The Nativity According to Luke

Here is what Christmas is all about

 

Linus quotes from the Gospel according to Luke. There are two accounts of Jesus’s birth in the New Testament, the account that Luke gives and the account that Matthew gives. Mark ignores the question of Jesus’s birth entirely, preferring to begin with Jesus’s public ministry while John actually begins his account before the nativity and moves from there to Jesus’ career. Here is Luke’s account.

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.(Luke 2:1-21)

There is a considerable amount of skepticism regarding the census, both on the dating and the procedure. Most skeptics regard it as extremely improbable that the Romans would make people travel here and there to register in their home towns. As a matter of fact that is just how the Romans conducted their censuses.

Every five years, each male Roman citizen had to register in Rome for the census. In this he had to declare his family, wife, children, slaves and riches. Should he fail to do this, his possessions would be confiscated and he would be sold into slavery.
But registration meant freedom. A master wishing to free his slave needed only to enter him in the censor’s list as a citizen (manumissio censu).
Throughout the entire republican era, registration in the census was the only way that a Roman could ensure that his identity and status as a citizen were recognized. Fathers registered their sons, employers their freedmen.
Primarily the census served to count the number of citizens and to assess the potential military strength and future tax revenue. Most important, the census transformed the city into a political and military community.
But the census performed a highly symbolical function. To the Romans the census made them more than a mere crowd, or barbarian rabble. It made them a populus, a people, capable of collective action.
To the Roman the census was one of the foundation stones of their civilization.

As the Roman Empire expanded and citizenship was given out to other cities in Italy and around the Mediterranean, I would imagine that every Roman citizen had to go to his native city to register. Presumably there were lists of citizens kept in major cities and in Rome. Paul claimed to be a Roman citizen at various times in Acts and you might wonder how he was able to prove it. Well, every Roman citizen had a sort of ID or diploma which would have been issued in his city.

But with the steady extension of the citizenship by individual grants to provincials isolated in peregrine communes, and with the informal settlement of large numbers of Italian immigrants in the provincial territories, a more effective means of registration became necessary. Formal documentation of the grant of citizenship to provincial soldiery appears first in 89 B.C., in the shape of a bronze tablet recording the decree of a proconsul enfranchising a unit of Spanish cavalrymen in the Social War, who are all named in a general list. Presumably each soldier received a copy. The cities of persons of higher status enfranchised by Octavian in c. 40 B.C. received a copy of a decree detailing all the privileges of their new status, while his auxiliary veterans could acquire copies of the enabling edict that enfranchised them. But it is only with the regularization of the grant of citizenship to the all time-expired auxiliaries by Claudius that a standardized document appears. This is the small bronze diptych known as the diploma civitatis, containing a brief and uniform formula conferring the Roman citizenship on the holder and his descendants, who is indicated by his name and military unit. These documents were not normally used for civilians, who received instead a copy in libellus form of the brief imperial warrant authorizing the registration of their enfranchisement in the archives at Rome.

Diplomata and libelli provided for new citizens. For the mass of the citizenry, for whom censorial registration at five-yearly intervals was an inefficient instrument, adequate provision was finally made by the creation of an official system of compulsory birth registration under the social legislation of Augustus (A.D. 4)… The Roman citizen was required to register the birth of his children within thirty days before a Roman official, and he received a wooden diptych recording the declaration, which acted as a certificate of citizenship for the child for the rest of his life. Like the military diplomata this contained the names of seven witnesses, and provided a presumptive proof of citizen status… Similarly the enfranchisement of freedmen, which depended upon a formal act, was recorded in a documentary tabella manumissionis. Citizens of diverse origins thus came to have some form of documentary evidence of their status.

Presumably Paul registered at Tarsus while he lived there. To get back to the census, obviously, Joseph wasn’t a Roman citizen and Judea was under the rule of Herod, not the Romans. The census could have been a small time affair, the mention of Caesar Augustus being either an exaggeration or a long-standing policy of Augustus to encourage the provinces to conduct censuses, but conducted according to Roman norms, with every resident registering in his home town. You must not imagine, however, large crowds of people traveling to and fro. Remember that in this time most people would have lived their whole lives in the same village. Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been very much an exception. The only thing really odd about this account was his taking Mary with him. There would have been no need for her to travel. As a woman, her residency would not have mattered much.

 

Rule of Thumb

I notice that at Professor Loomis’s group blog there has been a movement of sorts to defend his right to free speech against those awful conservative wingnuts who have taken note of some of his more offensive statements. Evidently saying bad things about the good professor is tantamount to an insidious campaign of hate and intimidation.

