Some more thoughts about the 2016 US presidential candidates

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker: Mega-billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch seem to have settled on Mr Walker as their preferred candidate, and most of the other super-rich guys who finance the Republican Party seem satisfied with their choice.  Some eccentric billionaires might choose to boost other candidates, and there are candidates who might be able to keep their names on ballots throughout the process without big money backing, but the way the US process works, the Kochs (pronounced “Cokes,” as in what may as well be Mr Walker’s personal anthem, “I’d like to sell the Kochs the world, to do with as they please/ I’d like to sell the Kochs the world, and make the workers scream…”)

Former Florida Governor John Ellis “Jeb” Bush: Entered the race as the presumed front-runner, has struggled to stay in the top tier.  Perhaps he ran for president of the wrong country.

New York real estate heir-turned-reality TV star Donald Trump: Has attracted a large following among Republicans while espousing ideas that do not fit with the anti-tax, ultra-free trade orthodoxy of the party’s Washington-based policy elite.  I grant that his ideas are not good ones, but the interesting thing he has demonstrated is that there is a market among Republicans for ideas that Grover Norquist wouldn’t like.  Perhaps the next cycle will feature a Republican candidate or two who has ideas that are both unorthodox and good.

Democrats:

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: 99% chance of being the Democratic presidential nominee.  If something unforeseen happens to her while the filing deadlines for the primaries are still open, or after she has accumulated a majority of delegates, then Vice President Joseph Biden will likely enter the race and the party’s moneymen will transfer their loyalty to him.  So Mr Biden has a 0.9% of being nominated.  If both Ms Clinton and Mr Biden become unavailable for some reason, then the establishment will find some other stooge to put in that place; former Vice President Albert Gore has been mentioned in that connection, but it could be any of a number of people.  So I’d give “Some Other Stooge” a 0.09% chance.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley: If, due to some freak occurrence, Hillary Clinton becomes unavailable after the filing deadlines have closed and before a majority of delegates have been selected, then an already announced candidate would likely win the nomination.  Mr O’Malley’s campaign seemed at first to be premised on this remote possibility, that he might be the person to step in should such a thing happen.  He carries some pretty heavy baggage, though, and it’s hard to imagine that the party would rally around so obviously flawed a candidate in the turmoil that would follow Ms Clinton’s sudden implosion at so inopportune a moment.  Therefore, I wouldn’t assign a very large fraction of the 0.01% chance that the party will nominate someone other than Ms Clinton, Mr Biden, or Some Other Stooge to him.  Perhaps 0.001% might be a fair estimate of his likelihood of being nominated.

Vermont Senator Bernard Sanders: A vote for Mr Sanders is a vote for the Democratic Party to move to the left on economic issues, and so I plan to cast my ballot for him.  Were he a viable candidate for the nomination, however, it would be necessary to oppose him vigorously.  I’d say that the biggest problem with US policy in Southwest Asia and Northeast Africa is that we are too supportive of Saudi Arabia’s various projects, as the biggest problem with our policy in Europe and Northwest Asia is that we are too supportive of Germany’s ambitions.  In each case, the tail has wagged the dog so strongly that the US has waged multiple wars that do not promote any identifiable national interest of this country.  Mr Sanders not only does not see it this way, but actually calls for the USA to show even greater deference than it already does to Saudi Arabia.  Be that as it may, Democratic voters are if anything less likely to turn to Mr Sanders as a safe harbor in the event of a Clinton collapse than they are to turn to Mr O’Malley.  The “socialist” label he has from time to time embraced will likely scare many of them off, his ludicrously feeble response when two or three people from Outside Agitators 206 confronted him a couple of weeks ago left him looking like Abraham Beame, and any aggressiveness he might muster in an attempt to breathe life back into his flagging campaign would also alienate the Clintonite voters who would become available in that event.  So 0.001% is a generous estimate of his chance of winning the nomination.

Former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee: As a bland moderate who is attracting no support the polls can measure, Mr Chafee will probably not have made a negative impression on anyone by the time the voting starts.  Therefore, if he can file delegates, he will be in the best position to become the substitute candidate should something happen to knock Hillary Clinton out of the race between the end of December and the beginning of April.  Perhaps his chance of winning the nomination should be rated as high as 0.005%

Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb: I’ve left 0.003% unaccounted for.  I wouldn’t give more than about a 0.0001% chance to Mr Webb.  I like him a lot, but he isn’t the sort of fellow today’s Democratic Party would find at all appealing.  The other 0.0029% is a reserve in case something entirely unforeseen happens, like a deadlocked convention or a genuine insurgency on behalf of a non-establishment candidate or an asteroid striking the earth and canceling the election, something that is theoretically possible and should be given some kind of numerical value, though it can be disregarded for all practical purposes.

We used to dream of having a hundred sheep

The good shepherd

The other day, Mrs Acilius and I went to see the feature film Shaun the Sheep.  A story about a flock of sheep who rebel against their shepherd and then struggle to be reunited with him sounds rather like a pastiche of Jesus’ parables, so I remembered something about those parables that I’d been meaning to post for some time.

Amy-Jill Levine, author of last year’s Short Stories by Jesus, remarks that the characters in Jesus’ parables are usually pretty rich. Very few people would have a flock of a hundred sheep, for example.  I don’t think this is very hard to explain.  Most people do fantasize from time about being rich. These fantasies give a speaker many reasons to populate stories s/he wants his or her audience to remember with rich characters.  Among those reasons are these four:

  1. Fantasies of wealth draw people to collect information about the rich and to identify with them.  Therefore, details about the lives of the rich are likelier to be familiar to a large and diverse audience than are details about any other subset of the population.

    If Jesus were telling parables that took place among workers in the building trades, for example, members of his immediate family might have been able to follow what he was talking about, but people who made their living in other walks of life would probably have lost the thread somewhere along the way.

  2. Fantasies of wealth bring some measure of cheer to people who entertain them.  They bring other feelings too, of course, and are often cause and symptom of serious problems, but people get hooked on them the way they get hooked on everything else, by pleasure in the first few experiences.

    We can see something similar in, for example, the way debates about pacifism tend to go.  Godwin’s Law states that every Internet discussion that goes on long enough involves a reference to Hitler; discussions of pacifism, whether conducted online or face-to-face, needn’t go on more than about 10 seconds, usually, before someone asks “What do you do if you’re confronted with Hitler?”  Well, if you’re an average person, you hope he doesn’t notice you, since there’s bugger all you can do if the absolute dictator of your country decides you are his enemy.  But the “you” in that question is not the average individual under Hitler’s rule.  Rather, it is some hypothetical person who rules an empire capable of opposing the Third Reich effectively by military means.  Of course this is the example opponents of pacifism always choose; examples drawn from situations in which an average person might actually have a strong reason to consider the use of violence, such as bullying, street crime, domestic violence, etc, are not only complex, but are also immensely depressing.  Imagining oneself to be the hugely popular prime minister of France in the early 1930s, or the unchallenged dictator of Britain in the mid-1930s, or the god-emperor of the USA in the late 1930s, is quite pleasant enough to offset any discomfort that arises from thinking about the Nazis for a couple of minutes.

