This Delightful Archaeological Dig Proves We Know Nothing

“Archaeologists Are Finding Woodstock Really Did Take On Life of Its Own”

Yes, you read that right: “Woodstock” and archaeology in the same sentence.

Imagine how fun it would be to excavate Woodstock.

There are people still alive who were there. There are documents and maps and photographs. We know what the purpose of the gathering was and how many days it lasted. We know what to expect.

Nevertheless, the article includes this line:

“By examining surface vegetation and rocks in the area, now covered in forest, the team was able to identify 24 booth sites and 13 other ‘cultural features’ that were made by people, but whose function is not known.”

On a dig at a site that is just 50 years old, still in living memory, there are man-made features whose function is not known.

So many things to speculate about here. Are the structures additional snack booths? Port-a-Johns? First Aid tents? Opium dens? Bases for journalists or event security? Hideouts built by parents who were checking up on their children? Just really big and elaborate tents made by unusually enterprising attendees?

Further speculation. What if this site were 1,000 years old? 5,000 years? What if we didn’t know exactly how old it was? What if we weren’t sure whether it had been used annually for 500 years by 1,000 people or once, for three days, by 400,000? What if it were a refugee camp, a religious gathering, or some sort of pagan orgy? Perhaps we would find the names of the gods and goddesses who were worshiped here. (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Grateful Dead. The latter were probably entities less like gods and more like the Valkyries or the Furies, though in this case they seem to have been male.)

What if Herodotus had told us a little something about this gathering, though he only heard about it third-hand and didn’t seem to know much about it, and we are not even sure this is the same one he meant?

Please, speculate a little more in the comments. Go wild.

Aha! I Knew It!

Photo by Gerd Altmann on Pexels.com

A few years ago, I posted this article on Hubpages. It argues that most social science research data can’t be trusted because of the inherent difficulties in studying human thought and behavior. Today, just like Herodotus, I am vindicated.

This article on Futurity shows that a major psychological test that has been used for years to screen for potential psychiatric illness is not reliable. The differences between the scores of schizophrenics and neurotypical people are smaller than the differences in scores for less educated versus more educated people, and even slightly smaller than the score differences among blacks versus whites. In other words, whether you finished college has a greater impact on your score of this test than whether you are an actual schizophrenic. Yet the test supposedly measures our ability to guess what other people are thinking.

This does not mean that the designers of the test were racist or classist.  It means that, like nearly every person who dares to undertake social “science,” they were naïve.   They didn’t realize that it’s almost impossible to measure anything in human cognition without also measuring a bunch of other stuff, such as vocabulary and cultural norms.  And often, you don’t even realize that you are measuring the other stuff instead.

Rating People’s Ratings of Pictures of Eyes

For the test, subjects were shown a series of black-and-white shots of actors’ eyes expressing various feelings. For each eye shot, they were asked to choose between four words that would best describe the eyes’ mental state.  For example, in one of the samples in the article, you are asked to choose between sarcastic, suspicious, dispirited, and stern.

I am sure you have spotted the problem already.  You have to be fairly literate to parse the nuances of those four words.  And all the shots were like that. This explains the education disparity produced by the test. To make matters worse, in most of the examples the article gives, two or even three of the offered words could plausibly describe what the eyes are expressing.  Which word was considered right on the test was decided “through consensus ratings.” 

Finally, some kinds of emotional expression are culturally conditioned.  For example, in many cultures people show respect by looking down, avoiding eye contact.  This is not true in mainstream American white culture.  So, the same eyes that might say “confident” to an educated WASP could say something very different to a Latino: “defiant,” perhaps, or “angry.”

The test designers’ naivete lay in not realizing how much of emotional expression is culturally conditioned.  This is a blind spot that all of humanity shares, but in this case there were serious real-life consequences for it because this test was being used to identify people who might be at risk for psychiatric disorders, and thus might require intervention.  Imagine being flagged as possibly schizophrenic because you didn’t understand the cultural norms behind a test.

However, I would argue that the deepest problem was not with the designers’ ethnocentricity but with their assumption that they were in a position to “objectively” measure human thought and predict human behavior. 

You can’t do it, people.

Machine Analysis of Word Frequency

Here’s another test.  This one is much more recent, better backed by data, and apparently better at predicting what it’s supposed to predict.  But there’s still a problem with it.

This test, too, is used to screen for potential psychosis, which usually, according to the article, comes on in a person’s early 20s, with warning signs in the late teens. Apparently there are subtle signs of being predisposed to psychosis in a person’s language (for example a less rich vocabulary).

For this test, researchers used an algorithm to study in detail the speech of 40 individuals in their diagnostic interviews with therapists. Based on these diagnostic interviews, a trained therapist can predict who will later develop psychosis with about 80% accuracy. The participants were then followed for 14 years (!) to discover whether they in fact developed psychosis. (Following a subject long-term is called a longitudinal study.)

It turned out that the algorithm could predict psychosis with a greater than 90% accuracy. The machine found that in addition to using a lot of synonyms, another predictor of psychosis was “a higher than normal usage of words related to sound.” The researchers had not anticipated this.

