The Bible as history-4: How science unearths the past

(See part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

The two main tools that are available for trying to piece together the real history of Biblical times are those of literary analysis and archeology. In the former, the analysts carefully examine texts for literary clues as to the dates and places where events are reported to have occurred. In the latter, fieldwork in the area tries to find concrete evidence of the rise and fall and migration of societies. And when the two methods are combined, it becomes possible to reconstruct events and see what Biblical stories hold up and what don’t.

And what it seems to show is that the stories of the Bible that occurred earlier than around 800 BC have little or no support and are often contradicted outright. A key myth that was overturned was about Abraham having lived around 1800 BCE, and the wanderings of a people associated with him. This story has been completely undermined by a combination of literary and archeological analysis and there is no reason to believe it to be true.

For an example of the kind of analysis that is done, take simple facts like camels being used for transport. The Bible frequently mentions camel caravans during the various migrations of people, including those of Abraham. As Daniel Lazare says in his March 2002 Harper’s article False Testament, nowadays we tend to take for granted that camels were always domesticated animals, routinely available to be used for transport purposes. But in actuality, studies of ancient animal bones show that as far as that region was concerned, camels were not used for such domestic purposes until well after 1000 BCE.

If you try to shift the dates of Abraham’s travels to overcome problems like that with the camels, you run into other problems.

Subsequent research into urban development and nomadic growth patterns indicated that no such mass migration had taken place and that several cities mentioned in the Genesis account did not exist during the time frame Albright had suggested. Efforts to salvage the theory by moving up Abraham’s departure to around 1500 B.C. foundered when it was pointed out that, this time around, Genesis failed to mention cities that did dominate the landscape during this period. No matter what time frame was advanced, the biblical text did not accord with what archaeologists were learning about the land of Canaan in the second millennium.

Another problem arises with the exodus from Egypt. The evidence points to the fact that such an event did not happen.

The most obvious concerned the complete silence in contemporary Egyptian records concerning the mass escape of what the Bible says were no fewer than 603,550 Hebrew slaves.
. . .
Not only was there a dearth of physical evidence concerning the escape itself, as archaeologists pointed out, but the slate was blank concerning the nearly five centuries that the Israelites had supposedly lived in Egypt prior to the Exodus as well as the forty years that they supposedly spent wandering in the Sinai. Not so much as a skeleton, campsite, or cooking pot had turned up, [Tel Aviv University archeologist Israel] Finkelstein and [journalist Neil Asher] Silberman noted, even though “modern archeological techniques are quite capable of tracing even the very meager remains of hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads all over the world.” Indeed, although archaeologists have found remains in the Sinai from the third millennium B.C. and the late first, they have found none from the thirteenth century.

Another myth that was overthrown by archeological studies was that the land of Canaan was captured by Israelites returning from Egypt after several epic battles. In actuality, Lazare writes:

Resurrecting a theory first proposed in the 1920s, an Israeli named Yohanan Aharoni infuriated the Israeli archaeological establishment by arguing that evidence in support of an Israelite war of conquest in the thirteenth century B.C. was weak and unconvincing. Basing his argument on a redating of pottery shards found at a dig in the biblical city of Hazor, Aharoni proposed instead that the first Hebrew settlers had filtered into Palestine in a nonviolent fashion, peacefully settling among the Canaanites rather than putting them to the sword.
. . .
Rather than revealing that Canaan was entered from the outside, analysis of ancient settlement patterns indicated that a distinctive Israelite culture arose locally around 1200 B.C. as nomadic shepherds and goatherds ceased their wanderings and began settling down in the nearby uplands. Instead of an alien culture, the Israelites were indigenous. Indeed, they were highly similar to other cultures that were emerging in the region around the same time–except for one thing: whereas archaeologists found pig bones in other sites, they found none among the Israelites. A prohibition on eating pork may have been one of the earliest ways in which the Israelites distinguished themselves from their neighbors.

Another story that is strongly believed to be true but is very likely to be a myth is the story of David and Solomon being powerful kings who ruled over a large region of territory and lived in some splendor.

If the Old Testament is to be believed, David and Solomon, rulers of the southern kingdom of Judah from about 1005 to about 931 B.C., made themselves masters of the northern kingdom of Israel as well. They represent, in the official account, a rare moment of national unity and power; under their reign, the combined kingdom was a force throughout the Fertile Crescent.
. . .
According to the Bible, Solomon was both a master builder and an insatiable accumulator. He drank out of golden goblets, outfitted his soldiers with golden shields, maintained a fleet of sailing ships to seek out exotic treasures, kept a harem of 1,000 wives and concubines, and spent thirteen years building a palace and a richly decorated temple to house the Ark of the Covenant. Yet not one goblet, not one brick, has ever been found to indicate that such a reign existed.

The battle of Jericho that has been immortalized in song as where Joshua caused the walls to come tumbling down also lacks any supporting evidence. “Although archaeologists claimed in the 1930s to have uncovered evidence that the walls of Jericho had fallen much as the Book of Joshua said they had, a British archaeologist named Kathleen Kenyon was subsequently able to demonstrate, based on Mycenaean pottery shards found amid the ruins, that the destruction had occurred no later than 1300 B.C., seventy years or more before the conquest could have happened. Whatever caused the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down, it was not Joshua’s army.”

Needless to say, these recent archeological discoveries have not gone down well with those who want to believe the myths. Lazare says “the facts turned up by the new studies predictably angered the establishment that wanted to preserve the old ideas and cling to the Biblical view of history as much as possible.”

This kind of scientific research poses the same problem for religious believers as evolution by natural selection does. At some point you have to choose whether you want to follow the path of science and go wherever the evidence leads you, or whether you want to go counter to the evidence and believe myths and folklore.