  3. Fantasies are abstract enough that they can be narrowed in application to a single point.

    If the first audience that heard the parable of the lost sheep were a convention of extremely prosperous sheepmen, then the line “If a man owns a hundred sheep and one of them wanders off, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one who wandered off”? might have led to an intricate discussion about the practicalities of flock management.  If, on the other hand, no one in the audience has done more than wish s/he had a hundred sheep and tried to imagine what it would be like to have so large a flock, then the speaker could be confident that the audience would bypass such irrelevant matters and take the main point.

  4. Fantasies, no matter how many people share them, always take shape in the intimate confines of the private mind.  So when first one hears a fantasy of one’s own described in public by someone else, the thought might occur, “That person is reading my mind!”  Even if, upon reflection, one realizes that one’s fantasies are probably quite commonplace, indeed that the intimate confines of one’s private mind are probably pretty much indistinguishable from the intimate confines of everyone else’s minds, that reaction often lasts long enough that one is left with a feeling that one has been understood.

    That’s one of the reasons why science fiction is so popular.  No matter how many people might fantasize about flying among the stars, meeting aliens, traveling through time, etc, the first time one sees such a fantasy in a book or film or other product created by someone else, there is a shock of recognition, a feeling that the creators of that work have heard and shared one’s own secret thoughts.  So of course a preacher who knows his or her business will try to create that same shock of recognition as a step towards encouraging his or her audience to feel that s/he has an intimate connection with them.

The road to Walker vs Clinton

Since I did such a great job predicting the outcome of this year’s UK general election, getting it only 100% wrong, I don’t see how I can justify withholding my insights on next year’s US presidential election from the public.

Democratic candidates:

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: 99% favorite for the nomination.  The other 1% is reserved in case she gets sick, is caught in a real scandal, or has a religious awakening and drops out of the race to devote herself to Hare Krishna or whatever.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders: A vote for Mr Sanders is a signal to the Democratic Party that there is a room to the left of the positions they’ve been taking lately, and so I hope he gets a lot of them.  But I’m pessimistic.  For one thing, that disrupted rally in Seattle last week made him look like the teacher who can’t control the class, the worst possible optic for a presidential candidate.  That’s going to stick with him.  Added to his other limits, it makes me doubt whether he’ll still be the clear second-place Democrat come January.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley: The rationale for his campaign was “In case something happens to Hillary,” and his promise was going to be to do for the USA as president what he did for Baltimore as mayor.  But then Freddie Gray happened, and the country realized what he did for Baltimore.  And when he was targeted for disruption, he was humiliated even more thoroughly than Mr Sanders.  Honestly, it’s just embarrassing having him around at this point.

Former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chaffee: Not exactly an electoral powerhouse, but at this point the likeliest to step up in case something happens to Ms Clinton.

Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb: I love the guy, but he has no chance.  A former Reagan administration Navy secretary whose c.v. includes authorship of an article titled “Women Can’t Fight” has zero chance in as Democratic primary where the frontrunner is a woman.

Republican candidates:

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker: likeliest nominee; if I were laying odds, I’d give him a 90% chance of emerging as the Republican standard-bearer next fall.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio: running for president rather than betting his career on an uphill reelection bid, as then-North Carolina Senator John Edwards did in the 2004 cycle.  The old stereotype is that Democrats get in trouble about sex and Republicans get in trouble with money; as Mr Edwards’ career was ultimately destroyed by his sexual indiscretions, Mr Rubio’s history of personal financial troubles may well prove his undoing.  But in the meantime, he may well catch the same kind of wave that made Mr Edwards a major player in the 2004 Democratic race.  And if something goes wrong with Mr Walker’s campaign, he may well be the one who will step into his place.  So a 5% chance of winning the nomination.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul: Son of former Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who had some horrible ideas and some pretty good ones.  Dr Paul isn’t his father, though- he has most of the horrible ideas, but none of the good ones.  If he finds an issue that Republican voters care about, and Mr Walker and Mr Rubio both implode, he may well get a second look from voters, but that’s a pretty unlikely set of events. A 2% chance of winning.

Ohio Governor John Kasich: On paper, the logical front-runner.  A former chairman of the Budget Committee in the US House of Representatives, Mr Kasich was last year reelected governor of Ohio by almost a 2-1 margin.  Ohio is a swing state that has gone for the Democrats in each of the last two elections, but no Republican has ever been elected president without Ohio and none is likely to be any time soon.  Despite his popularity in Ohio, Mr Kasich is not universally beloved, and he was late to start putting his presidential campaign together.  His support may rise above the 1% of voters who have been telling pollsters he is their first choice, he may even mount the kind of insurgency that gave John McCain the second place in the 2000 Republican race and therefore the favorite for their 2008 nomination.  Maybe a 1% chance of pulling out the nomination if there is a series of surprises.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie: A loudmouth jerk who gained a national following among fans of loudmouth jerkdom by publicly berating some public school teacher.  But people who are looking for a loudmouth jerk have Mr Trump, who greatly outclasses Mr Christie in that calling.  Like Mr Kasich, may have a 1% chance if there is a series of surprises, but some of those surprises would have to be pretty big.

All of the rest put together have about a 1% chance of qualifying for the general election ballot, but I do have opinions about them:

New York real estate heir-turned-reality TV star Donald Trump: May well continue leading the polls throughout the silly season of the 2015, but will probably vanish without a trace by the time the voting starts.  His appeal is based on a mixture of entertainment value and name recognition.  His current levels of support are probably very close to the total number of Republicans willing to back him for the nomination, a number which might make him a giant in a seventeen candidate field but which will shrink him severely once the caucuses and primaries concentrate voters behind Mr Walker and perhaps Mr Rubio.  Besides, if Mr Trump does well, New York real estate heir-turned-reality TV star Robert Durst might think he has a mandate to run.  At least Mr Durst could promise to save money from the defense budget by discontinuing drone strikes and carrying out targeted killings personally.

Former Florida Governor John Ellis Bush: Probably has a lower ceiling of support than does Mr Trump.  The fact that Mr Rubio, a fellow Floridian who began as Mr Bush’s protege, has raised millions of dollars for his campaign shows that many of his longtime financial backers are signaling their reluctance to back a campaign to create a third President Bush.  And despite nearly universal name recognition, Mr Bush has yet to break 20% support in any poll.  Unless something changes dramatically, the J. E. Bush presidential campaign will probably be remembered as a vanity project and an embarrassment to the Bush dynasty.

Neurosurgeon Ben Carson: Tremendous success raising money from small donors, but a sleepy TV demeanor that raises the question of how he could stay awake long enough to perform a brain operation.  Dr Carson won’t win the nomination, and unless he perks up while he’s on the air he won’t get a deal from talk radio or cable TV.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz: The story about him as a Harvard Law student trying to organize a study group consisting only of students with undergraduate degrees from “major Ivies”* always reminds me of this guy.  But Mr Cruz is very very smart, well-connected, and he does know how to appeal to Republican base voters.  He may very well make an impact.  Still, he is no likelier than Dr Carson to be nominated.

