The increasing desperation in the Middle East

The news reports are preoccupied with the many families fleeing the Middle East — mostly Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan — desperately trying to get into Europe, as if Europe were a safe haven.  As is becoming evident, after so many days and so much expense in order to make the journey, they are being greeted by reluctance if not open hostility.  Europe is in no way ready to receive them. But it is evident that these peoples — Muslims, Christians, people of all kinds and of all walks of life — are desperately voting with their feet.

In a sense this pattern of migration is not new.  The western world has benefited for many years by the flight of the middle classes, the professional and educated elements of these societies.  Those folks have been fleeing the troubled parts of Asia and Africa for years.  What is new here is that these refugees are from all levels of society:  the poor, the weak, the sick, the broken.  Everyone that has the means to flee seems to be fleeing.

So what drives them out of their homes, their whole social worlds?  Here is a note I received from a friend from one of those countries.

Tragedy and pain have found their way into my every organ today. What has turned my world upside down is that I have no solution to the problems I see. I have become mute. There’s too much suffering — way beyond my comprehension. Why God punishes its people when they are innocent? It’s on these trying days that we’d like to doubt God’s existence, His glory, His powers. But as I probe into the territory of the divine, it’s then that I see Him most vividly. Suffering and pain — contrary to the conventional belief — can make us a whole lot closer to the Almighty. I’m a fighter. Even though I despise the world and all its designs sometimes, I am grateful for all that has been bestowed upon me; and I feel lucky to be alive, fully functional — with all my cognitive faculties intact. In the midst of darkness, there’s always light. And that’s why I must remain sanguine and continue to stay in the fight and forge ahead.

At some point in the course of events we can come to the point when desperation leads us, as he says, to appeal to and seek help in the notion that there is a God who is above it all, who is well aware of the messy world that we live in, and is the only hope for any sense to be made in the human condition.  If there is no judgment, if there is nothing to look for beyond this life, if there is no mercy, then there is no hope.  It’s not good enough to rail at God.  At some point we have to throw ourselves on the mercy of One who is bigger than the world as we know it and has, as generations before us have desired, a bigger plan.

In the mean time, “In the midst of darkness” we seek the light, and remain sanguine, and continue the fight, and forge ahead.

[See the following site for a helpful analysis of what has caused the movement to flee Syria: Click here]




I don’t have time to elaborate now, but today’s news is full of great examples of how power works.To see how power works in capitalist countries have a look at this: New climate war: Billionaires vs. Big Oil

To see how power works in Egypt — that is, how the Egyptian army runs its country — look at this: Prominent Muslim Brotherhood Leader Is Seized in Egypt

Egypt does not have an army:  Its army has a country:  to see more of how it works, look at this:  Ousted General in Egypt Is Back, as Islamists’ Foe


[This is a revised version, 8/8/13]
It took me many years in my teaching to declare to my
students that societies run on myths.  At
this point it seems strange that it took so long for me to come to that. But
now I see it so clearly in so many places, in so many ways.  David Runciman reviewed a book in the London Review of Books that caught my attention. Ira Katznelson, in Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our
, explains the strategic partnership that FDR had with southern
Democrats.  Both sides had to compromise
in order to work together even though in fact their agendas were different and
actually contrary in some critical ways. 

What struck me was how racism was such a critical basis of
the agenda of leaders in the South in that relationship.  The whole agenda in the South was to make
sure that the federal government didn’t interfere with what the power elite in
the south were doing in their own states.  States rights was
crucial in their federal discourse because the power elite needed to do what they
wanted locally.  Among themselves in
the South they justified their grip on power by appealing to racial
superiority.  Northern agendas should
never intrude on that myth. 

An example:  In a
debate about anti-lynching legislation in the US Senate in 1938 the Senator
from Mississippi, Theodore Bilbo, said that “one drop of Negro blood placed in the
veins of the purest Caucasian destroys the inventive genius of his mind and
strikes palsied his creative faculties.”  With this argument he protected lynching in the South from
federal legislation. 

In some ways not much has changed in the South, we might
say, because politics in the southern states seems still to be aimed at holding
at bay the pressures of outside [Northern] mores. 
The difference is that the Republican Party seems to be a better vehicle today for effecting that agenda than the Democratic Party. 

But of course in lots of ways much has changed.  Senator Bilbo made his statement – it shocks
ours sensibility in these times – in 1938. 
But his world was already ineluctably caught in a world that would
unmask the myth that seemed plausible in his time.  Thirteen years later, doctors in Baltimore
removed some cells from a tumor of an Afro-American woman, Henrietta Lacks, who was, it turned
out, dying of cancer.  To their surprise the doctors discovered that the cells taken from Mrs. Lacks could be multiplied in the lab.  Cell research became possible on a scale previously inconceivable.  Since that time those cells have been multiplied more times than anyone knows and become the basis for more than 74,000 scientific studies.  One drop of Negro blood has in this case provided
the world – scholars all over the world – with basic insights into “cell
biology, vaccines, and in vitro fertilization and cancer” [NYTimes 8/8/13, p. 1].

