30 December 2009

A Xmas Tale (Repost)

[This was my first blog entry here at Rational Rant, some four years back, in happier times. I’m reposting it now, pretty much as written then, for no good reason.]

I must have left the windows open last night, as I see that news from the outside has somehow blown in and is lying in drifts on the rug this Seventh Day of Xmas of the Two Thousand Fifth year of the Common Era. The Seventh Day of Xmas (for all you Xians out there) … let’s see, what is that? Seven geese a-laying? Seven swans a-swimming? I know it’s not seven rings; those went to Tolkein’s dwarf-kings. According to folklore these seven, uh, geese or swans or whatever—birds, anyway—yeah, these seven birds stand for the seven deadly virtues or something. The seven sacraments? The seven evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, George and Ringo? No, that can’t be right. The seven churches the Elder John wrote to in his Apocalypse? They stand for something, anyway. It’s all a sort of cipher. Let me tell you how it all came to pass.

You see, back in the old days of once-upon-a-time after Good King Wenceslas was no more, there came a king who knew not X and the ways of the Lord. And he sent a decree to all the land forbidding the practice of Xianity in all its glory, except for the one festival of Xmas. And Xmas, he decreed, must be celebrated with no mention of X, except in the word Xmas itself. And all the people groaned, for they felt sore oppressed.

How can we teach our children the true meaning of Xmas? the people cried. How can we teach them of the four evangelists, the twelve apostles, the two testaments, and the one X Himself? How indeed can we keep Xianity alive?

And a wise man among them rose and said, “If Santa and Frosty can boldly go forth this Xmastide, and only X dare not show His face, then we must craft a mask for Him. Let it be made of the fluffiest of Xmas nonsense, the nose of Rudolph, the kiss of the mistletoe, the lights of the Holiday Tree. But that will be only the outer face; inside will be the apostles, the evangelists, and even X Himself!”

“But how can that be?” exclaimed all the Xians.

“Well,” said the wise man, “let us consider the twelve points of the Apostles’ Creed, one for each of the twelve apostles. These are the points we must drum into the children. And what could be more exquisitely symbolic of these points than twelve drummers, each drumming away to beat the band?”

“Well, uh, maybe…” all the Xians said.

“And the eleven faithful disciples who carried the word to the eleven corners of the earth, are they not exactly like eleven pipers piping?”

And the people were silent, amazed by the words that came out of his mouth.

Now, somewhat nettled by the people’s refusal to understand, the wise man demanded of them, “Now, what about lords? What do they suggest to you?”

“The payment of taxes?” ventured one Xian cautiously.

“Loud drunken parties at night?” suggested another.

“No,” said the wise man impatiently, “Something to do with Xianity.”

“Our Lord and Savior Jesus X?” said another Xian.

“No no no no no,” said the wise man, “not at all. Lords, plural. Ten of them. Ten leaping lords.”

And there was a blank silence upon the crowd, and some began edging quietly away.

“The ten commandments,” said the wise man. “Do they not suggest the ten commandments, the lords of our conduct, leaping out like flames of fire to caution us?”

“Uh, yeah, okay,” said all the Xians in unison.

“Now think of ladies, nine of them, dancing—what do they suggest to you?”

“An Xmas ball!” exclaimed a Xian woman.

“No! Isn't it obvious?” said the wise man, visibly striving to control his temper. “Nine ladies dancing are the nine fruits of the spirit.”

“The what?” exclaimed the crowd, and some of them left quickly by the back way, for they were beginning to feel sore oppressed again.

“The nine fruits of the spirit—look it up,” snapped the wise man. “It’s in Galatians 5:22-3: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance.”

“This is a key doctrine?” asked a Xian doubtfully.

“It’s in the Good Book, isn’t it?” replied the wise man.

“Now I get it,” called out one Xian. “When Rudolph and Frosty and Santa go forth, we will send with them twelve drummers and eleven pipers and ten lords and nine ladies to set forth the points of the apostles creed and the nine fruits of the spirit and they will drown them out with their noise and bedlam.”

And the wise man groaned and held his head, for now he was feeling sore oppressed. “No, I’m not suggesting street theater,” he said. “What I'm talking about is a simple Xmas song, a song we can teach the children, a song that only they will know embodies the most sacred principles of Xianity.”

“How would that work?” asked all the remaining Xians.

“Like this.” And the wise man found his pitch with a tuning fork and sang, “On the first day of Xmas, my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree.”

“And this has a secret meaning the children will recognize?”

“Yes, of course. For the outsiders this will be an ordinary secular love between one man and one woman, but the children will know that it is the love of X for the Church.”

“And the partridge?”

“The partridge is obviously Jesus X Himself.”

“And the pipers will play this and the drummers drum along with it, and the lords and ladies will sing it?”

“No, they're part of the song. There's more.” Again the wise man sang, “On the second day of Xmas, my true love gave to me, two turtle-doves and a partridge in a pear tree.”

“Oh, I see!” exclaimed a Xian. “The dove represents the Holy Spirit, and there are two of them to represent the two descents of the Spirit, at X’s baptism and at Pentecost!”

“Seems to me,” said another, “the two doves could just as well represent the two shoes we put on every morning before going to work.”

“No,” said the wise man, “the two turtle-doves are obviously the Old and New Testaments.”

“And the partridge?”

“I told you, that’s X Himself.”

“But that was the partridge on the first day—this is a second partridge. Are you suggesting that there are two Xs?”

“The partridge is always Jesus X. Now,” and once again the wise man sang, “On the third day of Xmas my true love gave to me three French hens, two turtle-doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.”

“Are you calling the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost three French hens?” asked one Xian incredulously.

“No, the three French hens are faith, hope, and love, out of First Corinthians 13,” said the wise man.

“You know, we’re going to need a special underground school to teach the kids all of this.”

“On the fourth day of Xmas,” sang the wise man doggedly, “my true love gave to me four colly birds, three French hens, two turtle-doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.”

