Friday, November 17, 2017

A Bug in the KJV

I've been studying the Bible ever since I was 12 and my parents sent me to a YMCA summer camp in Tennessee.  They take the C in YMCA seriously there, and after two weeks of relentless proseletyzing I finally saw the The Light.  For three glorious days I was born again and felt the Presence of the Holy Spirit.  Then I went home and giddily told my parents the Good News.

My father's reaction was to tell me to study the Bible, which I did, and have been doing ever since.  It only took me a day or two to conclude (as my father no doubt foresaw) that it could not possibly be the work of an all-knowing all-loving deity.  It's just too chock-full of contradictions, weirdness, and out-and-out evil.  But I've remained fascinated by it as a book, not only because so many people do believe that it's the Word of God, but also because it provides an interesting window into deep human history.

One of the problems with reading the Bible as an English speaker is that there are dozens of translations to choose from.  My goto translation is the King James, but every now and then when reading the Old Testament I feel the need to go back to the original Hebrew.  There is only one Hebrew version of the OT, faithfully copied through the generations changing neither jot nor tittle.  Every time I've done this I've come away impressed by the fidelity of the KJV.  Not only does it capture the literal meaning of the original Hebrew, it even captures its spirit because old Hebrew is stylistically different from modern Hebrew in much the same way that Shakespearean English is different from modern English.

But the other day I stumbled upon a bona-fide mistake in the KJV.  It's in Job 6:6, which the KJV translates as, "Can that which is unsavoury be eaten without salt? or is there any taste in the white of an egg?"  The Hebrew word for "egg" is "beitzah" (or plural "beitzim").  But the word in Hebrew that the KJV translates as "egg" is "hallamut" which is a kind of plant that in english is called a malva or a mallow.    It's not a major mistake, but after all these years of being impressed by the KJV's scholarship I was really surprised to discover any mistake at all, let alone such a transparent one.

In case you're wondering, I was led to this through an on-line discussion on Reddit where /u/abram1769 was dissing the Jehovah's Witnesses for translating that passage as "the slimy juice of the marshmallow."  I happen to be personally acquainted with some Witnesses, and they really take their Bible scholarship seriously, so I was skeptical that they would get something so ludicrously wrong.  And indeed they didn't.  It's the KJV that got it wrong.  The Witness's Bible gets it right (and no, it's doesn't say "slimy juice of the marshmallow", it says, "juice of the mallow", which is the correct translation.)

So score one for the Witness's scholarship.  (Too bad they can't seem to get the rest of their house in order.)

Friday, November 10, 2017

Battling racism in a free society

A week ago I wrote a tiny, almost throwaway, article entitled, "Racism is Alive and Well in America."  It was more of a spur-of-the-moment reaction to John Kelly's egregious and historically ignorant attempt at Confederate apologetics, which culminated in (but did not start with) his now infamous quote that the American Civil War was a result of an "the lack of an ability to compromise."

That post spawned a substantial comment thread, in which Peter Donis wrote:
"Apologists for slavery" is not the same as "racism". Slavery is an action, that is outlawed now; it's perfectly reasonable to say that apologists for an action that is outlawed should not be tolerated. But racism is not illegal, and it's not an action, it's a belief: the law can't control what people believe, and expecting it to is unreasonable. So is not tolerating it, as a belief: in any free country, people are going to have all kinds of offensive beliefs. That's the price we pay for having a free country. 
*Actions* that violate people's rights are a different matter: the Lousiana judge's action was clearly wrong and he should be at the very least censured for it. But not because it was "racist": because it clearly denied a citizen the equal protection of the laws, which is guaranteed to him by the Fourteenth Amendment. That's all that should need to be said.
Yes, it's true that racism is a belief and not an action.  But it is a belief that often results in action, and the actions it produces usually end up depriving dark-skinned people of their rights.  I think that's a serious problem.  But as Peter correctly observes, you can't regulate belief in a free society.  So what to do?

Simply relying on the law is not enough.  The 14th amendment has been in force for nearly 150 years, and in that time we've had Jim Crow, Brown v. Board, Loving v. Virginia, the Civil Rights Act (two of them!), and the Voting Rights Act.  We've had George Wallace proudly proclaiming "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."  We've had lynchings and the rise of the KKK.  We've had Emmet Till and Rodney King and Terence Crutcher and Michael Brown and Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin.  

Seriously, do you believe that Rene Boucher would have been charged with a misdemeanor for an assault on a U.S. senator resulting in six broken ribs if he had not been a rich white dude?

The law is not enough.  And it cannot be enough in a free society.  In a free society, people are free to be bigots.  Racists are correct when they say that the road to tyranny is paved with government mandates.  But if the law is not enough, what else is there?

Shame.  The most effective way to eliminate a destructive behavior from society is not to make it illegal, it is to make it unfashionable.  We wrote alchohol prohibition into the Constitution and it was an unmitigated disaster (a lesson Jeff Sessions seems to have forgotten).  But tobacco use has plummeted 60% in 50 years despite remaining legal.  Smoking is just not cool any more.

The way to eliminate racism is to paint racists as pathetic losers.  And the best way to do that is to teach history.

I think it's really important to remember that racism was not always a dirty word in America.  The Confederacy did not defend slavery as a necessary evil, nor even out of economic necessity or expediency, but rather as a straightforward logical consequence of natural law and God's will:
[T]he servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations...
That's from Texas's articles of secession.  Read it again.  Let the words sear themselves indelibly into your soul: "mutually beneficial to both bond and free."  They genuinely believed that they were doing the niggers a favor by enslaving them.  They genuinely believed (and could cite scripture to prove it) that they were doing God's will.

It sounds shocking today, but it was the majority view in the Confederacy.  And if you think 1860 is ancient history, George Wallace was calling for "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" in 1963, and continued running on an openly racist platform for fifteen more years before he finally repented in 1979 (by which time it was far too late to salvage his reputation as the quintessential racist of the 20th century).

The view that blacks are so inherently inferior to whites that they can legitimately be held as property did not magically go away after the Civil War.  Most of the people who believed it before the war still believed it after.  And because reconstruction was botched, in the name of state's rights and opposing federal "tyranny", these bigots taught their children, and they taught their children, and so the idea has promulgated through the generations.  It has mutated and attenuated; no one openly calls for the restoration of slavery any more.  It is no longer fashionable to openly call for segregation (though that doesn't stop everyone).  But the idea that blacks (and hispanics and Muslims) are inferior to whites lives on.

Donald Trump and Steve Bannon and John Kelly and all of the other Confederate apologists are the intellectual and spiritual heirs of proud defenders of slavery.  Whether they realize it or not, whether they consciously advocate it or not, they are advancing a point of view that is irredeemably rooted in the once-popular idea that black people should be the property of white people, and that this is the natural order of things and the will of God.

It is my firm belief that when presented with these facts, people will reject racism, that it cannot survive in the bright light of this truth.  Like a vampire, racism depends on cloaking itself in darkness and obfuscation.  It depends on denial.  It depends on distancing itself from the past (even as it longs for a return to the past) because the truth is that it is born of slavery and inextricably linked to slavery.  And thank God almighty I don't have to try to convince people any more than slavery is evil (though 150 years ago I surely would have had to).

To paraphrase MLK (who was paraphrasing Theodore Parker), the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice.  Sooner or later the racists will lose, so if you want to be on the right side of history, if you want a seat at the cool kids table, if you want to be able to stand up proudly in front of your grandchildren, you must reject racism and racists.  You must shun them.  You must shame them.  You must call them out when they try to hide behind the "honor of the Confederacy" and "states rights."  You must shine the light in the dark places where this evil has festered for the last 150 years.  And then, when the racists have been driven from the public square and the halls of power, maybe at long last we can raise a generation that is finally free of this scourge.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Racism is alive and well in America

If you needed more evidence that racism is alive and well in America (yeah, as if) look no further than a Louisiana judge's recent decision to deny a black man his right to an attorney because he didn't ask like a white person would.

And then there's John Kelly, who was supposed to be the grown up in the room, saying that "the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War."  That the chief of staff to the president of the United States should be so profoundly ignorant of history would be shocking, except that the bar on ignorance in Trumps White House is already so low that not even cockroaches can slither under it any more.

I wonder: exactly what kind of compromise would Kelly advocate on the question of whether or not black people can be held as property by white people?

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

A candid glimpse inside the incredibly twisted mind of Donald Trump Jr.

Donald Trump Jr. inadvertently (I'm pretty sure) gave us a glimpse of his true face yesterday when
he tweeted:
I'm going to take half of Chloe's candy tonight [and] give it to some kid who sat at home. It's never to [sic] early to teach her about socialism.
Let's think about exactly what the lesson is supposed to be here: trick-or-treating is OK, a shining example of what capitalism is supposed to be all about, but sharing with "a kid who sat at home" is socialism.  Never mind why the kid who sat at home did so.  No possibility that the kid was sick, or disabled, or caring for a relative, or doing their homework, or forbidden from participating by their parents.  Nope, the only possible reason for any kid not seizing the initiative on Halloween is laziness and the anticipation of a government handout.

But it's even worse than that.  Not only is sharing "socialist" and therefore bad, but trick-or-treating itself is good, almost the ideal of capitalism.  But take a moment to think about what the phrase "trick-or-treat" actually means: it means, "Give me some candy or I will vandalize your home."  Halloween, when held up as a life lesson, is a training ground for budding mafiosos running protection rackets, which is not so far removed from how Donald Trump pére made a lot of his money.  So it's actually not surprising at all that DTJr thinks that trick-or-treating is a fine example of capitalistic initiative.  It has obviously worked for him.

Random tweet-length thought of the day

Why is it that when a Muslim kills 8 people it's the Democrats' fault for supporting diversity visas, but when a white man kills 59 people it's not the Republicans' fault for opposing gun control?