Little did the good Senator from Mississippi know. But my point is he wouldn’t care. What he sought to effect was protection of the interests of the power elite of his state [who happened of course to be white and their constituency to be white] justifying that agenda by reference to a myth about race; it paid to promote such a fantasy.  The justifications now are different – the power elite and their constituency in Mississippi are different now — but power seems to work about the same way as before.  Those who have it seek ways to protect it and — as humans need always to justify what they do – they explain the reasons for their behavior and policies in highly moral terms.  The South – and the North, and all human collectives, when they try to represent their collective interests – still speaks in moral terms; and in the case of the South it is still the Bible Belt.

The difference now is what can ring true: cell research, based on blood samples of a human being is taken to be exemplary of the whole “human race”; it is no longer considered to be a sample of a particular “race” [a category that cannot be documented biologically].

But it still raises questions about what is “real.”  Are all those studies based on Mrs Lacks’s cells?  Are they still hers?  Are they “Negro”? Who do they belong to?    

Doomsday Terror in Modern Russia

In the social sciences the emphasis on “science” can conceal the powerful influence that the moral imagination has on human life and social affairs.  That moral concerns animate a lot of our thoughts and worries seems to me generally unappreciated.

An example:  The worry among some Russias about the rapidly coming “end of the world.”  They seem to feel that the Mayan calendar, which marks the end of an era, predicts the end of the world; somehow the Mayans knew something that modern humanity has missed.  This in a country having a high degree of education.  RT reports that “Survival kits and trips to hell” are being sold in Russia in anticipation that something dreadful will happen on December 21, 2012.

In the Siberian city of Tomsk such items for “meeting the end of the world” include ID cards, notepads, canned fish, a bottle of vodka, rope, a piece of soap, among other items. The packages are said to be popular among customers, more than 1,000 kits have been already sold, the company says. 

Ukrainian entrepreneurs also offer a version of a doomsday kit. Just like Tomsk package, the Ukrainian one also includes alcohol: champagne for ladies and vodka for gentlemen. The rest of the kit consist of jack-knife, two-minute noodles, shampoo, soap, rope, matches and condoms. 

One Ukrainian enterprise is selling tours to heaven and hell for December 21 promising full return of money in case of “not getting to heaven or hell.” A trip to heaven would cost about $15, while trip to the underworld is more expensive at around $18. The agency explains difference in price by saying that Hell should be more fun.

I wouldn’t bet on that outfit being around on December 22.

Global Warming and the Burning of Jerusalem: Metaphor for our times?

I suppose that in every generation folks have worried about what their world was coming to.  Certainly in our time it seems to me there are good reasons to worry about it.  Aren’t terrifying prospects ahead worthy of serious consideration?  I know that to put into words the implications of some of the trends of our times can be disconcerting, especially when we see our leaders deliberately avoiding it, or worse, distorting what information is available so as to resist the kinds of changes necessary to avoid a potential train wreck ahead.
Consider a development in our times whose implications are difficult to assess but must be faced by our world leaders, those of the industrial powers more than any others, if disaster is to be escaped:  global warming.  I use this term deliberately rather than the less terrifying term, “climate change,” in order to stress what seems to me a matter of urgency.  Isn’t this a reality that must be addressed forthrightly?  Let us try to examine the information available to us as we best can, laying aside the various ways that politicians – who necessarily must voice the claims of those to whom they are indebted – have chosen the confuse the issue.   
Here is the dangerous reality as we best know it:
Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester (UK) reported last November (summarized in the Guardian, November 29, 2010) that
  • “the so-called safe limit of [a rise of 2 degrees centigrade] [is] impossible to keep. A 4C rise in the planet’s temperature would see severe droughts across the world and millions of migrants seeking refuge as their food supplies collapse.” In fact,”There is now little to no chance of maintaining [i.e. limiting] the rise in global surface temperature at below 2C, despite repeated high-level statements to the contrary,”
  • “Moreover, the impacts associated with 2C have been revised upwards so that [a rise of] 2C now represents the threshold [of] extremely dangerous climate change.”