“And the four colly birds are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?” asked a Xian.

“Now you're catching on,” said the wise man, and he sang again, “On the fifth day of Xmas my true love gave to me five golden rings, four colly birds, three French hens, two turtle-doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.”

“And the five golden rings are?”

“The five books of the Pentateuch.”

“Oh, of course,” said a Xian. “And we’re going to keep this up for twelve verses?”

“Exactly.”

“So what about six, seven, and eight?”

“Well, obviously, we’ll have eight maids a-milking to represent the eight beatitudes, seven swans a-swimming for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and six geese a-laying to stand in for the six days of creation. What could be simpler?”

“Well, maybe setting up underground schools to secretly teach the kids the true meaning of Xmas and Xianity without all these geese and drummers and partridges. And by the way, I still don’t get how all twelve partridges can stand for Jesus X.”

“The point is,” said the wise man, “that this simple seemingly-innocent Xmas song will help drum the true meaning of Xmas into the children’s heads, and thus save Xianity from oppression by the secular overlords.”

And so it came to pass that every year when Xmas came, the little children sang of the twelve days of Xmas, and none but they knew of the secret theological significance that lay inside the twenty-two pipers piping, the forty-two geese a-laying, or the twelve partridges in pear trees.

25 December 2009

Saturnalia, Festivus, and Others

All right, I’ve managed to miss Saturnalia (17-23 December), the Islamic New Year (18 December), the last day of Hanukkah (19 December), the Solstice (21 December), old St. Thomas Day (21 December), HumanLight (23 December), and Festivus (23 December). The Islamic New Year is a wanderer that just happens this year to fall during Yuletide; the Islamic calendar is entirely lunar with no reference to the solar year, and so its holidays wander about, but the others are all solidly part of the season. The Solstice, with its longest night of the year, is the real reason for the celebration, at least here in the Northern Hemisphere where the bulk of these traditions originated. As the days get shorter and the nights get longer it’s hard not to start feeling oppressed. While even the most primitive of people must have noticed that the days eventually started getting longer again, it must still have been a relief to them when that dark corner was finally turned.

Much about the season is explicable as symbolic reminders that warmth and summer sunlight would eventually return. Evergreen branches recall the lush vegetation of spring and summer; the candles and lamps recall the great light of the sun and herald its eventual return, feasting and merriment in the cold barren wasteland give the finger to the ice and snow. And given the tendency winter has toward depression and despair, feasting and present-giving and lights and greenery probably offset the lurch to desolation.

But what about the other great theme of the year, the inversion of the social order? That’s of course Saturnalia’s special province—master and slave changing places and all that. But the Christian Christmas didn’t abandon that—far from it. Even setting aside the Boy Bishop frolics and all that, the whole damn season is one gigantic reversal of the normal order of things. For the rest of the year a sort of horribly perverse version of the laws of thermodynamics prevails—the economic law that says that no matter how much effort you put into something, you’re still screwed. Come Christmas all that gets set aside, and suddenly we give gifts to our fellow human beings, not counting the cost, not expecting anything in return. It is the exact antithesis of the capitalism by which we set our clocks the other three hundred odd days of the year. It is a perversion, or at least an inversion, of our most basic cultural values, and damned if we don’t make the most of it.

About Festivus and HumanLight, both celebrated 23 December, I know nothing; the former involves the display of an unadorned aluminum pole, and the latter involves lighting candles. Both are relatively recent inventions; the former was popularized by a TV show, Seinfeld, that as it happens I’ve never seen, and the latter appears to have been celebrated by a select group for the past decade or so. Both are intended as inclusive secular celebrations of the season, as opposed to what Garrison Keillor assures us is the for-Xians-Only festival of Xmas. Located midway between the Solstice and Christmas, each offers an alternative vision of the season, one not dependent on believing six impossible things before breakfast. I like the inclusive aspect; I don’t think I care much for the “Airing of Grievances” that is a traditional part of Festivus, but it ain’t a deal-breaker as far as I’m concerned.

24 December 2009

Quotation of the Day

If the "aughts" were about the growing recognition that things are going to change, the teens, I think are now about the growing reality of that change - the recognition that none of us have the resources, or the wealth, or the immunity from changing circumstances to resist change for very long. The question is how we will change, not whether we will.

21 December 2009

Sightless in Syracuse

Okay, 13 December was St. Lucy’s Day, and I intended to have something up about that, though as it is another one of the holidays in the Christmas season that I’ve never celebrated, I don’t really know anything about it. It’s an odd holiday, much beloved in Sweden, that involves a girl wearing a crown of lit candles while serving an early breakfast.

The story of St. Lucy is one of those horrific legends only a medieval Christian could love. The short version is that she had a boyfriend who admired her beautiful eyes, and so in a fit of some sort of madness she gouged them out and sent them to him as a present. The longer version involves her being arrested as a Christian and then executed after a variety of difficulties—the guards couldn’t move her from her cell, and then when they decided to burn her alive the fire wouldn’t consume her, for whatever reason. God was presumably behind these miracles, but somehow he was unable to keep a guard from cutting her throat with his sword.

Note that the name Lucia means light, so we seem to be again in Festival of Lights country, like Hanukkah and Yule and all the rest of the winter frolics.

Ancient Politics; Modern Celebration

I’ve fallen behind in this “Month of Christmas” project, so I’m talking about events I missed during this holiday season now; please bear with me. Or not. I’ve got my own troubles to deal with.

Hanukkah began at sundown on 11 December this year; as the date is determined according to the Jewish lunisolar calendar, it moves about on any purely solar calendar, such as the civil calendar derived from the Romans that we use here in the good old USA. What it amounts to is that Hanukkah can occur anywhere from early in the Yule season to right around Christmas itself. It’s tied to the phases of the moon, see, much like Easter and some of the other annoyingly shifty celebrations in our current repertoire.

