Sunday, July 24, 2005

A few weeks ago I was invited to giv a d'var Torah -- a little talk about a portion of the five books of Moses. The portion for that week was Numbers, ch. 13-15. Here it is, with slight modifications:

We approach the Bible with certain prejudices. Some see it as a historical document, stitched together from other accounts, a cul;tural text with no one author.

Mark Twain is supposed to have told a preacher he had just heard, "that was a fine speech,"

"Thank you," said the preacher.

"I have a book at home that contains every word of it," said Twain.

"That's quite impossible."

"I say that I have it."

"I should like to see it, then."

"I'll send it to you," said Twain.

A few days later, the preacher received in the mail a package containing an unabridged dictionary. So even if the torah were shown to be stitched together from previous sources, someone did the stitching. Moreover, it reads as if it were written with intention.

Others come to the study of the Torah with religious bias, certain philosophical, theological ideas about how God should be, and what He should say. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and good. He supports the virtues we value, and condemns what we consider vicious. and He always tells the truyth; indeed, He is truth.

The problem with the theological bias -- the philosophic religous approach to the Bible -- is that it is constantly under attack by a simple reading of the text.

"And the Lord spoke thus to Moses: Send for yourself men that they may scout out the land of Canaan..." (Numbers 13:1-2). Why? Is god unfamiliar with the terrain? Moses, the man who the torah tells us knew God best, sees this as military reconnaisance and strategic information-gathering. clearly, God is not simply acting as an omniscient, omnipotent commander. Moreover, if we unserstand this story at face value, it's a debacle. The Children of Israel refuse to enter the land, until God orders them to go back into the wilderness for 40 years, at which point they try to enter the land and ar vanquiched.

But perhaps this is not meant to be taken at face value. After all, the so-called spies or scouts are not selected on the basis of competence or willingness, but as distinguished leaders within each tribe, "heads of the Children of Israel" (13:2-3). Perhaps they were selected as twelve witnesses, to inform not God or Moses, but the Children of Israel.

Representation of each group in a society means two things in a modern context: deliberative assembly (cf. for instance the American Senate), and symbolic full participation, as at local events at which all community leaders, even those not directly involved, are present. Both apply here.

First, since each tribe is represented, all the tribes -- the tribes, not just the leadership -- are entitled to a report. Second, Israel functions as at least a partial democracy, or at least responsive to popular pressure: popular sentiment often is the impetus for an action. Soon, Korach's rebellion against the privileged elite almost wins, and is not put down by centrally organized force, but when the earth splits beneath him. In other words, he falls out of touch with his base of support.

Also, notice that the ten wicked spies are not wicked for spreading scurrilous, false rumors. They are punished though they tell the truth. The land is filled with milk and honey -- as they say. They did, in fact (the torah's fact) encounter the offspring of Giants -- as they say. And it is true that without some miracle, the children of Israel were at that time unable to contend with the Aamalekites and Canaanites, and got, in the Torah's word "pounded" -- as they correctly predicted.

So what was the problem?

(Aside: A friend later pointed out that part of the problem was that they attributed their own view of things to the giant's sons: they say, "we were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and in theirs. I don't have much to say about this, but it's worth pointing out.)

The problem is that they were being unhelpful in undermining Moses's and God's ability to lead effectively, while Joshua and Caleb, who understood what was expect3ed of them from their commander, accentuated the positive.

so far a literal understading will take us.

But if God shows us by His actions that it can be wrong for men to be forthoming, might He Himself dissemble, or at least likewise not tell the whole story?

The God of the Torah is not the God of philosophic truth, of theology. But it can't be wrong to talk about God in anthropomorphic terms, since this is God to us, i.e. how He affects our world. The God of the Torah gets angry, experiments, and is affected by and changes in response to our world. It is no accident that at the sea where the Egyptians drowned, horse and rider, the Israelites exclaimed not "Zeh Hael," "This is God," but "Zeh Eli," "This is my God." The Torah is a teaching text and its God is a teaching God.

God's command serves two purposes. First, Israel cannot successfully invade Canaan without a willingness to proceed even knowing the dangers ahead. Second, God shown what is expected of the subordinate, tribal leaders. They, not having been privy to God's thoughts, acted inappropriately in doing what they thought defied Him and Moses.

[MORE TO COME LATER]

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Bylines Matter

The New York Times's Sarah Boxer has written an atrociously condescending and snobbish attack on a beautiful statement against the terrorists, We're Not Afraid.

So I thought: Sarah Boxer? Where have I heard that name before? Something to do with Iraq... Oh, that's right, the one who wrote a condescending, snobbish, and outright irresponsible article about one of the bloggers at iraqthemodel, in which she insinuated that he might have been a CIA agent. That's right. She suggested that an Iraqi blogger, in the midst of a sea of terrorism and Islamofascist hysteria, might be a CIA agent. I don't know about you, but I sure appreciate it when reporters from the New York Times don't endanger my life. Oh, and she also failed to represent the facts accurately. But that almost goes without saying for the Mainstream Media.

More info on the past debacle at Jeff Jarvis, Chrenkoff and at iraqthemodel.

Speaking of CIA agents, y'know Judith Miller? The one who's in jail for refusing to reveal her source who may have outed "undercover" CIA agent Valerie Plame?

Well, the name rings a bell to me. You see, the woman has some history at the NYT.

She's famous for her enthusiastic coverage of WMD claims. Jack Shafer writes about this at Slate, here and here (and elsewhere).

But that's not all! The excitable and adventurous Ms. Miller allegedly commandeered the combat unit she was embedded with to serve her own agenda.

