You may know there are two conventions for representing historical years: the traditional A.D. and B.C., and the chic new C.E. and B.C.E. (if you don’t know about that, Wikipedia will get you up to speed). People often ask me why I use one or the other, or what (as a historian) I think we should use. I always use B.C. and A.D. when I have a choice, and I believe we should only ever use that convention. The other should be stuffed in a barrel filled with concrete and tossed to the bottom of the sea. However, I don’t always have a choice. When I publish with Prometheus Books (and so far that means five chapters in two volumes, The Christian Delusion and The End of Christianity, and one whole volume out this April: Proving History, which I’ll blog about when it’s finally released), I have to adhere to their editorial conventions, which include a requirement to employ the newfangled convention (so their copy editors always convert the abbreviations, which led to an error in Delusion, where a C.E. date was given as B.C.E., on page 413, which I’m told was corrected on a later printing). So sometimes you’ll see me use one, and sometimes the other. That’s why.

But why do I think C.E. and B.C.E. are dumb? Really dumb, in fact. The newfangled convention has been promoted in an idiotic and patronizing attempt not to “offend” non-Christians who have to use the Christian calender (yes, it’s a Christian calendar, full stop). That’s the same non-Christians who (we’re to suppose) are still being regularly offended by having to call a day Saturday even though they don’t worship the God Saturn. Christians don’t get offended by naming a calendar day by a non-existent pagan god. So why should non-Christians get offended by naming a calendar year after a non-existent Christian god? Calling the sixth day of the week ‘Saturday’ (literally “Saturn’s Day”) does not entail embracing a Eurocentric worldview or belief in the God Saturn. It’s just using the English language. So, too, the labels B.C. and A.D.

The new convention is even stupider than that, of course, because it’s embarrassingly Orwellian. The traditional convention of B.C. (“Before Christ”) and A.D. (“Anno Domini” = “In the Year of the Lord”) is supposed to be improved by replacing it with the culturally neutral B.C.E. (“Before the Common Era”) and C.E. (“Common Era”). But both indicate the same exact division, made by the same exact religion, for the same exact reason, to honor the same exact god. Either way, it’s the same demarcation, which was the invention of Christians, and only makes sense as such. There is no other reason for starting “year 1” where it does, other than what Christians mistakenly believed to be the birth of their Lord and its cosmic importance.

Yes, mistaken. There is no evidence that Jesus (even if he existed) was born in 1 A.D. (much less on Christmas), and in fact all the evidence we have is against that. The only evidence there is (if it can be trusted at all) entails he was born either no later than 4 B.C. or no earlier than 6 A.D. (a contradiction that further entails at least one of those dates must be wrong). For a summary of the evidence on this point see Richard Carrier, “Luke vs. Matthew on the Year of Christ’s Birth” (or read the full analysis which that only summarizes: “The Date of the Nativity in Luke” ). Personally, I think it’s more embarrassing for Christians if we keep the traditional terms, as that can only perpetually remind them of how fallible and silly they are. Whereas the new notation makes the rest of us look even sillier.

Anyway, point is, the only reason whatever for starting the calendar at year 1 in the B.C.E. / C.E. system is the wholly erroneous medieval belief that the god Jesus was born in that year. Changing the acronyms does nothing to conceal that fact and therefore serves no purpose, other than to please a pernicious form of liberalism that believes you can change what things are by renaming them. And like all stupid attempts to conceal what things really mean by renaming them, the  B.C.E. / C.E. notation is less intelligible (era common to whom?), less explicable (why does the ‘common era’ begin in the year it does, instead of some other year?), less practical (repeating the same two letters in each designator slows visual recognition), and less efficient (using five letters to do the work of four). It’s therefore just monumentally stupid.

As George Carlin aptly observed, our fear of facts always involves making our language more polysyllabic, confusing, and useless. As he put it, “American English is loaded with euphemisms. Because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent the kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it, and it gets worse with every generation.” This is a classic example of that, although in this case foreigners are just as guilty of it, as if they want to hide from the fact that they were conquered by Christian imperialists and are now compelled by that accident of history to use their calendar instead of their own. Just deal with reality. It’s much better that way. Trust me.

The bottom line is, the original notation is more familiar, more honest, more factual, more meaningful, less confusing, and easier to use. There is no good reason to change it.

Red Tails

Lucas’s new film is good but not excellent. There were elements of it that disappointed me. But it may be worth your support anyway. Here’s why…

Red Tails is a movie just released honoring the Tuskegee airmen, an often unrecognized unit of black fighter pilots in WWII. For those who don’t know the backstory, George Lucas (sort of?) wrote and produced it, and has been working for over two decades to try and make this film happen, because studios just weren’t interested (he ended up paying for it himself, and it wasn’t cheap). Why? Because, he was told, a film with an “all black cast” was assumed to be a loser at the box office, especially in the foreign market, and thus not worth the investment a major film like this requires.

Sikivu Hutchinson, writing for Black Skeptics here at FtB, gets you up to speed on this fiasco in Jim Crow Hollywood 101. Although one of the deciding factors causing studios to reject the film was apparently their belief that an all-black action film would flop in the foreign market, so it’s not just the fading ghost of Jim Crow America, but also the rest of the “We Used to Love the Atlantic Slave Trade” Western World and “Why Is Their Skin a Weird Color, What Are They Aliens?” Eastern World (oh, and I suppose we ought to add the “We Can’t Afford to Buy Your Stupid Movies Because of Your Agrosubsidies, Dumb Asses!” African market and the “We Have Our Own Action Movies With People of Color in Them, Thank You” Indian market, and so on, but I’m not a studio exec so I don’t know what supposed data they were looking at).

Other WWII Films to Compare

As for myself, I thought the movie might be awesome just because it was a WWII action flick; the fact that it was about the Tuskegee airmen was just a cool bonus. I was a little unsure, though, because ever since the 80s WWII movies either suck (Pearl Harbor, anyone?) or are beyond excellent but, as one might say, kind of dark. Das Boot, Schindler’s List, Valkyrie, Saving Private Ryan, Inglorious Basterds, Miracle at St. Anna, are all superb films, some are brilliant on almost every measure. But they aren’t exactly ra-ra, “heroes rock!” action flicks. Yes, Basterds had a bit of that (and some would say a bit too much of it, and that on the “um, that didn’t happen” side, but let’s be honest, we all love a good revenge fantasy now and then), but overall even that film was, let’s be honest, dark. So can we have more feel good WWII films? Sure, people die even in those. Sad things happen. It’s war. But the overall feel is not “excuse me while I go shoot myself,” but more in the “yay!” category.

Once upon a time we had those movies, albeit often wildly fictional: Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen, Force 10 from Navaronne (all had a token black guy…who duly got killed; except in Force 10, where he’s only mortally wounded, demonstrating real progress in racial relations; until you notice he wasn’t depicted on any of the promo film posters, despite being Carl Weathers, hardly a nobody…). And of course there have been plenty of WWII-set pieces…that had nothing much to do with war per se. Like Victory, two of the Indianna Jones films (Raiders and Last Crusade), The Keep … (notice we are descending into even wilder fiction here). But they also used to write really heroic, sometimes even delightfully comic, WWII movies that, I have to say, would never get written today for some reason. I’m thinking of flicks like Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, Father Goose, and Operation Petticoat.

Red Tails: Bad News First

I name all of these so you’ll know what my point of reference is as far as what counts as a really good WWII flick (don’t make too much hay out of any omissions; there are tons of classics I haven’t seen). Red Tails doesn’t make this cut. And that’s mostly because George Lucas wrote it (the credits say two other guys did, but on The Daily Show he described himself writing it, and IMO either he did, or clones of him did, because it’s very Lucasy). George Lucas is kind of a shit writer, IMO, and the worst when he tries to write “for kids.” He talks down to kids. He apparently thinks kids are stupid. When I was watching Red Tails there were several scenes were I was pulled out of the film because of some stupid dialogue he’d put in (or allowed in, if he was just supervising the script; indeed the very first lines of the film will worry you as far as their dumbness…all I can say is, it gets better…mostly). Later I realized why that stupid, unrealistic dialogue was in there: he wants parents to take their kids to go see this movie, and he thinks kids are too stupid to follow realistic dialogue (as my wife said to me afterward, the opposite is the case: she learned how to speak and understand better by watching as a kid movies that were written for adults; but this is a guy who thinks kids loved Jar Jar Binks).

Still, there were really only three or four scenes that were that bad. The rest was at least decent, especially when the black performers were on screen (the cast is not devoid of white people, it just doesn’t have any in lead roles). But here I think the rest of what was wrong with this movie is that the director (Anthony Hemingway) kind of phoned it in whenever he was shooting white cast members. In almost every scene with a white person in it, their performance sucked. It looked like he always printed the first take, when a real director would stop and tell them, “Okay, you’re delivering your lines fine; now perform the lines. Okay, take two…” In contrast, the black actors performed solidly throughout, even R&B singer Ne-Yo, who was great, producing one of my favorite characters and adding something different to the film I’m sure would have been lost if they’d gone with someone else.

(I should also add my usual peeve about all contemporary cinema, that I’m sick of the over-use of CGI in movies today; it’s lazy and unconvincing and destroys most of the awe movies once could produce. I liked it back when we actually made movies, and not cartoons that we try to pass off as movies. But this is a minor point. I know it’s unrealistic to expect some real movie magic and actual aerial stunt work, especially when he wasn’t even getting funded properly, but I really do want to see real movies again some day. So, complaint registered. Moving on…)

Red Tails: Now the Good News

It’s a decent work of historical fiction that’s fun to watch in the classic sense. You will learn a lot about what went on and what they accomplished and how they were perceived at the start of the war and how that changed by the end of it, which is all in broad outline accurate. There’s humor and heroism. And it’s miles better than any crap film like Pearl Harbor. Note that I can’t compare Red Tails here with the 1995 HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen starring Laurence Fishburne, which covered the same unit, not only because I haven’t seen it (although now I am inspired to), but because it was not a studio released film; indeed, the fact that it was not is an example of what’s wrong with Hollywood (and accordingly, as I don’t have premium channels like HBO, I had never heard of it until researching this post today).

So what about Red Tails? Should you see this movie, and encourage others to as well? Your call. But let me play advocate: (a) it’s at least an okay movie (7 out of 10, and from me that’s saying something since most films these days don’t even rate a 5 for me); and (b) it will teach you shit about history you might not have known but would love to learn. And I don’t just mean the issues (or for some uninformed people, even mere existence) of black combat pilots in WWII, but, especially cool for a historian of technology like me, the fact that the Nazis invented jet aircraft and fielded a fleet of jet fighters during the war, and we had to fight them with ordinary prop planes (maybe someday I’ll blog about one of my old pastimes, weapons tech, and the fact that pretty much everything we fight with now was invented by the Nazis, including the automatic assault rifle, shoulder-launched rocket, and guided missile…and yes, jet fighters), and (c) it will flip the bird at the white-ass studio execs who wouldn’t pay for or to distribute this film because “no white people are in it.” They think white people won’t go see it because they aren’t in it (and it’s always supposed to be about us, see).

It would be worth it to prove them wrong. I’d certainly hate to find them feeling “vindicated” by the movie’s failure. Because studio execs are neurophysically incapable of registering a film’s quality at all, they won’t realize it failed (if it even does) because of the writing or directing, so they will think it’s because no white actors were in the lead parts. It’s this stupid false inference that has driven practically the whole industry since 1980. That’s why when one studio comes out with a hybrid talking vampire shark movie, every studio comes out with a hybrid talking vampire shark movie, because “obviously” that’s “in” now (rather than judging what to do based on whether a script is actually just good).

Next Move

If, however, you rankle at paying to see merely average movies just to learn stuff and support a cause, but you want to see what was actually the first all-black-lead WWII action movie, then rent Miracle at St. Anna (directed by Spike Lee). That got panned by the critics (mostly because Spike Lee didn’t direct it like a “Spike Lee” film, as critics had pigeonholed him, but actually demonstrated his skill and versatility as a director and made something quite different), and fans of “constant action” war movies hated it because it had a lot of boring “talking” and “emotion” and shit, and other people hated it because it was a little confusing and requires you to actually follow everything and be intelligent. But it actually rates as one of my top most favorite WWII films (in the “dark” category, that is), rivaling even Saving Private Ryan.

Why? Well, you might get it if after watching it, you have the balls to then watch it again, now knowing what happens and thus what all sorts of things really meant earlier in the film (the imaginary-friend scene with the boy in the barn will make you cry…once you know what was really going on in that scene). And if you have an eye for the decisions a director makes (editing, getting performances from the actors, where to put the camera) and just overall matters of quality (not much CGI here). It will also teach you about history (a central atrocity that occurs in the story is actually a true story). And it has literally the most intriguing opening scene of any war movie ever made (yes, even beating Saving Private Ryan). I know one critic who said it sometimes played too much into black stereotypes, but in fact it demonstrates how blacks themselves in the 1940s could play with those stereotypes, while some of them were based on cultural realities of the time, and in fact you actually get as much diversity of character among the men as you would in any “all white” WWII film (so if you don’t notice that, then you are the one obsessing on stereotyping…and I wonder if that was kind of Lee’s point).

Anyway, that’s an excellent film, and thoroughly anti-Lucasy (which does mean, not for kids). But what I want now are good, action-fun WWII films. Like Inglorious Basterds with an all-black infantry unit; or Operation Petticoat style antics in an all-black motorpool unit near the front lines (“When the air raid started he just took off. All he said was ‘In confusion, there is profit!'” … if you didn’t just laugh, you either have no sense of humor, or you haven’t seen Operation Petticoat recently; one of those is easy to remedy). Why not? The potential would be awesome. If you want to see that happen, though, you may have to start small and go see Red Tails. Then studios will start listening to pitches for similar films, and inevitably something awesome will get made that never would have otherwise.

In other words, maybe we should make Red Tails the next hybrid talking vampire shark movie.


If you are wondering what all the worldwide hubbub is over Congress’s attempt to fast-track the latest anti-piracy legislation (SOPA and PIPA) without much public scrutiny (you may be wondering, since Google has blacked out it’s logo in protest, and Wikipedia has shut down entirely for the whole day), then if you read nothing else, read Confessions of a Hollywood Insider. Marta Evry, whose livelihood is threatened by overseas media piracy, nevertheless agrees these laws are bad news and should not get passed. She explains very well all the reasons why, in plain and easy to grasp terms, with links to all kinds of relevant articles for exploring each item further.

I have my own perspective on this as an academic, which I posted on my Facebook Wall. Corporations have used over-broad “copyright protection” laws to stifle academic research before. They will use these laws to do the same, and these laws are a ton worse.

Want a fast and easy way to do something about it? This is one internet petition you will want to sign. Politicians only take bribes to win votes. So if they see this is actually going to cost them votes instead, then they can’t be bought anymore. Conclusion? Make it cost.

Sexism, Racism, and the Golden Rule

Our own Ian Cromwell (the one and only Crommunist) posted today on the Schroedinger’s Rapist metaphor and the pushback against it that uses racism as an example (if you don’t know the back story, Daniel Finke provides). Ian’s thesis is this:

I’ve frequently heard people object to the Schroedinger’s Rapist argument as sexist, with anti-black racism used as a counter-example. I reject this comparison because it neglects two important factors: 1) that the issue under discussion is about whether or not we want women to feel more comfortable; and 2) that black people often make similar behavioural adjustments to accommodate the racism of their white friends. I share some personal stories to illustrate this.

He invited my comment and I realized I was just writing a blog post of my own. So here goes!

(To all of my readers, the following assumes you’ve read his post.)

Ian, awesome. I agree with most everything you say. I’d only offer some qualifications that come from comparing my experience and attitude to yours. You can tell me if I’m on track with this or not. (Though much of this in fact confirms your point.)

[Read more…]

Obama the Ominous Tyrant (or Not)

Did Obama sign a law granting the Presidency power to detain American citizens indefinitely without trial? No, he did not. This is yet another manufactured story from the irrational left, which simply ignores the actual facts, like so many a Tea Partier would. I have always advised people not to trust the media implicitly but to check their facts whenever they say something that seems incredible. Like that a liberal Democrat like Barack Obama would sign into law such an act. Bush, maybe. But Obama? That’s an extraordinary claim. It requires extraordinary evidence. Newspapers and the Daily Show don’t rate as such (as much as I love the Daily Show, they ironically trust the mainstream media too often; I say ironically, because their raison d’être is practically, or precisely, not to do that).

And in this case I can advise a very specific rule (and this applies just as well to my recent blog on regulatory law) or anything else in politics: read the damn law. It’s not like it’s a hardship to find and read the exact text of our laws. Even bills still being debated and voted on are available for free, online. Our nation has set up a whole website just for you to be able to do that (it’s called THOMAS, a project of the Library of Congress). You can search it for bills by number or title or even keywords. If you did that in this case (say, by starting from a story online about this supposedly appalling, tyranny-creating bill), you’d find the bill’s status page (H.R. 1540 was the final version), and from there discover the full text of the version passed by the Senate (and signed into law by the President). (You can also download a PDF version of the physical bill). The relevant section is section 1021 (page 265ff. in the PDF).

BTW, one thing in this bill that no one reported on, which I think might actually be the most important thing in it, is that it eliminated [in section 541] the old UCMJ provision that allowed service members to rape their own wives: that’s right, the law used to define rape as any of a list of awful things done to a woman except one’s wife (explicitly: it said wives can’t even in principle be the rape victims of their own husbands). No shit: the very first line of this law read: “Any person subject to this chapter who commits an act of sexual intercourse with a female not his wife, by force and without consent, is guilty of rape and shall be punished by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct.” So you can force your wife to have sex with you without her consent. Nice. In this new Act, signed by Obama, the phrase “not his wife” is now deleted. The new law has also eliminated the bizarre assumption that only women can be raped and only men commit rape, by substituting “person” for all gendered terms.

