My new year’s resolutions: I want to be on ALL the naughty lists

A long time ago, President Nixon, descending into paranoia, maintained an “enemies list” that was leaked to the press. But Nixon had by then become so unpopular that being on Nixon’s enemies list was actually seen as a badge of honor. Humorist Art Buchwald expressed his outrage at not making the list, despite all the articles he had written making fun of Nixon. Buchwald said that as a result of this omission his wife was being snubbed by society and he could not get the best tables in restaurants, which were being reserved only for people on the list. “What kind of government is this” he fumed “that does not even know who its real enemies are?”
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The Danger of Apathy

In a series of recent posts (most recently The Loyal Citizen’s Contract with the American Government, I have been sounding the alarm about the dangerous encroachment on civil liberties and traditional concepts of the rule of law by the current administration. Many people do not seem to be alarmed so why am I? Once again, we have to look at history and learn from it to see where this road might lead.

In a recent article, Paul Craig Roberts, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration, shows how far the current administration has gone in emulating the kinds of regimes that were once routinely condemned for their human rights violations. He bases his article on three books: Our Endangered Values (Simon & Schuster, 2005) by former President Jimmy Carter; Nikolaus Wachsmann’s Hitler’s Prisons (Yale University Press 2004); and Robert Higgs in Resurgence of the Warfare State (Independent Institute 2005).

Roberts says:

Carter reports that the deception, naked aggression, and torture that define the Bush administration have caused a tremendous setback for human rights throughout the world. At an international human rights conference in June 2005, “Participants explained that oppressive leaders had been emboldened to persecute and silence outspoken citizens under the guise of fighting terrorism…The consequence is that many lawyers, professors, doctors, and journalists had been labeled terrorists, often for merely criticizing a particular policy or for carrying out their daily work. We heard about many cases involving human rights attorneys being charged with abetting terrorists simply for defending accused persons.” Carter is especially disturbed that the Bush administration is encouraging these abusive policies in the name of “fighting terrorism.”

Who among us ever expected to hear an American president, vice president, and attorney general justify torture as essential to the protection of the American way of life? Carter quotes attorney general Alberto Gonzales, who sounds more like a third world tyrant than an American when he dismisses the Geneva Convention’s provisions as “quaint.” Bush threatened to veto any congressional limitation on his right to torture, and Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon declared that “the president, despite domestic and international laws constraining the use of torture, has the authority as Commander in Chief to approve almost any physical or psychological actions during interrogation, up to and including torture.

Dr. Burton J. Lee III, President George H.W. Bush’s White House physician is also quoted as follows:

Reports of torture by US forces have been accompanied by evidence that military medical personnel have played a role in this abuse and by new military ethical guidelines that in effect authorize complicity by health professionals in ill-treatment of detainees…Systematic torture, sanctioned by the government and aided and abetted by our own profession, is not acceptable…America cannot continue down this road. Torture demonstrates weakness, not strength…It is not leadership. It is a reaction of government officials overwhelmed by fear who succumb to conduct unworthy of them and of the citizens of the United States.

Roberts finds disturbing parallels to darker times in Wachsmann’s book:

Wachsmann’s book is a detailed history of the conflict and cooperation between the traditional legal/judicial/prison system on the one hand and the police/SS/concentration camp system on the other. He does not mention George Bush or Bush’s “war on terror.” However, the similarities leap off the pages.

Just as 9/11 was a crystallizing event for Bush’s seizure of executive power to suspend civil liberties, detain people indefinitely without evidence, and spy on American citizens without warrants, the Reichstag fire of 27 February 1933 was followed the next morning by Hitler’s Decree for the Protection of People and State. This decree became the constitutional charter of the Third Reich. It “suspended guarantees of personal liberty and served as the basis for the police arrest and incarceration of political opponents without trial.”

In a frightening parallel to our own situation, Wachsmann writes: “Various police activities during the ‘seizure of power’ clearly damaged legal authority. Indefinite detention without due judicial process was incompatible with the rule of law. But, on the whole, there were no loud complaints or protests from legal officials.” I read this passage the same day I heard on National Public Radio University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner defend President Bush’s use of extra-legal, extra-Constitutional authority to protect the people and state from terrorists.

The precedent for Alberto Gonzales’ declaration that Bush is the law was Reich Minister of Justice Franz Gurtner, who agreed in a cabinet meeting on 3 July 1934 that “Hitler was the law.” Bush’s claim that extraordinary powers are necessary for him to be able to defend our country under extraordinary circumstances is identical to Hitler’s claim that he was entitled to ignore the rule of law because he was “responsible for the fate of the German nation and thereby the supreme judge of the German people.” What is the difference between Hitler’s claim and the US Department of Defense’s claim that President Bush has the right to violate domestic and international laws?

Wachsmann’s book shows that it is extremely easy for extraordinary measures in the name of national emergency to become permanent. 
Germans did not understand that the Decree for the Protection of People and State was the beginning of legal terror.

The point that Roberts is making is not that the US now is like Nazi Germany. But what he is saying is that we should all be concerned when the government starts asserting the right to do anything it wishes in the name of “protecting” the people. People should not acquiesce with this simply because they do not see themselves as potential targets of the government. That is a temporary state can change in a second. All someone has to do is whisper to the authorities that you are a threat and your personal safety and security from arbitrary government action are gone.