I am impressed with the results the test yields and I am really impressed that the designers actually tested its results by doing longitudinal studies to find out how many of the subjects actually displayed psychosis.  (I think longitudinal studies are almost the only legitimate kind of social science research.)  This checking of their results already puts them light years ahead of the eyes test.

That said, I think there is a potential problem with the way the machine was trained.  To create a baseline for “normal” conversation, the researchers “fed [the] program the online conversations of 30,000 users of the social media platform Reddit.”

Internet conversation defines “normal.” That should raise red flags for all of us. 

Then, that baseline of “normal,” from written conversations, was used to evaluate transcripts of face to face interviews.  It looks like, in this case, this problem did not skew the data, given how well the test predicts psychosis.  But I have a huge problem with the principle that we can diagnose people based on word frequency counts.  In the wrong hands, this principle could really escape its glass cage and go rampaging across the countryside, wreaking havoc and destruction.

To take just one example, I’ve heard of a scholar (somewhere) who decided the Apostle Paul had some kind of sexual fixation because his letters so often use the word “flesh” (sarx).  Never mind that Paul used the word sarx as shorthand for the deep sin nature of the unredeemed human being.  When he used sarx, he was talking about a frustrating natural human inability to do good … and usually, he was talking about this phenomenon in himself.

This demonstrates how easily word-frequency studies can be manipulated to prove whatever we want.  And this problem gets bigger the smaller the size of the text being studied. 

What if you were analyzing an essay in which the author has to define a term?   The term in question, and its synonyms, could come up dozens of times without being something that author is fixated on in everyday life. Using machine learning, you could “prove” that Ben Shapiro is a Nazi, because lately he’s had to spend so much time refuting that very accusation.  (Shapiro is an orthodox Jew.)

Suffice it to say, though this particular study seems well-done, in general I am deeply suspicious of word-frequency tests, especially if they are the only measure being used, because they allow the researcher to ignore the actual content of the text in question.

So, What’s the Takeaway?

I don’t have a big moral of the story to give you here.  Read the articles I linked to and decide for yourself.  I am just sounding a warning that social science “data” is not nearly as objective as we tend to think it is, and may often be flat-out false.

Behold the Worst Contemporary Christian Song Ever Written!

Ok. I don’t know whether it’s really the worst. It’s the worst one that I know of.

This song has been around since I was a kid. Listen to it, and if you can get through it without throwing up, we will discuss.

“Thank You” by Ray Boltz. Here are the things I hate about the song:

It gives a false impression of heaven.

Heaven is not going to be about finding out how wonderful we are.  It is going to be about finding out how wonderful He is. 

We already spend way too much time trapped in the world of our own efforts, our own talents, our own flaws, our own accolades.  Everyone knows that this self-focus is not in any way heavenly.  It is hellish! 

Gee whiz.  We go to heaven to get away from this stuff.  To finally be free to focus on something truly worthwhile.  I can’t think of a more depressing lie than being told that heaven will consist of finding out that it’s all about “you.”

It gives a false impression of service.

This is a very minor point compared to the fact that the song makes “you,” instead of Christ, the hero of the story.  So please, don’t take this second point as being nearly as important as the first. However, having once engaged in idolatry, the song then compounds the error by making it sound as if it’s easy to earn all this adulation. 

What did the hero of the song do in order to create all these wonderful effects?  He gave some money to missions when he didn’t have much wiggle room.  (Sounds like it was just one time, after a presentation, perhaps – forgive my cynicism – to make himself feel better because the missionary’s “pictures made him cry.”) 

And he taught Sunday School.  This is admittedly hard, as it involves dealing with kids.  But, in the song, the thing that made such a big impact was the simple act of praying an opening prayer.  Something that takes less than a minute.

Both of these examples make it sound like you can do an act of service once, at relatively low cost to yourself, and – boom! – lives are changed. 

Real service is very different.  It consists of years of effort that often feels futile.  For example, the act of getting up day after day, providing for your family, sticking with your spouse, staying in relationship with your children, is far more impactful than either of the examples in the song. 

As for “giving to the Lord,” as someone who has actually tried it, let me tell you what it is more like.  You start out trying to do something good.  Then you find out that your motives were all wrong.  You repent.  Then you find out (maybe years later) that even with right motives, you were undertaking your labors in the wrong way, missing critical bits of information.  In many cases, you discover that you have done more harm than good. (For more information about this experience, see the book When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett et al, and the novels No Graven Image by Elizabeth Elliot and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.)

In my personal version of the scene above, I arrive in heaven and eventually get an opportunity to ask forgiveness for my grievous mistakes from the people I once started out so confidently trying to serve. And I find out to my relief that despite my inadvertent efforts to keep them from entering, they are there anyway. And they are no longer ticked about my mistakes because Jesus got to them directly, without my “help,” and they are just so thrilled to be there.

But none of this would be the first thing that happens. It’s heaven. The Lord is there. I think we will have higher priorities right at first than sorting out who did what to whom.

It gives a false impression of the Christian life.