I’m pretty sure everybody is familiar with the candle-lighting and dreidel-spinning business that constitute the praxis of the holiday, and I could comment on how the festival seems to be taking on more and more the color of the Yuletide season, with gift-giving and even decorated Hanukkah bushes being the order of the day. Well, in the United States, at least. I don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the world, really; hell, I’m barely qualified to comment on what’s going on here, crouching in my makeshifty office in the basement of the house I once had to myself. I used to know people who, you know, celebrated Hanukkah, but not any more.

No, what interests me is the history of the thing, particularly as reflected in the three books of the Christian canon, Daniel, 1 Maccabees, and 2 Maccabees. Each of them comes from a somewhat different perspective; each of them has its strengths and its weaknesses, and none of them tell us what we’d really like to know about events. It’s okay; that’s what you expect from documents rattling down the corridors of time; a partial, incomplete, highly-biased description of events that presents an insoluble puzzle for a modern historian—with just enough information to allow him to trick himself into thinking he’s got it down.

The documents come from the last period in which there was an independent Jewish state in antiquity, loosely speaking. Not until modern times would such a state emerge again. As with most things in antiquity it’s difficult to write any short summary of matters that does the slightest justice to the complex and downright messy reality, so the following paragraphs should be taken with a large allowance of salt.

The ancient kingdom of Israel is a slippery entity to get a grip on. In its earliest stages is very existence is in doubt, and it’s very hard to see exactly what sort of thing we have under our historical microscopes. The first of its incarnations, the legendary kingdom of David and Solomon, has left us virtually nothing to go on but legends and reconstructed documents best explained as creations of that kingdom. This entity, whatever its exact nature, seems to have been short-lived; by the tenth century BCE it had split into two states, Israel and Judah, with the latter ruled by descendents of David.

Both states came to ends after a few centuries, Israel in 721 BCE (or 9208 HE) and Judah in 586 BCE (9415 HE). The former was destroyed by the Assyrians and the latter by the Chaldeans (or neo-Babylonians). A remnant (the Samaritans) claiming descent from Israel persisted (and persists to this day, though now under a thousand people), and a more substantial group (the Jews) claiming descent from Judah likewise continued.

Now the critical thing in all this for our purposes is that Solomon supposedly had a temple to Yahweh constructed to Jerusalem on his watch. This temple remained a center for the worship of Yahweh (at least for the state of Judah) for centuries to come. (Israel had its own shrines, and the Judean writers who are responsible for much of material incorporated into the Biblical corpus wrote eloquently and bitterly about them.) When the Chaldeans destroyed Judah they also demolished the temple—which, however, as things turned out was not the end of that particular story.

The Chaldeans deported the ruling classes from Judah, but they didn’t disappear. Instead they formed an enclave in Babylon, where they wrote various psalms and the P narrative of the Pentateuch. Some of its members were eventually allowed to return to Jerusalem under Persian rule, and they had the temple rebuilt, rededicating it in 515 BCE (9486 HE). Not that much is known about the history of the Judean province under Persian rule, though quite a bit of Hebrew writing is more or less plausibly assigned to that period.

This era ended about 332 BCE (9669 HE) with the Macedonian conquests under Alexander the Great; the consequent breakup of his empire ultimately left Judea in Seleucid hands. Again we have little narrative history for the period, though the translation of the Pentateuch into Greek can plausibly be assigned to it.

It’s during this time that the events immediately relevant to our narrative occurred. This was during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (9826-9837 HE [175-164 BCE]). Throughout the history of the ancient world international forces (trade, imperialism) warred with parochial interests; in this period Greek influence was paramount in the process called Hellenization in the textbooks. In Judea traditionalists and Hellenists duked it out with the High Priesthood as the ultimate prize; each party tried to get its own candidate in, with bribery and assassination among the political arsenal employed. As the High Priest was appointed by the emperor, Antiochus was inevitably involved. Seeing the traditionalists as troublemakers, Antiochus ultimately decided that the correct solution was the elimination of the religion they practiced, and the replacement of their cult by one that was more accommodating. Had this plan worked out it is quite likely that history as we know it would have been very different.

It didn’t. The actual result was an uprising that led to a short period of independence for Judea under a dynasty known as the Hasmoneans. One of the products of this struggle is the biblical book of Daniel, a curious production designed to look superficially like a traditional religious tome, but actually something quite different. Written in Aramaic, the language in use since the Persian conquest, the beginning and end were translated into bad Hebrew, presumably so that the casual observer would see a classic religious text no matter whether the scroll was rolled tails out or tails in. The author’s take on history was disguised as prophecy to carry on the pretext of antiquity, but his original readers can have had no doubt what they were reading. The disguise is superficial; the bulk of the book is in Aramaic and the figures mentioned are clearly identified, even if not by name. Empires were identified as beasts by their astrological signs; this is similar to modern political cartoons depicting the United States as an eagle or Russia as a bear.

Whoever exactly was responsible for this book, he was not a Hasmonean supporter. In fact, nothing obviously emanating from the winning faction in the struggles made it into the Hebrew scriptures that have come down to us. This canon seems to have been framed to exclude the Judean leaders of the era. This is in striking contrast to the larger collection found in Greek Christian bibles; the books of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees tell of their struggles and triumphs at length. Presumably some sort of ancient factionalism is involved; the details hardly matter at this distance.

Now had Antiochus succeeded in stamping out the traditionalist party it is unlikely that Yahweh-worship would have survived as an expression of piety distinct from the general religion of the ancient world. Picture a Judaism absorbed in polytheism; we’d have (presumably) no Bible, no Jesus, no Christianity—or at the very least, we’d have different writings and a different savior. The concepts were out there, after all, but the particular historical crystallization would have been different. No doubt that’s true of many ancient events that don’t resonate as loudly down time’s hallways. Still, this one we know about, and something of it is still celebrated.

Hanukkah supposedly celebrates the rededication of the temple, after it was retaken from the Hellenizing party and returned to the form of worship the traditionalists thought was important. At this distance it’s hard to care that much over which outfit controlled a long-destroyed piece of physical and social real estate. But the consequences live on. And while that may not be the traditional meaning of Hanukkah, that’s the part that interests me.

