 minutes of conversation is sobering, and if you’re reading this right now, you probably think you’re among the 40% who lie less often. That’s what the people in controlled studies thought too, and when they watched their taped conversations played back at them, they were flabbergasted. Thus writes David Livingstone Smith: “Deceit is the Cinderella of human nature; essential to our humanity but disowned at every turn. It is normal, natural, and pervasive. It’s not reducible to mental illness or moral failure. Societies are networks of lies and deceptions that would collapse under the weight of too much honesty.” We deceive others and ourselves all the time, because it’s advantageous to do so as a species. We have to fit into social systems and at the same time look out for ourselves above all others. Lying helps on both fronts. This has in view all kinds of lies: socially acceptable lies (normally not considered lies), blatant or bald-faced lies, lies of omission (silent lies), and other forms of deception, including self-deception. Since reading this book I’ve considered honesty the most overrated myth of our species.

gospel hoax

6. Gospel Hoax and The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, Stephen Carlson, 2005, and Peter Jeffery, 2006. For a real-life conspiracy thriller, the story behind the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is pretty good, but that hoax was obvious from the start. The “Secret Gospel of Mark”, while always obvious to some, took decades to debunk, and it still has defenders. The two detectives, Carlson and Jeffery, published within a year of each other and with no knowledge of what the other was doing. Neither was a biblical scholar: one was a patent attorney (who has since become a biblical scholar) and the other a musicologist, and each used the insight of forgery experts that texts reflect the personalities and time periods of the forger. Carlson spotted the anachronism of Clement’s salt metaphor (which assumes the 20th-century invention of free-flowing salt) and the homoeroticism between Jesus and the young man tied to Gethsemane (which evokes the mid-20th century oppression against gay men in public parks). Jeffery saw other give-aways, like the baptismal symbolism of mid-20th century Anglican Catholicism (Smith had been an Episcopal priest), and a hilarious allusion to Oscar Wilde’s play Salome (Wilde was a gay martyr). Morton Smith was passionate about the church’s view of homosexuality, he was probably gay, and he wrote on the subject in a time when the subject was rarely discussed.secret mark unveiled His “discovery” of Secret Mark allowed him to claim that Jesus was gay, specifically that Jesus’ baptism ceremonies were used to enter a state of hallucination and ascend into heaven, while their spiritual union with Jesus was accompanied by a physical union of sex. But there’s more. Right before his “discovery”, Smith published an academic paper connecting both Clement of Alexandria and “the mystery of the kingdom of God” (in Mk 4:11) to sexual immorality (in T. Hagigah 2:1), which of course is exactly what Secret Mark is about. Also, Smith was intrigued by the 19th-century debate over whether Clement of Alexandria believed that lying was justified if it served the causes of the church. His “discovery” answers that very question: in the supposed letter, Clement says that one should tell bald-faced lies — indeed, should lie under oath — to those who are easily misled by the truth. I’ve always admired Morton Smith for his brilliance and humor, perhaps less so for his arrogance, but there’s no question that all came together in one of the most successful academic fakes of all time. Carlson and Jeffery show the pitfalls of trust when experts ignore red flags and persist under illusions of academic integrity.

seven myths7. Seven Myths of the Crusades, Alfred Andrea & Andrew Holt (editors). 2015. For ambitious readers I recommend Christopher Tyerman’s God’s War (2006), which is the definitive treatment of the crusades replacing a dated classic of the ’50s. But Tyerman’s 1000+ page tome can be rough going. Here’s the substitute for less committed readers who still insist on professional, peer-reviewed scholarship. It corrects longstanding myths about the crusades, like being greedy unprovoked attacks on a benign Muslim world (the Christian holy wars were defensive responses to Muslim conquests of Christian land, and they were economically suicidal expeditions), anti-Jewish (the church never preached a crusade against the Jews, though some crusaders turned things in this direction), or the western equivalent of the Islamic jihad (jihad is a permanent state of being, tied to the warlord authority of Muhammad; the crusades were unique events requiring the papal approval, voluntary, theologically problematic, and never seen as essential to Christianity). It’s an economical book that packs useful information in short space, with scholarly gusto, and people have thanked me for recommending it. My longer review is here.

