Tag Archives: Religion

Good Morals Aren’t Based On God

We Want You All

Last week three dramatic flame-outs highlighted the eye-watering hypocrisy, self-serving cruelty, and undemocratic values of the “Faith & Family” crowd.

First up was Fox News host and staunch Catholic Bill O’Reilly, who just lost a bitter custody dispute with his ex-wife. (What’s a staunch Catholic doing divorcing his wife? You got me there.) Gawker reported that court testimony revealed one of Bill’s daughters had witnessed him dragging her mother down a flight of stairs by the neck. Interesting behavior for a man who, according to brainyquote.com, once said this, “The measure of a decent human being is how he or she treats the defenseless.” Also interesting is this comment from Grace Vuoto’s mostly positive review of O’Reilly’s 2008 memoir for the conservative Washington Times:

There are omissions, too. His relationships with women, apart from references to his mother and the nuns, are largely unmentioned. He is silent about his marriage and children. Readers are left to wonder to what extent the traditional values he champions pervade his personal and family life. In this respect, the book is incomplete.

Indeed.

Next up was Matthew Makela, a Lutheran pastor in Michigan. A married man with five children, he publicly endorsed the idea that same-sex attraction was a sin akin to alcoholism, and defined gay marriage as a threat to the family. Then Queerty.com posted images and comments from his Grindr account where he cruised the web looking for hook-ups with other men. This forced his resignation from the church, and it also inspired two members of his congregation to publicly accuse him of bigotry and cruelty. Jennifer Kish and her teenage son Tyler spoke on local TV and charged that Makela had earlier tried to shame and frighten Tyler into staying in the closet. Makela had warned the teenager that if he insisted on embracing a “homosexual lifestyle” he might as well kill himself because he was going to go to hell. (On Grindr Makela described himself as a top who likes to cuddle.)

Finally, we have Josh Duggar, the oldest son of the very evangelical family that stars in the wildly popular, if just suspended, reality TV show “19 Kids And Counting.” Thanks to some intrepid reporting by In Touch magazine, we now know that 2 years before the family became celebrities a 14 going on 15-year-old Josh sexually molested a number of very young girls, some of whom were his sisters. What followed was a long cover-up by his parents, and it is a sordid tale indeed. Jim Bob and Michelle turned to people in their religious community to give Josh lectures and informal therapy. One was Bill Gothard who ran a Christian “treatment” center. In 2014 he resigned over allegations that he had sexually harassed at least 30 women. (Hobby Lobby owner and billionaire David Green provided crucial funding for the center, reports Raw Story.) Another was a state trooper who is now serving a 56 year prison term for child pornography. In his public apology, Josh said that his parents helped arrange counseling for his victims (and sisters), but no details about what that entailed are known. However, we do know that the whole happy family continued to live in the same house as the TV cameras rolled.

This is a matter of public concern because the Duggars have used their celebrity to promote themselves as role models and campaign for the right to discriminate based on Christian beliefs. Until the scandal broke, Josh, now a family man himself, worked as the executive director of FRC Action, the lobbying arm of the Family Research Council. It’s mission is to “advance faith, family and freedom in public policy and the culture from a Christian worldview.” And here’s a typical statement by Robert Knight, its director of cultural studies, “Gaining access to children has been a long-term goal of the homosexual movement.”

The Duggars have also been involved in presidential politics, and have enthusiastically endorsed their ex-governor, Mike Huckabee. He in turn has enthusiastically endorsed them, saying at one point that they are an “example of something that’s wholesome and wonderful.” So invested is Huckabee in the Duggars, that after the scandal broke he doubled down and defended them on Facebook:

“[My wife] Janet and I love Jim Bob and Michelle and their entire family. They are no more perfect than any family, but their Christian witness is not marred in our eyes because following Christ is not a declaration of our perfection, but of HIS perfection.”

So now this “wholesome and wonderful” family is “no more perfect than any family”! But that doesn’t really matter, because it’s all about God and HIS perfection. Which shows that Huckabee’s real concern is defending the idea that America should be a Christian theocracy. He elaborated on this idea a couple of weeks ago when he officially entered the race for the 2016 presidential election:

“But we’ve lost our way morally…and are now threatening the foundation of religious liberty by criminalizing Christianity in demanding that we abandon Biblical principles of natural marriage. Many of our politicians have surrendered to the false god of judicial supremacy, which would allow black-robed and unelected judges the power to make law and enforce it … The Supreme Court is not the Supreme Being, and they can’t overturn the laws of nature or of nature’s God.”

