Friday, April 22, 2011

Who said it VI?

Who Said It VI? is, like its predecessors, really just an excuse for me to rummage around my library in books I would love to read again and might not get a chance. I usually violate my own rule that it has to be from my library at least once, and, I couldn't find one of the quotes I wanted to use here in my library, so I fished it out of the internet.

1) The first quote appears to be an affectionate list from a husband, worried about what will happen to his wife if he does not return for his dangerous mission.

1. Here is the key to the post office box, which is located in the main post office downtown on Ervay Street, the street where there is a drugstore where you always used to stand. The post office is four blocks from the drugstore on the same street. There you will find our mailbox. I paid for the mailbox last month so you needn’t worry about it.

2. Send information about what has happened to me to the Embassy and also send newspaper clippings (if there’s anything about me in the papers). I think the Embassy will come quickly to your aid once they know everything.

3. I paid our rent on the second so don’t worry about it.

4. I have also paid for the water and gas.

5. There may be some money from work. They will send it to your post office box. Go to the bank and they will cash it.

6. You can either throw out my clothing or give it away. Do not keep it. As for my personal papers (both military papers and papers for the factory), I prefer that you keep them.

7. Certain of my papers are in the small blue suitcase.

8. My address book is on the table in my study if you need it.

9. We have friends here and the Red Cross will also help you.

10. I left you as much money as I could, $60 on the second of the month, and you and Junie can live for two months on $10 a week.

11. If I am alive and taken prisoner, the city jail is at the end of the bridge we always used to cross when we went to town (the very beginning of town after the bridge).

He was in fact going on a dangerous mission. He failed but lived and returned to her. It was written by Lee Harvey Oswald for his wife, Marina, when he went out to try to assassinate General Edwin Walker not long before the successful JFK assassination. Oswald shot from the general’s backyard, but from his position it appeared there was only a glass window between him and the seated general. The shot was deflected just enough by a wire screen and wood bar so that it passed safely through the general’s hair. As Maxwell Smart would say, “Missed him by that much.”

Having read Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, it is hard for me to believe in any of the conspiracy theories. Still, they are fun and also having read Robert Caro's first three volumes on LBJ, I would certainly understand someone being suspicious of him (although, I'm not saying there is any proof of any such action on his part). I await the fourth book, due out next year.

2) The following letter goes back in American history.

. . . I take this oppo. to acknowledge the receipt of A Benezets Book against the Slave Trade. I thank you for it. It is not a little surprising that Christianity, whose chief excellence consists in softning the human heart, in cherishing & improving its finer Feelings, should encourage a Practice so totally repugnant to the first Impression of right & wrong. What adds to the wonder is that this Abominable Practice has been introduced in ye. most enlightened Ages, Times that seem to have pretentions to boast of high Improvements in the Arts, Sciences, & refined Morality, h[ave] brought into general use, & guarded by many Laws, a Species of Violence & Tyranny, which our more rude & barbarous, but more honest Ancestors detested. Is it not amazing, that at a time, when ye. Rights of Humanity are defined & understood with precision, in a Country above all others fond of Liberty, that in such an Age, & such a Country we find Men, professing a Religion ye. most humane, mild, meek, gentle & generous; adopting a Principle as repugnant to humanity as it is inconsistant with the Bible and destructive to Liberty.

Every thinking honest Man rejects it in Speculation, how few in Practice from conscienscious Motives? The World in general has denied ye. People a share of its honours, but the Wise will ascribe to ye. a just Tribute of virtuous Praise, for ye. Practice of a train of Virtues among which yr. disagreement to Slavery will be principally ranked.--I cannot but wish well to a people whose System imitates ye. Example of him whose Life was perfect.--And believe m[e], I shall honour the Quakers for their noble Effort to abolish Slavery. It is equally calculated to promote moral & political Good.

Would any one believe that I am Master of Slaves of my own purchase! I am drawn along by ye. general inconvenience of living without them, I will not, I cannot justify it. However culpable my Conduct, I will so far pay my devoir to Virtue, as to own the excellence & rectitude of her Precepts, & to lament my want of conforming to them.--

That is an excerpt from a letter Patrick Henry wrote to a Quaker, Robert Pleasants, in 1773, which I might have first come across in a copy of The Abolitionist, Vol. 1, published by one of my personal heroes, William Lloyd Garrison. I say that knowing that there were many others who deserve as much praise, and the Quakers in general were lions in fighting it long before Garrison was even born. I couldn’t find a copy of the letter in my own library so I pulled off the internet, but not from Garrison's text (which is also available) as he modernized the language. It is one of the most amazing letters of the founders. It is the startling honesty of the three sentences, “Would any one believe that I am master of slaves of my own purchase! I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them. I will not, I cannot justify it,” that stuns when you first read it and it is one of the reasons that I have such trouble being an apologist for the founders who were unreformed slave holders, all of whom had feelings much akin to Henry without his honesty. It is their hypocrisy - their disgust of the institution and recognition of the horrors of it coupled with an unwillingness to give it up that is so frustrating in people we are raised to revere. Some disguised it in terms of helplessness, or even concern for the slaves' well being, but Patrick Henry told it straight – it was convenience and no excuses were acceptable. Too long has it been argued by Americans in defense of their heroes – they didn’t know better. They certainly did. You only need to read them to know it. It doesn’t mean there aren’t other things we can appreciate about them, but it is a bitter pill to swallow.

3) This next letter is from a time when perhaps they did have more of an excuse for what we would now believe was abominable behavior, as it was the norm throughout the world.

It is my custom, lord emperor, to refer to you all questions whereof I am in doubt. Who can better guide me when I am at a stand, or enlighten me if I am in ignorance? In investigations of Christians I have never taken part; hence I do not know what is the crime usually punished or investigated, or what allowances are made. So I have had no little uncertainty whether there is any distinction of age, or whether the very weakest offenders are treated exactly like the stronger; whether pardon is given, to those who repent, or whether a man who has once been a Christian gains nothing by having ceased to be such; whether punishment attaches to the mere name apart from secret crimes, or to the secret crimes connected with the name. Meantime this is the course I have taken with those who were accused before me as Christians. I asked them whether they were Christians, and if they confessed, I asked them a second and third time with threats of punishment. If they kept to it, I ordered them for execution; for I held no question that whatever it was that they admitted, in any case obstinacy and unbending perversity deserve to be punished. There were others of the like insanity; but as these were roman citizens, I noted them down to be sent to Rome.

Before long, as is often the case, the mere fact that the charge was taken notice of made it commoner, and several distinct cases arose. An unsigned paper was presented, which gave the names of many. As for those who said that they neither were nor ever had been Christians, I thought it right to let them go, since they recited a prayer to the gods at my dictation, made supplication with incense and wine to your stature, which I had ordered to be brought into court for the purpose together with the images of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ-things which (so it is said) those who are really Christians cannot be made to do. Others who were named by the informer said that they were Christians and then denied it, explaining that they had been, but had ceased to be such, some three years ago, some a good many years, and a few even twenty. All these too both worshipped your statue and the images of the gods, and cursed Christ.

They maintained, however, that the amount of their fault or error had been this, that it was their habit on a fixed day to assemble before daylight and recite by turns a form of words to Christ as a god; and that they bound themselves with an oath, not for any crime, but not to commit theft or robbery or adultery, not to break their word, and not to deny a deposit when demanded. . . On this I considered it the more necessary to find out from two maid-servants who were called deaconesses and that by torments, how far this was true; but I discovered nothing else than a perverse and extravagant superstition. . . .