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee: Could have been nominated if he had followed up his strong 2008 run with a campaign in 2012.  This time, though, he’s running, not as last time’s runner-up, but as the author of a book called God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy.  In other words, he isn’t running for president, he’s trying to land a showbiz gig as a cartoon hillbilly.  

Former tech executive Carly Fiorina: I read The Economist when Ms Fiorina was boss of Hewlett-Packard.  David Packard, one of the heirs of the founders, is a Classics PhD who uses his inheritance to underwrite the field.  As a classicist myself, I followed the news about that company with attention.  If she does for the USA what she did for Hewlett-Packard, Ms Fiorina will earn the eternal gratitude of al-Qaeda.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum: Mr Santorum has a flair for logic exercises and an interest in people who work with their hands, but he also has a brittle, dry personality that explains why he lost his Senate seat in a landslide a decade ago and hasn’t been a serious contender for public office since.

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry: When one of the felony charges pending against him were dismissed earlier this year, Mr Perry should have celebrated that as the making of a good year.  Instead he chose to wage a presidential campaign that is already in a state of collapse.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham: Relentlessly hawkish foreign policy stance might have sold with Republican voters as recently as 2008, but not likely to attract much support this time around.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal: Unpopular in his home state and unknown outside it.

Former New York Governor George Pataki: Waited much too long to run- might have had an outside chance twenty years ago.  Could still have a good run somewhere along the line if relatively moderate voters start showing up in Republican primaries, but no way the base will rally around him.

Former Virginia Governor James Gilmore: Forgotten even in his home state.

*”Major Ivies” is a term people who went to Princeton use to bracket Princeton with Harvard and Yale; people who went to the other five Ivy League schools do not recognize this distinction, and people who went to Harvard and Yale don’t, either.

Does the Shroud of Turin disprove the Gospels?

More than meets the eye?

In April, I noticed a post on Rod Dreher‘s blog about the Shroud of Turin.  Mr Dreher had been impressed by a book, Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery: Six Holy Objects That Tell the Remarkable Story of the Gospels, by David Gibson and Michael McKinley, a companion volume to the CNN series of the same awkwardly punctuated name.  The other day, I saw that the Reverend Mr Dwight Longenecker, a former Anglican priest turned Roman Catholic, had also posted about the shroud, quoting at length from an article at National Geographic in which the shroud’s puzzling nature is explored.

I will take the liberty of reproducing the bits in which Messrs. Dreher and Longenecker quote the scientific results which they find most exciting.  From Mr Dreher:

The one artifact in the book that really cannot be explained satisfactorily is the Shroud of Turin. Watch a CNN clip about it here. Gibson and McKinley write that the 1988 radiocarbon tests that demonstrated the Shroud was a medieval fake turned out to have been made not from the original shroud, but by an edge that had been patched onto the shroud in the 14th century. “Subsequent experiments cast further doubts on a medieval origin for the burial cloth,” they write.

Then, in recent years, the pace of revelations picked up. In 2011, scientists at Italy’s National Agency for New Technologies, Energy, and Sustainable Economic Development found that the markings on the shroud could have been created only by a “blinding flash of light.” Other, new experiments detected the ancient version of a “death certificate” on the shroud, while a recent study showed that the blood patterns on this “Man of Sorrows” indicated he was crucified on a Y-shaped cross — not the traditional T-shaped one that is the central icon of Christian art, and so central to Western civilization.

The authors say that “of all the Jesus relics in existence, [the shroud] is the best documented.” We know that the existence of a shroud-like burial cloth for Jesus is written about in the Gospels, having been purchased by Joseph of Arimathea. Jewish burial practices of the day are consistent with the image of the man on the shroud. Shroud debunkers allege that it was not mentioned in writings until the Middle Ages, but that is not true. St. Jerome writes about it in the fourth century. There is other historical evidence that Christians in the early church were aware of the shroud, and written accounts of it being displayed in the Christian East. Evidence strongly suggests turned up in medieval France as Crusader loot after Western Christian armies sacked Constantinople. In 1207, the authors write, a Catholic translator for the newly seated Latin patriarch of Athens wrote about how French knights robbed “the treasury of the Great Palace, where the holy objects had been kept,” and how he personally saw, with his own eyes, the burial linens of Jesus.

Scientifically, the tests on the shroud have produced remarkable results. Detailed analysis of the image showed that there is a three-dimensional quality to it, not observable to the naked eye, and that could not have been produced by painting. The stains on the shroud come not from paint, but human blood, and their patterning indicate that the man of the shroud suffered a savage flogging consistent with what the Gospels say Jesus endured before crucifixion.

The shroud depicts a crucifixion victim nailed to the cross through his wrists — this, even though Christian art shows Jesus nailed through his hands. We now know that the crucified had to have been nailed through their wrists, because nailing them through their hands would have been insufficient to support the weight of the body on the cross.

Scientists have found pollen on the shroud that can only have come from plants around Jerusalem — plants in bloom in the spring, in the season of Passover, when Jesus died. Particles from limestone tombs found in the Jerusalem area were discovered embedded in the shroud. More recently, detailed medical analysis confirms that the man of the shroud suffered precisely what the Gospels say Jesus suffered.

And then there is the matter of the Sudarium of Oviedo. I knew that the Sudarium existed, but I did not know until reading Finding Jesus that it had been used to validate claims for the Turin shroud as the burial cloth of the Nazarene.

From Mr Longenecker:

After my visit I am more convinced than ever not only that the Shroud of Turin is the burial cloth of Christ, but that the mysterious image was produced by a blast of radiance from the resurrection. Those who wish to research the shroud can find scholarly and popular articles here and here. The most interesting thing about the shroud is the more scientific research is done the more the claims to authenticity accumulate. Not only is the image on the shroud that of a crucified man, but a particular crucified man.

He wore a crown of thorns. His legs were not broken. His face was punched. His side was pierced in a way consistent with a Roman spear. His back shows the marks of a severe flogging consistent with the flagellum used by the Romans. In other words, all the wounds match those not just of any crucified man, but those unique to Jesus of Nazareth.

Other details match in an extraordinary way. Fabric experts acknowledge that the particular linen cloth matches that used in the first century by wealthy individuals. The chemical traces on the cloth match the herbs and spices that were known to be used for Jewish burials in Roman times. Pollen from the shroud matches that present in Jerusalem in the first century. New scientific dating techniques counter the 1988 carbon 14 dating which identified a medieval date and they date the shroud to the first century.

Most mysterious is the image itself. In 1978 a team of American researchers were finally given access to the shroud. They ran a whole series of tests covering the range of scientific disciplines. Their analyses found no sign of artificial pigments and they concluded, “The Shroud image is that of a real human form of a scourged, crucified man. It is not the product of an artist.” What formed the image? The scientists were stumped and admitted that “no combination of physical, chemical, biological or medical circumstances” could adequately account for the image.

