December 26, 2017

Midwinter celebrations, historically speaking

Filed under: History, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In the most recent Libertarian Enterprise, L. Neil Smith tries to track down where our traditional Christmas celebrations originated:

Each and every one of those cultures has had a different way, of course, of dignifying what is essentially a middle finger in the face of nature. The earliest such I could find was Zagmuk, the ancient Mesopotamian celebration of the triumph of Marduk over the forces of Chaos.

Or whatever. I suspect the Mesopotamians would have decreed a celebration if it had been Chaos that had won in the second, by a knock-out. Nearby cultures picked the idea up and celebrated their own versions.

All this happened about 4000 years ago.

The Romans had a midwinter holiday, Saturnalia, which involved feasting and giving gifts. Later on, the word became a synonym for abandon and debauchery, but the Romans, by and large, were a pretty puritanical bunch, given to grim tales such as that of Lucius Junius Brutus who had his own sons executed because they sold out to the Etruscans, and Mucius Scaevola who burned his own hand off to prove that Romans… well, would burn their own hands off given half a chance. Nobody ever needed a festive midwinter holiday worse than they did.

Saturnalia started around the eighth century, B.C.

Hanukkah is interesting. I learned about it when I wrote The Mitzvah with Aaron Zelman. These days a lot is made of the “Festival of Lights” and the miracle that occurred when the Jews retook their Temple from a pack of Hellenized Syrians who had left only enough lamp oil behind for a single day. The oil miraculously burned eight days, instead, and that’s what all that ceremony with the Menorah is all about.

There’s another Hanukkah story, of a victory of the Maccabees (a nickname, meaning “hammer” — see Charles Martel) over those same Hellenized Syrians, which is how the Jews got their Temple back. Jews argue over which story is more significant, but it’s pretty obvious to me. It’s equally obvious that they’d find something else to celebrate in the middle of the winter, even if they’d never gotten their Temple back.

Which happened in 165 B.C.

Christmas probably wasn’t celebrated, as such, for a couple of hundred years after the presumed birth of Christ. I say “presumed”, because the whole story — no room in the inn, born in a manger with animals on the watch, shepherds coming to worship, a star shining overhead — was shoplifted, directly from another religion popular in Rome at the time of the early Christians, worship of the warrior-god Mithras.

Speaking of sticky fingers, holidaywise, the Yule log and the Christmas tree were “borrowed” from the norsemen, who were accustomed to hanging dead male animals and male slaves from a tree to decorate it.


There is a midwinter holiday that has come along more recently than Christmas. I have to confess that, to me, Kwanzaa (Est. 1966) represents one of the lamest, most transparent inventions a con-man ever foisted on any segment of the public. It’s basically a holiday for black people who don’t want to celebrate the white peoples’ holiday. On the other hand it’s no lamer than any other excuse for a holiday.

December 24, 2017

Repost – Atheist’s seasonal dilemmas

Filed under: Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 06:00

David Harsanyi looks at the plight of the non-believer during the Christmas season:

Unlike many of my fellow atheists, however, I’m not a fundamentalist on the issue of nonbelief. Though my rock-ribbed skepticism is, I hope, driven by reason, my unwavering desire to avoid saying “amen” in a group setting is a real driver, as well.

“Aren’t we forgetting the true meaning of Christmas?” Homer Simpson once asked. “You know, the birth of Santa.”

Like Homer, I enjoy the birthday of Jesus — or Santa. So it pains me to witness fellow atheists acting like a bunch of irritating ’80s televangelists and defeating the entire purpose of unbelief by organizing, grousing, wagging their fingers and, worst of all, proselytizing.

Take the billboards popping up in Las Vegas this year that read “Reason’s Greetings” and “Heathen’s Greetings.”

The man behind the billboards claims to only want to make people think — because only atheists can really think, after all. “People that drive by who have an open mind may think to themselves, ‘Maybe I should question some of my dogmatic beliefs,’ ” Richard Hermsen, a local atheist activist, explained.

Granted, atheists have some reason to be annoyed by the general public. A USA Today/Gallup Poll in 2007, for instance, found that more than half of Americans would, under no circumstances whatsoever, vote for an atheist.

No group fared lower than heathens. Not Mormons. Or even the Jews — and we probably killed Christ.