Chasing-the-Scream8. Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari. 2015. This is a wake-up call to legalize drugs and reconsider what causes drug addiction. For years, opponents of the drug war have been making a case similar to Hari’s: that we ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users (especially nonwhites in poverty) by imprisoning them, and make room for them in prison by paroling dangerous offenders like murderers and rapists; that we make crime worse by empowering gangs and drug monopolies; that the solution to addiction isn’t incarceration but education and rehabilitative support networks. Hari appeals to the example of Portugal, whose population of addicts went down by half after ending its own drug war through legalization. As for the cause of addiction, the right-wing theory says it is caused by moral failure (hedonism and partying too hard), while the left-wing insists that the brain is hijacked by drug chemicals. Research shows that both theories are flawed; it’s neither our morality nor our brain, but our “cage” — a life full of isolation, stress, and/or misery — that makes drugs attractive to addicts. Which is why, for instance, people who take diamorphine (heroin) for long periods of time for medical reasons, like pain relief after a hip replacement, don’t become addicts. And why addicts isolated from society in prisons or rehab facilities usually continue using.


9. Sex, Wives, and Warriors, Philip Esler. 2013. More than any book I know, Sex, Wives, and Warriors probes the disturbing world of the Old Testament while making us feel connected to it whether we’re religious or not. In this sense Esler shatters the myth of the alien Other. For some people these stories will be repulsive, but you’ll certainly feel alive as Esler funnels them through the culture of the Mediterranean. The barrenness of Hannah, whose vicious co-wife shamed her at the shrine of Shiloh. The lies of Judith, which resounded to her honor as she decapitated a general with his own sword. (Is Judith a proto-Islamic jihadist?) The duality of David, whose insults, on the one hand, were as honorable as Judith’s flatteries, and whose vorpal sword like hers saved Israel against impossible odds; but whose ruthless banditry and mafia-like protection rackets cast an ugly shadow. The madness of Saul, who seems to have suffered panic attacks. His feelings of helplessness, not being in control, delusions of persecution, homicidal impulses, and spirit-possessed behaviors all describe an anxiety disorder to a tee, and make perfect sense of his repeated cycles of eyeballing David with envy, doing his damnest to kill him, then bewilderingly making amends and “becoming friends” again for brief periods before returning to murderous intent. Yet he ended in the bosom of the Lord. The rape of Tamar by her sadistic half-brother (Amnon), which made her spoiled goods. Forced to beg her rapist to marry her, she is refused and discarded. As part of the Judeo-Christian heritage, these stories force questions about our common humanity.

Bat10. Bat Masterson: The Man and the Legend, Robert DeArment. 1979. This one is a bit self-indulgent. Recently I was made aware that Bat Masterson (1853-1921) is a distant limb on my family tree, a cousin of my great-great grandmother, which my father never spoke of as he wasn’t pleased to be related to this “despicable” figure of the wild west. Bat’s notoriety, however, has been put to bed since the publication of DeArment’s research. This biography proves that Bat wasn’t the trigger-happy gunslinger of journalistic sensationalism, but rather the result of a joke played on a writer for the New York Sun in August 1881. The reporter was looking for tales of wild-west gunfighters to feed his readers in the east states, and Dr. W.S. Cockrell fed this reporter ridiculously wild fictions of Bat as a maniac who had killed 26 men, sometimes even cutting off their heads as trophies. The reporter wrote all this in the New York Sun, but it was printed in newspapers everywhere, and this “Bat Masterson legend” would persist for decades. Of the 26 people Bat supposedly killed, only two are factual, and they were justifiable homicides in self-defense and defending others. This is a riveting book that makes you live the danger of frontier towns like Dodge City in the 1870s, and I couldn’t put it down for that reason alone.

Those evil moderates (Noam Chomsky, Pastor Anderson, Dr. King, and Revelation 3:15-16)

The theme of this post is “evil moderates”, and I’m drawing on radically different figures who have censured moderates as being worse than the real enemy: Noam Chomsky, Pastor Steven Anderson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the author of the Book of Revelation.