My worst nightmare would be that someone who does not believe in Christ would hear this song.  (And they probably will, now that it’s on my blog.)  It paints a repellent picture of what it means to be a Christian.  It makes it sound like the life of faith is all about going around patting ourselves on the back, rather than about progressively recognizing and repenting of our faults, and coming to admire and depend on Christ more and more.  If we are engaged in back-patting, then we have not yet embarked on the path of Christ.  We are still stuck in Pharisaism, with all its attendant miseries.  This is already the impression that many people have of Christianity.  The last thing we need is a song like this to further obscure the Gospel.

The Grain of Truth in the Song

Having said all this, I have to be fair.  There is a grain of truth in this song. 

I mentioned that people who attempt a life of service usually find themselves engaged in years of work that seems fruitless and sometimes actually seems to do more harm than good.  Human efforts are futile.  “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:1, 2:11, 2:15, 2:17, etc.)  That’s in the Bible too.

It is one of the ironies of the universe that often a person can put in intense labor without achieving the desired result, only to have some small, random thing that they did turn out to make a huge impact.  That may be the phenomenon that this song is trying to capture.  (I think it does a really lousy job of it.  Perhaps we shouldn’t try to capture years of wisdom and experience in a 5-minute song.  But there is truth in this insight.)

Jesus said, “When you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” There is humor in this statement (Jesus’ humor is under-appreciated).  Dallas Willard has pointed out that when our hands do things automatically, without us having to think about it, it is because we are engaged in some routine process such as brushing our teeth.  Our hands automatically coordinate themselves, and the whole thing runs on muscle memory.  And this only takes place with things that we do often.  Jesus was saying that our giving should not be the kind of thing for which we pat ourselves on the back, but rather a completely normal part of life that we hardly notice we are doing. 

So perhaps what this odious song is trying so clumsily to capture is the truth that it will be small actions, ones we hardly notice we are doing, that will turn out to have blessed others the most.  I could see that would be an encouraging message if it were better expressed. However, there has got to be a more nuanced and less idolatrous way to point this out, so let me go on record as saying that I still hate this song.

I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

I am a linguist.

This does not mean that I go around picking apart other people’s speech.

Normally.

This time I’m going to make an exception. This is a grammar rant, so buckle up.

“Begs the Question”

Everyone uses this phrase wrongly. Usually, misused phrases kind of tickle me. Common usage and all that. Plus, I am sure there are some that I misuse myself. But this one is really annoying. So listen up, people:

“Begs the question” is NOT the same thing as “raises the question.”

If a situation naturally leads to a certain question, that is not begging the question. It is “raising” or “provoking” the question. For example, the Green New Deal will cost $93 trillion. Which raises the question, Where is that money going to come from? Or, my son just showed up with chocolate all over his face. Which raises the question, What happened to that pudding I made an hour ago?

“Begging the question” is a technical term from the realm of formal logic and debate. It refers to a logical fallacy where the argument assumes what it is trying to prove.

For example, “Intelligent design is not a scientific theory because the only legitimate kind of science relies on pure naturalism.” ID is unscientific because we have defined it as unscientific. This is begging the question.

I don’t know how that particular method of arguing in a circle came to be called begging the question. Maybe because these kinds of arguments avoid the question that they purport to answer. And I agree that the phrase begging the question sounds like it ought to mean raising an obvious question.

But it doesn’t.

This has been a public service announcement.

Yes, I’m a Luddite

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

But I don’t know how to get there from here.

The Dream

Many years ago, a friend and I got talking about what Utopia would look like to us.  I ended up producing a fairly extensive write-up on utopia according to me, dubbed “Jentopia.”

Jentopia turns out to be a very decentralized, low-tech society.  I sketched a vision of people living in a scattered network of mostly self-sufficient farmsteads.  They subsisted on agriculture, animal husbandry, hunting and fishing, or whatever combination of these best suited their immediate environment.  Government was local. Crimes were handled at the community level by a tribal or community council.  If a major military threat should arise from without, communities would get together and form a temporary militia to repel it.  All art was folk art, all music folk music.  Things that require a specialist, such as medicine, midwifery, and metalsmithing would be handled by local experts or by traveling specialists with whom gifted young people could apprentice if they chose.  Young people, when they came of age, could travel to other communities to find spouses or seek work.  Or they could simply go explore their world.  Because of the low level of technology, it was unlikely that any one group could completely wipe out another.  The low tech also limited the speed and range of travel.  The world was connected, but loosely so.  Families and communities were largely self-sufficient.

The only thing wrong with this cover illustration is the boots. Almonzo goes barefoot in the summer.

The closest I have ever seen historical conditions coming to Jentopia is the description of Almonzo Wilder’s boyhood in the book Famer Boy, written by his wife, Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I suppose that this book, plus the Noble Savage myth, is where my mental picture of Jentopia originated.

The Wilder family are prosperous farmers living in upstate New York in the 1880s.   They raise cows, sheep, pigs, and horses.  They have fields and a big garden.  The sheep produce wool, from which Mrs. Wilder weaves and then makes all the family’s clothes.  They have their own woodlot, from which they get (as needed) wintergreen berries, nuts, and timber. They have their own lake, from which they cut ice to store for the summer.  They achieve all this by working nonstop.  By the time he is nine, Almonzo is plowing all day in the early summer.  He makes up for it by eating his weight in food at every meal.