Di Lazzaro and his colleagues at Italy’s National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA) experimented for five years, using modern excimer lasers to train short bursts of ultraviolet light on raw linen, in an effort to simulate the image’s coloration.So what formed the image? The best description is that it is an extremely delicate singe marking. Italian physicist Paolo Di Lazzaro concedes in an article for National Geographic that every scientific attempt to replicate it in a lab has failed. “Its precise hue is highly unusual, and the color’s penetration into the fabric is extremely thin, less than 0.7 micrometers (0.000028 inches), one-thirtieth the diameter of an individual fiber in a single 200-fiber linen thread.”

They came tantalizingly close to replicating the image’s distinctive color on a few square centimeters of fabric. However, they were unable to match all the physical and chemical characteristics of the shroud image, and reproducing a whole human figure was far beyond them. De Lazzaro explained that the ultraviolet light necessary to reproduce the image of the crucified man “exceeds the maximum power released by all ultraviolet light sources available today.” The time for such a burst would be shorter than one forty-billionth of a second, and the intensity of the ultra violet light would have to be around several billion watts.”

The scientists shrug and say the only explanation lies beyond the realm of twenty-first century technoscience. In other words, the extraordinary burst of ultra violet light is not only beyond the ability and technology of a medieval forger. It is beyond the ability and technology of the best twenty-first century scientists.

What could explain all of this?  If no known technological process could have produced the image on the shroud, and the only unknown technological processes that could have produced it would be the result either of the greatest design fluke in history or of contact with visitors from outer space, perhaps we should discard the forgery hypothesis and turn next to a search for a natural process that could have produced the image.  There may in fact be such a process.  Lightning is an extremely energetic and poorly understood phenomenon; it was only in 2009 that it was discovered that lightning often produces significant amounts of antimatter in the upper atmosphere.  No one had expected to find this, and no one can explain it.  Bursts of ultraviolet radiation are a lot less exotic than appearances of antimatter, and so would be significantly less surprising as phenomena associated with lightning.

So, perhaps at some point in the middle decades of the first century CE in or near the city of Jerusalem the body of a man who had been scourged, jabbed in the side with a spear, mounted on a cross, fastened to that cross with nails through his wrists and feet, and subjected to a group of small puncture wounds on the forehead was wrapped in the shroud that has been on display in Turin for the last several centuries.  Before that man’s body was buried or entombed, it was struck by lightning, producing a burst of ultraviolet rays that created the image on the shroud.  This event, occurring in an urban area and centering on the body of a man whose gruesome death a crowd would have witnessed at most a few hours before, would certainly have been very much discussed.  One must suppose that people would try to find religious significance in it, and that in the course of those discussions many people would claim, whether truthfully or not, to have been associated with the man during his lifetime.

Perhaps the whole story of Jesus, as it has come down to us, grew from the reactions to this event.  Or perhaps the story of Jesus as we have it represents the conflation of several stories.  It is difficult to imagine that the man whose image is preserved in the shroud is not the man whose crucifixion is described in the Gospels, but not so difficult to imagine that stories about another man, who was also crucified in Jerusalem around the same time and who was well-known locally before his crucifixion as the leader of a new religious movement, would be combined with the story of the man whose crucifixion was followed by the spectacular event of a lightning bolt and the transformation of his burial cloth into the object we now see in Turin.

Nowhere in the New Testament does it say that Jesus’ body was struck by lightning after it was removed from the cross.  If the image on the shroud turns out to have been created by lightning, the evidence connecting it with first-century Jerusalem, the fact that its appearance in first-century Jerusalem would certainly have caused great excitement there, and the similarity of the wounds the man had to the wounds the Gospels attribute to Jesus makes that silence a tremendous obstacle to accepting the historicity of the Gospels, I would say a far bigger obstacle than any of the gaps or discrepancies of detail that New Testament scholars have yet uncovered.

All the other problems fade pretty quickly once you start thinking of the Gospels as what they originally were, a collection of liturgical resources more akin to a hymnal than to a biographical study.  The Gospels are series of pericopes, distinct passages designed to be read aloud or recited at particular moments in worship services.  No doubt these pericopes took shape gradually in the worship services Christians conducted in the decades between Jesus’ death and the production of the first written versions of the Gospels.  It is hardly surprising that the Gospels diverge in various details and leave out many things a modern reader might like to know.  To the extent that those divergences and gaps show us anything, they show us only that there are certain things we care about that the late first century Church didn’t care about at all and that the fourth century Church didn’t care about sufficiently to do anything about them at the First Council of Nicaea (325 CE.)

However, if the body of the man whose crucifixion was described in the Gospels was struck by lightning before it could be buried or entombed, and if that lightning strike created the image we see on the Shroud of Turin, that is something we can be sure everyone in Jerusalem would have cared about and would have talked about for years. If that did happen and it isn’t recorded or even hinted at anywhere in the New Testament, we must ask whether any of the authors of the New Testament had any connection with Jesus at all, and if not whether their accounts are reliable at any point.  Surely anyone who was in Jerusalem that day, or who had talked about the events of the day with people who were there, would have known about such an extraordinary occurrence.  And surely anyone who goes to the lengths the authors of the New Testament do to stress the point that extraordinary occurrences tended to happen when Jesus was around would have been highly motivated to make note of it had a lightning strike hit his body and emblazoned his image on his shroud.  If the Gospels and the liturgies for which they were prepared grew up among people who were so remote from Jesus and his inner circle that such an event could have taken place without their knowledge, then there isn’t much left for Christians to believe.

So, for Christians, there seems to be a great deal at stake in the question of what precisely the Shroud of Turin is.  If the recent studies of it are all wrong, if the researchers have been led astray by their religious biases and it is after all a forgery from the Middle Ages, then the crisis is averted.  If the studies hold up, and if the image does prove to be the result of a lightning strike, do Christians have a way out?

Maybe they do.  I can think of two reasons why something so important might deliberately be left out of the New Testament.  First, it could be that the Church, subject as it was to persecution, did not want to attract its enemies’ attention to the existence of so precious a relic.  Second, since the shroud is a single object, it must be kept in a single location owned by a single authority.  Yet by the time of the very earliest writings in the New Testament, the Church was already composed of multiple autonomous groups bound together by goodwill and the habit of imitation rather than a unity of command-and-control structures (see 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:3,) and the Gospels explicitly state that Jesus endorsed this decentralized organizational model (Mark 9:30-39, Luke 9:46-50.)*  Whichever group had the shroud in its possession would be in a unique position to claim to be The Church, as indeed the Roman Catholic Church has for some time been pleased to do.  So, other groups would be leery of such claims, and the group that had safekeeping of the shroud would be tactless to make too much of that fact.  A document originating from a group other than the one that had custody of the shroud would therefore be unlikely to call its own authority into question by dwelling on the shroud, while a document originating from the group that did have custody of it, if the group meant to invite other, independent groups to make liturgical use of the document, would not be much likelier to dwell on it.

