Friday, May 30, 2008

Not All the Intelligence was Wrong

Not surprisingly, the right wing response to Scott McClellan's book has prominently featured the "everybody thought Saddam had WMD" argument. I.e., it is not Bush's fault that we are fighting a needless war; he got bad intelligence. While it is true that it was widely believed that Saddam had chemical weapons, this argument purposefully obfuscates all the ways in which the Bush administration misused the intelligence by mixing together questions that should be considered separately.

Let's consider the questions about intelligence individually.

Did everyone think that Saddam had chemical and biological weapons?
Yes. More of Less.

Did everyone think that Saddam was stockpiling such weapons for future operations?
No. Many people thought Saddam only had residual capability from the Iran-Iraq war.

Did everyone think that Saddam was trying to rebuild his nuclear weapons program?
No. Hardly anyone thought that he was trying to do so.

Did everyone think that Saddam was buying aluminum tubes for centrifuges.
No. Most experts thought not.

Did everyone think that Saddam was trying to obtain uranium from Niger?
No. Almost everyone knew this was bogus.

Did everyone think that Saddam was likely to use his chemical weapons if he was not attacked?

Did everyone think that Saddam was connected with Al Queda?

Did everyone think that Saddam would to provide weapons to terrorists?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Hillary's Context

Was Hillary’s reference to RFK’s Assassination taken out of context?

According to Hillary’s supporters, the context was Democratic campaigns that have not been decided until the month of June. Is that what the assassination of Bobby Kennedy conjures up in most people’s minds though? I was only eleven in June of 1968 and I must confess that I don’t know how the delegate count stood after that California primary. Was Bobby Kennedy still a long shot after his victory? Was he neck and neck with Humphrey? Was he a prohibitive favorite? How many people think of Bobby Kennedy’s death in terms of how the race for the nomination stood at that point? I suspect that the only thing Bobby Kennedy’s assassination conjures up for younger Americans is the image of a charismatic and inspiring candidate who was gunned down in the prime of his life.

Last night on Hardball, Joan Walsh of took offense to the following statement: “Senator Hillary Clinton referred Friday to the assassination of Robert Kennedy in the 1968 campaign as a reason should she should continue to campaign despite the long odds.” Said Walsh:
That was wrong. She was not using the Kennedy assassination as the reason
she was staying in. She was making the point that people have campaigned
before into June. Jerry Brown did it and Bobby Kennedy did it. That
was her point. It has been deliberately misconstrued and it’s is quite

I guess we need to get into some sort of Clintonesque parsing of the definition of the word “reason.” As I see it, Hillary was explaining why she was staying in the race and she cited the fact that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June. That makes Kennedy’s assassination a “reason” for her to stay in the race. Walsh may reasonably assert that people have misunderstood why Hillary thinks it constitutes a reason, but I don’t see how you argue that the answer to a question that begins with the word “why” is anything other than a “reason.”

I am willing to give Hillary the benefit of the doubt on her intentions, but I am offended by her attempts to portray herself as the victim just because people interpreted a ghoulish and inappropriate comment as ghoulish and inappropriate.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Hillary's "Historical" Reference

One of the most offensive things about Hillary Clinton's remarks yesterday was the justification offered by her campaign spokesman Mo Ellithee: "She was simply referencing her husband in 1992 and Bobby Kennedy in 1968 as historical examples of the nominating process going well into the summer. Any reading into it beyond that is inaccurate and outrageous."

HOLY CRAP!!! Hillary references the assassination of a candidate for the Democratic nomination as part of her reasons for staying in the race and she is outraged that someone might take that the wrong way??? What unbelievable balls!

What kind of a mind comes up with that kind of a historical reference anyway? If she was making some point about celebrity campaign contributions, would she point out the fact that Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated by an actor? If she was making some point about the state of Tennessee, would she point out that Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis? The fact that the assassination remark can be tangentially tied to an arguably legitimate point does not make it any less ghoulish or inappropriate.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Debit Where Debit Is Due

Wow! The topic of my last post was Mike Huckabee's demonstration of the proper way to make an apology for a tasteless and thoughtless remark implicating violence towards Barack Obama. Today we have Hillary Clinton making an utterly reprehensible remark about the assassination of a presidential candidate in June. Unlike Huckabee who was reacting to a sudden noise at a speech, Clinton has clearly been thinking about this for months since she made similar remarks to Time magazine back in March. Unlike Huckabee, who promptly apologized "that my comments were offensive," Clinton made some vague rambling remarks that hardly qualify as an apology followed by statements by her campaign that she regretted that her remarks were misunderstood.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Credit Where Credit is Due

After making an extremely stupid remark about Barack Obama in a speech to the National Rifle Association today, Republican Mike Huckabee issued the following apology:
During my speech at the NRA a loud noise backstage, that sounded like a chair
falling, distracted the crowd and interrupted my speech. I made an offhand
remark that was in no way intended to offend or disparage Sen. Obama. I
apologize that my comments were offensive, that was never my intention.
My compliments to Huckabee for not resorting to the tired old dodge: "I apologize if my comments were offensive."