Painting the Supreme Court as some sort of Inquisition is kind of funny, but he’s serious about overthrowing our democratic and secular government in the name of the “laws” of “nature’s God.” Presumably we’ll need some sort of priesthood to interpret those laws for us, and Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, no doubt feels eminently qualified for such a post. Ayatollah Huckabee for president!

Dolce & Gabbana & The Italian Freakout

By Italian I really mean Catholic. And I am referring to the recent comments by gay fashion designers Dolce & Gabbana that “We oppose gay adoptions. The only family is the traditional one…No chemical offsprings and rented uterus: life has a natural flow, there are things that should not be changed.”  (This is a translation into English I found in an article at The Telegraph.) I’d support Elton John’s angry call to boycott the D&G brand, if only I could afford it in the first place.

So no boycott for me, but maybe there’s a chance for some self-promotion, as the D&G comments reminded me of a movie review I wrote some years ago! It is the Italian beefsteak epic The Giant of Metropolis from 1961, and it is practically a manifesto of the reactionary ethos that D&G remain loyal to. A bizarre re-telling of the Atlantis myth, it has evil king Yotar offending nature by attempting to transplant the brain of his father into the head of his 12-year-old son. This and other confusing schemes apparently leads to “Unforeseen developments in the orbiting of the planets have upset in a most serious manner the normal equilibrium of the forces of the inter-planetary scale!” We also have Obro, an amiable muscleman who gets captured and tortured by Yotar. This somehow convinces Yotar’s rebellious daughter Mercede that Obro is some sort of Christ figure who is everywhere, invisible, and invincible. So she sets Obro free, and at the first opportunity falls into his arms and pleads “Show me what it is to live Obro!” Which is he presumably does, after the fade out.

15_smooch

To quote the movie itself:

…When the scientists of Metropolis attempted to penetrate the secret of death, nature rebelled, causing universal destruction…

…love alone triumphed…

…and remained the sole source of life…

And remember, they were this upset back in 1961, long before the concept of “gay adoption” was born! My review of the whole confounding movie can be found at The Monster Shack web site:

http://www.monstershack.net/sp/index.php/the-giant-of-metropolis-1961/

9_dance_2

An unnatural mass wedding ceremony held in Metropolis, before it is destroyed.

A Farewell To Miracles

This is my last entry on Chris Stewart and Ted Stewart’s book The Miracle of Freedom: 7 Tipping Points that Saved the World.

The Final Countdown

Having given a blog entry to each of the first 3 miracles, I’ll wrap up this book review by treating the final 4 with an overview. They are:

        4. The Battle of Poiters
        5. The Mongols Decision not to invade Europe
        6. The Old World colonizes the New World
        7. The Battle of Britain

I am in complete agreement with the authors that Great Britain’s stand against Hitler’s Germany is something to celebrate. I’m also happy that the Mongols decided to call off their invasion of Europe in the 1240’s, so I won’t comment on these chapters. I would, however, like to look a bit at the remaining two miracles.

Brother Religions

The Battle of Poiters in AD 732 is the one that “preserved a Christian Europe” by halting an Islamic conquest of the continent. No argument from me on the military importance of this battle, but let’s look at the authors’ notes on why this was important for the concepts of freedom and democracy.

They acknowledge that the Islamic world initially “led the world in technological and cultural advances.” Which is true. Then they note that it seemed to “freeze” and fall behind the west. Why? They propose a list of interesting reasons:

  1. Fundamentalist Islam defined law as rules coming down from God, not something created by men.
  2. Therefore, there was no separation of church and state.
  3. Personal freedom, including the right to protest an unjust law, was not promoted. After all, if laws come from God, how could a good Muslim protest them?
  4. As the Islamic empires grew prosperous, the religion’s liberal views about the virtue of equality gave way to an elitism that favored the rich and powerful.
  5. The lack of secular education stifled innovation.

This was oh so very different from the Christian West because that part of the world “forged ahead in the sciences, technology, cultural advancements, and in the advancements in religious thought that led to the concepts of personal freedom and self-government.” No sirs, even according to your own book, the concepts of personal freedom and self-government were inventions of Pagan Greece. What it avoids is discussing how the Christian church often tried to stifle them. It’s fascinating, and depressing, how the authors can criticize the authoritarian nature of monotheism in Islam, yet celebrate that very thing in their own Christian faith.