If the shroud is the shroud of someone else, and it is simply a fantastic coincidence that the body of another man, crucified in the same city in the same century with the same wounds as Jesus was struck by lightning and that that lightning created the image we see on the Shroud of Turin, then I believe Christians must hope that someday a scrap of paper will surface from some lost first-century document mentioning that coincidence, and saying that people marveled at the fact that in one city in one lifetime two crucified men were the center of fantastic events that took place after their deaths.  Perhaps such a hypothetical scrap would go on to say that the shroud had fallen into the hands of some gang of heretics who were using it to prop up their claim to be The Church, and that orthodox Christians, embarrassed by this gross blasphemy, tried to pass it over in silence.  Failing the appearance of such a scrap, if we should learn that the shroud was someone else’s, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the crucifixion stories in the Gospels are retellings of that man’s crucifixion, not the crucifixion of Jesus.  In that case, everything about Jesus before and after the crucifixion narratives would also fall to pieces.

Now, this idea of mine about lightning is just a hypothesis.  Subsequent examination may prove that a lightning strike could not have caused the image to appear.  Tests may also confirm the results that seem to rule out a forgery.  And our knowledge of nature may advance to the point where we can be confident that no other natural phenomenon could have produced the image.  Should that day come, we would be left to choose between, on the one hand, a miraculous explanation such as a burst of ultraviolet radiation accompanying the Resurrection, and on the other a science-fiction explanation involving either incautious visitors from outer space or mischievous time travelers from the far future.  We aren’t there yet, and devotees of the Shroud of Turin should be aware that the road that may someday lead us there may also, for all science can now tell us, lead us to the very last place they would ever want us to find ourselves.

*Matthew 7:22-23 limits the application of these verses to the ecclesiological question by excluding them from the question of salvation.  That is to say, the fact that people welcome the lowly and cast out demons in Jesus’ name shows that their acts are the acts of the Church, but it does not by itself show that those people will not ultimately be damned.

The man who has lived by truth leaves you with nothing

When Harper Lee’s manuscript Go Set a Watchman, the story to which her novel To Kill a Mockingbird was written as an extended prologue, was published early this summer, I realized that I, unlike virtually everyone else who graduated from a high school in the USA in the last three decades, had never read To Kill a Mockingbird. So I borrowed the copy my wife’s tenth grade English teacher gave her and read that before our copy of Go Set a Watchman came in the mail.

I’m glad I read them back to back.  The key passage in Go Set a Watchman is an imaginary conversation Jean Louise, a.k.a. Scout, Finch has in her head with her friends in New York after she comes home to Alabama and discovers that her adored father is the head of Maycomb County’s white supremacist Citizens’ Council:

New York.  New York?  I’ll tell you how New York is.  New York has all the answers.  People go to the YMHA, the English-Speaking Union, Carnegie Hall, the New School for Social Research, and find the answers.  The city lives by slogans, isms, and fast sure answers. New York is saying to me right now: you, Jean Louise Finch, are not reacting according to our doctrines regarding your kind, therefore you do not exist.  The best minds in the country have told us who you are.  You can’t escape it, and we don’t blame you for it, but we do ask you to conduct yourself within the rules that those who know have laid down for your behavior, and don’t try to be anything else.

She answered: please believe me, what has happened in my family is not what you think.  I can say only this- that everything I learned about human decency I learned here. I learned nothing from you except how to be suspicious.  I didn’t know what hate was until I lived among you and saw you hating every day.  They even had to pass laws to keep you from hating.  I despise your quick answers, your slogans in subways, and most of all I despise your lack of good manners: you’ll never have ’em as long as you exist.

The man who could not be discourteous to a ground-squirrel had sat in the courthouse abetting the cause of grubby-minded little men.  Many times she had seen him in the grocery store waiting his turn in line behind Negroes and God knows what.  She had seen Mr Fred raise his eyebrows at him, and her father shake his head in reply.  He was the kind of man who instinctively waited his turn; he had manners.

Look sister, we know the facts: you spent the first twenty one years of your life in lynching country, in a county whose population is two thirds agricultural Negro.  So drop the act.

You will not believe me, but I will tell you: never in my life until today did I hear the word “n****r” spoken by a member of my family. Never did I think in terms of The N*****s.  When I grew up, and I did grow up with black people, they were Calpurnia, Zeebo the garbage collector, Tom the yard man, and whatever else their names were.  There were hundreds of Negroes surrounding me, they were the hands in the fields, who chopped the cotton, who worked the roads, who sawed the lumber to make our houses.  They were poor, they were diseased and dirty, some were lazy and shiftless, but never in my life was I given the idea that I should despise one, should fear one, should be discourteous to one, or think that I could mistreat one and get away with it.  They as a people did not enter my world, not did I enter theirs: when I went hunting I did not trespass on a Negro’s land, not because it was a Negro’s, but because I was not supposed to trespass on anybody’s land.  I was taught never to take advantage of anybody who was less fortunate than myself, whether he be less fortunate in brains, wealth, or social position; it meant anybody, not just Negroes. I was given to understand that the reverse was to be despised.  That is the way I was raised, by a black woman and a white man.

You must have lived it.  If a man says to you, “This is the truth,” and you believe him, and you discover what he says is not the truth, you are disappointed and you make sure you will not be caught out by him again.

But a man who has lived by truth- and you have believed in what he has lived- he does not leave you merely wary when he fails you, he leaves you with nothing.

I think virtually the whole of To Kill a Mockingbird can be explained as an attempt to clarify this passage.  Throughout Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise’s father Atticus Finch is described as the perfect type of the Southern gentleman, truthful, courageous, gallant, modest, unfailingly courteous. Yet he does almost nothing in that book.  To Kill a Mockingbird gives these words the force of actions that match them.  And so, having read To Kill a Mockingbird, when in Go Set a Watchman Jean Louise reacts to Atticus’ addressing her as Scout with the furious thought that he had forfeited all right ever to use her childhood nickname, the reader’s heart breaks as it would not were Atticus merely the list of adjectives piled up next to his name in Go Set a Watchman.

What Jean Louise describes as “the way I was raised” by her father Atticus and their housekeeper Calpurnia sounds pretty dreary from some perspectives. Atticus lived by truth in that he, unlike other whites of his class and time, waited his turn when African Americans were in line ahead of him at the grocery.  His African American neighbors may have appreciated the courtesy, but it certainly did not cost him much, and to reward him for it by citing it as evidence of his superiority to his “grubby-minded” white neighbors sounds almost like a joke.

Moreover, that Atticus and Calpurnia raised Jean Louise to be courteous to everyone who had been placed at a disadvantage to her, including African Americans, and to cite this as evidence that the Finches were better than were the ill-bred whites who exploited their advantages and whom she was therefore taught to despise is to accept as a simple fact that is not subject to change that African Americans are and ever will be at a disadvantage to whites in regard to “brains, wealth, or social position.”

Compare the Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman who teaches Jean Louise that her obligations towards African Americans are rooted in their status as her inferiors and that she has the same obligations towards her white inferiors as she has towards her black ones with the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird saying that the lowest of all creatures is a white man who takes advantage of the ignorance of a Negro.  In both cases, Atticus is teaching that whites are to regard themselves as noble by comparison with African Americans, that nobility creates obligations, and that the most profound moral failure is a failure to meet those obligations. In both cases, Atticus conceives the great moral drama of life taking place among white men, with white women as spectators and African Americans as props.