You’ve probably heard of Pliny the Elder, who is most famous as a Roman naturalist living in the first century A.D., the author of Natural History, which was an encyclopedic collection of knowledge at the time. He wrote other books as well. He was also born into good society and was a lawyer, soldier and politician. This letter to the Emperor Trajan reflects the Christian problem before Christianity conquered Rome. Pliny was a governor of a province trying to do the right thing, from his view, of course. He died trying to rescue a friend when Mt. Vesuvius erupted, possibly of fumes, but possibly of natural causes, as no one else in the boat succumbed.

If you are curious, Trajan congratulated him on his practice, and acknowledged there wasn't a general rule that could be applied. Certainly the guilty had to be punished, he said, but those who denied it and proved it by worshipping the gods should be be pardoned by repentence. I love that he adds that anonymous accusation ought not to be countenanced as dangerous precedent and not keeping with the spirit of the age. Every society knows they are modern, and believes their behavior to be motivated by the highest morals.

4) The following is trial testimony from much more modern times.

I felt like a pawn in a chess game being played by giants. It was a situation where I had been sent to do a lot of things, almost everything that was in that Resolution of Inquiry, by the direction of the President of the United States, I had been told by Admiral Poindexter and by Mr. McFarlane countless times; that I had given the commitment of the United States in the name of the President to the resistance leadership, to the people in those other countries, the people in foreign governments all over 18 or 19 countries, and that those were things I was told could not, should not and will not be revealed, and yet there was a very strong likelihood that they would be asked, and they were; that the things I had done with the resistance itself in delivering everything from medicine for jungle leprosy to ammunition, to the bases we built for deliveries for the resistance, the arrangements I had made with foreign governments to deliver surface-to-air missiles and ammunition, all of those things I had been told to give the commitment of the United States that it wouldn’t be revealed. . . .

And I was put in this situation having been raised to know what the Ten Commandments are, that it would be wrong to do that, but I never perceived that it would be unlawful.

This was the response of Colonel Oliver North to his own attorney’s question as to how he felt about being put in a delicate position by his bosses of having to go into a meeting and lie for them. In reviewing the independent counsel's ("IC") report, I tried to keep an open mind. But, even now I can't help but conclude that the Iran/Contra scandal (for which no one was punished - it was only the cover up, as usual), but as big or bigger a cover up than Watergate. As the IC noted in his report – the higher ups who used the Colonel and his bosses Bud McFarlane and Admiral Poindexter as scapegoats succeeded. North was convicted of aiding and abetting an obstruction of congressional inquiries, destroying and falsifying official documents and receiving an illegal gratuity. He was not given jail time, the reason for which deeply offended me. The judge said that jail “would only ‘harden your misconceptions’ about public service and how he had tarnished it.” (quote from the IC’s report). I was offended because it is my own experience that it is universally practiced by judges in this country (and probably everywhere) that not acknowledging what you did was wrong is a reason to increase, not decrease, a sentence. He was given 2 years probation, $150,000 in fines and 1200 hours of community service. But, it was reversed on appeal on account of the fact that the trial judge did not hold a full hearing as required to make sure that the prosecution witnesses did not use his immunized testimony before congress, including to refresh their memorizes, focus their attention, and the like. That may in fact be the correct decision, legally. It was, of course, highly controversial and politicized. When they went back to the trial court for the hearings, Col. North’s boss, McFarlane, the National Security Advisor, who had already tried to commit suicide, but cooperated with the IC and pled guilty to misdemeanors, testified that he had relied heavily on Col. North’s congressional testimony in his own testimony. Thus, Col. North walked free.

5) And now for something completely different – lamentation.

I am indeed the most wretched of all earthly beings. Overwhelmed with grief, every fibre of my frame distended beyond its natural powers to bear, I would willingly meet whatever catastrophe should leave me no more to feel or to fear. . . .

The above is a tiny excerpt from a long dialogue written by Thomas Jefferson in Paris when he was our ambassador, pining away for Maria Cosway, who he had fallen in love with and who returned to London with her husband. It was ostensibly a conversation between his head and heart, after he had seen the married couple off. It took him five days to write it and it is painful to read. Not only was his heart broken but he had also recently fallen and broken his wrist.

The two would write to each other but never see each one another again. If you know how I feel about TJ, you will understand that my favorite part is when he writes that he is “the most wretched of all earthly beings.”

6) Back to more modern times for a memo on a political campaign.

We had a meeting this morning in my office of those people primarily concerned with the issues effort in the campaign. . . We were unanimous in our conclusions. Namely:

(1) Our principal theme to date-namely, that McGovern is more trustworthy and credible than Nixon, both personally and across the key issues-has been defused by the unfortunate events of the past few weeks, i.e., Eagleton and aftermath, Salinger, the Hitler remark, the V.C. statement in your press backgrounder for last Sunday’s newspapers. . . .

(2) Our primary and perhaps only chance to win will lie in reclaiming those millions of traditional Democrats who are now undecided or leaning to Nixon. These Democrats, primarily in the big industrial states, are typically blue-collar, middle-minded and socially more conservative than our principal sources of support in the Democratic primaries.

(3) These voters can only be reached by returning to the traditional Democratic themes. Namely, that the Democratic Party and George McGovern are good for ordinary people. . . .

(4) Our principal theme from here on in . . . should be that George McGovern and the Democratic Party have supported Medicare, Social Security, decent wages and economic growth. They deeply care about the well-being of decent hardworking people. . . .

(5) This theme can be illustrated in a multitude of ways-visits to assembly lines, bowling alleys, supermarket checkout counters, blue-collar shopping centers, plant cafeterias. . . .

Summary: We urge that, from this point onward, you return to the traditional Democratic themes. . . . The traditional Democratic voter simply must come to feel again that you are deeply concerned about his homely everyday problems, such as his taxes, his food prices where Richard Nixon and the Republicans have let him down.

The actual writer, Ted Van Dyk, is unimportant now. He was on the George McGovern team back in 1972. What’s interesting is that with a tweek here and a tweek there, and substitution of Barack Obama’s name for Senator McGovern’s, this could be a memo from the Democrat’s playbook this election.

For any reader too young to know, President Nixon cleaned Sen. McGovern’s clock, winning by an overwhelming margin, more than a 23% popular vote spread and by 520-17 in the electoral college. Then, the Watergate investigation took off and Nixon had to resign.

I include the quote here because I found it in Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President, 1972. The series covered the 1960-1972 campaigns, then 1980 and 1984, and are a model for the more recent Game Plan, which covered the last election. I only read this one of his series, as I really didn’t get into politics until he had finished writing them, but they were all considered classics. I found the 72 campaign volume riveting, and as best I can recall, it helped spur my own interest in politics. Of course, if you are not a political wonk, don’t go near it. In the afterlife, when you can read as much as you want, I intend to read at least two more volumes.

The Salinger Affair, referred to above, occurred when Pierre Salinger, already furious with the campaign over a job issue, was asked by McGovern to go to Paris to negotiate with the North Vietnamese at their invitation about the ongoing war. It was all hush hush as McGovern had no business doing it - he wasn't president.  But, it was hoped by them that some prisoners of war would be released and Salinger actually encouraged the Vietnamese negotiators to end the war immediately, which would have helped Nixon, not McGovern. The mission was a failure, but when it came out publicly what they had done (negotiating with the enemy, even in good faith), McGovern lied and flip flopped about it, thowing Salinger under the bus. This was soon after he had let Thomas Eagleton go as his running mate when it came out he had had electro-shock treatment at one point in his life. The “Hitler remark” occurred late in the campaign, when McGovern, who had already compared Ho Chi Minh to George Washington, now compared Nixon to Hitler. None of it went well as can be determined by the voting.

7) One more, from an interesting, if crazy, fellow.

“To quote from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of darkness, “I had to deal with a being to whom I could not appeal in the name of anything high or low. . . . There was nothing either above or below him. . . .He had kicked himself loose of the earth. . . . He was alone.”