The issue is never whether we personally feel safe and secure but whether the constitutional principles and the rule of law on which our permanent safety and security depend are jealously safeguarded.

(The great state of Ohio, which sometimes seems to me like it has never seen a bad idea that it could not make even worse, is in the process of passing its own version of the USA PATRIOT act. Commenters Barry and Brian have given useful links here and here on the consequences.)

As I said in response to a comment to the previous posting, there is no real threat to this country, nothing anywhere close to the massive destruction that was possible during the cold war. People instinctively realize this because they go about their lives with no thought of terror attacks. It seems to me that we have a level of threat similar to that of a large criminal conspiracy, like organized crime gangs. I think people have more to fear from crime and auto accidents than from a terror attack, but we handle those using the civil legal system.

I do not feel terrified at the thought of an impending terrorist attack. It may happen somewhere sometime but the probability of any given individual being harmed by it is so small as to not be worth considering. Maybe it is because I lived through the Cold War and through civil wars, where the danger was much more real.

But I have also lived through times in a country where the government declared emergencies and suspended all rights and liberties and judicial oversight and where extrajudicial actions by the security forces were routine. I find that much more scary. When the government and the security forces are against you, and the judicial system has abandoned oversight, then you are really alone and helpless.

This is why I am so concerned about the real civil liberties violations that are currently being institutionalized and becoming permanent. And it is hopeful that the concerns about this are cutting across party lines. Roberts is a Republican as is Bob Barr, former GOP congressman and Republican leader, who also slams the administration in an op-ed piece.

Other Republicans incensed by this encroachment of the constitution can be seen here, which reports:

Bruce Fein, a conservative constitutional scholar and former deputy attorney general in the Reagan Administration, said yesterday that the president is flouting the Constitution and may have committed an impeachable offence. Norm Ornstein, a conservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, echoed Fein, saying, “I think if we’re going to be intellectually honest here, this really is the kind of thing that Alexander Hamilton was referring to when impeachment was discussed.”

I am seeing the word impeachment being used more and more frequently as the revelations keep emerging.

The Loyal Citizen’s Contract with the American Government

It seems like not a day passes without a new allegation of the Bush administration trampling on civil liberties, violating the law, and disregarding the constitution. I had been collecting links to write about my concerns about all this but the list kept expanding too rapidly for me to keep up, with fresh allegations appearing while I was still pondering what to say about the earlier ones.

One of the things that concerns me is the willingness of so many people to give up cherished and bitterly won freedoms and constitutional protections in return from some vague assertion from the government that these measures were taken to ‘protect them.’ It seemed like they take the position that there is nothing that the government can do in the name of security that they would oppose. David Brooks’ op-ed column in the New York Times on December 22, 2005 plumbs new depths in finding rationales for the president to do almost anything in the name of national security, and to pooh-pooh any quaint notions of judicial oversight. (Sorry, this article is not available online.) The Wall Street Journal reports that some observers say this willingness to give up all pretence to civil liberties has its roots in the decision to attack Iraq.

“From the beginning, the folks who thought it was a good idea to go into Iraq have found good reason to think that all other Bush policies, from torture to domestic surveillance, are justified,” said Robert Levy, a conservative legal scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute.

The arguments justifying these increasingly drastic encroachments on the liberties and freedoms Americans have taken for granted take the form of creating some extreme hypothetical scenario under which the violation of rights seems to be the only option available in terms of “security” and “efficiency.” Then the leap is made that these violations should become the norm.

Benjamin Franklin’s prescient warning that “They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security” seems to have no effect on such people.

The Rude Pundit says that if you really think that this administration can do no wrong, then go ahead and proudly sign “The Loyal Citizen’s Contract with the American Government” below and mail it in to the appropriate agencies. This pledge brings together the actions that are currently being taken in the name of protecting our security. (The Pledge is reproduced with permission from the Rude One. (Warning: The Rude Pundit generally uses very rude language, but not in this pledge)

“I (the undersigned) believe President George W. Bush when he says that the United States of America is fighting a ‘new kind of enemy’ that requires ‘new thinking’ about how to wage war. Therefore, as a loyal citizen of President Bush’s United States, my signature below indicates my agreement to the following:

“1. I believe wholeheartedly in the Patriot Act as initially passed by Congress in 2001, as well as the provisions of the Domestic Security Enhancement Act. Therefore, I grant the FBI access to:

“a. my library records, so it may determine if I am reading material that might designate me an enemy of the nation;

“b. my financial records, including credit reports, so it may determine if I am contributing monetarily to any governmentally proscribed activities or organizations;

“c. my medical records, so it may determine if my prescriptions, injuries, or other conditions are indicative of terrorist activity on my part;

“d. any and all other personal records including, but not limited to, my store purchases, my school records, my web browsing history, and anything else determined as a ‘tangible thing’ necessary to engage in a secret investigation of me.

“I agree that I do not need to be notified if my records have come under scrutiny by the FBI, and, furthermore, I agree that no warrant is needed for the FBI to engage in this examination of my personal records. Additionally, I agree that the FBI should be allowed to monitor any groups it believes may be linked to what it determines to be terrorist activity.