November 24, 2017

QotD: Religion in the Classical world

Filed under: History, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The Jewish law perfectly preserves what any right-thinking Israelite in 1000 BC would have considered obvious, natural, and not-even-needing-justification (much as any right-thinking American today considers not eating insects obvious). By the time the Bible was being written this was no longer true – foreign customs and inevitable social change were making the old law seem less and less relevant, and I think modern scholarship thinks the Bible was written by a conservative faction of priests making their case for adherence to the old ways. The act of writing it down in a book, declaring this book the sort of thing that people might doubt but shouldn’t, and then passing that book to their children – that made it a modern religion, in the sense of something potentially separable from culture that required justification. I think that emphasizing the role of God and the gods provided that justification.

The Hebrew Bible never says other gods don’t exist; indeed, it often says the opposite. It constantly praises God as stronger and better than other gods. God proves his superiority over the gods of the Egyptians when the serpent he sends Moses eats the serpents the Egyptian gods send Pharaoh’s sorcerers. The Israelites are constantly warned against worshipping other gods, not because those gods don’t exist but because God is better and also jealous. This is not the worldview of somebody who has very strong ideas about the nature of reality and how supernatural beings fit into that nature. It’s the worldview of people who want to say “Our culture is better than your culture”. The Bible uses “worshipping foreign gods” as synonymous with “turning to foreign ways”. But God has a covenant with Israel, therefore both are forbidden.

This seems to match religion in the classical world – I’m especially thinking of Augustus’ conception here, but he wasn’t drawing it out of a vacuum. Performing the proper rites to the Roman gods was how you showed you were on board with Roman culture was how you showed you were loyal to Rome. The Roman view of religion seems pretty ridiculous to us – constant influx of new gods and mystery cults that were believed kind of indiscriminately, plus occasional deification of leading political figures followed by their undeification once they fell from power. But throughout it all, this idea that following the rites as Romulus prescribed them showed loyalty, but doing otherwise would result in decadence and defeat, stuck around.

Scott Alexander, “A Theory About Religion”, Slate Star Codex, 2016-04-07.

November 7, 2017

Zionism during World War 1 I THE GREAT WAR Special

Filed under: Europe, History, Military, WW1 — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

The Great War
Published on 6 Nov 2017

Zionism, the movement for the establishment of a Jewish homeland, got new momentum during World War 1. Zionists, like Chaim Weizmann rallied for support in their respective home countries, others wanted to actively advance the zionist idea by taking part in the war and fought with the Jewish Legions. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 was another step towards fulfilling the idea of a home for the Jewish people.

September 14, 2017

What Is The Funniest Language? – Stephen Fry’s Planet Word – BBC

Filed under: History, Humour, Religion — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 24 May 2015

Stephen Fry looks at what he thinks is the funniest language along with comedians Stewie Stone and Ari Teman. Taken from Fry’s Planet Word.

August 15, 2017

QotD: Platonism versus Epicureanism

Filed under: History, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

It is all this that made Epicurus and his philosophy so scandalous in the ancient world and beyond. Plato never did get to create his perfect society. But his followers did manage to establish variants of Platonism as the dominant philosophy of later antiquity. And all the other main schools of philosophy were agreed that the world should be ruled by intellectuals. These should tell the civil authorities how to govern. They should provide the moral and spiritual justification for the rule of absolute and unaccountable systems of government — systems of which the Roman imperial system was only the most developed. They should have positions of honour within these systems.

Epicureanism was a standing challenge to these pretensions. We have no precise evidence for the spread of Epicureanism in the ancient world. But it does seem to have spread very widely. Why else should Cicero, Plutarch and many of the Christian Fathers have given so much effort to sustained attacks on it? Why else, in spite of his emphatic remarks on the nature of happiness, was Epicurus, even in his own lifetime, subjected to the most outrageous accusations?

We have one statement from Cicero, that Epicureanism in his own day was one of the dominant schools of philosophy in Italy. So far, he says, Greek philosophy had been available only in the original language. But writers such as Amafinius had translated several Epicurean works — on the publishing of whose writings the people were moved, and enlisted themselves chiefly under this sect, either because the doctrine was more easily understood, or because they were invited thereto by the pleasing thoughts of amusement, or that, because there was nothing better, they laid hold of what was offered them.