* * *

In one of the Brothers movies, as Chico was entering, Groucho said: “Hello, you look similar to a man that I know and his name is Ravelli.” Chico answered “I am Ravelli.” “Ha,” responded Groucho: “that explains the similarity.”

* * *

Some of the people around here certainly have their faults, but I’ll have to give them credit for this: They are perceptive enough to recognize my preference for solitude, and considerate enough to respect that preference. I’ve rarely had anyone bother me with a visit unless it was for a good reason.

* * *

The teacher took out a book, leafed through it frantically, and found what he was looking for. . . . “I’m putting next to your name,” he continued, opening his booklet, “a very bad grade.” Since then, this little error has always pursued me. It has ruined my career.

* * *

With a briefcase-full or a suitcase-full of explosives we should be able to blow out the walls of substantial buildings. Clearly we are in a position to do a great deal of damage. And it doesn’t appear that the FBI is going to catch us any time soon. The FBI is a joke.

* * *

So I thought, “I will kill, but I will make at least some effort to avoid detection, so that I can kill again.”

* * *

I have chosen you as my victim. . . when the first piece is played upside down and backwards, it spells out the letters of my name, over and over, in varying permutations taken from the alternating group on 18 letters. . . . I have almost finished two more marches and am working on a waltz, but I won’t be able to quite complete these until I have resolved Fermat’s Conjecture.

* * *

I often had fantasies of killing the kind of people whom I hated (e.g. government officials, police, computer scientists, behavioral scientists, the rowdy type of college students who left their piles of beercans in the Arboretum, etc., etc., etc.) . . . Knowing my revengeful fantasies are not being realized, completely spoils them for me.

The words are actually from the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, from his letters and journals. I took the quotes from Don Foster’s terrific book, Author Unknown. Foster is an English professor who has made a fascinating career as a literary detective by determining who wrote various things based on the texts themselves coupled with other investigation. Among other more famous work, he helped the prosecution on the Unabomber case. My favorite part of his book, however, was how he figured out that Henry Livingston and not Clement Moore really wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas” aka “A Night Before Christmas,” which I previously covered in one of my earliest posts on 9/6/06. I found it very persuasive and sneer whenever I hear the poem referred to as Moore's now.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Murder in the New Testament

Who doesn’t love a good unsolved murder? This is an attempt to re-examine a small story in the New Testament which I believe has been long misinterpreted. Long have I pondered the mystery of Acts 5:1-11, an event so cloaked in the mist of time and biblical interpretation that I am one of the few who thinks there is a mystery at all. In my opinion there is strong circumstantial evidence that there is more to this little tale of the apostles than the text shows on the surface or theologians are willing to say. It was, in fact - cue creepy organ music – murder most foul, unsolved and largely uninvestigated for almost 2000 years.

It is, of course, only with the greatest difficulty that the words of the Bible, even the relatively more recent New Testament, are looked at from a historical perspective, and we feel most comfortable when evidence comes from extra-Biblical material, like Josephus. We don't have that here. But, obviously, there are Christians among us, and they started somewhere. I don't know any historian who doubts the existence of the early church in the first century and the basic facts about the New Testament, even if Jesus' existence is still doubted by some (although, of course, there is always someone who doubts any thing). As this is the Bible, for the sake of the post I accept the possibility that a deity can will someone's death or give the power to someone to do it. The Biblical references I give are for anyone who wants to read the text itself.

For those who think the following this may be blasphemous or belittling of the gospels, I would suggest you should read this first, and like a good juror, keep your mind open as I suggest that the traditional view is the one completely contradictory to the spirit of the gospels. Follow.

Acts

Acts, the book of the New Testament immediately following the four gospels, may have been written by Luke, the 1st century A.D. physican who probably also wrote the Gospel of Luke and was a companion of St. Paul, who referred to him by name. The main reason for that is both works have a preface addressed to Theophilos (“God lover”) and in Acts he even refers to his earlier work on Jesus, presumably the gospel. It might be someone else, of course, but it seems unlikely to me, and it is the traditional and probably still the majority view. However, some scholars believe that it was an anonymous person who did not witness to the apostle's acts or someone, maybe even Luke, who compiled it from works others had written before him. Of course, there are even a few who even think it was a woman, a theory that sees to pop up whenever an author's identity is unknow, as with with Genesis and Homer.

Like just about everything about the Bible, nothing else is very certain about Acts either. There are variations among the earliest preserved  transcripts (it would be odder were there not). It is argued whether the word "acts" refers to the acts of the apostles, as is traditional (and logical), or to the acts of Jesus or the Holy Spirit. It is argued what sources the author referred to in writing this and even whether he might have plagiarized Euripides or Josephus (which would hardly be frowned on back then). It is argued whether the author of Acts had read Paul’s letters, and whether his facts are consistent with Paul's. And, of course, it is debated when it was written, the primary theories being around 65 A.D (some 30-35 years after Jesus’ probable death) or around 100 A.D., based on a supposition that it borrows from Josephus’ later work, Antiquities. For the purposes of this post, I treat it as historical, though that does not require me to accept Luke's belief.

The following, from Acts 5:1-11, is taken from the New International Version (NIV):

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

The Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.”

When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

Abour three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

“Yes,” she said, ‘that is the price.”

Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also. “

At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events."

It seems like your typical miraculous biblical event on one hand. I disagree. I think it was murder and I have a prime suspect. Like any good juror, you are encouraged to wait until you read all the facts and hear my argument before you make up your mind.

Motive

The early proto-Christians numbered about 120 persons at the beginning of the time referred to in Acts 1, but they grew quickly according to Acts 2 and 3, and we can reasonably speculate at the point in time we are going to discuss, there were probably a few thousand of them (on one day they added 3,000 along – Acts 3:41) when the story we are speaking of occurred. They were a quasi-communist society where all donated their property for the good of all. Acts 4:32-35 states: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. . . There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”

While this type of economy is not unknown among the ancient Israeli religious sects (many speculate the Jesus had lived among the Essenes, which sect we know from Josephus and less certainly from the Dead Sea Scrolls also shared property among themselves), the general economy in Israel at the time was capitalistic. Were it not, Jesus would not have had to throw the merchants out of the temple. This much at least does not seem debatable, as the land was part of the Roman Empire at the time, and their system was basically mercantile or capitalistic, with merchants, banks, private property, interest, profit motive, rich and poor, all playing a role.

Given human nature and the attachment of people to their property, in order to maintain a communist system, coercion is needed. Even Marx, who mistakenly believed that communism would eventually bring about the end of coercive government, held that at least a temporary dictatorship of the proletariat was necessary to distribute property until the end of the bourgeois, a position which Lenin (among others) used to justify his totalitarianism.

The reluctance of Ananaias and Sapphira to give up all they had to the apostles is a given we accept as true for our hypothesis. We have no reason to dispute it from scripture and Peter could have gained his knowledge from any number of witnesses, including the purchaser of the property. It is likely that Peter, who performed miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit, probably learned what they had done from ordinary, non-mystical means. I feel fairly certain of this as when Peter does something attributable to a higher power such as Jesus, we are told so by him or the text, such as in Acts 4:8 when he and John cure a crippled beggar and it was acknowledged that it occurred through the power of Jesus. Similarly, in Acts 2:1-4, the speaking in tongues is attributed to the Holy Spirit. This is the whole purpose of the New Testament - to convince us that Jesus was the son of God, or one with God and the Holy Spirit - take your pick. So, of course we are told.

We have some reason to believe that these donations by Ananaias and Sapphira were among the first large donations. In fact, although arguable, the evidence lends itself to the conclusion that this was the second large donation made by a follower. Acts specifically mentions a donation by a man named Joseph, in Acts 4:36-37. Then immediately after comes the donation by our doomed couple, Ananaias and Sapphira in Acts 5.

