Playing the Indian Card

Monday, January 31, 2011

Al Jazeera

Among other things, this crisis in the Middle East is making the reputation of Al Jazeera.

The Army Has Been Called In

It appears as of today that the Bahraini army has been called into the streets as a precautionary measure. There's a soldier installed in the lobby of this hotel. There are two at each of the doors of the Gold Souk a block away, and a couple of policemen patrolling inside the enclosed souk a block in the other direction.

I cannot imagine any unrest here, but they are not taking any chances.

On the other hand, the BBC is back in business.

Never Let Me Go

Watched a depressing movie on a recent long flight—the only chance I get to see non-family fare. Not that I'm complaining; I doubt I'm missing much. But this movie, “Never Let Me Go,” based on a novel by Japanese-British author Kazuo Ishiguro, struck me as important. It was unrelentingly dire, as only Japanese or British things can be, lacking either the Christian certainty of redemption by the movie's end, or even the pagan Greek sense of an inevitability and a justice to the fall. Yet it was right in this case—that is, it was accurate to the realities involved. It was just very hard to watch, and very hard to recover from watching.

The story is science fiction, but set in an alternative present. Cloning has been discovered, in the 1950s, and, in a society cheerily confident that clones are not human beings, a generations or two of clones have been raised by the time of the movie specifically to supply replacement organs until they “complete”--i.e., die from it. In this way, society has extended the life expectancy of the average non-clone to a wizened century or more.

The move is, inevitably, told from the point of view of the clones themselves: befriending, sharing childhood fears, falling in love, being murdered by degrees. They show an eerie acceptance of their fate which is itself profoundly disturbing—there is no thought of revolt or true escape; only attempts to bargain around the edges. They are held in check in part, as the truly oppressed always are, by self-loathing. They inevitably buy in to the socially dominant view and even believe among themselves that they are not entirely real.

I am amazed that the movie ever got made—though not suprised to hear it ended its first run as “an undeniable financial disappointment.” Did the backers understand what it is about?

After all, what really did happen in the 1950s? The sexual revolution. The movie shows more or less exactly what has happened to a significant portion of the generations since then, their lives and futures systematically sacrificed to the pleasures of those elders already here.

Imagine, in the first place, if all those aborted children, between then and now, had instead been allowed to grow up and only been aborted when their internal organs became useful. The principle is the same, and it would in a way be both more morally justifiable and more humane. And of course, the victims of abortion are as completely powerless as those in the movie; there can be no thought of revolt or escape.

But it is not just the aborted who are in this position, either. It is all the children raised without fathers, thanks to all those no-fault divorces with big payouts to the Mom and restraining orders given on a woman's testimony alone. It is all the children raised without much if any parental attention at all, thanks to mothers off in the workforce fulfilling themselves and making the big bucks; just like the hopeless clones of the movie, parentless, in their state schools. Overly rich and unfunded pension schemes locked in by law are the least of this shameless exploitation of the young, though they have been in the news a lot lately.

Am I the only one who notices that this film is a documentary, and not science fiction? After all, nobody else seems to realize this about the similarly bleak 1984, and it's been around since 1948.

As for the film, I predict it will live more or less as long as the civilization does. The best movies rarely do well on their first run.

All Quiet in Manama

BBC still breaking up in Bahrain. The Bahraini government has expressed its support for the "government and people" of Egypt, presumably meaning they are still backing Mubarak. So are the Saudis. There is no sign of unrest here, and all the news is coming through. CNN, Al Jazeera, and the BBC are all fully available over the Internet, and the local newspapers are carrying full coverage.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sudan Too...

According to Al Jazeera.

The Man in the Street

An interesting, and encouraging, observation from Syria, courtesy of Al Jazeera:

"The most important message is that people can make the change. Before it was always army officers that lead a coup."

"It may not be tomorrow or a few months but I'm sure it is like dominoes. Before there was always an ideology - pan-Arabism or being an enemy of Israel. But now people are simply looking for their personal freedom, for food, education, a good life. The days of ideology are over."

Let's hope so. No pie-in-the-sky, just getting rid of corruption and oppressive government regulation.

BBC is Breaking Up

Currently sitting in a hotel room in Bahrain, trying to follow the news from Egypt. I find it a little unsettling that BBC is breaking up, virtually unwatchable. All the other channels are fine. The weather is fine. I see that Al Jazeera has been shut down in Egypt. Makes me wonder.