The Joy of Empire

The most gobsmacking chapter in the book is one that tries to paint Europe’s invasion and colonization of the New World as a happy victory for personal freedom. The havoc wrought on the native peoples by the European invasion has troubled my own mind since grade school. I was studying history in the 4th grade when a light bulb went on over my head: the cowboys weren’t the good guys, they were the bad guys! Not an easy thing to live with for Euro-Americans. I remember explaining this unease to a fellow college student. He was a super sweet guy from Colorado, and he was completely untroubled. “Well it’s better than us living in some hell-hole in Europe!” he exclaimed.

The Stewarts, who hail from Utah, aren’t quite that simplistic. They posit that the conquest of the New World gave Europe the confidence and riches necessary to create a powerful and advanced civilization. That the conquest provided Europe with treasure and pride is impossible to argue with. That this advanced the concepts of personal freedom is ridiculous – until we come to the English colonists who dreamed up an independent and democratic nation. And even here it’s a complicated thing. For this nation, founded on the idea that “all men are created equal” was partly a slave state itself until the incomplete victory that was the Civil War. Amazingly, Sherman’s March, a brutal military campaign that smashed a slave state, is not one of the 7 miracles of freedom.

Living With Original Sin

At it’s core, this book isn’t history, but a founding myth that seeks to erase the moral stain left by the violence, theft, and enslavement that came with the New World conquest. None of that bad stuff really counted, the authors imply, because it was committed by Christians who valued personal freedom – and with the spoils of New World empire we were able to spread our enlightened values across the globe! Hurray for us.

I guess that’s the big challenge for secular humanists. We need to combat the narcotic appeal of tribal chauvinism with an inspiring vision of our own. How by seeing the truth about ourselves and our pasts, we can build a more just society.

To be continued…

A Bridge Too Far

This is part three (Miracle at the Bridge) of my review of The Miracle of Freedom: 7 Tipping Points That Saved The World, by Chris Stewart and Ted Stewart.

How to Trip Over Your Own Tipping Point

Chapter Three brings us to Rome, circa 300 AD, and the emperor Constantine’s decision to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The authors’ horror of large states, big government, and theocracy miraculously fall away as they trip over themselves to convince the reader that this was a wonderful thing. Chapter Three is, in fact, a Pandora’s Box of junk history as the authors zoom back and forth in time and race all over the world in a frantic attempt to prove that everything good in the Western tradition comes from Christianity. It’s such a mess I began to wonder if I was wasting my time engaging with it. Then I remembered that Ted Stewart is a federal judge, Chris Stewart is a U.S. congressman, and their book made The New York Times bestseller list. So yes, it’s worthwhile.

OK, so let’s go down the list, and see how well Stewart & Stewart defend their points.

Human Rights and Democracy

Stewart & Stewart tell us that David Brog, author of something called In Defense of Faith, “show(s) that the Judeo-Christian values were instrumental in compelling individuals to respect and even to fight for the rights of others, even those outside of their own family, group, or people.” Believe it or not, this is their entire argument! And since they can’t be bothered to give any evidence for these claims in their own book, I don’t need to contradict them.

All warmed up, they continue, “Another of the most important foundations for Western political thought is the belief that certain rights are derived from God, not from man.” Which rights these are, and where they can be found in the Bible, is not stated. But they do tell us it was all articulated by a group of “Early Christian philosophers.” Along with these anonymous philosophers is an unnamed contemporary scholar who “shows” that the “nature of the covenant relationship between God and His people is the foundation for the covenant relationship that is known as constitutionalism.” That scholar is Jacob Neusner. Perhaps he is only named in the footnotes because Google tells me he once said Christians should “embrace Judaism.” Not that it matters, because 7 Miracles ends up refuting the very argument it wants to champion!

“The examples of the Greek city-states and the Roman Republic, with their various experiments in democracy, were vitally important to those European political philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who pronounced the philosophical foundations for self-government. Many of the ideas and institutions of these classical giants were adopted by the Europeans, giving them a significant jump start toward modern civilization.”

Amazing. Simply amazing.

Peace

The authors are eager to dispute the charge that Christianity has inspired “war, atrocities, bloodshed,” and genocide. To do this, they quote several Christian historians who assert that Christianity is wonderful. Then, a few pages later, we get this:

“Far too many wars have been waged in the name of Christianity, or a favored sect of Christianity, and millions of innocents have died as a result of those wars.”

OK, so much for that!

Reason and Logic

In chapter two, we were told these are the precious cultural legacy of classical Greece. In Chapter three, the “West” is more logical than the rest of the world because “Christian theologians have devoted centuries to reasoning about what God may have really meant by various passages in scripture.”