The Guardian says that “The scientists’ modelling is based on actual tonnes of emissions, not percentage reductions, and separates the predicted emissions of rich and fast-industrialising nations such as China.  [The year] ‘2010 represents a political tipping point,’ said Anderson, but added in the report: ‘This paper is not intended as a message of futility, but rather a bare and perhaps brutal assessment of where our ‘rose-tinted’ and well-intentioned approach to climate change has brought us. Real hope and opportunity, if it is to arise at all, will do so from a raw and dispassionate assessment of the scale of the challenge faced by the global community.’” []
So, bluntly, Anderson and Bows are saying that unless more aggressive measures are taken the world economy as we know it will reach a kind of practical impasse; the implications are too horrific to put into words.  
All of this we have been hearing for years.  That politicians, and other interested groups threatened by this talk, claim that this is contested:  Right now Rick Santorum is mouthing this claim for reasons that seem too obvious to state.  Of course the future is always uncertain, but the scientific evidence is such that the leaders of our world are foolhardy to ignore it. 
So along with this danger of our times is the prospect that our politicians cannot bear to face it squarely for what it is.  Yes, denial is being promoted by wealthy interests – I have read that the Koch brothers are behind the Cato institute which has for years persisitently denied that global warming is a reality.  There is no danger, no need to cut back on CO2 emissions, they keep saying. 
The problem with planning in the public sphere is that it is essentially a political process, for defining the nature of the situation always risks taking decisions that will offend someone’s interests, and the more powerful those interests are the more difficult it is to act against their interests, even if the decision would be best for the society as a whole.  This situation opens possibilities for misreading and misrepresenting situations so grossly that serious dangers ahead could be ignored, with disastrous consequences.  This is the general point of Jared Diamond’s Collapse which recounts several cases in which dangers ahead were not avoided because the societies involved could not adjust their ways of life sufficiently to evade a disaster.   
I have been studying another case, one that should be familiar to the Judeo-Christian community since it appears in the Bible, but as far as I can tell, it has been generally ignored.  I describe the case in some length below because it seems to me so telling for the situation of our times.  The final collapse of the society involved took place in 586 B.C. even though it was eminently predictable — and was predicted over and over again — and yet was denied by those in a position to avoid it until there was no escape:   As a consequence, a great city was looted of its treasures, burned to the ground, and left as a desert waste.


In 609 B.C. the King of Judah, Josiah, who had spent most of his reign correcting affairs within his domains, became alarmed by the political scene around him, for a major confrontation of powers was brewing in Syria.  An upstart force of Babylonians and Medians had attacked the army of Assyria, the hegemon of Mesopotamia and Syria-Palestine, and forced them to flee even their capital city, Nineveh.[1]   As the Assyrians were regrouping in Syria to prepare for a decisive re-engagement, Pharaoh Neco II, who had pretentions of own in the region, began leading an Egyptian force from their outpost in Meggido, Palestine, northward into Syria.  But King Josiah took offense to their movements through his domains and even though his capital was more than a day’s march away he assembled an army to interrupt the Egyptians.  Despite Neco’s assurances that he had no designs on Judah Josiah led his troops into battle.  Josiah’s fateful mistake, for he lost his life in the ensuing battle, would allow his kingdom to fall under the control of the outside powers now contesting for dominance in the region, and eventually to suffer a crushing wreckage of the whole kingdom, a collapse that would forever become iconic in the imagination of the survivors and their descendants.

Josiah was replaced by his son Jehoahaz, chosen by the elders of the kingdom who for some reason passed over an older brother.  It would be the last time for many generations that Judah’s elders would choose their own leader.  Jehoahaz was scarcely enthroned when Neco, now the master of Judah, deposed Jehoahaz and shipped him back to Egypt.  And he exacted a severe penalty for Judah’s costly and unnecessary interruption to his military plans[2]: “a hundred talents” [7500 pounds] of silver and “a talent” [75 pounds] of gold [II Chron 36:1; II Kgs 23:31-36]. 

He also replaced Jehoahaz with the older brother, Eliakim, giving him a new name, Jehoiakim, to identify him as a vassal of Egypt.  But Judah’s alliance with Egypt vanished four years later when the Babylonians prevailed over the Assyrians and Egyptians in a decisive battle at Carchemish (605 B.C.).  As the Babylonians began to exercise their claims over all of Syria-Palestine Jehoiakim resisted.  Within the year, however, Nebuchadnezzar, crown prince of Babylon, sacked the city of Ashkelon in Philistia nearby, and Jahoiakim, now under siege, agreed to swear fealty to Babylon.[3]  Hegemony was still contested in the region, though, as was became clear when the Babylonians failed to invade Egypt in 600 B.C.[4] Jehoiakim took the opportunity to break his commitment to Nebuchadnezzar and re-ally himself with Pharaoh Neco.  As it happened Neco was no help in protecting his subjects when they were harassed by Chaldean, Syrian, Moabite, and Ammonite nomads allied with Babylon [II Kgs 24:2].  Nebuchadnezzar was during this time distracted by the sudden death of his father:  he had to race home to claim the throne from his rivals.  But once ensconced in power he was ready to deal with the perfidious King of Judah.  In spring 597 B.C. he brought a large force into Judah and deposed Jahoiakim, clasping him in chains “to take him to Babylon” [according to II Chron 36:6], although it appears that Jahoiakim died before he got there [II Kg 24:6].  Now he also exacted a price for his trouble, appropriating for himself some of the ceremonial objects from the sacred Jewish temple of Solomon [II Chron 36:5-7].   