There is zero sign of any unrest here in Bahrain. The newspapers seem to be covering everything fully, all the news is available online.

Looks like unrest is spreading, though. Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, now Jordan.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Another Berlin Wall Falling?

OK; looks to me as if Egypt's government is going down. I did not foresee this, either. But a long worldwide recession like the one we are experiencing is a time of the breaking of nations. As and if it continues, there will be more crackups. If Tunisia goes, and Egypt goes---? Egypt's influence over the rest of the Arab world is immense. My choice for next most likely domino is Yemen. I'd short any bets on Libya, Syria, Algeria, or Sudan.

I think the Arab monarchies are generally safe—they have done rather well by their populations in comparison to the republics, and are a different kettle of fish. The main concern here is corruption, and the monarchies, for predictable reasons, have been much cleaner than the republics. Make no mistake, the average Arab believes in and wants democracy—but the monarchies of the Gulf actually already have it, in its purest form, so long as their borders with each other remain open, and their citizens wealthy enough to cross them when they choose. It is the bigger, poorer republics that do not. The general dislike of Saudi Arabia among Western Liberals does not change this truth.

I would assume the hidden public discontent is greatest and the risk of a fall now is greatest for countries for which the military-republican-strongman government system of Nasser's Egypt has served as a model. Hence Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Algeria are the nearest dominoes, if that's the game we're playing.

This does not apply to Iran, but Iran is already highly unstable; there is a good chance shock waves within the larger region may shake free more anti-government forces in Iran as well.

Any revolution risks chaos, or producing worse repression. But imagine a world in which all those nations suddenly become genuine democracies, more or less as suddenly happened in Eastern Europe a generation ago. We then have a huge new Muslim democratic bloc across the Middle East: Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, all now joining the pro-Western and essentially benevolent monarchies of Morocco, Jordan, Saudi, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman—and perhaps also seeking new alliances with established Muslim democracies like Malaysia and Turkey. That would be a game-changer, in world terms, and it seems to me very much in a good way. We would have a vast new Muslim mainstream on a model very different from that planned and hoped for by al Qaeda. Dissident energies that might have been wasted on supporting al Qaeda's insanities may generally find an outlet now instead in building this prosperous new Muslim society. It seems to me we might suddenly no longer see a large rift between Islam and the West, any more than we see a large rift any more between Eastern and Western Europe. And there is no reason, to my mind, why a society cannot be both fully Muslim and fully democratic.

I would also expect Egypt, under any kind of new government that was not corrupt, to quickly and massively boom economically. So too for the rest of North Africa and the Levant. While held back by bad government, these countries have an extremely well-educated workforce; indeed a spectacularly well-educated workforce; and that is where true prosperity comes from.

Here's hoping.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Brief and Sad History of the Modern Left

1950s through 1960s – The Sexual Revolution. With the advent of what used to be called The Pill, many believed that everything had changed. Sex was no longer tied to childbirth, and could be purely recreational. For obvious reasons, this idea was attractive, regardless of its innate pausibility. In order to make this happen, of course, "conventional morality" could and should be changed. Feminism too emerged from this notion, along with its milder masculine equivalent, "the Playboy philosophy"—women were now "freed" from men and children and into the world of work.

1970s through 1980s – The Right to Choose. For whatever reason, darn it, women continued to get pregnant. Nature was not cooperating. Rather than abandon the "sexual revolution"—too many people had too much invested in it now—unrestricted abortion became necessary to keep the dream alive. This was an important watershed—it now because necessary, in order to stay on the left, to dismiss not just "conventional morality," but morality plain and straight up. Here is where  the left split with the religious generally, and became openly anti-religious. Homosexual rights emerged at this time, mostly as a stick with which to beat
"conventional morality" as "prejudiced."

1980s through 1990s – Postmodernism. Though it became well-known as a specific, named, doctrine only circa the 1990s, "postmodernism" appeared almost immediately and concurrent with the move to permit abortion, as its necessary justification. I remember hearing it espoused already in the early seventies, and specifically as a justification for abortion. In a nutshell, the doctrine is this: there is no truth, and there is no right and wrong. One chooses to believe what is convenient. At this point, the left became, not just explicitly immoral, but also, for all intents and purposes, insane. It turned its back on reality.

1990s through 2010 – The Culture Wars. Postmodernism ended all chance at dialogue. When there is no possibility of appealing to conscience, evidence, or reason, a raw struggle for power is all that is possible. By embracing postmodernism, the ruling professional elite and those in power also generally removed all moral restraints and restraints of conscience on their own actions--an attractive thing in itself, for them. Postmodern thought therefore systematically and intentionally destroyed all ethical traditions, at least for those who bought in to postmodernism, leaving in academics, politics, and the professions, in places of power generally, only the reckless exercise of narrow self-interest and power for its own sake. This is crucial--ruling elites must be bound by a strong ethical tradition, or all hell breaks loose.

The present – The Tea Party. The great mass of the people are partly shielded from the intellectual currents of the day by class prejudice, ignorance (not stupidity) and lack of interest. Unschooled human nature, happily including basic conscience and common sense, is stronger here. This can be a good thing, when the intellectual elite has gone bizarro. To the average man, the left and the professions, inevitably, are progressively now revealing themselves—largely thanks to the new light and improved communication of the internet-- to be by and large both immoral and insane. This is also a matter of some immediate practical interest. When those in power are visibly incompetent and acting selfishly, the common man has every reason out of sheer self-interest to rebel. 

Meanwhile, having rejected dialog and debate, contact with reality, and all tests of reason and evidence, the left and their client professions have systematically stripped themselves of any tools they would need to respond sensibly or to defend their position. They can only jabber nonsense.

This is interesting, if sad, as history; I think it is also interesting as a model of how insanity probably develops in an individual as well. A false premise leads one into sinful acts (the sexual revolution). Rather than repenting and returning to the path, one tries to cover up and to rationalize (abortion). This inevitably leads in the end to turning one's back on all objective checks—on God (postmodernism). One loses all touch with reality. Madness ensues.

Watching in Eerie Slow Motion as the Bomb Falls

I get the growing sense that we are at one of history's great turning points. It is just hard to see how big it really is. But as whole lot of people seem to be heading right off a cliff.

There are turning points in history that seem to throw everything into relief: the fall of the Berlin Wall, Roe v. Wade, Altamont, the Lisbon earthquake (said to have ended the Romantic Era by suddenly demonstrating that Nature was not as cuddly as many thought). I think we have seen a succession of such moments just recently, a rapidly accelerating drumbeat of them.

Climategate was a big one, not just killing the Global Warming campaign, but throwing a lot of doubt on the trustworthiness of academics, experts, journalists, and governments. On the professional class.

The Tucson shootings-- or rather, the media reaction to them, trying to represent Loughner as a right-winger acting on orders or inspiration from the Tea Party—was a similar turning point, I think, visibly and audibly declaring the moral bankruptcy the legacy media and, to some extent, the entire political left.

Now the revelations about the abortionist Kermit Gosnell are going to be a tough one for a lot of people to forget. This is just the sort of thing that sticks in the mind whether you want it to or not. It may destroy the pro-choice (pro-abortion) movement, and it may even shake the common adulation for the medical profession.

I am well past feeling any joy about it all. No doubt, a lot of rascals are going to get their comeuppance, but most epochal changes also hurt a lot of good people. I think of the French Revolution.

As that sounded the death knell of the landed aristocracy, I suspect we are seeing the death knell now of the educated, professional class. And that is a much bigger deal. Just as there were some, indeed many, good people in the aristocracy, with their old code of gentility and chivalry, so there are some, indeed many, good people in the professions, with their Hippocratic oaths and Harvards and Confucian or Rabbinical ethical traditions. While I welcome the coming increase in human dignity and freedom from their (or rather, our) demise, I fear the good may be interred with their bones.

I Can Hardly Bear to Read This

... but I guess it's important to acknowledge that it happened:

Horrific Details Come to Light about Philadelphia Abortionist - Marriage & Family - Home & Family - Catholic Online

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Full Text of New English Missal Now Available Online

Personally, I prefer it.

This new order of the mass will be implemented in the US in one year, starting with the beginning of the liturgical year in the Advent season, and probably in all other parts of the English-speaking world at about the same time.

As always, some folks are not going to like it. Changing the liturgy is always distressing, because it is changing a thing we all count on as the one eternal part of our lives. It should never be done lightly.