The worst mistake to make with regards to Erik’s battle with accumulated wingnuttery is this: If I’m careful, it won’t happen to me. Erik employed an emotional-but-common metaphor to describe his feelings about a major public figure in the wake of a tragedy; the response has amounted to a Two Minutes Hate. The first purpose of this Hate is to intimidate Erik and people like Erik into never again speaking forthrightly about American politics. The second purpose is to distract from the fact that twenty children were massacred with weapons that no civilian should be allowed to possess.

Let’s be clear: If you are a progressive interested in writing about politics, this will happen to you. The only question is how you deal with it.

No. The intent is to discourage people from fantasizing on the Internet about assassinating public figures. Anyway Loomis reactivated and then deleted his Twitter account. Again, we may be thankful that Twitchy has preserved his words. A quick overview of the tweets he made before deleting his account again indicates that this is not just a matter of one or two badly worded posts but that this is a man with some anger management issues. I apologize for the language.

Dear The Avery in Providence. Fucking forgive me for working on my book while drinking a beer in your empty bar. Laptops banned!!!!!

Quick! Grab screencaps before the mad professor deletes them again:

I was just ordered by ownership to close my laptop in an almost totally empty bar. If you ever wanted to see me in full anger, see me now.—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) November 14, 2012

Nothing makes me more angry than being ordered what to do. Usuallly good at checking emotions, am now in towering rage at laptop-banning bar—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) November 14, 2012

@drfarls You have no idea how much I wanted to break my glass over that guy’s head.—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) November 14, 2012

Erik Loomis, as most Twitchy readers know, is the hypocritical University of Rhode Island professor who retweeted a tweet advocating murder of certain gun rights proponents.

His bio used to note his position as assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island. Not anymore.

Anyway, after deleting his Twitter account on Tuesday, Mr. Angry is back today. We can look forward to many more tweets like these:

I love teaching books on the history of sexuality. I talked about dildos in a completely appropriate way in class today.—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) November 20, 2012

This I Believe: Corporations are run by greedy, rapacious assholes who deserve long prison sentences. lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2012/11/this-i…
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) November 16, 2012

Dear subtitle people, white subtitles on a white background means I CAN’T FUCKING READ THE SUBTITLES. Seriously, have you heard of yellow?—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) October 23, 2012

@speechboy71 I would personally like to punch Matt Stafford for single handedly destroying my fantasy team this year.—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) October 23, 2012

Dear right-wing morons, saying you “want someone’s head on a stick” is a metaphor. I know metaphor is hard for you to understand.—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 18, 2012

Dear rightwingers, to be clear, I don’t want to see Wayne LaPierre dead. I want to see him in prison for the rest of his life. #nraterrorism
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 18, 2012

I am bringing all this up because I thought it might be a good way to introduce my rule of thumb regarding blogging, tweeting, writing, or saying anything that is likely to become public. If Professor Loomis and his colleagues happen to be reading this, I hope they will pay attention.

My rule of thumb is this; before hitting the return or send button, take a quick look at what you have written and consider how a complete stranger might take it. If what you have written comes across as angry, hateful, or deranged, you might want to rewrite or delete it. If there is anything in what you have written that could even remotely be construed as a threat of violence, then you should definitely rewrite or delete it. You may feel that this would cramp your style or restrict your free speech rights but I would say that the right of free speech comes with the responsibility to use that right conscientiously. In other words, if you don’t want people to jump all other you, you might try to express yourself with some degree of civility and respect. I think you might find it easier to persuade people to come around to your point of view if you didn’t start off by calling anyone who disagrees with you a moron.

Something similar could be said regarding foul language. If you have a problem expressing yourself without using the f-word, imagine your mother standing in front of your computer. You wouldn’t talk like that in front of her, would you? If you have a limited vocabulary, as so many seem to these days, invest in a thesaurus. You might also try reading the classics. Those writers like Shakespeare and Dickens, etc. really knew how to express themselves. Learn from them.

I think that if we all try to be calmer and more rational and not just write whatever happens to be on the top of our heads at any given moment, we would all be a lot better off and , who knows, we might just be able to find things we agree on.

Oh,and Professor Loomis, if by chance you do happen to be reading this, please get counseling. You’ll find it does a world of good in dealing with your issues.

Winter Has Come

We’ve had our first snowfall of the season here in Madison, Indiana and temperatures have dropped below freezing so I think it would be safe to say that winter has finally arrived after an unusually mild autumn. I was hoping that it would continue to be mild all winter but that is too much to hope for. This reminds me of a recent poll which showed that larger number of Americans were believing in the reality of climate change and that temperatures are rising worldwide. These results are not too surprising considering that the poll was taken during a warm autumn. I suspect that if January turns out to be unusually cold and snowy many of these same people will be convinced that a new ice age is upon us.