The Wilders are as near as a family can come to being completely self-sufficient.   Nevertheless, they are connected to the outside world.  A shoemaker and a tinker each make an annual trip to the area, selling the family what they need.  A buyer from New York City comes by once a year to buy Mrs. Wilder’s butter.  Mr. Wilder trains horses and sells them.  And they are not completely safe from crime.  A neighboring farm family is robbed and severely beaten in their own house one night.  Also, the Wilder’s whole lifestyle would vanish if one of them were to become disabled by an injury or a serious illness.

Mrs. Wilder weaving a boarding school uniform for her older son

We All Want It …

Despite not being perfect, the “Farmer Boy” lifestyle is very appealing to me in theory. And not only to me.  It appeals to many people for different reasons.  Some are survivalists who want to have more security by having more control over their food supply.  Others are environmentalists who would rather not contribute to the problems of pollution and industrial farming.

These are not unusual feelings.  I think most people, if you asked them, would rather be as self-sufficient as possible.  And nobody, if you ask them point-blank, wants to pollute or create huge piles of garbage or exploit other people in sweat shops or indirectly participate in cruelty to animals.  We all would like to live in an ideal world where we don’t harm anyone or anything else by our lifestyle. We are all trying to get back to the Garden.

The Resistance

So why is it that most people resist the call to suddenly enact a low-tech, environmentally friendly lifestyle?   As a fellow blogger put it, “people don’t like environmental rants.”  His theory is that we are all just too lazy and selfish to give up our luxuries.  But I don’t think it’s that.  I think most people resist “environmental rants” due to good, sound psychological reasoning. 

People are willing to do something if they believe it will provide them some kind of tangible benefit.  It’s best if they start seeing this benefit right away.  If we tried to plant a garden and nothing came up, we might try again next year, but we would certainly be discouraged and might give up.  This effect, by the way, is the reason that Dave Ramsey advises people who have a lot of debts to tackle their smaller debts first.  It would make more sense mathematically to start with the larger debts, which rack up more interest. But Ramsey has discovered by trial and error that people need the early sense of accomplishment that comes with seeing a debt vanish.  This gives them hope that paying off their debts is possible and further motivates them to keep saving. 

Occasionally you meet a person who is so disciplined and mature that they can work hard and sacrifice for a very long-term goal, sometimes for years before seeing any results. But this is not the norm.  In the real world, people give up if they don’t believe their efforts are having any effect. 

That is the problem with asking people to make changes in their lifestyle for an abstract environmental goal.  There is no obvious connection between our actions and the end result.  We are told that the world is ending and that it’s because of our lifestyle.  However, we are also told that even if we completely changed our lifestyle tomorrow, it’s possible the disastrous trend would not reverse.  And even if everyone in our city – or state – or country – managed to completely change our lifestyle, China would still be out there polluting.  Our actions wouldn’t make a dent in climate change, if it is even mostly human-caused.  If it is even worse than the alternatives.

In the end, the actions we are urged to take are so tiny that it’s hard to see how they could do anything.  Use a different kind of light bulb.  Produce less trash.  Don’t eat meat.  Whoopee.  I don’t take environmental end-times prophets seriously unless they ask us to move to the wilderness, go full Wilder, and stop using electricity altogether.

And some of them do.

The Hard Way

I hate to pick on the Green New Deal, but it’s out there, and I have heard people say that we are selfish, anti-science, anti-future dunderheads if we object to it.  So, let’s talk about it.

The basic premise behind the GND is to enact a sudden, universal switch to a sustainable, environmentally friendly lifestyle from the top down, by force. There are two problems with this.  One is the tyranny problem.  The other is the death problem.

The Tyranny Problem: The problem with enacting radical lifestyle changes from the top down is that this is, not to mince words, tyranny.  It is tyranny any time a government tries to force large segments of a population to give up their livelihood, move to a different place, raise their children in a certain way, have more or fewer children, or any other major changes to the elements of our lifestyle that are the proper domain of families.

Mao Tse Tung tried this in China.  It was called the Great Leap Forward.  He basically outlawed white-collar jobs and forced millions of city dwellers to move onto collective farms.  Millions died in the famines that followed.  (Top-down control of farming >>> crop failure >>> famine.)

Any time a government tries to force major lifestyle changes on its populace, whatever else the initiative may be it is also a power grab. 

Actually, the advocates of the GND admit that it’s a power grab.  They say that radical, tyrannical steps are necessary now just as they are (arguably) necessary during Total War, because we are all going to die unless we do something about this environmental problem.  They say tyranny is justified because they are saving us from death.

So let’s talk about the death problem.

The Death Problem: Besides the fact that it’s tyranny, there is another huge problem with trying to get an entire population to give up electricity, plastics, and motor vehicles essentially overnight.  The problem is that these modern luxuries have enabled us to build up and sustain a population that is much, much bigger than subsistence farming could support.

We all depend on electricity (hence coal) and on oil for things like our city sewer systems; our clean, processed water; our garbage removal; our heat in the winter; our healthy, abundant, affordable food.  We also depend on these systems for medical technologies that keep many of us alive.  Many people are dependent upon medicines that have to be refrigerated and that can only be produced with our current technology.

If we suddenly gave up petroleum and coal, all these systems would collapse.  This scenario has been explored – frequently – in sci-fi and dystopias.  It always ends in huge die-offs.  Often, the die-offs have an additional cause such as zombies.  But if you want to read a detailed exploration of what would happen if the lights simply went out, I recommend Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling.  At the beginning of that book, all electricity, motor vehicles, and gunpowder (!) suddenly stop working.  There is no bomb, and there are no zombies.   Lights out is all it takes to kill off most of the population. If you don’t have time to read Dies the Fire (a doorstop of a book), try the much shorter One Second After by William R. Forstchen, in which gunpowder and motor vehicles continue to work, but the power goes off and communities no longer receive goods from the outside world via trucking. This is even closer to what the Green New Deal would bring us.

Anyone who seriously wants the United States to stop using coal and petroleum within the next ten years is asking at least 50%, probably more like 75%, of us to die in the cause of environmentalism.

I honestly don’t know whether the advocates of the GND realize this or not.  Maybe they think there would be a way to find another source of power, such that it would not cause massive die-offs.  Maybe they think the die-offs would be a good thing.  Or maybe they don’t actually expect the GND to be enforced as it is written.  In any case, I don’t think they’ve thought seriously about how bad it would really be.

The Possibly Not Fatal, But Still Extremely Hard, Way

The only nonfatal way that I can see for a Luddite dreamer to get from city life to Jentopia is to move there voluntarily.  Buy some land, build a chicken coop, plant a big garden.  Become a homesteader.  Have a generator or a wood stove or whatever you need in case the power goes out.  Dig a root cellar.  Stock up on any necessary medicines. 

This is good, as far as it goes.  It is something that I would like to do if so positioned.  That said, there are a few caveats.

Not everyone is in a position to take up the homesteading lifestyle.  Some people can’t afford to move or can’t afford to buy land.  Some are taking care of a sick child or elder.  Some are committed to an important, demanding career that ties them to a city.  (We don’t want all our doctors and firefighters to go full Luddite!)

Even supposing we do take up the homesteading lifestyle, it is going to be very demanding.  Farming is difficult to succeed in if you didn’t grow up in it.  (For example, you need a lot of wrist and hand strength that has to be developed in your youth.)   For most people, their homestead would end up being only partially self-sufficient.  They might have a large garden and keep chickens, perhaps even a cow … but a portion of their food, all of their medicine, and probably the bulk of their income would be coming from elsewhere.

Even to take up a partially self-sufficient lifestyle, here are the skills you might need: construction (fixing your house, and building barns, chicken coops, etc.).  Plumbing.  Gardening, including knowing what varieties of garden crops do well in your area and how to handle pests and plant diseases.  Animal husbandry (if you want your own milk) and butchering (if you want your own bacon).  Food preservation (canning, pickling, and maybe a smokehouse).  Water purification. Home cooking from scratch.  Camping skills such as how to start a fire in a fire pit or in a wood stove – and, not unrelated, fire safety.  Knitting, sewing, and – if you are hard core – spinning and weaving.  Sheep shearing.  Soap making.  First aid and possibly more advanced medical knowledge, if you are living in a place remote enough that it would be hard to get to medical care.  Home dental care (tooth extraction?).  Home haircuts.  Vehicle maintenance (or horse breeding).  How to maintain the road into and out of your place.  And finally, if you are preparing for the lawlessness that would follow a social or environmental apocalypse, you will need self-defense skills, shooting skills, and gun maintenance (or sword skills if you are living the world of Dies the Fire).

Obviously, living in an environmentally friendly way is going to be a full-time occupation and then some.  You will have no time for art or leisure.

Let me be the first to say that I do not have all these skills.  I do not have a green thumb.  I have a tiny yard that is not set up for chickens or gardening.  I have a modestly stocked pantry and one lousy rain barrel.  I have a fire place but no wood pile.  If the power went off in our city in the middle of the winter and stayed off for a month or two … maybe my family would survive.  That’s leaving looters out of the equation.

Maybe I should start calling myself a Hypo-Luddite.

It’s a really big club.

Sources

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, HarperCollins, first published 1933.  Shows the Wilder family’s lifestyle by following Almonzo through one year of his life.

The Quarter-Acre Farm: How I Kept the Patio, Lost the Lawn, and Fed my Family for a Year by Spring Warren.  Seal Press, 2011.  Warren decides she personally (only she, not her husband and sons) is going to eat only what she grows on her own property for one year.  (She has to exclude beverages from this, or she would have to give up all drinks but water.)  She works her tail off, but she does it.  Her learning curve is delightful to read.  Note that she lives in California, which has a good growing climate, and when the book starts her yard already boasts fruit trees.

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang.  Chang chronicles the life of her grandmother, her mother, and herself.  Her parents were both dedicated communists early in the movement.  Her family survived being separated and sent to collective farms during the Great Leap Forward.

See thesurvivalmom.com to get a sense of the range of skills that homesteading requires.