Following the idea that the apostle’s system required coercion, even among volunteers, and that this occurred at an early point in the system, it would not be surprising that the apostles wanted to make an example of them. That is, in fact, what happened, whether intentional or not.

Blaming it all on God

Now, we have seen that when Ananaias heard Peter’s accusations, he fell down and died. Traditional exegesis (why can't they just say interpretation?) of this chapter has it that God caused him to die. That does not seem likely. In fact, as I will show you, it would be all but unbelievable. While I could speculate that he had a heart attack or stroke, which seems likely in the real world to me, that does not work in the context of the chapter. Peter was clearly angry with Ananaias as he is chastising him when he drops dead. Peter does not seem surprised or displeased in any way. Natural causes would not explain why Sapphira also died. This is expressed to us as an intentional act by someone.

One reason to believe that this was not an act of God is the fact that all of the people who heard of what happened to Ananaias were afraid (Acts 5:5). But, remember, normally, if God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit is responsible for something, Peter tells them (as in Acts 3:12-23) and they marvel at it. And, given the fear of the people that we are told occurs upon his death it would seem incredible that he would not have told them so if it were, in fact, true. It cannot be that Peter has suddenly forgotten the higher powers. Not only is God’s existence second nature to him, and comes readily to his lips, but, he had just finished telling Ananaias that he has lied to God. So, the deity was on his mind. But, at no time before or after does he suggest that God will or has killed Ananaias. To suggest he did is to add something to the text that is simply not there.

Undoubtedly, some might think that this is stretching a bit, turning Peter’s non-attribution to God into some type of proof of murder. That might be a fair response without investigation, but I do not think the evidence supports it at all. Just as we are told when someone acts through the power of God in the Bible, we are similarly told when God or an angel kills someone. For example, in 1 Samuel 6:19, it is God who kills 70 men that looked into the ark of the covenant (for a more recent example, See, Raiders of the Lost Ark). When the oxen stumbled while the ark is being transported and Uzzah put his hand on it to steady it, we are told that God struck him dead as well (2 Samuel 6:2-7). There are many similar scenes in the Old Testament of people being struck down, sometimes in mass (once almost everyone in the world), by God or his angels. We know it because we are told.

Yet, such an act by God is almost unheard of in the New Testament. The only instance I am aware of is also found in Acts at 12:23, where an angel of God strikes Herod down, he is eaten by worms and he dies. But, remember, in New Testament terms, Herod was at least a major villain. I submit, had God killed Ananaias and Sapphira, Luke would have told us so just as he did with Herod.
 
We don’t learn at all in Acts the cause of Ananaias’ death. All we know is that he heard what Peter had to say and he died. We are not told he was frightened either, as we immediately learned about the people who heard about his death.

So, we know he died while being accused of impiety by the leader of his sect, and it is clear that God has not done it. We also know beyond any doubt that Peter intended Ananaias to die, which becomes clear when he then confronts Sapphira. When she lies to him, he points out that the men who carried away her husband have returned and she will be carried out next. Clearly his expectation - I don't think it is too much to say his desire - is that she die.

Now, as I have said, as with her husband, it is traditionally held that it is God or the Holy Spirit who killed her. The so-called proof is merely that he asks her “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?” That doesn’t assert that God killed her, only that Peter said she has agreed (with her husband) to test the Lord.

Death and the New Testament

So, for the second time in short succession the person Peter is mad at, Sapphira, and who he actually states will die, dies right in front of him and again without a reference to God being responsible that would normally accompany a divine event. And, as with her husband's death, we are told that great fear seized all who heard of it (Acts 5:11). Why? Not because a miracle occurred. There is no evidence of that. But, because it became known – if you hold out on the apostles, you will die. Clearly, even if God was responsibility, as is usually suggested, that then was his intent and it cannot be denied.

But, once again, I suggest it would be remarkable if Peter killed her through a power given him by the Holy Spirit or Jesus or God, for, in all of the rest of the New Testament, there is not one single instance I am aware of any human using the power of God to take a life. And, as we have seen, only one man, Herod, was killed by a messenger of God. If it were the case here that God was responsible, it would be very strange indeed, as it would be completely out of character for Jesus or the New Testament God. I’ll return to this later. First, let’s mess with Peter.

Peter’s character flaws

When you think of it – was not Peter himself guilty of a much greater lie than either of the unlucky couple? For when asked if he was the same guy who was with Jesus, we know he denied it – three times! Jesus was well aware of Peter's character as he predicted himself that Peter would deny him to save his own life. And, though Peter is “the rock” upon which the church would be built, he was not Jesus’s favorite (which, traditionally, was John).

In Galatians 2:11-14, the future St. Paul even chastises the future St. Peter for hypocritical behavior. If  Paul had fairly chastised Peter, it speaks poorly of Peter’s character. However, I must mention that although Peter’s actions were not defended by him, it was later defended by St. Jerome, one of the four doctors of the church. I am not going into detail about Paul’s charge and Jerome’s defense, because it isn’t really relevant to my topic, but, the defense may speak poorer of Peter than the charge. For where Paul charges hypocrisy, Jerome's defense is that Peter acted as he did out of fear. This shouldn’t be a surprise as it is reminiscent of his denials of knowing Jesus, also motivated by fear. Jerome, about as authoritative a church figure as there is, was writing long after the fact, but he claims he got his information from the “fathers of the church”. Whoever he is referring to, it is clear he means they would have been closer in time to the apostles than he was.

But, to bring this back to our subject, are these piddling charges of Peter's poor character sufficient to suggest that he might have killed someone? Clearly not. Any of us might show far more timidly than Peter did and not be suspected of murder, or even considered cowardly. Both times he was avoiding a potentially dangerous situation. I would prefer to say that he may not have showed great courage, but he did not act so differently than most people would have. Perhaps we just expect a lot is expected of an apostle.
What would make him think it was okay

I think I have set forth some good reasons why we should not readily believe that Mr. and Mrs. Ananaias were murdered by a divine power, both scripturally and linguistically. But, in order to tie this together, and validly accuse Peter or the apostles of murder, I will have to set forth some reason that Peter might have engaged in such drastic act over such a small thing as a little lie. Where would Peter get an idea that this would be okay? Certainly not from Jesus.

Actually, I'm just playing. He did get the idea from Jesus.

Relax, I’m not suggesting that Jesus intended that any of his followers would commit murder. That would be completely out of character for him, as I argued above. In fact, when Jesus was betrayed and taken, he stopped his followers from defending him by violent means, and did an E.T. on a servant of the high priest, when one of his followers cut the man's ear off, healing him (Luke, 22:49-51).

But, remember, the apostles were not saints yet, but real mortals, and had their faults. Jesus himself complained that they did not understand his parables (e.g., Mark 4:13). So, did Jesus say something that Peter could have misunderstood in such a disastrous way?

We find the answer not in Acts, but likely from Luke himself in Luke 19:11. On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus tells a lengthy parable when he realizes that his followers seem to think that the kingdom of God was imminent. I am only interested in the beginning and end of it. A noble was traveling to a far land to have himself made king before returning home. His subjects hated him and sent a delegation to complain that they did not want him for king. He is made king anyway, and at the end of the parable, he says “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.”

Quite a strange parable for Jesus to tell, don’t you think? Of course, it is a parable, a fictitious story told to make a point, and the real purpose of it was much different than the plot line, at least according to most interpretations. But, Jesus’ parables were not easy to understand, and as I said, he himself knew his apostles did not understand him. Would it be surprising that one the chosen, finding himself in a position of authority might have understood him to mean it is all right for a lord to take the life of those who displeased him? That would be an accurate interpretation of what Jesus actually said, if someone missed the deeper meaning.