Nebuchadnezzar placed Jehoiakim’s son Jehoiachin (also known as Coniah[5]), still a young man, on the throne in Jerusalem, but Coniah was scarcely in office when the emperor changed his mind (according to Josephus) and came back to replace him.  He was not however, received warmly, and in order to get into the city he had to besiege it.  The writer of the Book of Kings described the event: “At that time the servants of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up to Jerusalem, and the city was besieged. And Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to the city while his servants were besieging it, and Jehoiachin [Coniah] the king of Judah gave himself up to the king of Babylon, himself and his mother and his servants and his officials and his palace officials. The king of Babylon took him prisoner in the eighth year of his reign …” [II Kgs 24:10-12]. 

This was an occasion for Nebuchadnezzar to make off with more of the wealth of the city.  He “carried off all the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king’s house, and cut in pieces all the vessels of gold in the temple of the Lord, which Solomon king of Israel had made, …”  [II Kgs 24:13]  Moreover, he “carried away all Jerusalem and all the officials and all the mighty men of valor, 10,000 captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths. None remained, except the poorest people of the land.” [II Kings 24:14].  This deportation of the elite, perhaps including the young man Ezekiel, may have benefited the Jews in the long run, as it preserved the learned class, whose descendants would lead the return and reconstruction of the city a few generations later. 

The person Nebuchadnezzar chose to rule the city as his vassal was Mattaniah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, whom he renamed Zedekiah.  This time he obliged the new King to swear fealty to him in the name of his own God, Yahweh.  He put him “under oath … that the kingdom might be humble and not lift itself up, and keep his covenant that it might stand” [Ezek 17:13b,-14]. 

But Zedekiah and his advisers in Jerusalem failed to grasp their actual plight.  Enamored with Judah’s former greatness, they had every intention of reestablishing its storied eminence.  The king and his advisors in the city connived to throw off the yoke of their new masters.  There was, however, a small contingent of Jews led by the prophet Jeremiah who warned against rebellion.  They advised the King to consent to Nebuchadnezzar’s authority.  For the time being, the prophet urged, they should accept their vassal status under the Babylonians.  They should live as good citizens until a time when their god Yahweh would restore the fortunes of their people.  It was Yahweh’s decree, he said, that they would have to live under foreign domination for seventy years, a claim that appeared to be unthinkable to the nationalist Jews.

In Zedekiah’s eleventh year the nationalists got their way:  The king sent “ambassadors to Egypt, that they might give him horses and a large army” [Ezk 17:15].  And thus he outraged his master.  Once again Nebuchadnezzar led his army back into Judah, this time to settle the matter.  The Babylonians surrounded Jerusalem, depriving it of food and water from the outside.  Briefly distracted by a failed attempt of the Egyptians to dislodge them, they intensified their stranglehold on the city.  The siege lasted for a year and a half, with horrifying consequences.  The writer of II Kings [25:3-7] describes the scene.  On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine was so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land.  This may have been the situation described in the book of Lamentations, a funeral dirge written somewhat later:  the children “faint for hunger at the head of every street.”  And:  The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people. [Lam 4:10].  The author asks, “Should women eat the fruit of their womb, the children of their tender care?” [Lam 2:20]

In desperation the king and his army tried to flee.  “Then a breach was made in the city, and all the men of war fled by night by the way of the gate between the two walls, by the king’s garden, though the Chaldeans were around the city. And they went in the direction of the Arabah. But the army of the Chaldeans pursued the king and overtook him in the plains of Jericho, and all his army was scattered from him. Then they captured the king and brought him up to the king of Babylon at Riblah, and they passed sentence on him. They slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah and bound him in chains and took him to Babylon” [II Kg 25:3-7]. 

The Babylonians were not yet finished with this perfidious and incorrigible city.  “Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the Lord and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. And all the army of the Chaldeans, who were with the captain of the guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem. And the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had deserted to the king of Babylon, together with the rest of the multitude, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried into exile. But the captain of the guard left some of the poorest of the land to be vinedressers and plowmen” [II Kg 25:8-12]. 