Thinking about my own recollections of past seasons, I seem to recall, as a child we never got any snow before the new year. But, then the worst snow we have ever had was in 1977 or 1978 when school was closed for a whole month. The teachers started to send us our homework so that we wouldn’t get too far behind. I do not think we have had so much snow since.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that temperatures have been more even in the past few years. Perhaps I have a difference sort of tolerances for heat and cold. I don’t think we have had many days in which the temperature has risen above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the past few summers. I remember whole weeks in which the temperature stayed in the upper nineties and hundreds. Somehow summer used to be more miserable than it is now. I also remember more winter days in which the temperature dropped below zero degrees Fahrenheit when I was growing up. I do not believe there were more than one or two such days in the last few years, nor do snowfalls seem to be quite as bad. As for extreme weather events,the worst that happened in my lifetime, in the local area, was the super cluster of tornadoes that devastated much of the Midwest back in 1974. We have had tornadoes since then, including several bad ones but none that did quite so much damage. We also had a bad wind storm back in 2005 which was the last remnant of Hurricane Katrina.

None of this means anything, of course. These are just the personal recollections of one man with a fallible memory. I hope this turns out to be a mild winter with little or no snow.

DUI Marijuana

I read that a man has been charged with driving under the influence of marijuana after a fatal car crash in Vancouver, Washington. Here is the full story as reported by KPTV Fox News.

The Vancouver Police Department arrested a man on the charge of driving under the influence of marijuana in connection with a deadly crash in Vancouver.

Police believe this is the first deadly crash involving marijuana since it became legal in Washington.

Investigators said the driver hit and killed a pedestrian around 5:50 p.m. on East Mill Plain Boulevard and Andresen Road.

Police say the victim, a male in his 50’s, was believed to be walking back from Safeway and stepped out into the middle of traffic.

The driver, Scotty Rowles, was driving westbound on East Mill Plain Boulevard and could not stop his car in time, according to police.

Detectives says Rowles cooperated with the investigation, but after interviewing him they determined there was enough evidence to arrest him on suspicion of driving under the influence of marijuana.

Police believe this is the first deadly crash involving the drug since it became legal in the state of Washington.

Police say the victim was close to two different lit and controlled intersections, but chose to step out into the middle of traffic, which would clearly put him at fault.

However, because Rowles was believed to be under the influence of marijuana, Washington State law says he is technically at fault, according to police.

While it may now be legal to smoke marijuana in the state of Washington, police say it is never legal to smoke it and then get behind the wheel.

The victim’s ID will be released after police notify his family.

Well, obviously we need to make marijuana illegal in order to keep irresponsible persons from smoking it and driving. Wait, marijuana is already illegal everywhere except Washington and Colorado, and somehow the laws prohibited the possession and use of marijuana did not stop people from possessing and using it. Well then, we need to ban the personal possession of cars. Just think of how many lives would be saved if we had responsible car control laws. Sure, it would be an inconvenience to all of us who would have to walk or rely on public transportation, but it only one life is saved from a reckless driver, it would all be worth it.

 

Exceptions

I am generally opposed to any new gun control laws, and really I am opposed to any legislation enacted in the immediate aftermath of any crisis. The worst time to act is when emotions are high and easily manipulated, while it is better to wait a little while for everyone to cool down and consider the matter rationally. This, of course, is why the gun control proponents are insisting we do something right this minute. The last thing they seem to want is to consider the problem of violence in America rationally. Someone might come up with a solution that doesn’t empower the federal government, after all.

Still, in the interests of compromise and holding the conversation, I am willing to make an exception to my principles. There are some people who should never have access to firearms,or any weapon. I would go so far as to suggest that some people, who have made violent threats against others, should perhaps be taken into custody until they are proven to be no threat to themselves or others. One person who should definitely be watched might be University of Rhode Island Professor Erik Loomis. Professor Loomis has made some tweets which could be considered, well, violent if not to say somewhat deranged. Loomis has since deleted his Twitter account, but luckily for us Twitchy has preserved his words for posterity.

erik-loomis-rt

That was a retweet. It is possible that Loomis did not agree with the sentiment, but here are his own words.