Not much later, after he had entered Jerusalem, Jesus made a prophecy that a literal minded apostle might also have taken too seriously. Let me quote:

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace-but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave on stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.’”

One view of this is that if you are disrespectful of God’s will, as Peter clearly believed the unlucky couple to be, you are deserving of death.

Talk about cruel and unusual punishment

When you think about it – what was the terrible crime of Ananaias and Sapphira, who after all did donate some of their property to the sect, that justified their death? Lying about money? Are we to believe that Jesus, who said “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the one to cast a stone at her,” was responsible? That would be so completely out of character for Jesus or the New Testament God (not, the Old Testament God though) that it would require quite an explanation.

There is one last problem. So far I've tried to show:

There is no text indicating that God or Jesus killed the couple and there would be if that was the case.

The only person killed in the New Testament by a spiritual being was a major Biblical villain.

There are no examples in the New Testament of any person killing someone through a divine power.

There was motivation (the need to coerce followers and to set an example when they hold back).

Peter did not have a blameless character.

He could have misunderstood Jesus' parables to mean killing followers was okay if they displease you.

But, is there any evidence at all that Peter would kill a married couple over a lie involving their own property? Is there any scriptural justification for Jesus to have said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men”? Is there the slightest suggestion that an angry Peter might strike anyone with a sword?

Yes, there is. Remember the apostle who cut off the servant’s ear when they came for Jesus? Cue the scary organ music again - that apostle was, in fact, Peter (John 18:10-11).

I rest my case here. As I said, it is all circumstantial, but I think fairly powerful.

Some afterthoughts.

1. As a side note for language lovers, Ananaias name could be an epithet or pseudonym. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, Ananaias’ name might derive from Anaid- (shameless) or Avaiv- (to reject with contempt, spurn, turn one’s back on, and the like). Both of those work with the story. But, guessing the meaning of ancient names is problematic, to say the least. Mirriam Webster says Ananaiaas means "liar," but it seems most likely that the meaning is taken from the story, rather than being the meaning of the name originally - as there is no evidence of that being an actual Greek word. Mirriam Webster also says that it might be derived from the Hebrew Hananayah, which I elsewhere learned might mean "God is gracious" or "compassion of God," or something along those lines. Sapphira’s name, it won’t surprise you, comes from a gemstone, maybe what we know as sapphire, but many scholars believe back in Biblical times it referred to what we know as lapis lazuli. In any event, it means “blue stone.” I cannot find a metaphorical reason for that to be an epithet or pseudonym for Ananaias’s wife, if it was not her real name, as all the connotations of lapis lazuli are positive, if sometimes mystical.

2. I also have a problem with Herod's death being attributed to God. Scripture does not say the angel killed him. He strikes him down and then Herod is eaten by worms and dies. That sounds like a disease to me with the angel being a metaphor.

3. When you think you have an idea in the internet age you often find out that a bunch of other people have thought of it too. I decided to wait until I finished this to do the Google thing so I could feel pure, but sure enough, I am not the only one who has thought of this before. But, I'm happy to say I couldn't find a single real analysis like this - just a few random thoughts and videos. I did find on Google scholar a 2008 doctoral thesis by David R. McCabe, analyzing it from some wacky thing called the Speech-Act Theory, which I'm betting has all the real world application of the Vulcan mind meld. Just for fun, here's a sentence from it: "This thesis is argued by appealing to the social processes and conventions of language-use within the context of community-of-goods discourse as manifest in the Lukan narrative. Appeal is made to the socio-cultural repertoire of community-of-goods discourse in contemporary traditions sharing the socio-cultural milieu of Luke-Acts."  No disrespect to (presumably) Dr. McCabe, but, good Lord, the pretentious babble that academia requires of doctoral candidates is truly astonishing. Anyway, it is a completely different analysis, far as I can tell from reading the abstract, and he ultimately blames it on God. Wrong!

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Political update for April, 2011

Missing Mubarak

Do we already miss Mubarak? Egypt is re-instituting diplomatic relations with Iran. The military seems to be engaging in the same type of oppressive behavior as their former fearless leader. Maybe we will miss Qaddafi too some day, despite the fact that one retired foreign minister says he personally ordered the Lockerbie tragedy.

Here’s my take on the Middle East right now and domestic threats in our own country – skipping the Israeli/Palestine issue for once. These are my givens.

There is a large portion of the ummah which is dedicated to traditional anti-Western jihad, a caliphate, aspects of Shariah law which are repugnant to us, and to being anti-Israeli, if not hoping, in most cases, for its complete destruction. What the percentage is, I can not say. I don’t think anyone can, but it is large enough. I do know that the numbers of citizens of Islamic countries that believe in stoning adulterers and apostates or similar atrocities by our standards, are astonishing from our perspective. If it was not their “culture,” we are discussing, we would be sure that any individual who felt the way they do was insane.

And while I ardently defend most American Muslims as being unfairly targeted by some members of the right, I think Representative Peter King actually hit it square on the head in his testimony at his controversial committee a few weeks ago:

“This Committee cannot live in denial which is what some would have us do when they suggest that this hearing dilute its focus by investigating threats unrelated to Al Qaeda. The Department of Homeland Security and this committee were formed in response to the al Qaeda attacks of 9/11. There is no equivalency of threat between al Qaeda and neo-Nazis, environmental extremists or other isolated madmen. Only al Qaeda and its Islamist affiliates in this country are part of an international threat to our nation. Indeed by the Justice Department’s own record not one terror related case in the last two years involved neo-Nazis, environmental extremists, militias or anti-war groups.

I have repeatedly said the overwhelming majority of Muslim-Americans are outstanding Americans and make enormous contributions to our country. But there are realities we cannot ignore. For instance a Pew Poll said that 15% of Muslim-American men between the age of 18 and 29 could support suicide bombings. This is the segment of the community al Qaeda is attempting to recruit.”

The problem for us right now is that we don’t know what is going to come out of these revolutions in the Middle East, and we really have no say either. Revolutions are that way. Sure, it worked out for the U.S in the 18th century, but the promising French Revolution soon after it ended up with the terror followed by Napoleon. Most of the revolutions of 1848 ended up for naught. The revolution in Russia brought us many years of communism. China as well.

In the Middle East it is just silly to even ask if some of these countries will end up anytime soon with a Madisonian democracy where individual rights are respected. It is more likely it will be one form of totalitarianism or another, or, a democratic theocracy that is no better from our point of view. Sure, we root for democracy, but are we rooting for democracy only to find that the Muslim Brotherhood ends up in charge in Egypt, and al Qaeda in Yemen? Democracy in Lebanon is so shattered by religion that it has become one more country dominated by Islamicists. The experiment with democracy in Algeria ended up with an immediate cessation, when Islamicists were voted in.

There is no policy that makes sense for us other than to verbally advocate for democracy with enlightenment values like free speech, press, conscience, religion, toleration, rule of law, separation of powers, and so on. I'm not saying we will get what we want, but we should advocate it, demonstrate by example how our system provides more of the things they want, and perhaps, when we really know who to root for, help with arms and similar non-combat roles (even though that is always fraught with the risk of error). Just as we ended up with an Afghanistan we didn’t expect, we may end up with a Yemen, Libya, Syria, and so on, worse than the one we started with.

Libya is a great example of how clueless we are. No one seems to know what the rebels want other than to say goodbye to Qaddafi. But, Q (the Libyan villain, not the character from The New Adventures of Star Trek) hates al Qaeda as much as we do. Either he painted the rebels to be al Qaeda to get our support, or at least toleration, or he was serious and correct. There may be a middle ground, but that’s not so likely to be good either. We’ll find out. But, probably not for a while.

Democracy/republic

Let’s say we had our druthers. What would we like these countries to become – Democracies? Republics?

A while back I read an article by Dr. Walter Williams, a conservative/libertarian economist, about minority rights. He stated that minority rights are the how and why he found democracy and majority rule as "contemptible," whereas he celebrated "republican" ideals in which apparently democracy had no place.

Then, in short order, right wingers David Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan also wrote similar articles. Glenn Beck has been barking up that tree for a while. More, many commenters on their articles (most, who, in my opinion, are politically educated, but not historically) were in a frenzy writing things like – “No Democracy. Just a Republic.”

Although much in favor of minority rights, this is all overstated and really based on the fact that there are no real accurate working definitions for democracy or republic. You can find them in the dictionary, of course, but it’s all so vague. “Democracy” comes from the Greek for people (Demos) and rule (Kratos). “Republic” comes from the Latin “Res” (thing) “Publica” (public) – public thing or public affair. Not a lot of difference between the two. Some on the right seem to want to make the definition of republic synonymous with our republic, which is also a mutt democracy – part Jeffersonian, part Madisonian, part Jacksonian, with a lot of other stuff thrown in. They certainly can’t mean republics like as in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, can they?

And yes, I’m well aware that some of the founders made statements opposed to democracy and in favor of republics, they didn't have an exact definition either, and they did not hold them to be mutually exclusive. Adams' A Defence of Constitutions of the United States references different kinds of republics, including democratic ones. Clearly when the constitution was made, majority voting was incorporated in it (sometimes super majorities), and voting was always apart of the countries tradition as it was in England for a long time.

But, this anti-democracy stirring is simply now a part of the right wing mythology (as opposed to the left wing mythology, which doesn’t really have a dog in this fight). Wonder where it was when George Bush was pushing democracy in the Middle East.  Of course, a pure democracy would have no minority rights by definition, unless recognized by the party in power. But, there has never been a nation-state which was a pure democracy, not even Periclean Athens. Today, representational democracy is an indispensible part of a modern republic and even of many constitutional monarchies, like Spain.

When people say that they want the Middle Eastern countries to become democracies, they don’t mean the non-existent pure democracy, nor do they mean a non-democratic republic either. In fact they really don’t care if they are monarchies either.

What they really mean – and it baffles me that this isn’t generally recognized by the pundits who comment upon it – is a government that believes in the enlightenment values as they have developed in modern times – things like meaningful voting, rule of law, separation of powers, toleration, freedom of speech, press and conscience, etc.

What I would like to ask these pundits, when they are opining so – is what do you recommend in place of voting - a monarchy or oligarchy?

The decision to go to war in Libya

I don’t know how you can call President Obama’s action constitutional. As our Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made clear, we have no dog in this fight. Senator Obama himself stated while campaigning for President: “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” This is consistent with the controversial War Powers Resolution, sec. 2(c): “The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”

Clearly, the death of Libyan rebels cannot qualify as a national emergency created by an attack on the U.S. Without this, the 48 hour notice given by President Obama to congress, cannot even satisfy the resolution, never mind the constitution. Indeed, it never discusses a declaration of war, specific statutory authorization or a national emergency. Instead, it speaks to humanitarian needs in Libya and U.N. resolutions.

There is nothing strategic about this attack either. In 1981, we tussled with Libya when they declared a 200 mile territory out to sea in violation of what we and most countries believed was international law. But, they attacked us, not visa versa (we just teased them). In 1986, we attacked them with bombers so as to explain to them why they should not blow up European discos with Americans in them (although the idea of blowing up discos with no one in them may be deemed a humanitarian act). Our lesson didn’t work out so well that time as we managed to kill Q’s little daughter and Lockerbie occurred two years later. I was not as politically conscience back then, and although a hawk, I was not happy with it (but, I don't remember why). This is different as it is an ongoing affair and we weren't attacked by them. We just don’t like Q and this is a good way to get rid of him. Not that he’s not crazy and a tyrant – but that just explains why we don’t like him – not why after all these years we’ve attacked him.

What should we have done? Well, we should have made a lot of noise about democracy and enlightenment values. Supported the rebels. Encouraged our allies to fight with him. Perhaps helped them with logistics, rescue, and maybe even some supplies (would that trigger the War Powers Resolution?). And only step in if it looked like our friends are losing or there was going to be actual genocide. But, congress, not the president should decide. While I understand that there are certain things that only our military can accomplish, particularly our air force, that doesn’t mean it’s on lend to the world on the say so of the commander-in-chief.

At first, I did not want to impeach the president over this, but in the course of the last week I have changed my mind. One thing I have been reflecting on is that I hate when impeachment is about an attempt to unseat a president by the other side, as I believe it was with President Clinton (the noise over impeaching President Bush did not get very far). And, partisanship is so extensive, that I think I was persuaded that it was a "here we go again" moment. But, Dennis Kucinich is not a right wing ideologue. And, yes, our presidents do unconstitutional things from time to time (as does congress more frequently, although they can’t be impeached). But, first, Mom, he started it cannot be an excuse, and second, this is a biggee. Going to war is big. Suppose it doesn’t go well. Suppose Americans die, or in retaliation we have another Lockerbie. Should we then say – okay, now it’s impeachable?

I know, it’s not like President Obama had us attack Luxembourg or even Morocco. It’s Q and we hate him. But, that is justification for an unconstitutional act. Suppose instead of Libya, President Obama decided to protect Palestinians in Gaza based on a U.N. resolution that he supports (how close did we come to doing so the last time – see Susan Rice’s speech at the time) and started a no-fly zone in Israel? Of course, that would be political suicide, but what if it happened in his 8th year when it didn’t matter? Would we say – well, we excused it with Libya, we have to excuse it here? Of course we wouldn’t. People would be furious. But, there is no substantive difference in this context other than we like Israel's part democracy/part theocracy and we don’t like Q’s military dictatorship.

Bruce Fein, a constitutional lawyer from the Reagan administration I respect, has written up articles of impeachment, which traces the historical reasons up to quoting the president, the vice president and the secretary of state all to the effect that an act like this is unconstitutional. We all know where the secretary of defense stands. So, what's the hold up? Please don’t give me an answer like – well, then we should have impeached Bush, because, that's just  not an argument. Besides, Fein called for the impeachment of Bush and Cheney as well. You can find his proposed articles of impeachment online at
http://www.prisonplanet.com/bruce-fein-articles-of-impeachment-for-tyrant-obama.html.

By the way, I have a sneaking feeling that Libya has already taken an American victim. His name is Newt Gingrich. He was all over the map on this war – for it, against it, then for it, and then he tried to blame his waffling on President Obama being all over the map, which, in his view, caused him to do the same. Sure. Know what the problem is with that? President Obama wasn’t talking to him about it alone. We all know what he said. How come no one else had the same problem keeping it straight, Speaker Gingrich?

I don’t think even the right is buying the ex-speaker's excuse. I noticed on a right wing blog last week that virtually no one seemed to support him anymore. The most recent poll shown on realclearpolitics.com, by Fox, had him down to 7 percent from the teens. I think he was following the radio pundit philosophy of - no matter what the opposition does, disagree and criticize harshly. That doesn’t really work so well for politicians.

Let me wrap this up. I personally like President Obama. I even think he has good political and, if he would employ them, leadership skills, although policy-wise, I rarely agree with him. Yet, I say impeach him. Even if it doesn't work, they should try.  If you don’t say impeach for this – a clear violation of the constitution, what do you say impeach for? Just for having sex in the oval office? And, how do you recommend it for a president you don’t like in future? Unless, of course, you want your president to be able to do the same thing.

Paul Ryan and the budget

What if your representative knew the 2008 economic disaster was going to happen and did nothing b/c he was worried about politics? This is what Paul Ryan asked in speaking about his 2012 budget. “This [the upcoming financial breakdown] is the most predictable economic crisis we’ve ever had in this country.” Shouldn’t they avoid it?