Now the city lay open to pillage.  “What was of gold the captain of the guard took away as gold, and what was of silver, as silver.” Whatever could be melted down for weapons was carried off, even the contents of the temple, which for the writer of Kings were sacred objects. “And the pillars of bronze that were in the house of the Lord, and the stands and the bronze sea that were in the house of the Lord, the Chaldeans broke in pieces and carried the bronze to Babylon. And they took away the pots and the shovels and the snuffers and the dishes for incense and all the vessels of bronze used in the temple service, the fire pans also and the bowls.” The huge works of fine craftsmanship in the temple were likewise carted away.  “As for the two pillars, the one sea, and the stands that Solomon had made for the house of the Lord, the bronze of all these vessels was beyond weight. The height of the one pillar was eighteen cubits, and on it was a capital of bronze. The height of the capital was three cubits. A latticework and pomegranates, all of bronze, were all around the capital. And the second pillar had the same, with the latticework” [II Kg 25:13-17].  All these were carried away.

As a final measure, Nebuchadnezzar executed a number of the leading men:  “And the captain of the guard took Seraiah the chief priest and Zephaniah the second priest and the three keepers of the threshold, and from the city he took an officer who had been in command of the men of war, and five men of the king’s council who were found in the city, and the secretary of the commander of the army who mustered the people of the land, and sixty men of the people of the land who were found in the city. And Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard took them and brought them to the king of Babylon at Riblah. And the king of Babylon struck them down and put them to death at Riblah in the land of Hamath. So Judah was taken into exile out of its land” [II Kg 25:18-21]. 

The Experience of Desolation

The emasculation and impoverishment of Judah was total.  Along with the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. and the Holocaust during World War II, this event, the burning of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. was among the most shattering moments in Jewish history.  And yet little has been remarked on how powerfully it affected the moral sensibility of the Jews during the subsequent period of exile.  Even some people who read the Bible, our main source for what is known about the event, have only a vague sense of what happened and what it meant to the Jews of the succeeding generations, even though their writings expose clearly how deeply affected they were by the experience.

The writings of later generations describe the event in emotional terms: 

·       A Psalmist writes as if he had actually seen the destruction of the city and the temple.  “[T]he enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary! 4 Your foes [O God] have roared in the midst of your meeting place; they set up their own signs for signs.  5 They were like those who swing axes in a forest of trees. 6 And all its carved wood they broke down with hatchets and hammers.  7 They set your sanctuary on fire; they profaned the dwelling place of your name, bringing it down to the ground.  8 They said to themselves, “We will utterly subdue them”; they burned all the meeting places of God in the land” [Ps 74:3 b-8]. 

·       Another Psalmist similarly writes as if present to see the temple’s defilement:  “O God, the nations [=heathens] have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins. They have given the bodies of your servants to the birds of the heavens for food, the flesh of your faithful to the beasts of the earth.  They have poured out their blood like water all around Jerusalem, and there was no one to bury them.  We have become a taunt to our neighbors, mocked and derided by those around us” [Ps 79:1-4].

·       The writer of Lamentations,[6] in poetic dirges about these times, described the wreckage after the Babylonians were finished.[7]  [Chapter 1:1] “How lonely sits the city that was full of people!  How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations!  She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave.  [2] She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies.  [3] Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude; she dwells now among the nations, but finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. …. [4b] all her gates are desolate; her priests groan; her virgins have been afflicted, and she herself suffers bitterly. … [10] The enemy has stretched out his hands over all her precious things; for she has seen the nations enter her sanctuary, those whom you forbade to enter your congregation. [11] All her people groan as they search for bread; they trade their treasures for food to revive their strength.  

·       Also, [Chapter 2:9] Her gates have sunk into the ground; he has ruined and broken her bars; her king and princes are among the nations; the law is no more, and her prophets find no vision from the Lord. [10] The elders of the daughter of Zion sit on the ground in silence; they have thrown dust on their heads and put on sackcloth; the young women of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground. [11] My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out to the ground because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, because infants and babies faint in the streets of the city. [12] They cry to their mothers, “Where is bread and wine?” as they faint like a wounded man in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out on their mothers’ bosom.  … [21] In the dust of the streets lie the young and the old; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword…. 

·       [Chatper 4:8] Now their face is blacker than soot; they are not recognized in the streets; their skin has shriveled on their bones; it has become as dry as wood.  [9] Happier were the victims of the sword than the victims of hunger, who wasted away, pierced by lack of the fruits of the field.  …

·       The latter part of Isaiah (“Second Isaiah”) similarly describes the country in ruins, as if it were written during this time: [ Isa 64:10] Your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. 11 Our holy and beautiful house, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins.12 After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?

Does this tale have any significance for our present time?  Certainly in the city of Jerusalem there was a failure of foresight. But the political forces within the city of Jerusalem were so powerful that the true nature of the scene could scarcely be put into words.  Political interests clouded insight.  So those in a position to divert the course of events were unable or unwilling to acknowledge what they might have seen ahead. 
Is this the world we live in?  Could the earth burn like Jerusalem?  Is there not a failure of leadership in our time?  How might we force those in power to confront the course of affairs before the options are too narrow to avoid a disastrous collapse of the social order?

[1] Blaiklock 1972: 153.
[2] Neco may have objected to the elders’ decision to choose their own King even though now Judah would be a vassal under his command (Miller/Hayes 1986:402).
[3] The book of Daniel says that it was about this time that Nebuchadnezzar took a group of promising young men, including Daniel and several friends, to Babylon to be trained for his bureaucracy [Dan 1:1-4].
[4] Here I follow Miller and Hayes 1986:406-8); Cf. Blaiklock 1972:155.
[5] I refer to this person as Coniah rather than Jeconiah to avoid confusion with the kings with similar names Jehoiahaz and Jehoiakim.  He is also referred to as Jeconiah.
[6] Scholarly consensus about the time of writing places it during or soon after the events described here.  Chapter 5 seems to describe a situation somewhat later.
[7] By reproducing this poem in this form I violate the acrostic nature of the original, in which the lines begin with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, a form that is of course already invisible in English. 

Newt’s Outrage and South Carolina’s “moment of enthusiasm”

In the Republican debate in Charleston last night Newt Gingrich scored a standing ovation by his response to a question about the statement by one of his divorced wives that he had asked her to agree to “an open marriage” – that is, to “share him” with his mistress Callista Bisek, who is now his wife.  This was his response:

“I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office.  I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”

The response of the audience was the first of two standing ovations. 
Gingrich’s turning the question back on the news media is a familiar political device.  What alarms me is the response of the crowd, who not only accepted his response but endorsed it enthusiastically.  The question was obliterated by Newt’s outrage and the crowd’s enthusiasm. 
Consider the issue raised by the question:  How should the American public respond to a claim by an ex-wife of a candidate for President that he had asked her for “an open marriage” so that he could continue his liaison with a mistress and still retain an appearance of a faithful married man?  Also, how did this private proposal comport with Gingrich’s public behavior at the time?  Could this have been precisely during the time when he was condemning Bill Clinton for his extra-marital liaisons?  Gingrich would keep up appearances while presenting himself as a paragon of virtue. 
That was then.  Now is different, he says:  He has admitted to mistakes and now has reformed:  He is a good Catholic now; he’s got religion.  Now he would have the world understand that it is improper for anyone – and anyone in the media especially – to ask if his behavior in the past is worthy of someone who aspires to be President of the United States.  As he was outraged at the behavior of Bill Clinton he is now outraged at the behavior of the media who want to know more about his own behavior. 
To this outrage there was an audience in South Carolina that would join him enthusiastically in taking offense.  Presumably they agreed that the private behavior of a candidate for President should not be examined, even if it contrasts with the image he even then sought to present of himself. 
Their behavior brings to mind two statements of great nineteenth century social scientists on the behavior of crowds.  One of them said:

[Referring to “a section of civil society [that] emancipates itself and attains universal domination:] No class in society can play this part [of attaining universal domination] unless it can arouse, in itself and in the masses, a moment of enthusiasm in which it associates and mingles with society at large … and is recognized as the general representative of this society”

The author is suggesting that for a “section of civil society” to attain “universal domination” it must “arouse” in the masses “a moment of enthusiasm” through which it “associates and mingles with society at large” and appears to be “the general representative of the society.”  Such a moment of enthusiasm took place last night, when a crowd saw this man Newt Gingrich to be a “general representative” of their sentiments.
The other social scientist who wrote about crowd behavior had this to say:

The great movements of enthusiasm, indignation, and pity in a crowd do not originate in any one of the particular individual consciousness.  They come to each one of us from without and can carry us away in spite of ourselves… Once the crowd has dispersed, that is, once these social influences have ceased to act upon us and we are alone again, the motions which have passed through the mind appear strange to us, and we no longer recognize them as ours. We realize that these feelings have been impressed upon us …  It may even happen that they horrify us, so much were they contrary to our nature.  Thus, a group of individuals, most of whom are perfectly inoffensive, may, when gathered in a crowd, be drawn into acts of atrocity …

I hope that the good people of South Carolina will now, in retrospect, reflect on what happened, what the issues are, and what their response should have been. 

(And who were the social scientists I have quoted above?  And from what publications?)