Seeing this in the abstract, as it is presented throughout Go Set a Watchman, despite the book’s many hilarious, touching, and gorgeously crafted stories of Jean Louise’s childhood, is to remain in the position of Jean Louise’s New York friends, looking down on her as an unconscious racist.  If that were the only position the book allowed us to take, it would in fact be what some critics said To Kill a Mockingbird was, a Southern novel for people who hate the South.  Coupled with To Kill a Mockingbird, however, we can see that this attitude, the very thing that put Atticus Finch at the head of the Citizens’ Council in the mid-1950s, was what led him to defend Tom Robinson in the mid-1930s.  Indeed, the portrayal of Dolphus Raymond in To Kill a Mockingbird, and to some extent the portrayal of Atticus’ brother Dr John Hale Finch in Go Set a Watchman, suggest the man who could have emerged as an ally of the African American freedom struggle in the 1950s might not have been any more use to anyone in rural Alabama in the 1930s than was Atticus in the 1950s.  Perhaps all of us are like that, heroes or villains as circumstances call for, and the lucky ones are those who rise to the occasion when circumstances call for the heroic side of their personalities.

Many have faulted Go Set a Watchman for its obvious lack of editorial revision; one review was titled “Go Get an Editor.”  There are some parts where this lack is a serious problem.  For example, when Jean Louise goes to call on Calpurnia on the occasion of Calpurnia’s favorite grandson’s arrest on a manslaughter charge that is likely to ruin him and blight the whole family’s prospects, she is shocked to find that Calpurnia and her family are looking at her, to whom Calpurnia was virtually a mother, and not seeing her, but seeing only “white folks.”  That’s a poignant moment, and should be one of the centerpieces of the novel.  However, the conversation between Jean Louise and Calpurnia is so jaggedly narrated that it is difficult to tell who is speaking to whom, and so abruptly phrased that it all collapses into Jean Louise’s regard for herself and her own feelings, feelings that apparently lead her to forget all about  Calpurnia’s grandson and the rest of her family almost immediately upon noticing that Calpurnia isn’t particularly excited to see her.  The rest of Go Set a Watchman doesn’t have trouble assigning lines to characters and doesn’t depict Jean Louise as a bizarrely self-absorbed person, so I’m sure that a rewrite would have straightened that scene out.

The ending of Go Tell a Watchman is quite disturbing, letting Atticus and the Finches off the hook almost completely.  That’s a shame for a novel that faces up to so many of the challenges of the period, but it is no different from To Kill a Mockingbird.  At the end of that book, Atticus has had some unpleasant afternoons, but he is reelected to the state legislature without opposition, still practicing law, still living in the same house, still welcomed by the same friends.  I do wonder if people who claim that the sensibility of Go Set a Watchman is less progressive on race than is that of To Kill a Mockingbird were quite honest with themselves when they read To Kill a Mockingbird, or if to them it really was just a Southern novel for people who hate the South.

I wonder about some other things.  Around the time Harper Lee was deciding to put Go Set a Watchman in a drawer and to write a novel about the childhood of its main character, Edmund Wilson was criticizing William Faulkner’s later novels for devoting too many pages to long speeches in which wise but flawed old men defend segregation, speeches which are supposed to make an international audience understand and respect the viewpoint of the white South, but which because of their length and because nothing in the plots of the novels highlights any of the weaknesses in their reasoning seem very much to reflect the author’s own views.  The horror with which Jean Louise reacts to her discovery that Atticus is the head of the Citizens’ Council distances her and Harper Lee from Atticus’ and Dr John Hale Finch’s pro-segregation speeches, but the ending of Go Set a Watchman, together with the length of the speeches, does give it something of the same problem, and because the worst things Jean Louise learns about the Citizen’s Council are the speeches and writings it promotes, it would be quite a challenge to make Atticus and his brother understandable characters without giving them long, largely unrebutted speeches in self-defense.  So perhaps one of the reasons she set the prequel in the 1930s was that the tacit understandings of that time would make such speeches unnecessary, and another part was that the 1930s were Faulkner’s heyday, at least in terms of critical acclamation, and a Southern novel set in that period might not raise the suspicions of Edmund Wilson the way a novel with a contemporary setting would.

Amasa Coleman Lee, who was not universally regarded as a Gregory Peck lookalike

Ms Lee’s decision not to publish Go Set a Watchman after the success of To Kill a Mockingbird  is not so hard to explain.  Atticus Finch was pretty clearly based on her father, Amasa Coleman Lee.  On the set of the film version of To Kill a MockingbirdMs Lee saw actor Gregory Peck made up as Atticus Finch and was moved to tears, saying “Oh Gregory, you’ve got a little pot belly just like my Daddy.”  To which Peck, with the film star’s consciousness of his appearance, rather stiffly replied, “No Nell, it just looks that way because of my acting.”  Anyway, having introduced her father to the world as the prototype of a character so beloved that thousands of boys would be named “Atticus” in his honor, it would take quite a bit of chutzpah to turn around and publish a novel in which she made it clear that whatever her father’s virtues may have been, his vices included a racism so disgusting that at times she couldn’t bear to hear him say her name.

So, if you read either book, I recommend you read them both.  Treat To Kill a Mockingbird as an extended prologue to Go Set a Watchman, and the two books together will shatter complacencies you didn’t know you had.

The coming age of liturgy

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan writes about the difficulty of making a career as a standup comedian touring US college campuses.  The trouble seems to be that college students have internalized a corporate ethic which recoils from controversy. It makes sense; if, as we so often hear, the point of higher education is to qualify for a professional career and rise in wealth and status, then there is no place for controversy in higher education, since there are very few bosses who want to spend their time listening to complaints about their employees.

I suspect that the future, if we continue to have a world in which people are rewarded for making complaints about controversial or distasteful or offensive public remarks and penalized for being named in such complaints, will be one on which American culture becomes more liturgical.  Not necessarily at worship services, but in public life generally.  More and more, public conversations will take the form of recitation of approved formulas, with specific roles assigned to specific people to make particular versicles and particular responses.  Deviation from the prescribed pattern will be strongly discouraged.

Meanwhile, conversations in which new information can be communicated, minds can be changed, and decisions can be made will still take place, but not in public.  Decision makers will meet informally, in places to which people whom they do not know and trust do not have access, and will speak in private codes which would make little or no sense if overheard.  Of course, this system will tend to shut women and people of color out of real power, and to block social mobility generally.  So I suppose most of the people promoting the sort of thing that will lead to this would consider that a failure on their part.

There’s an irony here, in that people who call themselves “neoreactionaries” tend to inveigh passionately against what they are still pleased to call “political correctness,” though many of them have switched over to the sarcastic term “social justice warriors.”  The world NRx guys say they want to see, in which democracy is phased out, a white male elite reasserts itself, and values like transparency and accountability fade in importance seems to be precisely the endgame to which the “social justice warriors” are leading us.

Data and “Data”

Language Log posted two comic strips today, and I mentioned one of them in a comment about the other.