@rmccrory I was heartbroken in the first 20 mass murders. Now I want Wayne LaPierre’s head on a stick.—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 15, 2012

Looks like the National Rifle Association has murdered some more children.—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 14, 2012

@fmanjoo There are words. Fuck the National Rifle Association and its policies to put crazy guns in everyone’s hands.—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 14, 2012

You are goddamn right we should politicize this tragedy. Fuck the NRA. Wayne LaPierre should be in prison.—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 14, 2012

Wayne LaPierre is a criminal and should be in prison for complicity with murder. 27 counts.—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 14, 2012

Dear Republicans, Do you know the definition of family values? It’s not having our kids FUCKING SHOT AT SCHOOL!! Fuck the NRA.—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 14, 2012

It’s harder to buy Sudafed in a pharmacy that high-caliber rifle bullets. Fuck the NRA.—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 14, 2012

Can we define NRA membership dues as contributing to a terrorist organization?—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 14, 2012

I bet terrorist NRA head Wayne LaPierre will sleep well tonight.—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 15, 2012

Larry Pratt and the group Gun Owners of America are terrorists and should be dealt with as such. thinkprogress.org/justice/2012/1…
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 15, 2012

Idiot of the day: Eugene Volokh, for arguing we should arm school teachers. volokh.com/2012/12/14/a-t…
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 15, 2012

The NRA pushes for policies that make it complicit in mass murders in the US and Mexico. Repeal the 2nd Amendment.—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 18, 2012

Another day, another NRA facilitated terrorist attack. This morning at an Alabama hospital. abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/p…
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 15, 2012

Your daily NRA-facilitated terrorism. San Antonio this time. thedailybeast.com/cheats/2012/12…
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 17, 2012

He calls it an “intimidation campaign” when websites such as Campus Reform, quote what he said about Wayne LaPierre:

The right-wing intimidation campaign against me for saying the NRA was a terrorist organization continues. Will not succeed.—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 18, 2012

@NeilAnAlien Indeed they will not. In fact, I’d like to write up my story of right-wing intimidation for a magazine.—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 18, 2012

The Venn diagram between those who are trying to intimidate me and those who think Obama is the Kenyan usurper is sizable.—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 18, 2012

He backs away from his “head on a stick” comment but doubles down on his view that Wayne LaPierre should be imprisoned:

Dear right-wing morons, saying you “want someone’s head on a stick” is a metaphor. I know metaphor is hard for you to understand.—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 18, 2012

Dear rightwingers, to be clear, I don’t want to see Wayne LaPierre dead. I want to see him in prison for the rest of his life. #nraterrorism
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 18, 2012

Even when not addressing guns,  Loomis seems to have significant anger and anxiety issues:

@jacremes Bad TV makes me angry.—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 17, 2012

How do people relax after writing without alcohol? Am trying, failing. A jumble of nerves, determined no one will ever publish the book.—
Erik Loomis (@ErikLoomis) December 17, 2012

Of course Loomis did not really mean he wanted to see anyone murdered. That was just a metaphor as he explained to the police. I will take his word for that, but it is fairly obvious he has some anger issues.

On a larger note, I think that I can honestly say that I have never advocated violence on this blog, or on any other forum, either metaphorical or actual. In general, though I am sure there are exceptions, I have found the most expressions of hatred and threats of violence have come from the Left, the very people who are always accusing those who are opposing them of being of being violent haters. I am not sure of the reason for this. Perhaps it is a sort of projection by some on the Left. They are prone to anger and violent talk, so they assume others are. Perhaps this is a good subject for a psychiatrist to study.

 

Patterns of Force

Patterns of Force is the name of the infamous Star Trek episode in which the crew of the Enterprise encounter a planet ruled by Nazis. The story is that that the Enterprise has been assigned to search for the missing historian John Gill. He was last known to be studying the culture of the planet Ekos. They discover that Ekos has a more advanced technology than expected and is ruled by a Nazi party with exactly the same insignia and ideology as the Nazis who ruled Germany. Further investigation by Kirk and Spock reveal that John Gill is the Fuhrer. They learn that Gill has become a figurehead and real power rests with his deputy Melakon who is planning a genocidal war against the neighboring planet Zeon. They managed to confront Gill, who has been drugged and McCoy is able to revived him enough to answer questions. When Kirk demands to know why Gill introduced Nazism to the Ekotians, Gill replies that their culture was primitive and divided. By organizing them according to National Socialist principles, without the ethnic hatred, he hoped to unify the planet and help them to advance. He picked the Nazis because they were the most efficient state in Earth’s history.

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Spock agrees saying, “That tiny country, divided, beaten, bankrupt, rose in a few years to stand only one step from global domination.”

Gill and Spock were wrong, however, and Spock was being, dare I say it, illogical. In fact, Nazi Germany was not a particularly efficient state. The government was shot through with corruption at the highest levels. The Nazis purged the German civil service shortly after they took power, making party loyalty and racial purity more important than experience and qualifications. This had predictable results. The Nazis were also supporters of the concept of a centrally planned economy, remember Nazi is short for National Socialist. This also had predictable results. During World War II, Germany did not turn to a full war economy until 1943 and the free-market, capitalist wartime Unites States was more regimented and more efficient and productive. Hitler’s rule was an administrative nightmare since he didn’t leave clearly defined areas of jurisdiction, or lines of authority among his top lieutenants, thinking that as long as they were fighting each other, they weren’t conspiring to overthrow him.

Along with the corruption and general inefficiency of Nazi rule, there were policies that were simply irrational. Consider the Holocaust. The Holocaust was a crime against humanity, but it was also illogical. The men and materials used to round up millions of Jews and other undesirables, ship them to concentration camps, and exterminate them could have been better used fighting the war. The victims could have been used for slave labor and killed after Germany won the war. The enormous diversion of resources, while the Nazi regime was fighting for its life was irrational to the point of insanity. The Holocaust is the worst example of misplaced priorities, but hardly the only one. In the last two years of the war, Goebbels wanted to make the greatest movie of all time, Kolberg. The production of this film, the most expensive in German history, was actually given a higher priority than supplying the Wehrmacht with needed supplies and ammunition. Thousands of German soldiers were pulled from the front to work as extras. Hardy the most efficient state in Earth’s history.

There seems to be a persistent delusion that authoritarian states with centrally planned economies are some how more efficient than free countries. Mussolini made the trains run on time. (He didn’t.) The Communists in the Soviet Union were the future and their planners would create unparalleled economic growth that would bury the West. (It didn’t work out like that.) And on and on. It doesn’t even have to be a brutal dictatorship to excite this sort of ill founded admiration. Germany and Japan have a much closer relationship between private industry and government than is the norm in the United States. At various times both these nations were held up as examples they we should follow. The close cooperation was held to result in a better more efficient economy, better suited for long range planning than the often adversarial relationship found in the US with private competing companies that were more apt to plan only as far as the next quarter. The fact that such close relationships opened the door to crony capitalism and tended to give established companies an enormous advantage over upstarts seemed to be ignored.

The latest target of this kind of idiocy is not democratic at all but semi-Communist China. Somehow the idea has developed that a country ruled by a government that can rule by decree without the give and take of any democratic process is better run than a free nation. Thomas Friedman has become notorious for his admiration of China’s system.

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

More recently we have had a statement by Jeffrey Immelt on how China is better run.

Jeffrey Immelt, Chairman and CEO of General Electric and Chairman of the White House Council on Jobs and Competitiveness was interviewed by Charlie Rose on Bloomberg Television Monday evening.  When asked about China, Immelt praised the Chinese and their centrally planned economy:

CHARLIE ROSE: China is changing. It may be being stabilized as we speak. What does that mean for China and what does it mean for the United States? Should it change expectations?

JEFF IMMELT: It is good for China. To a certain extent, Charlie, 11 percent is unsustainable. You end up getting too much stimulus or a misallocation of resources. They are much better off working on a more consumer-based economy, less dependent on exports. The one thing that actually works, state run communism a bit– may not be your cup of tea, but their government works.

No it doesn’t. No, China is not overtaking us, any more than the Germans, Japanese, or Russians were. No, China is not being run by a reasonably enlightened group of people. According to Freedom House, China rates a 6.5 out of 7 with 7 being least free. The Chinese government continues to censor the media and Internet and while restrictions on personal  expression are looser than in the past, China is far from being a haven of free speech., The government is very corrupt. While China has enjoyed phenomenal economic growth in the last two decades, the benefits of that growth have not been well distributed. Something like 30% of the population lives on less than $2 per day. Property rights are non-existent in China where the government owns all of the land and decides how it is to be used. Health and safety regulations for Chinese industry are either non-existent or unenforced.

Despite the central planning, or really because of it, resources tend to be misallocated. The most notorious example of this are the mysterious ghost towns of China, cities built for no apparent reason out in the middle of nowhere. I am sure there are many more examples.

I don’t imagine that any of these facts will change the minds of the authoritarian admirers. The reason such people admire authoritarianism is less because of any facts or examples of superior efficiency but because they like to imagine themselves as the elites telling everyone else what to do. In the end it is not about efficiency. It is about power.

The Conversation

The liberals have been demanding we have a conversation on the issue of gun control since the Newtown Connecticut shootings. I imagine that this conversation will be much like the conversation that Attorney General Eric Holder wanted to have about race, or the conversations about gay marriage, healthcare, or any of the other conversations liberals want to have. The liberal idea about what a conversation entails seems to be for the liberals, secure in their moral and intellectual superiority to the rest of us, telling us what to think and do, and the rest of us sitting still and listening. Anyone who disagrees is  a racist, sexist, homophobic bigoted hater. In the conversation about gun control, those who are against stricter gun control laws must like to see children mowed down by psychopaths.