The “Symbol-breathing” Animal

Papers are now read, grades recorded.  It’s time to consider how well I taught my students the fundamental concepts of my discipline.  [In my courses on “Civil Conflicts” and “Terrorism” and “The Clash of Civilizations” I have gotten used to being asked “What is this course about?” from students who realize that besides the stated topic there is another more abstract one in the course, but they are unsure what it is.  How social life is enabled, it turns out, is not easily taught.]  Judging from the papers students turned in I have done only fairly.  That so few of them really got it reflects on me.  My grade should be, maybe a B-.  One of my colleagues said the other day he would be satisfied if his students would demonstrate knowledge of merely the basic concepts of biological evolution, nothing more.  Me too, for the concept of culture. 
As the last exercise, I told them to write a paper comparing five cases [from those we examined in class], but without using the word “culture.”  When tempted to use the world “culture” they were to deconstruct what they had in mind, to specify its elements.  The point was to force them to identify more exactly the ways that folks in these different settings were engaging with each other and their predicaments by means of symbols.  

It was Ruth Benedict who suggested that culture is to us as water is to the fish of the deep.  Because water is their medium of existence it is fundamental to all they know.  Similarly we human beings dwell in oceans of symbols – layers and layers of forms to which we ascribe meanings.  We perceive through symbols, interpret what we perceive through symbols, react to what we perceive by acting meaningfully, that is, symbolically.  We create our visions, our expectations, our “worlds” through symbols.  

This is no “airy-fairy” world, as some disparagingly characterize such a view, because such a world cannot exist other than materially: Symbols are always material.  They are objects – always objects — to which we ascribe meaning:  flows of sound are taken to be meaningful utterances, marks on a page, a monument, or on the human body stand for other things.  Material things invested with meaning are the fundamental building blocks of the human imagination. 

I wanted my students to recognize how such intersubjective forms enable social life:  as human beings we draw from funds of symbols representing the understandings we have acquired through experience in order to make sense of the flow of stimuli that bombard us every waking moment.  With these symbolic forms we ascribe significance to those stimuli; we decide how to respond fittingly to the circumstance; and we act so as to convey our intentions, that is, meaningfully.  

However, although trained by experience to perceive and interpret and act in familiar ways we are not automatons; we are agents, able to choose how to perceive, how to interpret, and how to respond.  What we choose to see, and give significance to, and respond to are never the only possible ways to perceive, interpret, and act.    

So the key terms of this frame of reference are,
·        *the repertoire of symbolically constituted understandings available to us,
·        *our own selves as agents,
·        *the context that must be perceived, defined [by using symbols], and responded to meaningfully,
·        *the specific selections from our symbolic repertoire that we deploy in order to cope with the exigencies of the moment, and the reasons for those choices.

The ocean of symbols around us, framing our experience, pervading our thoughts, in fact enabling our thoughts, making it possible for us to conceive of a past and future, even to plan for a future – this is our medium.  Without it we cannot live.  In the absence of it – when we have no sense of significance – we are in danger, for we cannot bear to live otherwise.  

These are the fundamental concepts of my discipline that my students need to grasp.  I hope to do better next time.

The talking animal that needs to be heard

A rumination:  The other day I met someone who, according to what I had understood, was coming to see me to find out about my research.  I was of course flattered that anyone would think I was doing something interesting.  But it turned out that in an hour and a half my visitor asked no questions; not one.  In fact, what he did do was talk.  It became clear early on that he was brilliant and had a lot of creative ideas.  He was just talking through his experience and his project, what he was teaching, and what it seemed to mean for his students.  I started taking notes.  Eventually I decided to butt into what he was saying to tell him what I was doing, and then he began to take notes.  As it turned out, we had plenty to share.  It was a great time. 
But what I wondered afterward was why he came.  It required a special effort on his part — he was from another city and had come to town for other reasons.  So why did he want to see me?  I think it was because he needed to talk, to tell someone what he was doing, what he thought about some issues he considered vital. I was useful to him as a listener.  He needed an audience, someone to pay attention as he worked through his own perception of the issues he cared about.  He came to find someone who would appreciate what he was doing.  Indeed I did, and I fulfilled his need for a sympathetic audience. 
The next weekend I was with a friend who has had a hard life, several tragic events in his life, and again I was obliged to listen.  He is one of those types who talks endlessly, if we let him; but it’s hard to listen for very long because he tends to tell the same stories.  Above all, he seems also to need an audience.
I wonder now about our human need to be heard.  We all seem to need an audience.  In the 1990s hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were established to allow the South Africans to allow the two opposing sides, black and white, to reconcile.  Many of them, especially the blacks, had suffered grievously at the hand of the others. The TRC was supposed to enable the victims to tell their stories, perhaps even to confront their abusers, in hopes of bringing closure to the bitter conflicts of the past and to avoid a hopelessly irresolvable civil war.  The TRC could not achieve all that had been hoped, but at least for some folks the process was cathartic.  Some testified to a sense of relief after just telling their stories to an attentive audience; indeed, what some of them had to say revealed such heinous behavior that the whole country was deeply shaken.  For those folks, having someone listen to their stories, to share the anguish they had felt of having no idea what had happened to their loved-ones, gave them a sense of finality.    
We human beings seem to need to talk, to write, to “say” something, as if we lust for an audience that appreciates us.   I hear that often from my students: they want to write.  I wonder if the quest for a sympathetic listener is universal.  To me it seems as if that quest is intrinsic to what we are as human beings.  Isn’t it remarkable that billions of dollars are being spent in search of other creatures like ourselves somewhere out there in the universe?  
That seems to be why some of us write blogs.  I have never questioned why anyone writes a blog:  it is to cry out to be heard.  I began this one in desperation, frantic that our government was making egregious blunders in its Middle Eastern wars. I worried, what would be the outcome of such folly?  So many errors of judgment, so much unjustified arrogance.  I wrote to cry out for sanity.  I felt like Jeremiah: “Oh land, land land! Hear the world the of the Lord!”
So why anyone writes is no mystery to me.  The mystery is why anyone bothers to read blogs. Who listens?  Why does anyone want to know what we say?  Such magnanimous souls they are, just to listen!  I have no idea who they are – and in my case they are few and rare – but to the degree that they leave traces, as if they had really heard me, they have performed a service.
One of the continuing questions of anthropologists is what makes human beings different from all the other creatures we know about.  The more we know, the more difficult it is to specify just what makes us different.  Can the lust to be heard, to have an audience, be one of those qualities special to our humanity?  We all hope that someone out there is listening.  