18 December 2009

Still More Picking on the Clueless

A couple dozen people showed up for a meeting in the Rockwood School District of Ellisville, Missouri, to protest teaching students about the standard designations CE (Common Era) and BCE (Before Common Era). According to a news story “Citizens stated they want the district to use B.C. and A.D. as a standard when talking about dates in history.” One of them complained “I just think it’s trying to pacify being politically correct and I don’t agree with that at all. It should not be taught.” A petition on the subject has “attracted hundreds of signatures”.

The odd thing is that the school district in question does not in fact use any nomenclature other than AD/BC in referring to dates in history. “There is no policy or plan in place to remove the use of B.C. or A.D. in the Rockwood School District or to enforce the use of any other designated dating system,” according to Kim Cranston. Apparently the school does teach about the existence of the standard CE/BCE designation, in use among historians for centuries, as well they should, if they want the kids prepared for college. A spokesman for the district, however, seems to say that they intend to enforce the use of the AD designation to provide historical clarity—whatever that’s supposed to mean.

The two comments on this story are stupid in the extreme. One reads:
Enough of this political correctness. Why don't we use the terms PCE/BPCE. Political Correct Era and Before Political Correct Era. Let's start teaching BP Before Present and ACE After Common Era. We need a Superintendent and Board of Education who have a backbone and stand up for what is right. This is a symptom of a larger problem.
The other:
The only thing the school district will understand is taxes. Vote against them and protest your taxes.
I contributed the following comment:
If historical clarity is the issue than students should be taught the standard CE/BCE system used by historians for the past four centuries. It’s a distinction without a difference, really; AD 2009 is the same date as 2009 CE; 146 BC is the same date as 146 BCE. (Both nomenclatures involve the omission of the year 0, making calculations between years AD/CE and BC/BCE needlessly cumbersome.) Historically the Common Era or Christian Era has also been known as the Vulgar Era; the system was devised by some sixth century monk so he didn’t have to use the emperor’s name in calculating dates for Easter.

And by the way if the kids are going to be taught the AD/BC nomenclature, I do think they should be taught that the AD goes in front of the date, not after it. So many times I’ve seen people mistakenly write 2009 AD instead of AD 2009. It would probably also be helpful to remind them that AD stands for “Anno Domini” and not “After Death”.
My comment has not yet shown up as I publish this entry.

(h/t Afarensis)

17 December 2009

More Picking on the Clueless

Even as I wrote the “Picking on the Clueless” entry the other day, another member of the Clueless Brigade, one Michael Aprile, was contributing his two cents (and that’s overvaluing it considerably) at Pharyngula. This guy, who obviously knows nothing about the topic, had the temerity to lecture P. Z. Myers, a practicing biologist, on the subject of “Macro evolution”. An excerpt follows:
There is nothing wrong with being a fool, but teaching others to be one is unacceptable and irresponsible, at the very least. Furthermore, to have a degree or degrees in biology and to still believe in Darwinian theory, shows ignorance in the worst degree. Macro evolution is founded on absolutely nothing but blind faith. No evidence has ever been provided for it. Several hokes and false attempts, but no real evidence. A large group of sciences, including biologists, have concluded that the theory is false.
Now of course I would point out that no evidence has ever been provided that there is a distinction between macroevolution and microevolution; the assumption behind that is the notion that there is something, some sort of mechanism, that would prevent many small genetic changes from accumulating until two populations are no longer capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. Until such a mechanism has been observed in action the term “macroevolution” is essentially hand-waving and gas.

P. Z. Myers rips the poor fool apart in the manner of Yahweh speaking to Job out of the whirlwind:
I’ve split half-billion year old stones to expose the shells of trilobites, I’ve seen the bones of Tiktaalik, I’ve held in my hands the skull of Neanderthal. I’ve compared the genes of mice and flies, I’ve studied the embryos of grasshoppers and fish, I’ve read thousands of papers produced by a scientific community that values curiosity over money. I’ve also read dozens of books by creationists, and I can say with complete confidence that they, and you, Mr Michael Aprile, are full of shit.
Ah, yes, way to go, Dr. Myers.

15 December 2009

A Sad and Wasted Life

Pioneering television con-man and itinerant faith-healer Oral Roberts died today, leaving the world worse off than when he came into it. With the advent of television opportunities to make a fast buck off the gullible abounded, and men like Oral Roberts were quick to take advantage of it.

His death came none too soon for his many victims. It is sad to have to say this about any person, but had his life been cut short say fifty years ago, the world could have been saved a great deal of pain and suffering, and at least one fake institute of higher learning would never have opened.

The great C. E. S. Wood once pictured the scene in heaven when Billy Sunday, the inventor of televangelism, entered. “I’ve been sending a stream of souls up here, like they was played out of a fire nozzle and at a discount, too,” he boasts.

“I never heard of you,” says God.

“Why, this place must be jammed with souls I sent here,” Billy protests.

“No, not one.”

“Where are they?”

“I don’t know. I never heard of you.”

“Are you sure that this is heaven, and you are God?”

“No," says God. “Not sure I am God—but this is heaven … and none of your souls are here.”

“They must be somewhere,” Billy protests.

“Not necessarily,” says God. “The cosmos is so very large, and fanatics are so infinitely small.”

It would take a writer like Wood to do justice to this theme, and I am not him. The colossal waste of a long and misspent life is too appalling to contemplate. The ruin Oral Roberts has spread to the lives he touched is even harder to look at. I won’t mourn the death of this sleazy trickster. There’s nothing left there to mourn; rather I regret that a unique individual who was given the chance to experience the universe and leave something of value behind him instead squandered it selfishly in such a shameful manner. Sad to say, he will not be missed.