But, if we are going to have a conversation about gun control, then let’s have a real conversation. We can use Glenn Reynold’s remarks yesterday as a starting point.

SO IF WE’RE GOING TO HAVE A “NATIONAL CONVERSATION ON GUNS,” HERE ARE SOME OPENERS:

Why do people who favor gun-control call people who disagree with them murderers or accomplices to murder? Is that constructive?

Would any of the various proposals have actually prevented the tragedy that is the supposed reason for them?

When you say you hope that this event will finally change the debate, do you really mean that you hope you can use emotionalism and blood-libel-bullying to get your way on political issues that were losers in the past?

If you’re a media member or politician, do you have armed security? Do you have a permit for a gun yourself? (I’m asking you Dianne Feinstein!) If so, what makes your life more valuable than other people’s?

Do you know the difference between an automatic weapon and a semi-automatic weapon? Do your public statements reflect that difference?

If guns cause murder, why have murder rates fallen as gun sales have skyrocketed?

Have you talked about “Fast and Furious?” Do you even know what it is? Do you care less when brown people die?

When you say that “we” need to change, how are you planning to change? Does your change involve any actual sacrifice on your part?

Let me know when you’re ready to talk about these things. We’ll have a conversation.

We can move on by discussing John Fund’s recent column at National Review Online, in which he mentions some facts about recent mass shootings that somehow are not being discussed in the mainstream media.

Mass shootings are no more common than they have been in past decades, despite the impression given by the media.

In fact, the high point for mass killings in the U.S. was 1929, according to criminologist Grant Duwe of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

Incidents of mass murder in the U.S. declined from 42 in the 1990s to 26 in the first decade of this century.

The chances of being killed in a mass shooting are about what they are for being struck by lightning.

Until the Newtown horror, the three worst K–12 school shootings ever had taken place in either Britain or Germany.

Almost all of the public-policy discussion about Newtown has focused on a debate over the need for more gun control. In reality, gun control in a country that already has 200 million privately owned firearms is likely to do little to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals. We would be better off debating two taboo subjects — the laws that make it difficult to control people with mental illness and the growing body of evidence that “gun-free” zones, which ban the carrying of firearms by law-abiding individuals, don’t work.

First, the mental-health issue. A lengthy study by Mother Jones magazine found that at least 38 of the 61 mass shooters in the past three decades “displayed signs of mental health problems prior to the killings.” New York Times columnist David Brooks and Cornell Law School professor William Jacobson have both suggested that the ACLU-inspired laws that make it so difficult to intervene and identify potentially dangerous people should be loosened. “Will we address mental-health and educational-privacy laws, which instill fear of legal liability for reporting potentially violent mentally ill people to law enforcement?” asks Professor Jacobson. “I doubt it.”

Gun-free zones have been the most popular response to previous mass killings. But many law-enforcement officials say they are actually counterproductive. “Guns are already banned in schools. That is why the shootings happen in schools. A school is a ‘helpless-victim zone,’” says Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff. “Preventing any adult at a school from having access to a firearm eliminates any chance the killer can be stopped in time to prevent a rampage,” Jim Kouri, the public-information officer of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, told me earlier this year at the time of the Aurora, Colo., Batman-movie shooting. Indeed, there have been many instances — from the high-school shooting by Luke Woodham in Mississippi, to the New Life Church shooting in Colorado Springs, Colo. — where a killer has been stopped after someone got a gun from a parked car or elsewhere and confronted the shooter.

Economists John Lott and William Landes conducted a groundbreaking study in 1999, and found that a common theme of mass shootings is that they occur in places where guns are banned and killers know everyone will be unarmed, such as shopping malls and schools.

I spoke with Lott after the Newtown shooting, and he confirmed that nothing has changed to alter his findings. He noted that the Aurora shooter, who killed twelve people earlier this year, had a choice of seven movie theaters that were showing the Batman movie he was obsessed with. All were within a 20-minute drive of his home. The Cinemark Theater the killer ultimately chose wasn’t the closest, but it was the only one that posted signs saying it banned concealed handguns carried by law-abiding individuals. All of the other theaters allowed the approximately 4 percent of Colorado adults who have a concealed-handgun permit to enter with their weapons.

Now that we have dismissed the policies that will not work, like disarming the potential victims of crime and putting up signs that criminals will simply ignore, we can begin to have a conversation about what will work. I am looking forward to that conversation

Hex Signs

Here are some hex signs used by the Pennsylvania Dutch.