Still, from what I have seen, I like the new liturgy, and am looking forward to it.

The current English Mass, established in the early seventies, is kind of dumbed down. The concept seems to have been, in reaction to the general incomprehensibility of the old Latin, to go instead to the opposite extreme, and try to eliminate anything in the words of the Mass that might be even a little difficult to understand, even for the slowest slow learners in the congregation. What we have, as a result, is a kind of baby-talk mass, in which not only have the words been simplified into monotonously short, grammatically simple sentences, but any concepts that are a bit difficult or mysterious have been left out.

This might make sense for a technical manual, but it is probably not the best approach to a sacred liturgy. Liturgy is not the communicating of simple facts. It is an immersion in the good, the true, and—not incidentally—the beautiful. If some in the congregation do not fully understand what is going on... that is not the main consideration here. The mass is a sacrament, not a lesson. Not understanding is okay. Needing to understand is not.

So the new order of the mass has recovered such things as “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grevious fault,” “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof; but only say the word, and I shall be healed,” and “for many.”

You will no doubt be hearing more.

It's Baaaaack!

Okay, all you fellow Baby Boomers. Do you remember thumbing through the Whole Earth Catalog back in your misspent youth?

All of it, in all the editions, is now available free online.

They warned us there'd be flashbacks.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Citizens! Awake!

Here is a cause that is near and dear to my heart. I cannot meaningfully sign their petition, but if you live in Ontario, Canada, please do consider signing it.

It is about allowing the legal sale of raw milk and raw milk products in Ontario. There are a number of issues here: the free market, the right of an individual to choose for himself, the right to work (as a farmer). And, as a practical matter, the right to the hobby of cheesemaking, which falls for some of us under the heading of the pursuit of happiness.

You just can't make decent cheese with pasteurized, homogenized milk, and preventing the public from acquiring it enforces a cheese monopoly.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


All turns out well for those who love God.

St. Paul


 “We expect the economic fallout from a slowdown of China’s unsustainable levels of credit and growth to be as extraordinary as China’s economic outperformance over the past decade.”

I wish the Chinese people well, but I fear for their near-term future.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

She Looks Smart in a Bikini

True confessions time. Long ago, in my youth, my father once expressed the opinion that beautiful women are also more intelligent. This struck me and my siblings at the time, carefully trained to politically correct notions in the schools, as a laughable idea.

I have since realized that it is almost certainly true. It is true because, so long as society values both intelligence and beauty, intelligent men and women are going to have a better than average chance of mating with beautiful men and women, and vice versa. It follows that the next generation stands a better than average chance of being both intelligent and beautiful; and so it continues, the statistical advantage growing generation by generation.

Now a recent study confirms this:

This logic, followed, goes interesting places. But we'd better just leave it there for now...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


The shrillness and the utter unreality of the Mainstream/”Progressive” Media reaction to the Tucson shootings, it seems to me, show obvious indications of panic. It is as though in the back of their own minds is a nagging and growing voice of guilt that is issuing consciously in paranoia, specifically a paranoid fantasy that just about everyone in the general public now wants to kill them if given the chance, and in a wish to silence that voice of conscience by silencing all sounds of opposition.

It is the wild violence of a death rattle.

We may not hear much more from them after this. They have made themselves irrelevant.

And they will probably not be missed.

The Catholic Knight: FRAUD! As Many as HALF of all Sex-Abuse Claims Against Priests Are False

The Catholic Knight: FRAUD! As Many as HALF of all Sex-Abuse Claims Against Priests Are False

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Pulp.It

A recent post, "What Did Jesus look like?" was recently featured by this aggregator. They are new, and readers may not be aware of them. Their service is a great way to keep up with the latest in Catholic thought generally. I visit regularly.

Oh, The Humanities--A Practical Illustration

Jared Loughner--Arizona Daily Star.

A terrible thing has happened in Tucson, and six people are dead. Who's at fault?

Perhaps not the man who fired the gun, Jared Loughner, 22. It seems clear from what he has posted on Facebook and on YouTube that he was schizophrenic. He may have had no idea what he was doing. He certainly does not seem to have been motivated by any coherent, recognizable political philosophy. His main political concern seems to have been that too many people were illiterate.

But I do believe someone is to blame. As I have noted before on this site, there is some kind of “spiritual catastrophe,” to use Leonard Cohen's phrase, going on, since the Second World War ended, with rates of “mental illness” of all kinds ballooning. Surely, whoever or whatever is responsible for that spiritual catastrophe is responsible, at one remove, for this expression of that mental illness as well.

Jared Loughner, from the list of favourite books he left on Facebook, seems to have been an intelligent lad, and certainly ambitious to learn. Plato's Republic, Mein Kampf, The Communist Manifesto, Meno, Animal Farm, Brave New World; perhaps not ideal reading for a troubled young mind, but not light reading, in any case.

In Loughner's own mind, it seems, his beef was with the education system. Note his concern with illiteracy; a YouTube video he created also argues that the colleges are guilty of fraud and are unconstitutional. He was thrown out of college for disrupting classees.

I fear he may have been on the right track. It is disturbing on the face of it that such an apparently intelligent and eager student was not able to succeed in school. The schools and colleges no longer offer what he was apparently seeking: answers about life, about life in society, and about what is true. They either lack all awareness of such matters, or ban open discussion of them, and quite possibly look like exercises in mind control. At least some courses and some schools certainly are, self-consciously, exercises in mind control.

Would any of this bloodletting have happened had Jared Loughner received a proper liberal education, including a thorough grounding in some religious tradition and more broadly in the Humanities?

I doubt it, personally. First, I suspect that, being a bright lad, he would most probably have by now found the basic answers he sought. And he would have found them in the reassuring company of others also honestly seeking, and of benevolent authority. If so, I suspect he never would have experienced the horrifying visions and fantasies of schizophrenia in the first place. Had he, he at least would have been equipped with a decent road map and a moral compass to test each spirit and make sense of what he was experiencing.

Not to give this to our children is to throw them into the dark forest without the slightest basic training in survival. And the devil is real, and far more cunning than the Big Bad Wolf.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Oh, The Humanities!

Every week there seems to be a new article published in some learned or intellectual journal reporting or lamenting the death of the humanities. Nobody sees much point in humanity any more. This does not strike me as a good sign.

Amazingly, a hundred and fifty years ago, formal education consisted of very little else. I have just been reading the biography of Thomas Arnold, the acknowledged founder of the English public (in both senses) school system, in Strachey's Eminent Victorians. What Arnold did at Rugby became the model not only for other English public schools, but also for the government schools then being instituted for the general public.

In Thomas's Rugby, no science was taught. Adding mathematics to the curriculum was Arnold's innovation.

So what was taught, and why? “That the classics should form the basis of all teaching was an axiom with Dr. Arnold,” writes Strachey. “Rather than have physical science the principal thing in my son's mind,” Arnold wrote in a letter, “I would gladly have him think that the sun went around the earth, and that the stars were so many spangles set in the bright blue firmament.” For all such stuff was trivia. “Surely the one thing needful for a Christian and an Englishman to study is Christian, moral, and political philosophy.” All philosophy, all the time.

Arnold's opinion was plainly shared by the general public of the day—the obvious proof of this is that they fell over each other trying to get their children into Rugby, and all other English public schools imitated this formula. In Tom Brown's Schooldays, Tom's father observes, “What is a child sent to school for? ... I don't care a straw for Greek participles, or the digamma... If he'll only turn out a brave, helpful, truth-telling Englishman, and a Christian, that's all I want.”

This approach was not new with Arnold. Arnold was a “reformer,” but the essence of his reform was to return the schools to a high moral tone after a period of decline in this regard.

On assuming the post of headmaster of Rugby, Arnold also took Holy Orders to become an Anglican priest; the position was automatically a clerical one. Teachers were, first and foremost, “moralists,” as Hughes refers to them causally in Tom Brown's Schooldays, and Arnold's own chief contribution to the education of his charges was his Sunday sermon. Language was taught, not for the sake of being able to speak it—Arnold believed this could never be achieved in a school setting—but for the purpose of “forming the human mind in youth.” Understanding how a language worked was a useful proxy, the closest we had, for understanding how thought works. The classical and biblical stories studied, in turn, furnished the mind with important life lessons to be referred to from then on at any time of need.

The idea was to develop the whole person, to develop good judgement and good character, on the premise that this would allow him or her to rise to whatever particular demands might come.