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Ignorance of Right Wing Talk Radio

If you repeat it often enough and yell loud enough, it must be true, even if you don't know what it is.

Right wing radio crap artist Kevin James tries to defend Bush's attack on Obama as an appeaser. Unfortunately, he does not know what the history of appeasement is. That doesn't stop him from trying to bluster his way through it though.

One of the best parts comes at the end when James is trying to blame the Clinton administration for the 9/11 attacks. Air America President Mark Green advised James to read Against All Enemies the book written Richard Clarke, counter-terrorism adviser to both Clinton and Bush. What did James cite in response? Pathway to 9/11, a made for TV docu-drama.

When Did the New Testament Become Scripture?

As I noted in my last post, 85% of the manuscript evidence for the New Testament comes from the eleventh century or later. This is according to the Chair of the Biblical and Theological Studies at Bethel University, Michael Holmes. Dr. Holmes was on the conservative team at the recent Greer-Heard Forum where Bart Ehrman debated Dan Wallace. Moreover, according to Dr. Holmes, prior to the end of the second century “we have almost no manuscript evidence for any of the New Testament documents and for some books the gap extends to two centuries or more.” As I see it, the significance of the distribution of the manuscripts is that the overwhelming majority of the manuscript evidence comes from the period after Constantine when orthodox Christianity was the state religion of the Roman Empire while we have very little evidence for the earlier period when Christians were a persecuted minority composed of competing sects. So the question becomes whether it is reasonable to believe that the New Testament writings were copied as faithfully in the first century or so after they were written as the were later.

One reason to doubt the reliability of the earliest copyists is that they did not know they were copying “scripture.” The first people to copy any of the New Testament documents would have been Paul’s converts. Paul’s letters indicate that most of these converts were pagans whose religions had no tradition of scripture. While Paul would certainly have explained the significance of the Jewish scriptures, they would have understood that the purpose of scripture was to point to the Messiah. They would have no reason to expect God to further reveal himself through human authors once the Messiah had come particularly since they expected the Messiah to return within their lifetimes.

Evidence that Paul’s epistles were not considered “scripture” can be found in the letter that Clement wrote to the Corinthians around 95 A.D. Throughout the letter Clement introduces quotations from the Old Testament with “scripture saith,” “it is written,” or “the Lord says.” On the other hand, when he uses phrases from the New Testament epistles, he does not even acknowledge that he is quoting from someone else’s writings. Clement speaks at one point of the first letter that Paul wrote to the Corinthians “under the inspiration of the Spirit,” but he does not quote anything from that letter as authoritative teaching. Clement plainly understands the concept of scripture and he knows how to designate something as scripture and he does not use the designation for Paul’s writings.

At one point, Clement does introduce a verse found in 1 Corinthians 2:9 with the phrase “Scripture saith,” but the verse is a paraphrase of Isaiah 64:4. According to Clement: Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which He hath prepared for them that wait for Him. Paul writes: No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him. And finally, Isaiah says: Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. While I do not doubt that Clement was working from Paul’s letter, the fact that he changes Paul’s paraphrase to make it conform more closely to Isaiah leads me to believe that he viewed Isaiah as the ultimate source of the quote. Standing alone, this might not be sufficient to resolve the ambiguity, but I think it is when it is combined with the consistent differences in his citations of Old and New Testament sources in the rest of the letter.

When I look at the writings of the early church fathers, I see a progression in the treatment of the New Testament writings. Clement acknowledges the Old Testament as authoritative scripture, but he doesn’t demonstrate any knowledge of the gospels, and he lifts phrases from various epistles without attribution. Fifteen years later, Ignatius lifts phrases from both gospels and epistles, but he does not identify his sources or acknowledge that he is relying on some written source. In 120 A.D comes Polycarp’s letter which again quotes New Testament sources without naming his sources. In 150 A.D., Justin Martyr attributes quotations from the gospels to “memoirs of the apostles.” In 180 A.D., Irenaeous defines the four canonical gospels as the authoritative and exclusive accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry and identifies their authors. After Irenaeous, the New Testament writings are explicitly treated as scripture. That progression suggests to me that the New Testament writings came to be seen as authoritative over time rather than being viewed as such from the start.