There is no doubt that it influenced the classical literature of Rome. Of course, there is the great poem by Lucretius. But there is also Catullus and Horace and even Virgil. Without citing them, their works are imbued with an Epicurean outlook on life, either directly from Epicurus or indirectly from Lucretius.

Another indication of popularity is that once converted to Epicureanism, people hardly ever switched to another philosophy. The philosopher Arcesilaus testifies to this fact even as he tries to explain it:

    You can turn a man into a eunuch, but you can’t turn a eunuch into a man.

Then there is the curious testimony of the Jews. During the three centuries around the birth of Christ, the main everyday language of many Jewish communities was Greek. The Gospels and Letters of Saint Paul were all directed at mainly Jewish audiences and are in Greek. One of the most important philosophers of the age, Philo of Alexandria, was a Jew. Many Jews took on Greek ways. Many, no doubt, stopped being Jews and made themselves into Greeks. The condemnation of these Hellenised Jews is Apikorsim, which may easily be taken as a Semitic version of Epicurean. The term survives in Jewish theological writing. According to one Internet source, Apikorsim are what Chasidim refer to as Jewish Goyim, or secular Jews. They seem to be the worst opposition for Hasidic Jewry.

A term of abuse so loaded with contempt is unlikely to have been taken from the doctrines of an insignificant philosophical tradition among ordinary people of the age. It is reasonable to suppose that many lapsed Jews became Epicureans. If so, Epicureanism must already have had large numbers of adherents among at least the semi-educated classes.

Sean Gabb, “Epicurus: Father of the Enlightenment”, speaking to the 6/20 Club in London, 2007-09-06.

February 11, 2017

QotD: The Nazi Final Solution in Denmark and Bulgaria

Filed under: Europe, Germany, History, Quotations, WW2 — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… most nations of Central and Eastern Europe were occupied by or allied with Germany during this period. The Nazis made it clear that deporting their Jews to the concentration camps in Nazi territory was a condition for continued good relations; a serious threat, when bad relations could turn a protectorate-type situation into an outright invasion and occupation.

Pride of place goes to Denmark and Bulgaria, both of which resisted all Nazi demands despite the Germans having almost complete power over them. Most people have heard the legend of how, when the Germans ordered that all Jews must wear gold stars, the King of Denmark said he would wear one too. These kinds of actions weren’t just symbolic; without cooperation from the Gentile population and common knowledge of who was or wasn’t Jewish, the Nazis had no good way to round people up for concentration camps. Nothing happened until 1943, when Himmler became so annoyed that he sent his personal agent Rolf Gunther to clean things up. Gunther tried hard but found the going impossible. Danish police refused to go door-to-door rounding up Jews, and when Gunther imported police from Germany, the Danes told them that they couldn’t break into apartments or else they would arrest them for breaking and entering. Then the Danish police tipped off Danish Jews not to open their doors to knocks since those might be German police. When it became clear that the Nazis weren’t going to accept any more delays, Danish fishermen offered to ferry Jews to neutral Sweden for free. In the end the Nazis only got a few hundred Danish Jews, and the Danish government made such a “fuss” (Arendt’s word) about them that the Nazis agreed to send them all to Theresienstadt, their less-murderous-than-usual camp, and let Red Cross observers in to make sure they were treated well. In the end, only 48 Danish Jews died in the entire Holocaust.

Bulgaria’s resistance was less immediately heroic, and looked less like the king proudly proclaiming his identity with oppressed people everywhere than with the whole government just dragging their feet so long that nothing got done. Eichmann sent an agent named Theodor Dannecker to get them moving, but as per Arendt:

    not until about six months later did they take the first step in the direction of “radical” measures – the introduction of the Jewish badge. For the Nazis, even this turned out to be a great disappointment. In the first place, as they dutifully reported, the badge was only a “very little star”; second, most Jews simply did not wear it; and, third, those who did wear it received “so many manifestations of sympathy from the misled population that they actually are proud of their sign” – as Walter Schellenberg, Chief of Counterintelligence in the R.S.H.A., wrote in an S.D. report transmitted to the Foreign Office in November, 1942. Whereupon the Bulgarian government revoked the decree. Under great German pressure, the Bulgarian government finally decided to expel all Jews from Sofia to rural areas, but this measure was definitely not what the Germans demanded, since it dispersed the Jews instead of concentrating them.