The Confucian tradition in China started with exactly the same basic premise. The Analects preserve this basic principle: “A gentleman is not a tool.” A gentleman can always pick up and discard the specific tools needed for the specific task.

We now believe just about the opposite, that education should be practical training for a livelihood, and so all about practical skills in science, math, reading, and so forth. This is the essence of the current objection to the humanities: that they lead to no particular job at the other end.

They used to, of course: they used to lead to two particular jobs: teaching, and the clergy. They should still. But leave that aside; in the old days, the humanities were not for a job, but for a career; or rather, for a life.

Were our Victorian ancestors so completely wrong? They did reasonably well for themselves, after all, on an objective historical assessment. They managed, for example, to pull together the largest empire the world has ever known; collectively, the nations of Europe took over almost the entire globe in their day. Some, true, may call that a moral failure as much as a practical success; perhaps so, but we must not overlook the practical accomplishment. And so far as morals go, the Victorians also ended slavery and first developed stable representative democracy on a large scale. In their free time, despite their lack of basic training in engineering or science, they put together the Industrial Revolution and most of the groundwork of modern science. They vastly increased human material prosperity, particularly in Europe, but in truth worldwide.

Have we, in the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries, done better? We should have—we have had the benefit of standing on their shoulders. We are richer than they were, materially; our technology is more advanced. But we have also lived, as they did not, through history's greatest mass murders and worst totalitarian governments, and the spiritual crisis of the postwar era which has seen unprecedented levels of mental illness. All the arts seem in decline, and the developed West as a whole is in absolute decline demographically. I think it is even fair to say that the end of our civilization almost seems in sight. We no longer believe, as the Victorians did, in the inevitable progress of mankind.

Perhaps, in the end, they were simply naive, and we know better. Otherwise, it rather looks as if they were right, and we are wrong.

The Victorians themselves were in no doubt that their success sprang directly from their educational system. “The Battle of Waterloo,” Wellington famously observed, “was won on the playing fields of Eton.” Tom Brown's Schooldays refers to the products of the English school system being “scattered over the whole empire on which the sun never sets, and whose general diffusion I take to be the chief cause of that empire's stability.” “For centuries, in their quiet, dogged, homespun way, they have been subduing the earth in most English counties, and leaving their mark in American forests and Australian uplands.”

Hughes, the author of Tom Brown's Schooldays, goes on to describe what he sees as the recognizable characteristics of a product of the Victorian English public school. They could argue fiercely, yet retain love and respect for their adversary; “no failures knock them up, or make them hold their hands”; they “go on believing and fighting to a green old age”; “failures slide off them like July rain off a duck's back feathers.”

Was the author wrong in making these claims? Surely all of us have noticed, as I have, that having gone to a certain school often makes a difference in a personality. And surely the attributes the author describes fit perfectly a particularly admirable type of English character, a Winston Churchill or a Margaret Thatcher—neither of whom were yet born when this description was written.

That's what the humanities can do; albeit the particular ideals and virtues developed may vary depending on the education's emphasis.

And it seems almost systematically what our current culture now lacks, and needs: that sense of optimism despite current setbacks; that sense of a purpose and a mission in life; that sense of a responsibility to the future; and, perhaps first and foremost, that sense of fair play and common courtesy towards an adversary.

Even from a purely practical standpoint, the case for this educational approach seems stronger today than it ever was in Victoria's day. As has often been rightly noted, technology and the social circumstances it produces are changing so fast that the practical skills and specific information we learn in grade school now—or even as a university undergrad--are likely to be of little or no use to us by the time we are in the workforce, let alone by the time we retire. All that drill at multiplication and long division is rather less useful now that we can all do quick calculations on our cell phones. All that memorization of dates and events matters less when we can Google a fact instantly in the same way. All that sweat at declining French irregular verbs is soon going to be rather less useful as our cell phones also instantly translate.

Devoting long years to purely practical education is, in essence, wasting our children's time.

What we need is people who have a proper sense of right and wrong, of truth and falsehood, of what the point of it all is, and of sense and nonsense. We need gentlemen, not tools. The tool is the computer.

How did we get it backwards? The educational model apparently flipped over in about the nineteen teens or twenties. The highly influential writer Charles Bobbit, in 1912, sought quite explicitly to apply the newly efficient procedures of industry to the schools. Ford's assembly line could be usefully transferred to education. Students were little manufactured products, and the process of their manufacture could be both standardized and accelerated, deliberately to meet the needs of industry or the state.

Woodrow Wilson, for one, was admirably blunt: "We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks."

One wonders how much this change of focus has in turn produced the modern world. Abraham Lincoln once observed that “the philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation is the philosophy of government in the next.” Count one generation from 1912, and we have Fascism, Stalinism, Skinnerian behaviourism, and the idea that the individual exists for the benefit of industry or the state. Count two, and we have the tumult of the Sixties, perhaps a direct revolt, if perhaps hopelessly misdirected, against these views.

Is it still possible to reverse this decline? Perhaps not; another generation may well be too late, given that we have largely stopped reproducing, and the worst of it is that we do not yet seem even to be looking in the right direction. The humanities are still declining, indeed apparently now in free-fall. Current ideas of educational reform cluster around standardized testing; yet any thing that can be clearly measured on a standardized test is a thing ripe for computerization.

We desperately need to rediscover the human. If we do not, the culture that first does will bury us.

Monday, January 03, 2011

What Did Jesus Look Like?

Hey! Who woke me up after 2,000 years?

What do we know about what Jesus looked like, and how do we know it? 

The question is more important theologically than might first appear. Jesus is God as God chose to reveal Himself to us. Given that it is valuable to have a personal relationship with God, it is valuable to have a clear image of him for prayer and meditation. The best and clearest image is surely the one God himself chose. 

Unfortunately, recently, a spanner has been thrown into the works. 

You might have seen the picture above. It is now all over the Internet; it is the first thing you are liable to see if you Google “what Jesus looked like.” It has been embraced and promoted by the BBC, Popular Mechanics, CNN, National Geographic, and any number of other media outlets. It is a claimed “scientific” reconstruction of what Jesus really looked like, using computer modelling. Being “scientific,” it is of course embraced as truer than the traditional view—after all, ”science” trumps “religion” as our true faith any day of the week. 

And it is nonsense. 

Consider the basic premise: It is based in the first place on a reconstruction of the sort forensic labs do on murder victims, built up from a computer model of a first-century Palestinian skull. 

Let's assume that modern forensic science is good enough to reconstruct what someone looks like accurately from a skull. It does not matter—because this is not Jesus's skull. Think for a moment how likely it would be for someone to come up with an accurate image of you by choosing a random photograph of another person who lived in the same country in the same century? Odds of winning the lottery would be better. 

But the nonsense only begins there. There is lots more to come. You will note that the image has short hair—unlike the traditional, long-haired image. Hair length, of course, cannot be determined from a skull. No; it turns out the “scientific” reason for this touch is that St. Paul in one epistle passage advised Christian men to wear their hair short. But St. Paul was writing in Greek to Greeks living in Greek lands; I thought the original premise was that Jesus was going to look like a Palestinian Jew? Jesus preached in synagogues and was called “rabbi”--and Judaism required men to wear their hair and beards uncut. If Jesus's own appearance was so much at variance from the norm of the place and time, and from the religious requirement, we would surely have mention of it. 

The “scientists,” in other words, are contradicting their own first premise, and for one purpose alone: to come up with an image as different as possible from the traditional view. We should be aware of this motive, and we should judge their claims accordingly. You're never going to get any press these days by saying the traditional religious view is right. 

You will note again that the scientists's image is considerably darker-skinned than that of the traditional image. The press coverage makes a point of this: “dark olive skin.” This is no doubt politically correct these days, when other authors commonly try to claim that the Egyptian Pharaohs were black. But it seems highly unlikely to be historically accurate. Modern Jews are far from being dark-olive in colour. Granted, they have no doubt intermarried over the years; but modern Palestinian Arabs are also not olive-skinned. While there is a natural range, one commonly finds today Palestinian Arabs with quite pale skin, sometimes even blue eyes and blond hair. I know; I have taught some of them. 

It is hard to imagine why the pigmentation of the Jews two thousand years ago would have been darker. The Arabs, after all, are supposed to have come from further south, and some of the inhabitants of the Southern Arabian Peninsula can be quite dark. In Jesus's time, by contrast, and in Galilee in particular, thanks to Alexander's conquests, there had been a rather recent influx of Greek blood from the north. 

