2019-10-30

Reviews — past and next

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by Neil Godfrey

I have compiled the ten posts reviewing Raphael Lataster’s Questioning the Historicity of Jesus into a single PDF file and made it available to anyone interested through Dropbox.

I am looking forward to reviewing next, engaging in similar depth, M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. 

There are several other works in my “to do” basket. One task at a time.

 

 


2019-10-28

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

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by Neil Godfrey

Back in 2015-2016 I was trying to understand the emergence and character of Islamic State and ended up purchasing and reading four books in particular that appeared to be authored by researchers whose credentials indicated that they should know what they are talking about:

  • Cockburn, Patrick. 2015. The Rise of Islamic State: Isis and the New Sunni Revolution. London ; New York: Verso.
  • McCants, William Faizi. 2015. The Isis Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  • Stern, Jessica, and J. M. Berger. 2015. Isis: The State of Terror. London: William Collins.
  • Weiss, Michael. 2015. Isis: Inside the Army of Terror. New York, NY: Regan Arts.

I thought I’d share here with anyone interested what each of those authors had to say about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014-2015. I omit the details of Islamic State expansion and focus on al-Baghdadi’s background and rise to lead the Islamic State. (Contrary to what even official state declarations from the U.S. have said, al-Baghdadi definitely was not the founder of ISIS. al-Baghdadi does not enter the story of ISIS until after it had been up and running for about six years.) One facet not brought out in the following extracts is that al-Baghdadi’s vision of an Islamic State caliphate was flatly opposed by Al Qaeda’s leadership. Al Qaeda foresaw that any attempt to establish a territorial caliphate at that time could only face one outcome — total military defeat by Western-led armies. And that’s what happened, as we know. al-Baghdadi was the man to push for such territorial expansion, however, recruiting military leaders from Saddam’s Baathist dominated army. What happens now that Islamic State is both defeated militarily and also having lost the leader who was the force behind that military quest remains to be seen. A reunification with Al Qaeda? A focus on terrorist operations? Eventual dissipation?

. . . ISIS. Before it captured Mosul and Tikrit it could field some 6,000 fighters, but this figure has multiplied many times since its gain in prestige and appeal to young Sunni men in the wake of its spectacular victories. Its very name (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) expresses its intention: it plans to build an Islamic state in Iraq and in “al-Sham” or greater Syria. It is not planning to share power with anybody. Led since 2010 by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also known as Abu Dua, it has proved itself even more violent and sectarian than the “core” al-Qaeda, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is based in Pakistan.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi began to appear from the shadows in the summer of 2010 when he became leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) after its former leaders were killed in an attack by US and Iraqi troops. AQI was at a low point in its fortunes, as the Sunni rebellion, in which it had once played a leading role, was collapsing. It was revived by the revolt of the Sunni in Syria in 2011 and, over the next three years, by a series of carefully planned campaigns in both Iraq and Syria. How far al-Baghdadi has been directly responsible for the military strategy and tactics of AQI and later ISIS is uncertain: former Iraqi army and intelligence officers from the Saddam era are said to have played a crucial role, but are under al-Baghdadi’s overall leadership.

Details of al-Baghdadi’s career depend on whether the source is ISIS itself, or US or Iraqi intelligence, but the overall picture appears fairly clear. He was born in Samarra, a largely Sunni city north of Baghdad, in 1971 and is well educated, with degrees in Islamic studies, including poetry, history, and genealogy from the Islamic University of Baghdad. A picture of al-Baghdadi, taken when he was a prisoner of the Americans in Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, shows an average-looking Iraqi man in his mid-twenties with black hair and brown eyes.

His real name is believed to be Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai. He may have been an Islamic militant under Saddam as a preacher in Diyala province, to the northeast of Baghdad, where, after the US invasion of 2003, he had his own armed group. Insurgent movements have a strong motive for giving out misleading information about their command structure and leadership, but it appears al-Baghdadi spent five years, between 2005 and 2009, as prisoner of the Americans.

After he took over, AQI became increasingly well organized, even issuing detailed annual reports itemizing its operations in each Iraqi province. Recalling the fate of his predecessors as AQI leader, al-Baghdadi insisted on extreme secrecy, so few people knew where he was. AQI prisoners either say they never met him or, when they did, that he was wearing a mask.

Patrick Cockburn

Taking advantage of the Syrian civil war, al-Baghdadi sent experienced fighters and funds to Syria to set up JAN as the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. He split from it in 2013, but remained in control of a great swath of territory in northern Syria and Iraq.

Against fragmented and dysfunctional opposition, al-Baghdadi has moved fast towards establishing himself as an effective, albeit elusive, leader. The swift rise of ISIS since he took charge has been greatly helped by the uprising of the Sunni in Syria in 2011, which encouraged the six million Sunnis in Iraq to take a stand against the political and economic marginalization they have encountered since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Cockburn, Patrick. The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution. Verso. Kindle Edition. 2015

–o0o– read more »


What’s the Difference Between Frequentism and Bayesianism? (Part 3)

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by Tim Widowfield

Note: I wrote this post a few years back and left it lying in the draft pile, unable to come up with a satisfactory conclusion until earlier this year. Our forecast calls for snow tomorrow (something those of us who live in RVs would rather not see), so a post about precipitation and weather prediction might be apt. –TAW

yellow, Umbrella, bad weather
Yellow umbrella in bad weather (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[This post begins our hard look at Chapter 6, “The Hard Stuff” in Carrier’s Proving History. — specifically, the section entitled “Bayesianism as Epistemic Frequentism.”]

In the 1980s, the history department building on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus had famous quotations painted on its hallway walls. Perhaps they still do.

The only quote I can actually still remember is this one:

“The American people never carry an umbrella. They prepare to walk in eternal sunshine.” — Alfred E. Smith

I used to enjoy lying to myself and say, “That’s me!” But the real reason I never carry an umbrella is not that I’m a naive Yankee optimist, but rather because I know if I do, I will leave it somewhere. In this universe, there are umbrella receivers and umbrella donors. I am a donor.

Eternal sunshine

So to be honest, the reason I check the weather report is to see if I should take a jacket. I’ve donated far fewer jackets to the universe than umbrellas. But then the question becomes, what does it actually mean when a weather forecaster says we have a 20% chance of rain in our area this afternoon? And what are we supposed to think or do when we hear that?

Ideally, when an expert shares his or her evaluation of the evidence, we ought to be able to apply it to the situation at hand without much effort. But what about here? What is our risk of getting rained on? In Proving History, Richard Carrier writes:

When weathermen tell us there is a 20% chance of rain during the coming daylight hours, they mean either that it will rain over one-fifth of the region for which the prediction was made (i.e., if that region contains a thousand acres, rain will fall on a total of two hundred of those acres before nightfall) or that when comparing all past days for which the same meteorological indicators were present as are present for this current day we would find that rain occurred on one out of five of those days (i.e., if we find one hundred such days in the record books, twenty of them were days on which it rained). (Carrier 2012, p. 197)

These sound like two plausible explanations. The first sounds pretty “sciency,” while the second reminds us of the frequentist definition of probability, namely “the number of desired outcomes over the total number of events.” They’re certainly plausible, but do they have anything to do with what real weather forecasters do?

Recently, I came across an article on this subject by a meteorologist in Jacksonville, Florida, written back in 2013. He even happened to use the same percentage. In “What does 20% chance of rain really mean?” Blake Matthews writes: read more »


2019-10-27

Review part 10: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Conclusion)

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by Neil Godfrey

As I read each chapter or section of Raphael Lataster’s book, Questioning the Historicity of Jesus, I wrote about it here, but now that I have read the concluding pages I discover that Lataster anticipated some of the points I made along the way. Especially this one, the final footnote on the final page:

The poor criticisms offered indicate people that have already decided that mythicism must be wrong, simply because they find the conclusion distasteful, without knowing what the best arguments are, let alone how to argue against them.

(Lataster, p. 452)

There have been several responses to the work of Carrier and myself which cannot be dealt with in detail here; I shall point out their failings elsewhere. This includes the articles and blog posts by Christina Petterson, Daniel Gullotta, John Dickson, Michael Bird, James McGrath, Brenda Watson, and Simon Gathercole (and Robert Greg Cavin and Carlos A. Colombetti, who responded to Stephen Law’s agnosticism). None of them add anything substantial to the debate, mischaracterising our work and typically focussing on attacking the person instead of the argument. Additionally, every single one of them completely ignored our most salient points.

(Lataster, p. 463)

Responses by Daniel Gullotta and Simon Gathercole have been addressed in-depth on this blog. Lataster’s criticisms are entirely on target. A decade ago a colleague of Philip R. Davies (to whom Lataster’s book is dedicated) spelled out in detail the unscholarly tactics of “conservative scholarship” in addressing the so-called “minimalists” who dared question the historicity of the Davidic kingdom of Israel. Niels Peter Lemche’s description of those tactics applies just as much to the critics of those who question the historicity of Jesus:

Critical scholars should be critical enough to realize the tactics of the conservative scholars: never engage in a serious discussion with the minimalists [substitute mythicists]. Don’t read Davies, Thompson, and Lemche [substitute Doherty, Brodie, Carrier, Lataster]; read books [or articles] about them!

For a more detailed account of Lemche’s criticisms see The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship (according to J. Barr & N-P. Lemche).

As we have seen, Lataster mentioned in the opening of his book names of mainstream scholars who accept the legitimacy of doubting the historical existence of Jesus. More names are added in his final chapter.