Consider the following description and citation of Noam Chomsky, written by Chris Hedges:

chomskyChomsky reserves his fiercest venom for the liberal elite in the press, the universities and the political system who serve as a smoke screen for the cruelty of unchecked capitalism and imperial war. He exposes their moral and intellectual posturing as a fraud. And this is why Chomsky is hated, and perhaps feared, more among liberal elites than among the right wing he also excoriates…

“‘I don’t bother writing about Fox News,’ Chomsky said. ‘It is too easy. What I talk about are the liberal intellectuals, the ones who portray themselves and perceive themselves as challenging power, as courageous, as standing up for truth and justice. They are basically the guardians of the faith. They set the limits. They tell us how far we can go. They say, ‘Look how courageous I am.’ But do not go one millimeter beyond that. At least for the educated sectors, they are the most dangerous in supporting power.'”

That’s the typical judgment of the regressive left — and why I take Noam Chomsky with a pound of salt — that one’s liberal cousins are more profoundly threatening than bigots, right-wingers and demagogues on the opposite side. There are many reasons why ideologues like Chomsky think this way, but the biggest one is our entrenched culture of self-loathing (on the extreme left) that denigrates anything and everything Anglo-American, and exalts western-haters as heroic underdogs struggling to defend other underdogs, whether or not they deserve a defense.

Take an example now who is opposite in every way from Chomsky. Pastor Steven Anderson is famous for his toxic sermons, especially the ones against gay people whom he considers beyond God’s forgiveness. He insists that all gays and lesbians are pedophiles, and if that’s your starting point (incredible as such a belief is), then gay people are as dangerous as it gets. But Anderson comes down harder on his fellow fundies for their moderate stance. He says, in a sermon delivered after the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage:

anderson“I never get mad when I get hate mail from the sodomites or mainstream Christians. The homos are just being the homos, and liberal Christians don’t even pretend to follow the Bible. But if you want to see me get mad, watch what happens when I get an email or call from a fellow fundamentalist or evangelical who tells me that I should tone it down against the sodomites. My wife will tell you, that’s when I start yelling at my iPhone.

“I’m not even so much preaching against the sodomites tonight. Because you know what the Bible says? ‘He that is filthy, let him be filthy still’ (Rev 22:11). That’s what the Bible says. But you know who I’m preaching against tonight? I’m preaching against my fellow independent fundamentalist Baptist pastors. Because the Supreme Court decision is their fault and they don’t even realize it. The battle wasn’t lost to a bunch of sodomites and perverts. No, the battle was lost in the hearts of fundamentalist preachers, who one day starting reading their Bibles, and got to Romans 1, and decided not to preach what it says. THAT is why our country is in the condition that it is.

“It’s my fellow fundamentalist preachers — I am blaming them for the Supreme Court’s decision; I am blaming them for our society accepting homos; I am blaming them for the homos coming out of the closet; and I am blaming them for the downfall of this country. They say ‘homosexuality is a sin” and ‘I’m against gay marriage’, but they WON’T USE THE WORDS THAT THE BIBLE USES! And they are trimming the message, and they’re preaching a tiny percentage of what needs to be preached. The Bible says that ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by EVERY word that proceeds out of the mouth of God’. And if they won’t use the words that God uses, then they are frauds and liars and compromisers. And what the Bible says is that homosexuals are reprobates beyond God’s salvation, and worthy of death. It does NOT say that we should ‘love the sinner and hate the sin’. It does NOT say that we should love the homos so that they can repent and be saved. It says ‘I hate them O Lord who hate thee’ (Prov 129:31), and that sodomites are haters of God (Rom 1:26-30).”

Moving now to the most admirable example: Martin Luther King, Jr. Unlike the examples of Chomsky (bad) and Anderson (off-the-scales), Dr. King’s sentiments were grounded in the best of reasons. From his Birmingham jail letter:

MLK“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.'”

Even our best leaders run with rhetoric, and Dr. King’s rhetoric implies that liberal sympathetic moderates are more dangerous, or more problematic — indeed “the great stumbling block” — than the actual racists who kill or vilely discriminate. That’s nonsense, of course, but we treat nonsense like wisdom when it grabs attention and fires our passions. If Dr. King had said that white moderates were a (not “the”) stumbling block, for the reasons he gives, and if he had removed his contrast with white supremacists groups (which implies that these groups are not a stumbling block at all to the black cause), his statement would have otherwise been fine. He was right that white moderates in the ’60s weren’t proactive enough — like today’s white moderates who aren’t assertive enough in addressing police brutality against blacks — and given the frustrated jail-cell context of his letter, Dr. King can probably be excused for his rhetorical excess.

Last is the classic example from the bible, Revelation 3:15-16:

lukewarm“You are neither cold nor hot. How I wish you were one or the other. Because you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

On the common reading of this passage, the author of Revelation prefers the “hot” who are zealous for God, and even the “cold” who are openly against God, over against the “lukewarm” who serve God out of half-hearted convictions.

It’s worth mentioning that this may not be what the author of Revelation meant to say. His nasty remark was addressed to the church of Laodicea, and it may have been intended to evoke the hot medicinal springs of Hierapolis, and the cold refreshing waters of Colossae. Laodicea’s aqueducts channeled both from afar in a lukewarm ooze. The passage could have been saying that the Laodicean Christians were neither therapeutic nor energizing — that they were neither like hot water in a soothing bath, nor like cold water in a refreshing drink; they were entirely useless. On this reading, it’s not that they lacked zeal in particular; they simply didn’t have a spiritual focus at all, especially being rich materialists (Rev 3:17-18). Craig Keener paraphrases the passage as saying, “I want water that will either heal me or refresh me, but you remind me instead of the water you always complain about in your city. You make me want to puke.”

But frankly the common reading — that the Lord prefers a (hot) zealous Christian or a (cold) godless heathen over against a (lukewarm) mainstream Christian — seems to me to be just as plausible. The other six churches addressed in Rev 2-3 faced opposition and/or persecution that calls forth zealotry, and it’s not unreasonable to suppose the Laodiceans faced the same problem even though it’s not explicitly mentioned. In any case, the idea that God hates mediocre believers even more than he hates infidels is often the litmus test of devotion among religious hard-liners, and for better or worse, Revelation has become the basis for this harsh view of moderates.

More moderation

I deliberately chose examples of people and writers who command different levels of respect according to one’s values, and the point is a common drive in our humanity. It’s easy for extremists and crusaders (even noble ones like King) to treat the real enemy like a sideshow while faulting those closer to home. The Chomskys of the world may hate the right-wing, and the Andersons the left, but the brunt of their ire falls on their moderate cousins who are in most cases more enlightened.

Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump

assholes.jpgAaron James has written about assholes, people who regard themselves as above the rules and all-special. “If one is special on one’s birthday, the asshole’s birthday comes every day.” The asshole has three critical traits according to James. He — “he” because most assholes are men — (1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically, (2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement, and (3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.

In his new book, James explores why Trump, universally recognized as an asshole, is so likable and destabilizing:

“To sum up my answer: he keeps us guessing, by flashing between different asshole types, boorish one moment, self-aggrandizing the next, then bullshitting, all while managing to be very entertaining. In today’s politics, a showman can capture media attention and coffee shop chatting, along with the political agenda. And Trump is a stunning, even likable showman. His display of the asshole arts — as schoolyard bully, or cutdown boxer — is unrivaled, and its own spectacle. The question is then why enough of us are not flatly revolted. My answer is that we — most of us — really like an ass-clown. We are drawn to him even in revulsion, and his supporters forgive or overlook his transgressions. Our pleasure in the spectacle, and our confusion about his type, leave us unsettled in our feelings and him free to do pretty much as he likes.” (pp 53-54)

How else to account for the love of Trump who flouts the values of the party he supposedly represents? It’s often said that Trump’s success owes to being an outsider who speaks against the failure of the two-party system, but the problem with that answer is that he would worsen the elements of that failure rather than reform it. James discusses the various political theories of republicanism (worker republicanism, corporation republicanism, left and right-leaning republicanisms, etc.), and summarizes the common denominators of “general republicanism” (see pp 119-20). They include tenets like (1) citizens are to be ruled by laws and not men or women; (2) state power is held in trust on people’s behalf; (3) officials are accountable to citizens, and their decisions must be justified in an open forum with free press, free speech, and free association; and (4) official speech is to appeal to common reason and not our passions. “Trump’s inflammatory and contemptuous speeches violate these principles. They sin, if you will, against a republican community of equals.”