This new “scientific” image also shows a broader, shorter nose than we are used to seeing—Jesus is usually shown with a rather long and thin nose. Odd, again, that the scientists would do that—I believe nose length cannot be determined from the skull since it is build from cartilage, not bone. After all, modern Palestinian Arabs tend to have long, thin noses, like the traditional depiction, not bulbous ones like this modern illustration. 

Jesus as he appears in ancient mosaic at Hagia Sophia. Note the long, "Arabian" nose.

It is amazing what nonsense you can get away with simply by misappropriating the word “science.” Ask Marx, or Freud. 

So this image is not just arbitrary in origin, but probably systematically wrong. And, of course, damaging to numberless spiritual lives. 

But to be fair, where do we get our own current idea of what Jesus looked like? Is it, in turn, and as these “scientists” and the press they have attracted assert, arbitrary? 

That is what the “scientists” claim: the original Popular Mechanics story notes “nowhere in the New Testament is Jesus described, nor have any drawings of him ever been uncovered.” But this is not, strictly, true; not true, at least, unless you reject certain images that are indeed claimed to be portraits of Jesus indeed taken from life. At least three have been uncovered, and they have indeed been influential downthrough the ages in forming our common image of Jesus: the Mandylion of Edessa, Veronica's Veil, and the Shroud of Turin. 

The Shroud of Turin, I assume, needs no introduction. 

A modern reconstruction of Jesus's face from the Shroud of Turin.

Veronica's veil is supposed to be a headscarf with which St. Veronica wiped the face of Jesus as he carried his cross. “Veronica” is unlikely to have been the real name of the woman involved, since it simply means “true image.” However, the story appears quite early, in the “Acts of Pilate,” and references to the veil itself as a relic can be traced back to the fourth century. 

Veronica's Veil.

The Mandylion of Edessa is a portrait held to have been painted by a court painter from Edessa during Jesus's lifetime, at the request of the king of Edessa. It was carefully preserved as the “first icon,” but the original may have disappeared during the French Revolution. Nevertheless, it served as a touchstone throughout earlier centuries, and two reputed copies survive. 

Copy of Mandylion preserved in Genoa; or possibly the original.

Copy of Mandylion preserved in Vatican.

Of course, all three relics may be forgeries. But it is worth noting that they all agree on Jesus's appearance. 

It would be natural, surely, for followers to preserve Jesus's shroud; though an image burned onto it would of course be supernatural. So too for Veronica's Veil. That the images require a supernatural explanation is of course far from a disproof, given that we are dealing with a man claimed to be God himself. Rather, their apparent supernatural origin and state of preservation are themselves arguments for their validity. 

It seems at least plausible, in turn, that a neighbouring king might have sought a portrait of Jesus. The gospel tells us that the Nazarene prophet stirred up considerable interest not just in Judea, but in neighbouring kingdoms—we are about to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. “All of Judea” came out to see John the Baptist, “and the whole region of the Jordan.” Edessa was reasonably close culturally and geographically, in a time of great regional commerce, and is known to have embraced Christianity very early. 

There are other claimed ancient relics, with less plausible pedigrees. We also have surviving written descriptions of Jesus that are at least claimed to be very old; and they, again, conform to the traditional image. An intriguing example is the supposed letter of Publius Lentullus, claimed to have been at one time procurator for Judea: 

"his hair of (the colour of) the chestnut, full ripe, plain to His ears, whence downwards it is more orient and curling and wavering about His shoulders. In the midst of His head is a seam or partition in His hair, after the manner of the Nazarenes. His forehead plain and very delicate; His face without spot or wrinkle, beautified with a lovely red; His nose and mouth so formed as nothing can be reprehended; His beard thickish, in colour like His hair, not very long, but forked; His look innocent and mature; His eyes grey, clear, and quick"

But all of this is almost beside the point. We have one other authority for the traditional appearance of Jesus, and it is unassailable: inspiration. From his own time to ours, Jesus has repeatedly appeared in visions to the saints; we have their witness, and he, being God, is entirely capable of ensuring its reliability. Indeed, we also have the witness of the great artists themselves. No artist becomes great without inspiration, and God, being God, can and would preserve the image within accurate bounds for our benefit, particularly in art especially commissioned for a religious and meditative purpose. You can presumably only deny this likelihood if you assume in the first instance that he is not God.