But enough on that digression (what does the press care about advances in women’s rights?). Let’s get to the supposedly “tyranny creating” part of the law. That’s the part that enumerates the President’s options for how to treat enemy combatants, which this law says [in section 1021(c)] “may include” military trial, civil trial, deportation to another country (it thus technically authorizes rendition, although there may be other laws limiting that), or “detention under the law of war without trial until the end of the hostilities authorized by the Authorization for Use of Military Force” (which we all know means forever; and yes, the Supreme Court has certainly proved it doesn’t care about such obvious Doublespeak: as those of us know who were appalled by the Supreme Court’s upholding of the Mickey Mouse law that establishes “indefinite extension” of all copyrights, in order to forever protect Disney’s ownership of Mickey Mouse among other things, in defiance of the U.S. Constitution which mandates copyrights exist for only “limited times”; the court argued that “indefinite” does not mean “forever” because Congress might set a limit in future; yeah, right…fuck you, Supreme Court). Okay, back to the main point…

First, the law specifically says [in section 1021(c)(1)] that such “indefinite detention” without trial must be in accordance with “the law of war” (which consists of a number of treaties governing the treatment of POWs and enemy combatants, which treaties include requirements for the legal review of the detainee’s status). So it’s not just any detention willy nilly with no rules whatever. Second, the law says [in section 1021(b)] that the only people who can be thus detained are those who have been significantly involved in perpetrating the 9/11 attacks or physically aiding and abetting Al Qaeda or the Taliban (with whom we are formally at war).

Several bloggers and pundits have casually ignored these facts. But still, one can balk at the idea that now the President has the power to indefinitely detain without trial even American citizens, without even having to prove they did anything, just by claiming they did. Technically that’s not true, as we are obligated by treaties to allow detainees to challenge such claims made against them, even granting them trials; and tribunals must decide a person’s status, the President can’t just decide that. But still, allowing American citizens to be treated like enemy or even unlawful combatants would still be a shocking erosion of American legal and constitutional rights. It’s just that this law doesn’t do that.

Because the same law says [in section 1021(e)] that “Nothing in this section shall be construed to affect existing law or authorities, relating to the detention of United States citizens, lawful resident aliens of the United States or any other persons who are captured or arrested in the United States.” Those few pundits who actually notice this section, claim it is “vague” and insufficient to protect our rights. They are full of shit. This is not vague. This is what lawyers call broad language. It is total and sweeping in scope. It says nothing in this section. That means nothing. Nada. Zip. Not one thing. End of story. And what is an existing law or authority pertaining to American citizens? Oh, I don’t know, let’s mention the fifth amendment, the sixth amendment, the eighth amendment (indeed even the ninth amendment). The most important of which is that no citizen may be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” which includes “the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury…and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”

Since this National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 explicitly says nothing in it can ever be construed “to affect” those laws, nothing in it takes away any rights from any American citizens. So why is everyone claiming it does? Because they are so dogmatically lost in the storyline that facts don’t matter to them anymore? Because they blindly trust what people on TV tell them and don’t go read the law for themselves even though it’s absurdly easy to do that? You tell me. (And before you say, like some already have, that “the Patriot Act” already gave the President the power to detain American citizens indefinitely without trial, go read it first and state the section where it says that; good luck finding it.) Because of all this nonsense, Obama had to add a completely unnecessary signing statement saying he wouldn’t do what the law already prohibits, simply to satisfy these nutheads. I only hope you weren’t one of them. If you were, then as a responsible skeptic, it is my hope you’ll do better next time.

In the meantime, myth debunked.

Herod the Procurator

Herod the Great (you know, that guy in the Bible who killed all those babies, but didn’t really) was a procurator. (WTF is a procurator? Don’t worry, I’ll get to that.) In fact, Herod wasn’t just any procurator. He was the chief procurator of the entire Roman province of Syria. Holy crap! That’s amazing! Er…or totally, fantastically irrelevant and boring. One or the other, I’m sure. (Right?)


The Backstory…

Who cares? Hardly anyone really. Why am I writing about this? Well, to be honest, because I had to at some point, and now is as good a time as any (more on that later). But kind of, also, because it’s really interesting to ancient history geeks. And, strangely, Christian apologists. Why? Because they can argue from “Herod was the procurator of Syria” to “Luke and Matthew don’t contradict each other on the year of Christ’s birth, contrary to what all you mean atheist harpies keep saying.” Yeah. It takes some twists and turns. But they make a good effort to get from A to B. Strangely, this point also connects to the debate over the existence of Jesus. No shit. Lotta twists and cul-de-sacs, but A gets to B on that one, too.

Even given that context (“Ooo! Christian apologetics? Now it’s getting interesting!”), this is one of the most jaw-droppingly uninteresting bits of trivia you’ve probably come across on FtB in months. Or ever. I mean, there are mighty battles being fought elsewhere here over very important issues. Sexism, slander, dumbassery, political murder, bad science, the Republican primaries, soda mice. (Among all of which you will learn that a new spell has been added to the Harry Potter lexicon: wave your wand and utter the words Rebecca Watson and a hoard of nitwitted sexist trolls are summoned; unfortunately they immediately attack the spellcaster so it’s kind of a shit spell really.)

But here’s the backstory. For my Master of Philosophy at Columbia University (aka M.Phil., a graduate degree between M.A. and Ph.D., sort of like what everyone else calls ABD) I completed a thesis in preparation for working up a prospectus for my dissertation. That thesis was never published, mainly because, though it is more thorough and meticulous than anything on its topic, someone I’d never heard of beat me to publication with their own paper arguing the same thesis (albeit a lot less comprehensively and in a more wishy washy way, but nevertheless, journals won’t publish my work now because “it’s already been done,” as one editor directly told me). It’s a mind-numbingly boring thesis. But I worked really hard on it and I’m sure someone will find it useful someday. So I updated it (even citing and incorporating that other paper, as well as all the revisions asked for by my peer reviewers) and published it on my website for anyone crazy enough to read it: Herod the Procurator: Was Herod the Great a Roman Governor of Syria? (PDF)

It does have one interesting vibe to it. If you read it all through (you have to be kind of a little crazy to do that, but that can be in a good way; why, hey, it’s “only” 36 pages long), one thing you will learn, especially if you are not a professional historian, is how incredibly complicated doing history really is, and why expertise and training is so important for it. My thesis details all the actual steps that are involved in coming to a conclusion on any question (even one so seemingly simple as “Was Herod the Great really the procurator of Roman Syria?”), showing you all the sorts of things you have to know about and research, the process of reasoning and analysis you have to go through, and all that jazz. Usually you just see the end result, maybe a paragraph summary, and don’t see all the messy, crazy shit that went on to produce that paragraph. Now you get to see Oz working the controls. Batshit crazy controls.

You’ll also learn (especially if you read the most boring part) how translations, even by total bona fide experts, can screw up the original meaning of a text, and how beholden laymen are to what are really often very subjective translations hiding all manner of assumptions and agendas of the translator. Not just the Bible has this problem; all ancient books do. You’ll also learn a bit about how determining what the original text said from existing manuscripts is no simple matter, either. And you’ll learn some stuff about various languages, Roman provincial administration, and how Herod the Great and Emperor Augustus were such party buds I’d bet a sawbuck they high-fived over a shared a hooker or two. (Not literally, of course; sure, everyone knows double-teaming hookers was invented in 1891 B.C., but the high-five is a 20th century invention; so, whatever the ancient Roman equivalent was. Yeah, I’d risk a tenner on that. Stranger shit has supposedly happened. Story is, emperor-to-be Titus banged two hookers over an open Torah scroll on the sacred sacrificial altar of the Jewish Temple just to flip the bird at the nutty superstitious Jews he’d just wasted several years of his life putting down a rebellion of. I remember the first thing I thought when I read that, “I hope those girls were paid well.” Probably. Everyone says Titus was a real mensch. Anyway…)


So Back to the Christian Thing…

Okay, quick summary:

Matthew says Jesus was born a year or so before Herod the Great died, which was 4 B.C.; Luke says Jesus was born when the Roman senator Quirinius became governor of Syria and conducted the first ever Roman census of Judea, which was 6 A.D.; the contradiction (a ten year miss, even) proves the New Testament is, uhem, errant (oh, and BTW, notice that neither says it was 1 A.D.; and in fact that date is entirely impossible on either of their accounts…oops); “Oh, shit!” Christians say to themselves (probably not out loud, because that might anger their storm god); Christian apologists scramble for some way to fix this fiasco; they come up with a wild pile of bullshit; if you rummage around in that shit pile (like I did), you’ll find this gem:

“Well, see, Quirinius must have been governor of Syria twice somehow (even though no one ever was a governor of the same province twice and we have zero evidence Quirinius was or even could have been), and there must have been some other, earlier census of Judea, conducted by Herod (even though that is illogical and impossible on every known fact of the matter), and since the evidence says other guys were governing Syria at the time, not only was Quirinius twice governor, but he must have been co-governor with someone else (even though no such thing as a co-governorship of a province existed in the Roman administrative system and in fact it would have been illogical and absurd).”