“The Green New Deal as America’s Great Leap Forward” by Clifford Humphrey, The Epoch Times, March 31, 2019

“The Climate Case of the Century” by Edward Ring on American Greatness. The web site is kind of annoying in terms of ads and pop-ups (sorry about that!), but in the section of the article called “Critical Questions,” Ring asks a series of great questions about the extent and nature of climate change and the relative harm and benefits of trying to switch to solar and wind power.

“The Same” is a Lousy Definition of “Equal” … Especially Between the Sexes

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

The following heartbreaking article

A Nordic paradox: higher gender equality, more partner violence

presents statistics that women are much more likely to be abused by their husbands or boyfriends in countries such as Sweden where there is more gender “equality,” with “equality” being defined as more women in the workforce full-time.

The article speculates on causes. One is that men are dissatisfied with their partners’ earnings. (Ouch.)

These findings might seem counter-intuitive to many. How could abuse rates be so high – possibly as high as almost 50% – in a feminist paradise like Sweden? In a country with such strong social pressure on both men and women to behave in an androgynous manner?

I think the problem is with our definition of “equality.” Actually, the Nordic countries are not places of high gender equality. They are instead places where women are strongly pressured to behave as much like men as humanly possible.

Women don’t make good men. There. I said it.

We are not equipped for it. We tend to choose careers that make less money. We don’t have the upper-body strength to be good soldiers or firemen or sailors. We are more likely to get sick. We have hormones and a stronger tendency toward negative emotion, which cause predictable cycles in our productivity. We might, with little warning, have a baby, which takes us out of the work force for months at a time, causing our bosses to feel (rightly) that they can’t rely as well on a woman employee. Even when we do come back to work, we are likely to need more time off because of the needs of our children. Some of us leave “the workforce” for years.

All of this baffling behavior flows out of one very important fact that highly efficient, industrialized, egalitarian societies find most annoying: women are able to become mothers. All the traits mentioned above, which look like flaws in a factory or law firm, turn out to be effects cascading from design features that equip us for something very unique. We can make new people.

However, our society does not value motherhood nearly as much as it values the ability to be a good, man-style worker (whether “good worker” means a bold innovator or a reliable cog in the machine). So these characteristic womanly traits continue to be seen as flaws that need to be minimized if we are to achieve equality.

Or, as Andrew Klavan put it in a recent podcast, “A society that denigrates motherhood will be a society that does not respect women. And feminism has made this possible.”

Here is my story about this.

I was verbally attacked in my college cafeteria by a cute, grey-haired man who looked like an aging hippie. (It’s a type that I usually find endearing … at least, until they open their mouths.)

He was very friendly at first. He asked my major, and I said English. Then he spoke a few encouraging words along the lines of “You go, girl!” “Someday,” he said, “You’ll be in Tibet reporting for NPR.”

OK, great.

Then he sat down behind me, turned around, and added, “Too bad, that probably won’t happen. You’ll probably marry some dumb guy and get stuck at home. You’ll never end up doing anything with your life after the kids ruin you.”

I wish I had asked him if he really thought I had “ruined” my mother … or if he had “ruined” his.

Instead, I said, “Why are you insulting me?”

He got excited and said with a little smile, “Have I made you angry? I hope I’ve made you angry.”

The answer, of course, was Yes, a little … but not as much as you hoped, and not in the way that you hoped.

Not as much as he hoped because I’d heard this line of reasoning before. It was America in the 1990s and I wasn’t living under a rock.

Not in the way that he’d hoped because instead of becoming angry with the patriarchy, his speech only caused me to become annoyed with him for being such an idiot. He thought he was striking a blow for feminism, but instead he was just disrespecting me and every woman out there. In order to encourage me to “do something with my life,” he had to run down one truly amazing, uniquely feminine role that I would be really good at.

So I think that we have to give up our idea that men and women aren’t “equal” unless and until they do everything exactly the same. The concept of “equal” loses all of its positive value when it means asking people to deny, devalue, or skip over a huge part of their nature. (And, by the way, it’s not the subject of this article but there are also ways in which we ask men to deny their nature in the service of “equality” — read, sameness.)

I think it would be much more “equal” if we let both men and women do what they are naturally good at.

Why Everyone Should Be Educated about the Ancient Near East

Here is a representative New Atheist argument from Richard Dawkins:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, page 31

Of course, each of these epithets could be backed up with an example from Scripture in which God calls Himself ‘jealous’ (not bothering to investigate what was meant by this), or appears to condone – or at least appears in the vicinity of – one of the crimes mentioned.

On its surface, this argument sounds really convincing and even damning … as long as you know nothing about the Ancient Near East.   It basically blames God for all the pre-existing features of the cultures into which He was speaking.

Description Is Not Prescription

First off, let’s dispense with a very basic misunderstanding that nevertheless seems to be widespread.

Just because an incident is recorded in the Bible does not mean that the Old Testament God endorses, let alone prescribes it. Much of the Bible is not prescriptive but is straightforward history.  The Ancient Near East was a horrible place, and any history set there will contain horrors.  In Genesis 19 there is an attempted homosexual gang rape.  In Judges 19 there is a horrific, fatal gang rape, followed by a bloody clan war, followed by a mass kidnapping. In 2 Kings 6 there is cannibalism.  And so on.  It makes no more sense to blame God for these events than it does to blame a historian for the atrocities he documents.