The Bulgarians continued their policy of vaguely agreeing in principle to Nazi demands and then doing nothing, all the way until the Russians invaded and the time of danger was over. The result was that not a single Bulgarian Jew died in the Holocaust.

Scott Alexander, “Book review: Eichmann in Jerusalem”, Slate Star Codex, 2017-01-30.

September 26, 2016

QotD: Jewish intellectuals and communism

Filed under: History, Politics, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

As Eugene Volokh’s sources note, a disproportionately large number of the original Bolsheviks were Jewish. Karl Marx was ethnically Jewish, though his parents had converted to Christianity. It is impossible to study the history of Marxism, Socialism, and Communism without noticing how many Jewish names crop up among the leading intellectuals. It is equally impossible not to notice how many of the Old Left families in the U.S. were (and still are) Jewish — and, more specifically, Ashkenazim of German or Eastern European extraction. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg didn’t come out of nowhere.

It’s not even very hard to understand why this is. There is a pattern, going back to Spinoza in the 1600s, of Jewish intellectuals seeking out the leading edge of certain kinds of reform movements. Broadly speaking, if you look at any social movement of the last 300 years that was secular, rationalist, and communitarian, somewhere in it you would find nonobservant Jews providing a lot of the intellectual firepower and organizational skills. Often a disproportionate share, relative to other population groups.

Communism was one example; there are many others. One of my favorites is the Ethical Culture movement. Today, we have the Free Software movement, not coincidentally founded by Jewish atheist Richard Stallman. There is an undeniable similarity among all these movements, an elusive deep structure having to do not so much with shared beliefs as a shared style of believing that one might call messianic social rationalism.

Anybody who thinks I’m arguing for a conspiracy theory should check their meds. No, there is something much simpler and subtler at work here. Inherited religious myths, even when they no longer have normative force, influence the language and conceptual frameworks that intellectuals use to approach other issues. The mythologist Joseph Campbell once noted that thinkers with a Catholic background like mine gravitate towards universalizing mysticisms and Protestants towards individualist redemptionism; he could have added that thinkers with a Jewish heritage tend to love messianic social doctrines. (One can cite exceptions to all three, of course, but the correlation will still be there after you’ve done so.)

Thus, assimilated Jews have a particular propensity for constructing secular messianisms — or for elaborating and intellectualizing secular messianisms invented by gentiles. But you can’t say this sort of thing in academia; you get called a racist if you do. And you especially aren’t allowed to notice the other reason movements like Communism sometime look not unlike Jewish conspiracies — which is that the IQ bell curve for Jews has a mean about a standard deviation north of the IQ bell curve for Caucasian gentiles.

In cold and sober truth, in any kind of organization where intelligence matters — even the Communist movement —, you are going to find a disproportionate number of Jews with their hands on the levers. It doesn’t take any conspiracy to arrange this, and it’s not the Jews’ fault the goyim around them are such narrs (Yiddish for “imbeciles”). It just happens.

Eric S. Raymond, “Communism and the Jews”, Armed and Dangerous, 2003-11-14.

September 1, 2016

QotD: People being post-things

Filed under: Humour, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I recently heard someone describe themselves as “post-Zionist”, then go on to give what sounded like pretty standard criticism of Zionism. I don’t want to get too heavily into this particular example, because I understand post-Zionism is complex and every time I write something about Israel I get Israeli commenters saying I’ve gotten it wrong and other Israeli commenters saying no they’ve gotten it wrong and still other Israeli commenters saying we’ve all got it wrong. What was that saying about “two Jews, three opinions” again?

But what bothers me about post-Zionism is that it seems to carry this kind of smug “Oh, you guys are still Zionist? Don’t you know Zionism is, like, totally five years ago? Nowadays all the cool people have moved on to more exciting things,” which I don’t think really adds to the argument. Zionism versus anti-Zionism suggests a picture of two sides with two different opinions – which seems to match the reality pretty well. Zionism versus post-Zionism suggests one side just hasn’t gotten the message yet.