When mean atheists like me point out the parenthetical points (put in italics above), Christians scramble for damage control, generally by making shit up or pretending at being historians, doing some embarrassingly incompetent amateur hatchet job with “facts” they tweeze out of modern translations of ancient books (unlike Muslims, who everywhere insist on Arabic fluency and thus actually know how to read their scripture, most Christians never actually learn Greek and generally couldn’t give a shit what the actual words in their inspired scriptures are) and/or antiquated, long-superseded scholarship (because when Christians can’t find what they want in up-to-date scholarship they dig around for something written in the 19th century, back in those golden days before that Darwin dickwad ruined everything; because surely any history done then must be superior and more reliable than any done now…and they’re, like, totally right).

Case in point: Josephus (and an occasional stone inscription) repeatedly says there were two governors of Syria. So there! Except he doesn’t (nor do any inscriptions). Ah, those pesky translations. You see, what Josephus (and every other source from then) says is that every Syrian governor had a lieutenant, and they often hung out and did shit together. “But that’s the same thing, right?” Uh, no. Because ancient Roman society didn’t work like our modern American “classless” society. Technically we do have classes (lower, middle, and upper) demarcated by access to wealth, but in classical times classes were official matters of law, and one couldn’t cross from one to the other just by getting rich. You had to be officially recognized as of that class; and it took some hoodow to make that happen. And in the meantime, your career options were limited by what class you were in.


Intro to Roman Social History

It breaks down like this: the unwashed masses (actually, the Roman masses were often very well washed) were just “ordinary people” and couldn’t hold any significant political or military office (didn’t even qualify; couldn’t even buy their way in…unless they bought their way into a higher social order); next in rank were the equestrians (literally “horsemen,” so sometimes called “knights”; the term originally designated someone rich enough to buy and keep a horse, although that was an antiquated notion by then…even the poorest Roman equestrian could buy and keep a small shitload of horses), who (unlike those below them) qualified for appointed administrative positions and could serve as something like NCOs in the military (or perhaps more analogously, low ranking officers, depending on what point of comparison you start with), but couldn’t run for elected office and couldn’t be a staff officer…unless they were at least 30 years old and met the multi-million-dollar entry requirement for the next class: the senators. To enter the senatorial class you had to prove you had millions of dollars in property and then (to be elligible to hold any office) you had to get elected to the entry-level position of quaestor (“treasurer”; yep, the bottom-ranking gig even then), which got you permanently into the Roman Senate, and from there you could run for higher offices (but always by ranks, i.e. you couldn’t skip straight to Lord of All I Survey, you had to serve as quaestor, then praetor, then consul, and your social rank would always be based on how high you’d gotten, e.g. a consular senator outranked a praetorian senator, big time). Of course, kids of senators were automatically of the senatorial class, although they still had to get elected (or, if we set aside the Doublespeak, given the real nature of politics under the emperors, appointed) to a quaestorship to enter the Senate itself (and yes, that meant daughters could be of senatorial rank, but sadly, as they could never hold any office, they never became Senators).

Okay. So? Well, because of the Roman constitution at the time, no one could govern a province who was not a consular senator. This is because the provinces were officially governed by the emperor (who had consular rank) or the senatorial consuls, and “governors” were just their stand-ins, but in an official government capacity, which meant they had to be of the same rank. Thus a praetorian senator was not of sufficient rank to govern a province and thus could not act in any other governor’s stead. You had to appoint a senator who had served as a consul at some prior time and thus achieved consular rank. (There were a handful of weird provinces, called senatorial provinces, that didn’t precisely fall under this rule, but Syria wasn’t one of them so they’re irrelevant for our purposes; one of the constitutionally relevant differences, BTW, was that senatorial provinces usually never had legions in them.)

Notice that not even lower ranking senators could govern a province, much less lowly equestrians, who couldn’t even hold a real political office at all, much less govern a province. They weren’t even senators. It would have been scandalously offensive (and indeed risked outright assassination or civil war) if an emperor were to openly flout the constitution and insult every upper class senatorial man in the empire by appointing a lowly equestrian to govern a province (case in point: Caligula is said to have almost appointed his horse, and they promptly killed him…and tried to damn his memory–literally: the senate proposed [and may have eventually passed] an official decree of damnatio memoriae; yeah, they had those). And certainly such a remarkable curiosity would make every history book of the time, as the weirdest thing to happen since someone discovered water could be turned into a white powder. Conversely, no senator (much less of mighty consular rank) would disgrace himself or his whole family’s honor by ever deigning to lower himself to work in an equestrian post. That would be more unbelievable than a U.S. President becoming a fry cook at McDonald’s.

Now, governors of imperial provinces, who were always consular senators, and officially were high-ranking military officers, commanders of legions, obviously had a whole chain of command working under them, of lower ranking senatorial line and staff officers, as well as equestrian field officers and NCOs and bureaucrats. Thus, a governor could divide up his provincial command and appoint lower ranking officers to take care of business there, principally taking charge of any troops and enforcing the law. These were typically equestrians (because Roman paranoia prevented entrusting major provincial and troop commands to senators, who might have ambitions; whereas equestrians were generally locked in their low status and thus no threat, and in fact for that reason typically more loyal). These officers were called “prefects,” literally “guys placed in front,” in other words “dudes in charge.” Prefects were always equestrians; senatorial officers had other ranks (namely, quaestor or praetor).

Now that you have all that background (and notice how there is no way a layman is likely to know any of this; there’s a reason you need a Ph.D. to draw correct conclusions about the ancient world), you can get the punchline: Whenever we see mentions of governors and their lieutenants (as in Josephus, for example), it’s always a consular senator and his equestrian prefect. Men who are not even of the same social class. You might already see where this is going. Quirinius is well established to have been a consular senator as of 12 B.C. We know all the consular governors of Syria from 12 to 3 B.C. He therefore cannot have been any of their “lieutenants,” because those lieutenants were always prefects of the equestrian class, and he was way the hell higher ranking than an equestrian, in fact he held the highest possible social rank in the whole Roman empire: a consular senator. So much for the co-governor idea.


Intro to Christian Logic

Okay. Now that you are as bored as you possibly can be, it gets even more boring. Enter Herod the Procurator. The Christian’s logic goes like this (and I’ve had versions of this argument sent to me in email over the years by a half dozen D-list Christian apologists). Pontius Pilate was the “governor” of Judea. Pontius Pilate was a procurator. Therefore a “procurator” is a “governor.” Herod the Great was the Procurator of Syria. Therefore, Herod the Great (a foreigner) was the “governor” of Syria. Therefore the Romans played fast and loose with their constitution when it came to provincial government. Therefore they could well have had double governors or something. In fact when Herod was “governor” of Syria, we know another consular senator was governor of Syria, so bingo, there we have it, there were two governors of Syria!

This is all so fucked up it makes me want to cry. Okay. First. Judea was not a province. Thus Pilate was not “the [provincial] governor” of Judea. The governor of Syria was. Judea was then a district of the Roman province of Syria. Pilate was just the prefect assigned to govern that district. By the governor of Syria. And as you’d expect, Pilate was of equestrian rank. Thus no argument can proceed by analogy from the government of Judea to the government of Syria. Second. A procurator is not a prefect. To identify Pilate as “governor of Judea” is to identify him as a prefect, not a procurator. A procurator is not an administrative or military office. It’s a private occupation. It means “business manager” (literally, “one given care of stuff,” e.g. an agent, a manager, etc.). Thus in no sense does procurator ever mean “governor.” Thus in no sense at all was Herod the Great ever “the governor of Syria.” So, no playing fast and loose here. The Romans stuck to their constitution, or as near as could pass as plausible (in an Orwellian sense, if one examines how the emperors invented the entire office of emperor without actually, literally changing the constitution, which never mentioned any such office per se, by cleverly exploiting various loopholes in that constitution, but that’s a whole other story, not relevant here).

So despite trying to rescue the big gaping historical error in the Gospels, the attempt to get from “Herod the Great was Procurator of Syria” to “the Bible is inerrant” is built on a pile of the hack mistakes of presumptuous Christian apologists who don’t know their Roman social history for shit. What does any of this long boring digression have to do with my thesis paper on Herod the Procurator? Well, among other things (like analyzing the evidence for Herod being a procurator of Syria at all), I document in it all the evidence and scholarship laying out the distinction between prefects and procurators. Which has another use, for those following the “did Jesus really exist?” debate…


So Was Pontius Pilate a Prefect or a Procurator?