“2. I believe that the President of the United States has the power to mitigate any and all laws passed by the Congress and that he has such power granted to him by his status as Commander-in-Chief in the Constitution as well as the 2001 Authorization of Military Force, passed by the Congress, which states that the President can use ‘all necessary and appropriate force’ in prosecution of the war. Therefore, I grant the United States government the following powers:

“a. that the National Security Agency, under the direction of the President, may tap my phone lines and intercept my e-mail without warrant or FISA oversight;

“b. that the President may hold me or other detainees without access to the legal system for a period of time determined by the President or his agents;

“c. that the President may authorize physical force against me or other individual detainees in order to gain intelligence and that he may define whether such physical force may be called ‘torture’:

“d. that the President may set aside any and all laws he sees as hindering the gathering of intelligence and prevention of terrorist acts for a period as time determined by the President, including, but not limited to, rights to political protest.

“I agree that the Judicial and Legislative branch should be allowed no oversight of these activities, and that such oversight merely emboldens the terrorists. I also agree that virtually all of these activities may be conducted in complete secrecy and that revelation of these activities amount to treasonous behavior on the part of those who reveal these activities to the press and the citizenry.

“3. Finally, this document is my statement that I believe the President of the United States and the entire executive branch, as well as all departments and agencies involved, as well as all of its personnel, will treat these powers I have granted them with utmost respect. I believe that these powers will not be abused, nor will any of the information I have given them permission to examine be misinterpreted. However, should such abuse or misinterpretation occur, I agree that such actions are mere errors and no one should be subject to investigation, arrest, or employment action as a result.

“My consent freely given,
“(Your signature)”

Anyone willing to sign?


Tom Tomorrow completes his year in review.


Due to the holiday season and to the fact that I need to write some articles for publication, this blog will be updated only sporadically over the next two weeks. The regular schedule of weekday postings will resume after the New Year, on Tuesday, January 3rd.

Today, here are some short items.

New member of the family

baxter1.JPG On the right is Baxter, the latest addition to our family. We brought him home on Monday, December 19. He was born on September 14, which makes him just 3 months old.

My op-ed published

The Plain Dealer has today published an op-ed by me titled Has the intelligent design movement passed its peak? dealing with the Dover IDC case. Thanks to the fact that I have been writing about these things on this blog, it only took me an hour or two to collect all the information together and write the piece. This was one of the benefits I foresaw in maintaining this blog, that it could serve as a repository for ideas that could serve as a first draft for publications.

What was strange is that when I write for online posting, I put in links to the original sources of quotes, facts, etc. I had to strip all those out for the op-ed piece, so newspaper readers have to take my word for it that I was not making stuff up. So although online material is still viewed with skepticism in some quarters, the printed stuff actually has less information.

Cheap laptops for the world

Read about the new $100 laptops that can be powered by a hand crank and can be used in poor areas where there is little electricity. The machines will run open-source software.

You can see an image of the laptop here.

This strikes me as a wonderful gift to the poor areas of the world, because the machines will be given free to poor schoolchildren. The inventors (MIT’s Media Lab) should be credited for making their devices freely available. I think it is terrific when scientists, engineers, inventors, and universities use their tremendous skills for the benefit of those who do not have access to this kind of advanced knowledge.

Mona Lisa smile

From the BBC we learn that:

A computer has been used to decipher the enigmatic smile of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, concluding that she was mainly happy.

The painting was analysed by a University of Amsterdam computer using “emotion recognition” software.

It concluded that the subject was 83% happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful and 2% angry, journal New Scientist was told.”

When I read that I was 64% intrigued, 25% amused, and 11% surprised.


The always helpful and tech-savvy people at Case are slowly nudging me into the 21st century. First Jeremy Smith got me started on blogging and now Aaron Shaffer (Manager of the Freedman Center) interviewed me for my first podcast.

A podcast, which has just been declared 2005’s Word of the Year by the New Oxford American Dictionary, is defined as “a digital recording of a radio broadcast or similar program, made available on the internet for downloading to a personal audio player”. The word is derived from a combination of “broadcast” and “iPod”. The chief benefit of a podcast is that once downloaded, it can be listened to at your convenience.

Aaron and I spoke about blogging and a lot of other things, lasting for about an hour, just so that I could get a sense of how podcasting works. I will try my hand at it some time in the future, if I can think of something that would benefit more from the spoken rather than the written word.

If you are curious about what Aaron and I spoke about, or are curious to hear what I sound like on radio (hint: terrible), the podcast has been posted on the Freedman Center blog here.

I am not sure what I would use a podcast for, at the moment. It would have to be for something where actual sounds were preferable or easier to create than the written word. A dramatic reading of a speech of the kind done by Harold Pinter or an interview would be appropriate, as would be anything involving music. But do not fear. There will be no podcasts of me singing.

Looking back on 2005

One of the things I dislike about the end of the year are the dreary “year in review” features in the media. But I will make an exception for Tom Tomorrow.

End of the Road for Intelligent Design?

As readers are probably aware, the federal judge in the Dover, PA case ruled yesterday (Monday, December 19, 2005) that the school board’s action in trying to introduce intelligent design creationism (IDC) ideas into its science curriculum violates the Establishment Clause and is thus unconstitutional. In a previous posting where I discussed the constitutional issues, I said that I had expected this result. What I had not expected was that the judge’s ruling would be so sweeping and comprehensive. It went in detail through the history, the science, and the philosophy of science issues involved

Although it was written using judicial terminology, in essence it was the equivalent of a slap upside the head to the board that adopted the pro-IDC policy, saying in effect “How could you do such a stupid thing? Any idiot can see that intelligent design is a religious and not scientific notion. And you are liars, too!”

To recapitulate the key features of the case on which the judge based his ruling, the Dover school board had adopted a policy that, commencing January 2005, required teachers to read the following statement to students in the ninth grade biology class at Dover High School:

The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.

Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves.

With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families. As a Standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on Standards-based assessments.

The science teachers refused to read this statement, saying:

You have indicated that students may ‘opt-out’ of this portion [the statement read to students at the beginning of the biology evolution unit] of the class and that they will be excused and monitored by an administrator. We respectfully exercise our right to ‘opt-out’ of the statement portion of the class. We will relinquish the classroom to an administrator and we will monitor our own students. This request is based upon our considered opinion that reading the statement violates our responsibilities as professional educators as set forth in the Code of Professional Practice and Conduct for Educators[.]


I believe that if I as the classroom teacher read the required statement, my students will inevitably (and understandably) believe that Intelligent Design is a valid scientific theory, perhaps on par with the theory of evolution. That is not true. To refer the students to ‘Of Pandas and People’ as if it is a scientific resource breaches my ethical obligation to provide them with scientific knowledge that is supported by recognized scientific proof or theory.

In light of the teachers’ refusal, school administrators became the ones to read the statement to students.

The concluding section of Judge Jones’ verdict is below, with the emphases added by me. I will comment on other aspects of the ruling later. (The plaintiffs are the parents who challenged the school board policy and the defendants are the school board.)

The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon tests to the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board’s ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.

Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.

To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.

The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

With that said, we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.

Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

To preserve the separation of church and state mandated by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and Art. I, § 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, we will enter an order permanently enjoining Defendants from maintaining the ID Policy in any school within the Dover Area School District, from requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring teachers to refer to a religious, alternative theory known as ID. We will also issue a declaratory judgment that Plaintiffs’ rights under the Constitutions of the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have been violated by Defendants’ actions.

In later postings I will explore other features of the judge’s 139-page ruling. It provides a good history and analysis of the legal history of religious challenges to the teaching of evolution. Many of the issues he discusses will be familiar to readers of this blog because I have discussed them in the past. But the judge’s ruling brings a lot of that content together in one narrative.

Lesser known culture wars

The so-called ‘war on Christmas’ not making you angry enough? Here are some other culture wars that might be more appealing to you.

Wikipedia as good as the Encyclopedia Brittanica?

In my seminar courses, students are expected to research and write papers on topics related to science. Invariably, many of them will submit papers that cite Wikipedia as a source for some assertion. I tell them that Wikipedia is not a credible source for authoritative information and should never be used when submitting any paper.

The reason for this is that wikipedia is an open source encyclopedia where absolutely anyone can edit and update entries and the submissions are largely anonymous. Since there is no identifiable and authoritative person behind the information, there is no way to judge the credibility of the information. This contrasts with things like the Encyclopedia Brittanica which solicits articles from experts in the fields and the resulting articles are then peer-reviewed and vetted by editors to ensure quality in both the content and the writing.

So my message to students has been quite simple: no to Wikipedia and yes to Encyclopedia Brittanica.

My anti-Wikipedia stance received some support from the recent disclosure of a hoax by an author who wrote a scurrilous biography of someone that contained palpable untruths. The person whose ‘biography’ was faked discovered its existence and was justifiably incensed, and his actions subsequently led to the unmasking of the hoaxer.

But then comes along another study that compared the accuracy of entries in Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Brittanica and found them to be comparable. Aaron Shaffer has a nice entry on this that compares the two and finds that on some measures, Wikipedia may be even better.

So should I change my advice to students and allow Wikipedia? The answer is no. As long as the articles are anonymous, they remain a no-no for academic publications. Academia has no use for anonymous information. Much of our work is based on trusting the work of our peers. The assumption is that someone who has a responsible position in an academic institution has too much at stake to willfully mislead or even be sloppy in their work. Signing their name and giving their institutional affiliation means that the institution now also has a stake in the information being correct.

Having said all that, I must add that I like Wikipedia and am impressed with the whole concept and with the quality of the information that it provides. I often use it myself to learn about things quickly. It is an interesting example of ‘the wisdom of crowds,’ how when a large enough number of people are actively involved in something, the resulting quality of the finished product can be quite high. It is a highly intriguing experiment in information democracy.

So my advice to students is to use it to get a quick overview of something and to get started on learning about it. But then to go to some authored source for substantiation and citation. Because although Wikipedia may be right most of the time, in academic discourses, who said it is sometimes as important as what is said.