Picking on the Clueless

I have a number of open tabs in my browser that I’d like to get rid of; two of them are witless comments on science. The first comes from one Bill Belew, who writes for Examiner.com. This extremely short piece has got to be one of the stupidest I’ve ever read on any scientific topic. Bill asks: “Who or what is making the natural selection?” Rather than take the time to brush up on the topic he blunders on:

Selection implies there is a selector, no? Choice implies chooser, right?

And on what basis does the selector make his/her/its selection?

It seems to me folk do not want to acknowledge a Creator or Designer to the universe but would very much like to personify all that is around us and give it the ability to design. What’s up with that?

Well, I don’t know, Bill—the question that strikes me is, Have you ever thought of, oh, doing a little homework before publishing? I guess not.

Almost as idiotic is the following paragraph from Kent Hovind’s doctoral dissertation:

The idea that evolutionists try to get across today is that there is a continual upward progression. They claim that everything is getting better, improving, all by itself as if there is an inner-drive toward more perfection and order. This is totally opposite of the first and second law [sic] of thermodynamics. It goes against all scientific evidence that has been accumulated. Yet, this lie is what many men believe today. We don’t see it happening anywhere in our universe today. We don't see any evidence of this in the fossil record.

And yet, people who gibber like this expect to be taken seriously. The mind boggles.

10 December 2009

Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men

10 December is Human Rights Day, commemorating the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly on this day in 1948. And how appropriate it is to the season. Consider Article 1:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Damn right. In a way it’s sad that the remaining twenty-nine articles have to exist at all, spelling out that people should not be tortured (Article 4) or enslaved (Article 5), or deprived of employment (Article 23) or leisure (Article 24) or education (Article 26). Shouldn’t this all go without saying? Apparently not; when the nation that prides itself on being the city on the hill and the beacon of hope for the world descends to torture and degradation of human beings for political ends all bets are off.

In many ways a noble document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has a couple of anomalies. Consider Article 16 section 1:
Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
There is nothing here that any segregationist of the Post-Reconstruction South or strict Roman Catholic could object to; whites are free to marry whites just as coloreds are free to marry coloreds; Baptists are free to marry Baptists just as Roman Catholics are free to marry Roman Catholics, “without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion”. Nobody is stopping African-Americans or Baptists from marrying, so long as they marry within their own kind. As interracial marriage was prohibited in most states of the union at the time the United States voted for the UDHR, this almost has to have been its understanding of this passage.

Or again, consider this from Article 26 section 1:
Elementary education shall be compulsory.
I know there’s a story behind this; the idea is to prevent parents or employers from depriving children of an education by exploiting their labor on farms or in factories when they should be in school. My father used to tell of an old farmer in North Powder who saw no reason why his kids should be wasting time in school when they could be doing chores at home. But this seems to me to be a mite on the extreme side. At the very least it seems odd to see anything described as “compulsory” in a list of human rights. And as an ex-homeschooler somewhat in the tradition of Neill and Holt, I find this concept a trifle troubling. There’s something akin to slavery in it, seems like.

But on the whole the UDHR favors good things—equality before the law (7), equal pay for equal work (23), the right to privacy (12), freedom of thought (including the “freedom to change his religion or belief”) (18), freedom of opinion and expression (19), freedom of movement (13), the right to an adequate standard of living (25), the right to enjoy and arts and share in scientific advancement (27), and so on. It lies squarely in the tradition represented by classic US documents like The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

If there’s a single document that spells out the meaning of the season in practical terms, this is it. It was supported in 1948 by states as disparate as Afghanistan and Mexico, Egypt and Thailand, Syria and the United States, Iceland and Turkey. No one voted against it, though a handful of states (including unsurprisingly Saudi Arabia, the Soviet Union, and the then-segregated Union of South Africa) abstained from voting.

The UDHR is said to be the most-translated document in the world, having been put into more than 300 languages. (The “complete” Bible [minus the Apocrypha / Deuterocanonical works] has been translated into 438 languages according to the United Bible Society, however. Parts of the Bible have been translated into many more.) It is probably the most generally accepted statement of basic rights anywhere ever (and my Wikipedia editing experience immediately pops up with “citation needed”.) Oh, yeah, there are critics out there, especially among the states committed to a single religious tradition, Islamic states being the noisiest current offenders. Consider the Cairo Declaration version of religious liberty (Article 10) as a contrast:
Islam is the religion of unspoiled nature. It is prohibited to exercise any form of compulsion on man or to exploit his poverty or ignorance in order to convert him to another religion or to atheism.
How degraded is that? The filth of that document makes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stand out all the more brightly, holiday lights in the darkness of winter ignorance.

09 December 2009

Various Manifestations of News

It’s cold here in the Pacific Northwest, damn cold, and I’ve spent the night periodically stalking through the house making sure the pipes don’t burst and nothing is catching fire.  The temperature is supposed to be 15 degrees Fahrenheit, and I’m really sick of it, to tell the truth.  The arctic air should be gone in a couple of days, which will be a gigantic load off my mind, and with any luck maybe things will return to something resembling normal for a Portland winter.

Strange news drifts in and piles up on my virtual desk.  Some of these things practically defy comment.  At the Sikh Temple in Vancouver (BC) a slate of relatively youthful “fundamentalist” candidates defeated the older “moderate” incumbents handily.  At issue: the use of chairs and tables instead of the traditional mats in the community dining area.  The incumbents had introduced the use of these heretical modern innovations, and the younger generation were having none of it.  People in wheelchairs, apparently, are exempt from the mat requirement.  [Vancouver Sun, Surrey Leader, The Globe and Mail]

In Nigeria witch-hunter Helen Ukpabio has filed suit in federal court against Leo Igwe, the Center for Inquiry’s representative there.
Ukpabio is seeking damages of 200 billion Nigerian Naira, more than $1.3 billion, for supposedly unlawful and unconstitutional infringement on her rights to belief in “God, Satan, witchcraft, Heaven and Hell fire” and for the alleged unlawful and unconstitutional detention of two members of her church.
It seems that she’s been crusading against an epidemic of witches among the women and children of the lower classes, and she feels that her efforts are being impeded by rationalists who deride her efforts as superstitious nonsense.
The suit also seeks to prevent law enforcement from arresting or detaining any member of the Liberty Gospel Church for performing or engaging in what they say are constitutionally protected religious activities. These activities include the burning of three children, ages 3 through 6, with fire and hot water, as reported by James Ibor of the Basic Rights Counsel in Nigeria on August 24, 2009. The parents believed their children were witches.
The witch-hunter led an angry mob to attack Leo Igwe last July; presumably this also would be a constitutionally protected religious activity. [Center for Inquiry; h/t Ed Brayton]

And, of course, as we all know now, Uganda is lined up to pass a law mandating the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”, and the people behind it have been aided and encouraged by the American lobbying group known as The Family, an outfit that has some of our most regressive politicians as members.