If Trump is intent on torpedoing the values of a constituency who persist in voting for him anyway, this may be part of the answer: people actually like assholes, particularly in roles of leadership, and as long as we don’t have to deal with the asshole personally or directly. I suspect that populist demagogues speak to our inner asshole — the part of us which is gratified by egotistic privilege, disdains accountability, and wants to trample on the feelings and opinions of others.

The 12 (or 24) Things that Freud Got Right

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Austrian psychologist. Freud theorized that mental illness could have psychological as well as physiological causes. He believed that the mind contains conscious and unconscious levels. bad memories are repressed and stored uncoBut who’s counting?

On Facebook, David Livingstone Smith offers a list of 12 things that Freud got right:

1. The mind can fruitfully be modeled as a connectionist system.
2. The back-propagation of error (Paul Werbos explicitly derived this algorithm from Freud’s 1895 “Project for a scientific psychology”).
3. Mental processes are physical processes.
4. Introspection does not provide access to the causal structure of mind.
5. Causal-role functionalism is a good way to understand how the brain instantiates mental states.
6. All human beings are “polymorphously perverse”
7. All mental processes are unconscious in themselves.
8. Religion is a response to human helplessness.
9. Speculative metaphysics is a “disease of thought”.
10. Illusions can be either true or false.
11. We are not acquainted with our own cognitive processes.
12. Free association is the best way to learn about oneself.

David is mirroring a Huffpost Science article from last year, which ran its own list of dozen plusses for Freud. They should give us pause before dismissing Freud too lightly. I always say that if Freud had been alive in the ’90s, he would have been an impressive figure. He was scientifically driven in his day, but didn’t have the right interdisciplinary tools (genetics, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, etc., and the result was a lot of pseudo-science. But there are still nuggets to salvage. We may not like to hear that we’re strongly motivated by sex and other “dark impulses” — especially given the outlandish way Freud explained the matter — but the proof of the general truth isn’t hard to see. And how many of us are open to the idea that free association (David’s last point) is the best way we can learn about ourselves, or even that introspection (his fourth) is so overrated? Food for thought.


Mass Shootings and their Alleged Causes

jacksonWords of wisdom on the right, from Samuel Jackson. But what has caused the increased “devaluing of life” in America?

Weeks ago a Facebook acquaintance, Bob Kruger, took a stab at this question, isolating five causes of mass shootings. I think he’s right about the first three, less so about the other two. I include a sixth since it’s often invoked by those on the political right.

Relevant factors

1. Wealth disparity/ubiquitous media. Kruger argues that young men who see themselves at a permanent disadvantage become dangerously antisocial. He’s right that this is a cross-cultural phenomenon; men as a rule are highly attuned to their social status as it impacts their economic and sexual prospects. In the context of current American climate — i.e. the increasing divide between the 1% and everyone else — the combination of wealth disparity and ubiquitous media exaggerates everyone else’s achievement (financial, sexual, or otherwise) and this is hugely provocative to unstable young men. If I had to isolate a #1 cause, it would probably be this one.

2. Social media. Kruger points out that online interactions allow people to find easy reinforcement for their antisocial concepts, to narrow their exposure to news and articles, movies and games, and to communicate with like-minded people. Browsing habits keep people immersed in alternate realities that can be at hazardous odds with a broader consensus reality. This is true.

3. News media. Adding to this, says Kruger, is the diligence of the American news media, which goes out of its way to make celebrities out of mass shooters. Each incident is widely broadcast in the internet age, and becomes a ready inspiration for the next shooting. To this I would add that many shooters were bullied at some point, and in their minds failed to get the attention they deserved. By their murderous martyrdom, mass shooters finally get the attention and fame they were denied in life.