Next: Why the Bible was created

POST SCRIPT: Interesting talk TODAY

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History FRONTIERS of ASTRONOMY Lecture Series is having what promises to be a very interesting talk TODAY, Thursday, Nov 30, at 8:00 pm

University of Chicago and Fermilab physicist Edward Rocky Kolb will be talking about “The Quantum and the Cosmos.”

Long before plants, stars or galaxies emerged, the Universe consisted of an exploding quantum soup of “elementary” particles. Encoded in this formless, shapeless soup were the seeds of cosmic structure, which over billions of years grew into the beautiful and complex Universe we observe today. Edward Kolb explores the connection between the “inner space” of the quantum and the “outer space” of the cosmos. The inner space/outer space connection may hold the key to the nature of the dark matter holding our galaxy together and the mysterious dark energy pulling our universe apart.

Admission is free. For more information, please go to the CMNH website and click of the “Calendar of Events.”

The Bible as history-3: Enter modern archeology

An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 21, 2000, p. A19) describes the surprising results of recent archeological research into the period covered by the Bible. As the tools of archeology developed and became more refined within the past two decades, and archeologists themselves felt no need to have their findings conform to a particular religious narrative, their results went in surprising directions.

So how much of what we believe to be historically true based on the Bible now stands up under the scrutiny of modern archaeological evidence? Very little, it turns out. The Bible is not only a poor source of science and cosmology, it is not even a good source of history.

In the Chronicle article, Tel Avis University archeologist Ze’ev Herzog is quoted as saying: “This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom.”

The article says that among academics there is broad consensus on most features, although scholars differ about details. Reporting on two recent conferences, it says: “None of the scholars speaking at either conference believe that the Bible’s historical sections can be accepted as literal, accurate descriptions of historical events. They also agree that the extra-biblical evidence for events described in the Bible dwindles the farther back in time one goes. King Ahab of Israel [who reigned around 850 BCE] is well-documented in other inscriptions from elsewhere in the Middle East; the united monarchy of David and Solomon is not. Evidence exists of the rise of the new Israelite nation in the Palestinian highlands during the late Bronze Age [1600-1200 BCE] – the age of the Judges – but it can be interpreted in different ways. There is no external evidence at all for the patriarchs and, in fact, the biblical description contains contradictions and anachronisms that, scholars generally agree, seem to place the patriarchs in the age of the Judges rather than several generations earlier, as the Bible has it.”

Daniel Lazare confirms this modern view in his March 2002 Harper’s article False Testament. He says that the new version of history unearthed by archeologists is quite different from what most people believe.

Not only is there no evidence that any such figure as Abraham ever lived but archaeologists believe that there is no way such a figure could have lived given what we now know about ancient Israelite origins.
. . .
A growing volume of evidence concerning Egyptian border defenses, desert sites where the fleeing Israelites supposedly camped, etc., indicates that the flight from Egypt did not occur in the thirteenth century before Christ; it never occurred at all.
. . .
Rather than a band of invaders who fought their way into the Holy Land, the Israelites are now thought to have been an indigenous culture that developed west of the Jordan River around 1200 B.C. Abraham, Isaac, and the other patriarchs appear to have been spliced together out of various pieces of local lore.
. . .
Moses was no more historically real than Abraham before him.
. . .
[A]rchaeologists believe that David was not a mighty potentate whose power was felt from the Nile to the Euphrates but rather a freebooter who carved out what was at most a small duchy in the southern highlands around Jerusalem and Hebron. Indeed, the chief disagreement among scholars nowadays is between those who hold that David was a petty hilltop chieftain whose writ extended no more than a few miles in any direction and a small but vociferous band of “biblical minimalists” who maintain that he never existed at all.
. . .
The Davidic Empire, which archaeologists once thought as incontrovertible as the Roman, is now seen as an invention of Jerusalem-based priests in the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. who were eager to burnish their national history. The religion we call Judaism does not reach well back into the second millennium B.C. but appears to be, at most, a product of the mid-first.
This is not to say that individual elements of the story are not older. But Jewish monotheism, the sole and exclusive worship of an ancient Semitic god known as Yahweh, did not fully coalesce until the period between the Assyrian conquest of the northern Jewish kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. and the Babylonian conquest of the southern kingdom of Judah in 586.

I must admit that all this came as a surprise to me, although this knowledge seems to be widespread in the archeological community. And given my past religious training, my interest was piqued by the question of why all this was not more well known and taught as part of routine Bible study.

In hindsight, it is easy to see that I should never have taken the Biblical stories seriously. Religious texts, whatever the religion, are unlikely to be reliable sources of history. Their authors are not disinterested writers. They are usually religious people, perhaps priests and leaders or scribes working under their direction, and are essentially trying to provide a rationale for people to believe in that religion and to provide authority for religious leaders to enforce discipline on their members. It is in their interest to embellish the historical accounts in order to legitimize the status quo, to give people a sense of inevitability about their status, and to provide legitimacy to the priestly class. To do this, they have to create a grand narrative to describe god’s special interest in them, the rules that they must follow, and his dislike for people of other religions.

If we want to know what really happened in the deep past, we must not believe the accounts given in religious texts unless they are confirmed by investigations using the painstaking, evidence-based methods of science.

Next: How scientific analysis of the past works.

POST SCRIPT: We should have known

Observers of soon-to-be-former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when he was relishing the idea that he was a brilliant thinker will never forget his famous quote:

Reports that say something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

But as BBC’s Radio 4 points out, while this may sound initially like gibberish, actually Rumsfeld simply did not go far enough.

The Bible as history-2: Why people think much of it is true

Until very recently, I had (like most people) the vague idea that the basic Biblical story of a people being in captivity in Egypt, then somehow escaping and settling in the land that is now known as Israel and Palestine was true. Of course, one had to allow for the fact that the stories may have been embellished over time, with all kinds for spectacular miracles and tales of heroism added in to make it more compelling drama. The stories of Moses parting the Red Sea, the Sun being made to stand still, and similar miracles all violate well-established scientific laws and cannot be taken seriously except by those who are determined to believe them because they want to.

But the credibility of the basic historical outline was enhanced by the fact that as we got to periods later that about 600 BCE and approached the time of Jesus, there were other non-Biblical contemporary records that corroborated some of the historical events written about in the Bible. These corroborations of some later events enabled people to believe that the earlier events must also be true. In addition, early archeologists in the Middle East began with the presumption that the Bible stories were entirely true and interpreted all their findings to corroborate them, thus adding to the credibility of the Biblical history.

The earliest challenges to the Bible’s historical accuracy came in the late nineteenth century from what is called the “higher criticism,” which applied the techniques of linguistic and textual analysis to written documents. The study of the language used in the Bible, and the allusions and references that were used therein, enabled scholars to deduce important information about the chronology of events and when the books were written.

Such careful scrutiny of Biblical texts led scholars to conclude that the first five books of the Bible were not written by Moses (as popularly supposed), but were created after the period of Babylonian exile and captivity (586-538 BCE) by Jewish scribes who tried to put a collection of older writings into some order.

It is important to remember that the precursor to the modern Hebrew language only became codified around 800 BCE and thus the first books of the Bible only were written about a century later. But if you take the calendars deduced from the genealogies of the Bible at face value, the early events involving Abraham must have happened about 1800 BCE. Thus, when they were being actually written, the books in the Old Testament were describing events that supposedly happened well over a thousand years earlier. Thus most of the Biblical ‘history’ of that earlier time had to be based on myths, legends, and oral histories, all of which are notoriously unreliable and susceptible to distortions introduced either unwittingly or deliberately by their creators in order to serve political and nationalist and religious goals. At best, these books must be viewed as representing nothing more than a codification of folklore, oral traditions, and propagandizing.

Of course, this does not prove that the events described in those books never happened but it does suggest that those stories should be treated on a par with Norse and Greek and Indian mythology in terms of their credibility.

The only reliable evidence of events of times earlier than the first millennium BCE are those that have been unearthed by scientific methods, such as archaeological studies. Oral and written histories can mislead, but the trail left by the ruins of past societies, the rubble of their homes, and the remnants of their pots and tools and bones and other debris, provide a much more unbiased record of how people lived and migrated. People write with a conscious purpose and future audience in mind, but they live for the present. In our daily activities, we do not deliberately set out to create evidence to guide future archeologists. If I am writing my autobiography, I do it with an eye to what future readers will think of me, but when I take out the trash, I am not wondering what the detritus of my life will say about my society and me a thousand years hence.

For a long while, the archeological records seemed to support the basic ideas of Biblical history. Daniel Lazare, in the article False Testament in the March 2002 issue of Harper’s magazine, sums up the situation that existed until about two decades ago. He says that “it seemed clear that the Israelites had started out as a nomadic band somewhere in the vicinity of ancient Mesopotamia; that they had migrated first to Palestine and then to Egypt; and that, following some sort of conflict with the authorities, they had fled into the desert under the leadership of a mysterious figure who was either a lapsed Jew or, as Freud maintained, a high-born priest of the royal sun god Aton whose cult had been overthrown in a palace coup. Although much was unknown, archaeologists were confident that they had succeeded in nailing down at least these few basic facts.”

This pretty much is the kind of hazy idea that most people have of that time and it seemed to be supported by evidence. The support that earlier archeologists who went to the Middle East in the 19th century provided for the basic Bible stories was not an accident, though. These early archeological studies were done by people who were themselves deeply religious and they were confident that their studies would uncover facts that would be fully consistent with the Bible. They took the basic Bible narratives as more-or-less factual and sought to find, or at least interpret, evidence that confirmed those accounts. Hence, as Lazare says, “The first archaeologists were thus guilty of one of the most elementary of scientific blunders: rather than allowing the facts to speak for themselves, they had tried to fit them into a preconceived theoretical framework.” Because of this “Evidence that buttressed the biblical account was eagerly sought out, while evidence that contradicted it was ignored.”

As a result of this earlier work, the strong perception was created over time that there has been a consistent pattern of evidence being unearthed that buttressed the basic stories of the Bible so that we can regard at least that part of the document that occurs after Noah’s flood and begins with Abraham as historically true. This is the image that is widespread today. But that view has changed dramatically with the rise of a new generation of archeologists who did not feel constrained, as their predecessors had done, to interpret their discoveries to be consistent with the Bible.

Next: What modern archeology reveals.

POST SCRIPT: This amazing universe

This video clip of the Galaxy Song from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life never loses its appeal, because of its scientific accuracy, the cleverness of its lyrics, and the reminder it provides that, thanks to science, we are able to comprehend so much about this vast and amazing universe that we have been fortunate enough to be born into. The last words of the song are:

So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.

The Bible as history-1: The basic early story

There are two views of history. Academic history is that which is painstakingly recreated by historians, trying to reconstruct as accurately as possible events from long ago using source materials as close to the original time as possible along with other kinds of evidence. But then there is the view of history as consisting of that which we remember long after our courses in history have ended. W. C. Sellar, R. J. Yeatman, and Frank Muir humorously recounted the latter kind of English history in their book 1066 and All That, while Dave Barry did it brilliantly for US history in Dave Barry Slept Here, one of the funniest books I have ever read.

The fact is that to the chagrin of historians, most people’s ideas about past events are quite vague and consist of bits of stories they remember from various sources stitched together to provide some sort of quasi-coherent narrative that may differ wildly from the actual sequence of events.

In researching and writing that many-part series about our common ancestors (which you can find by typing in the keyword ‘ancestor’ in the search box) something that surprised me was how few contemporary records exist of what happened earlier than (say) the first millennium BCE. I realized during the course of that research how little I knew for certain about the past and that most of what I knew I had acquired in the course of religious instruction using the Old Testament of the Bible. I began to wonder just how much of the Bible was actually true as history and decided to do a little digging.

Even during the most religious phases of my life, I had never taken the Bible literally as a source of cosmology and other origins. The Genesis stories of how the universe came to be, Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark and the like were to be understood as fiction. Of course, like other ‘modern’ religious people, I took these fictional accounts to be metaphors signifying deeper truths about the role of god in the world.

I also did not take the Bible as a source of science. The stories about seas being parted, the Sun made to stand still, and people rising from the dead were bizarre and unbelievable and inconsistent. The miracles were too contradictory of the laws of science to merit serious consideration.

But what about the Bible as history? Once we got past the early creation stories of Genesis, I pretty much accepted that the Bible was recording actual events, although clearly the authors of the texts had spiced up the narrative with miracles and whatnot to make it more compelling and readable.

Before I report on what I found as to the accuracy of the Biblical accounts, here is a brief overview of what most of us probably remember about history as told in the Bible. I will give here just the bare bones history, leaving out all the rampant sex, incest, adultery, treachery, intrigue, murder, and genocide that fill its pages. People who have not read the Bible themselves and have learned the Biblical stories only from religious teachers and priests may be surprised at all the interesting bits those people left out.

The Old Testament stories can be split up into two parts, before Noah’s Ark and the flood, and after. Almost everyone (other than Biblical literalists who believe that everything in the Bible is strictly true) accept that the Genesis accounts up to and including the flood and Noah’s Ark are mythological. The real claim to history begins with the story of Abraham when, after some serious begatting following the flood, the world had a fairly large population. Out of this population there came this person called Abraham (who possibly originated somewhere in Mesopotamia) who was taken by god to the area known as Canaan (which consisted of land that would be currently called Israel and the occupied territories and Gaza and parts of Lebanon and Syria) and was told by god that his descendants would occupy that land.

After spending some time in Egypt (because of a famine back in Canaan) he returned to Canaan and had sons Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac married Rebecca and had twins Jacob (who later came to be called Israel) and Esau. Jacob had 12 sons one of whom was Joseph who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers but prospered there, effectively becoming the pharaoh’s close advisor and a powerful figure. Eventually his whole family joined him in Egypt and lived there and also prospered.

As the Biblical history continues, Joseph eventually died as did the pharaoh who had been his protector, and a new pharaoh ascended the throne who did not look kindly at the Israelites in their midst and started treating them badly. Then Moses came along and took the Israelites back to Canaan, with the Bible describing the route they took. After Moses got the ten commandments from god on Mount Sinai, the Israelites were punished by god for complaining and general bad behavior and spent forty years in the wilderness.

Joshua, Moses’s aide, took over as leader from Moses upon the latter’s death and led the conquest of the land of Canaan. Later on David and Solomon were kings who ruled over major areas of the lands known as Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom). This was followed by a whole lot more wars and bloodshed, not to mention rampant sex, incest, adultery, treachery, intrigue, murder, and genocide.

After that the story gets more complicated and confusing with lots of stuff going on, various kings and prophets coming and going (along with the rampant sex, incest, etc.) until finally the people of Israel go into exile and captivity in Babylon (then ruled by Nebuchadnezzar) in 586 BCE. In 538 BCE, Cyrus, king of Persia, the new dominant power in the region, overcame the Babylonians and allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem. The Old Testament version of history stops around 450 BCE and there is then a gap until the New Testament.

That is pretty much early history as told by the Bible.

Next: Why people think the early Biblical history is largely true.

POST SCRIPT: Suspicions confirmed

On November 14, I wrote inThe October Surprise That Failed? that I suspected that the bombing of the madrassa in Pakistan that killed 82 people was done by the US because they thought that Ayman al-Zawahiri was there. The government of Pakistan has now confirmed that this is the case, despite its earlier insistence that they had carried out the attack. The Sunday Times Christina Lamb reports:

“We thought it would be less damaging if we said we did it rather than the US,” said a key aide to President Pervez Musharraf. “But there was a lot of collateral damage and we’ve requested the Americans not to do it again.”

The Americans are believed to have attacked after a tip-off that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy leader of Al-Qaeda, was present.

The lying by the US and Pakistan governments about their actions in these wars has become so commonplace, and so uncaring about the deaths of civilians, that it is amazing that anyone gives them any credence.

No more daft women!

(Because I am taking a break from blogging for the holiday, this is a repost from April 4, 2006, slightly edited.)

Evan Hunter, who was the screenwriter on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds recalled an incident that occurred when he was discussing the screenplay with the director.

I don’t know if you recall the movie. There’s a scene where after this massive bird attack on the house Mitch, the male character, is asleep in a chair and Melanie hears something. She takes a flashlight and she goes up to investigate, and this leads to the big scene in the attic where all the birds attack her. I was telling [Hitchcock] about this scene and he was listening very intently, and then he said, “Let me see if I understand this correctly. There has been a massive attack on the house and they have boarded it up and Mitch is asleep and she hears a sound and she goes to investigate?” I said, “Well, yes,” and he said, “Is she daft? Why doesn’t she wake him up?”

I remembered this story when I was watching the film The Interpreter with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. The Kidman character accidentally overhears something at the UN that puts her life at risk. After she complains to government agent Penn that no one seems to be bothered about protecting her from harm, Penn puts her on round-the-clock surveillance. So then what does Kidman do? She sneaks around, giving the slip to the very people assigned to protect her and refuses to tell Penn where she went and to whom she spoke and about what, causing herself and other people to be put at risk and even dying because of her actions. Hitchcock would have said, “Is she daft?”

This is one of my pet peeves about films, where the female character insists on doing something incredibly stupid that puts her and other people at peril. Surely in this day and age we have gone beyond the stale plot device of otherwise smart women behaving stupidly in order to create drama? Surely writers have more imagination than that? Do directors really think that viewers won’t notice how absurd that is?

According to Hunter, Hitchcock was always exploring the motivations of characters, trying to make their actions plausible. Hunter says:

[Hitchcock] would ask surprising questions. I would be in the middle of telling the story so far and he would say, “Has she called her father yet?” I’d say, “What?” “The girl, has she called her father?” And I’d say, “No.” “Well, she’s been away from San Francisco overnight. Does he know where she is? Has she called to tell him she’s staying in this town?” I said, “No.” And he said, “Don’t you think she should call him?” I said, “Yes.” “You know it’s not a difficult thing to have a person pick up the phone.” Questions like that.

(Incidentally, the above link has three screenwriters Arthur Laurents, who wrote Rope (1948), Joseph Stefano, who wrote Psycho (1960), and Evan Hunter reminiscing about working with Hitchcock. It is a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of how a great director envisages and sets about creating films. The last quote actually reads in the original: “Yes, you know it’s not a difficult thing to have a person pick up the phone.” I changed it because my version makes more sense, and the original is a verbatim transcript of a panel discussion, in which such kinds of punctuation errors can easily occur.)

More generally, I hate it when characters in films and books behave in ways that are unbelievable. The problem is not with an implausible premise, which is often necessary to create a central core for the story. I can even accept the violation of a few laws of physics. For example, I can accept the premise of Superman that a baby with super powers (but susceptible to kryptonite) arrives on Earth from another planet and is adopted by a family and needs to keep his identity secret. I can accept of Batman that a millionaire like Bruce Wayne adopts a secret identity in order to fight crime.

What I cannot stand is when they and the other people act implausibly, when the stories built on this premise have logical holes that you can drive a Batmobile through. The latter, for example, is a flashy vehicle, to say the least, easily picked out in traffic. And yet, nobody in Gotham thinks of following it back to the Batcave, to see who this mysterious hero is. Is the entire population of that city daft?

And how exactly does the Bat-Signal that the Police Commissioner lights up the sky with supposed to work? You don’t need a physics degree to realize that shining a light, however bright, into the sky is not going to create a sharp image there. And what if it’s daytime? And if there are no clouds? (It’s been a long time since I read these comics. Maybe the later editions fixed these problems. But even as a child these things annoyed me.)

And don’t get me started on Spiderman going in and out of his apartment window in a building in the middle of a big city in broad daylight without anyone noticing.

As a fan of films, it really bugs me when filmmakers don’t take the trouble to write plots that make sense, and have characters who don’t behave the way that you would expect normal people to behave. How hard can it be to ensure this, especially when you have the budget to hire writers to create believable characters and a plausible storyline?

If any directors are reading this, I am willing to offer my services to identify and fix plot holes.

So please, no more daft women! No more ditzy damsels in distress! No more Perils of Pauline!

POST SCRIPT: CSA: Confederate States of America

I saw this film (see the post script to an earlier posting), just before it ended its very short run in Cleveland. It looks at what history would have been like if the south had won the civil war. Imagine, if you will, an America very much like what we have now except that owning black slaves is as commonplace as owning a dishwasher.

What was troubling is that although this is an imagined alternate history presented in a faux documentary format, much of it is plausible based on what we have now. What was most disturbing for me was seeing in the film some racist images and acts that I thought were the over-the-top imaginings of the screenwriter about that might have happened in this alternate history, and then finding out at the end that theyactually happened in the real history.

Although the film is a clever satire in the style of This is Spinal Tap, I could not really laugh because the topic itself is so appalling. It is easy to laugh at the self-absorption and preening and pretensions of a rock band. It is hard to laugh at people in shackles.

But the film was well worth seeing, disturbing though it was.

Thanksgiving and Christmas musings

(Because I am taking a break from blogging for the holiday, this is a repost from Thanksgiving of last year, slightly changed and updated. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!)

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to the class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the history of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have to learn US history in school or did not have the experience of visiting my grandparents’ homes for this occasion, this holiday initially left me unmoved.

But over time, I have warmed to the holiday and it now seems to me to be the best holiday of all, for reasons that have little to do with its historical roots.

I mainly like the fact that it has (still) avoided being commercialized and merchandized to death. There are no gifts and cards associated with it. It is a secular holiday so no one need feel excluded, with the ‘thanks’ that are offered being just for the good fortune of being with family and friends, and not overtly religious. There are no ritualized ceremonies, religious or otherwise, that one has to attend. There are no decorations or dressing up.

It is just a time to get together with family and friends and around that universal gesture of friendship, sharing food. And even the menu of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, and pies, is such that it is not too expensive, so most people can afford to have the standard meal for a large number of people without going into debt. And although there is much talk of anticipated gluttony, in practice this also seems like just a ritualized and familiar joke, and most people seem to eat well but not in excess. There is also no tradition of drinking too much and rowdiness. Thanksgiving seems to symbolize a kind of quiet socializing that is a throwback to a simpler, less crass and commercial time.

Thanksgiving remains mostly an opportunity to spend a day with those whom one is close to, sharing food, playing games, and basking in the warmth of good fellowship. How can one not like such a holiday?

The only catch with Thanksgiving is that it is immediately followed by the horror show known as the “Christmas shopping season.” Each year I am revolted at the attention that the media pays to the retail industry in the days immediately following Thanksgiving. They wallow in stories of sales, of early-bird shoppers on Friday lining up in the cold at 4:00am to get bargains, fighting with other shoppers to grab sale items, people getting trampled in the crush, the long lines at cash registers, the year’s “hot” gift items, and the breathless reports of how much was spent and what it predicts for the future of the economy. The media eggs on this process by giving enormous amounts of coverage to people going shopping, a non-news event if there ever was one, adding cute names like “Black Friday” and more recently “Cyber Monday.”

Frankly, I find this obsessive focus on consumption disgusting. In fact, I would gladly skip directly from Thanksgiving to the new year because the intervening period seems to me to be just one long orgy of consumerism in which spending money is the goal. The whole point of the Christmas holiday seems to have become one in which people are made to feel guilty if they are not spending vast amounts of time and money in finding gifts for others. There is an air of forced jollity that is jarring, quite in contrast to the genuine warmth of Thanksgiving. And it just seems to stress people out.

Since I grew up in a country where people were encouraged to be frugal, often out of necessity, I still find it disquieting to be urged to spend as if it were somehow my duty to go broke in order to shore up the retail industry and help “grow the economy.” I still don’t understand that concept. An economy that is based on people buying what they do not need or can even afford seems to me to be inherently unsustainable, if not downright morally offensive.

The only things about Christmas that I still like are the carols. The a cappella arrangements of traditional Christmas carols produce some of the most beautiful music, and to hear good choirs singing the delicate harmonies is something that even someone as musically challenged as I am can appreciate. Although I am no longer religious, the one thing that can tempt me back into church is a Christmas carol service.

Let me be clear that I am referring to Christmas carols and not to the abomination that one often hears on the radio during this season, which are the popular Christmas “songs.” The latter consist of some of the most irritating music ever invented. I am referring to things like “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “Holly Jolly Christmas,” and others of that ilk. These awful songs are played over and over again at this time of year until I am ready to take a hammer to the radio. If I never hear those songs again, I will be happy.

I have an audiocassette that has about twenty carols that I sometimes play around Christmas time. But what prevents me from fully enjoying it is that the producers, in an appalling act of bad judgment, have sandwiched the beautiful a cappella choral arrangements with “White Christmas” at the beginning and “Silver Bells” at the end, making it even worse by adding schmaltzy piano accompaniment to those two songs. My enjoyment of the carols is tempered by the knowledge that these annoying songs are going to eventually come on, ruining the warmth generated by the carols. My hatred of such music is such that I am tempted to head over to the Friedman Media Center in the Kelvin Smith Library and use their terrific equipment to digitize the tape, and transfer the songs to a CD, just so that I can leave out those two imposters. (If you have never used this facility, I strongly recommend a visit. There is almost nothing that you cannot do there in terms of audio-visual effects. It’s free to all Case people, and the staff there are very helpful.)

I sincerely hope that Thanksgiving does not also become corrupted by merchandizing the way that Christmas has. But in our the present buy-buy-buy culture you can be sure that retailers are eyeing that holiday too and it will require great vigilance to prevent it from sliding down that particular slope.

POST SCRIPT: Nielsen ratings as a referendum on torture

I mentioned before how absurd it was that people took their cues about the validity of torture from the fictional TV show 24. Now see this clip where some talk show host named Laura Ingraham uses the logic that 24 is very popular and that makes it as good as a referendum to demonstrate that people approve of the government using “tough tactics” against prisoners. Who are these people like Ingraham? Where did they come from that this kind of logic makes sense to them?

Bush and Vietnam

President Bush finally went to Vietnam this week, after spending his youth trying to avoid going there when that war was going on. Needless to say that this was the source for much humor. Some said that he tried to avoid going this time too but that his father could not get him out of the trip. Others said that he was glad to go since the drubbing his party took at the elections made it awkward for him to have to deal with the new realities in Congress. As Ted Koppel said, Bush joined the Air National Guard to get out of going to Vietnam, but now he is going to Vietnam to get out of being in Washington.

But the curious thing that has been remarked upon is that when Bush was asked what was the lesson of the Vietnam war, he said it was the importance of perseverance. Bush said that what he learned was that “We’ll succeed unless we quit.”

Of course this invites ridicule since it seemed to imply that if the US has stayed on in Vietnam they would have won that war, a rosy view of that war’s history that is only clung to by those who refuse to concede that the US could ever be defeated militarily. The statement also seemed like a diplomatic blunder, to say the least, to tell the people of your host country that you feel that should have devastated their country even more than you did and perhaps should still be bombing them thirty years later.

The lesson that almost everyone else has learned from Vietnam is that one should never get involved in a guerilla war against forces fighting for national liberation.

But perhaps Bush was applying his words to the Vietnamese forces. If so, he was being very perceptive. The North Vietnamese regular army and the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front had long realized that all they had to do was persevere and stay fighting. As long as they did not quit, they would succeed because the US would have to leave. And that is exactly what happened.

That is the dynamic of any struggle in which an invading army ends up battling the local population, and it applies to Iraq. All that the Iraqi insurgent forces have to do is to keep fighting. If they do so, they will win even if they never win any single battle, since an invading force cannot maintain its occupation indefinitely in the face of sustained hostility. The famous Tet offensive in 1968 was a military defeat for the Vietnamese but a huge political victory since it dramatically illustrated to the American public that despite having been repeatedly told by their own government that the tide was turning, there was light at the end of the tunnel, and similar clichés about victory in the war being just over the horizon, the Vietnam conflict was still raging, with no end in sight.

One sure sign that things are going badly is when pundits keep looking hopefully over the horizon for good news that never comes. They usually put a time of about six months in the future for when either things will either get better or some decisive decision will have to be taken. It seems like they have decided that six months is just about what the public is willing to tolerate staying with the status quo. The catch is that when the six months is up and no progress has been made, a new six month horizon has to be created. The situation is not unlike parents on a long car journey who repeatedly tell their restless children that they will arrive at their destination in fifteen minutes, in order to keep them quiet.

This ploy has been used so frequently in Iraq by so many people that the six month horizon has even acquired its own name, the Friedman Unit (FU) (coined by Atrios), after that fount of banalities, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, was noticed by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has having repeatedly invoked it starting back in November 2003. So we are now six FUs further into the war and still waiting.

But coming back to Bush’s statement about the lessons of Vietnam, why would Bush be advising the Iraqi insurgents to learn from the Vietnamese people on the value of perseverance in order to defeat the US?

A person whose views I greatly respect once suggested that Mikhail Gorbachev may have deliberately set about undermining the Soviet Union and orchestrating its collapse because early in his life he had felt that that kind of social and economic structure was not sustainable and something new had to be put in its place. But that would not happen until the existing order had been dismantled. So Gorbachev quietly went along with official policies until he attained power in that country. Then he deliberately set about instituting policies from the inside that he knew would lead to the eventual collapse of the system.