Lataster’s concluding call for agnosticism concerning the historicity of Jesus contains all the punch of the preceding 440 pages. His argument has been three-fold:

  1. the case for historicity (part 1, chapters 1 to 3) demonstrated the frequently unscholarly and generally fallacious efforts of recent attempts by mainstream scholars to present an argument for the historical existence of Jesus, and how such efforts effectively (unintentionally) support the case for agnosticism;
  2. the case for agnosticism (part 2, chapters 4 to 6) demonstrated the hollowness of the foundations (both source foundations and the methods by which certain inferences are drawn from these sources) for any assertion that Jesus did exist
  3. the case for mythicism (part 3, chapters 7 to 9) demonstrated that one does not need a historical Jesus to explain the evidence we have for Christian origins and that Christianity began with a belief in a heavenly (not historical) Jesus is indeed plausible.

Lataster has made it abundantly clear where the sound scholarly approach lies:

But look at what Casey did. Look at what Ehrman and the others do. These prominent historicists strangely and illogically appeal to the majority, appeal to authority, appeal to possibility, and, worst of all, appeal to innumerable sources that don’t even exist, in order to prove something that is supposed to be very obvious, something that is allegedly borderline insane to deny. This must stop. Scholars cannot be allowed to continue building on previous scholarship in the field, when the foundations – such as the appeals to hypothetical sources – are highly conjectural to begin with. If we ahistoricists argued like they do, we would be overlooked (well, more than we already are), and rightly so. These historicists did not argue in a transparent probabilistic fashion; they merely declared that their hypothesis is true or almost certainly true, and that anybody who’s anybody agrees with them. Contrast that with the approaches of Carrier and myself. Who are the ones trying to posit a wealth of non-existing foundational sources, whilst disregarding the impact of numerous actually existing sources? And who are the ones simply applying and asking others to apply transparent probabilistic reasoning to the sources that we do actually have access to?

This all should make it easy to figure out which scholars have an agenda, and which scholars merely go where the evidence leads. I’ll leave it to you to decide if you prefer the arguments of the people that used evidence, and logic, and had no real desire to deny the existence of a Historical Jesus, or if you prefer the wild and unsubstantiated claims about near-infinite non-existing sources, and just so happen to arrive at conclusions that placate their ultimately Christian benefactors. I strongly encourage philosophers and historians, and even other scholars, from outside the field to continue to scrutinise the methods and conclusions of these Biblical specialists. Several educated outsiders – and even some insiders – so far have done so and discovered that the emperor has no clothes.

(Lataster, p. 450)

Exactly. As for mythicists being driven by some need to debunk the existence of Jesus, such an accusation is entirely without evidential support and actually flies in the face of the evidence.

Calculations

read more »


2019-10-26

Review part 9: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Mythicism – the Evidence)

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by Neil Godfrey

The third part of Raphael Lataster’s Questioning the Historicity of Jesus is where he presents his case for mythicism, and since his case is essentially a review of Richard Carrier’s arguments in On the Historicity of Jesus, this post is a review of a review.

Lataster has is differences from Carrier and several times points to areas where he wished Carrier had approached a point differently and so forth, but in the end he concedes that all of his criticisms make no real difference to the core of Carrier’s argument:

It is surely an endorsement for Carrier’s book, that my most significant criticisms reveal an intent to raise mostly petty objections, which pose no problems whatever to his case.

(Lataster, p. 392)

Another use for Bayes – Q

One such disappointment Lataster expresses is Carrier’s failure to elaborate on the tendency of many historical Jesus scholars to rely upon “imaginary sources” such as Q. In turn, however, I would like to comment on what I think is to some extent an over-reach by Lataster with respect to “imaginary sources” at least with respect to the Q source — the hypothetical source of Jesus sayings that the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke are said to have shared. Quite some years ago now I was preparing to dismiss the notion of Q and look more favourably on arguments that the author of the third gospel instead knew and adapted sayings (and other) material from the first gospel, but in personal correspondence Earl Doherty convinced me that I had not investigated the arguments for the Q hypothesis diligently enough to justify setting it aside so easily. Doherty challenged me with detailed arguments I had not thought through carefully before and I soon saw that I needed to study the detailed works of John Kloppenborg and Burton Mack and others to know what it was I was “against”. It is a little unfair to dismiss Q as an “imaginary” source because it is in fact a serious hypothesis subject to various tests. What I think would be an interesting approach to the debate between the Q hypothesis and the Goodacre-Farrer hypothesis (that the author of Luke used both the Mark and Matthew has sources) would be a Bayesian analysis of the evidence for underlying each hypothesis and to see which one emerges the more probable.

But I am digressing. As both Lataster and Carrier would acknowledge, even if Q were a highly probable source for both the first and third gospels it would bring us no closer to a determination of whether Jesus originated as a historical or mythical person.

An important reminder – a fortiori

Lataster rightly emphasizes throughout his discussion of Carrier’s treatment of the various sources for Jesus that Carrier argues a fortiori, always preferencing the odds in favour of historicity wherever possible. Lataster further stresses that Carrier even counts the evidence of the Pauline epistles, the references to James the brother of the Lord, as favouring the hypothesis of historicity. Examples — of which critics of Carrier’s book should note, and which should lead readers of certain critical reviews of Carrier’s arguments to pause and reconsider the intellectual honesty of some of what they have read:

So again, though he thinks Paul’s failure to distinguish biological from fictive brothers of Jesus is evidence against historicity, he nevertheless still counts it as evidence for historicity, and thus against mythicism. . . . .

Despite thinking that the evidence from the Pauline and non-Pauline epistles is at least 16 times more likely on minimal mythicism, Carrier very charitably decides that the consequent probabilities should here favor historicity instead, effectively claiming that the Historical Jesus is 3 times more likely.209

209 Carrier (OHOJ), pp. 594–595.

(Lataster, pp. 426, 427)

On avoiding unhelpful responses

Back to “mostly petty objections”, I do find somewhat jarring certain terms like “mentally disabled” and “lying” (fortunately appearing only occasionally) when speaking of recipients and authors of visionary experiences. I would prefer consistent use of language that opened up the mental horizons of the ancients to moderns rather than introducing modern analyses that cloud a modern reader’s grasp of the historical culture. Another term, one taken over from Carrier, is the expression “cosmic sperm bank” in discussing the ancient beliefs in how God might preserve a Davidic line across and beyond human generations. Such anachronisms invite ridicule. Lataster even refers to the Zoroastrian belief that a certain lake contained the sperm of Zoroaster so that a virgin bathing in it would be impregnated and bear a messianic figure. The scholar of Second Temple Judaism owes it to readers to explain the thought-world of the ancients and avoid misleading anachronisms. Lataster attempts to smooth over the conceptual difficulties with read more »


2019-10-24

Review part 8: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Mythicism)

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by Neil Godfrey

Until now I have been working from a digital version of Raphael Lataster’s Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse, that was supplied to me by Brill for these review posts.  I have since been forwarded by Brill a physical copy of the book after I informed them that it might make exploring it for discussion a little easier. It does make a nice change to leaf through fresh clean book-odour pages and marking them with a light pencil. I am also reminded of the retail price with a physical copy of this volume: Brill advertises both the e-book and hardback at $US210. The Australian Amazon site equates that to $A294.97 + $15 postage. Australia’s Dymocks bookstore advertizes it at $A587.99 Those sorts of prices tell us that Brill clearly is looking at libraries (in particular academic libraries) as its primary market. (The publisher balances costs of publication against expected sales and such prices are not uncommon for scholarly books; so don’t assume the prices are a gold mine for the authors.) At this point it is appropriate to recall the emerging number of scholars (discussed in the opening post in this series) who are prepared to consider the Christ Myth theory as a reasonable hypothesis that deserves serious discussion if not outright acceptance.

So far we have surveyed Lataster’s Part 1, his analysis of the case for Jesus having been a historical figure (the first three chapters) and Part 2, the justification for being agnostic about the question of historicity (the next three chapters). We now come to the third and final part of the book, “The Case for Mythicism”.

Here Lataster hews closely to Richard Carrier’s exhaustive (ca. 600 pages) case for mythicism in On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. His case therefore entails a justification of Carrier’s Bayesian approach to the question. (See part 4 of this series for an earlier discussion by Lataster in which he addressed some common misconceptions about this application of Bayes’ theorem.) I think Lataster has made a worthy contribution by abbreviating and simplifying Carrier’s arguments and overall thesis. The main reason I think so is the quite disjointed and misleading criticisms I have seen online (including in the scholarly Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus) of Carrier’s book. Too often criticisms have targeted specific discussions in On the Historicity of Jesus without giving readers any indication of the context and weight put on those points by Carrier himself. So Carrier lists forty-eight pieces (or “elements”) of background information that need to be considered against any detailed arguments for or against historicity, with each of them having different degrees of significance, and none being of itself decisive, yet some critics will take just one or two of these points of background discussion and give readers the impression that they are foundations of his entire argument, and so convey the notion that criticizing just those is enough to demolish the case for mythicism. To read Lataster’s discussion of Carrier’s book is to refresh one’s memory of exactly both the method and details of Carrier’s presentation — something several critics apparently failed to grasp. read more »


2019-10-23

When You Don’t Need Anger Anymore

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by Neil Godfrey

Words of wisdom for anyone who thinks “once a fundamentalist always a fundamentalist”, or that former cult members continue to be motivated by reactionary anger – spoken by one who escaped the ignorance of a cult upbringing, Tara Westover:

Anger has a role to play. Anger is a mechanism our brains use to get us — it’s a self-defence mechanism — your brain tells you to be angry so you get yourself out of situations that will do you harm.

Once you’re away, once you’re safe, you don’t need anger anymore. You can let it go and live a better life without it.

That’s from around the 40 minute mark of a broadcast interview with Tara Westover on ABC – Conversations. That’s the Australian ABC. The summary on the webpage:

Tara grew up in rural Idaho, in the shade of the Rocky Mountains.

Her family was ruled by her father, a radical Mormon survivalist who thought the End of Days was upon them.

His distrust of government meant Tara had no birth certificate and was home-schooled, which really meant she worked in her father’s junkyard.

When she became a teenager, her brother became violently abusive towards her.

Tara taught herself in secret and was admitted to Brigham Young University in Utah.

From there she went to Cambridge and Harvard, and had to educate herself about the wider world.

The interview was enlightening, so refreshing to listen to someone who has thought about her experiences in a constructive way. I’ll have to read her book, too.

 


2019-10-22

Right-wing news is everywhere

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by Neil Godfrey

Some interesting comparisons of the “left’s” and “right’s” use of social media. Again, citing Ferguson et al, with additional detail from Albright:

In the absence of data transparency, we are reserved about all claims by Facebook, Twitter, Google, or anyone else about what ads they did or did not sell or the uses of the sites; we have trouble understanding why several Congressional committees were so slow to require full public disclosure of exact information, especially once the companies admitted that the ads already ran in public. For the same reason, we are cautious about assertions by Trump campaign workers that they did not find Twitter very useful, though that assertion is potentially very telling, since so many more bots are keyed to Twitter, rather than Facebook (LoBianco, 2017).

We take much more seriously the findings of empirical studies of overall election communication patterns by independent researchers who gathered their own data. Jonathan Albright has attempted to map the “ecology” of both left and right networks in several recent studies. His work emphasizes the unusually dense, ramified character of the right wing messaging networks that developed over the last few years:

“to put it bluntly, ‘right-wing’ news is everywhere: Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, small issuebased websites, large news websites, WordPress blogs, Google Plus (?), Pinterest pages, Reddit threads, etc.” (Albright, 2016).

A Harvard study of the internet in the 2016 presidential election makes a similar point:

“Our clearest and most significant observation is that the American political system has seen not a symmetrical polarization of the two sides of the political map, but rather the emergence of a discrete and relatively insular right-wing media ecosystem whose shape and communications practices differ sharply from the rest of the media ecosystem, ranging from the center-right to the left. Right-wing media were centered on Breitbart and Fox News, and they presented partisan-disciplined messaging, which was not the case for the traditional professional media that were the center of attention across the rest of the media sphere” (Faris et al., 2017).

What’s going on here? Where are the Russians?

26 Note that Breitbart is strongly pro-Israel, as the site explained repeatedly in the wake of Charlottesville. Steve Bannon’s own movies are also quite sympathetic to African-American problems. But these facts hardly exhaust Breitbart or Bannon’s relationships to the substantial segment of the far right that is openly anti-Semitic and white supremacist. See BERNSTEIN, J. 2017. Alt-White: How the Breitbart Machine Laundered Racist Hate. BuzzFeed, October 5, 2017. Cf. also the discussion in GREEN, J. 2017. Devil’s Bargain — Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, New York, Penguin.

By 2016, the Republican right had developed internet outreach and political advertising into a fine art and on a massive scale quite on its own (Faris et al., 2017) (Albright, 2016). Large numbers of conservative websites, including many that that tolerated or actively encouraged white supremacy and contempt for immigrants, African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews, or the aspirations of women had been hard at work for years stoking up “tensions between groups already wary of one another.”26 Breitbart and other organizations were in fact going global, opening offices abroad and establishing contacts with like-minded groups elsewhere. Whatever the Russians were up to, they could hardly hope to add much value to the vast Made in America bombardment already underway. Nobody sows chaos like Breitbart or the Drudge Report, as the New York Times documented in one Idaho town (Dickerson, 2017).

See the original article onsite for the full detail of the above map: https://medium.com/@d1gi/left-right-the-combined-post-election2016-news-ecosystem-42fc358fbc96

Albright’s comments:

With a few exceptions, the unique “left-wing” sites are basically nowhere to be found on the right-wing side of the network. The graph confirms that, at least as far as connections (hyperlinks) go online, much of the major “left-wing” media appear to be isolated from the most active parts of the news ecosystem.

. . .

Seriously, the “right-wing” sites have Wikipedia, Facebook, Google, Reddit, and YouTube in their own network “corner.” Need I say more?

. . .

To put it bluntly, “right-wing” news is everywhere: Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, small issue-based websites, large news websites, WordPress blogs, Google Plus (?), Pinterest pages, Reddit threads, etc.

. . .

Bottom line is, the right-wing sites appear to be linking heavily into most of the left-wing news media, the major news players, and also to each other. However, the “left-wing” media are not linking into most of the “right-wing” sites. To make matters worse, due to the relative lack of diversity in the left media ecosystem (see my last “macro-propaganda” post), there’s right-wing sites in more places across the network. This must have something to do with the “left-wing” news media/journalism “bubble.”

. . .

To make matters worse for the “left-wing” media, the right also appears to be much more active around the “center” of this combined news ecosystem. And what’s the site at the exact center of this L+R network? It’s Senate.gov. NOAA.gov appears to run a close second, though.


Albright, Jonathan. 2016. “Left + Right: The Combined Post-#Election2016 News ‘Ecosystem.’” Medium. December 11, 2016. https://medium.com/@d1gi/left-right-the-combined-post-election2016-news-ecosystem-42fc358fbc96.

Ferguson, Thomas, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen. 2018. “Industrial Structure and Party Competition in an Age of Hunger Games: Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential Election / How Money Won Trump the White House.” Institute for New Economic Thinking, Working Paper No. 66, January. https://www.ineteconomics.org/research/research-papers/industrial-structure-and-party-competition-in-an-age-of-hunger-games.


 


2019-10-20

“How Money Won Trump the White House”

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by Neil Godfrey

From Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen:

As our Table 4 above showed [not shown here], Trump had largely financed his primary campaign with small contributions and loans from himself. As late as mid-May, he remained convinced that his success in using free media and his practice of going over the head of the establishment press directly to voters via Twitter would make it unnecessary for him to raise the “$1 billion to $2 billion that modern presidential campaigns were thought to require” (Green, 2017).

As the convention approached, however, the reality of the crucial role of major investments in political parties started to sink in. Some of the pressure came from the Republican National Committee and related party committees. Their leaders intuitively grasped the point we demonstrated in a recent paper: that outcomes of most congressional election races in every year for which we have the requisite data are direct (“linear”) functions of money (Ferguson et al., 2016). The officials could safely project that the pattern would hold once again in the 2016 Congressional elections (as it did – see Figure 3).56 But the Trump campaign, too, began to hold out the tin cup on its own behalf with increasing vehemence. As we noted earlier, small donations had been flowing steadily into its coffers. Unlike most previous Republican efforts, these added up to some serious money. But in the summer it became plain that the sums arriving were not nearly enough. In many senses, Trump was no Bernie Sanders.

. . . . .

We are able to source the revenues to individual big businesses and investors and aggregate them by sector (Table 6) and also by specific time intervals. Our data reveal aspects of the campaign’s trajectory that have received almost no attention. It is apparent that Trump’s and Manafort’s efforts to conciliate the Republican establishment initially met with some real success. The run up to the Convention brought in substantial new money, including, for the first time, significant contributions from big business. Mining, especially coal mining; Big Pharma (which was certainly worried by tough talk from the Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, about regulating drug prices); tobacco, chemical companies, and oil (including substantial sums from executives at Chevron, Exxon, and many medium sized firms); and telecommunications (notably AT&T, which had a major merge merger pending) all weighed in.57

Money from executives at the big banks also began streaming in, including Bank of America, J. P. Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo. Parts of Silicon Valley also started coming in from the cold. Contrary to many post-election press accounts, in the end contributions from major Silicon Valley firms or their executives would rank among Trump’s bigger sources of funds, though as a group in the aggregate Silicon Valley tilted heavily in favor of Clinton. Just ahead of the Republican convention, for example, at a moment when such donations were hotly debated, Facebook contributed $900,000 to the Cleveland Host Committee. In a harbinger of things to come, additional money came from firms and industries that appear to have been attracted by Trump’s talk of tariffs, including steel and companies making machinery of various types (Table 6).58 The Trump campaign also appears to have struck some kind of arrangement with the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns more local TV stations than any other media concern in the country, for special access “in exchange for broadcasting Trump interviews without commentary (Anne, 2017).”

Crisis

In mid-August, as Trump sank lower in the polls, the crisis came to a head. Rebekah Mercer had her fateful conversation with Trump at a fundraiser. Manafort, already under pressure from a string of reports about his ties with the Ukraine and Russia, was first demoted and then fired. Steve Bannon took over direction of the campaign and Kellyanne Conway was promoted to campaign manager (Green, 2017). . . . .

Breaking Through

read more »


2019-10-16

Review part 7: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (The Problems of Paul – 2)

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by Neil Godfrey

We now come to what I think is Raphael Lataster’s strongest argument yet for being agnostic about the historicity of Jesus. It’s the last part of chapter 6 addressing “problems of Paul”.

Lataster begins by pointing out the well-known divergences between the accounts of Paul and the gospels and what these divergences specifically suggest about the theologically fractious evolution of the Jesus narrative. The argument then moves to what Paul tells us of his relations with followers of Jesus before him, especially James, and the many serious questions his comments raise given the assumption that those followers knew or were even related to an impressive prophetic figure now believed to have ascended to heaven. And that brings the argument to that ever contentious passage in the mythicist-historicist debate, “James, the brother of the Lord”.

Again Lataster’s broader knowledge of religion studies (as distinct from the narrower speciality of New Testament) and the histories of newly developing religions enables him to inform readers of the interesting possibility that biological relationships were created to co-opt pre-existing religious ideas into the new faith. Not that Lataster relies upon mere possibilities. Mainstream biblical scholars — in particular two who are “historicists” — are identified as either disputing the authenticity of the “brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians or (again with Bart Ehrman) at least provide enough caveats to lead one to have doubts about its authenticity. I think Lataster is on more secure ground when he develops the in full the argument for this passage not being original to the epistle than he is when reminding readers (as he also does) of the various arguments that the phrase has a range of meanings, especially in religious contexts, and does not necessarily point to a biological relationship. Many conservative biblical scholars reflexively recoil from suggestions of interpolation but Lataster is correct to point out that this reflex is in the main a product of religious conservatism. When the broader context of the dates and conditions of our manuscripts are considered, along with what is well-known about literary reproductions (including forgeries and theologically driven “redactions”) of the day, then it is only sensible and fair to be open to reasonable arguments for interpolations.

Later we read of the dual standards of scholarship in Bart Ehrman’s works. Lataster reminds us how Ehrman’s efforts to argue against the mythicist case in Did Jesus Exist? were very often shots fired at straw men yet in his subsequent books, How Jesus Became God and Jesus Before the Gospels, Lataster shows that many of Ehrman’s arguments suddenly align with the arguments of the mythicists that he earlier regrettably misrepresented or failed to grasp, arguments that he even mocked when they were presented by mythicists!

At this point Lataster drives home the biases of too many biblical scholars by demonstrating how even reputable names among them publish citations that simply do not support their assertions at all. One has always to look up and check the sources cited because so often vague passages are taken and assumed to be saying something specific in support of conventional understandings, and those works are subsequently cited by other scholars as having long settled the matter. Scratch the surface, however, and one finds that such assertions and citations and recycled quoting are all based on vague or irrelevant sources. The specific case Lataster refers to is Dan G. McCartney’s assertion that one of the church fathers “simply accepts that James was Jesus’s younger half-brother”, yet the three sources cited do not even mention James; and then James McGrath is cited as confidently appealing to McCartney’s assertion as having established that point. Worse, a biblical scholar is quoted making assertions about the church father’s views that directly contradict the explicitly stated words of that church father in the same paragraph. Such is some of the worst of biblical scholarship engaged in arguments against mythicism that Lataster exposes.

Lataster’s case for interpolation of the “brother of the Lord” passage is strong, being based on the use of the relevant epistle by the church father Tertullian who was using it to attack a view of a heretic that Jesus was not truly human. Tertullian points out that the heretic had problems with other gospel passages asserting Jesus had brothers but fails to drive home to the Paul-loving heretic that Paul himself claimed to have met “the brother of the Lord” — even though he quotes verses either side of that passage.

The only slight lack in Lataster’s argument is when he raises the question of why an interpolator would not make the “brother of the Lord” passage even less potentially ambiguous than it is. He fails to consider a common source of interpolations, a marginal note made by one scribe that confuses a later scribe who incorporates that note into the main text. read more »


2019-10-14

Testing the Water — Dimmericks

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Tim Widowfield

Longtime readers of Vridar may recall my “Bad Five-Line Poems.” As you know, a true limerick is not simply a poem that follows the form AABBA; it must also be dirty. Since a “clean limerick” is an oxymoron, we must call them something else.

I’ve been writing politically charged bad five-line poems on Facebook for a few years now, using the term “#Dimmerick.” (My wife often calls me “Dim,” and not without reason. Several old friends from my enlisted days still sometimes call me Dimmy or Dimmer.)

At any rate, for various reasons, I now believe that Facebook is a terrible place to post original content. I’m going to try them out here. And if I can find the inspiration, I’ll try to make them a regular feature.

read more »


2019-10-13

Review part 6: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (The Problems of Paul – 1)

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

https://brill.com/abstract/title/54738

I had hoped to cover Raphael Lataster’s sixth chapter, The Problems of Paul, in a single post but real life circumstances have obliged me to spend smaller amounts of time per day here so I’ll break it up into several posts.

I found Lataster’s chapter on Paul to be one of the best sections of his book so far. Lataster avoids common traps too many mythicists fall into when addressing Paul while at the same time he makes sound use of serious critical evaluations and broader questions pertaining to our sources to make what I consider to be very solid arguments without letting their potential controversy deflect him from course.

Some radical scholars have questioned the existence of Paul but Lataster rightly sidesteps that question as a red-herring in the context of asking if Jesus was a historical figure. Whatever we do with “Paul” himself the epistles in his name still need to be addressed.

Physical or Spiritual?

The most fundamental question that is asked of Paul’s letters in historicist-mythicist debates is whether the letters present Jesus as a physical or exclusively spiritual being. Obviously, if our (possibly) earliest sources for Jesus consider him a spiritual entity then the historicity of a Jesus figure has to be questioned. On the other hand, even if we can establish that Paul definitely thought of Jesus as a flesh and blood human being on earth in a recent past then I don’t believe we can conclude that that of itself establishes Jesus as a historical figure. History is replete with stories and legends of people who are believed to have existed yet whom we know to be mythical. Nonetheless, it goes without saying that an earthly Jesus in Paul’s letters will open up the possibility of Jesus being historical more than the alternative.

What is most significant about the evidence in Paul’s writings, Lataster stresses, is its ambiguity, or at least its potential to be subject to alternative interpretations. That is all that is needed to legitimize the question of whether Jesus was historical or not.