The Pennsylvania Dutch used to put these hex signs on the sides of their barns, supposedly to ward off bad luck or evil spirits. Many folklore experts now believe that they were just used for decoration although the symbols might have some magical meaning. Whatever the case, putting up a sign with a geometric design to keep away evil seems to be a silly superstition.

Here are some more signs that people put up to ward off evil.

These work about as well as the hex signs, which is to say, not at all. The idea seems to be that a criminal or madman intent on mayhem will see such a sign and turn away in frustration because the sign prohibits him from carrying his guns any further. I can’t imagine anyone is simple minded enough to believe this. Either such signs are a triumph of magical thinking over reality or they are meant to ward off a particularly vicious species of goblin known as the lawyer.

I hadn’t intended to write anything about the recent school shooting in Connecticut, but the sight of politicians such as Mayor Bloomberg taking advantage of the atrocity to demand stricter gun control laws prompted me to say something regarding gun control. The simple fact is that most proposed gun control laws are based on the same type of magical thinking as those signs above. The idea seems to be that if we pass strict enough legislation, all the guns will magically disappear, and everyone will live happily and peacefully ever after. That is not going to happen

Put aside all the debates about the Second Amendment and whether citizens have the right to own guns. Put aside the observation that criminals tend not to obey the law and will find ways to obtain guns no matter what the law is. Put aside also the question whether disarming law-abiding citizens and leaving them at the mercy of the criminals will really make anyone safer. The simple fact of the matter is that there are between 200 and 300 million privately owned guns in the United States. These guns are not just going to go away. Criminals will certainly not turn their guns is, and neither will many law-biding citizens. This will have the effect of turning many of these law-abiding citizens into criminals if they continue to possess firearms that are made illegal. Look up Prohibition sometime to see how a policy that turns honest people into criminals works out.

Of course, no one is talking about making possession of guns illegal, at least not yet, but any policy short of mass confiscation is not likely to take the guns out of the hands of the bad guys. Registering guns, stricter laws against felons or the mentally ill possessing guns and the like are good ideas for a start, but they will not prevent the felons, etc from simply stealing or illegally obtaining guns.

So what can we do to prevent another tragedy like the one that occurred yesterday? The truth is, not much. That is not what people want to hear, but it is the truth. No matter what precautions we take, things like this are going to happen. Maybe we could do a better job spotting the crazy people before they commit such acts. Maybe we should rethink the idea of committing mentally ill people who are a danger to themselves or others to hospitals where they can get the treatment they need. Maybe gun owners and dealers should be more responsible about keeping their guns secure. I just don’t know.

 

The Earth is Flat

How do you know that it isn’t? Not long ago, I came across a comment to the effect that the Bible should not be trusted as any sort of guide because it was written  by men who believed the Earth is flat. I do not intend to defend the authority of the Bible in this post, or to speculate about divine inspiration, or even to consider whether the writers of the Bible did indeed believe that the Earth is flat. Instead I want to consider this idea that because people in ancient, and not so ancient, times knew less about the natural world than we moderns do, they were therefore more ignorant and more foolish than we are, and therefore have nothing worth saying to us.

 

 

 

English: The Flammarion engraving is a wood en...
Although it would be cool if you could see over the edge of the Earth.

 

So, I will ask again. How do you know that the Earth is round? No doubt you have seen photographs of the Earth taken from space. The Earth seems spherical enough. You might also have taken plane trips around the world, or at least a good portion of it. You might have traveled on a ship so far that you have returned to your starting place, and therefore realized that the Earth cannot be flat. Moreover, all the books and maps and globes say the Earth is a sphere. It is so obvious that the Earth is round that members of the Flat Earth Society must either be joking or among the most ignorant fools on the planet.

 

 

 

But, what if there were no pictures from space? What if there were no airplanes or ships capable of long ocean voyages? Could you, by your own observations be able to determine the true shape of the Earth? Probably not.

 

 

 

The truth is, that the idea that the Earth is flat is perfectly reasonable given the information that the people in ancient times had available to them. It is not at all obvious that the Earth is round and there is no reason for anyone prior to the development of modern science to even suspect that might be the case. The remarkable thing is that people in ancient times did learn that the Earth is a sphere.

 

 

 

It was the ancient Greeks who discovered the true shape of the Earth, and the way they learned this might not occur to many even in our enlightened times. The Greeks were a sea-faring people. You can see farther out on the sea since there are no obstructions like trees or mountains as there are on land. Greek sailors noticed that as a ship moved farther away, it did not just recede into the distance. First the hull of the ship vanished, than the bottom of the sail, and finally the top of the mast. Eventually someone realized that this observation meant that the Earth could not be flat, but must at least be curved. The discovery was attributed to Pythagoras (the one with the theorem) but it is possible that the knowledge of the Earth’s shape was known as far back as the time of Homer. Aristotle argued that the Earth must be round because the shape of the Earth’s shadow on the Moon during a lunar eclipse is round. Eratosthenes actually measured the circumference of the Earth with an amazing degree of accuracy. Contrary to what is still often believed, knowledge of the round Earth did not vanish during the “Dark Ages” nor did the Catholic Church ever teach that the world was flat.