Centuries of reasoning to understand what God may have meant. Wow.

Science

Again, the authors serve up lots of talk about how free the thinking was in various Christian institutions, but give no examples. Nor do they mention Galileo’s heresy trial in the 1630’s, or today’s Christian war against the concept of evolution. But they do admit to this:

“For too long, the Christian church attempted to keep the people under its control by withholding the holy scriptures from them. In the name of Christianity, some scientific and technological advances have been blocked.”

And so they admit to the static, authoritarian, and theocratic nature of medieval and renaissance Christianity.

Capitalism

Since America is a capitalist nation, it is vitally important for Stewart & Stewart to prove that God invented capitalism! In so doing they sink to a new low in junk history. According to this book, “Capitalism was a system that evolved distinctly and uniquely in the West, its beginnings traced to the large Christian monasteries that sprang up throughout much of Europe.”

I’ve never encountered this idea in any of the history I’ve studied in my life, and the authors don’t even quote a Christian propagandist as a source. They just make the assertion and move on.

The End of Slavery

Finally, here’s the piece de la resistance in self-delusion. Did the emperor Constantine outlaw slavery when he made the Roman Empire Christian? No. But Christianity was still the key to ending slavery because “Later Christians would act as emissaries for peace, fighting against the horrors of slavery and for the rights of the “Indians” found in the New World.” … I’m repeating myself, I know, but…wow.

It Sucks To Be Poor

What little time we do spend in 3rd century Rome is mostly with a fictitious Christian family. They are so miserably poor that they need to send the children out into the trash heaps to scavenge bits of food and cloth. And yet, because they are Christian, they are also honest, kind, humble, brave, and ever thankful for the religion that, the authors claim, is the cause of the terrible abuse and discrimination they suffer at the hands of their neighbors.

After Constantine comes to power we get a heart warming scene of triumph because this family is finally free – free! – to paint a cross on their front door. Whether or not they are also free from their terrible poverty – the poverty the authors used to indict Pagan Rome for heartlessness and injustice – that is left unsaid.

The Miracle At The Bridge

So what is the miracle at the heart of this chapter? Is it Constantine’s claim to have seen a burning cross in the sky, along with the words, “in this sign, you will conquer”? Actually, no. The authors, aware there is no proof of this supernatural event, are careful to say he “reportedly” saw the cross. But they need a miracle for each chapter, so they find something else. And it is grim as well as violent.

Before Constantine became the undisputed Caesar of the whole empire, he had to defeat his rival Maxentius in a battle before the gates of Rome. Maxentius had heard an omen of his own, and he grew careless and over-confident. He chose to meet Constantine’s forces at a spot where his own army could not easily retreat. So when he was out-generaled by Constantine, his retreat turned into a route. He, along with many of his own men, where crowded off a narrow bridge, and they drowned in the river below. That’s the miracle. Ugh.

I still have 4 miracles to go, but I have a feeling the authors have pretty much shot their bolt with this one. If so, maybe I’ll just lump the remaining chapters into one short recap.

To be continued!

Miracle Number Two

The Greeks Save “The West”

This is part two in my chapter by chapter review of Chris Stewart and Ted Stewart’s book, The Miracle of Freedom: 7 Tipping Points that Save the World.

480 BC, Western Persia

Chapter Two opens with a drumbeat of doom as the Stewarts (who are not brothers, FYI) tell us: “The world is a warring place. It is a jarring, unforgiving, and violent place, with power and riches going mainly to the strong.” Then the curtain rises on another fabulous Cecil B. DeMille set. This time it is the enormous traveling throne room of Xerxes, master of the Persian Empire, and according to Stewart & Stewart:

“The spoils of war around him represented the Persians’ unbelievable wealth and power: gold from the Phoenicians, emeralds from the mines in the Azbek highlands, pearls from the mouth of the Nile, red sandalwood from the jungles of eastern India – the display of wealth dazzled like the sun.”

palace

This image from the movie “One Night With The King,” is pretty close to the scene in the book.

As in the palace of Sennacherib, two strong men are facing off. This time one is Demaratus, “He was a king. He was a Spartan. He was a warrior and a leader.”

The other is Xerxes, who was “ incredibly intimidating – dark and tall and strong…”

spartan king copy Xerxes

Historically accurate reconstructions of Damaratus and Xerxes!