Not-so-relevant factors

4. Easy access to guns. Leftists tend to think this is the absolute root of the problem, but that’s an overreaction to the right-wing. I do agree that we need tighter gun control laws — certainly assault weapons should be banned — but such measures wouldn’t make a dent in mass shootings. The vast majority of mass killers use firearms that wouldn’t be restricted by an assault-weapons ban, and listing people against any kind of weapon is usually futile anyway. Mass killers plan months ahead and find illegal ways of obtaining what they want, just as drug buyers do. Nor would improved background checks help, since most mass murderers don’t have criminal records or any history of psychiatric hospitalization.

5. Deficient mental-health services. Leftists also insist that better mental health care would cut down on mass shootings. With Kruger I agree that Ronald Reagan set America on the wrong path by undercutting funding for subsidized living and outpatient counseling/medication. We should indeed improve mental-health services, for the general betterment of our society. But as with gun control, I doubt this progressive move would have significant impact on mass shootings. These killers externalize blame, see themselves as victims of mistreatment; the problem always lies with others and never themselves, and they would resist any encouragements of seeking help.

6. Antidepressants. Right-wingers (especially NRA affiliates) have blamed mass shootings on antidepressant drugs like Prozac, Zoloft, Ritalin, and Paxil. While it’s true that many mass shooters use these drugs, it begs the question as to whether or not their behavior was the product of the drugs, or a condition for which the drugs were prescribed to begin with.

Plain sanity and human decency demand better gun laws and mental health care. But neither of those are leading causes for mass shootings — they are certainly not the “smoking guns”, to make the obvious pun. Improved legislature would go a long way to curbing other gun abuses (like domestic violence), but not the staged slaughter variety. The dispiriting reality is that American culture has deteriorated in ways that require redress in ways that are more complex, and in that sense I think Bob Kruger is entirely right.

And as an afterthought… it’s astonishing to see people jumping on the anti-gun bandwagon in the aftermath of yesterday’s shooting in San Bernardino. First of all, this was an obvious Islamic jihad-related attack from the get. Coordinated efforts by multiple attackers make this a sure bet almost all the time. The main shooter went back and got his partner, and they suited up in camouflage jackets, ammunition belts and assault rifles. They apparently planted IEDs when they left the facility. They had a getaway plan. The main shooter was soon revealed to be Syed Rizwan Farook, a devout Muslim and had been hanging out for weeks with a group of other men from the Middle East, working late into the night in a garage. (Pipe bombs have since been found in the garage.) To see people harping on “gun laws” in the wake of this kind of attack shows how blinkered our perspective is.

Quote of the Year: “Anger makes no sense”

harrisssSam Harris deals with a lot of public hate and misrepresentations of his views. It’s amazing how he always keeps his cool in these situations, and I’m sure a lot of it has to do with years of Buddhist-like meditation. Science shows how disciplined mindfulness leads to increased compassion and non-judgmental behavior. But in yesterday’s Huffington Post interview, Harris explains how his view of free will (there is none) assist him on a more philosophical level.

“Seeing through the illusion of free will can also change my emotional reaction to unpleasant people, directly in the moment. As you know, I’m constantly confronted by people who maliciously misrepresent my work or who attack me on spurious points, purely for the purpose of defamation. My first reaction is often to treat them as the real authors of their actions, and to react with anger. But when I can step back and actually reflect on the causes of their actions, my attitude shifts. I suddenly feel like I’m in the presence of a wild animal or a malfunctioning robot. I still have to respond to lies and bad behavior, but anger no longer makes much sense. There’s no longer a place to lay emotional blame. It would be like blaming a hurricane for its bad behavior.

“People are walking around with the sense that if they could rewind the movie of their lives, they could behave differently. But if you could return the universe to the exact state it was yesterday, you would do the same things, speak the same words, and think the same thoughts – and so would your enemies, for precisely the same reasons. Realizing this can keep you from taking everything so personally. If you found yourself in the presence of a grizzly bear, you would fear it, of course, and you might even kill it if there were nothing else you could do to protect yourself, but you wouldn’t hate it in the way you might hate a bad person. That extra level of entanglement – hatred – is born of a philosophical error.”

I’ll remember this the next time I’m dealing with hostile conversation partners. They’re just malfunctioning robots.

Full interview here:

Sam Harris is not Religious, but He’s Spiritual