Sometimes I feel as though I were living during the time of Richard IV of England, when the legendary Lord Blackadder flourished.
 

08 December 2009

Attention: Time Travelers

It is also possible that this is Pretend to be a Time Traveler Day, in which the objective is to try to blend in unobtrusively with current customs and mores.  Some suggested activities include:
  • Greeting people by referring to phenomena of the past and future; some examples might be: “What spectrum will today’s broadcast be in?” or “Is this song available on 78?” or “Can you direct me to the nearest sleep deprivation chamber?”
  • Walking up to random people and asking them, “What year is this?” and on hearing their reply, muttering (after a moment’s pause), “Then there’s still time” before hurrying off.
  • Standing in front of a statue, falling to your knees, and yelling “Nooooo!
  • Dressing in moderately anachronistic clothing and speaking in slang from varying decades.
This one really appeals to me; I think it was my father who used to suggest that one way of appreciating the mundane world was to imagine oneself as a time traveler experiencing the past (or future) for the first time.

And much thanks to Dave Away from Home for this one.

St. Buddha

Today is Bodhi Day in Japan. This commemorates the enlightenment of Siddhārtha Gautama after forty-nine days of meditation under a Bodhi tree, and was traditionally celebrated on the eighth day of the twelfth month of the Chinese calendar, now transferred in some traditions to the eighth day of the twelfth month of our current calendar.

According to the legend Siddhārtha, raised in great wealth and luxury, was so horrified on discovering disease and misery that he spent many years searching for the answer to the ultimate question, the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. (42, anyone?) After studying under several teachers, taking fasting to ridiculous lengths, and endless meditation sessions, he finally vowed to sit under a tree until he found true enlightenment. After seven weeks of solid meditation enlightenment came to him, and the Noble Eightfold Path was born. Bodhi Day commemorates this event.

Now as it happens I’ve never met anybody who celebrated Bodhi Day—or, at any rate, I’ve never been around when they did. I don’t know how seriously Buddhists take this holiday, but I read that some decorate a ficus with multi-colored lights which are turned on for the thirty days following the 8th, and that tree-shaped cookies are baked for the kids. Doing nice things for the other beings that share our planet is another feature of the season.

Offhand this sounds to me like a Buddhist take on our common Yuletide traditions, much as Christmas is a Christian take on them. I base this, however, only on the most casual of reading; not on anything resembling research. My impression is that Buddhism generally prefers to blend in with local culture, and for all I know some of these features may be explicitly taken from the Christian celebration—though again, as Christians took them from earlier “faiths”, this would be simply another passing on of the torch.

Torches can be passed in many ways, and the story of Siddhārtha Gautama is a fascinating one. It circulated in many forms. In one of them he became an Indian prince who converted to Christianity (brought to India by St. Thomas) and under its influence lived an ascetic life of great holiness. In this tradition he is called St. Josaphat (though he was never officially canonized by the Roman Catholic church) and his feast day is celebrated 27 November. Which just goes to show, I guess, that the study of theology is full of surprises.

07 December 2009

Pearl Harbor Day

Today is Pearl Harbor Day, one of several holidays that are in the Christmas season, but not of it, so to speak.  I had originally intended to have a post today on the observance, but my time got eaten up in one of the idiotic arguments and discussions that seem to infest this house constantly.  I’ve got to get moved out, and it’s increasingly looking like the sooner the better.

So, what about Pearl Harbor?  The surprise Japanese attack on the U. S. Naval base sixty-eight years ago was the Nine Eleven of my parents’ generation, and was still an open wound when I was growing up.  My best friends’ father (along about first grade or so) was partially deaf, and lived as a result in a somewhat isolated world socially; he had been on board one of the ships attacked that day and his deafness was a result.  Virtually any adult at that time could tell you exactly where he or she was when the news of the attack came.  It must have cast a deep shadow over the Christmas festivities of that year.

I'd intended to say something I hoped would be interesting about the day, but it’s cold and I’m exhausted, and I can’t come up with anything.

Instead of mulling over the contrast between an act of war in a season of peace, I suggest reading this repost of a piece on the authorship of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” at Millard Fillmore's Bathtub.  It’s more in keeping with the season anyway.

06 December 2009

A Punch in the Jaw from Jolly Old St. Nick

Tara: There’s a Santa Claus?
Anya: Mm-hmm. Been around since, like, the 1500s. But he wasn’t always called Santa. But with, you know, Christmas night, flying reindeer, coming down the chimney, all true.
Dawn: All true?
Anya: Well, he doesn’t traditionally bring presents so much as, you know, disembowel children. But otherwise…
Tara: The reindeer part was nice.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “The Body”

Today is St. Nicholas Day, the official start of the holiday marathon that constitutes Yuletide.  This is the day little children in Teutonic countries who put out a shoe filled with hay the night before wake up to find the hay replaced by candy.  The hay is for St. Nicholas’ horse, and the candy is a reward for decent behavior from the kids.  Sometimes stockings are put out instead of shoes, and the St. often comes into the house through the chimney.  St. Nicholas, by the way, has a variously-named helper who not only carries the bag of rewards, but also helpfully carries a rod for corporal punishment of bad kids.  In Switzerland, Austria, and some parts of Germany he’s an unkempt horned demon named Krampus, or Klaubauf; in other parts of Germany he’s a uncouth knight called Ruprecht; and in the Netherlands he’s a nasty-looking guy known as Black Peter (Zwarte Piet), not to be confused with the old whaler whose death Sherlock Holmes once investigated.