Well, I hope so. We can see from the little fracas we are just past over 2011 spending, where the parties’ difference was a tiny fraction of the total spending, that the 2012 budget battle is going to be a knock down drag out fight.

What they are fighting over is not just money, it is a basic philosophy of government. Big government v. little government. Fiscal responsibility v. deficit spending. Government control of personal matters v. libertarianism. To name a few.

I have been writing about the coming financial meltdown since 2008. I don’t claim to have foretold it or that no one else was discussing it. Many were. But, many more were not. It is since then that little by little, even some of the biggest deficit spenders acknowledge – yeah, wait a second, this can’t work forever, can it?

Even President Obama, after the compromise last night, came on television and claimed that we had to something and they were good cuts? Funny, because his proposed budget had even far fewer.

When the tea parties swept the Republicans into power last year, I predicted they would crumble against the institutions of congress and the desire to get campaign help for re-election and spend like their predecessors. At least, it was my concern they would. Yet, so far, I am not unhappy. I would rather be wrong about that. The next six months will tell, of course, just how much will they stick to their guns.

If Paul Ryan is not an idiot, and other than Paul Krugman, no one thinks he is, then he has built a little cushion in to his cuts so that he can give something to the other side and still come out solvent. Personally, I would not do it like Mr. Ryan is doing it. Despite its shortcomings, I would cut everything 10% next year (everything?) and order the various departments and states, etc., to figure it out. Then, the year after, another 5% and then the year after another 5%. See where we are at that point.

By, the way – I would fire everyone in the federal government and hire them back immediately at reduced amounts regardless of contracts. I would default on all contracts, but pay the reduced amount. And, pensions would be cut as well. Plus, they can work for their pension.  I heard a Democratic congressman, named Kevin McDermott state that teachers, for example, were entitled to a pension after 35-40 years. Okay, I agree, but they don't work that. They work 25. Too soon.

But, guess what the first thing congress should cut is? Their own salaries. And they should pledge not to raise them again until we are in the black.

No, I do not believe that it would be a disaster. I believe that the various departments and states would find a way to do things cheaper and better. I believe that individuals benefitting directly from checks would find a way to live cheaper or would get jobs. Tough on seniors, I know, but we have to find a way to do that cheaper too. It is going to be really hard, but harder still if we don't do it.

And, if President Obama, who does have leadership skills, really wants to lead, he can show us how he is sacrificing and then ask us to also. I’m ready.

Since they are not going to impeach you, President Obama, what do you want to be – the hero or the goat? (apologies to Charles Schultz, rip).

Xtra special fascinating bonus material

Reader and occasional commenter Eric enjoyed the December 19, 2010 post – Who the heck is reading this thing? - in which I commented on the stats Google shows me about who is reading my blog and where they are from, etc. He suggested an update.

I checked the stats out yesterday. The most popular blog this past month is still the one featuring Oliver the Chimp, Chimeras, coydogs and a really strange chimp (8/30/07), with 59 page views, followed by the recent Three Cheers for the Union Jack (3/13/11), with 39 page views.

After that:

Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence (3/7/09)
A mountain man is an amazing man (6/14/07)
Fulfilling Edith Hamilton’s prophecy: J.R.R. Tolkien (5/14/09)
Death Match: Socrates v. Thoreau ((3/28/10)
Give me your stuff, sayeth Uncle Sam (3/27/11)
Tales from Herodotus (6/20/10)
One wacky case – Marbury v. Madison (10/29/10)
Toughness personified: George Chuvalo (9/10/07)

Chimeras, etc. is also the all time leader (since June last year when I started tracking, anyway) with almost 5 times as many views as the next most popular one regarding Edith Hamilton and Tolkien, followed closely by the Socrates/Thoreau one, the mountain man one, the Thomas Jefferson one, the one on early American partisanship (1/3/11), the one on Tales from Herodotus, and so on.

If I recall, what Eric was most interested in, though, was the stats on where the visitors came from. Here’s the list of countries from which the audience originated:

U.S. 314
Germany 42
U.K. 35
Russia 35
Slovenia 25
Canada 21
Denmark 19
India 17
Iran 17
China 10

So, Germany more than the U.K., and Russia and Slovenia topped out Canada. It is kind of interesting because you just ask yourself – why? I estimate that about 6-7% of the visitors are spam, since I average around 20-25 readers a day (guestimating based on the monthly stats) and I usually get one to two spam comments. I don’t publish those. If it is a lot more than that, I don't want to know. Too humiliating.

One entertainment tip for you. I caught the first episode of The Killing on AMC. It plays on Sunday and repeats Thursday night. It was a big mini-series in Denmark, then England, and this production was critically praised here. The critics are so often wrong, but not with this one. You should watch the first one first, of course. It’s free on AMC’s website. Good characters. Good pacing. Good drama.  I am even violating my usual rule about watching things involving violence to children. It has to be good for me to do that.

Friday, April 01, 2011

More scary things you want to know about the presidents

Time for some weird stories about our presidents which will shake your faith in their dignity.

Angry Harry

When America finally went to war, a young corporal from Missouri found himself in trench warfare at the borders of the two warring parties. It wasn’t like in the movies. It was filled with water, bugs and human waste. But, young Harry Truman didn’t seem to mind so much. He was a volunteer and he was glad to be there.

He was no kid, 25 when he signed up. Millions died, but Harry didn’t. His first engagement was near the town of Ypres, and five out of every six men in his regiment were killed. He was completely unscathed. Later, he would write eloquently of the battle:

“And then came a damp, cold night in Flanders, through which we marched in silence, and when the day began to emerge from the mists, suddenly an iron greeting came whizzing at us over our heads, and with a sharp report sent the little pellets flying between our ranks, ripping up the wet ground; but even before the little cloud had passed, from two hundred throats the first hurrah rose to meet the first messenger of death. Then a crackling and a roaring, a singing and howling began, and with feverish eyes each one of us was drawn forward, faster and faster, until suddenly past turnip fields and hedges the fight began, the fight of man against man.”

Surprisingly, though he was later fairly obsessive about his appearance, he was rather ordinary and a little disheveled. One officer wrote of him that he was a “quiet, rather unmilitary looking man”.

He did not stand out to look at him, but was considered reliable and rather a loner. His company called him “pipe-dreamer.” He wanted to discuss history and art with them. He would read Homer, the Bible and even Schopenauer. He was not concerned about home, never asked for time off, and sent and received few letters. Sometimes when he was done for the day, he’d actually spend time standing alone painting the scenery in watercolors.

The other men thought he was too eager to please, but they must also have known he was braver than many of them and damned lucky to boot.

Time and time again he seemed to have an uncanny skill in avoiding death and was sometimes heroic. At least once, but possibly more, he came across a group of the enemy in a field, got the drop on them and brought them back as prisoners. Another time when they suddenly came under machine gun fire he knocked his commander aside and took position in front of him, begging him to protect himself.

Finally, he got hit, a shell fragment catching him in the leg. Shipped home to recover, he did a little sightseeing and then was assigned menial tasks. He did not have what it took to become an officer, having no leadership skills and seemingly no interest in improving his station.

He had one strange obsession that will not sit well with you. He was rather anti-Semitic and actually blamed the Jews for the war. It was an idea that would stick with him and fester. But, he wasn’t very happy near all the civilians either, and asked to be sent back to the front. He got his wish. Oddly, at least some the five medals he received, one a rarity for someone of his station, were recommended for him by an officer who was Jewish, something that later embarrassed him.

To get away from the apathetic civilians, Harry asked to go back to the front and was sent back. As the war raged on his mood started to turn dark and he began spending a lot of time by himself, seemingly depressed, but subject to sudden bursts of anger, often against Jews, but Communists too, which would play a role much later in life.

Near the end he was blinded for a little while by chlorine gas and he was still hospitalized when the war ended. His depression deepened and he became irrational. He later wrote about his feelings with an almost megalomaniac passion – “There followed terrible days and even worse nights – I knew that all was lost...in these nights hatred grew in me, hatred for those responsible for this deed” and “If this hour of trial had not come, hardly anyone would have ever guessed that a hero was hidden in this beardless boy.”

Wow – not the Harry Truman we are used to.

Kennedy and Nixon in love

Slowly, historians have been pulling together a story about JFK and Richard Nixon which makes whatever shenanigans happened in the 1960 election look like nothing. Unfortunately, so much time has passed and so close mouthed were now long dead associates, that we must guess at what was real and what just legend.

In 1940, before the war, Nixon was a young lawyer and JFK his father’s emissary in the business world. They were both sent to Ilios, Oregon, to work on a project which would involve the takeover of the company town and its business. Despite Nixon being a lawyer, it was made clear that he had to take his marching orders from JFK, which rankled him to no end.

They were there nine days with no end in sight when they and the other young men present decided to have some fun. So, they threw a stag party for themselves. When the boys went out that night they each had a mission to bring back women for the party. When they were gathered, instead of matching up naturally, the arrogant boys actually voted which woman would get matched up with which guy. Not surprisingly, JFK was voted a local beauty named Chrissie. A little later Nixon was awarded Breezy, quite beautiful herself, and she was quite taken with him too.

They were getting into the night’s celebration when the doors of the bar opened and in walked Chrissie’s father. He demanded JFK take his hands off his daughter and things got ugly. JFK got nasty and threatening, and sent the old man packing.

A few phone calls though changed things. Chrissie’s father was a minister and made a call to a connection in Massachusetts, and finally hooked up with the Archbishop there, who made a call to the Cardinal on the west coast, and next thing you know the police were sent down to raid the party. JFK knew when to quit. He sent Chrissie back to her father and they were left alone.

Except now JFK had no girl. He was the big man there, being Joe Kennedy’s kid, and he found it humiliating to be the only one without one. One thing led to another and he threatened Nixon that he wanted Breezy. Nixon refused and he and Breezy retired to a booth. JFK sent down two young emissaries and they politely asked Nixon to see reason. And, he caved, but not happily. He left the stag party and went back to his hotel, where he sat sulking with his best friend, Pat Rocles. Finally Pat got Nixon’s permission to put on Nixon’s fancy suit and tie, and went to the party in his place.

Pat merrily joined in the festivities and he made quite a hit for a while. But, eventually, he picked on the wrong guy there, a local of whom we only now know by his first name, Hector, who beat Pat to a bloody pulp.

Nixon was furious for his friend and vowed revenge. He actually made life miserable for the local tough, costing him his job.

There’s more, but that’s another story for another day.

Hayes’ folly

Rutherford Hayes is a president almost without any history. Think about it – what do you know about him? You might know he was appointed president by the House of Representatives in a backroom deal in 1876, after he had lost the popular vote, but no candidate had a majority of electoral votes. If you remember that he was a general in the Civil War, you know more than most. That’s it, right? But, he actually has a fascinating history. This one is going to shock you.

He was born in 1807 in Boston. He was one of his father's 17 children, which he had with two successive wives. Dad manufactured small household items, like candles and soap, which Rutherford took a shot at, but he just wasn’t interested. He was a good student, but bored easily, so he left school early and began working at his brother’s small newspaper. He was a good writer too, if only his older brother could see it. So, Rutherford started writing articles and slipping them under the door for his brother to find. They became huge hits, but when his brother found out who was writing them, he was furious. So, little Rutherford ran away at age 15, making his way to Philly where he continued to study on his own and started to make a name for himself as a philosopher.

In his mid-thirties, he wangled a job as a tutor for a wealthy French man, who were raising an extraordinary young woman, his niece Eloise, already famous for her beauty and scholarship as a teenager. She was over 20 years Rutherford’s junior, which didn't matter so much back then. It didn’t take long for the two of them to fall in love with each other and Rutherford found a way to get her uncle to invite him to live there. He was uncommonly vain. "So distinguished was my name, and possessed such advantages of youth and comeliness, that no matter what woman I might favor with my love, I dreaded rejection of none."

Well, yada yada yada, and Eloise is pregnant. Rutherford snuck away and sent her to his sister. But afterwards, her uncle reluctantly gave permission for the two of them to marry. She initially declined, thinking it would damage his career, but finally assented and they did. At some point, however, she went off to stay with her friends, the nuns, who had educated her.

We have in Rutherford’s own words what happened next when her cousins mistakenly thought he had sent her packing, and this is the part that’s going to shock you.

"Violently incensed, they laid a plot against me, and one night while I all unsuspecting was asleep in a secret room in my lodgings, they broke in with the help of one of my servants whom they had bribed. There they had vengeance on me with a most cruel and most shameful punishment, such as astounded the whole world; for they cut off those parts of my body with which I had done that which was the cause of their sorrow.”

Yikes! The two lovers never got together again. For the rest of their lives, they communicated only through letters.

And, then --- hooooooold everything!!

I have to stop. It's April Fool's Day and I couldn’t resist. I somewhat made this all up. Or, I should say, it's also kind of true in its own way, because I’m too history obsessed to just fabricate it completely.

The first story is all true. Except it wasn’t Harry Truman I was really writing about – it was Adolf Hitler. He was at least a minor hero for Germany in WWI, heavily medaled, although already more than a little strange. Harry also fought in WWI, but he was an artillery battery commander, a good leader, and later rose to colonel in the reserves. One of them started WWII and the other ended it.

You might, though, read that our Harry was a bit anti-Semitic and that is certainly true, at least to a degree. He wrote and spoke so as to make it unmistakeable. On the other hand, he recognized Israel’s independence against the State Department’s wishes, and he was compassionate about Jewish refugees.

The second story is not really about JFK and Nixon and I have no idea how much is true. As far as I know they met in Washington, D.C., long after 1940. But, I have really never studied either of them very much, being too obsessed with ancient, European and American history up through WWII, more than from my own lifetime. The story I tell here is actually a very loose and modern interpretation of The Iliad. Ilios, the name of the town I had them meet in here, was another name for Troy, where Homer related that the Greeks and Trojans battled. If it is at all true, and nobody really knows, it likely happened about 3200 years ago. Agamemnon (my JFK) and Achilles (my Nixon) argued over a woman, Briseis (my “Breezy”), who Agamemnon took from him after his own prize, Chryseis (my “Chrissy”), was sent back to her priest father after he had Apollo bring a plague on the Greeks (my police raid). Achilles sits out the war in his ships while the Greeks are getting their helmets handed to them. That’s all in the first book. Later, Achilles' friend, Patrocles (my “Pat Rocles”), borrowed Achilles' armor and goes out slaying Trojans until he is killed by their hero, Hector. And, then, as I hope is well known, Achilles polished off Hector.

The third story is not really about Rutherford Hayes, who did not have a boring life, but lacks a great biographer. He had an exciting Civil War and ended up a major general. But, the first paragraph of my version is really from Ben Franklin’s childhood, except he wasn't a philosopher and he was born at the beginning of the 18th, not 19th century. The rest of that story comes from the tragic tale of Abelard and Héloïse, which took place in 12th century France. It is one of the world’s most fascinating, if most horrible, love stories.

I’m already feeling guilty that some people might read only a part of this, and believe my tall tales. God knows what they are going to tell other people they learned on the internet. One day I’ll probably see a version of one of these on snopes.com with a big FALSE on it.

Still, I think I will try this again next April 1st.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .