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What Is the Meaning of Sacred Texts?

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Truthfully, the way Karen Armstrong explains it, sacred texts seem more or less a variety of tarot cards, rich in suggestions, open to interpretation, to be read in the light of the current situation and context, with many possible meanings. And perhaps that is indeed the proper approach, akin to the way one approaches serious music: not for specific detailed meaning but for an experience and an openness of understanding.

Nicholas Kristof writes in the NY Times:

Rescuing the Sacred Texts
By Karen Armstrong

In the Bible, St. Paul declares: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” Scholars suspect that this was actually written by some grump other than St. Paul, but such sexist passages are sometimes used by conservative Christians to justify the subjugation of women — and by secular liberals to portray the Bible as outdated and misogynistic.

Or take militant passages from the Quran like this one: “Kill them wherever you encounter them.” Early Muslims considered this obsolete because it applied narrowly to enemies in a particular conflict; more recently, Muslim extremists have interpreted such passages to justify murder, while Islamophobes cite them to excuse religious bigotry.

Similar points can be made of many Scriptures from around the world. Both secular liberals and fundamentalists see Scripture as words to be taken literally, the former to ridicule and the latter to embrace. Karen Armstrong wades into these debates and says that both sides are wrong.

“Too many believers and nonbelievers alike now read these sacred texts in a doggedly literal manner that is quite different from the more inventive and mystical approach of premodern spirituality,” Armstrong writes. “Because its creation myths do not concur with recent scientific discoveries, militant atheists have condemned the Bible as a pack of lies, while Christian fundamentalists have developed a ‘Creation science’ claiming that the Book of Genesis is scientifically sound….Not surprisingly, all this has given Scripture a bad name.”

A British writer and former nun, Armstrong argues in her magisterial new book, “The Lost Art of Scripture,” that Scripture shouldn’t be interpreted literally or rigidly from a pulpit or in a library. She argues that Scripture is flexible, evolving, contextual and more like performance art than a book.

“Our English word ‘Scripture’ implies a written text, but most Scriptures began as texts that were composed and transmitted orally,” she writes. “Indeed, in some traditions, the sound of the inspired words would always be more important than their semantic meaning. Scripture was usually sung, chanted or declaimed in a way that separated it from mundane speech, so that words — a product of the brain’s left hemisphere — were fused with the more indefinable emotions of the right.”

With the rise of literacy and science, Scriptures were printed and scrutinized, then examined as if they were historical documents. Believers and skeptics alike came to read Scripture as if they were poring over Thucydides or Plutarch.

I’ve adopted that approach myself. Among the Gospels, I’ve put the most weight on the Gospel of Mark, because it was the first written, and have skeptically pestered pastors about why Mark doesn’t mention the Virgin Birth or describe the Resurrection. Strange things to leave out. I’ve also been puzzled that the Bible can have multiple versions of the Ten Commandments, or provide conflicting accounts of how Judas died or on which night the Last Supper occurred.

Armstrong argues that this approach misunderstands how Scripture works. It’s like complaining about Shakespeare bending history, or protesting that a great song isn’t factual. That resonates. Anyone who has been to a Catholic Mass or a Pentecostal service, or experienced the recitation of the Quran or a Tibetan Buddhist chant, knows that they couldn’t fully be captured by a transcript any more than a song can be by its lyrics. I still don’t understand Don McLean’s classic song “American Pie,” but it moves me every time I hear it. Music doesn’t need to be factually accurate to be true.

“Because it does not conform to modern scientific and historical norms, many people dismiss Scripture as incredible and patently ‘untrue,’ but they do not apply the same criteria to a novel, which yields profound and valuable insights by means of fiction,” Armstrong writes. “A work of art, be it a novel, a poem or a Scripture, must be read according to the laws of its genre.”

Partly because Scriptures are revered, they are often regarded today as fossilized, the last word for all eternity. But historically, they were regularly repurposed to provide comfort or insight for new challenges. During the Babylonian Exile, the “editors” of the Hebrew Bible dramatically shaped previous Scripture to make sense of their own turmoil. Abraham, who Armstrong says was originally a southern Israeli hero with only a minor role in northern lore, assumed far greater importance because his story resonated: He had been commanded by God to leave his home, suffered exile and was richly rewarded in turn. The exiles also appear to have added details on the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, which paralleled their own trauma in Babylon.

Some Muslims applauded a similar process of seeking new meaning from old Scripture. “The Quran is perpetually new,” argued Muid ad-Din Ibn al-Arabi, who died in 1240. He went so far as to add that anyone who recited a verse in the same way twice had not understood it correctly.

The subtitle of this book is “Rescuing the Sacred Texts,” and Armstrong’s effort reminds me of Kant trying to save religion by arguing that God is beyond reason and therefore cannot be rationally proved. Not all believers welcomed Kant’s intervention; likewise, traditionalists will resent Armstrong’s “rescue.”

Armstrong has won respect for her scholarly and thoughtful treatment of faith in books such as “A History of God,” “The Case for God” and “Fields of Blood.” Her latest work builds on these, partly by exploring common threads across different religious traditions, and it’s an encyclopedic undertaking. Armstrong guides us not only through the history of Judeo-Christian and Islamic Scripture, but also through Hindu and Sikh texts and Buddhist and Chinese philosophies. She uses “Scripture” loosely, encompassing ancient Greek plays as well as Confucian and Taoist texts that are more about how to live a good life than about God in a Western sense. That’s partly because Armstrong perceives the God of Scripture not as a white-bearded old man on a cloud but as an ineffable, indescribable, unknowable transcendence. We encounter the transcendent, she says, in music, poetry, sex, love, nature — and religion. In effect, Armstrong has written a highly rational tribute to the murky wingman of our lives that exists beyond what is material and rational.

A common feature of Scripture, as she sees it, is . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

12 November 2019 at 8:18 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Religion

Philip Pullman’s dark arts

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The Economist 1843 reruns a Robert Butler interview of Philip Pullman that was originally published in 2007:

He had written fairy tales, detective stories, melodramas, thrillers and fantasies. But when Philip Pullman embarked on his trilogy, “His Dark Materials”, he went back to the most fundamental story of all: the one with the snake, the apple and the fig leaf. He recast Adam and Eve as a 12-year-old girl and boy living in parallel universes, who meet, fall in love and spend the night together. This time God, known as the Authority, fades away and dies. “I thought there would be a small audience,” Pullman says, “a few clever kids somewhere and a few intelligent adults who thought, “That’s all right, quite enjoyed it.'” Well, he got that wrong.

The books have been translated into 40 languages and sold 15m copies, and that’s only the beginning. In 2003 and 2004, a stage version was a big hit at the National Theatre in London. This month the phenomenon goes to another level with the release of the film, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. It’s produced by New Line, which brought us “The Lord of the Rings” 1, 2 and 3. By the time New Line has worked its way through the trilogy, Pullman’s rewrite of Genesis 3 will have gone far beyond its bedtime-reading, Waterstone’s-shopping, theatre-going constituency. It will have become a story known by people who may not even read.

“His Dark Materials” has its origins in the writings of Milton, Blake and Kleist, but if that sounds literary and erudite, don’t worry, it won’t show: this is a big-budget fantasy movie playing at a cinema near you, and near pretty well everyone else. Its main characters–Lyra, Mrs Coulter, Lee Scoresby–will shortly be as famous as Dumbledore and Gandalf. But there’s a difference. Pullman has written an epic with the entertainment value to capture a mass audience, which simultaneously taps into the same profound themes as Homer and the Bible. It’s a story with a dark and powerful undertow: a creation myth for the 21st century.

Its author sits in the study of his farmhouse near Oxford surrounded by books, Black & Decker woodwork equipment, and a rocking horse that he’s making for a grandchild. Two pugs, Hoagy and Nellie, run in and out. Next door, our photographer and her two assistants are transforming his kitchen into a photographic studio. (“I’ve never been on a front cover, have I?” Pullman says to his wife, Jude, who greets this invasionary force with warm and unconcerned tolerance.) During the shoot, his broad face and high-domed forehead change dramatically when he dons a wide-brimmed hat (a little reluctantly) and a beret (more enthusiastically): as an author, he would rather be cast as a Paris intellectual than a Tory squire.

On the dining-room table next door, a pile of new publications and spin-offs sits next to a picture of Pullman with the new James Bond. “His Dark Materials” comprises three books, “Northern Lights” (1995), “The Subtle Knife” (1997) and “The Amber Spyglass” (2000). It’s “Northern Lights” that has been made into the movie, called “The Golden Compass”– the name of “Northern Lights” in American bookshops. Genesis 3 runs to 24 verses; “His Dark Materials” weighs in at 1,300 pages. Pullman spent seven years in a shed at the bottom of his Oxford garden, doing his three pages a day (no more, no less). About one in ten pages made the cut. The mathematics alone is impressive.

It all began in the last 15 minutes of a wet Friday afternoon in a classroom in Oxford. Or that’s how you would want to tell it. After reading English at Exeter College, Oxford, Pullman did stints working at Moss Bros, the suit-hire shop, and a public library. Aged 25, he qualified as a teacher, mainly, he says, because he liked the idea of the holidays. It was the early 1970s, there was no National Curriculum, no Sats and league tables, and “no bumptious ignorant twit in Whitehall telling me what to do and how to teach”. So Pullman found that he had time to tell stories. He believes all teachers should be able to tell a story “at a moment’s notice to a class for the last quarter of an hour on a wet Friday afternoon”. Not read it, he insists-tell it. “If you’re reading out of a book all the time, nothing changes. But if you tell it face to face, you improvise a bit, you play around…”

He set about this task in a typically deliberate way. In the first term, he decided, he would do the births and deaths of the gods and goddesses, their natures and deeds; in the second term he would do the origins of the Trojan war, which would segue into “The Iliad”; and in the third term, he would do “The Odyssey”. He prepared each week’s story thoroughly so he could tell it without notes. He was teaching three separate classes, which meant telling each episode three times in a week. Again, the maths is impressive. “I must have told each story 36 times.”

It was a perfect apprenticeship, giving him “an unsupervised, unnoticed little area of ground” to cultivate his own talent and find out what kinds of stories he could tell. Others might be good at making people laugh; he wasn’t particularly. “But I was good at doing exciting stuff that kept them listening.” He was drawn to a world of “once upon a time”, “meanwhile”, and “suddenly”, of hidden hands and knocks on the door, of dark, stormy nights, shadows and surprises, ogres and-time and again-orphans. He says he couldn’t do the storytelling now. “I’d be sacked, I’d go to prison: “You’re not fulfilling the requirements of the National Curriculum! Away with you!'”

At each school where he taught, Pullman wrote and produced the end-of-term plays, which enabled him to reach another captive audience: the parents. He treated the parents and children as one audience (he dislikes the business of throwing in sophisticated jokes for the grown-ups) and wrote for both age groups at the same time. “I got better at it. It’s to do with taking your story seriously, laughing, yes, but never scoffing at it, always taking the story seriously.”

His inspiration came from a family-run toy shop in Covent Garden. “I wanted costumes, I wanted colour and spectacle. My source for all this was toy theatre, those lovely little things that you can get from Pollocks. I’ve got the lot. I discovered them as a grown-up and fell in love with them.” Some of his school plays became children’s books: “Clockwork”, “Count Karlstein” and “The Firework-Maker’s Daughter”. Go into a bookshop and Pullman can be found between Marcel Proust and Mario Puzo on the fiction shelves, and between Terry Pratchett and Arthur Ransome in the children’s section. The only difference is the cover.

When Pullman got home from school in the evenings, his eldest son would be doing his music practice (he is now a professional viola player) and Pullman would go to his shed at the bottom of the garden. He is the most successful writer since Roald Dahl to have worked in a shed. “My real life began”, he says, “when I came home from the job and sat at my table and wrote three pages for the day.”

No one could accuse Pullman of under-researching his subject: the heroine of “His Dark Materials” is a 12-year-old tomboy called Lyra Belacqua, and Pullman spent 12 years teaching girls of this age. He taught at three schools in Oxford, one working-class, one middle-class, one in between. The working-class pupils, whose parents mostly worked at the car factories, were very direct and let him know immediately what they thought. The middle-class pupils, many of whose parents were dons, had subtler ways of expressing their disapproval. The three schools were diverse in socio-economic terms, but he discovered that within the classroom the same patterns of behaviour applied. There were certain roles that always had to be filled: the clown, the smelly one who no one wanted to sit next to, and the king and queen.

“If you work out quickly in the first couple of days who the king and queen are, and you direct all your attention to them in the first week or so, get them on your side, you won’t have any discipline problems because everyone follows them. They don’t follow you. They follow them.”

The girls in particular fell into two groups. “There were the . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

9 November 2019 at 12:05 pm

Posted in Books, Religion

“My friend Mister Rogers”

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In the Atlantic Tom Junod has an article well worth reading:

A long time ago, a man of resourceful and relentless kindness saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He trusted me when I thought I was untrustworthy, and took an interest in me that went beyond my initial interest in him. He was the first person I ever wrote about who became my friend, and our friendship endured until he died. Now a movie has been made from the story I wrote about him, which is to say “inspired by” the story I wrote about him, which is to say that in the movie my name is Lloyd Vogel and I get into a fistfight with my father at my sister’s wedding.

I did not get into a fistfight with my father at my sister’s wedding. My sister didn’t have a wedding. And yet the movie, called A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, seems like a culmination of the gifts that Fred Rogers gave me and all of us, gifts that fit the definition of grace because they feel, at least in my case, undeserved. I still don’t know what he saw in me, why he decided to trust me, or what, to this day, he wanted from me, if anything at all. He puzzles me now as much as he did when I first met him at the door of the apartment he kept in New York City, dressed, as he’d warned me when we spoke on the phone and he invited me over, in a shabby blue bathrobe and a pair of slippers. Fred was, let’s not forget, a rather peculiar man, and it is not just his goodness but rather the peculiarity of his goodness that has made him, 16 years after his death, triumphant as a symbol of human possibility, although just about everything he stood for has been lost.

I met fred rogers in 1998, when Esquire assigned me a story about him for a special issue on American heroes. I last spoke with him on Christmas Day 2002, when I called him to talk about an argument I’d had with my cousin; he died two months later, on February 27, 2003. In late 2014, I heard from two screenwriters, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, who were interested in using my Esquire story as the basis of a movie, and in January 2018, I received a call from the movie’s producer with the news that Tom Hanks had been cast as Fred Rogers, which meant, emphatically, that the movie would be made. A few months after that, I visited the set in Pittsburgh, where I met Matthew Rhys, the actor who had agreed to play … well, me, or some variant of me, a cynical journalist who in the end proves amenable to Fred’s life lessons—his ministry.

I had been thinking of starting this story at one of those points of departure, at one of those beginnings or one of those endings. But stories don’t only speak; they are spoken to, by the circumstances under which they are written. And so I have to start by mentioning that I have begun writing a story about Mister Rogers the day after two young men armed with assault rifles killed a total of 31 people in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.

I am often asked what Fred would have made of our time—what he would have made of Donald Trump, what he would have made of Twitter, what he would have made of what is generally called our “polarization” but is in fact the discovery that we don’t like our neighbors very much once we encounter them proclaiming their political opinions on social media. I often hear people say that they wish Fred were still around to offer his guidance and also that they are thankful he is gone, because at least he has been spared from seeing what we have become. In all of this, there is something plaintive and a little desperate, an unspoken lament that he has left us when we need him most, as though instead of dying of stomach cancer he was assumed by rapture, abandoning us to our own devices and the judgment implicit in his absence.

What would Fred Rogers—Mister Rogers—have made of El Paso and Dayton, of mass murder committed to fulfill the dictates of an 8chan manifesto? What, for that matter, would he have made of the anti-Semitic massacre that took place last fall in his real-life Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill? The easy answer is that it is impossible to know, because he was from a different world, one almost as alien to us now as our mob-driven world of performative slaughters would be to him. But actually, I think I do know, because when I met him, one of the early school shootings had just taken place, in West Paducah, Kentucky—eight students shot while they gathered in prayer. Though an indefatigably devout man, he did not attempt to characterize the shootings as an attack on the faithful; instead, he seized on the news that the 14-year-old shooter had gone to school telling his classmates that he was about to do something “really big,” and he asked, “Oh, wouldn’t the world be a different place if he had said, ‘I’m going to do something really little tomorrow’?” Fred decided to devote a whole week of his television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, to the theme of “little and big,” encouraging children to embrace the diminutive nature of their bodies and their endeavors—to understand that big has to start little.

Fred Rogers was a children’s-TV host, but he was not Captain Kangaroo or Officer Joe Bolton. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister who was so appalled by what he saw on 1950s television—adults trying to entertain children by throwing pies in each other’s faces—that he joined the medium as a reformer. He considered the space between the television set and the eyes of his audience sacred, and from 1966 to 2000 he taped nearly 1,000 episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, trying to make that space less profane. And although he made his living speaking to children, his message and example endure because he found a way to speak to all of us—to speak to children as respectfully as he spoke to adults and to speak to adults as simply as he spoke to children. Such fluency was the result not of spontaneous enthusiasm but rather of the rigorous editing he brought to bear on himself and everyone around him. When I first visited the Neighborhood 21 years ago, one of his in-house writers, Hedda Sharapan, told me what had happened when he’d enlisted her to write a manual intended to teach doctors how to talk to children. She worked hard on it, using all her education and experience in the field of child development, but when she handed him her opening, he crossed out what she’d written and replaced it with six words: “You were a child once too.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 November 2019 at 1:22 pm

Trump’s ‘conscience rule’ for health providers blocked by federal judge

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Yasmeen Abutaleb reports in the Washington Post:

A federal judge on Wednesday voided the Trump administration’s “conscience rule” that would have allowed health-care providers to refuse to participate in abortions, sterilizations or other types of care they disagree with on religious or moral grounds.

U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer in Manhattan declared the rule unconstitutional in a 147-page decision that said it was “shot through with glaring legal defects.” The rule had been set to go into effect later this month.

The judge said the administration’s central justification of a “significant increase” in complaints related to conscience violations “is flatly untrue. This alone makes the agency’s decision to promulgate the sule arbitrary and capricious.”

The judge’s decision stemmed from a lawsuit brought this spring by New York and nearly two dozen mostly Democratic states, municipalities and health advocacy groups. They argued the rule illegally favored the personal views of health-care workers over the needs of patients, and threatened to hobble the ability of state-run health-care facilities to provide effective care.

“The refusal of care rule was an unlawful attempt to allow health care providers to openly discriminate and refuse to provide necessary health care to patients based on providers’ ‘religious beliefs or moral objections,’ ”New York Attorney General Letitia James, who led the groups, said in a statement Wednesday.

Many physician and health advocacy groups contended that the rule would have disproportionately harmed certain groups of patients, including LGBTQ patients. . .

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Later in the article:

It was part of the administration’s broader efforts to bolster the rights of religious health providers and restrict abortion access. The administration prevailed in earlier lawsuits against a rule that barred federal family planning grants from going to providers that perform abortions, most notably Planned Parenthood. It has also cut international aid to groups that provide or offer abortions. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

6 November 2019 at 3:55 pm

Mike Pence’s Office Meddled in Foreign Aid to Reroute Money to Favored Christian Groups

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Yeganeh Torbati reports in ProPublica:

Last November, a top Trump appointee at the U.S. Agency for International Development wrote a candid email to colleagues about pressure from the White House to reroute Middle East aid to religious minorities, particularly Christian groups.

“Sometimes this decision will be made for us by the White House (see… Iraq! And, increasingly, Syria),” said Hallam Ferguson, a senior official in USAID’s Middle East bureau, in an email seen by ProPublica. “We need to stay ahead of this curve everywhere lest our interventions be dictated to us.”

The email underscored what had become a stark reality under the Trump White House. Decisions about U.S. aid are often no longer being governed by career professionals applying a rigorous review of applicants and their capabilities. Over the last two years, political pressure, particularly from the office of Vice President Mike Pence, had seeped into aid deliberations and convinced key decision-makers that unless they fell in line, their jobs could be at stake.

Five months before Ferguson sent the email, his former boss had been ousted following a mandate from Pence’s chief of staff. Pence had grown displeased with USAID’s work in Iraq after Christian groups were turned down for aid.

roPublica viewed internal emails and conducted interviews with nearly 40 current and former U.S. officials and aid professionals that shed new light on the success of Pence and his allies in influencing the government’s long-standing process for awarding foreign aid. Most people spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Trump administration’s efforts to influence USAID funding sparked concern from career officials, who worried the agency risked violating constitutional prohibitions on favoring one religion over another. They also were concerned that being perceived as favoring Christians could worsen Iraq’s sectarian divides.

“There are very deliberate procurement guidelines that have developed over a number of years to guard precisely against this kind of behavior,” said Steven Feldstein, a former State Department and USAID official during the Obama administration. When politics intrude on the grant-making process, “you’re diluting the very nature of what development programs ought to accomplish.”

USAID regulations state that awards “must be free from political interference or even the appearance of such interference and must be made on the basis of merit, not on the basis of the religious affiliation of a recipient organization, or lack thereof.”

Last month, USAID announced two grants to Iraqi organizations that career officials had previously rejected. Political appointees significantly impacted the latest awards, according to interviews with officials and other people aware of the process. Typically, such appointees have little to no involvement in USAID grants, to avoid perceptions of undue political influence on procurement.

One of the groups selected for the newest awards has no full-time paid staff, no experience with government grants and a financial tie that would typically raise questions in an intense competition for limited funds. The second organization received its first USAID direct grant after extensive public comments by its leader and allies highlighting what they described as a lack of U.S. assistance to Christians. The two groups — a charity that primarily serves Christian Iraqis and a Catholic university — were not originally listed as front-runners, according to a document seen by ProPublica.

The Wall Street Journal and BuzzFeed have previously reported Pence’s interest in increasing foreign aid to Christians and his displeasure with USAID’s activities in Iraq.

Pence’s spokeswoman, Katie Waldman, did not respond to questions. A USAID spokeswoman did not respond to specific questions, including about Ferguson’s email, but said the latest grants were appropriate.

“The Trump Administration has made responding to the genocide committed by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) against religious and ethnic minorities a top priority,” said the spokeswoman, Pooja Jhunjhunwala. “Assistance to religious and ethnic communities targeted by ISIS is not a departure from the norm, but rather a continuation of USAID’s rich history of promoting inclusive development and defending human dignity and religious freedom in our partner countries.”

Approximately 97% of Iraq’s population is Muslim, according to the most recent U.S. figures available. Religious minorities — including Christians, Yazidis and others — make up around 2% to 3% of Iraq’s total population.

The Trump administration’s efforts to steer funding to these minorities in Iraq stand in stark contrast to its overall approach to foreign aid. It has repeatedly proposed cutting U.S. diplomatic and foreign assistance budgets by billions of dollars. In August, as the White House was considering cuts to an array of foreign aid programs, it shielded funding for religious minorities abroad, according to news accounts.

As Trump mounts a 2020 reelection effort, he is taking steps to solidify his conservative Christian base, including his decision last week to install his spiritual adviser, Florida televangelist Paula White, in a White House position. Increasing aid to Christians abroad is a core value for his supporters.

In a speech last month at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, a major gathering of the religious right, Trump touted his administration’s work on behalf of religious minorities in Iraq and Syria.

“Other presidents would not be doing that,” he said. “They’d be spending a lot more money, but they’d be spending it on things that would not make you very happy.”

Late in the Obama administration, USAID’s activities in Iraq focused on an effort by the United Nations to restore basic services as soon as cities had been liberated from Islamic State rule.

By the end of 2016, the United States had contributed over $115 million to the effort through USAID, and other countries had contributed hundreds of millions of dollars more. U.S. officials credit the U.N.’s work with enabling millions of Iraqis to return to their homes soon after the fighting was done instead of languishing in refugee camps.

“Here’s another example of when the U.N. and the United States work together, really good things can happen,” said John Allen, the former special presidential envoy to the global coalition formed to defeat ISIS, at an event at the Brookings Institution in September.

Robust U.S. support for the U.N.’s work initially carried over into the Trump administration. In July 2017, the administration announced that USAID would provide an additional $150 million to the U.N. Development Program’s Iraq stabilization fund, bringing the total U.S. contribution to more than $265 million since 2015.

But by then, U.S. officials in Iraq were sensing dissatisfaction among some Iraqi Christians and American religious groups with the U.S. strategy and the U.N.’s work. Trying to head off problems, U.S. officials urged the U.N. in the summer of 2017 to pay special attention to the Nineveh Plains, an ethnically and religiously diverse region of northern Iraq where many of the country’s Christians live.

U.N. officials were reluctant, arguing their assistance could go further in dense urban areas like Mosul, as opposed to the Nineveh Plains, a stretch of farmland dotted by small towns and villages.

“They were going for the biggest bang for the buck,” one former U.S. foreign service officer said. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 November 2019 at 3:05 pm

Why do people hate vegans?

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I’m not a vegan, and in fact I don’t even eat like one: like a vegan, I do exclude meat, dairy, and eggs from my diet, but unlike a vegan, I focus on eating whole foods and exclude refined foods such as refined sugar and foods that contain it (the natural sugar in a whole food like fruit is fine), foods made from flour (I eat a lot of grain, but intact whole grain), and “product foods” manufactured from refined ingredients using industrial processes and generally including excessive amounts of salt, of sugar (high-fructose corn syrup because it’s cheap), bad oils (typically cottonseed and/or soybean oil because they’re cheap)—foods such as bottled salad dressings, imitation meats (“bacon,” “sausage,” “field roast,” Beyond Beef, the Impossible Burger).

Even so, I also have noticed on-line (in Quora for example) a surprising hostility to the idea of excluding meat from one’s diet—the comments about the (very interesting) documentary The Game Changers are often strongly condemnatory, though obviously the athletes and their coaches see a whole-food plant-based diet as quite beneficial, and you certainly can’t argue that their diet hurts their athletic performance—indeed, their experience is that their diet helps their performance.

So why the hostility? I think it is a meme thing. As I’ve noted previously, I think people construct their identity from aspects of culture—memes—that they adopt. Indeed, it’s often explicit: “I’m a doctor” or “lawyer” or “farmer” or “student” or “parent” or whatever. Those roles are memes, and those roles are just one aspect of the enormous assemblage of assimilated memes that each of us views as our “self.”

One of those aspects of identity is one’s diet. Every culture has its own foods, and those foods are part of the identity of those who belong to that culture. When vegans (or vegetarians or those who follow a whole-food plant-based diet) reject the eating of meat, those who do eat meat feel that their very identity has been attacked, that their selfhood is threatened, that their ego is rebuked—and so they become angry and hostile.

George Reynolds has a long and interesting column in the Guardian on this, and I found it worth reading. It begins:

From the hunger strike to the edible projectile, history offers abundant examples of food being used for political ends. Even so, the crowd of vegans who gathered in central London earlier this year are unlikely to forget the moment when Gatis Lagzdins skinned and ate a raw squirrel.

Along with his co-conspirator Deonisy Khlebnikov, Lagzdins performed his stunt at the weekly Soho Vegan Market on Rupert Street. He would subsequently demonstrate at VegFest in Brighton (although this time his snack of choice was a raw pig’s head) as part of a self-proclaimed “carnivore tour” intended to highlight the evils of a plant-based diet. At the London event, he wore a black vest emblazoned with the slogan: “Veganism = Malnutrition.”

The war on vegans started small. There were flashpoints, some outrageous enough to receive press coverage. There was the episode in which William Sitwell, then editor of Waitrose magazine, resigned after a freelance writer leaked an email exchange in which he joked about “killing vegans one by one”. (Sitwell has since apologised.) There was the PR nightmare faced by Natwest bank when a customer calling to apply for a loan was told by an employee that “all vegans should be punched in the face”. When animal rights protesters stormed into a Brighton Pizza Express in September this year, one diner did exactly that.

A charge commonly laid against vegans is that they relish their status as victims, but research suggests they have earned it. In 2015, a study conducted by Cara C MacInnis and Gordon Hodson for the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations observed that vegetarians and vegans in western society – and vegans in particular – experience discrimination and bias on a par with ethnic and religious minorities.

Once a niche interest group parodied in TV shows such as The Simpsons (in which a character describes himself as a “level five vegan” who refuses to eat anything that casts a shadow), in the past two years, vegans have been thrust into the limelight. A philosophy rooted in non-aggression has found itself at the heart of some of the most virulent arguments on social media. In November 2018, Good Morning Britain hosted a debate titled “Do people hate vegans?”; the political website Vox tackled the question in even more direct fashion a week later, asking: “Why do people hate vegans so much?”

These recent displays of enmity towards vegans represent a puzzling escalation in hostilities, just as a consensus is starting to form that eating less meat would almost certainly be better for everyone – and the Earth. Of course, eating less meat does not mean eating no meat whatsoever, and the extreme prohibitions associated with going vegan (no animal products, no eggs, no leather, no wool) suggest it could have been just another Atkins diet or clean-eating fad – a flash in the pan that blows up and then dissipates, leaving behind nothing more than a dose of mild regret. Instead, just when the growth might have been expected to plateau, it kept on growing. A 2016 Ipsos Mori survey suggested the total number of vegans in the UK had increased more than 360% in the preceding decade, to more than 500,000.

Big business has been quick to cash in. The Los Angeles-based company Beyond Meat, producer of plant-based burgers whose taste and texture are as much like minced beef as possible, recently went public and soon afterwards hit a valuation of $3.4bn; huge conglomerates such as Nestlé and Kellogg’s are moving into the fake-meat market; supermarkets and restaurant chains have introduced vegan ranges. Yet perhaps the definitive proof of veganism’s mainstreaming – and the backlash against it – came in January this year, when the beloved high-street bakery chain Greggs announced it was launching a Quorn-based vegan sausage roll. It was pilloried by Piers Morgan, who tweeted: “Nobody was waiting for a vegan bloody sausage, you PC-ravaged clowns.” It turns out Morgan was mistaken: the vegan sausage roll was such a hit that the company’s share value leapt by 13%.

Of course, what we grow, harvest, fatten and kill is political. A Tesco advert showcasing vegan produce met protests from the National Farmers Union who claimed it “demonised” meat, while Shropshire deputy council leader Steve Charmley unleashed a tweet-storm when confronted with pro-vegan advertising in a county he claimed was “built on agriculture”. This moment, and this conflict, were a long time coming. The rise of veganism is a question less of personal taste than of generational upheaval; less about meat and fish and dairy than the systems that put them on our tables in such excessive quantities. Ultimately, the vegan wars are not really about veganism at all, but about how individual freedom is coming into conflict with a personal and environmental health crisis.

In many cultures, the practice of abstaining entirely from animal produce has an established history: with their belief systems rooted in nonviolence, many Rastafarians, followers of Jainism and certain sects of Buddhism have been swearing off meat, fish, eggs and dairy for centuries. In large swathes of the west, though, public awareness of what veganism actually entails has been sketchy. There wasn’t even a commonly accepted English-language name until 1944, when a British woodworker called Donald Watson called a meeting with a handful of other non-dairy vegetarians (including his wife, Dorothy) to discuss a less cumbersome label for their lifestyle. They considered alternatives such as dairyban, vitan and benevore before settling on the term we use today, a simple contraction of vegetarian on the grounds that “veganism starts with vegetarianism and carries it through to its logical conclusions”.

But those logical conclusions did not stop at abstaining from certain foods. The original vegans were not pursuing a diet so much as a belief system, a wholesale ideology – one that rejected not just animal protein but also the way animals had become part of an industrial supply chain. In the 1970s, Carol J Adams started work on the book that would appear, two decades later, as The Sexual Politics of Meat: a seminal feminist text that positioned veganism as the only logical solution to a social system that reduced both women and animals to desirable, but disposable, flesh.

In the early 70s, other activists were considering how veganism might provide a viable alternative to existing food systems. In 1971, Diet for a Small Planet by the social policy activist Frances Moore Lappé introduced an environmental justification for going vegetarian or vegan to a global audience (it eventually sold more than 3m copies). In the same year, counter-culture hero Stephen Gaskin founded a vegan intentional community, The Farm, in Lewis County, Tennessee, bringing together some 300 like-minded individuals. Four years later, The Farm Vegetarian Cookbook by Louise Hagler announced: “We are vegetarians because one-third of the world is starving and at least half goes to bed hungry every night,” and introduced western audiences to techniques for making their own soy-based products such as tofu and tempeh.

The Farm Vegetarian Cookbook fixed a certain vegan aesthetic in the minds of mainstream meat-eating culture for decades to come. Veganism became synonymous with soybeans and brown rice, with ageing hippies spooning beige bowlfuls of worthy grains and pulses – not the glamorous, vibrant, youthful practitioners that now radiate positivity from their Instagram feeds.

It is hard to overstate the role social media has played in transforming veganism’s image, with its facility for fostering an instant sense of community. Witness any number of viral internet phenomena – from Woman Laughing Alone with Salad to acai bowls and this generation’s staple, avocado toast – that have helped free it from its musty old associations. Instagram in particular gave vegan food mainstream exposure, repackaging it (good for you and photogenic!) for the low-attention-span internet age. Not everyone sees this as a positive development: the vegan writer and podcast host Alicia Kennedy considers it troubling that the internet has transformed something with such a rich political history into “a wellness thing” that allows would-be consumers to label themselves vegans without having to engage with the “excess baggage” of ideology. Another American writer, Khushbu Shah, has argued that the popularisation of veganism via social media has erased non-white faces and narratives from the dominant discourse, as white bloggers and influencers fashion a lifestyle in their image.

At the same time, a similar transformation was happening to the food vegans were eating. A blossoming street food scene in major cities influenced a dirtier, trashier vegan aesthetic that gave the diet a further boost. Recipe channels on YouTube and Facebook such as BOSH! – a glossy young male duo – used video to make stunt dishes (apple pie tacos; a plant-based take on a McDonald’s McMuffin; a watermelon “Jaegerbomb”) that injected some much-needed fun into the diet. (Tellingly, the BOSH! dudes, Henry Firth and Ian Theasby, refer to themselves not as chefs but “food remixers”.)

The language began to reflect a new, more approachable veganism. Descriptors such as “plant-based” gained in popularity, effectively rebranding the worthy brown stodge of popular imagination into something green and vital. Other neologisms such as “flexitarian” (a term denoting someone who is predominantly vegan or vegetarian but who occasionally eats meat or fish, added to the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2014) recast daunting vegan ideology as a fun, healthy, casual thing to try.

Cultish initiatives like Veganuary (an annual campaign encouraging people to go meat-free for the first month of the year, launched in 2014) and Meat Free Mondays tapped into this spirit – moving away from wholesale dietary transformation and towards something more manageably sporadic, with the added gloss of being able to share (that is, brag about) the experience online. Beyoncé declared an interest in veganism – at least, for breakfast – while athletes such as Venus Williams (who took up a raw vegan diet to combat a health condition) and Lewis Hamilton played a vital role in raising awareness and turning something once seen as weird and a little annoying into a desirable lifestyle.

Helping the cause was the growing body of scientific literature suggesting that some of the processes that produce the modern western diet were catastrophically bad for us. Bee Wilson wrote in these pages about the health effects of processed pork in a piece titled “Yes, bacon really is killing us.” Food in the Anthropocene, a report commissioned by the Lancet in conjunction with the global nonprofit Eat (a startup dedicated to transforming the global food system) concluded that “unhealthy diets are the largest global burden of disease”, and that meat-heavy food production is “the largest source of environmental degradation”. A major study led by a team from Oxford University, published in the journal Nature in October 2018, showed that huge reductions in meat-eating are essential to slow the rate of climate change. Livestock production has been shown to lead to dangerous levels of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. Factor in pop-science phenomena like the documentaries Cowspiracy! and What the Health – available on Netflix – and your diet suddenly seemed like a way you could save the world.

Big Meat continues to lobby aggressively in favour of our God-given right to eat animal flesh, resulting in a series of legal prohibitions surrounding what can and cannot be called “meat”’ or even – in one US state – a “veggie burger”. But veganism’s virality has proved irresistible. From about 2015, vegan and plant-based cookery manuals started to proliferate at a dazzling rate, with the BOSH! boys selling upward of 80,000 copies and spending four weeks on the Sunday Times bestseller list (today, Amazon lists more than 20,000 results for the search term “vegan cookbook”). Sales of plant milks skyrocketed; financial results at the manufacturer of plant-based protein Quorn soared as what one analyst referred to as the “battle for the centre of the plate” began to draw (fake) blood. By 2018, Byron, M&S and Pret had invested heavily in vegan ranges. It was, this paper proclaimed, “the year that veganism moved out of the realms of counter-culture and into the mainstream”. In 2014, Veganuary’s inaugural campaign had attracted just 3,300 participants; by 2019 the number was greater than 250,000, with 53% of them under the age of 35.

But veganism’s explosive growth alone does not explain why it attracted such controversy. There is something inherent to veganism and vegans that arouses deeper feelings. What is it about the vegan lifestyle that stirs such strong emotion in those who don’t happen to share it? Why do people hate vegans so much?

Early attempts to establish a vegan utopia did not go well. In the 1840s, the transcendentalist philosopher Amos Bronson Alcott (father of the author of Little Women, Louisa May) founded Fruitlands in Harvard, Massachusetts – a vegan community intended to be nothing less than a second Eden. But Alcott’s insistence that crops had to be planted and fields tilled by hand meant that not enough food could be grown for all of the members (even though the population peaked at just 13); a diet of fruit and grains, typically consumed raw, left participants severely malnourished. Just seven months after opening, Fruitlands closed – derided, in the words of one biographer, as “one of history’s most unsuccessful utopias”.

The timing was unfortunate for American vegetarians, who were already engaged in a pitched battle with public opinion. Vegetarians and vegans in the 19th century – known as Grahamites after the Presbyterian minister and diet reformer Sylvester Graham, who campaigned against meat-eating on the grounds that it was both unhealthy and morally repugnant – were the subject of frequent vitriolic editorials in the popular and medical press of the day, which described them as “cadaverous”, “feeble”, “half-crazed”, “sour-visaged” and “food cranks”.

In the 21st century the terminology may have changed but the sentiment remains much the same. The 2015 study conducted by MacInnis and Hodson found that only drug addicts were viewed more negatively among respondents. It concluded: “Unlike other forms of bias (eg, racism, sexism), negativity toward vegetarians and vegans is not widely considered a societal problem; rather, [it] is commonplace and largely accepted.”

In 2011, sociologists Matthew Cole and Karen Morgan observed a phenomenon they called “vegaphobia”, demonstrating that the British media consistently portrayed vegans in a negative light. In the days after her story broke, Selene Nelson, the freelancer at the centre of the Waitrose magazine row, was called “humourless”, “combative” and “militant”. In 2017, residents of the Swiss town of Aargau reportedly called for a vegan foreign resident to be denied citizenship because she was “annoying”, and the glee with which the global media retold the story revealed a widespread and casual prejudice. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Sylvester Graham, BTW, was the inventor of the Graham cracker.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 October 2019 at 2:50 pm

God as meme

with one comment

God is real, in the sense that chess, jazz, and the German language are real. All are evolved (and evolving) entities of human culture that emerge from the natural process of cultural evolution. By “human culture” I mean all the things that one person can learn from another or teach to another: games, music, language, religion, dance, etiquette, fashion, and so on. I call it a “natural” process because cultural follows the algorithm that Darwin first described for lifeforms but which works with any replicator.

  1. There is reproduction with variation. In lifeforms, offspring resemble their parents but not exactly. In things taught in human culture — Richard Dawkins named them “memes” — the student copies what the teacher taught, but not exactly.
  2. There is occasional mutation. In lifeforms, a gene is miscopied or changes; in memes, a new idea occurs to someone (e.g., a new song or poem or theorem or story or food dish or dance step) and when it is taught to another it becomes a meme — and a mutation. Just as with lifeforms, the meme mutation may be successful (passed along to many others) or it may fail (no one is interested and it doesn’t get passed along—e.g., the many failed song lyrics).
  3. There is natural selection. In lifeforms, some thrive in their current environment and reproduce well, while others struggle and fail. In memes, some prove popular, many choosing to learn them and pass them along in teaching, while others don’t get much play.

In every culture evolution shapes the language, music, games, religion, and God(s), and because cultural evolution is so rapid — millions of times faster than the evolution of lifeforms — that we can trace the evolution of chess (H.J.R. Murray wrote a history of chess that showed how it evolved), of jazz (how it came up the river from New Orleans and continued to evolve for decades), of language, of religion, and of God(s) (see, for example, The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright).

So God is real but (like chess, jazz, and the German language) resides within human understanding—in the minds of humans—and thus does not have the same reality as that mountain over there. Without human knowledge and learning/teaching, chess, jazz, German, and God(s) have no existence, but the mountain does. God/chess/jazz/German must be learned from others: they are memes, and they exist only in human understanding, not in the real world.

With chess, for example, there are real-world carved pieces of wood and a real-world painted board, but those are nothing more than mnemonic devices. They are not chess and indeed advanced players, with a good understanding of the game, can readily play without the pieces and board. If you gave the physical chess pieces and board to a person who does not know chess, s/he would not then know chess or be able to play it. The game itself exists only in the understanding of those to whom it’s been taught. The chess-ignorant person would not have a game; they would have only a collection of little wooden objects and a flat board. The game exists only in the understanding of those who know it.

Similarly, if you don’t know and understand jazz (or, more generally, Western music), you hear only sounds, not music. Music (not sounds) is taught and is something that inhabits the teacher’s mind and is taught to the student. Sound is a physical phenomenon, but music is a meme. You must learn — be taught — about (say) an octave.

A German book would be for a person who has not been taught about books and German nothing more than a collection of thin leaves of dried wood pulp with black marks. The book is “German” only for those who have been taught the German language and how to read it. A German book as a cultural entity is not the object but the understanding of the object, and that understanding is imparted by teaching: the reproduction of the relevant memes.

And God also is an entity that exists in human understanding and that must thus be taught. The entities of understanding—memes—are all the things that one person teaches to another or learns from another, and they do not exist other than in human understanding and knowledge. A wonderful speech in German delivered to someone who has not been taught German exists only as a sequence of odd vocalizations: it is sounds and nothing more.

UPDATE: sends me an email each day containing some passages I have highlighted in the books I’ve read on my Kindle. This mornings email included this passage I had highlighted months ago:

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees, and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations, and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees, and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.

I have read Sapiens (a fascinating book) and obviously have absorbed many of the ideas presented. And the same email also included this passage:

Virus of the Mind by Richard Brodie

Once our brains evolved to the point where we could receive, store, modify, and communicate ideas, there suddenly appeared a new environment that had the two characteristics needed for evolution: copying and innovating. Our brains, which arose out of increasing usefulness in the process of keeping DNA hosts (that’s us) alive and breeding, suddenly were thrust into the spotlight of evolution.The brand-new innovation of the human mind was not just another arena for evolution besides the cell, it was a far better arena, simply because evolution takes place far more quickly. The biological forces that evolved our brains to the point where we had minds were now outdone a million times over by the new memetic forces evolving our thoughts, our society, and our culture. Evolution of the meme was assured.


Written by LeisureGuy

15 October 2019 at 8:36 pm

Posted in Memes, Religion

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