Actually, I think this is kind of neat. I feel like I'm getting to know the wacky cast of the New York Times Reporters. Sarah Boxer -- elitist snob. Judy Miller -- gung-ho gal. Nicholas Kristoff -- sane. Paul Krugman -- no Nick Kristoff.

Don't you just love the sense of community this small world allows?

But seriously, what kind of a circus is it at the New York Times, hat these people are still employed there? A poorly edited one, I say.

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Public Good is a Tyrant

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/08/opinion/08krugman.html

Anyone who reads Krugman seriously and closely can see for himself how manifestly absurd most of his arguments are. But it's fun to point it out sometimes. Example:


In today's America, proposals to do something about rising obesity rates must contend with a public predisposed to believe that the market is always right and that the government always screws things up. You can see these predispositions at work in an article printed last month in Amber Waves, a magazine published by the Department of Agriculture. The article is titled "Obesity Policy and the Law of Unintended Consequences," suggesting that government efforts to combat obesity are likely to be counterproductive. But the authors don't actually provide any examples of how that might happen.
And the authors suggest, without quite asserting it, that because people freely choose obesity in a free market, it must be a good thing.
"Americans' rapid weight gain may have nothing to do with market failure," the article says. "It may be a rational response to changing technology and prices. ... If consumers willingly trade off increased adiposity for working indoors and spending less time in the kitchen as well as for manageable weight-related health problems, then markets are not failing."


I don't think anyone serious is arguing that obesity is, in itself good. If Krugman's quote is fairly representative, the authors clearly suggest, in fact, that it is a bad, calling taking obesity along with less physical labor a trade-off. In a tradeoff, something is lost for a greater good. (If Krugman's quote is unfair and stripped of important context, something I wouldn't put past him, then of course It's harder to tell. I'll read the article and update the post if there's any discrepancy worth pointing out.

The argument is actually quite simple: If people voluntarily do something, it's because they want to, you see.

How can medical experts who see obesity as a critical problem deal with an ideological landscape tilted in the direction of doing nothing?
One answer is to focus on the financial costs of obesity, and the fact that many of these costs fall on taxpayers and on the general insurance-buying public, rather than on the obese individuals themselves. (To their credit, the authors of the Amber Waves article do mention this issue, although they play it down.)


Do you see what's going on? The government took responsibility for -- i.e. saddled us with the responsibility for -- achunk of health care. Of course, it was supposed to be just economic control, the socialist fantasy. Government will fund universities -- but there will still be academic freedom. government will fund health care -- but not control Doctors' and patients' choices. Political campaigns will be publicly financed -- but the incumbents will somehow not use this to their advantage.

But then, you see, the choices you make become an economic matter affecting me -- because I'm paying for it, see. To fund museums, except when they display blasphemy, is to penalize blasphemy by means of the state; to punish it, in other words. To fund highways -- unless the drinking age is under 21 -- is to levy an extra tax on those states that shoose not to infantilize young adults.

And similarly, when government takes control of healthcare, it becomes clearly in the public interest to penalize people who spend public money on their vices, by doing unhealthy things and racking up big medical bills. With our corporatist (i.e. fascist) health care policy, other people pay for that, in the form of higher premiums.

So government money does mean government control, and there is no social freedom without economic freedom.

But why is freedom good? Because it lets people do what they want to. And that's what good is: it's what people want. "The good is that at which all actions aim." Aristotle said that thousands of years ago, in the beginning of the Nichomachean Ethics. It was the seed of liberty. Let's not let it die.

It is more important, however, to emphasize that there are situations in which "free to choose" is all wrong - and that this is one of them.


Oh. I see. How silly of me!

For one thing, the most rapid rise in obesity isn't taking place among adults, who, we hope, can understand the consequences of their decisions. It's taking place among children and adolescents.


Have you heard of "parents"? We entrust children to the care of their parents. This is due to parental, not governmental, neglect. But wait. Earlier in the column, Krugman wrote:

Public health activists were successful in taking on smoking in part because at the time corporations didn't know how to play the public opinion game. By today's standards, the political ineptitude of Big Tobacco was awe-inspiring. In a famous 1971 interview on "Face the Nation," the chairman of the board of Philip Morris, confronted with evidence that smoking by mothers leads to low birth weight, replied, "Some women would prefer having smaller babies."


In other words: If it makes you bigger -- it's bad. If it makes you smaller -- it's bad.

Some people have trouble controlling their weight without smoking. Krugman mentions the dramatic decline in smoking rates. But he ends his article by writing:

Above all, we need to put aside our anti-government prejudices and realize that the history of government interventions on behalf of public health, from the construction of sewer systems to the campaign against smoking, is one of consistent, life-enhancing success. Obesity is America's fastest-growing health problem; let's do something about it.


But isn't it possible that our obesity rate's increase is a part -- a necessary side effect -- of this "consistent, life-enhancing success"?

The real gem, though, is this:

And even if children weren't a big part of the problem, only a blind ideologue or an economist could argue with a straight face that Americans were rationally deciding to become obese. In fact, even many economists know better: the most widely cited recent economic analysis of obesity, a 2003 paper by David Cutler, Edward Glaeser and Jesse Shapiro of Harvard University, declares that "at least some food consumption is almost certainly not rational." It goes on to present evidence that even adults have clear problems with self-control.

We can't have freedom - people might do the wrong thing!

Of course people sometimes act irrationally. But I'm not people, and I'm not harmed by what other people do to themselves -- except when I'm forced to pay for it by socialists like Krugman.

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