Vridar posts addressing the “born of a woman” passage in Galatians: The “Born of a Woman” / Galatians 4:4 INDEX

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians we read that Jesus was “born of a woman” and that would seem to end the discussion as to whether Paul thought of Jesus as a literal human being — except that Lataster points readers to Bart Ehrman’s discussion of this passage in Orthodox Corruption of Scripture which notes

a) there is compelling evidence in the writings of the earliest church fathers that while surrounding passages in Galatians were well known the particular passage with “born of woman” is not in evidence at all, even though it would have served decisive blows in the theological arguments those fathers were attempting to make;

b) that the word translated “born” is not the usual word for “born” but another word that carries ambiguities about the actual process being described and which has significance for various theological debates in the second century.

Lataster further raises the possibility that the passage was originally meant to be understood allegorically but I find the arguments raised for that possibility seem to be slightly strained against the natural reading of the text. (I have the same difficulties with Richard Carrier’s case along the same lines in On the Historicity of Jesus.) The allegorical portion of the text is made explicit and it appears to me to be introduced to inject a certain meaning into “real events” in the preceding verses. But that’s all a minor detour.

On the same question as to whether Paul’s writings speak of a human or exclusively spiritual Jesus Lataster further addresses a more general point that I find to be otherwise largely overlooked in this debate: read more »


2019-10-12

Time to Return

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by Neil Godfrey

Street Art — Pixabay

I took some leave from blogging, quite unplanned, but it was a compulsive digression. I have been reading, almost non-stop, book after book and article after article, trying to get a firmer handle on what has been happening to make the world (specifically, our “democracies” in the USA, Europe, Australia) what they are today. I knew something big was changing back in the 1980s and then through the 1990s but you know what it’s like, one is busy getting on with life and carries on like all the other frogs (cooking, washing, driving, working, watching tv) who are in the pot that is slowly coming to a boil.

It all started when someone here posted a video of an interview with Noam Chomsky. I had seen the video before but this time for some reason I took notice when Chomsky directed his interviewer to a study on the influence of corporate dollars on the political system. So I looked it up. It was a book published way back in 1995 by Thomas Ferguson, Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems.

The central argument of the book is that political parties are not primarily out there trying to win most votes. That’s a secondary exercise and one that falls into place after achieving their first priority: winning the financial backing of whoever can financially back them the most. In its simplest form the idea can be illustrated this way. (I use the issue of unionized labour because that was Ferguson’s illustration; I thought of changing it to the question of carbon emissions and global warming.)

Imagine 97% of the electorate want strong labour unions to ensure job security and fair compensation. These are the ordinary people with only the basic incomes to get by reasonably happy.

Now imagine 3% of the electorate oppose unionization of labour entirely. These are the rich factory owners who employ everyone else.

Election time comes. None of the 97% has the private means, the money, to stand for election. It costs money just to get around from venue to venue and more money to take care of basic income to support one’s family while doing that, etc etc. But one person hits on an idea of how to get money to do everything necessary to campaign for votes. The only people with the money are the 3%. So our would-be candidate asks them to fund the campaign. Some of that 3 % are willing to do so but only on the condition that the candidate promises not to support unionization, but even oppose the idea.

Another would-be candidate finds a few among the 3% who are willing to allow just a small amount of unionization, say for only 5% of the workforce.

Come election day, assuming the two candidates had equal advertizing and equal coverage of the electorate, that is, they each had the same amount of funding, the best that the 97% of the electorate would get out of the election is a representative who will support no more than the unionization of 5% of the workforce. They would not even be likely to get that candidate if he or she only got a fraction of the campaign contributions as their rival.

Obviously real life is more complex than that simplest of models but Ferguson and his colleagues who study the complexities of funding find the rule works essentially every time: to understand who rules look for who has the gold. That’s the golden rule.

Earlier I posted on what I believed to be an insightful article by Nancy Fraser, From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump — and Beyond. Thomas Ferguson’s work is coming from the same direction. But Golden Rule is old. Published 1995. So I looked for more recent work. And that’s where I’ve been the past several days, reading and following up more recent studies by Ferguson and by others he cites and others who appear to be working from the same datasets of evidence.

The most dramatic shifts have happened with the emergence of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, of course, and that’s where I have been trying to catch up with. What the hell is going on? It’s not completely alien to human experience, though. One recent study even sent me back to reading the 1973 edition of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (first published 1948). (That was to revisit other historical alliances of what Arendt calls “the alliance between mob and capital”.)

It’s been a fascinating, though troubling, journey, covering shifts and divisions in the corporate class, propaganda manipulations, and, I think, a deeper understanding of how this complex and confusing world works. Once again one finds scholarly research tackling questions that have traditionally been forbidden in their field and the need for those pioneers to branch out into interdisciplinary studies before eventually making significant inroads into the conventional wisdom.

I expect to be posting more along the lines of these sorts of studies.


2019-10-07

many of them tribal

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by Neil Godfrey

 

Of course, the Arab or Kurd is only ever in it for the money and tribal warfare is their way of life. How happily enlightened we are.