Here’s today’s xkcd (Language Log post):

There's no

And here’s a recent PhD Comics (Language Log post):

And my comment:

Reading the strip panel by panel, I wondered what the “deep philosophical question” would be. My guess was that the question would be about the role of etymological information in the process of deciding which of various constructions in current use would fit best in a particular context. How exactly you get from that stylistic process to a “deep philosophical question” about the nature of language in four panels and still have room for a punchline isn’t clear to me, but hey, PhD Comics is a big enough deal that I assume Jorge Cham can pull it off.

Instead we get this claim that “It depends on whether you consider data to be facts (plural) or information (which is singular.)” To which the only appropriate response is: No, it doesn’t! English speakers treat the words “scissors” and “trousers” as grammatical plurals, from which it does not at all follow that we “consider” the things they name to be in any sense multiple. It is all too similar to today’s xkcd, which you reproduce in today’s other post, except that relatively few of the people who like to say “There is no ‘I’ in team” seriously believe that they are raising a “deep philosophical question.”

I recommend all the other comments on the Language Log thread, it’s a mix of interesting observations, erudite humor, and speculation about the love life of the robot from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Rationality and patriotism

Here’s a quote from the late Bill Hicks that often shows up on social media sites:

It goes on:

I do think this rather misses the point.  Certainly it would have been absurd for Hicks to have taken credit for being an American, as it would have been absurd for him to have taken credit for being his parents’ child.  That is not at all the same thing as saying that it would have been absurd for him to have taken pride in his relationship to them and their native land.

Take for example the matter of achievements.  Children want their parents to take pride in their achievements, and parents want their children to take pride in their achievements.  But if parents took credit for their children’s achievements, or vice versa, it would be a betrayal.

Likewise with regard to one’s country.  A person who had done something extraordinary would no doubt be pleased to find that s/he had become a source of pride for his or her countrymen.  Were s/he to find that those countrymen were trying to efface his or her name and to take credit for his or her achievements for themselves, I am sure that s/he would react with dismay and anger.

Taking pride in, but not credit for, the achievements of one’s countrymen is part of patriotism, just as taking pride in, but not credit for, the achievements of one’s family members is part of devotion to family.  There are many other parts to each of these things.  Affection to other members of the group, eagerness to defend the group when it is attacked, willingness to sacrifice one’s own individual interests for the sake of the group’s collective interest, all of these belong both to family devotion and to patriotism.

Nor is this the whole story of patriotism as a virtue.  I’ve been developing an interest in Moral Foundations Theory ever since I finally got around to reading Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book The Righteous Mind a few months ago. Professor Haidt, a social psychologist with an interest in anthropology, concludes in that book that in the ethical systems of the world, people consistently show concern with a few major oppositions.  He and his associates summarize the most readily identifiable of these as Care vs Harm, Fairness vs Cheating, Liberty vs Oppression, Loyalty vs Betrayal, Authority vs Subversion, and Sanctity vs Degradation.

Professor Haidt is not a Perennialist like my hero Irving Babbitt, who held that the wisdom traditions of every culture and age could be distilled into a set of doctrines and that his personal system of ethical and aesthetic and political beliefs was identical to that set of doctrines.  Rather, he argues that these oppositions crop up in the ethical experience of people in culture after culture, and that practical morality in all of the infinite variety of forms it takes among the world’s peoples is usually an attempt to address all of these oppositions all at once.  So, people try to be caring, fair, free, loyal, orderly, and pure, all at the same time.  Professor Haidt criticizes academic philosophy for a tendency to isolate one or the other of these oppositions and focus on it to the exclusion of the rest, and more broadly criticizes the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) cultural elites for their tendency to reduce morality to Care, Fairness, and Liberty, disregarding or actively deprecating the values of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity.  Professor Haidt claims that, among other ills, this disregard leads to political polarization, as the less WEIRD members of Western societies find that they cannot trust the educated elite to attend to matters which they, like most people in the world, consider to be of great moral weight.

If we take our cue from Professor Haidt and his fellows, we might want to develop a concept of patriotism that would draw on all six of the principal moral foundations.  We would need a standard of care that imposes a special obligation to look after one’s countrymen, without denying that others may also have a claim on our kindly ministrations.

As for fairness and cheating, something of that concern enters into our distinction between taking pride in something and taking credit for it.  It would be cheating to take credit for something another person did, but would also be cheating to refuse to take pride in what that person did if they were connected to us in a way that would entitle them to hope that they would make us proud.  A citizen who refuses to take pride in a countryman who discovers a great scientific truth or creates a magnificent work of art or wins a major athletic contest or conducts herself bravely in combat is cheating that countryman, just as a parent who refuses to take pride in a child’s achievements is cheating that child.  Fairness, indeed, demands that we take pride in the great deeds of our countrymen.

Inasmuch as the opposition of Liberty vs Oppression is obviously political, in a world of nation-states efforts to cultivate Liberty as a virtue must be obviously patriotic as well.  Liberty is always liberty as expressed in a given country, by its people, within its customs, under its laws; oppression is always oppression of a given people, in violation of their customs, in contempt of the restraints that law places on the exercise of power.  So liberty is a patriotic virtue.  When Nathan Hale resisted the British in defense of the liberties of Connecticut, he saw himself as his fellow rebels saw him, as a patriot.  Whether or not Hale actually died with the words “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country” on his lips, he certainly does symbolize a conception of patriotism that is very much alive to the opposition Liberty vs Oppression.  Likewise with an organization such as Veterans for Peace, with its slogan “Peace is Patriotic.”  Their focus is consistently on the ways in which militarism and the war economy erode the freedoms for which Americans have long hoped their country would be known.

When you get to Loyalty vs Betrayal, patriotism starts to have its unpleasant associations.  There’s a very long and extremely familiar history of irresponsible ruling elites branding all opposition to themselves as betrayal of the country, and using that smear to justify oppression.  I do think that remarks like Bill Hicks’ “I hate patriotism!” and similar statements from the political Left are counterproductive in that they make it difficult for others to trust that anyone on the Left will appreciate the value of Loyalty, and that in that distrust they tend to be dissatisfied with any but the crudest conceptions of loyalty.

Authority vs Subversion strikes liberal ears with an even nastier ring than that of Loyalty vs Betrayal.  The essence of modernity is rebellion, the essence of liberalism is rebellion institutionalized as a permanent feature of civic life.  That isn’t to say that modern, liberal people can never accept authority as legitimate, but that they can find legitimacy only in authority that is the byproduct of an adversarial process, such as an election, a market competition, or court trial.  So in a modern, liberal society, we have to develop a patriotism that can be expressed through adversarial processes and notions peculiar to adversarial processes (such as “rights,” for example.)  That is to say, a modern, liberal patriot must value adversarial processes, participate in them, respect other participants, and accept the outcomes of those processes.