A prominent defender of the thesis that Jesus is a mythical person (more now in the agnostic camp, but still) is G.A. Wells. And one argument he made, against the authenticity of a passage attesting to the existence of Jesus in the Roman historian Tacitus (writing around 117 A.D.), is that Tacitus there calls Pilate a “procurator” when in fact we know, from logic (given the above) and an actual stone inscription cut at Pilate’s own direction, that Pilate was a prefect, not a procurator, which isn’t even a government office. “Surely” Tacitus would not make that mistake (so the passage is a forgery) or “surely” Tacitus would not make that mistake if he was working from government documents (so he must be relying on an unreliable source, like a Gospel-reading Christian informant). Therefore the information is bogus. Therefore (given various other conclusions) Jesus didn’t exist. Now, like many an unsound argument, the primary conclusion is true (Tacitus is almost certainly relying on a Gospel-reading Christian informant, and not any kind of government records), but the argument for it is not.

Tacitus almost certainly got this information from his good friend Pliny the Younger, who would have gotten it from his strong-arm interrogation of a Christian deaconess in 110 A.D. (when Tacitus and Pliny were governing adjacent provinces in what is now Turkey, and carrying on a regular correspondence in which Tacitus evinces asking Pliny for information to include in the history books he was then writing). And she would certainly have gotten the information from the Gospels, many of which were being read in the churches of the time. So yes, Tacitus is in fact giving us useless evidence, since it is not independent of the Gospels (that’s why his account contains nothing not in them, yet that would have been in an official government record, like Jesus’ full name and crime). But Wells’ argument to that same conclusion is incorrect, due to another oddity about the ancient Roman system that non-experts don’t know about (and that even many experts don’t know about, not having specifically studied the matter of imperial administration and economics).

In actual fact, Pilate was both a prefect and a procurator. An imperial procurator, to be precise. In fact this was true of all the prefects of Judea, and many other regional prefects, such as the prefect of Egypt who governed that whole province directly for the emperor (Egypt never had a senatorial governor, its governorship was always officially held by the emperor himself, who never shared it, because Egypt was the breadbasket of the empire at the time and thus any senator allowed to govern it would be tempted to do the obvious…and they wouldn’t have that uppity, smartypants Cleopatra gumming up their game, either). It was actually commonplace for prefects to also be procurators. Why? Well, I explain in my thesis (for those who only care about this topic, you can skip directly to the section on “The Procurator in the Time of Augustus,” starting on page 29, but also hyperlinked in the table of contents on page 2 of Was Herod the Great a Roman Governor of Syria?).

Procurators were private agents. So, for example, if you were some rich guy and owned lands in several provinces, you obviously couldn’t personally oversee their management, so you would hire someone as your procurator to go act as landlord for you. Pretty much any business, or property, or account of money that you had somewhere needed someone to manage it on your behalf. That someone was a procurator. The wealthy elite had armies of them in their employ. And the emperor was the wealthiest man in the Western hemisphere. Another little known fact is that the emperors often compelled their vanquished opponents to sign treaties not with the Roman people (SPQR) but with the emperor himself and his private family estate. Annual tribute was then owed not to the Roman government, but directly to the Roman emperor’s family estate. And in such cases lands seized were not the public property of Rome, but the private property of the emperor, taken as spoils (or as bribes, or simply bought outright, and just as often inherited, from people wanting to get their surviving family on the emperor’s good side). This meant the emperor had tons of lands he needed to manage privately (not officially as a Roman statesman) and tons of cash that had to be collected every year and held in his name and managed at a profit, or delivered to him across regions and seas. And that meant the emperor had to employ thousands of procurators to act as his business managers for all this.

Well, who would make the best procurator? Or rather, the best chief procurator, who would look over and keep in line all the other procurators who were actually managing the individual landholdings, and collections, and stashes of banked cash? Why, who best to hire for that job than the chief of police? The very guy who governs the district and has charge of the courts and the law and cohorts of infantry and cavalry to enforce his will. Brilliant, eh? And so it was. Every prefect of Judea was also the emperor’s privately hired business manager, who ensured all the imperial procurators in their district behaved and did their jobs, and everyone who owed the emperor money (or had the temerity to sue him) was dealt with. In our modern democracy this would be perfectly appalling. It would be obvious corruption if the President hired the Secretary of the Interior to manage all of his private lands, and the Secretary of Commerce to run all of his private companies and businesses, and hired Superior Court Judges to manage the very private estates they passed judgments on in court (imagine suing someone and finding out that the judge deciding the case is the property manager of the very estate you are suing!). But the Roman empire had no such moral notions, and no laws on the books against it. To them it was just convenient.

But there were complaints. Although not necessarily of the kind you’d expect. One of the persistent drums Tacitus beats throughout his entire Annals is that it was shocking (why, just shocking!) that lowly equestrians were being given the official powers of senators. As business managers, procurators were only ever equestrians, or often even commoners or slaves; no senator would disgrace himself by taking such a servile job (again, imagine the President of the United States taking a job as a “common” real estate agent). But Tacitus was annoyed even by the idea of prefects running things. Procurators were just an even bigger insult. Since an imperial procurator was the legal agent of the emperor, he literally had power of attorney to represent the emperor in court and contracts. Which meant that in practice, lowly procurators could tell mighty consular senators what for. It’s not like a senatorial governor is going to cross the emperor. Thus procurators often wielded in effect imperial scale power. And that pissed off consular senators like Tacitus. His Annals is full of morality tales illustrating how so really disastrous and awful this was.

Which gets us back to that passage in the Annals where Tacitus says Christ was executed by Pontius Pilate “the procurator.” Tacitus was a consular senator who had held many imperial provincial governorships and nearly every other office in the land. He knew full well that Pilate was a prefect. He would not have had to check any records to know that. He also knew full well that Pilate, like all district prefects, was the private business manager of the emperor, a lowly money collector and landlord, a filthy procurator. He clearly chose to call Pilate a procurator and not a prefect in this passage as a double insult: on the one hand, his aim was to paint the Christians as pathetically as possible, and having their leader executed by a petty business manager was about as low as you could get (and Tacitus would never turn down a good juicy snipe like that); and on the other hand, he was always keen to remind the reader of his persistent protest against granting equestrians real powers, and thus calling Pilate here a procurator does that, by reminding the reader that the chief of police who executes criminals in Judea is a “fucking business manager” (“and what the hell is he doing with judicial powers?”). The fact that Pilate was also a prefect and thus had real constitutional authority is the sort of honest detail that would screw up Tacitus’ point. So he doesn’t take the trouble to mention it.

Okay. Right. Here we are now. Anyone who has actually read this blog post all the way to this point (I commend you, sir and/or ma’am!) will now be able to guess the conclusion of my thesis: Herod the Great was appointed by his good buddy Augustus to be his principal business manager in Syria. Wow. Amazing, right? That conclusion is going to haunt you for days. Life changing stuff. Just simply life changing. And so that you will have it with you always, I have now posted my old M.Phil. thesis on Herod the Syrian procurator, which has sections on all this stuff (so if you want to cite evidence and scholarship at anyone in defense of these points, like about Pilate being both procurator and prefect, that’s the paper for you), and other stuff besides (as I babbled on about in the earlier half of this blog).

Enjoy. Or not. Anyway, it’s there now if you need it.


Sic Semper Regulationes

There’s often a lot of hostility toward “government regulations.” I’m going to muse on that today, with a long general contemplation on the whole nature of this fashionable outrage. It comes in all varieties.

There are people who think laws are so needlessly complicated (a typical bill nowadays can be ten thousand pages long) that surely we can cut it all down to just a handy pocketbook. Why, Herman Cain said he’d require all laws be just three pages long, huzzah! Problem solved. That horror of complexity is a natural gut reaction. But it’s not really a reliable guide to how things should be done. I doubt Herman Cain’s company bylaws or operations manuals were three pages long. And how long do you think all the contracts he had to sign were? A country is way more complicated than a pizza franchise. The instruction manual for your average naval ship (all that the crew must learn and reliably follow to operate it) would fill ten thousand pages easy, and yet you wouldn’t think it wise to cut it all down to three pages. That ship would be at the bottom of the sea before the year was out (“paint locker…it’s okay to smoke in there, right?”).

Then there are people who think regulations always just get in the way. That regulations just stifle business and slow everything down and screw everything up and cost too much to enforce (“Why can’t we just do whatever the hell we want?”). That they are badly informed and always suck and just make the government too meddlesome (“And what do they know anyway?”). And such like, and so forth. But most of this hostility is based on mythology rather than fact. Not all. But most. Politics has sort of become the new religion. You pick a faith, declare yourself for it, then preach all of its myths and legends that serve to reinforce its dogma, and don’t listen to reason when the facts don’t quite line up with it.

I’m a moderate. I’ve written about political theory before. I register democrat because my political system requires me to in order to have any real influence on elections. But I don’t really espouse any party line. They are all just exercises in fiction. I have sympathies with libertarians, but think their faith doctrine doesn’t line up with reality as neatly as they fervently claim. I have sympathies with fiscal conservatives, but conservatives never just stay fiscal. I have sympathies with liberals, but more often than not they are just too stupid to function. I have sympathies with modern democratic socialists, but their ideas about economics often tend to be suicidally naive. I have sympathies with free market capitalists, but their ideas about economics also tend to be suicidally naive. So you can’t really peg me. I do not espouse a faith.

I’m more committed to reality. And reality is messy, complicated, and does not agree with anyone’s political faith doctrine. I thus see things differently. People bitching about government regulations is just the latest example that’s put a bee in my bonnet. (Figuratively speaking. Obviously I don’t own a bonnet. It’s the 21st century. I’m more of a tuque man now.) Historically, government regulation of commerce was one of the first things people formed governments for. And in general it makes a lot of sense, and is just a logical extension of what everyone (except maybe lunatic anarchists) agree a government should always do: protect people from death and injury and fraud and robbery.

One of the oldest examples can be found in Hammurabi’s Code. (You know, that 1772 B.C. law code that later the Hebrews stole, pared down, dinked all up with superstitious homo bashing and a disturbing obsession with goatfucking, and then claimed some backwoods storm god told it to them on a mountain somewhere. Hammurabi got his code from a top notch sun god, which is way better than a pinny anny storm god.) That contained, among other things, a section on building codes, the gist of which was that any builder who did shoddy work had to pay for any resulting damages, up to and including death, if any people died because of his shit work. (Note that that’s one of the things the Hebrews cut out of their version; since they were just a couple steps above rock-banging primitives at the time and didn’t actually build stuff, their god didn’t think they had any need of building codes. Their god didn’t do much thinking ahead. Stupid storm gods.)

Now it’s kind of obvious that there should be a law about this. If the government is supposed to protect you from me banging you over the head with a rock, then surely the government is supposed to protect you from me banging you over the head with a house. In Sense and Goodness without God (VII.5.2-5.3, pp. 391-95), I concluded that any regulation that prevents something happening that you could sue over anyway, is a good regulation the government has every business of enforcing and will make the world a better place. Because making it into a lawsuit puts all the expense of getting justice on the victim, which is precisely what we form governments to prevent. The whole civil tort system is really just the government being lazy. (As an example, under Roman law ordinary theft was not a crime but a civil tort. Over time, as government gets more effective, it stops being lazy like that and starts taking charge of the law–evidence: now all theft is a crime.)

Another famous example is the first constitutional government of Athens. One of the very first things they did was enact and enforce government standards of weights and measures. Now it was a crime to sell someone a “gallon” of milk, after deciding on your own what exactly a “gallon” was. A pound of gold was now everywhere the same amount of gold, or you’re busted. Eventually they even established an official “nut measure” (shown left). The net economic effect was tremendous: everyone now traded with and in Athens. With knowledge that the government would back anyone who got cheated by wonky weights and measures and stop that shit right out, trade flourished and the Athenian economy boomed. They became a great empire. Until they started funding a massive standing military that was constantly fighting too many foreign wars of intervention in support of big business interests that ran up crushing debts that tore down their entire empire, never to be great again. (Wait, that sounds famili…oh, crap.)

The point is, history more than confirms that government regulation of business and commerce is wise, necessary, beneficial, and better than common sense. That’s why the Founding Fathers enshrined it in the Constitution as one of the fundamental enumerated powers of Congress. Article I, section 8. Not only is the power to “regulate commerce” explicitly granted, but six of the thirteen listed powers there directly involve regulating trade or business, a seventh does so indirectly (through the power to create and maintain a postal system and all necessary roads), while two more are purely administrative, leaving only four powers directly concerning the use of force (military powers), and only one (one of the two administrative clauses) concerning such indirectly (by giving Congress power to legislate the enforcement of its laws, hence authorizing the legislation of, for example, a police force). Thus, by count, the enumerated powers of Congress are more concerned with government regulation of business than any other function of government.

But what about “excessive” regulations? Do we really need hundreds of thousands of pages of fastidious government regulations? WTF is up with that anyway? Are bill drafters just babbling lunatics? Is Congress high? Is there some conspiracy afoot? Is it all just the administrative emesis of lefty control freaks? Why are just as many of these monstrous bills written and voted up by conservative nutjobs? Lefty mind control? Do liberals all just have the lamest X-men mutant power, the ability to mind control conservatives only when it will result in creating more regulations? (But when it’s war or gay rights, up goes the supernatural Republican mind block?) What are all these regulations and why on earth does Congress keep voting for them? Why, in fact, so damn many of them?

Ironically, the popular myth that government regulations hinder business entails that Congress is consistently anti-business, because all regulations exist only because Congress consistently enacts them. Congress. The same Congress that everyone knows is in the pocket of big business. So business interests pay Congress to constantly, persistently, relentlessly get in their way? That doesn’t make a lot of sense. Whenever you see a contradiction in your religious dogma, you should start questioning whether maybe your dogma is full of shit. So let’s take an abstract tour of government regulations, categorized by how and why they come to be. You can confirm all the following generalizations by just picking up any enacted law and just reading it, front to back (the more so if you follow the insider reporting on how the bill got drafted and amended, and/or compare a bill as first proposed, with what actually gets passed)…

1. Most government regulations are in fact corporate-lobby, bought-and-paid-for loopholes, designed to help business. Mainly to help it get away with things. Take, for example, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. That started as just a couple of pages. It ended up thousands of pages long. WTF? Well, most of the final draft of any banking regulations bill (like this one) consists of rules the regulated companies asked for, basically hundreds and hundreds of pages of loopholes and exceptions. These regulations are not in the way of business, but are the very things the businesses wanted so they would be less restricted! (By the actual regulations, which themselves might span only a page or two.)

Most of these rules I agree we could get rid of. For example, the original Dodd-Frank bill was short and simple and obviously the correct law to have, but it was bloated by hundreds of pages of exceptions for various companies’ activities (again, exceptions the companies asked for). But you can’t say this government bloat is hurting business, when in fact it’s business that is asking for them and getting them voted in. At most you might say that often these vast reams of pro-business regs are hurting small business, by rigging the system in favor of big business. And sometimes that’s true. Although not always…sometimes regulations that are needed, don’t hurt small businesses at all, or even help them, and sometimes they do favor big business over small, but only as an inevitable byproduct: example, car safety regulations favor Toyota over some random dude with a garage and a dream to make cars out of cardboard boxes, rubber bands, and hydrazine thrusters. But let’s be honest, we don’t want that dude’s cars on the road with us. That’s right up there with smashing us over the head with a badly built house, only this time we’re tossing giant flammable exploding bullets down a busy highway, which damn right ought to be illegal. But if a reg is needlessly hurting small business just to give an unfair advantage to big business, then why not get rid of it? I agree. We’d be better off without it. But that’s because it would make the market more fair, and thus more free, which actually will hurt some businesses–the very businesses that, by means of these very regs, are otherwise profiting from an unfair market. Republicans play on this irony all the time, so as to frame any attempt to eliminate unfair regs as itself “unfair” (yeah, unfair to the cheaters). So they defend bad regs that hurt business in the guise of helping business, all the while claiming that government regulation always hurts business. Nice. Anyone who falls for that two-step is an idiot. (Hello, Tea Party.)

The point is, most shit regs are written by Republicans (and Big Business Democrats), not lefty control freaks. Know your enemy.

2. Once you delete all those regs (all the loophole regs, the good ones we ought to keep, and the bad ones we ought to kill), you have two kinds left. The first of those are regs that again help business by allowing them to continue doing business without harming citizens. For example: a company manufactures a product the byproduct of which poisons children through the air and ground water. Protecting children (American citizens) from poisoners is the fundamental business of government. Even a libertarian cannot claim it is not the valid function of government to stop people poisoning kids. So a government says “you can’t make that product anymore because it’s poisoning kids,” and the company says “but we need to make that product to make a living,” so the government says, “if you can come up with a way to do that without poisoning kids, we’ll amend the law to let you,” so the company comes back with an idea for a filtration and disposal system that will keep the byproduct from poisoning kids, and the government says “okay, we’ll write into the law that if you install and use that system, without any cheating, then you can make that poison, because then it won’t be killing kids.” To then say that the regulation requiring companies to use that expensive filtration system is “hurting business” is simply perverse. The regulation exists to help business. It exists for the express purpose of allowing that business to continue. It is not there to get in the way of business; it’s there to get in the way of poisoning kids.

None of these regulations can be done without. Some can be improved, perhaps. But not eliminated. That there are so many of them is simply an inevitable byproduct of business itself, which comes up with so many ways to do dangerous things without hurting citizens, in an enormously complex economy that produces millions of materials, chemicals, and products. The vast number of these regs thus reflects business ingenuity. In fact, their number indicates how innovative and healthy our economy is. Show me a nation with a paltry regulatory law and I’ll show you a third world country (or a tax haven with no manufacturing base). In other words, these regs exist to make enterprises possible that otherwise would not be. They are thus good for business, and the economy as a whole. It’s just like the instruction manual for that navy ship: our economy is so vast and complex, you can’t possibly not have hundreds of thousands of pages of regs ensuring that businesses can operate without hurting or killing people or destroying their property (or liberty: many regs exist not just to protect us from, e.g., getting poisoned, but from having our privacy invaded or money stolen or speech abridged). Because there are so many things we make and do, thus so many ways to hurt people or rob or defraud them or infringe on their liberty, and thus so many rules we have to write to keep that shit in check.

3. That leaves one other kind of regulation. And that’s what we often call “bureaucracy”: all the rules and paperwork that seem to burden government and citizens with so much bullshit. These can be improved–reduced, simplified, smartened up (as Al  Gore was doing during the Clinton administration, and Obama is trying to do) with paperwork reduction acts, rules streamlining, getting rid of badly written rules, etc.; all of which is the process of making government better that should be Congress’s job. [Insert your own funny joke here about Congress being a bunch of do-nothing ass-clowns.] But in fact most of these regs are inevitable and required, due to an inevitable process of voters insisting on them. Which makes it perverse for voters to complain about them–since they asked for them in the first place, and if they were taken away they would ask for them again!

The process goes like this. First some task needs doing (e.g. a police force run); someone is put in charge of it and given leeway to run it; they start abusing their leeway (graft, nepotism, embezzlement, creating special privileges for themselves or their family and friends, persecuting enemies) or screwing up (due to ignorance, incompetence, laziness, negligence, or mere human fallibility and limitations that not even the best of any men or women could overcome because they can’t know everything or oversee everything); voters complain; regulations are then established to prevent it (e.g. fairness in hiring; rules governing accounting procedures to police against embezzlement and ensure accountability; rules limiting what boundaries can’t be crossed, ensuring decisions are accountably and fairly made; and rules codifying past knowledge and experience to insure against ignorance or oversight, e.g. ensuring past mistakes aren’t repeated, or anticipated mistakes never made; rules making decisions and information easier to access and oversee, etc.). This gets enormously complicated, but it’s what the voters want, because without it, officials have too much power and end up misusing it. And when these rules are removed, often voters complain when the inevitable happens, and insist the rules be put back. So you apparently can’t do without them.

The reality is that most voters don’t understand what is actually required to enact their will. Thus they don’t grasp the fact that preventing a particular abuse (e.g. police officers fixing tickets for friends, or taking bribes to do so) requires enacting a complex system of rules and paperwork to record what happens so it can be policed (and prosecuted, if abuses are exposed by them, as the documentation is then the evidence needed, and often the means by which the abuse is discovered in the first place, so without that, you can’t stop it). Calling this “bloat” or “excessive government regulation” or “fattened bureaucracy” merely because of it’s complexity is simply ignorant. They might be excessive, but that can’t be decided merely by looking at how numerous and complex they are. They have to be numerous and complex. The only question is whether they can be better written. But writing them better won’t reduce the number of them. We all need to grasp that reality and learn to live with it.

So. 1, 2, 3. Count up all those, and there just aren’t many regs left to bitch about. So whenever you complain about there being too many rules and regulations, ask yourself which rules and regulations you mean. Do you really know they are excessive? Are you informed enough to know what actually happens when they are taken away? Do you even know why they were enacted in the first place, what abuses they were devised to stop? Do they really hurt business, or were they in fact created by business, or to make business possible? Do they really worsen government, or do they in fact make government more efficient, effective, fair, accountable, and reliable? Don’t lose yourself in your political party’s mythology, which is mostly just made-up stories about non-existent regulations ruining the imaginary lives of Joe the honest plumber, or falsified tales about what a real regulation does, that in fact distorts the reality of what that reg’s effects actually are, and completely ignores the history of what horrible shit went on before that reg existed. Actually find out the facts first.

Do that, and I think you’ll find reality is far more complicated than your political faith could ever sensibly account for. Some rules and regs need to be eliminated. Some need to be fixed or improved. But most can’t. And more may even be needed than we already have. Unless, of course, you want the United States to look and operate exactly like a third world country.

“Best Schools” Interview

A new interview of mine just went online. But you’ve got to hear the long boring story first. (Unless you don’t give a shit, then just go on to read the interview: The BestSchools Richard Carrier Interview).

Recently a new “top fifty atheists in the world” list hit the web (similar to a previous list of the “top 25 most influential atheists” from a similar, online-education-marketing website). I was on both lists. The earlier one I disregarded outright as I had never heard of the website promoting it and I had no idea what worth it had. The second one I wasn’t much more keen on, for much the same reason, except that whoever composed it clearly was better informed about the atheist movement. They included more women and minorities and foreigners (though many have complained still too few), but more importantly, some well-known figures to us whom outsiders tend to ignore (like Greydon Square or Greta Christina). The list doesn’t always make consistent sense, and there are people on it I’m sure who should not be, but it was interesting to me for apparently having been compiled by someone who has been paying attention.

Curiosity was apparently more widely aroused this time and several atheist inquirers (who commented on Jerry Coyne’s blog on this) concluded some things that I think were a bit hasty:

1. That the new list, posted at TheBestSchools.org (a marketing website steering prospective students to online colleges), was generated by “James Barham, wacky ID advocate.” I don’t know about wacky, but he is not a Christian, nor an ID-advocate per se; he acknowledged to me that the website he is writing for leans that way (likewise, the Institute for the Study of Nature he is a fellow of claims to be theism-leaning but not exclusively), but he is on sworn record as affirming he lost his faith in Christianity long ago and is now a naturalist; he is presently a doctoral student in philosophy at Notre Dame (or possibly has his Ph.D. by now, as claimed on TheBestSchools “about” page last I checked), with an M.A. from Harvard, so he’s no crank, and his writings seem to be advocating for the adoption of emergent teleology within naturalism, and not ID as such. He only voices some common cause with the ID movement (he favors teaching the controversy on natural selection as cause, but not on evolution as fact). I suppose he could be trojan horsing, but I’m not a telepath. More likely he’s an interesting outlier in the debate, and thus not someone you can peg as easily as Dembski or Ham. At any rate, as I see it, he’s just wrong, not wacky.

2. That “according to WHOIS, The Best Schools is owned by a young philosophy professor at the Univ of Kentucky named Wayne Downs.” That’s in essence true (at least as of today); I also verified his identity at the U. Kentucky website, but it currently lists him as a graduate student teaching assistant and his own cv confirms he is a doctoral student, not a professor. He has a B.A. in pastoral ministries and an M.Div. from Baylor, so definitely a conservative religious foundation, but he also has an M.A. in philosophy from Texas A&M and is getting a Ph.D. at U. Kentucky (or already has one, if the UK website and his cv are out of date), so he is not a crank either. He did co-author a book on the Christian history of creationism with Dembski, but it’s just an anthology of patristics. He is currently (according to his own cv) “Research Assistant to Dr. William A. Dembski” at the “Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary,” but it’s hard to draw concrete conclusions from that (I myself could easily employ a Christian research assistant if he was good enough). Downs might be an Evangelical or a conservative, but TheBestSchools seems like it’s just built to earn him some advertising money (which I don’t frown on, since we do that here at FtB).

3. That “The article was only written for ‘Link Baiting’ purposes, meaning that the owner of the website just wants to get a higher google ranking by getting more links to his site.” Isn’t that what everyone does? It’s called marketing. Calling it “link baiting” is just pointlessly derogatory. Clearly Downs wants to draw people to his website so he can earn ad revenue through his college marketing tools, and he does this by employing bloggers to develop posts that people want to read, so they will go there, and then possibly explore his promotional links and click through the ads that he has his website set up to deliver. Um, that’s basically a description of FtB. Yes, we exist primarily to deliver content, and take ad revenue as a bonus. But I doubt Downs takes his site’s content any less seriously–which is why so much of it is slanted toward his interests. In fact most major blog sites exist to make money “and” deliver content. Like, say, The Huffington Post. Or The New York Times, which arguably only really exists to make money through ad placement. Even its print version exists solely for that purpose. It thus puts articles in it that people want to read in order to get those people to look at the ads folded in with them. That’s not “link baiting.” It’s enterprise. So I don’t hold it against anyone who wants to create content of interest to atheists to market products to atheists. Even if they are Christians. As long as its honest, professional, and interesting. In other words, the same standards I’d expect of The Huffington Post or The New York Times. Or FtB for that matter.

4. That “it’s a scam site. It scams rational thinkers into assuming the site is legitimate for its seriousness, and then plonks in other articles, hoping that those articles will be treated with the same sense of seriousness.” That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Why would anyone think “rational thinkers” would be fooled? Are we seriously imagining that Downs is trying to convert atheists to Christianity by luring them in with interesting blogs about atheism, hoping atheists will then wander around and read interviews and news items about religious conservatives and suddenly experience an epiphany of Jesus? I’ve met some idiots for Christ who might think that would work, but none of them have graduate degrees from major universities…or really even legitimate college degrees at all. In fact Barham told me they were keen on creating more diversity at the site so it wouldn’t be all one-sided. Some atheists see that as a dirty trick. I see it as inclusive marketing. It’s kind of funny to see someone attacked for aiming to generate more diversity at their site, and then attacked for being all one-sided and not allowing more diversity at their site. Honestly, what would you rather? A site that was all aimed at conservative evangelical Christians, or a site that represented multiple views? Trying to draw in a broader demographic is not a “scam.” It’s just good business. In fact, it’s rather American.

5. That “almost all of [the bios] have some snide remark at the end” with “cynicism and mockery.” I don’t quite see that. I see a conservative POV. Otherwise I didn’t notice anything that was dishonest or untrue. Granted, I didn’t fact check it all, but the list fairly links to all our actual PR sites and books and works and thus is not trying to misrepresent us. Indeed, if anything they are promoting us. If I were to run the differential math on this, as a result of their being this open about plugging people into our world, odds are this site is now going to deconvert more Christians than it will convert atheists to Christianity. For example, the only “odd” thing about the bio Barham gave me (I am assuming he was the sole author) is that it mentions my advocacy for the theory that Jesus never really existed–but that’s hardly a secret. Yes, perhaps a (possibly) conservative Barham included that item because he thought it was wacky. But he didn’t mock me for it nor was he snide about it. He just stated the fact of it. Likewise, for Greta Christina he tacks on at the end that “she also publishes pornographic fiction.” Well, yes. She does. That’s not cynicism or mockery. It’s just the way conservatives honestly see us. Indeed, this author could have been snide or mocking about these details. What I find remarkable is that he wasn’t. This looks like honest, indeed respectful reporting to me. Conservative-minded, sure. But so what?

6. That the site advocates “for the benefits of an online education (you know, where students need not actually learn stuff)” and “their Degree Finder widget doesn’t include biology, physics, chemistry etc. No point in needlessly troubling those creationist minds.” Though both facts are true (the site does advocate for various kinds of online education, and its widget doesn’t have biology, physics, or chemistry in it), the inference being made from these facts is not logical. ID advocate Michael Behe is a biochemist. And I can’t fathom why creationists would be afraid of physics or chemistry. The widget also lacks other majors that can’t possibly have anything to do with imagined creationist phobias (are they morbidly afraid of anthropology, oceanography and astronomy?). Rather, when you look at what the widget does include, it’s obviously slanted toward career-ready degrees. Hence, no physics, but “engineering” and “engineering management,” degrees that can hardly be pursued without studying physics. Likewise, no biology, but tons of health science degrees, from “gerontology” to “radiology” and “nursing,” none of which can be pursued without studying biology. This also fits the site’s focus on online degree granting institutions, like the University of Phoenix, which specialize in career-ready degrees and not general sciences. The site is clearly geared toward people who need an affordable way to get a better job (“career success” as the site itself says). An ambiguous degree in biology is not going to appeal.

However, there are valid criticisms to make of the site.

It’s certainly a little conservative and Christian slanted (although perhaps not so much as critics have made it seem, but it definitely is coming from that corner of the ring; just peruse some of the articles to get an idea). But it’s not like conservatives don’t get to have their own websites. And if you think about it, “top” lists of atheists generated by conservatives should be more telling, as such lists catalog the people they regard as their greatest threat. More of an issue perhaps is the fact that TheBestSchools.org isn’t really promoting “the best schools” per se but the best cheap schools (or, shall we say, “affordable” schools) and is primarily promoting schools who would appear to be paid advertisers, and that these are predominately D-list schools, usually online schools. It looks like you will never be directed to apply to any mainstream state university through the site’s widget, although such schools do get promoted in some of the site’s articles (e.g. its article on the “top ten most affordable law schools” has some good recommendations and does not appear biased towards the site’s advertisers). So they aren’t engaging in dishonest reporting. This is therefore not a “scam” site. Its widget is a bit dodgy, but no more so than GoogleAds would be. It’s clearly just promoting for-profit online education.

For example, using its “Degree Finder” widget you’ll get recommended such places as DeVry University (a for-profit company which has numerous physical campuses and an online education program, but does have a reputation for being something like the McDonald’s of college education) or Liberty University (a full on, totally bonkers, “yes, they teach young earth creationism in biology class” Evangelical school) or University of Phoenix (a primarily online for-profit college that’s kind of like the Denny’s of college education…you know, a step up from McDonald’s). UOP has gotten into trouble lately over its somewhat shady slant towards profits over quality (see the NYT article and a Harvard Extension blog thereon, and UOP’s official reply, and the analysis of what is passed off as an independent blogger…writing for an e-school site in Poland for some reason…but what one might suspect is a hired PR puppet of UOP). What about Liberty U? I don’t think the occasional presence of LU here is a pro-Christian plant. More likely it’s just one of those for-profit schools that’s also advertising through the same widget. Because LU is pushing a big online program now.

So, that’s all the back story. After posting their “top fifty atheists” blog to draw traffic (again, no evil in that) Barham asked me personally if I’d do an interview for the site. I could say anything I wanted (within common decency). Nothing would be edited out. He also approached many others on the list. As for myself, I said sure, since by then I knew it was a Christian site, but I’d done questionnaires for Christian sites before (including one inspired by the “top 25 atheists” list generated similarly to this one, at a site using exactly the same widget–the WHOIS for that site seems locked up by denial-of-service attacks so I can’t discover who owns it). I have no problem with that, as long as they are honest about how they represent what I say, and don’t ask stupid questions. Barham’s questionnaire was well-written and his questions thoughtful and interesting. And true to his word, he published my full reply, even improving its punctuation and correcting typos. The end result is something definitely of interest to Christians, atheists, and prospective college students alike. Now you can read for yourself The BestSchools Richard Carrier Interview. It talks about my background and life story, why I am skeptical of a historical Jesus, why I’m a naturalist and how I deal with certain questions about that, my debate with W.L. Craig, the future of atheism as a movement, and what advice I’d give to prospective college students.

I see this as a mutually beneficial arrangement. He gets traffic and diversifies his target demographic for his product marketing, and I get to promote my work, and my views on philosophy and education, and on atheism as a movement in general. Just try to imagine this happening in an Islamic country and you’ll think twice about being overly cynical about such a transaction.

Comments Crazy!

Happy new year everyone!

Today I’m going to blog a boring administrative thing. But later this week I’ll put up something a little more interesting.

With my move now to Freethought Blogs the number of comments my entries are generating within a week has shot up fivefold or more. Which is great, except that it means I have to revisit the way I handle comments. There are now so many of them coming so quickly, it’s overwhelming me. As I announced in my inaugural post, “I will be experimenting with different methods of handling comments (active moderation, etc.) until I know what works best here,” and I’ve come to a conclusion I don’t like but have to implement. I’ve changed the settings so that all comments go to moderation. On the one hand this means I am committing myself to being much more Johnny-on-the-spot moderating comments so they don’t languish for weeks as many still are (I’ll be spending the rest of this week getting through all those, now that I’ve finished the paid work that has taken me away from blogging these last two weeks). But on the other hand this means everyone will have to wait at least a day or two before their comments appear (and just so you know, I don’t usually work weekends; I reserve those to spend time with my wife, since we don’t have much time together during the week, so “day or two” means business days).

This makes it a lot easier for me to keep up with checking comments, and in their actual order no less, but above all it’s just more fair to new posters, who right now have to wait for their posts to log while established posters blow past them posting comments galore. I don’t like that. So to put everyone on equal footing, now everyone waits, and their comments get posted in the actual order they are submitted.

If your comments aren’t up within a week, then they didn’t get approved. There are two possible reasons for that: you violated the rules I set out in my inaugural post (and many commentators have been doing that, some so consistently it’s really astonishing), or you got flagged as spam by my robot. On my old blog I got so little actual spam I was able to weed through the spam folder and rescue mis-flagged posts, but now I am getting hundreds of spam comments a week (!), which makes it impossible for me to even check that folder anymore (although I did one check recently and it does indeed appear to be all spam, but I still couldn’t check everything so I can’t be 100% sure). Which means if your comment gets ditched by my antispambot I’ll never know it. If you honestly can’t think of any reason why your comment would run afoul of my posting rules, then feel free to email me, explain the sitch, and tell me what email address you used to post your comment with, so I can go in to the spam folder and see if you got in there by accident (or otherwise tell you what happened). I will likely clear the spam folder every thirty days, though, so keep that in mind.

Last but not least, the huge number of approved comments is already so large that I know I won’t be able to respond to them all anymore. I used to reply to everyone. But on some posts I have gotten as many as 160 posts, and even after vetting out violators, in one case there is nearly 100 (many still waiting moderation). I just can’t handle that much traffic. So I will allow comments to post even if I never respond to them. And I might respond only to a few.

So I would be most pleased if informed and passionate people who have the time bulldog for me and respond to everything that warrants a response. That would ensure every comment gets answered, by division of labor. That doesn’t excuse you from still conforming to my rules, though. Even people on my side should follow my lead as much as possible. Basically, stick to facts and logic, cut to the chase, and don’t be pointlessly abusive, but educational and informative, and just call out errors, or acknowledge points worth adding to or qualifying my original post. I may weigh in from time to time. But good commentators can save me a lot of time and make my blog better.