I feel the same way about post-rationalism. Yes, maybe you’ve seen through rationalism in some profound way and transcended it. Or maybe you just don’t get it. This is exactly the point under debate, and naming yourselves “post-rationalists” seems like an attempt to short-circuit it, not to mention leaving everyone else confused. And maybe you could give yourself a name that actually reflected your beliefs (“Kind Of New-Age-y People Who Are Better At Math Than Usual For That Demographic And Will Angrily Deny Being New-Age-y If Asked Directly”?) and we wouldn’t have to have a new “but what is post-rationalism?!?!” conversation every month.

Post-modernism can stay, though. At this point it’s less of a name than a warning label.

Scott Alexander, “These Are A Few (More) Of My (Least) Favourite Things”, Slate Star Codex, 2015-01-21.

June 12, 2016

Early Christian Schisms – I: Before Imperium – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 30 Apr 2016

Understanding the early theological struggles of the Christian church is vital to understanding history. This series will focus on Rome and the political and religious forces that drove various interpretations of Christ and his teachings – and a push towards orthodoxy.

Disclaimer: This series is intended for students, to give them a broad overview of a complicated subject that has driven world history for centuries. Our story begins and focuses on Rome.

One of the toughest questions early Christians had to face was Mosaic Law. Did the laws of Moses still apply, or did the teachings of Jesus Christ replace them? The issue of circumcision became a focal point for this conflict. In an era without surgical anaesthetic or procedures, asking grown men to have their foreskins removed was a painful process. Paul the Apostle argued vehemently against the practice because he believed that Christianity needed to be accessible to Romans, the gentiles, and he knew that requirements like circumcision would vastly reduce the number of people willing to convert. Gradually, Judaizing forces were pushed out of mainstream Christianity as the religion began to convert more Romans. But it soon faced another crisis: what was the nature of Christ? This issue would come up time and time again, but one of the earliest conflicts over it came from the Docetists. They believed Christ was a being of pure spirit, and that it would denigrate his godhood to consider him a human man. But in the Epistles, John argued fervently against that idea, saying that Christians must believe in Christ “in the flesh” in order for his sacrifices to be meaningful. A bishop named Ignatius of Antioch embraced that idea when facing a conviction to be thrown to lions in the Colossuem, believing that his martyrdom echoed Christ’s and he was proud to give his body to prove his faith. Then the 3rd Century Crisis hit, and the Roman government fell apart. The Church stepped in, and many people believed its prophesies of apocalypse had come to pass in this era. Although the government eventually recovered thanks to men like Aurelian and Diocletian, conversion rates had gone up. But civil war rocked the empire again, and it came down to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Constantine, one of the claimants for the throne, supposedly had a vision telling him to paint “Chi Rho” (the Greek letters for Christ) on his soldiers’ shields. He did so, and won the day. In gratitude he converted to Christianity and eventually brought most of the empire with him, with the population going from about 10% Christian to 50% Christian followers.

June 2, 2016

QotD: The problem with Islam

Filed under: History, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

What, gentle reader may ask, is that fundamental problem with Islam, that even many Muslims begin to understand? Now, that is a question much easier to answer.

It is the coercion thing. This has been deeply implanted through fourteen centuries, and to be fair to the religion in Egypt, it is backed by forty more of pharaonic or quasi-pharaonic history — with only a few centuries of Christian relief. Basically, your Musulman, like your modern Liberal, thinks that the Good is something that must be compelled. That is why Muslim fanatics and Leftists are likely to see eye to eye, and find ways to cooperate, wherever the work of the Devil is afoot, even though the theological differences between them are substantial. They have a common enemy, in us. They agree on the basic principle of Shariah: that law should be more than negative and preventative; that instead it should be positive and pro-active; that it is an irreplaceable tool for social engineering.

This is starkly in contrast with the Christian, or might I say, Judaeo-Christian inheritance, in which men should be discouraged from committing specific crimes, but virtues should not, indeed cannot be compelled. They can only be inspired. Christians and Jews have not always been good. Some have been tyrants. But their faith does not command them to be tyrants, does not tell them to enforce the Good, even on themselves. It tells them instead to be good. At most, Deus vult is for special occasions.