It seems obvious to me that someone who thinks he is copying the very words of Almighty God is going to be more careful than someone who thinks that he is copying a letter from a guy named Paul, particularly if the copyist is one of the people that Paul is trying to straighten out in the letter. However, this is only one of the reasons to question whether the stability seen in the texts in the later centuries can be inferred in the earlier period. Additional factors include the higher rate of variants in the few early manuscripts that do exist, the theological conflicts between competing sects during the period, the incidence of forgeries, and the absence of trained scribes.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Double Standard

As anyone who has followed this blog will notice, I am a fan of Bart Erhman. I have read several of his books and listened to several of his Great Courses from The Teaching Company. Perhaps I identify with him because we are close in age and I also became a born-again Christian in my teens although I did not stick with it as long as he did. When he was studying at the Moody Bible Institute, I was a regular listener of their radio station WMBI. I was attending DePaul University at the time and I often would hop off the el or subway at Chicago Street to browse in Moody's bookstore when shuttling between DePaul's Loop and Lincoln Park campuses. In addition to blogging about Dr. Erhman, I frequently comment on other blogs where his works are discussed.

One of the things that evangelical Christians complain about is Ehrman's claim that there are more variants in the New Testament manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament itself. The Christians complain that he is just being provocative and that this is misleading because most of the variants have no effect on the meaning of the text. Well I will admit that Ehrman describes the number of variants this way for dramatic effect, but even conservative scholars admit that this is true. Moreover, Ehrman consistently qualifies his statement by acknowledging that the overwhelming majority of the variants are trivial.

On the other hand, conservative scholars and apologists like to talk about the sheer number of New Testament manuscripts to achieve the same sort of effect that Ehrman seeks with the sheer number of variants. However, in my experience, the Christians are much less likely to qualify their claim by acknowledging that 85% of those manuscripts date from more than 1000 years after the original. Some do, but most do not.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

God Bless Indiana!

I would like to salute my neighbors in the Hoosier state for not getting sucked in by Hillary's "gas tax holiday pander" and denying her the margin of victory she was hoping for. I am particularly gratified by all the Hoosiers who let Obama move beyond the Rev. Wright controversey. Having lived through the Harold Washington--Bernie Epton mayoral campaign and the Carol Mosely Braun--Rich Williamson senate campaign, I deeply feared that Obama might have suffered a fatal blow.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Reason and Faith: Craig v. Dawkins

From William Lane Craig--Dealing With Doubt:
The way that I know Christianity is true is first and foremost on the basis of
the witness of the Holy Spirit in my heart. This gives me a self-authenticating
means of knowing Christianity is true wholly apart from the evidence. And
therefore, if in some historically contingent circumstances,the evidence that I
have available to me should turn against Christianity. I don’t think that that
controverts the witness of the Holy Spirit. In such a situation, and I should
regard that simply as a result of the contingent circumstances that I am in, and
that if I were to pursue this with due diligence and with time I would discover
that in fact that the evidence—if I could get the correct picture—would support
exactly what the witness of the Holy Spirit tells me.

. . .

Doubt is never simply an intellectual problem. There is always a
spiritual dimension as well. There is an enemy of your souls, Satan, who
hates you intensely, and is bent on your destruction and will do everything in
his power to see that your faith is destroyed. And therefore, when we have
these intellectual doubts and problems, we should never look at them as
something that is spiritually neutral and divorce them from the spiritual
conflict that we are involved in.

How can such a person ever engage in an honest evaluation of the evidence that supports his belief? Not only does he refuse to acknowledge that evidence against his position actually raises the possibility that he might be wrong, in fact he views such evidence as a trick of the devil.

Contrast this with a scientist's attitude towards evidence:
It is all too easy to confuse fundamentalism with passion. I may well appear
passionate when I defend evolution against a fundamentalist creationist, but
this is not because of a rival fundamentalism of my own. It is because the
evidence for evolution is overwhelmingly strong and I am passionately distressed
that my opponent can't see it — or, more usually, refuses to look at it because
it contradicts his holy book. My passion is increased when I think about how
much the poor fundamentalists, and those whom they influence, are missing. The
truths of evolution, along with many other scientific truths, are so
engrossingly fascinating and beautiful; how truly tragic to die having missed
out on all that! Of course that makes me passionate. How could it not? But my
belief in evolution is not fundamentalism, and it is not faith, because I know
what it would take to change my mind, and I would gladly do so if the necessary
evidence were forthcoming.

It does happen. I have previously told the story of a respected elder statesman
of the Zoology Department at Oxford when I was an undergraduate. For years he
had passionately believed, and taught, that the Golgi Apparatus (a microscopic
feature of the interior of cells) was not real: an artefact, an illusion. Every
Monday afternoon it was the custom for the whole department to listen to a
research talk by a visiting lecturer. One Monday, the visitor was an American
cell biologist who presented completely convincing evidence that the Golgi
Apparatus was real. At the end of the
lecture, the old man strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the
hand and said — with passion — ‘My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been
wrong these fifteen years.’ We clapped our hands red. No fundamentalist would
ever say that. In practice, not all scientists would. But all scientists pay lip
service to it as an ideal — unlike, say, politicians who would probably condemn
it as flip-flopping. The memory of the incident I have described still brings a
lump to my throat.
Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion.