Arpaio Pardon: Smart Strategy, Dumb Arguments

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With the Arpaio pardon, Trump got major exposure. Bigger than normal, because of everyone watching the storm. He said that this was by design. When this happened, the response was vocal and widespread from his critics. By releasing the news on Friday, critics had the whole weekend to be outraged about it and spread memes about what an awful person Arpaio is and how the pardon is bullshit and on and on. It’s the sort of news that you don’t have to be rabidly anti-Trump to have a distaste for. This was also by design.

Then Monday Trump defends himself in a press conference. Again, high visibility seems to be part of the strategy. In the press conference, he mentioned pardons granted by Presidents Obama and Clinton that a reasonable person may have found questionable. In the case of Clinton’s pardons, they look especially suspect. People still remember celebrating the commutation of Chelsea Manning’s sentence, so that might not have landed as well for Trump.

Sidebar: 2 things about this argument:

1. This is the old, “your guy did this, so it’s ok that my guy did that” thing that facebook political debates are made of. the talking points go no further than to point out something kind of like the current issue having been done by the other party. Emphasis on kind of like because these counters are made with no thought of the context. For example, defending any president’s perceived or actual manipulation of the media by saying Lincoln did that and worse.

2. Why is POTUS making arguments this way to the public? Obviously, because it lends itself very well to vids with banners at the top and bottom on facebook saying “TRUMP DESTROYS JOURNALIST ON ARPAIO PARDON.” In other words, they play well to the rubes. BTW these arguments made me think again about what to make of this pardon, so I’m included here. However, I’m sure there’s more to it than this tit for tat bullshit.

This whole play, the timing of the announcement, the weekend of letting opponents spin their wheels, and the counterexamples on Monday, was kind of brilliant in the Scott Adams, Trump-as-master-persuader-playing-5D-Connect-Four sense. Think about how this plays on your Facebook feed. Friday, the pardon drops, anti-Trumpers lose their minds. Memes about what a shit Arpaio is flood the social mediaverse. Everyone thinks this is a bad thing for Trump to have done.  Two examples: Image result for arpaio pardon memesImage result for arpaio pardon memes

The whole time, Trump supporters – ostensibly still a significant portion of the population – are seeing these memes and maybe holding their tongues. Maybe a few of the older folks in the crowd share stories of being upset at a Clinton pardon they hated or something like that. For the most part, anti-Trump people think the pardon is a complete disaster and no one can imagine how Trump will recover from this misstep.

Then Monday comes, and the presser. Trump delivers that old chestnut of bullshit political arguments, cherished by all who refuse to examine events except in contrast to how “the other side” did this or that. Supporters cheer. Antis, for the most part, look at their shoes, not quite sure what to make of these counterpoints.

And there it is. If you stop looking into this topic you probably think that Trump wasn’t so wrong to pardon the former Sheriff, and that the douchebag liberals who spent the weekend bashing Trump for this have no idea about historical context.

UPDATE: It looks like the comparisons were not so apt. The biggest differences appear to be:

1. While the other questionable pardons were for people who had already served some time, Arpaio hasn’t yet, so the pardon is not merely saying he’s paid what he owes already, this pardon is a shield against any punishment whatever.

2. Arpaio defied a court order, which is what led to his conviction. By pardoning him, Trump is siding against the judge that issued it and the rule of law in general.

UPDATE 2: Ben Shapiro had some comments to support the pardon, in view of the above two points, or at least the second one, and it sounds reasonable. More to think about here.

This looks like another one of those issues that both sides will tally for their side without considering the very real counterpoints to their talking points. I can see this being one of the many “reasons to impeach Trump” on lists that are probably already circulating the social mediasphere. Conversely, it will also probably feature on lists of “great accomplishments” that supporters will be sharing around in the months and years ahead. The truth is clearly somewhere in between.

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Good People On Many Sides?

After the Charlottesville incident, people looked to President Trump to say something about it. Many analysts say he failed a moral test by mentioning that there was horrible behavior, “on many sides.” Supporters were quick to point out that Antifa has a track record of unprovoked violence against those they disagree with.

After the initial negative reaction to the “many sides” comment, the White House released a softened statement on Monday. However, in a press conference the very next day, Trump reverted to the original sentiment and doubled down on it. He pointed out that there were many good people in the “Unite the Right” crowd, who were merely protesting what they saw as a wrongful removal of an historical statue.

Here, I’d like to take President Trump at his word, and give a reasonable person’s look at what that good person might have seen in Charlottesville.

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Imagine you’re a good person in Charlottesville. One of those “good people” in the torchlight march. You’re not a bigot, you’re not a Nazi, you don’t hate blacks or jews, you’re just a conservative man that happens to be white with a respect for history that makes you righteously angry that the Robert E. Lee statue is being removed. You feel that, regardless of what Lee stood for, his life left an impact on history that is more than worthy of being commemorated by the statue. You feel that those who want to remove the statue are trying to erase history. You may even be OK with the idea of the statue being moved to a different location, perhaps a museum, but you don’t want to see it simply torn down. So you decide to go to this march. You’ve got your tiki torch and you’re happy to see that there’s a sizable group of several dozen or even a couple hundred other people.

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Milling about, you notice that there are a couple people with Confederate battle flags, the stars and bars. Maybe you recognize it as an homage to Southern heritage rather than as a hate symbol, but you are also aware that some people aren’t too keen on the flag itself. If you’re the type of person to get outraged about a Robert E. Lee statue being removed, you probably don’t care that some liberal snowflakes think it’s a racist flag. Fuck those SJWs, amirite?

Then you see someone in a shirt that has the fourteen words on it, or a KKK logo. At this point, do you start to question the march you’ve joined for good reasons? You might even see someone with a Nazi flag. Are you worried about the lot that you’ve thrown in with, or do you think, well, we disagree on some things, but we’re united by a genuine respect for a historical figure and the statue dedicated to his memory?

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The march begins. Your interest in preserving the statue are purely historical, so a few of the chants confuse you. “You will not replace us!” for example, seems unrelated to the cause that you’ve come to champion. “Blood and soil,” doesn’t make sense either, but you remember that it was a chant favored by Nazis. By the time you hear, “Jews will not replace us!” you’re past the point of surprise. Still, you’re one of the good people, right? Because even though you’re marching, demonstrating, and even chanting with white supremacists and neo-Nazis, you’re not actually one of them.

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At what point during this do you go from being a legitimately concerned citizen who sincerely and non-racistly wanted to preserve history, to being a white supremacist, determined to fight for the establishment of an ethno-state?

It seems to me that the “good people” did a piss poor job of making their cause the main reason for organizing when they effectively let the hate groups take over with their displays and their chants. Think about who you march with.

Thoughts on The Dark Tower Movie

On and after the release of the film, The Dark Tower, many discussions were had at /r/TheDarkTower and other places where Constant Readers gather to talk about all things DT. People said things like:

“It wasn’t that bad.” or

“It was like the books in name only, or it featured characters from the books only commonly named.” or

“Next cycle/ Sequel to the books/ it’s OK that they took liberties.”

I want to answer this last one, because it’s not OK. Taking liberties is one thing, but I hope to show here that the liberties taken were aimed at simplifying the story and making it more palatable for an ignorant audience. I’m going to do so by looking at the three main characters.

I get that they might have wanted to do something different, tell the story of Roland and Walter from the next cycle, but after watching the movie, I have some problems with that. Let’s take the filmmakers at face value. Why is it that many, if not every, choice that they make can be seen most easily as transparent attempts to make the story and characters more two dimensional and therefore more accessible?

Jake

Jake is probably the best example. Book Jake is a private school kid with two living parents and a housekeeper. His private school teaches him to ask to go to the bathroom by saying that he needs to take a moment so as not to be vulgar. He’s a WASP, at least publicly. At home, he cherishes his relationship with his housekeeper as he feels he can be his real self with her. She affectionately calls him Bama. His first trip to Midworld happens when he dies on Earth. He gets killed by the aptly named Jack Mort, a killer who has interactions with other characters later on. Jake wakes up in Midworld at the Way Station, meets the Gunslinger, rolls with him until the mines where they meet and run from the Slow Mutants, then Roland has to make a decision where he can save Jake or finally catch the Man in Black. Jake sees that Roland must achieve his quest goal and tells him, in the most chilling line of dialog in the entire series, “Go then, there are other worlds than these.”

Later, we find out Jake is alive in a different timeline on Keystone Earth. He did not die in the accident arranged by Mort, but he starts having visions. No, moviegoer, the visions are of his life in Midworld. He begins having this dual experience and it really fucks with him. He experiences his “death” in Midworld and then has visions of the house in Dutch Hill. This is like two books later, and Roland and some other characters in Midworld play a part in bringing him over. The Dutch Hill house demon depicted in the film was pretty accurate except that it didn’t have a recognizable face. The control panel, portal, and Jake’s seemingly effortless dispatching of the demon are all departures from the books, an easy to recognize shorthand for the incredibly complicated mythos about Doors between various worlds. I almost get why they do it like this in the film. Seriously, they talk about it a lot, especially in the later books, but I don’t feel that there’s a coherent “system” that can explain it. IIRC, at one point in the books they literally don’t know what’s going to happen when they use a doorway and there’s a rather large chance that they’ll end up in some In-Betweeny kind of Nowhere space, dead for all purposes. To sum up, the portal system is complicated as fuck in the books, but the movie just simplifies the whole thing to move the plot along.

I’ve only just scratched the surface about Jake, and I may have gotten a few things wrong, but look at how he differs from movie Jake. Movie Jake is a cookie cutter “troubled kid” character, complete with Dead Dad, Step Dad That He Doesn’t Really Trust, and Visions That Are Easily Dismissed because he’s a Troubled Kid. We as the audience don’t need to know much beyond, “his dad died.” We know his visions are “real” and we root for him for this reason.

His character traits are bland and uninspired. There’s nothing new here. They don’t tell us new things about the nature of a grieving child, here it’s just used as a convenient device to advance the plot. Fighting the kid over his sketchbook, which leads to the Psycho Kids Camp people, feels contrived.

The Man in Black

The Man in Black’s relationship with Roland goes back to Roland’s childhood, when he was the court magician in Gilead, going by the name Marten Broadcloak. He bones Roland’s mom and makes sure Roland finds out. This prompts Roland to take his Gunslinger Trial at the age of 14, which is very early. He attempts to murder Roland’s father through treachery, but fails. Finally, he slips the net after Roland’s father orders his capture.

The Man in Black appears in many of King’s works, including Eyes of The Dragon, The Stand, The Gunslinger, and other books. In The Gunslinger, He brings a man back from death, not by waving a hand, but by doing a ritual and covering him in spit (gross). In The Stand, he’s regarded as more of a Messiah than a commander. He has the ability to compel action by ordering it. When characters do outmaneuver him, it’s due to their ability to find holes in his mind control by doing things he didn’t explicitly prohibit. In one of these cases, the “good guy” character jumps out the window rather than answering his question, because he didn’t say she couldn’t do so, but only kept her from attacking him. In this way, he’s shown to have some foresight, but it’s not perfect. When he does experience these losses, he’s shown to react severely with his followers, at times handing down ruthless punishments.

That said, I have to say movie Man in Black kind of resembles The Stand’s Man in Black, there known as Randall Flagg or simply, “the walkin’ dude,” among other names. Somehow, I didn’t like the way it played onscreen. Often, the cruelty appeared nonsensical. He stoops over a dying man, taunts him about the afterlife not being a thing, then tells him to burn, effectively putting him out of his misery. He cruelly punishes an underling by burning her face, after having an earlier conversation about selecting the right face, implying that the face isn’t really hers. This kind of undermines the cruelty of it, except that it’s a pretty face and now it’s burnt. The best example of Man in Black as cruel master is when he orders a pair to kill one another after talking to them about their failing to capture Jake. This scene put me in mind of Kilgrave from Jessica Jones and it really worked because we understood that those two were going to fight to the death whether they wanted to or not – and how terrible is that – but more than that, we understood how important this kid was to McConaughey’s character.

The Man in Black character certainly is unnecessarily cruel and vain as he’s shown in the film, but I can’t help but feel there could’ve been a better way to show these traits. Here, it seems that he’s just evil cuz evil, and that’s not very compelling. I would have done fewer, or only one, instance of malice properly set up as that would have more impact. If done right, you may surprise viewers at how unhinged he truly is. Instead, we get a flat, one note character. Why does he have such a hardon for Roland? Why does Roland resist his “magics”? Why do the townspeople go from being suspicious, to helping Roland and Jake, to fighting and dying for them, all while Roland admits that he’s not a Gunslinger? Why is Susan Delgado a Named Character in this film?

Roland

I’ve avoided talking about Roland until now for a few reasons. First, I want to make it clear that my distaste of this film does in no way stem from the casting of Idris Elba. He’s great, and he gives real presence and depth to a pretty thinly written character.

For example, let’s look at the film version of the backstory between Roland and Walter, particularly how Walter kills Roland’s father. The scene in the woods (very foggy woods that could have easily been a soundstage), with the two Deschain men (and no other supporting cast), and the showdown with the Man in Black (no fight choreo, hardly any dialog, almost no CGI) seems like something out of Cheap Filmmaking 101. Nothing wrong with getting value for budget, in fact I love to see films look better than their budget would suggest. But here it looks calculatedly cheap. Maybe this is because I know what the conflict between the Man in Black and the Deschains really entails, and I think it wouldn’t take that much more time or money to tell that story, or at least hint at it, and leave the details to be explored in a future movie. Here they lay their cards on the table for once and for all, “This is how Steven Deschain died.” Doing it this way, they’re painted into a corner. Again, it’s not that they’re deviating from the books, but how they deviate. They do it in a trite, safe, cheaply made little scene that doesn’t involve any complicated story threads that might confuse the rubes.

Conclusion

In short, the film made the safest, most obvious, least interesting choices that it could, almost to the letter. Where their choices were not safe or obvious, they seemed to go nowhere. Deviations are all explained away by saying, “It’s a sequel, next turn of the Wheel, etc.” These character and story choices were then executed competently, but at a somewhat fast pace, often rushing into the next setpiece before we fully understand what’s happening. I imagine there’s a longer cut of this film that develops the characters more, letting later dramatic moments feel much more earned.

After this, I don’t have much hope for this property being adapted well, at least not for the foreseeable future. How long does it take for the collective pop culture audience to forget an adaptation? How long between Spiderman 3 and Amazing Spiderman 1? I like to make fun of the youth of today, for the extraordinary short shelf life of popular things. Take the recent fidget spinner craze. Kids had never heard of these things, then they heard of them and everyone wanted one. Then, just as quick, the cool kids decided that they weren’t cool anymore and started making fun of them and the kids that are still enjoying them. It’s not like this kind of thing hasn’t been going on for a while, but it seems to be happening much faster these days. I think it’s because of internet culture, everything being so connected. It’s a weird time to be young, for sure, but that’s a topic for another time. Anyway, with the cultural turnaround time so fast, maybe it’ll only be a few years before we get a reboot. Maybe that TV show will take some notes from this disaster, and be something Constant Readers and casuals alike can enjoy.

How I Was Not Quite Right About Tomi Lahren

Tomi Lahren has been on my radar for a while now. I know her best from short videos shared on FB by my more conservative friends. The stylized typewriter intro to her signature segment, “Final Thoughts” is something I’ve seen more times than I care to remember. I don’t remember how, but I started thinking of her content as politically conservative punditry in new media – condemning BLM for being party to riots, refuting 3rd wave feminist talking points like the wage gap, speaking about the need for children to be safe from crossdressing predators. When I saw them, I felt like I knew the arguments already, so I continued scrolling. I didn’t think she added much to the conversation. I  honestly thought she was nothing more than a younger, better looking conservative pundit, useful for churning out three minute “mic drop” talks so that barely literate, incredibly partisan people can announce their political conservatism on social media. I thought she was completely polar, and so I kind of put her in that box and didn’t think about it again. Barely literate, incredibly partisan people on the left have their own social media heroes, in case you think I’m saying that conservatives are barely literate by nature.

She appeared on the Daily Show and, according to her fans, completely SHUT DOWN Trevor Noah; MIC DROPs were happening left and right. Hyperbole aside, I have seen clips of it, and it looks rather like she got the better of Noah on many points. From the clips I’ve seen, I also get the feeling there was a bit of the “talking past one another” that I complained about in my last post. From this appearance, if not from the frequency of shares I’d seen, it’s clear that her profile was rising at this point.

Then Bill Maher. Now The View. Network television. She’s a star now. Was Glenn Beck ever on The View? Turns out, yes, he was. Not that The View is anything more than disposable daytime TV, but they have a big audience, and this probably meant exposure to lots of people who aren’t New Media savvy for Tomi.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Tomi was pro-choice, because it went against the grain. To go against the majority of the people that you politically identify with takes thought and a fair amount of courage.  I recall Dave Rubin bemoaning the tendency of people to simply go along with every position of their chosen party. For example, (with apologies to Dave, I’m paraphrasing) if I know your position on same sex marriage, I should not be able to predict your position on gun control, or abortion, or climate change, but in many cases, you can. Should your position on one issue be a 100% indicator of your position on the other ones? Are you allowed to have a different position than the expected result?

As I’ve found out, her position on reproductive rights isn’t exactly new. To quote the New York Times: “She is pro-choice and does not object to gay marriage.” But I guess most people didn’t read that story either, because her View appearance and the reaction by The Blaze made headlines.

So, now The Blaze is suspending her. For disagreeing with them on an issue? What’s she supposed to do, change her position? I find it odd that this had never come up before on The Blaze during her meteoric rise. A rise which, it should be noted, raises the profile of The Blaze. They must have enjoyed a bump from her popularity. This ideological difference leaves The Blaze in a conundrum: how severely can they afford to punish their new star? Can you name someone else at The Blaze, other than Glenn Beck? I can’t.

Abortion is an issue that people have very strong feelings about. If The Blaze, or Tomi, for that matter, really wants to be ideologically consistent, this might be a dealbreaker between them.

I mentioned Dave Rubin earlier. He used to be part of The Young Turks, but left them because of ideological reasons. Now he’s got a great show of his own on YouTube, based around the idea of people finding areas of agreement and improving your understanding of differing positions. If Tomi Lahren wants to go solo, this might be a good time to do it. She’s a legit star, appearing all over media, this big story about her disagreement with The Blaze’s party line puts her in the spotlight while emphasizing her status as a person who thinks for herself. As of yet I’m not a fan, but this story has given me a reason to reconsider.

 

 

The Principle of Charity

Have you had a disagreement with anyone recently? Did you feel that all participants were understood by one another? Here’s a test: Could your opponent(s) state your position in a way that you would be satisfied with how they describe it? Could you do the same for your opponent(s)? If the answer to either of those is a flat “no,” you are like most normal people having these conversations. I’ve had conversations over social media lasting weeks where I never once felt that my interlocutor wanted to understand where I was coming from. I’ve heard this referred to as “talking past one another” and it’s impeding conversations at every turn.

There are two basic facts that were very, very hard for me to recognize (and I still need to remind myself of them today). Here they are:

1. People have different positions than you do.

2. People think they have good reasons for holding those positions.

Note the word “think” in number 2. I’m talking about everyone. I could not claim that everyone has good reasons for thinking what they think. I can only go so far as to say that they think they have good reasons. They can be wrong about those reasons, whether it’s from poor facts or poor reasoning.

I was browsing /r/philosophy earlier, and I found something that I really think needs sharing. In their Guide to Arguments on the sidebar, they talk about the principle of charity. I’ve highlighted the important bits in red:

charity

 

That says it better than I’m able to, so I think this is about it. If we can apply this principle as we have conversations, we might be able to gain a greater understanding of each other.

The War on Christmas

Earlier this week I saw an article on Breitbart talking about how the “War on Christmas” has a new front: the growing number of Bible scholars that believe Jesus never existed, so referenced in a Big Think article. Having read about this and watched a few Bart Ehrman and Richard Carrier lectures, this was not news to me. Here, I want to first address this fiction known as the “War on Christmas”, then talk about the flaws in both articles.

The War on Christmas

People have become aware that overt use of “Christmas” excludes people that do not celebrate the holiday. Government entities are, or should be, prevented from referencing “Christmas”, as it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Where private businesses are concerned, they are free to say or not say Merry Christmas or whatever. Many large chains have taken to the more inclusive “Happy Holidays” in the interest of not being accused of excluding people. The phrase, “Happy Holidays” includes all people, including people for whom December 25th represents the birthday of one third of the trinity of deities that they worship.

Christians have wrongly claimed that this practice of inclusion is an affront to their particular holiday and religion. They forget about people of other faith traditions that have holidays around that same time. Their major argument in this vein is an Appeal to Tradition, e.g., “That’s the way it’s always been,” paired with heartstring-tugging Appeals to Emotion. So many people, especially in the US, have this shared memory of Christmas being the most magical and beautiful and loving-est thing that there could be. Indeed, there are few things as comforting to the late 20th century American psyche as the images of Christmas depicted in A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street, and It’s a Wonderful Life, not to mention the works of Norman Rockwell.

My own childhood is filled with these kinds of memories from real life: get the family together, have a big meal, open presents, play in the snow. And, yeah, probably go to church. Maybe we didn’t go to the Midnight Mass on the 24th, being little kids and all, but we went to Christmas Day Mass as good little Catholic children. The pageantry of the Catholic Mass, especially at Christmastime, added more magic to my kid-mind.

People appear to be conflating their good Christmas memories with the religious belief that, in their view, undergirds them. It’s extremely easy to associate traditions such as a decorated fir tree, giving gifts and whatnot with Christmas because of branding: It’s a Christmas tree, those are Christmas presents. The truth is that those traditions have no basis in Christian doctrine. If the birth of Jesus were celebrated at some other time of the year, say March, when some scholars think he was actually born (if he existed at all, but that’s for another time), would sleighbells, fir trees, and sweaters be part of the celebration?

Christmas has become a cultural holiday rather than a religious one. The proof of that is in non-Christian cultures that have adopted many of the traditions, such as gift giving and the style of decoration. I lived in Taiwan for three years. Christians are definitely a minority there. Yet, all the children know who Santa Claus is and they talk about getting presents on December 25th.

How Breitbart Got it Wrong

This isn’t new. There have long been historians and scholars claiming that Jesus never existed and that the story was made up. It’s laughable that the scholars holding this fringe position are being cast as bannermen to the cause that brought us plain red Starbucks cups and employee policies on greeting people.

The fallacious nature of this connection cannot be overstated. In one case, you have a group of scholars, who at least claim to be sincere seekers of the truth, finding less than convincing evidence of the historical Jesus. In that group there may be, as it says in the article, “atheists with an axe to grind.” To the extent that those scholars are blinded by their biases, they should be ignored. Their goal is to produce legitimate work in their field while also selling books and doing lectures, and maybe, just maybe, affect change in the consensus among Bible scholars and ancient historians.

On the other side, you have the aforementioned secular appeals to inclusion as intended by the Establishment Clause. There’s no coordination between these two parties.

Big Think Also Got it Wrong

By using “growing number” in the title of their piece, they make it sound like it’s bigger than it is, like it’s about to reach critical mass. The same could be said of the phrasing of the opening sentence of the third paragraph: “More and more, historians and bloggers alike are questioning whether the actual man called Jesus existed.” At first glance, it sounds like they are claiming that there are more and more historians and bloggers flocking to this position, but that’s not quite it, is it? The comma after “More and more,” indicates that they are referring to a degree rather than a number. To see what I mean, imagine there’s no comma and compare how it sounds to the sentence as written.

Also, “bloggers?” This is the internet. Every idiot out there has a blog. Just as the number of people (much smaller than anticipated) who visit the Ark Encounter doesn’t make Young Earth Creationism true, so does the number of “bloggers” promoting the Jesus Myth not matter with regard to scholarly consensus. Some of those bloggers may be credentialed and have opinions worth sharing on the subject, but that isn’t implied by the title of “blogger.”

To a brandy-new atheist who just discovered Hitchens, this Big Think article might sound like a huge blow to Theism, if not the knockout punch. However, reading the full article reveals that it’s not nearly so overwhelming as the title makes it sound. There are definitely arguments to be made on both sides, or at least it appears that there are educated people on both sides making arguments. In fact, it seems like the “Mythical Jesus” position is and will likely remain a fringe position in the scholar community for some time.

Big Think could have been honest about this fact from the start. We should want Big Think to be more evenhanded about this, and the fact that Breitbart got a front page article out of it is a perfect example of why. The slight exaggeration in Big Think’s title and that sentence are cannon fodder, allowing dishonest content creators on the other side to put a spotlight on it and say, “See? Look how dishonest these people are.” and continue confirming what their readers have long known about secular people.

Conclusion

In the end, Breitbart are dead wrong on two counts: 1. There never was a War on Christmas, only people who wanted to include non-Christians into society. 2. The minority of scholars who believe Jesus never existed has nothing to do with the first group. Big Think are guilty of overplaying their hand slightly, which is the lesser of the two infringements in this case.

I haven’t read much from Breitbart, though I have heard people speak highly of them. I hope they don’t approach all news stories with the same obvious bias. Speaking of bias, they’re not the only ones here. I used to be subbed to Big Think on YouTube. I especially liked their longer videos, around 45 minutes, on topics such as demographics, psychology, and the universe. Their shorter vids would feature well known people espousing atheist, or at the very least, secular opinions. Only after considering their catalog carefully do I detect a bias on their part.

It’s much easier for me, as an atheist, to see Breitbart’s article and roll my eyes. But I think the more important work is looking at the Big Think article and imagining how Breitbart’s readers might have read it, then asking, “Do they have a point?” For critical thinking’s sake, we have to do this.

Europe: A History by Norman Davies, Part One

So I’ve been wanting to develop the reading habit more, so I cracked a book that’s been sitting for a while on my shelf. Norman Davies’ Europe: A History is my first attempt at reading one of these kinds of books live. I’ve listened to a couple books by Diamond and Niall Ferguson’s Civilization, but reading live takes a different level of effort. Audiobooks only require your time. For me, it’s driving time. Every day, one commute at a time, I whittle away at the book. The only things that can keep me from it is the odd phone call or just not feeling like hitting the button.

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In one volume, Davies attempts to tell the massive story of European history. He starts with a lengthy introduction of how to even go about it. As someone new to history books, I found this useful. The different framing methods and other authors who have attempted to put it all in one book. Another section of the introduction that I enjoyed most because I’d never thought of it: where does Europe end and Asia begin? Where’s the northern border?  The fluctuating European border theory gave me a chuckle. It was the first hint of the wry academic humor that shows up from time to time in the book. It has the benefit of being unexpected while not being out of character. It’s the sort of thing that you might miss if you tuned out during that paragraph. Finally, to round out the intro, Davies lays out how the book is going to go: The further forward in time we go, the slower we proceed. In other words, the closer we get to the present, the more information will be covered about each time period. Which makes sense if you consider the sources available through history. Sure, there are outliers, but on average, the earlier you get, the less primary sources there are, the less archaeology there is, the less detail there is to write about.

The first chapter gives a geographical foundation, setting the scene as it were. The Mediterranean, the mountains, the rivers, all have a hand in shaping the way people lived on the landmass. Davies doesn’t go so far as to invoke environmental determinism here, but attention is paid to how the various geographical features could be exploited. There was a section on the steppes, the plains in the far Eastern edge of what could be called Europe or could be verging into Asia. In that section, there is a poem shared, displaying the love the forbears of modern Ukraine have for the land:

When I die, make me a grave

High on an ancient mound,

In my own beloved Ukraine,

In the steppeland without bound,

Whence one sees the endless breadth of the wheatfields

And the steep banks of Dnipro’s shore,

Where one may sense the surging

River’s stentorian roar.

Make my grave there – and arise,

Sundering your chains.

Bless your freedom with the blood

Of foemen’s evil veins!

Then in that great family,

A family new and free,

Do not forget. But with good intent

Speak quietly of me.

The mention of the steppes always makes me think of the film Taras BulbaYul Brynner gives an unforgettable performance as a Cossack of the steppes, and he struggles to raise his sons in a changing world. The line at the end is frozen in my memory: “I loved him, like I loved the steppes.” That value of identifying oneself so strongly with the land is throughout the film, and it resonates in the piece above. The author is given as Taras Schevchenko, which confirmed the connection I made with the film. I need to watch that film again.

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There’s a whole lot to this book. I imagine I’m going to do several installments in this series. I haven’t done a series on here before, so we’ll see how it goes.