Biblical inerrancy

Last week there was an interesting program on NPR’s Fresh Air. Host Terry Gross interviewed Bart Ehrman, chair of the department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, on his book Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why in which he describes how the text of the Bible has been modified down through the ages. It was a very interesting interview, worth listening to online.

The fact that the words in the Bible have not come down to us unchanged is beyond dispute. Scholars have had access to various manuscripts written at various times and in various original languages and there are clear discrepancies between the versions.

On one level, it should come as no surprise that the manuscripts differ. It was only after the development of mass printing that we take for granted the idea that all copies of the same text should contain the same words. Before that, copies were laboriously done by hand, by the few literate people who happened to be available to do this tedious work. So simple human error was always a factor to deal with.

But Ehrman explained that not all the changes were inadvertent or simply outright mistakes. Sometimes changes were introduced deliberately. Some stories, for example, started out as contemporary anecdotes that were not part of the text, but the scribes wrote them in the margins as interesting things to be considered. But then later scribes took those marginal notes and added them to the text of later copies.

Other changes were introduced as a result of doctrinal squabbles. As theologians down the ages debated the various characteristics of Jesus and God, there were tussles by each group to try and ensure that their interpretation was reflected in the text and some scribes seemed to have accommodated this by making appropriate adjustments in the wording.

Yet other changes came about as attempts were made to bring the various versions into a coherent form and minimize the discrepancies. For example, Ehrman says that the early manuscripts have greater differences among them than the later ones.

Furthermore, the original authors of (say) the four Gospels wrote them at different times for different audiences and saw them as self-contained, integral works portraying their individual visions of Jesus. But that led to discrepancies between the Gospels that become obvious when the four books are placed in sequence and read together. Ehrman points out that the Christmas story we now have is a composite of the stories found in the different Gospels and that the story of Jesus’ final days are also widely divergent.

Ehrman says that many of these differences are irreconcilable. There is no reasonable way in which the current texts can be read to make them all consistent. One has to learn to live with these inconsistencies by understanding the role that human beings have played in the creation of the Bible.

This view causes no problems for those Christians who see the Bible as addressing deep truths about god’s relationship with the world. Such people do not lose any sleep over differences, seeing them as incidental to the main messages that the Bible seeks to convey.

But Ehrman’s view is anathema to those who believe in the Bible’s inerrancy. Such people, seem to have a need to believe that the Bible has to be accurate in every detail, however minor or trivial, and can be read as a historical and scientific document. Religious fundamentalists believe in an inerrant religious text and so they will go to extraordinary lengths to try and reconcile the discrepancies, even if it requires doing gross damage to common sense. (See here and here for a debate for and against Biblical inerrancy.)

The person debating in favor of inerrancy says that:

“Inerrant” means “wholly true” or “without mistake” and refers to the fact that the biblical writers were absolutely errorless, truthful, and trustworthy in all of their affirmations. The doctrine of inerrancy does not confine itself to moral and religious truth alone. Inerrancy extends to statements of fact, whether scientific, historical, or geographical. The biblical writers were preserved from the errors that appear in all other books.

The original Hebrew and Greek autograph copies of the Bible were inerrant. Certainly the copies of copies which have come down to us contain errors common to the craft of the copyist as do all English versions. However, with diligent study, we can ascertain the original words of the inspired writers. Consequently, the doctrine of inerrancy applies to the biblical text in our day as well – insofar as the Bible has been accurately translated.

Inerrancy is fundamental to the doctrine of biblical authority…If the Bible contains mistakes, then it is unreliable as a true guide to matters of salvation. If mistakes exist in one part, mistakes may just as easily exist in another part. If the Bible is a mixture of truth and error, then it is like any other book and simply not deserving of any special attention.

If the doctrine of inerrancy is not true, then the Bible lacks the very criteria and credentials necessary for authenticating its divine origin. Human beings would be incapable of distinguishing between it and all other religious books which seek acceptance by men (e.g. the Koran, Book of Mormon, the Vedas). If the biblical writers demonstrate incompetency and fallibility in matters of ordinary knowledge where uninspired humans can check their credibility, then their infallibility in all other areas is discredited.

The idea that we can “with diligent study” infer the exact text of the “original” version of the Bible is hard to sustain, given the diversity of its authors and the long period of time in which it was written and the vast numbers of people involved in copying, translating, and selecting the books that we now call the Bible. As Ehrman says, the earlier versions of the texts contain larger discrepancies than the later ones, so picking out the “original” text becomes an impossible task. One can only believe in the inerrancy of the Bible if one feels that god was looking over the shoulders of all these people all the time, either ensuring accuracy, or deliberately creating anomalies for some inscrutable reason.

In this respect, believers in Biblical inerrancy are remarkably similar to those Muslims who believe that the Koran is divinely inspired and written. In his book The World’s Religions, Huston Smith says that the story of the Koran’s creation is that over a period of twenty three years, the angel Gabriel dictated the words of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed who would recite these words, which were then “memorized by his followers and recorded on bones, bark, leaves, and scraps of parchment, with God preserving their accuracy throughout.” (p. 232) It was only after about two hundred to three hundred years that the form of the Koran that exists today was put together.