A deposed king, Demaratus is also a traitor. Looking for revenge and power, he offers valuable intelligence to Xerxes, the oriental despot who is planning to conquer the freedom-loving city-states of Greece, including Sparta. But like Rabshakeh in Chapter one, he is also there to praise the Great King’s foes. Here are some of his lines:

“Spartans do not fight for a king or empire, my lord. They do not fight for riches or captured booty. They do not fight for greed or lust or power. They fight for something very different.” “They fight for each other. For their families. For the idea that men should live free.”

Cue a lot of sneering and insult from Xerxes, who is pretty much a carbon copy of Sennacherib. How can a collection of small and weak city-states stand up to the greatest empire the world had ever seen? Bah! And yet, chapter two is a lot better than one because this time the heroes have time on center stage as well. The first being, no real surprise here, Leonidas, the heroic commander of Thermopylae. And no real surprise here too, he’s hot,

“Tall. Dark-skinned. Dark-eyed. Thick arms. Leonidas was the epitome of everything a Spartan warrior was supposed to be. Strong as oak. Quick with a sword. Fearless. Intelligent.”

Leonidas copy

This historically accurate reconstruction of Leonidas is my offering to the gods Hormonio and Testosteronicus.

We also meet Themistocles, the brilliant admiral of the Athenian navy who probably did more than any other individual to rally and guide the Greeks to victory over the Persians. He’s the first military commander whose manly figure the authors do not drool over. This strikes me as an injustice, and one I feel compelled to rectify. So here goes!

The powerful muscles of his brawny arms gleamed in the early morning sun as Themistocles, proud admiral of the Athenian war fleet, leaned on a railing and surveyed the 300 ships under his command. His keen grey eyes, alight with the light of intelligence, shone piercingly from under his noble brow as his heart swelled with pride at the sight. But he was also troubled. As strong, and true, and brave as his sailors were, as committed to the cause of freedom and rights of free men as they were, would they be enough to stand against the might of the greatest empire the world had ever known? Turning from the railing, his tall, broad-shouldered figure cast an imposing shadow on the deck of his powerful trireme, pride of the Athenian fleet. Anacreon, the helmsman, watched with worshipful eyes as the admiral, more god than man, came up to him. Here was a captain: a real captain, and a real man. The kind of man who became a captain that a sailor would happily follow even into hell itself, thought the golden-haired youth. “When do we go against the Persians?” he asked, nervousness apparent in his ardent young voice. Themistocles looked deeply into the clear blue eyes of the brave youth, and they shared something that only men on the verge of risking death in the name of Liberty can share. Resting his strong, calloused hand on Anacreon’s smooth, well-muscled shoulder he said in a low voice that was charged with emotion, “We sail when the gods of Freedom command us to.”

Themistocles

A little drool for this historically accurate reconstruction of the hero of Salamis please!

Writing that was more fun than I want to admit, but back to the book! The major part of chapter two is devoted to explaining the tactical details of the four key battles at Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea, and here the authors are at their best. Clearly military history buffs themselves, their descriptions are clear, lively and fun to read. But the military details are beside the point. The failure of Persia to conquer the Greeks is important because:

“With its culture that valued freedom, individual liberty, and self-government, the Greek city-state was critical to the future development of the Western world. And although it is impossible to know how the history of Europe would have unfolded, this much is surely true: had the Greeks been defeated at Salamis – had their people been conquered by a power for whom the concepts of freedom and citizen did not even exist – history would have unfolded much differently.”

I’ll spend the rest of the review unpacking this statement, as it’s a good opportunity to revisit the standard view of a very important historical event.

Here Come The Spartans!

As the quote above says, the authors contend it was the city-state itself that gave birth to democracy. They continue, “Each city-state was small, locally governed, and in vibrant competition with its fellow Greek city-states…This facilitated innovation and creative genius.” They also quote The Greeks by J.H. Plumb, who explains that they were examples of “extreme chauvinism…highly individualistic and autonomous…all that had allowed the creation and growth of a free landowning citizenry like none other.”

One thing that strikes me is how much this sounds like conservative American doctrine: as in our pioneer tradition of individualism, states rights, and free-market capitalism. But is this answer sufficient? I won’t deny that the competing city-states were important to the vitality of the age, just look at the Italian Renaissance. But city-states were also a key to the dawn of civilization in Mesopotamia – why didn’t they lead to democracy then? In fact, according to the authors, Mesopotamia led to the creation of “the East,” and “a static society with one goal: the maintenance of an absolute, theocratic state.”