 

English: Ship at horizon: due to earth curvatu...
English: Ship at horizon: due to earth curvature lower part is invisible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

There are two lessons to be learned here. First, as I said, the concept that the Earth is flat is perfectly reasonable and obvious if you have not been able to make the sorts of observations that would show otherwise. How many perfectly reasonable and obvious ideas do you think are widely held today that are simply wrong? Second, even though people in the past did not possess our modern knowledge of the natural sciences and technology, it does not follow that they were stupid or that they had nothing worthwhile to say to us. It may well be that in some ways they were wiser than we are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hanukkah

I have been criminally negligent in not mentioning that Hanukkah began last Saturday and will continue until this Sunday. The only excuse I have is that all of the holidays seem to have been passing by quickly this year. I wrote about Hanukkah last year and I think I will tell the story again. It is a story worth remembering, not just by Jews but by anyone who values religious freedom.

The history goes back to the time of Alexander the Great. He conquered the Persian Empire in one of the most remarkable military campaigns in history. Unfortunately, when he died in 323 BC, he left no provision for any successors and so his generals fought among themselves and eventually Alexander’s empire was divided among them. One of these successors was named Seleucus and he gained control of what is now Iran and Iraq. His kingdom is known to historians as the Seleucid Empire. This time is known as the Hellenistic Era.

Around 200 BC the Seleucids defeated the Egyptians and gained the territories of modern Syria and Israel. During this time the Jewish religion was tolerated and respected by the Ptolemies of Egypt. During this time, also, the Greek language and culture spread far and wide among the conquered peoples. Greek culture had become “cool” and everybody wanted to be a part of it. People who adopted Greek culture could be said to be “Hellenized” from Hellene, the Greek word for Greek. This caused no little consternation among the more traditional Jews. They were afraid that in the rush to embrace Greek culture, many Jews would fall into the worship of the Greek gods and so to idolatry. So, to some extent, the events which followed were as much a civil war as a war between the Jews and the Seleucids.

In the year 175, Antiochus IV Epiphanes ascended the throne of the Seleucids. Unlike previous Hellenistic rulers he seemed to believe himself a god and was eager that everyone in his realm pay divine honors to the Greek gods. For most of the people in the Empire this was no great burden as a few more gods didn’t matter all that much. For all but the most Hellenized Jews, this was an impossible demand. There was only one God. When fighting broke out between Hellenized and traditional Jews, Antiochus sided with the Hellenized Jews and in 167 sent an army to capture Jerusalem and compel the worship of the Greek gods. A statue of Zeus was placed on the altar of the Temple and the Jewish religion was banned.

This sparked a rebellion and a guerilla war which was led by a priest named Matthias and his five sons. The most prominent of these was Judas Maccabeus. Antiochus IV had many other problems, especially with the Persians to the east and the rising power of Rome to the west and could never spare the forces necessary to crush the revolt. By 165, the Maccabees were able to retake Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple of the defilement of the pagans.

According to legend, there was only enough oil to light the Menorah for one day, and yet miraculously, they were able to keep it lit for eight days, until more oil could be procured. These eight days became known as the Festival of Lights and to commemorate this victory and miracle, a nine branched menorah is lit. A more prosaic explanation for the origins of this holiday is that the first Hanukkah was a belated celebration of Sukkot.

There have been no shortage of rulers since the time of the Maccabees who have demanded their subjects worship them as gods. One would think this sort of nonsense would have ended with the rise of monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam but it hasn’t. Byzantine Emperors declared themselves the Vice-regent of God on Earth and the Thirteenth Apostle. The Caliphs called themselves the Shadow of Allah. If kings and emperors couldn’t be gods themselves, at least they could pretend to be God’s personal spokesman.

This habit has only gotten worse in our more secular age. No Pharaoh or Caesar of ancient times was ever a more jealous and demanding god as our modern Hitlers and Stalins. It is, as if, an age that no longer believes in the One God, is all the more willing to worship god-kings. Even in democratic countries there can be leader cults.

Here is your god O, Americans

However, the example of the Maccabees shows us that freedom is worth fighting for, even if there is not much hope of winning, and if we do not give up the fight, we might end up winning despite the odds.