Salman Rushdie in his novel The Satanic Verses incurred the wrath of the late Ayatollah Khomeini for blasphemy against Islam. Khomeini issued a “fatwah” against Rushdie that basically called, with a three million dollar bounty, for the religious faithful to kill the author, who as a result was forced to go into hiding for many years. In Rushdie’s novel, one of the people copying down the Prophet’s words starts to suspect that the Prophet might be making this stuff up and to test this theory, starts deliberately changing words, and even though he reads the words back to the Prophet later, for a long time the Prophet does not recognize the changes. One can see how this idea would incense those who have a fervent belief in the inerrancy of the Koran.

One can image that Christian believers in Biblical inerrancy are no less annoyed with scholars like Ehrman who flat out say that all kinds of human factors have played a role in creating the Bible we have today and that it cannot possibly be inerrant. Who knows, maybe Pat Robertson (who is the mirror image of Khomeini) might issue a “Patwah” against Ehrman.

Harold Pinter Analyzes US Foreign Policy

In his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech to the Swedish Academy on December 7, 2005 playwright Harold Pinter spoke of Art, Truth, and Politics. (You can read the text of his speech or watch it here. I strongly recommend watching it. My previous comments on the speech can be found here and here.)

In the political part of his speech, Pinter does a clinical analysis of the lies that propelled the US into attacking Iraq and then shows how it fits into a long historical pattern. He talks about many things that will be strange, especially to younger people in the US, because this kind of historical analysis is very rarely seen in the media here. And yet history is the only way that we can make sense of events, so Pinter’s speech fills an important void. He says:

Direct invasion of a sovereign state has never in fact been America’s favoured method. In the main, it has preferred what it has described as ‘low intensity conflict’. Low intensity conflict means that thousands of people die but slower than if you dropped a bomb on them in one fell swoop. It means that you infect the heart of the country, that you establish a malignant growth and watch the gangrene bloom. When the populace has been subdued – or beaten to death – the same thing – and your own friends, the military and the great corporations, sit comfortably in power, you go before the camera and say that democracy has prevailed. This was a commonplace in US foreign policy in the years to which I refer.

The tragedy of Nicaragua was a highly significant case. I choose to offer it here as a potent example of America’s view of its role in the world, both then and now.

I was present at a meeting at the US embassy in London in the late 1980s.

The United States Congress was about to decide whether to give more money to the Contras in their campaign against the state of Nicaragua. I was a member of a delegation speaking on behalf of Nicaragua but the most important member of this delegation was a Father John Metcalf. The leader of the US body was Raymond Seitz (then number two to the ambassador, later ambassador himself). Father Metcalf said: ‘Sir, I am in charge of a parish in the north of Nicaragua. My parishioners built a school, a health centre, a cultural centre. We have lived in peace. A few months ago a Contra force attacked the parish. They destroyed everything: the school, the health centre, the cultural centre. They raped nurses and teachers, slaughtered doctors, in the most brutal manner. They behaved like savages. Please demand that the US government withdraw its support from this shocking terrorist activity.’

Raymond Seitz had a very good reputation as a rational, responsible and highly sophisticated man. He was greatly respected in diplomatic circles. He listened, paused and then spoke with some gravity. ‘Father,’ he said, ‘let me tell you something. In war, innocent people always suffer.’ There was a frozen silence. We stared at him. He did not flinch.

Innocent people, indeed, always suffer.

Finally somebody said: ‘But in this case “innocent people” were the victims of a gruesome atrocity subsidised by your government, one among many. If Congress allows the Contras more money further atrocities of this kind will take place. Is this not the case? Is your government not therefore guilty of supporting acts of murder and destruction upon the citizens of a sovereign state?’

Seitz was imperturbable. ‘I don’t agree that the facts as presented support your assertions,’ he said.

As we were leaving the Embassy a US aide told me that he enjoyed my plays. I did not reply.

I should remind you that at the time President Reagan made the following statement: ‘The Contras are the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.’

The United States supported the brutal Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua for over 40 years. The Nicaraguan people, led by the Sandinistas, overthrew this regime in 1979, a breathtaking popular revolution.

The Sandinistas weren’t perfect. They possessed their fair share of arrogance and their political philosophy contained a number of contradictory elements. But they were intelligent, rational and civilised. They set out to establish a stable, decent, pluralistic society. The death penalty was abolished. Hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken peasants were brought back from the dead. Over 100,000 families were given title to land. Two thousand schools were built. A quite remarkable literacy campaign reduced illiteracy in the country to less than one seventh. Free education was established and a free health service. Infant mortality was reduced by a third. Polio was eradicated.

The United States denounced these achievements as Marxist/Leninist subversion. In the view of the US government, a dangerous example was being set. If Nicaragua was allowed to establish basic norms of social and economic justice, if it was allowed to raise the standards of health care and education and achieve social unity and national self respect, neighbouring countries would ask the same questions and do the same things. There was of course at the time fierce resistance to the status quo in El Salvador.

I spoke earlier about ‘a tapestry of lies’ which surrounds us. President Reagan commonly described Nicaragua as a ‘totalitarian dungeon’. This was taken generally by the media, and certainly by the British government, as accurate and fair comment. But there was in fact no record of death squads under the Sandinista government. There was no record of torture. There was no record of systematic or official military brutality. No priests were ever murdered in Nicaragua. There were in fact three priests in the government, two Jesuits and a Maryknoll missionary. The totalitarian dungeons were actually next door, in El Salvador and Guatemala. The United States had brought down the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954 and it is estimated that over 200,000 people had been victims of successive military dictatorships.

Six of the most distinguished Jesuits in the world were viciously murdered at the Central American University in San Salvador in 1989 by a battalion of the Alcatl regiment trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, USA. That extremely brave man Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying mass. It is estimated that 75,000 people died. Why were they killed? They were killed because they believed a better life was possible and should be achieved. That belief immediately qualified them as communists. They died because they dared to question the status quo, the endless plateau of poverty, disease, degradation and oppression, which had been their birthright.

The United States finally brought down the Sandinista government. It took some years and considerable resistance but relentless economic persecution and 30,000 dead finally undermined the spirit of the Nicaraguan people. They were exhausted and poverty stricken once again. The casinos moved back into the country. Free health and free education were over. Big business returned with a vengeance. ‘Democracy’ had prevailed.

But this ‘policy’ was by no means restricted to Central America. It was conducted throughout the world. It was never-ending. And it is as if it never happened.

The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven.

Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn’t know it.

I have little to add to this. Pinter reminds us that the only gift that a writer has to offer is to speak the truth as he or she sees it, however uncomfortable it may be to the listener. Most people in the US will be horrified by what he says because they do not realize the extent to which the governments they elect carry out policies that they would oppose if they knew what it really was, instead of the way it is presented to them by the government and relayed to them by an uncritical media. Such people, if they are skeptical, should look at the historical record and see if it bears out Pinter’s charges. Willful ignorance about the facts of history only further guarantees that history will be repeated.

Truth in Art and Science

In his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech to the Swedish Academy on December 7, 2005 playwright Harold Pinter spoke of Art, Truth, and Politics. (You can read the text of his speech or watch it here. I strongly recommend watching it.)

He says:

In 1958 I wrote the following:

‘There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.’

I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?

Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavour. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.

But as I have said, the search for the truth can never stop. It cannot be adjourned, it cannot be postponed. It has to be faced, right there, on the spot.

Political language, as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this territory since the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.

A writer’s life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity. We don’t have to weep about that. The writer makes his choice and is stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. You are out on your own, out on a limb. You find no shelter, no protection – unless you lie – in which case of course you have constructed your own protection and, it could be argued, become a politician.

Reading and listening to Pinter’s words, I was wondering if what he said about the relationship of art to truth applies to science and truth too. At first blush, it seems no. We tend to believe that science can tell the difference between what is real and what is unreal, between what is true and what is false.

But a close examination of the nature of scientific development says that it is not so easy. While science is evolving and becoming more effective and successful in controlling the environment, its relationship to truth is also ‘forever elusive.’ We march forward but we are not sure if truth is the reward that awaits us at the end or indeed if there is an end at all. But like the artist, we cannot stop in the search for truth. (These ideas are explored in depth in my first book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs.)

In Pinter’s words about political language, I hear echoes of some things George Orwell said in his essay Politics and the English Language. But whereas Orwell became somewhat compromised later in life, becoming effectively a propagandist for the British government and even becoming an informant to the British government on ‘crypto-communists,’ Pinter’s vision and burning desire to speak truth to power seems to becoming even purer and more uncompromising with advancing age. It is clear that he is a man who does not care what powerful people think of him. He is going to speak the truth, come what may. In the end, that is the only real gift a writer has to offer.

The great American journalist I. F. Stone recognized that speaking truth to power means that you become a pariah in the circles of power and he said that journalists should desire this. Stone said:

To be a pariah is to be left alone to see things your own way, as truthfully as you can. Not because you’re brighter than anybody else is – or your own truth so valuable. But because, like a painter or a writer or an artist, all you have to contribute is the purification of your own vision, and add that to the sum total of other visions. To be regarded as nonrespectable, to be a pariah, to be an outsider, this is really the way to do it. To sit in your tub and not want anything. As soon as you want something, they’ve got you!

This explains a lot about the pusillanimity of the current crop of big media journalists who, unlike Stone, crave access to the political powerful and want to be invited to their parties. Pinter, on the other hand, is clearly someone who also thinks the label of pariah is a badge of honor. I am not sure if Pinter and Stone were friends, but it is hard to imagine them not hitting it off.

Harold Pinter’s speech and the creative arts

Playwright Harold Pinter gave his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech to the Swedish Academy on December 7, 2005. Because he has been operated for throat cancer and is not well, he delivered the televised speech from England. His voice was hoarse and he was in a wheelchair but the speech was riveting. It was a lesson in how to give a great talk with the minimum of motion, and people who are interested in developing good rhetorical skills could learn a lot from him. You see a master of words and pauses and inflection, the trademarks of his success on the stage, use them here to brilliant effect as he stares at the camera, occasionally gestures with one hand, and moves easily between art and politics. Once I started listening to his forty-five minute speech, I was riveted. (You can read the text of his speech or watch it here but I strongly recommend watching it.)