God Commanded Animal Sacrifice, Holy War, Theocracy

But, let’s move on to the more difficult stuff.  It is true that in the Old Testament, God commands His people to establish a theocracy by force.  Furthermore, His worship involves animal sacrifice (which seems mild by comparison, but some people have a problem with this too). To modern eyes, all of this is very very bad.  If God were really good, He would never have set up a theocracy.

I would like to ask the Richard Dawkinses of the world: What kind of society, exactly, do you think the ancient Israelites found themselves in at the time that God gave them all these laws?

Apparently, before the mean ol’ God of Israel came stomping through the Ancient Near East, all the other peoples there were living in a state of secular, egalitarian innocence.  Everything found in the Old Testament was completely new to them.  They had no gods, no priest-kings, no temples in their city-states. They did not offer animal or human sacrifices.  They had no war, no rape, no slavery.  They did not even eat meat.  They were all vegans and went around with Coexist bumper stickers on their camels.

No, no, no.  Come on.  That picture is the exact opposite of the truth.  There was no such thing as an egalitarian, secular society back then, and would not be for millennia.

The Actual Conditions in the Ancient Near East

Public Domain. Maarten van Heemskerck’s interpretation of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. In the background, the ziggurat (temple) towers over the city.

When God began speaking to the Israelites, here are the historical and cultural conditions that He had to work with:

In the Ancient Near East, literally every kingdom was a theocracy.  If you wanted to live in civilization, that meant that you lived in, or were a farmer attached to, a city-state.  At the center of your city would be the temple of that city’s god.  Typically the king was also the high priest of said god and was considered his or her representative on earth.  So, the god was ruling you through the king.  Every citizen of the city-state owed the king absolute obedience and the god service and sacrifice.  And how was that religion practiced? Typically with animal sacrifice. This is pretty normal for cultures in which livestock represent wealth.  But actually, animal sacrifice was the least of it.  Temple prostitution (which could include ritual rape) was a frequent feature of fertility cults. Human sacrifice, even child sacrifice, was also not unheard-of and in some places it was common. 

Public Domain image of Moloch, the Phonecian god. Children were sacrificed by being placed inside the fiery metal statue. In some versions, the statue is shown with arms stretched out in front of it, into which the baby is placed. This god was popular in Canaan at the time of the Israelite conquest.

In other words, every single person in the ancient world lived in, not to mince words, a brutal theocracy.  All of these kingdoms were far more authoritarian than the system set up by God for the Israelites.  The power of the ruling class was considered absolute.  Being enslaved was routine: because of your own debts, or your parents’, or because your city had been conquered, or because someone fancied you or because you had somehow annoyed the king.   There was no concept of the lower classes having natural rights; and, in many cases, no sense of the rule of law.  Nobody can be a snob or tyrant like an Ancient Near Eastern god-king.

For most people in the Ancient Near East, life was a horror show.

It Wasn’t the Bible World, It Was the Whole World

Public Domain. The temple of Jupiter towers over Rome during the days of the Republic.

Actually, this highly centralized kind of politico-religious system was not confined to the Ancient Near East.  The early civilizations of the Indus Valley had a very similar system to that of ancient Sumer, even down to the temples and city layouts looking almost identical.  The Indian style of centralized religious system can be spotted in Cambodia and Indonesia.  Meanwhile, back in the Ancient Near East, this kind of system persisted, in the centuries following the giving of the Old Testament law, in the civilizations of Crete, Greece, the Hittites, Babylon, Assyria, and Persia.  Thousands of years later, we see similar arrangements in Mayan, Aztec, and Incan culture.  In fact, it is not too big of a stretch to say that until very recent times, a centralized, stratified, bureaucratic theocracy has been the norm, at least among major civilizations, throughout human history.

Public Domain. Pre-Aztec pyramid/temple complex at Teotihuacan.

But that kind of world is strange to us now. We are accustomed to a very different kind of society: relatively open, free, and secular, with lots of social mobility (and no animal sacrifices whatsoever).  For many people, their first encounter with this once-familiar style of centralized theocracy comes when they open the Bible.  They then attribute all this stuff to the God of Israel, as if He had commanded all of this.  But no, He was not instituting theocracy, animal sacrifice, arranged marriage, slavery, or any of the rest of it.  Those things were already universal.  He was, instead, speaking in to cultures for which these things were already the norm.  He spoke to them in their terms, but at the same time transformed the terms to be more in line with His character.

Well, Why Didn’t God Just Fix It?

You might say, “Well, then, why didn’t He tell them to stop having theocracies, sacrifice, and slavery, and to become a modern secular state?”   This would, of course, have made no sense to them.  They would have been completely unable to understand the message.  If they had nevertheless tried to implement it, it would have led to a French Revolution-style Terror and a complete breakdown of their societies.  You cannot completely and instantly transform a society without breaking it.  But He did begin to transform those Ancient Near Eastern cultures by giving them a model of a good theocracy.