Like so many of the older saints and martyrs, the historic Nicholas of Myra is a slippery fellow.  He scuttles about in the shadows, leaving little for a researcher to work with. What small record about him we do have to go on is legend, and only the existence of those legends gives us any reason to believe that the guy was important in his own time, and apparently much loved.  Historically all we can say is that a cult of St. Nicholas was already prominent in the sixth century.  Behind the cult presumably lies a real human being, but we know nothing whatsoever about him.

Reference works usually say something like this:

Saint Nicholas (Greek: Άγιος Νικόλαος , Agios [“saint”] Nikolaos [“victory of the people”]) (280 - 6 December 343) is the common name for Nicholas of Myra, a saint and Bishop of Myra (Demre, in Lycia, part of modern-day Turkey).  Although born to great wealth, he was generous to the poor.  He had a reputation for secret gift-giving and many stories are told of his benevolence.  At the council of Nicea he championed orthodoxy against the Arian heresy.  He died 6 December 343.

The trouble is, none of this is actually history.  It is, rather, an attempt to find historic kernels hidden in the mass of legends that surround the figure.  Extracting history from legend is an exacting task, one that requires a great deal of time, patience, and above all, some basis (other than personal preference) for evaluating the material.

Ideally there would exist a historical record, however meager, about the figure in question—as there is, for example, about Billy the Kid or William Shakespeare.  The matter of history then gives us something with which to judge the matter of legend; we have in that case a basis for making a decision.  The exact balance struck may depend on the views held by the particular historian about the soundness of tradition or the like, but at least there is some ground to stand on in making a decision.  But for Saint Nicholas there is nothing of the sort, no historical record of any kind.

Another possibility would be to examine the context in which he is supposed to have lived; to take a look at what is known about Myra (let us say) or the office of the bishop in the early fourth century (let us say) and use that information to judge the plausibility of the stories that have come down to us.  The weakness with this approach, however, is obvious.  It already assumes a certain body of facts—say that a man named Nicholas in fact existed in the early fourth century, that he was a bishop and that he lived in Myra.  You could apply the same sort of standards in evaluating the stories about Sherlock Holmes, for example, and in the end you’d be no closer to determining any facts about the historic Sherlock Holmes, because there was no such person.

Given the absence of anything but the legend to work with, the starting point has to be the legend itself.  A story that has been attached to various figures, for example, is far less likely to be genuine than one that is told only about the character we’re looking at.  A story that appears late in the transmission of the legend, and whose growth can be traced over time, is almost certainly not accurate, especially in its latest stage of development.  I would also note that stories that purport to tell the origin of some particular custom or landmark should be examined extremely closely; human beings enjoy telling such stories and attaching them to famous figures without too much regard for the facts on the ground.

Two stories about the legendary Saint Nicholas have always stuck in my mind.  The first I encountered many years ago, though I don’t specifically remember where.  Essentially the bishop gets wind of a guy in town who is impoverished; he is so poor that he can’t afford dowries for his three daughters.  The father is therefore contemplating turning his house into a brothel and prostituting his kids in order to make ends meet.  (The version I remember from my childhood was a bit vague on this particular point, actually.)  The bishop, however, decides to circumvent this by providing dowries for the daughters.  He does so by tossing a bag of gold through the man’s window in the dead of night.  (Again, the version I remember from childhood had him dropping the bag down the chimney.)  The man is delighted with this and does indeed succeed in marrying off his eldest daughter, thanks to Bishop Nicholas.  Pleased that the father didn’t for example make off with the money himself, the bishop tosses a second sack of gold through the window for the second daughter, and then later on a third sack for the third.  On that occasion, however, he is caught by the father, who expresses his gratitude for what the bishop has done for him and his children.  And they all live, we may assume, happily ever after.

Now Jona Lendering suggests that this story is likely to be true because it contains no supernatural elements, and that the motive for Nicholas’ actions—his concern over the fate of the girls—is unique in ancient literature.
Care for women was not a top priority in the Roman empire, and the anecdote, in this form, can not have its roots in a pagan environment. On the other hand, in early Christianity, women played an important role (e.g, as deaconesses). Only when the new faith had become a mass religion, the attitudes of the majority of the Mediterranean population started to infiltrate Christianity. The position of women became worse.
The story fits the early fourth century, cannot be derived from pagan roots, and does not require “a miraculous suspension of the laws of physics”.  He therefore concludes it “to be inevitable that it [is] simply true.”  Against this I would note that while truth is one possibility, even accepting his arguments it is not the only one.  The best we can say is that the story is likely to have originated at the same time the bishop is supposed to have lived.  Charles W. Jones (St. Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend, p. 57) is a bit less certain:
May we presume that a devotee of N, most probably a preacher, knew a fine story and believed that to add it to N’s life would honor both story and hero, as Washington was wedded to the equally inexplicable cherry tree?
I’m not going to mix into this particular discussion except to say that (as Lendering points out) there is in fact an ancient antecedent to this story, and it is found in the life of the first century Neopythagorean philosopher Apollonius of Tyana.  The philosopher ran into a guy who had four daughters and an inadequate sum of money with which to provide dowries; further, once he had given their dowries he would be wiped out.  Apollonius persuaded him to invest the money in an estate outside town instead.  At first the man complained “because, whereas he might have kept the 20,000 drachmas that he had in hand, he now reflected that the estate which he purchased for the sum might suffer from frost and hailstorms and from other influences ruinous to the crops.”  However, when instead “he got a very large yield from the olive-trees, when everywhere else the crops had failed, he began to hymn the praises of the sage, and his house was crowded with suitors for the hand of his daughters urging their suits upon him.”  Again, all live happily ever after, we may suppose.