Inspired by this idea, I thought that maybe Bush and Cheney, for whatever reasons known only to themselves, deliberately set about destroying the US as a world power militarily and economically and in terms of its ability to influence world opinion. They saw that the best way to do that would be to commit its forces to getting bogged down in an unwinnable and unpopular war that would break the US militarily, destroy its economy by spending huge amounts on both the war and counterterrorism efforts (over $500 billion so far and still rising rapidly), and so alienate world opinion that the US became almost totally isolated on the world’s stage, thus putting an end to any ideas of creating a powerful empire.

I am being facetious, I think, but I am not sure because this administration has effectively put an end to irony and satire by exceeding anyone’s imaginings of irrationality. But if that actually had been their plan, Bush and Cheney have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

POST SCRIPT 1: Spreading the word

Australian John Safran, ticked off by Mormon missionaries waking him up early on a Saturday morning to proselytize, decided to get his revenge by traveling all the way across the globe to Salt Lake City and going door-to-door to proselytize for atheism and Darwin.

POST SCRIPT 2: What should be done?

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow has the solution to the Iraq problem.

Torture is not fun and games-2

Those who wish to excuse the actions of this administration or minimize the seriousness of torture sometimes take the tack of trivializing it, making it seem as if opponents of torture are making a big issue out of mere playfulness. Take Rush Limbaugh’s response to a caller on his radio show when the events of Abu Ghraib were revealed.

CALLER: It was like a college fraternity prank that stacked up naked men –

LIMBAUGH: Exactly. Exactly my point! This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we’re going to ruin people’s lives over it and we’re going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I’m talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of need to blow some steam off?

(Of course, one cannot expect classy behaqvior from the likes of Limbaugh, a truly disgusting person who even mocked and caricatured actor Michael J. Fox for making an ad supporting stem-cell research and Missouri senate candidate Claire McCaskill who supports that research. In the ad, Fox courageously revealed the painful to watch, but unfortunately standard, symptoms of his Parkinson’s disease, but Limbaugh ridiculed him and accused him of faking it. McCaskill won a close race and there is much speculation that Limbaugh’s boorish behavior actually tipped the scales in her favor, since decent people resent ill people being mocked. And when that person is as much-liked as Michael J. Fox, the repugnance against Limbaugh was accentuated.)

But one has a right to expect higher standards of behavior from high government officials. And yet, another revealing episode of how torture gets trivialized was when Vice President Dick Cheney was interviewed by a radio show host and implied that he approved of the form of torture known as “waterboarding.” This word can mean various things, but none of them are good.

According to wikipedia:

Waterboarding is a type of torture used in coercive interrogations or for punishment. In modern practice it simulates drowning and produces a severe gag reflex, making the subject believe his or her death is imminent while ideally not causing permanent physical damage.
. . .
The subject is strapped to a board and either tipped back or lowered into a body of water until he or she believed that drowning was imminent. The subject then is removed from the water and revived. If deemed necessary, the routine is repeated.

The technique characterized in 2005 by former CIA director Porter J. Goss as a “professional interrogation technique”, involves tying the victim to a board with the head lower than the feet so that he or she is unable to move. A piece of cloth is held tightly over the face, and water is poured onto the cloth. Breathing is extremely difficult and the victim will be in fear of imminent death by asphyxiation. Journalists Brian Ross and Richard Esposito described the CIA’s waterboarding technique as follows:

The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in.

Described this way, it sounds terrible. But the sympathetic radio talk show host who interviewed Cheney put the question to him in this softball way. He said that his

listeners had asked him to ”let the vice president know that if it takes dunking a terrorist in water, we’re all for it, if it saves American lives.”

”Again, this debate seems a little silly given the threat we face, would you agree?” Hennen said.

”I do agree,” Cheney replied, according to a transcript of the interview released Wednesday.
. . .
”Would you agree that a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?” asked Hennen.

‘It’s a no-brainer for me, but for a while there, I was criticized as being the vice president ‘for torture.’ We don’t torture. That’s not what we’re involved in,” Cheney replied. “We live up to our obligations in international treaties that we’re party to and so forth. But the fact is, you can have a fairly robust interrogation program without torture, and we need to be able to do that.” (my emphasis)

Notice how waterboarding is trivialized by calling it ‘dunking’, making it seem as if it is equivalent to the childhood game of bobbing for apples, or tossing a friend into a swimming pool, or sports teams dousing their winning coach with a cooler of ice water. The Daily Show had a segment on waterboarding which, while humorous, showed both its dangers and the fact that torture rarely yields any accurate or useful information but merely provides an outlet for the sadistic impulses of the torturers.

The Miami Herald naturally reported that the radio interview exchange implied that Cheney had approved of waterboarding.

Vice President Dick Cheney has confirmed that U.S. interrogators subjected captured senior al-Qaida suspects to a controversial interrogation technique called “water-boarding,” which creates a sensation of drowning.

Cheney indicated that the Bush administration doesn’t regard water-boarding as torture and allows the CIA to use it. “It’s a no-brainer for me,” Cheney said at one point in an interview.

Cheney’s comments, in a White House interview on Tuesday with a conservative radio talk show host, appeared to reflect the Bush administration’s view that the president has the constitutional power to do whatever he deems necessary to fight terrorism.

The U.S. Army, senior Republican lawmakers, human rights experts and many experts on the laws of war, however, consider water-boarding cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment that’s banned by U.S. law and by international treaties that prohibit torture.

When Cheney was naturally denounced for approving torture, his spokesperson tried, as usual, to issue a non-denial denial, saying that what Cheney understood by “dunking” was not waterboarding. But she also refused to say what he had understood by the term.

Lee Ann McBride, a spokeswoman for Cheney, denied that Cheney confirmed that U.S. interrogators used water-boarding or endorsed the technique.