A deeper historical view of how America came to this

In this period of the voting cycle it is easy to forget the conditions that brought our country to its tragic and embarrassing condition, in which half our country is near or below the poverty line.  As a public most of us Americans are forgetful of things that took place in even the recent past.  Most Americans forget that Bill Clinton left the country with a budget surplus.  A surplus?  We are a long way from that now.  How did we get to this place?  Here are two assessments by Republicans.

Christopher Buckley [son of Wm F. Buckley] on NOW 3/3/06:
President Bush has now borrowed more money than all other Presidents combined. The spending that he has enacted is amazing. It amazes me that he calls himself “conservative.””

Francis Fukuyama in 2008: 
It is hard to imagine a more disastrous presidency than that of George W. Bush. It was bad enough that he launched an unnecessary war and undermined the standing of the United States throughout the world in his first term. But in the waning days of his administration, he is presiding over a collapse of the American financial system and broader economy that will have consequences for years to come. As a general rule, democracies don’t work well if voters do not hold political parties accountable for failure. While John McCain is trying desperately to pretend that he never had anything to do with the Republican Party, I think it would be a travesty to reward the Republicans for failure on such a grand scale.”  

Syria’s sign language: Imprinted on the hands of cartoonist Ali Ferzat

Only human beings kill and maim each other over scratches on a page. Most people in the west think it is bizarre that some radical Muslims want to kill anyone who has tried to draw Muhammad in a cartoon. Now we hear that the Syrian government has maimed a man who has lately been publishing his cartoons on his own website. Such is the terror of a government over images. The incident reveals how powerful and how dependent we are on the imagination. It takes imagination to “read” into scratches on the page a conception of something abstract, especially to see in the drawings of Ali Ferzat images of the Syrian dictatorship. He has drawn a picture of President Assad of Syria trying to hitch a ride with Muammar Ghaddafi as he frantically flees his own rebellious citizens; and of Assad offering tea to a man who is meanwhile being beaten in his feet. It take imagination to grasp the irony of these images but once we know the context we all get it immediately. This is how human society is enabled, through representations — images, sounds in speech, gestures — to which we impute connection with things of another order. I know of a situation in which a simple note on a door led to a fist fight between famous scholars.

All this seems perhaps unduly academic. However it works, this is the stuff of the human imagination. And how it works in the intersubjective world of human interaction is one of the most interesting and challenging intellectual pursuits. Unfortunately, contrary to what some people suppose, it leads us to inquire into the conflicts that so broadly characterize the human condition. It leads us to take note of how materially and painfully real are the wounds of Ali Ferzat even if they are powerfully symbolic. Those broken hands “say” to the rest of the people of Syria “Don’t mess with this government”, “Don’t represent this government as disingenuous,” “Don’t suggest that this government is repressive” [even if everyone in the country knows otherwise]. What must be fully understood — that this is a repressive regime — must not be expressed in word or image. Ferzat had his canvas; the government has another: the bodies of citizens. And both tell a story.

The power of the moral imagination.

[Here is a link to the original article in Al Jazeera on Ferzat, with a video]

US condemns Syria political cartoonist attack – Middle East – Al Jazeera English