Now there are notable differences between the stories; Nicholas hands out money, where Apollonius only hands out advice.  Nicholas may come off as the more generous here, but Apollonius comes up with the better long-term solution; he makes it possible for the man to support himself by steering him in a useful direction, where Nicholas provides only a quick fix for his present difficulties.  Did either incident happen?  Anything is possible, but we’re clearly in the realm of folklore here, not history.

The other story that sticks in my mind about the bishop of Myra is one that came up while I was sitting in on the Nag Hammadi seminar in Claremont.  One time during the Christmas season, before the event started, one of the grad-students (I actually don’t remember who, now) entertained us with a rundown of the life of Saint Nicholas as recorded in legend.  According to him the bishop was present at the Council of Nicea, and got into a disputation with the arch-heretic Arius himself.  The disputation became heated and Arius seemed to have the upper hand.  Orthodoxy itself was trembling on the brink of disaster, when Nicholas came up with the perfect refutation.  He slugged Arius, breaking his jaw, thus keeping him from continuing his heretical arguments, and so Christianity was saved from error, and all lived happily ever after (we may assume).

Okay, there actually is such a story about Nicholas, though the versions I’ve seen are not quite so dramatic as the one I remember from that particular occasion.  It wasn’t Arius himself; it was an anonymous Arian, and the bishop silenced him by slugging him in the face; nothing is said about breaking his jaw.  Jona Lendering notes:
According to this legend, Nicholas was so angry at an advocate of Arianism that, overcome by apostolic zeal, he struck his opponent. Not everyone appreciated this blow for Arianism, and the presidency of the Council decided that Nicholas was no longer allowed to wear the ornaments of a bishop. Therefore, Nicholas is shown without mitre on Greek icons. In fact, this anecdote is embarrasing, and this is a reason why it is unlikely to have been invented.
Okay, it is true that an embarrassing anecdote is less likely to have been invented than a praiseworthy one, at least by a historical figure’s admirers, but the extant accounts don’t seem to have looked at it that way.  Jesus and Mary are supposed to have approved his action.  And here the history of the tradition is overriding; when it turns up in an earlier account we read:
…all the Orthodox were gathered at Nicea to establish a true Constitution of the Faith and to drive away the blasphemous doctrine of Arius, with a view to peaceful conciliation of the whole Church.  It was effected by the determination that the Son was equal in honor with the Father and that both Persons were conjoint.  The admirable Nicholas helped to bring this about as a member of the sacred synod, and he strenuously resisted the casuistry of Arius, reducing to naught his every tenet. [Symeon Metaphrastes as quoted in Charles W. Jones, p. 63]
Only later does Nicholas punch an Arian, and only after that do accounts mention the negative reaction from other bishops.  Plausible it may be, but truth and plausibility are by no means the same thing.  In this case the lateness of the story, combined with the fact that we can trace its development, suggests that the information is bogus.  It’s also worth noting (perhaps) that Nicholas is not listed as a participant in the council of Nicea in most lists, though as they were compiled after the fact and are not necessarily complete, that may not count for much.

None of this really matters all that much.  There’s no real evidence to suggest that the historical Saint Nicholas was anything more than a convenient name to graft onto a legend; the legend might well be much the same if Nicholas of Myra never existed.  And in truth, though I’ve expressed it as a hypothetical, it may well be the fact that Nicholas never existed.  A cult and a legend do not necessarily add up to a historical figure, and wishful thinking is not the same as historical research.  For one thing, the former is much easier than the latter.

02 December 2009

The Religionization of Christmas

I’m one of those types of atheists who loves Christmas. I celebrate it with my family and I love singing the songs, regardless if they’re about Jesus or Frosty the Snowman. I grew up singing Christmas carols in concerts for public schools, and it didn’t traumatize me. My family was secular and I didn’t feel left out; I just saw singing about Jesus’s divinity the same as singing about Santa (aka, silly and fictional). I’m still an atheist now - the Noel didn’t convert me.
And so we approach the most magical time of the year—Christmas. The season of sharing, of remembering the less fortunate, of peace on earth and good will toward all mankind, no matter how bigoted or nasty. The time of lights and presents, of Santa and mistletoe, of A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker, of hacking down a living tree and dragging it inside to die slowly for our entertainment. It’s truly an amazing time, as we all celebrate acting in ways that would absolutely screw us up in the real world. Handouts to all and sundry, generosity even to the undeserving, suspending our quarrels and holding a spirit of benevolence—it’s either a celebration of our ideals, or a monument to hypocrisy, depending on how you want to look at it. As Tom Lehrer once observed about National Brotherhood Week, be grateful that it doesn’t last all year.

Personally I love the Yuletide. I haven’t always loved it; there have been many years, particularly when I was in a deep depression, when Christmas has felt like a millstone around my neck, something to be endured rather than enjoyed as I sank into the abyss. But that’s okay. I’ve always observed it, I think, much as I’ve always recognized other seasonal landmarks—birthdays, holidays, and private anniversaries.

One thing I despise, however, is the increasing religionization of Christmas. What was originally a joyous time, where the usual values were turned upside down so as to provide a little light in the season of darkness, has increasingly become a moment for screechy preachers to pimp for their faith and for teachers with an axe to grind to use the power of government to proselytize. Some may see these faith-whores as merely misguided; I see them as avatars of destruction, enemies of civilization, and, well, just not very nice people. I don’t expect much to come of their “War on Christmas”; they’ve been at it at least from Cromwell’s time and still haven’t managed to stamp it out. If these guys had their way Christmas would become a suicidally dreary time of mandatory church-attendance and hymn-singing, with the praise of the Infant Jesus as the principle theme. Well, they’ve succeeded in getting Jesus into the Yuletide festivities, and I (for one) think that’s enough. Let it stop here.
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