“What the vice president was referring to was an interrogation program without torture,” she said. “The vice president never goes into what may or may not be techniques or methods of questioning.”

This strains credulity. Waterboarding has been the torture technique that has received the widest publicity. To imply that the Cheney and the talk show host and the caller all understood ‘dunking’ to mean anything other than that is preposterous. The very fact that Cheney did not ask for a clarification of what ‘dunking’ meant means that he understood what they were talking about.

That the US government has authorized and condoned torture is now undeniable, with more and more reports coming out confirming this. The German media has reported that “German agents saw US interrogators beat a 70-year-old terror suspect with a rifle butt, requiring the man to receive 20 stitches, and that they viewed documents that were smeared with blood,” all of this occurring in secret US prisons in Europe just two weeks after September 11, 2001.

Only the most willfully blind can deny that torture is being carried out in a systematic manner that has been approved at the highest levels of the US government. What the Cheney interview illustrates is that there is a wink-wink attitude towards it, with the administration coyly refusing to give details about what it does and trivializing whatever is known.

It is disgraceful that we have descended to this. What we have is a paranoid administration that puts even the Nixon White House to shame. They seem willing to do anything and say anything that will serve their purpose. They do not seem to care what the laws or the US constitution or international treaties or conventions or just plain basic human decency say about anything.

I have a simple rule about torture or indeed of any action taken by law enforcement authorities: I do not approve of any action that I would oppose if it were done to me or to a loved one. A question that I would ask Cheney (or any other person who condones these methods) is whether he or she would approve of these methods that he finds ‘no-brainers’ being applied to his own spouse or children or siblings or friends or parents.

The passage of the Military Commissions Act by the US government is a good example of the kind of danger that James Madison warned us about:

I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.

The Military Commissions Act should be repealed. But given that the Democratic Party is also fundamentally pro-war, I am not hopeful that the new Congress will do so.

POST SCRIPT: Science-religion debate

The cover story of the November 13, 2006 issue of Time magazine is a debate on the topic “God vs. Science,” featuring Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins. Both are prominent biologists. The former is an atheist while the latter is a practicing Christian. You can read it here.

Torture is not fun and games

You occasionally find people trying to downplay torture by arguing that what goes on in such situation is little different from the kind of hi-jinks that fraternities sometimes indulge in as part of their initiation ceremonies. For all I know, this could well be a slander on most fraternities. But even if it were not, and fraternities did act this way, this would be an argument against such fraternity initiation ceremonies and not an argument for torture. I do not believe that an argument can ever be made for the deliberate humiliation of one human being by another.
[Read more...]

The other foreign casualties in Iraq

The focus of attention to casualties in Iraq has been mainly on US soldiers, with sporadic attention given to Iraqi deaths. The few times when the latter got in the news was when the Lancet came out last month saying that there was a 95% probability that the number of increased deaths due to the war lay between 400,000 and 900,000. Despite the fact that the study followed well-established methods, its numbers were dismissed as being too high, people preferring to think that the actual figure was around the much lower 50,000,

The Iraqi minister of health dropped a bombshell last week when he said that he estimated the number of Iraqi casualties as around 150,000, three times the figure that the US government had quoted earlier, although he admitted it was very rough estimate.

But there are other casualty figures that have received less attention. One is the number of deaths of soldiers from other countries in the so-called ‘coalition of the willing.’ There have been about 250 of those, divided almost exactly equally between British troops and the rest.

But a surprise, for me at least, was the recently revealed high number of US civilian deaths, which turns out to be about 850 so far. These people are mostly involved with US companies involved in projects in Iraq and their deaths are a symptom of the awful security situation plaguing that country.

The London Independent journalist Patrick Cockburn gives a vivid description of the state of affairs and disputes those painting a rosy picture of the situation.

For the past three-and-a-half years in Iraq, one needed to close both eyes very hard or live in Baghdad’s Green Zone not to see that the occupation was detested by most Iraqis. At places where US Humvees had been blown up or US soldiers killed or wounded there were usually Iraqis dancing for joy.

Supposedly, the centrepiece of American and British policy is to stay “until the job is done” and hand over to Iraqi army and police who will cope with powerful militias like the Mehdi Army. But in police stations in many parts of southern Iraq, photographs pinned to the wall include one of British armoured vehicles erupting in flames, beside a portrait of Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mehdi Army.

In the first year of the occupation it could be argued that Bush and Blair were simply incompetent: they did not understand Iraq, were misinformed by Iraqi exiles, or were simply ignorant and arrogant. But they must know that for two-and-a-half years they have controlled only islands of territory in Iraq. “The Americans haven’t even been able to take over Haifa Street [a Sunni insurgent stronghold] though it’s only 400 yards from the Green Zone,” a senior Iraqi security official exclaimed to me last week.
. . .
The US media was under extreme pressure to report the non-existent good news that the White House accused them of ignoring.

I used to think how absurd it was for me to risk my life by visiting the Green Zone, the entrances to which were among the most bombed targets in Iraq, to see diplomats who claimed that the butchery in Iraq was much exaggerated. But when I asked them if they would like to come and have lunch in my hotel outside the zone, they always threw up their hands in horror and said their security men would never allow it.

The fantasy picture of Iraq purveyed by Mr Bush and Mr Blair is now being exposed. The Potemkin village they constructed to divert attention from what was really happening in Iraq is finally going up in flames.

But it is too late for the Iraqis, Americans and British who died because they were unwitting actors in this fiction, carefully concocted by the White House and Downing Street to show progress where there is frustration, and victory where there is only defeat.

Now that US funding for Iraqi reconstruction is running out, American companies like Bechtel and Kroll that had lucrative contracts are pulling out since they no longer will be making enough money to justify the risk of their employees being killed.

Since there is no more US money in the pipeline for Iraqi reconstruction, the Iraqi people are being left with no security and little hope for improvement in their infrastructure.