The title of his talk was Art, Truth, and Politics and I will comment on each aspect in sequence. Today I want to reflect on the way that he said he creates his plays. Tomorrow will deal with the role that truth plays in art and politics and science and the day after I will write about his blistering analysis of US foreign policy since World War II and Britain’s complicity in it, later. This starts about ten minutes into his speech. There was a lot of meaty stuff in his presentation, much food for thought, and much to be admired about his skill with words.

I have always been intrigued by the way extremely creative people, artists such as novelists, playwrights, painters, and sculptors especially, envisage and create entire works of art out of nothing. I am particularly intrigued by the works of novelists and playwrights, because they use words to achieve their ends.

I have read some writers say that they start by simply creating a few characters and a rudimentary plot and that the characters and novel develop a life of their own and the story evolves along with them. The writers say that they cannot predict how events will end. Pinter seems to start with even less. He seems to start with just a word or phrase or image, and take it from there. He says:

I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.

Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image. I shall give two examples of two lines which came right out of the blue into my head, followed by an image, followed by me.

The plays are The Homecoming and Old Times. The first line of The Homecoming is ‘What have you done with the scissors?’ The first line of Old Times is ‘Dark.’

In each case I had no further information.

In the first case someone was obviously looking for a pair of scissors and was demanding their whereabouts of someone else he suspected had probably stolen them. But I somehow knew that the person addressed didn’t give a damn about the scissors or about the questioner either, for that matter.

‘Dark’ I took to be a description of someone’s hair, the hair of a woman, and was the answer to a question. In each case I found myself compelled to pursue the matter. This happened visually, a very slow fade, through shadow into light.

I always start a play by calling the characters A, B and C.

In the play that became The Homecoming I saw a man enter a stark room and ask his question of a younger man sitting on an ugly sofa reading a racing paper. I somehow suspected that A was a father and that B was his son, but I had no proof. This was however confirmed a short time later when B (later to become Lenny) says to A (later to become Max), ‘Dad, do you mind if I change the subject? I want to ask you something. The dinner we had before, what was the name of it? What do you call it? Why don’t you buy a dog? You’re a dog cook. Honest. You think you’re cooking for a lot of dogs.’ So since B calls A ‘Dad’ it seemed to me reasonable to assume that they were father and son. A was also clearly the cook and his cooking did not seem to be held in high regard. Did this mean that there was no mother? I didn’t know. But, as I told myself at the time, our beginnings never know our ends.

‘Dark.’ A large window. Evening sky. A man, A (later to become Deeley), and a woman, B (later to become Kate), sitting with drinks. ‘Fat or thin?’ the man asks. Who are they talking about? But I then see, standing at the window, a woman, C (later to become Anna), in another condition of light, her back to them, her hair dark.

It’s a strange moment, the moment of creating characters who up to that moment have had no existence. What follows is fitful, uncertain, even hallucinatory, although sometimes it can be an unstoppable avalanche. The author’s position is an odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by the characters. The characters resist him, they are not easy to live with, they are impossible to define. You certainly can’t dictate to them. To a certain extent you play a never-ending game with them, cat and mouse, blind man’s buff, hide and seek. But finally you find that you have people of flesh and blood on your hands, people with will and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort.

This approach to writing totally boggles my mind because when I write I always have more or less the whole thing planned before I even start. Of course, the very act of writing and seeing your words on paper influences the work, but in my case all it does is perhaps change the order of things to make things clearer, choose words and sentences to make the points better or suggest new avenues to explore to fill in gaps in the sequence of the argument.

Of course, all my writing is non-fiction, and I have felt that my inability to start without such a clear map is why I have felt that I could never be a fiction writer. But why do I think I am unable to be one? Do I think that the world of writers is divided by some intrinsic qualities into those who can write without a map and those who can’t? I used to think so but a little reflection persuades me that I am not being consistent in this view.

When I teach physics, I often find students not even begin to try and solve a problem if they cannot see all the way to the end. If after staring at a problem for about five minutes and not see a solution leap into their mind, many give up, feeling the problem is impossible for them. As a result, students often feel that they can either do physics or they can’t, as if it is an intrinsic quality. I tell them that I don’t think physicists are born like that. Instead they have learned that when confronted with a problem, they need to start out tentatively trying out an idea, seeing where it goes, backtracking, trying new avenues, and so on, until they arrive at a solution. The form that the final solution takes may be a surprise to them. In other words, it is important to start even if you cannot see the end.

If that is what I tell students who are learning physics, why am I not applying that same lesson to my own fiction writing? The reason is that with physics, I have done it and know it can be done but with fiction, I have no such successful experience to draw upon. And the reason for my lack of success is because I have never tried. In this respect, I am just like my physics students. Perhaps what I need to do is simply start a work of fiction and see where it goes, to take that leap into the unknown, and develop the experience.

I am reminded of the words of Gordon Parks (photojournalist, cinematographer, movie director, novelist, poet, music and ballet composer, quoted on his 88th birthday in 2000.)

I think most people can do a whole awful lot more if they just try. They just don’t have the confidence that they can write a novel or they can write poetry or they can take pictures or paint or whatever, and so they don’t do it, and they leave the planet dissatisfied with themselves.

I think Parks is right. We have to learn to be unafraid to take that first step into the unknown.