Sanctity vs Degradation is largely about keeping symbols intact.  That’s why Bill Hicks’ suggestion that “instead of putting stars and stripes on our flags we should put pictures of our parents fucking” in order to destroy patriotism is apt.  That would certainly degrade both the flag and the parents, pointing to a rejection of both patriotism and devotion to family.  Considered as a dimension of patriotism, then, Sanctity vs Degradation brings to mind the idea of ceremonial regard for patriotic symbols.  It also suggests that the range of things we treat as patriotic symbols should be subject to dramatic expansion.  So the conservation movement that led to the creation of US National Parks in the early twentieth century presented the country itself as a patriotic symbol, and many social welfare proposals have succeeded because the people of the country were seen as patriotic symbols.  That’s one of the reasons why the moral imagination and the religious imagination are so often so deeply intertwined, that they both reject any attempt to confine the symbolic realm to limits set by explicitly rational thought.

It’s more than you did

When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I assumed I would join the US military, probably the army.  All of us at my high school who expected that of ourselves were deeply interested in stories about US servicemen who had been taken prisoner in Vietnam.  We read and reread books about their time in captivity, followed the postwar careers of ex-POWs like Admirals Jeremiah Denton and James Stockdale, and even developed our own tap codes to communicate with each other at odd moments around school.

One day my father asked me why we were so hung up on those guys.  “They’re heroes!” I exclaimed.  “What makes them heroes?”  he asked.  “Well, they were, uh, captured, and, uh, they, well, they held up pretty well under torture, some of them.”  My father explained that when he was in the army in the 1940s, they used a working definition of “hero” that included taking enemy troops prisoner, but did not include allowing oneself to be taken prisoner.  The clip from The Simpsons embedded above (in Portuguese) reminded me of that conversation.  Speaking of Timmy O’Toole, whom they believe to be a boy trapped in a well, Homer says “That little Timmy is a real hero.”  “How do you figure?” asks Lisa.  “He fell into a well and now he… can’t get out.”  “How does that make him a hero?”  “It’s more than you did!”

Anyway, in the USA in the post-Vietnam era, conventional military heroism, of the sort that actually involves engaging the enemy and destroying him, was heavily problematized.  It was already that way in the later years of the USA’s war in Vietnam, which may explain why public statements from the Nixon administration about the criteria that a peace deal would have to satisfy focused so heavily on the status of American POWs that critics claimed that an observer whose knowledge of events in Southeast Asia came entirely from those statements would conclude that the war began when North Vietnam attacked the USA and abducted a number of American military personnel.  That focus distracted both from humanitarian objections to the manner in which the USA was waging war in Vietnam, and to broader objections to the fact that the USA was waging war in Vietnam.  By turning attention to the evidence that the North Vietnamese were mistreating American POWs, the administration stirred Americans’ sympathy for their imprisoned countrymen, a sympathy which had the effect, for many Americans, of pushing aside the concern that objectors to the war had expressed for the sufferings that US actions were inflicting on the Vietnamese people.

The idea that the USA was fighting in Vietnam to rescue the Americans who had been taken prisoner in Vietnam while the USA was fighting in Vietnam, unintelligible though it may seem now, was still pretty strong in the popular culture of the 1980s.  So in those years Hollywood released a whole slew of hit movies about fictional missions to extract American POWs from Vietnam, movies with titles like Rambo: First Blood Part Two and  Missing in Action.  Those particular movies traded on the idea that the Hanoi regime so intensely craved the presence of American POWs that it kept a bunch of them around after the war was over.  This may be another idea that is unintelligible to people who did not spend the years from 1970 to 1990 in the USA, but I assure you it was everywhere in this country in those years.  The “MIA flag,” symbolizing this belief, is still prominently displayed in many parts of the USA.

This is an actual picture of the MIA flag over the White House taken in September of 2011

All of this is to explain that Americans in general tend to have strong feelings about those of their countrymen who were held as prisoners of war in Vietnam, and that these feelings are precisely contrary to those which would be prescribed by the usual code of warriors throughout the ages, who have regarded it as their duty to fight to the death rather than offer their surrender to the enemy.  I teach Latin and Greek in a university deep in the interior of the USA; I used to assign my students Horace‘s Ode 3.5, in which the Roman general Regulus, captured by the Carthaginians, advises the Senate to refuse to make any deal to secure his return or that of his men, saying that it would be a disgrace to give up any of the gains Roman arms had won to ransom men who had forever lost their manliness by allowing themselves to be taken prisoner.  My students were shocked by Horace’s disdain for prisoners of war, and by the fact that with this disdain he was expressing the standard Roman view of the matter.  They often exclaimed that prisoners of war are heroes.  “How do you figure?” I would ask, and an interesting, unpredictable conversation would always follow their attempts to answer.

What brings all this to mind are some recent remarks by New York real estate heir turned presidential candidate Don-John “Donald” Trump.*  Mr Trump said that John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war does not in fact qualify him as a war hero.

This statement has attracted a great deal of criticism.  One difficulty Mr Trump would face, were he to try to retract it, is that he might then have to explain why being captured makes a warrior a hero.  Another difficulty is that Mr McCain’s record is not in all respects comparable to that of a hardcore resister like Jeremiah Denton or James Stockdale.  Some of the less appealing sides of Mr McCain’s record can be found delineated here, here, and here.  I don’t want to dwell on these matters, because I know myself well enough to find it impossible to be sure that I would have acted any better than Mr McCain did were I subjected to the same pressures, but I do think that, on the one hand, respect for those personnel whose conduct did in fact meet a higher standard and, on the other hand, a habit of the accurate use of language prohibits calling Mr McCain a “war hero.”

*In fact, Mr Trump’s legal name is and always has been “Donald John Trump,” but his campaign is a means by which he has been enjoying himself hugely while being grossly unfair to other people.  So I choose to enjoy myself slightly by being mildly unfair to him.  “Don-John” it is!

Solar System Mnemonics

Adding Ceres, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris- but where’s Sedna? Should be “Expelliamus, sucka!”

With Pluto so much in the news lately, I’ve been thinking about the old mnemonic device for memorizing a Solar System made up of the nine planets Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto: “My very educated mother just served us nine pizzas.”  When the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto to non-planet status in 2006 (those bastards!,) you started hearing “My very educated mother just served us nachos.”

But of course the Solar System isn’t just the planets.  It’s the Sun and everything that orbits the Sun, which can be subdivided into the six categories Sun, Rocky Inner Planets, Asteroids, Gas Giants, Kuiper Belt Objects, and Oort Cloud.  So, to remember S R A G K O, I propose the mnemonic device “Some randy astronomers give kinky orgies.”  It may not be quite as family-friendly as “My very educated mother just served us nine pizzas,” but the whole point of a mnemonic device is to be memorable, and it certainly is memorable.

Also, the topic of the outer Solar System reminds me of a grudge I have against one point of astronomical nomenclature.  Not the decision nine years ago to reclassify Pluto as something other than a planet- that’s been discussed enough- but the name “Hills Cloud” for the inner part of the Oort Cloud.  Since the real boundary of the Solar System is the Hill Sphere, the boundary beyond which objects in freefall do not tend to go into orbit around the Sun, I urge astronomers to find some other way to honor Professor Jack G. Hills than by naming a part of the outer Solar System after him.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 123 other followers