Suddenly, people had available to them the option to live in a land where the local god was not represented by a statue (this was unbelievably counterintuitive) and where instead of being arbitrary, He was “righteous” … where His worship did not allow human sacrifice or temple prostitution, but only carefully regulated animal sacrifice … where the behavior of priests was regulated and limited by the law … where institutions like slavery and arranged marriage were, again, limited by relatively humane laws … where each family was supposed to own their own land … where, for many years, there was no king.

If you wanted to set up a sane society in the midst of the Ancient Near East, I don’t know how else you would possibly go about it.

Sources

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006)

Public domain images in this post come from the pages of Streams of Civilization, Vol. 1, 3rd ed., edited by Albert Hyma and Mary Stanton. (Christian Liberty Press, Arlington Heights, Illinois, 2016)

Information about life in the Ancient Near East, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the American civilizations comes from Streams of Civilization and from many, many other sources.

Aaand, This Is Where Graham Hancock and I Finally Part Ways

Photo by Prasanth Inturi on Pexels.com

Here (at Skeptic.com) is a review of Graham Hancock’s latest book, America Before.

It’s a interesting review, touching on some of the themes we’ve been talking about here on OutofBabel, such as the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis and possible lost settlements (even cities?) in Amazonia.

Of course, Hancock, being Hancock, puts those two suggestive ideas (plus a lot of other ones) together into something much bigger. He has apparently fallen off the New Age cliff entirely. According to the review, America Before is full of non sequiters, speculation, noble savage myths, and angry rants against the profession of archaeology as a whole, descending at the end of the book into the liberal use of caps and boldface type.

I have not read America Before, but my impression is that this review represents it accurately. I have two reasons. The first is that it is (believe it or not) a sympathetic review. The reviewer, Jason Colavito, knows and likes Hancock and is clearly familiar with the body of Hancock’s work.

In his early books on ancient mysteries, such as The Sign and the Seal(1992) and Fingerprints of the Gods (1995), Hancock wove a compelling narrative from sparse facts and heady speculation. These books were written as adventures in which Hancock cast himself in the role of a tweedier Indiana Jones, traveling the world in search of evidence of the impossible. Regardless of the conclusions he drew, the personal narrative of discovery created a compelling through-line that made these books engaging even for those who disagreed with the author’s ideas.
But with each successive book, Hancock seemed to anticipate that his audience is increasingly people who have read his earlier work.  …
Since Hancock is no longer an innocent questing for truth but a self-styled advocate of “alternative archaeology,” his books have taken on the tone of jeremiads, their sense of wonder and discovery replaced with righteous indignation …

“American Atlantis,” by Jason Colavito

And that is the second reason that I find this review believable. The weaknesses that Colavito identifies in America Before are characteristic weaknesses. I recognize them from Fingerprints of the Gods, but apparently in the intervening years they have gotten worse and not better.

In other words, the writer that Colavito describes definitely sounds like the Graham Hancock I know and love … or loved when he wrote Fingerprints. Maybe not so much now. It does not surprise me either that Hancock has gone full New Age in the years since writing Fingerprints. That’s because I read one of his fiction books, called Entangled: Eater of Souls. (It was a “fiction novel.” That’s what we experts in the publishing industry call them.) Entangled had soul guides, telepathic Neanderthals, hallucinogenic drugs, and everything.

I still think (as Hancock thinks, but for different reasons) that complex human civilization is much older than commonly believed. I even have some sympathy for Hancock’s frustration with archaeological assumptions and blind spots. But I don’t think there’s any organized scholarly conspiracy at work and I have no desire to read a book that amounts to an angry rant against those archaeologists working in North and South America. Nor do I think, should we discover (or, should I say, when we discover) ever more advanced civilizations in ancient North and South America, that a New Age type of explanation will be necessary.

So, goodbye, Mr. Hancock. I really enjoyed Fingerprints of the Gods. It presented some intriguing ideas and started me down my own speculative paths. But I don’t think I’ll be reading your latest offering.

Leviathan

Some time ago, Rachael requested in the Comments section of my Dinosaurs post that I post a picture of the Leviathan. At the time, I thought that I didn’t have time to do one. (I’ve gotten away from drawing and painting in favor of home schooling, knitting, and a writing career.) But then I realized I had on hand a watercolor that I had done years ago which includes the Leviathan.

The image below is from a version of the Book of Job that I did for my kids when they were little. I made it because there simply were no children’s books that accurately summarized the Book of Job. It’s not a popular topic in the first place, and even when it is dealt with, it tends to be handled very moralistically as being all about Job’s patience and righteousness. But that’s a rant for another day.

The reason the animals are portrayed as being in a tornado is that God “spoke to Job out of the whirlwind.” My son, at the time, was equal parts fascinated and terrified by the idea of tornadoes. The animals shown are unicorn, eagle, behemoth (the sauropod) and, in the lower left corner, Leviathan. (I include a unicorn because the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, mentions “monoceros” or “unicorn” where some English translations render “wild donkey” or “wild ox.”)

I must admit this Leviathan owes more to C.S. Lewis’s description of the sea monster in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I’ve portrayed it as a deep-sea creature. There is no hint of fire breathing or scales bumpy enough to leave an impression in the mud. Sorry, folks.

And … tah dah …!