Settling for the half-digested notion that Greek democracy was born from the “vibrant competition” of “locally governed” city-states lets the authors avoid two things: a meaningful search for the factors that inspired the Greeks to experiment with new forms of government, and a frank examination of the darker aspects of their society.

Take the Sparta of Leonidas. (Athens is mentioned briefly as the city-state with the most advanced democratic system, but Sparta is the real hero of this section.) The authors are good enough to note how extreme and unique it was, even among the other city-states. How it was a “strange mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.” (But they don’t discuss what that actually meant.) How it did not rely on citizen-solders, but on men taken from a “master race” of pure Spartan blood. They continue, “Sparta sustained this warrior class through the efforts of the other citizens who engaged in all those fields forbidden to the warriors.” This is as close as they come to admitting that Sparta was a mini-empire that used the conquered as slave labor. That omission leaves them free to admire and to sympathize with Sparta’s militarism.

And why wouldn’t they? Remember that drumbeat of doom that opens the chapter? It vibrates with a fear that mirrors what the Spartans must have felt. For this “master race” was a minority in their own home, and they never forgot that the people who worked their estates might rise up and slaughter them. So in their quest to create the perfect warrior they segregated suitable boys at age eight, and raised them in a highly regulated, communal army barrack, where “a “Spartan meal” [was] insufficient to satisfy hunger, so thievery was encouraged. But one should never be caught, so cleverness and cunning were developed.” – Vibrant competition saves the day again!

Having been honest enough to air some of the dirty laundry, the authors end on a high note with a peon to Spartan virtue: “Women were revered, good manners and order in families were demanded, strong marriages were admired.” Again, these sounds like planks in the Republican Party’s platform. The Democratic Party platform too, for that matter. And full disclosure here, as a liberal, I’m all for good manners and strong marriages. I’m also for “order” in the family, if that doesn’t mean beating the children whenever they question daddy, or denying them the freedom to choose their own mates.

As for “revering” women, that’s a funny way to put it, because what they had more of in Sparta than in the rest of Greece was freedom. The state’s obsession with training and maintaining a ferocious military force meant that men were away from home most of the time. It was the women who ran the households, and they moved about in public with a freedom that shocked foreigners. Wanting healthy mothers that bred healthy children, Spartan girls also had sports training in fields such as running, wrestling, discus and javelin throwing.

Which brings us to those “strong marriages,” the authors admire so much. Sparta’s focus on producing healthy children of the “master race” led to things like wife-sharing, where an older husband would allow a younger man to have sex with his wife, in the hopes this would produce a baby. Women were also free to divorce, and what’s more, they would keep their private wealth and, amazingly, their children.

For unlike most societies in recorded history, biological paternity, the identity of the father, didn’t matter so long as he was Spartan. Something else that was rare until modern times, the mothers had the rights of citizenship. These two radical innovations make Sparta, so awful in many ways, a fascinating place, and one that would have shocked and perplexed old school male chauvinists like the authors, had they ever visited.

There’s something else that would get their goat, pardon the phrase, and I’ll lead into it by noting an interesting marriage custom called “bride-capture.” A soldier who still lived in the military barracks could “secretly” get married by “kidnapping” a young woman – with her father’s permission, of course. They’d have a very brief, ur, honeymoon that night, but come sunrise, he was back in the barracks. What’s intriguing is that her friends would prepare her for the kidnapping by dressing her up in a man’s robe and sandals. And so we come to the shocking idea of man on man sex in the Spartan army. It happened. A lot. But you’d never know it to read this book – another sin of omission.

There Go The Persians!

I won’t argue against the main point of this chapter – that the Greeks had many amazing cultural achievements, and their victory against Persia preserved the idea of democratic government, which made the American, French, and other democratic revolutions possible. Still, there’s a note of ethnic chauvinism in the author’s celebration that makes me uncomfortable.

Several times throughout this chapter it is asserted that the words freedom and citizen did not even exist in Persian – or in any other Mediterranean language. This might be true, but I’ll have to do some due diligence before I accept this as fact. And that’s just the set up, here’s the pitch, “The Persians, for all their grandeur and might, left very little to the world of lasting value. Theirs was a static society with one goal: the maintenance of an absolute, theocratic state.”

And they go even further, by quoting Cowley’s “What If” book again, that if the Greeks had lost, “In place of Hellenic philosophy and science, there would have been only the subsidized arts of divination and astrology, which were the appendages of imperial or religious bureaucracies and not governed by unfettered rational inquiry… We would live under a much different tradition today – one where writers are under death sentences, women secluded and veiled, free speech curtailed, government in the hands of the autocrats extended family, universities mere centers of religious zealotry, and the thought police in our living rooms and bedrooms.”

Wow. This is just too black and white. The Greeks are too perfect, and the line drawn from the Persia of Xerxes to the Iran of the Ayatollah Khomeini is too straight and direct.

Starting with the Greeks, they too had secluded women (except in Sparta), and state subsidized divination. Free speech could be curtailed, and writers placed under a death sentence – the most infamous example is the trial and execution of Socrates for “refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state,” and for “corrupting the youth.” (This is a horrible blemish on the record of my beloved Athens.)

Which brings us to “religious zealotry.” It’s an odd charge to lay at the feet of the Persians, when the authors acknowledge the tolerance of Cyrus the Great, the founder of that empire. He let the people worship whichever god they chose, and today he is celebrated by some as a pioneer in human rights. Tucked away in chapter two is another important development – it was Cyrus who let the exiled Jews of Babylon return to Judah. I’m curious why the authors don’t celebrate this as one of their miracles. I’m also confused at the authors’ sudden distaste for theocracy, because in chapter one they noted with approval how King Hezekiah, “purged heresy from his people, bringing them back to their true religion.” And lets see, what’s the next chapter about? Oh yes, it’s all about the Emperor Constantine forcing Christianity on the Roman Empire. Hurray for freedom!

To be continued…

UNEXPLAINABLE MIRACLES OF FREEDOM – PART ONE!

A couple of days ago I innocently picked up a 2011 book entitled The Miracle of Freedom: 7 Tipping Points that Saved the World. A quick look at the book flap told me the authors (two men who have the same last name! Chris and Ted Stewart) point to seven decisive moments in history that allowed both the idea and the fact of individual freedom to survive. Being an enthusiastic history buff who agrees that freedom is a good thing, I checked it out. But I quickly discovered this wasn’t real history, but a perplexing chimera with parts both light and dark. Starting from the unarguable position that individual freedom has been rare throughout history, and is something to cherish, it quickly devolves into propaganda for the worldview of the Fox News-Tea Party Axis.

I faced a fork in the road; a turning, if not a tipping, point. One choice was to return the book from whence it came. The other, read the damn thing and review it. I chose the latter, because this book is a good opportunity for me to confront the heart of darkness that troubles the American psyche on just who can take credit for American freedom. What fateful impact my choice will have on history, only time will tell!

Chapter One: Two Gods At War

One of these gods is Jehovah, of the ancient kingdom of Judah. The other is Anu, the Assyrian king of the gods. And this first key turning point in the history of human freedom is the Assyrians’ decision not to destroy the capital city of Jerusalem in about 700 BC. But I should mention that neither god makes an appearance in the story.

No, the two main characters in this chapter are the brutal Assyrian general Rabshakeh, and his stern master, King Sennacherib. Both of them star in a blood soaked epic of war, cruelty, and barbaric splendor straight out of Cecil B. DeMille. Rabshakeh is, and I quote from the book here:

“…a large man: tall, straight, strong as the ironwood trees in Mesopotamia, with a tightly curled beard and hair that hung below his shoulders, also tightly braided. He had a broad face and strong arms, with metal bands around his enormous biceps that were designed to show them off… and the general was as handsome as he was cruel. And he had not become captain of an army by being stupid, weak, or kind.”

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An accurate historical reconstruction of what general Rabshakeh looked like.

Things stay hot and heavy as Rabshakeh sacks Judah’s second city, Lachish, complete with detailed and bloodcurdling descriptions of all the horrible things the Assyrians did to their defeated enemies. Then it’s off to the imperial splendor of the Assyrian capital Nineveh, where he is to report to his king. We are treated to a tour of the great city that climaxes at Sennacherib’s fabulous palace, which is described by the authors thus:

“1,650 feet long, almost 800 feet wide. More than 160 million bricks had been used in the palace foundation alone…Atop the deep foundations were eighty rooms, most of them guarded by magnificent rock figures, thirty-ton sculptures of winged lions and bulls with human heads. Throughout the mighty palace, the stone walls were inscribed with the stories of various military campaigns.”

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The splendor of Sennacherib’s mighty palace!

Proud and arrogant though he is, the general is troubled because he must report that Jerusalem is still holding out. It is lead by a charismatic young king named Hezekiah who sounds a bit like David Koresh of the Branch Davidians:

“He believes he has spent his entire reign preparing for this moment. He has purged heresy from his people, bringing them back to their true religion. He believes that he is called of their god, Jehovah. This has given him moral power, which brings him foolish courage.” (Here I would like to compliment the authors’ dramatic restraint, as they do not have a peal of thunder rumble mysteriously from a clear blue sky when Rabshakeh intones the name of the Hebrew god.)

This report does not go down well with Sennacherib, who flares his nostrils and barks:

“Have I ever undertaken to destroy a city, then changed my mind and let it be? Never have I, general. Not once! You understand? And I certainly don’t intend to start such a habit now, especially with such a weak and insolent people as the Jews. You will destroy them. You will kill them. You will scatter their people to the far corners of the world. Then the memory of their religion will die with them, the world forgetting the God of Israel before my son is old enough [to] sit upon this throne.”

OK, so after this tremendous buildup we’re ready to meet Hezekiah and his brave band of freedom loving, God-fearing warriors, right? Wrong. In fact, Hezekiah doesn’t even have a speaking part, he’s always off stage! We get no vivid evocation of Jerusalem. No colorful dramatization of its king and the fateful choices he must make, and no discussion of the role that freedom plays in the religion of the Hebrews. Instead, steam leaks out of the narrative as we follow a pointless history of the tawdry conflicts between the two Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judah before the Assyrian invasion. This includes such useful information as:

“Both Judah and Israel possessed certain strengths. Judah controlled copper and iron resources. Israel had better rainfall and more fertile land, especially in the Jordan and Jezreel valleys.”

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Copper mines and farmland where just two of the advantages enjoyed by either Israel or Judah.

What this has to do with the history of freedom is your guess as well as mine. When we finally return to the siege of Jerusalem, it’s over, and Rabshakeh is riding home in a mood of deep frustration because Sennacherib has called the whole thing off. Which is amazing after that big speech that the authors imagined he made in his palace, right? What could the reason be?

The authors have a theory, which they float in the title of a chapter heading, “The Sword of an Angel?” That sword would be an outbreak of plague, which the Bible says decimated the Assyrian forces as they laid siege to Jerusalem. Noting that the Assyrian records mention no such thing, the authors show some one-sided skepticism by explaining that Assyrian records are prejudiced in favor of the, ah, Assyrians. Good point!

The authors also note that many historians see evidence that Sennachirab struck a political deal with Hezekiah, but they dismiss this as unlikely – didn’t they proved in that dramatic palace scene that both rulers were religious fanatics? Then these two men, who would like to consider themselves historians, wrap up their brief for Jehovah with this astounding summation:

“Why Jerusalem and the culture of Judaism survived was because of either a mysterious plague or the softened heart of a brutal Assyrian king. Either way, it doesn’t matter. Both were miraculous and unexplainable events. And as we will explain in subsequent chapters, without the foundation of Christianity, the freedom and democracy that we enjoy in this golden age would not be possible today.” (Emphasis is mine.)

WTF!?! A plague in the ancient world is miraculous? A king changes strategy and this is “unexplainable?” The reason doesn’t matter??? All of this sorry nonsense is grim proof that they cannot prove their assertions, but refuse to admit it. As to their bold claim that freedom and democracy rest on a foundation of Christianity, we’ll get to that later. But before we leave Chapter One, I want to note another astounding thing: the authors approvingly quote a historian who contradicts their central thesis about this historical “tipping point.”

He is Robert Cowley, and the quote comes from a book he edited called What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. It regards the Babylonian captivity, which happened in 586 BC when the Babylonians conquered and destroyed Jerusalem. (No miraculous plague or unexplainable softening of a foreign king’s heart this time – which proves nothing!) Whereas the Assyrians uprooted and scattered everyone when they conquered Israel, the Babylonians left the farmers of Judah where they were, and only dragged off the city folk. What’s more, they let the Judeans retain their own culture while in captivity. In fact…

“(The exiles) flourished by the waters of Babylon, and reorganized their scriptures to create an unambiguously monotheistic, congregational religion, independent of place and emancipated from the rites of Solomon’s destroyed temple in Jerusalem.”

So while Judah’s narrow escape from the Assyrians is historically important, the actual turning point, the thing that ensured the survival of Jehovah in human memory is, ironically, the Babylonian captivity. Because it was there that the people of Judah created a new kind of religion; what we know today as Judaism. In so doing they made something that has endured for over 2000 years, which is extraordinary. But not a “miracle.”

Next up is Chapter Two: How The Greeks Saved The West!