Not even God compels the Good. Instead, He tells us what it is and suggests that we choose it. He lets us make mistakes; lets us learn from the consequences, even terrible consequences. He does not chop our hand off the moment it reaches for something it should not take, for we shall need the same hand to restore what we have taken.

David Warren, “Into the desert”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-01-17.

May 31, 2016

“Illegal” British schools – “If this whole fuss were any more of a smear you could use it to test for cervical cancer”

Filed under: Britain, Bureaucracy, Education, Media, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Natalie Solent uses up some past-the-use-by-date outrage over a report of “illegal” schools in Britain:

Here is a BBC story from a couple of weeks ago: Thousands of children taught in ‘illegal schools’. Similar pieces appeared in the Times, the Guardian, and other newspapers. When this story came out I listened on the radio to an interview on the subject with some Ofsted guy, either the Sir Michael Wilshaw quoted by the BBC or one of his minions. Whoever it was, he came across as so evasive on one particular point that by comparison even the BBC interviewer was plain-spoken. From the way Ofsted Guy spoke of these illegal schools as places where only “religion” was taught you’d think clicking on the BBC Bitesize GCSE Religious Studies page makes a red light flash in GCHQ, and from the way he spoke of “radicalisation” you’d think that all roots resulted in the same flower. Oh, and from the way he spoke of these schools being “illegal” you would think that they had been convicted in a court of being illegal. The BBC interviewer pressed him and eventually got him to admit that the alleged illegality was merely his opinion, not having been tested in court, and that “some” of these schools were Islamic.

That’s progress of a sort. The Guardian article linked to above does not mention Islam at all but has a quote from a disgruntled former pupil at a Charedi school. We should all be very grateful to the Charedim and the Belzers. When one simply must have someone other than the Muslims to point to, they are there. They ought to start an agency and charge for their services: “Jews in Hats: the safe option for all your denunciation needs.”

The Times says the unauthorized schools are “predominantly Islamic”.

So far this post has almost written itself. The usual pathetic fear of naming Islam from the establishment, the usual pushback from angry commenters, the usual opportunity for bloggers like me to use up old out-of-code packets of sarcasm from the bottom of the freezer. But now things get a little odd and diffuse and unsatisfactory.

I would like to offer a few scattered thoughts regarding three points. (1) Not for the first time, the efforts of the media to conceal that some minority are disproportionately involved in some disfavoured activity has resulted in the public overestimating the involvement of that minority; (2) this whole effort on the part of the so-called Office for Standards in Education has all the characteristics of a power-grab and a smear; and (3) there is no evidence that these little informal schools, including the Muslim ones, do any worse than the state schools at either education or terrorism-prevention. There is some reason to suppose they might do better in some circumstances despite worse facilities. Many children turn to these schools having suffered bullying at normal schools. The low number of people involved means that everyone, teachers and pupils, knows everyone else; no one can “slip through the cracks”. Another benefit is that the presence of an affordable alternative helps keep more traditional types of schools on their toes.

January 18, 2016

QotD: The role of faith in trust situations

Filed under: Business, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

A team of German economists asked subjects to play a game in which one person is the “truster”, who is given some money on each round of the game. The truster is then asked to decide how much money, if any, to pass on to an anonymous “trustee”. Any money passed gets tripled by the experimenter, at which point the “trustee” can choose how much, if any, to return to the truster. Behavioral economists use this game often, but the novel twist in this study was to reveal one piece of real, true personal information about the trustees to the trusters. In some cases, the truster learned the trustee’s level of religiosity, on a scale of 1 to 5. When trusters learned that their trustee was religious, they transferred more money. More important, the religious trustees really did transfer back more money than did the nonreligious trustees, even though they never knew anything about their trusters. The highest levels of wealth, therefore, would be created when religious people get to play a trust game with other religious people.


Even today, markets that require a very high trust to function efficiently are often dominated by religiously bound ethnic groups (such as ultra-Orthodox Jews in the diamond market) who have lower transaction and monitoring costs than their secular competitors.

Jonathan Haidt, quoted by Scott Alexander in “List Of The Passages I Highlighted In My Copy Of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind“, Slate Star Codex, 2014-06-12.

November 14, 2015

QotD: Which religious group should organize your hypothetical rescue from terrorists?

Filed under: Humour, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Suppose you were kidnapped by terrorists, and you needed someone to organize a rescue. Would you prefer the task be delegated to the Unitarians, or the Mormons?

This question isn’t about whether you think an individual Unitarian or Mormon would make a better person to rush in Rambo-style and get you out of there. It’s about whether you would prefer the Unitarian Church or the Mormon Church to coordinate your rescue.

I would go with the Mormons. The Mormons seem effective in all sorts of ways. They’re effective evangelists. They’re effect[ive] fundraisers. They’re effective at keeping the average believer following their commandments. They would figure out a plan, implement it, and come in guns-blazing.

The Unitarians would be a disaster. First someone would interrupt the discussion to ask whether it’s fair to use the word “terrorists”, or whether we should use the less judgmental “militant”. Several people would note that until investigating the situation more clearly, they can’t even be sure the terrorists aren’t in the right in this case. In fact, what is “right” anyway? An attempt to shut down this discussion to focus more on the object-level problem would be met with cries of “censorship!”.

If anyone did come up with a plan, a hundred different pedants would try to display their intelligence by nitpicking meaningless details. Eventually some people would say that it’s an outrage that no one’s even considering whether the bullets being used are recyclable, and decide to split off and mount their own, ecologically-friendly rescue attempt. In the end, four different schismatic rescue attempts would run into each other, mistake each other for the enemy, and annhilate themselves while the actual terrorists never even hear about it.

(if it were Reform Jews, the story would be broadly similar, but with twenty different rescue attempts, and I say this fondly, as someone who attended a liberal synagogue for ten years)

One relevant difference between Mormons and Unitarians seems to be a cultural one. It’s not quite that the Mormons value conformity and the Unitarians value indivduality – that’s not exactly wrong, but it’s letting progressives bend language to their will, the same way as calling the two sides of the abortion debate “pro-freedom” and “anti-woman” or whatever they do nowadays. It’s more like a Mormon norm that the proper goal of a discussion is agreement, and a Unitarian norm that the proper goal of a discussion is disagreement.

There’s a saying I’ve heard in a lot of groups, which is something along the lines of “diversity is what unites us”. This is nice and memorable, but there are other groups where unity is what unites them, and they seem to be more, well, united.

Scott Alexander, “Reactionary Philosophy In An Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell”, Slate Star Codex, 2013-03-03.

September 27, 2015

P.J. O’Rourke on Ann Coulter’s anti-semitism

Filed under: Humour, Media, Politics, Religion, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In the Weekly Standard, P.J. O’Rourke discusses Ann Coulter’s recently expressed anti-semitic remarks during the Republican candidates’ debate:

She is young, scatter-brained, and heedless, but she is not an idiot. She graduated cum laude from Cornell and has a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School. But no intelligent hike through the Minotaur’s labyrinth of politics can be made in 140-character baby steps. Especially when you’re walking in clown shoes.

What Ann Coulter tweeted was:

    Cruz, Huckabee Rubio all mentioned ISRAEL in their response to: “What will AMERICA look like after you are president.”


    How many f—ing Jews do these people think there are in the United States?

Not anywhere near as many as there would and should be if FDR hadn’t been as much of a jerk about immigration as you are, Ann, you etiolated bean sprout butt trumpet.

As to why Israel is important, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, “Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ikh bin a Ishral.’ ”

And I mean it, even if, pope-kissing Mick that I am, my Yiddish is maybe sketchy.

Partly this is personal, Ann, you jangle-tongue, you all-clapper-and-no-carillon, you crack in the Liberty Bell. To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, “It’s not me, it’s you.”

But, first, my contempt is moral. Antisemitism is evil. Per se, as you lawyers like to put it. For the sake of argument, let us “stipulate” that you are not per se an antisemite. Instead of saying that’s true, let us stipulate it with all the snarky lawyer freight that “stipulating” carries.

Being so stipulated, you are damn rude. One does not say, “f—ing Jews.” One does not say “f—ing blacks” or “f—ing Latinos” or even “f—ing relentlessly self-promoting Presbyterian white women from New Canaan.”

Manners are the small change of morality. You, Ann, are nickel and diming yourself. And may all the coins in Scrooge McDuck’s money bin land on you and squash you flat. (Scrooge, by the way, is not a Jew, he’s a duck.)

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress